On March 4 residents of Abkhazia held parliamentary elections. According to officials in this separatist region of Georgia, 130,000 registered voters (a 47.25% turnout) chose among 108 candidates vying for 35 seats (Apsnypress, March 5). However, before the outbreak of hostilities Tbilisi had put the number of registered voters in Abkhazia at 350,000, which means a turnout of only 34%.
The parties divided their support between president Sergei Bagapsh (Amtsakhara, Aitaira [Revival] and United Abkhazia) and vice-president Raul Khajimba and former Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzhinba (Forum of Abkhaz People’s Unity).
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not recognize the elections, and the plebiscite will inevitably increase tensions between Georgia, which denounced the election, and Russia, which tacitly supported it.
Abkhazia has long been a restive region, and Moscow’s encouragement of the separatists has complicated Russian-Georgian relations. Abkhazia declared independence in 1994, following the bloody Georgian-Abkhaz civil war of 1992-93.
Tensions have intensified since the January 2004 election of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, particularly regarding the presence of Russian “peacekeepers” in Abkhazia and energy imports, with Moscow both turning off supplies and increasing prices whenever Georgian policies irritate the Kremlin.
Saakashvili has attempted to rein in the separatist movements in Abkhazia (and in two other provinces: Ajaria and South Ossetia) with limited success.
Abkhazia’s Apsnypress reported (March 4) that approximately 80 international representatives from Russia, Poland, Italy, France, Jordan, Ukraine, Armenia, Iraq, Moldova, and Belgium had monitored the election. However, the election had no international support and both the United States and European Union rejected it. EU officials argued that the election would only be legitimate if all internal refugees displaced by hostilities were allowed to return to their homes with compensation.
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the referendum, saying, “It is completely beyond understanding to speak about any ‘continuation of democratic tendencies’ by the regime that masterminded ethnic cleansing and subjected to mass expulsion over half a million peaceful citizens of various ethnic origins. Denying these people the right to vote is principally at variance with the major standards of democratic elections, including, primarily, the principle of broad and equal representation of the population in the process of elections” (Georgian Times, March 8).
Washington also made clear its position on the issue. On March 5 Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack said, “The U.S. supports Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Georgia’s Abkhazia region within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders. These elections detract from international efforts to achieve a just and lasting settlement of the Abkhazia conflict… These ‘elections’ underscore the plight of more than 200,000 persons displaced by the conflict. Most remain unable to exercise their right, affirmed in numerous resolutions of the UN Security Council, to return to their homes throughout Abkhazia following ethnic cleansing during the armed conflict in the mid-1990s. Many of those who have returned have suffered other human rights violations, which undermine the evolution of democracy. We call on those authorities to respect the rights of those who have returned and adhere to measures that would allow the return of all displaced people to Abkhazia” (U.S. State Department press release, March 5). Two days after the elections, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill providing funding and support for Georgia — and Ukraine — to join NATO.
Sergei Bagapsh, who was elected president in a similarly criticized vote in January 2005, defended the elections, declaring, “Abkhazia has set up itself as a democratic and civilized state. And today we will be able to assure the international community once again that we have achieved the building of a democratic state. We have all the components of democratic country — free media, opposition, and everything that is needed for a truly democratic republic.” Saakashvili countered, “Every attempt of the de facto officials to legitimize the lawlessness in Abkhazia is unacceptable. And it will never be recognized either by Georgia or by the international community” (Messenger, March 5).
Tbilisi alleges that Russia is overtly backing the Abkhazian separatists with an eventual goal of annexing the territory, a policy seemingly confirmed by the fact an estimated 70% of Abkhazians now carry Russian passports and the ruble has become Abkhazia’s main currency, much to Tbilisi’s frustration.
The issue threatens to have repercussions far beyond the Black Sea, as Georgia has increasingly become an important transit route for Caspian energy exports. Russia has upped the political stakes far beyond the Caucasus by threatening to recognize Abkhazian and Southern Ossetian independence if the United Nations, prodded by the West, recognizes Kosovo independence.
Georgia’s case for its territorial integrity will receive a hearing next month when the UN Security Council is scheduled discuss Abkhazia. Besides Russia, the other members of the Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia — Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States — will undoubtedly attempt to convince Moscow not to link Abkhazia and Kosovo on the basis of the recent plebiscite. The members have their work cut out for them, as in September 2006 Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Russia may veto a UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo’s final status should it apply different standards than those applied to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Despite the broad divergence of attitudes, the United Nations nevertheless remains best equipped to play the role of honest broker if the issue is to be resolved peacefully.