Under Russian pressure, Abkhaz presidential election winner Sergei Bagapsh agreed on December 5 to postpone his inauguration, which had been scheduled for December 6, and to discuss a power-sharing deal with the loser, Kremlin-supported ex-KGB officer Raul Khajimba. Russia’s First Deputy Prosecutor General, Vladimir Kolesnikov, in Abkhazia since November 29, imposed this arrangement under the duress caused the Russian economic blockade in force since December 1. The blockade’s stated goal is to overturn Bagapsh’s election (see EDM, December 2).
At a briefing on December 4 in Sukhumi, Kolesnikov dictated a set of revised returns for the October 3 presidential election. Having re-examined the returns published by the central electoral commission, he claimed that the total number of votes cast was 306 more than the number reported. On that basis, Kolesnikov cut Bagapsh’s score to 49.89% of the revised total of votes cast. “Hence, Bagapsh cannot be recognized as the newly elected president,” Kolesnikov declared.
While acknowledging that Khajimba had finished a distant second to Bagapsh in the split field of five candidates, Kolesnikov ruled out a runoff. Instead, he handed down a solution whereby Bagapsh and Khajimba would run on a joint ticket in a new election in January. To mitigate the conspicuousness of Russian interference, Kolesnikov coyly declined to use his title as a Russian official or even his surname; instead, he insisted on being addressed (apparently oblivious to the unintended irony) only with his first name and patronymic, Vladimir Ilyich.
Kolesnikov stated explicitly that Abkhaz compliance with that solution is the condition for lifting the economic blockade. He demanded that Abkhazia’s four top officials (outgoing president, prime minister, legislative assembly chairman, and high court chairman), as well as Bagapsh and Khajimba, co-sign a joint letter notifying the Russian government that they agree with the above terms, “thereby removing the causes that have led to the imposition of restrictions on transport and cross-border traffic [between Abkhazia and Russia]” (RIA-Novosti, Interfax, December 5).
Russian media coverage confirms that the blockade is inflicting severe economic hardship on Abkhazia, generating resentment of Russian policy among a populace that was looking to Russia for protection and had taken up Russian citizenship en masse. The citrus crop, Abkhazia’s main seasonal export to Russia, is rotting in trucks stranded at the border or on trees in Abkhaz orchards where harvesting is becoming pointless given the blockade. The Russian-controlled Psou and Vesyolaya border-crossing checkpoints (on what is legally the Russia-Georgia border) have been closed to commercial traffic and are restricting personal travel. The Sukhumi-Moscow train service (inaugurated in September with fanfare by Russia in defiance of Georgian sovereignty) is suspended. Commercial deliveries of Russian foodstuffs, vital to Abkhazia, are at a standstill. Individual travelers are now allowed to bring a maximum of 5kg of foodstuffs, down from 200kg prior to December 1. “No-one has any feeling for us even in Russia. What sort of Russia is that?” lamented a commercial truck driver stranded at the border. In some cases, irate Abkhaz are demonstratively burning their Russian passports (Itar-Tass, December 2; Center TV, Ekho Moskvy, December 3; NTV Mir, December 5).
The situation irritates some of the Russian Duma’s hard-line, pro-Abkhaz, anti-Georgian elements. The Duma’s ultranationalist vice-chairman, Sergei Baburin, vehemently condemned the government’s “totally irresponsible actions . . . in stopping the trains, stopping food supplies to Abkhazia, banning citrus import into Russia . . . . This is a totally unprecedented blockade against Russia’s citizens in Abkhazia.” In a similar vein, Gennady Gudkov decried “the violation of our citizens’ rights by the Russian state through the blockade. We are setting a very sad example. If this is the way we show concern for our citizens, what can one expect?” Responding to deputies’ protests, the Russian government tried to disclaim direct responsibility for the blockade decision, tracing it in part to Russia’s Security Council. However, the government admitted that the official who had on December 1 announced the blockade, Gennady Bukayev, is an aide to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Bukayev represents the government on the Security Council’s commission for Abkhaz affairs (Ekho Moskvy, December 2, 3; Itar-Tass, December 3).
Tbilisi is refraining from any move or statement that might be construed as meddling into Abkhaz political processes. However, Georgia is defending for the record its rights of sovereignty and legal inviolability of the Georgia-Russia border. “Russia’s arrogant meddling must stop. It is very dangerous and destabilizing. They should remember that the Georgia-Russia border is the Psou River, not the Inguri River,” Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania declared. Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zourabishvili invited the ambassadors of friendly countries to the ministry and appealed to those countries to ask Russia to show restraint toward Abkhazia. President Mikheil Saakashvili, wearing a pro-Yushchenko orange necktie at a December 3 briefing, deplored the “lack of restraint on the part of certain weighty external forces, who ought to come to their senses and realize that their time is about to be over in this region” (Kavkasia-Press, December 2; Rustavi-2 and Mze televisions, December 3).