Although the outcome of the chaotic October 3 “presidential election” in Georgia’s separatist region of Abkhazia is still uncertain, one major loser is already known: the Kremlin. Russia’s crude involvement in the campaign and its open backing of one candidate in the first contested ballot in the self-styled republic have produced results that Moscow strategists clearly did not desire.
Russian behavior in Abkhazia has revealed the sorry inadequacy of the Kremlin’s strategy in what it repeatedly has called a zone of vital interest, most independent analysts contend. What happened in Georgia’s tiny breakaway region is “yet another signal that the old epoch in the post-Soviet space is over. A Russia stubbornly clinging to the old ways is destined to lose,” one commentary points out (Gazeta.ru, October 7).
Moscow’s objective in the Abkhazian election was simple: to secure “political continuity” and install its loyal favorite, Raul Khajimba, as the unrecognized republic’s new president. Since free competition among political forces is anathema to Russian political strategists, they used a range of “black PR” tricks usually employed during domestic election campaigns, such as intensive brainwashing through controlled TV channels and arranging concerts by popular rock singers who urge the audience to vote for the “right guy.” Photos of Khajimba standing together with Russian President Vladimir Putin were plastered all over Abkhazia, an almost unbeatable election weapon, as one observer sarcastically noted. And yet the end result of all this frantic activity was quite miserable and potentially dangerous: political confusion and rising tensions (see EDM, October 5). Now the Kremlin-supported Abkhaz leadership says the renegade region is on the brink of civil war.
Russia’s heavy-handed approach was counterproductive if not plainly stupid, according to noted specialists on the Caucasus. The difference between the two leading contenders for the Abkhaz presidency, Khajimba and Sergei Bagapsh, is not that large, argues Sergei Arutyunov, a prominent scholar at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. True, Khajimba is completely subservient to Moscow’s interests, while Bagapsh pretends to be more independent. But Bagapsh has not “sold out to the Georgians.” He is “no fool” and would find a “common language” with Moscow, Arutyunov notes (Newsru.com, October 5). Yet Moscow’s tactless and brazen interference in the political process in Abkhazia, legally a foreign territory, ended up creating a very tense situation. The mounting discontent in the self-styled republic may well be directed against Russia, which until very recently has undeniably been Abkhazia’s most-favored ally, some regional experts say.
The Kremlin appears to have seriously underestimated how vastly unpopular some post-Soviet regimes are in its “near abroad.” This miscalculation, coupled with the strong conviction that any election is decided by the crude manipulation of popular consciousness, has led Moscow strategists to make mistake after mistake. “By exporting its managed democracy, Russia is undermining its own positions [in the CIS] — and not only for the immediate future but long term also,” contends the influential political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov (Gazeta.ru, October 7).
Symptomatically, some liberal experts point out that the Abkhaz election is interesting primarily as a political prelude to the much more critical Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for October 31. One popular newspaper compared the Abkhazian situation with that in Ukraine in an article under the helpful title, “Dress rehearsal for defeat.” In Ukraine, “The [political] stakes really are sky high,” notes the commentary (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 6).
Indeed, if the Kremlin continues pursuing its shortsighted policy, Moscow’s influence in the post-Soviet lands will likely dwindle even more. Both in Abkhazia and in Ukraine, the Kremlin threw its full support behind one contender perceived as being most “pro-Russian.” However, it is a flawed tactic, some experts argue. Not only did Moscow not hedge its bets, but by aggressively backing “its men” in post-Soviet Eurasia it also risks further alienating its favorites’ main rivals, thus creating the potential for rising anti-Russian sentiment in the neighboring countries.
Remarkably, in both cases, Putin personally “anointed” his favorite. He met with Khajimba just before the Abkhazian polls and repeatedly signaled that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is his Ukrainian preference. In Abkhazia this endorsement didn’t seem to work. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed in Ukraine.