“Dangerous uncertainty” describes the current situation in Abkhazia, while the breakaway region awaits the announcement of a winner in its controversial October 3 presidential election. The pro-government and Moscow-backed candidate, Raul Khajimba, and the main opposition candidate, Sergei Bagapsh, have both claimed victory. Both have also accused the other of vote rigging and are likely making preparations for possible violence. The Abkhaz Supreme Court, which is expected to resolve the dispute, has postponed hearing Khajimba’s appeal challenging the Central Election Commission (CEC) decision to declare Bagapsh the president-elect. Supreme Court Chief Justice Alla Avidzba said that the court could launch a hearing only after new CEC members are appointed. The Chairman of the 15-member CEC, Sergei Smir, together with three other members, resigned on October 11, citing pressure from Bagapsh’s supporters.
The confrontation between Khajimba followers and Bagapsh supporters stepped up on October 14, when Bagapsh called a Convent, a traditional all-Abkhaz national gathering, in the center of the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi. Observers noted that Bagapsh convened the Convent, rooted in Abkhaz medieval tradition, to appeal directly to the public and use the Convent to legitimize his presidency. At the gathering an estimated 10,000 Bagapsh supporters demanded that the authorities let Bagapsh assume the presidency. Bagapsh said he called the Convent in response to an Abkhaz television broadcast airing “compromising materials” that portrayed Bagapsh as a pro-Georgian politician. At a follow-up press conference in Sukhumi, Bagapsh said that he had agreed to repeat the election in the Georgian-populated Gali district only to avoid confrontation. The re-vote, scheduled for October 17, is necessary because the CEC invalidated the results in all three Gali precincts.
Appearing at his own rally on October 14, Khajimba suggested that he and Bagapsh should withdraw their candidacies to prevent a possible split in society. Armed mercenaries from the Moscow-backed semi-military Confederation of the Highland Nations of Caucasus also attended the rally, raising suspicions that Khajimba’s supporters could resort to force any time. Rauf Korua, Abkhazia’s prosecutor general, claims Khajimba threatened to kill him if he failed to support Khajimba’s demand to annul the election results. Korua said his agency has linked many election list irregularities to Khajimba.
Abkhaz officials do not deny the presence of armed groups from Russia in Abkhazia. Roin Agrba, press secretary for outgoing president Vladislav Ardzinba, confirmed that Confederation leaders and armed units had arrived in Sukhumi to support Khajimba. On October 15 Amin Zekhov, a Confederation member, added that mercenaries from the North Caucasus would not remain passive to the situation in Abkhazia after the elections.
Ardzinba condemned the CEC decision to announce Bagapsh as president-elect and warned of a “creeping coup” orchestrated by “puppeteers” outside Abkhazia, evidently alluding to Tbilisi. “As the president of the country,” Ardzinba declared, “I am obliged and would do everything possible to protect the constitutional order and our independence.” Some observers interpret these last statements as a threat to introduce martial law to prevent a Bagapsh presidency. Bagapsh, meanwhile, is doing his best to distance himself from Georgia. At his rally, Bagapsh reminded his supporters that he supported both Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia and close relations with Russia.
Tbilisi and Moscow are both trying to profit from recent developments in Abkhazia. Moscow continues to rely on its Abkhaz puppets, military force, and information warfare. Shortly after the October 3 ballot, Moscow dispatched Nodar Khashba, who had been serving in Moscow as a Russian deputy minister of emergency situations, to Abkhazia to become acting prime minister. Khashba, however, claims that he would not interfere in the electoral process.
On October 16, the parliament of Abkhazia, probably under pressure from Moscow, appealed to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to support the creation of “associated relations” between Abkhazia and Russia.
On October 14, Interfax-AVN, citing reports from diplomats in Moscow, stated that Tbilisi was boosting military preparations in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. At the same time, on October 16-17 the Russian foreign and defense ministries denounced Georgia’s claim that Russia has sent “hundreds of special task force troops” to breakaway Abkhazia, as “false.”
Tbilisi apparently was not sitting on the sidelines during the Abkhaz elections, which it had vigorously denounced as illegitimate. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stated, “The most anti-Georgian forces” failed to deliver their preferred electoral outcome. During an October 15 visit to Lithuania, Saakashvili declared that, despite the failure of Georgia’s enemies, there is no time for euphoria.” “We have been very actively working over Abkhazia recently. But too much is to be done. I do not recommend that anyone interfere in the current developments in Abkhazia, especially while dealing with the [Georgian] population of Gali district,” he added. Indeed, as many commentators argue, the votes from Gali’s Georgian population determined Bagapsh’s strong showing at the elections and infuriated the pro-Moscow Khajimba, who denounced the validity of the poll in Gali. Konstantin Zatulin, a member of the Russian State Duma and an Abkhaz election observer, admitted in Rossiiskaya gazeta that Saakashvili’s government did a good, though covert, job in Gali by securing votes for Bagapsh. “They have achieved their main goal: to plant dissent in the Abkhaz society,” he said. According to the Georgian weekly Kvira, a group of former Abkhaz fighters had been in contact with Saakashvili’s representatives. Although Tbilisi formally assumed a neutral stance toward the Abkhaz presidential candidates, few people doubt that Bagapsh is Georgia’s preferred candidate.
(NTV, Itar-Tass, Rossiiskaya gazeta, Krasnaya zvezda, RIA Novosti, Interfax-AVN, Resonance, Kvira, 24 Hours, Imedi-TV, TV-1st Channel, TV-Rustavi-2, October 15-17).