Abkhazian Elections: Russia's pawn in Georgian game?

Abkhazia has gone to the polls to elect its third president. While the elections may provide an entertaining sideshow, there is little danger of them ever being legitimate or electing a truly independent voice, argues Denis MacShane

During the Soviet emporium, Stalin and his epigones imposed to run Russian colonies set great store by the forms of democracy. An unverified aphorism has Stalin saying: “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”  Elections were held and each leader claimed a voters' mandate. Opposition parties nominally existed but without freedom of media or assembly were pale instruments. Later this month, like a new production of Anton Chekhov play, the world will see the same process in Abkhazia with an “election” fixed for tomorrow, 26th August.          

Like Alsace-Lorraine after 1870, the 175,000 strong Abkhazia is firmly under foreign occupation and control. While Mr Putin organises photo-shoots on a bizarre three-wheeler granny’s bike alongside proper Harley-Davidsons, the old Russian election machine will produce the result the Kremlin wants. Despite promises made to President Sarkozy after the August 2008 war, thousands  of soldiers remain based in Abkhazia, including one base with 4,500 men. Missile battalions, including S-300 surface to air missiles, have been stationed by the Russian army. Russian authorities have been handing out Russian passports to the remaining population. New Russian settlers are moving into local communities.

Abkhazia has been de facto independent of Georgia since
the 1992-3 war. Only Russia and a handful of friendly 
states recognise the region's independence (click map to 
enlarge)

Russia has already organised one election in Abkhazia in 2009 which was "won" by Moscow's man, Sergei Bagapsch. The European Union stated at the time that “it does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place”. Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia, Norway, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan all refused to recognise the validity of these elections

The Russian campaign to encourage recognition of Abkhazian “independence” has been a failure. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Pacific island of Nauru have signed up. It is notable that no member of the Commonwealth of Independent States has endorsed the campaign, even Russia’s closest allies.

In reality it is irrelevant who wins the election, whether it is Alexander Ankvab, Sergei Shamba, or Raul Khajimba as the winner will be a puppet of his Russian masters. The victor will not only lack legitimacy because he will lead a proxy state, but even on its own terms the election is a sham.

Only certain residents of Abkhazia are allowed to take part in the vote. The ethnic Georgians who bravely remain in situ on their own land in their own country are forbidden to take part. The thousands of residents expelled from Upper Abkhazia during the August 2008 war are not allowed a say. Nor are the almost four hundred thousand removed in previous conflicts. During the 2009 vote, the EU rightly argued that “elections in this region of Georgia can only be valid after all refugees and internally displaced persons are given the right to a safe, secure and dignified return to their homes”. The same applies to this election.

Prior to 1992, the ethnic composition of Abkhazia was 46% Georgian, 18% Abkhaz, 15% Armenian and 14% Russian, with other minorities making up the rest. Since then, nearly all the Georgians have been forced out, their homes burned and destroyed, and their land dished out to new Russian residents. Those displaced have been looked after by the Georgian authorities the best they can, but understandably they long to return to their homes.

Abkhazia is "a beautiful country with great potential", but
does it have a future "as international pariah and Russian
puppet"? In photo: Lake Ritsa (cc) Flickr/freshphoto

Some 47,000 Georgians have tried to return home to the Gali District of Abkhazia. In a report just out from Human Rights Watch (Living in Limbo. The Rights of Ethnic Georgian Returnees to the Gali District of Abkhazia 8 August 2011) HRW lists the humiliation and discrimination the Russian-controlled Abkhazi authorities visit on the Georgian returnees. They are required to obtain Abkhazi passports to work, obtain benefits, or get high school diplomas. Russian is being imposed as a language of education in schools as the Kremlin seeks to eliminate Georgia culture and history in the region of the country under their control.  HRW insists that even though Abkhazia has no status other than as a region within the international borders of Georgia, the authorities there “have obligations under international law to respect human rights. Under international law, all human rights applicable within the territory of Georgia also apply to Abkhazia.”

As in Transnistria, Russia is content to create a no man’s land without freedom or democracy. Georgia’s President Saakashvili has pledged not to use force to take back the territory and so Tbilisi is trying a different strategy of opening up Georgian healthcare and educational facilities to residents of Abkhazia, rebuilding transport links, and facilitating greater connections between communities ripped apart  by conflict.

Abkhazia is next door to Sochi where Russia plans to hold the 2014 winter Olympics. This month’s electoral charade will not solve anything and international attentions will focus on this frozen conflict. There is no future for Abkhazia as an international pariah and Russian puppet. Abkhazia is a beautiful area with great potential. Georgia offers full autonomy akin with other areas of Europe like South Tyrol or Swiss cantons which have a considerable degree of self-government within an overall state structure.

But as in the imbroglio over Kosovo where Russia backs Serb intransigence in preventing a final settlement in the western Balkans, the Kremlin prefers to keep its sores festering on the edge of its former imperium rather than seek cures and partnership with the new nations that have re-entered history after 1989.

About the author

Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister and writes on European politics.