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Abkhazia prepares to vote

Presidential elections are looming in the Abkhazia, the breakaway republic which Russia recognised as an independent state after the Georgia war. This time, Russia has backed off from playing a candidate, says Ivan Sukhov. But whatever the outcome closer integration with Russia will continue.
Ivan Sukhov
11 December 2009

On 12 December Abkhazia will elect a president. The last presidential elections dragged on for several months through the autumn and winter of 2004-2005 and brought the republic to the brink of civil war, but the present campaign looks much calmer and more predictable. However, the main participants are the same as they were five years ago, although their roles have changed. The current president Sergei Bagapsh, who was the focal point for uniting the Abkhazian opposition five years ago, is aiming for a second term. Raul Khadzhimba, whom the team of the first Abkhazian president Vladislav Ardzinba and his fellow-thinkers in Moscow unsuccessfully tried to turn into a “successor”, now expects to gain the majority of opposition votes. 

Russia seems to have learnt a lesson from the unfortunate experience of the last election, when excessively active and even heavy-handed intervention by Moscow image-makers and political spin doctors led to the failure of Raul Khadzhimba. This time Vladimir Putin himself has visited Abkhazia.  On the anniversary of the August 2008 war he met both Sergei Bagapsh, who wrested victory from the Moscow protégé Khadzhimba, and Khadzhimba himself. Later it emerged that Khadzhimba also had a meeting with some representatives of Dmitry Medvedev’s administration in the Russian town of Sochi. However, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister or members of the presidential administration would have promised him anything encouraging. At any rate, Putin publicly called on members of the Abkhazian opposition to seek consensus with the government, and promised he would work only with the lawful government.

The issue was not whether Putin was able to overcome his personal feelings about Bagapsh’s team, a hostility which was inevitable after Bagapsh won the election in 2005 despite all Moscow’s efforts. Since Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state on 26 August 2008, relations with Abkhazia no longer depend on who the Abkhazian leader is, but on a whole range of intergovernmental agreements regulating all aspects of life from the Russian military presence to economic aid. Some have already been signed, and others are planned. For example, Rosneft, which is controlled by Igor Sechin, intends to produce oil on the Abkhazian shelf, and also build a chain of petrol stations in Abkhazia. There are proposals about Abkhazia’s railway too.  If Russo-Georgian relations improve, this will link Sochi with Zugdidi in Georgia, and then with Armenia.  Russian Railways would then take over the management of the railway.

Russian contractors negotiate with Sergei Bagapsh, not with his political opponents. They find Bagapsh more convenient to deal with, even though his opponents may be reliable former KGB men, like Raul Khadzhimba. This time the Kremlin knows the situation in Abkhazia much better than it did in 2004-2005, but it has evidently decided not to interfere in the campaign.  At the end of the day, democratic elections in the region will do more for Russia’s international image than heavy-handed intervention and manipulation.

There are some clouds on Bagapsh’s horizon, though. Paradoxically, his opponents, some of whom accused him of being too sympathetic towards Georgia during the campaign of 2004-2005, are now accusing him of getting too close to Russia.  They believe that independence from Georgia risks turning into total dependence on Russia. Furthermore, Bagapsh’s team has failed to deal with many of the issues that featured in the previous election. His relatives and close acquaintances have taken over any vaguely promising business projects, as did the family and friends of Vladislav Ardzinba, the republic’s first president.  Accusations of corruption are leveled against his entourage.

The opposition’s case against Bagapsh

There are also two very serious charges which were raised by the opposition some time ago and which seriously threaten the president’s reputation. Firstly, Bagapsh is accused of trying to negotiate with Western countries, which he did in 2006, when Georgia sent troops to the Kodori gorge and seized control of a part of Abkhazian territory. Bagapsh’s opponents accuse him of countenancing the idea of sending an international police or peacekeeping force into the Kodor gorge. In Abkhazia, where the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993 is regarded as a patriotic war, this is a terrible accusation.  The government is doing its best to respond in a measured way and to avoid the issue taking centre stage.

The fact is that in 2006 the Georgians did install multiple rocket launchers in Kodori whose range covered a large area of Abkhazian territory. At the time, no one could predict how Russia would react if the situation deteriorated. Abkhazia needed some guarantee that the rocket launchers would not be deployed. This is easier to explain to the inhabitants of Abkhazia than it is to the jealous Kremlin. But the Kremlin seems to have agreed to overlook the episode – as it did  Bagapsh’s categorical refusal in August 2008 to launch the Abkhaz army in a pre-emptive attack on Kodori. In the end, the Georgians left the gorge and Bagapsh became the Abkhazian president under whose rule Russia recognized the republic.

The second charge against Bagapsh concerns his attempt to issue Abkhazian passports to inhabitants of the Gali region, who are mainly Georgians.  This happened six months before the election and was apparently intended to strengthen and expand his electoral base.  In 2004-2005, when there was no such thing as an Abkhazian passport, around 14,000 inhabitants of the Gali region voted predominantly for Bagapsh. If passports were issued, this number could be expected to increase significantly. When Bagapsh submitted the appropriate amendments to the Abkhazian bill on citizenship to the parliament, they were passed by the deputies, the majority of whom are loyal to the president.  The opposition organized a spontaneous protest and managed to get the amendments delayed on the grounds that Abkhazia had no need of a president who had been elected with Georgian votes.

In fact, introducing the bill six months before the election was a disaster for the president. But Bagapsh’s motives for giving passports to Georgian-speaking inhabitants are absolutely clear.  It is becoming increasingly obvious with every dawning day that the project of an Abkhazian state for ethnic Abkhazians and without ethnic Georgians is demographically unsustainable. Furthermore, the disadvantaged Georgian-speaking Gali region would over time threaten to become the same time bomb for Abkhazia itself that Abkhazia was for Georgia. An integrated Gali region is a move towards a common civil nation, towards democracy and a positive image in the eyes of Europeans and Americans. So far, a compromise has been reached: passports will start being issued after the election – if Bagapsh remains president, of course.

Despite these fairly serious charges that have been leveled against him, Sergei Bagapsh has quite a strong chance of winning. He is not “United Russia”, trying to demonstrate 98% support with a 99% voter turnout.  He only needs to pass the 50% barrier sufficiently convincingly for his opponents to be unable to dispute the result with a recount in 15 or so electoral districts. For all the complaints, Bagapsh is the recognized president: during his years in power, there have been no upsets to the Abkhazian economy, despite the global economic crisis.

On the contrary, it has developed as best it could. There are increasing numbers of Russian tourists, and Russian companies are entering the market to provide services for them. Abkhazia may not have any industry of its own, but life has clearly not got worse. And simple farmers, who are in the majority in Abkhazia, rarely vote against a government under whom life has not become more difficult. If there were to be obvious vote rigging, then they would take to the streets and protest. But the authorities also understand this. Although the electoral commission is controlled by Bagapsh supporter, Batal Tabagua, it is clear to the presidential administration that obvious vote rigging could cause serious problems.

Most experts believe that Sergei Bagapsh will win relatively easily in the first round, especially with the help of the managerial abilities of his candidate for vice-president, the current Prime Minister Alexander Ankvaba.  He may have lost a great deal of his popularity since 2004, but he is still an excellent crisis manager. The Abkhazian opposition has not been able to unite in a common front: the presidential battle is split three ways.

A divided opposition

Bagapsh’s main rival will clearly be Raul Khadzhimba. He has the support of the opposition Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and the Aruaa war veterans’ movement, which opposed Bagapsh’s supporters five years ago. But Khadzhimba has to a great extent foisted himself on the opposition: his image as leader of the opposition has been greatly undermined by his four years as vice-president under Sergei Bagapsh. Nor does the memory of his failure at the last election endear him to people, even to his supporters.

The alliance between Khadzhimba and businessman Beslan Butba, leader of the party of Economic Development of Abkhazia, has fallen through, although it seemed like a possibility at one point. Butba represents the new, young opposition, for whom the cult of the 1992-1993 war means less than the constructive development of Abkhazian business. Butba is also running for president, with former minister of internal affairs Aslamby Kchach as his candidate for vice-president. It looks as if Butba can expect to come in comfortably in third place. If there were a second round, he could be decisive for the outcome of the campaign. If he made the right decision, he would be in an excellent position to run for president in the following election. In a second round, Bagapsh’s administration would probably try to get Beslan Butba on its side.

If Bagapsh lost the election, the group around Ardzinba, Abkhazia’s first president, would come to power. This would mean a return to the old clan-based way of running politics and the economy, and would lead to a curtailment of Abkhazia’s foreign political contacts with any countries other than Russia, i.e. it would be a definite step backwards. Nevertheless, there is a fairly strong chance that Bagapsh will hold on to power. Although most Abkhazians, including the elite, want independence for Abkhazia, there will be closer integration with Russia – although full or partial accession will probably never make it on to the agenda.

Relations with Georgia are unlikely to be affected by the outcome of the Abkhazian presidential election.  For many years now there has been an absolute consensus within the Abkhazian elite on this subject and it was reinforced after August 2008.  Whatever the outcome, contacts will be complicated, as will any discussion of political status. Only a strategic improvement of relations between Russia and Georgia could bring about a real change in Abkhazia’s relationship with Georgia in the long-term. If  the hypothetical issue of reunion under the formal sovereignty of Tbilisi were ever to return to the political agenda, it would only be discussed on condition that military force were completely excluded and that the Georgians unconditionally rejected the  return of all the Georgian refugees to Abkhazian territory. Anything else would inevitably re-ignite the ethnic conflict.

There are a total of five candidates in the election. 129,600 voters have been registered –obviously somewhat higher than real voter numbers. Two additional electoral districts will be opened in Russia: in Cherkessk and Moscow. The only document which gives people the right to vote is a passport of the republic of Abkhazia.

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