Abkhaz presidential race in final lap

Abkhaz presidential race in final lap
By Zaal Anjaparidze for The Jamestown Foundation (30/09/04)

Georgia has watched the unfolding of the presidential race in its breakaway
republic of Abkhazia with a strangely Olympian calm.

On 3 October, voters in Abkhazia will choose a successor to their
ailing president. Vladislav Ardzinba led the region in its fight for
independence from Georgia in 1992 and 1993 before becoming president
of the self-declared republic in 1994. The new president of Abkhazia
will win a five-year term, subject to a two-term limit. The Georgian
government has watched the unfolding campaign with an Olympian
calm. As recently as 21 September, Georgian President Mikhail
Saakashvili described plans to re-incorporate Abkhazia into Georgia
at the 59th session of the UN General Assembly. No comments on the
election were made at the traditional commemoration of 27 September,
the day the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, fell 11 years ago, effecting the
secession of the region. Earlier, Saakashvili dismissed the elections
as illegitimate and Nino Burjanadze, chair of the Georgian parliament,
warned Russia against conferring any recognition or legitimacy on
the elections.

Favored candidate, radically anti-GeorgianA number of candidates have
registered, although several refused to comply with a controversial
new law passed on 3 August that requires candidates to pass an
Abkhaz-language test and to have been resident in Abkhazia for the past
five years. Alexander Ankvab, a popular former Abkhaz interior minister
now living in Russia, and Nodar Khashba, a former mayor of Sukhumi
and now a high-ranking official in the Russian Civil Defense and
Emergencies Ministry, were denied registration by the Central Election
Commission (CEC) after they refused to sit the Abkhaz language test and
failed to meet residency criteria. Among the registered candidates,
the front-runner is Raul Khadzhimba, a former prime minister. His
running mate is Vitaly Smyr, the Abkhaz minister of agriculture and
food. Khadzhimba has a KGB background and the endorsement of President
Ardzinba plus rumored backing from Moscow. He also is supported by
many divisions and bureaucrats in Abkhaz state agencies. Georgian
commentators depict Khadzhimba as the most radically anti-Georgian
of the candidates. Khadzhimba has already made it clear that he plans
to make major changes to the constitution if elected. The amendments
include giving the president the power to dissolve parliament and
introducing parliamentary confirmation of new governments.

United AbkhaziaSergei Bagapsh, director-general of the Chernomorenergo
electricity company, trails Khadzhimba. Bagapsh served as prime
minister from 1997 to 2001. He is standing as a candidate for the
recently merged United Abkhazia movement and the Amtsakhara veterans’
organization and is regarded as the main opposition candidate. His
chances are thought to have increased after the disqualification
of Aytayra movement candidate Alexander Ankvab, who, in return for
urging Aytayra supporters to back Bagapsh, has been promised the
post of prime minister in the event of a Bagapsh victory. Both the
Georgian and Abkhaz media have made a point of the fact that Bagapsh
has a Georgian wife, but remain divided over how this will affect his
policies and popularity. Analysts speculate that a united opposition
would decrease the chances of a Khadzhimba victory. Bagapsh’s running
mate is the historian Stanislav Lakoba. Sergei Shamba, former foreign
minister, is running third with a platform urging “greater political,
economic, and humanitarian” integration with Russia. Shamba has angrily
denied rumors that he intends to pull out of the presidential race at
the last minute and throw his support to another candidate. Shamba’s
running mate is Vladimir Arshba, head of the Ministry of Defense
General Staff. The other two candidates concede they have slim chances
for victory. Anri Jergenia is also a former prime minister (running
with Ruslan Kishmaria, chairman of the Gali district administration),
while Yakub Lakoba is leader of the Abkhaz People’s Party (running
with Fatima Kvitsinia, arbitration court judge).

Fairness increasingly doubtfulThe fairness of the elections is
increasingly doubtful. The CEC denied requests from the League of
Voters for Fair Elections to serve as monitors. This NGO had severely
criticized the CEC’s performance. The CEC claimed that the election
law contained no provision for NGOs to act as observers unless they
have been invited to do so by the Abkhaz authorities. The UN and
OSCE do not consider the elections legitimate and therefore will
not send monitoring teams. Instead, members of the Russian State
Duma and representatives from Russia’s North Caucasus republics,
South Ossetia, and Karabakh are expected to act as election
observers. Although the Abkhaz CEC lists 165â^À^Ù 248 eligible
voters, down from 216â^À^Ù000 in the 2002 parliamentary elections,
Georgian sources further lower this figure to 70â^À^Ù000, due to
widespread population shifts before and after the war. Additionally,
most voters in Abkhazia are believed to hold Russian citizenship, and
therefore may not be able to prove their eligibility to vote. Abkhazia
has yet to introduce internal passports and officials are issuing
special forms as an interim measure. Bagapsh shared his surprise that
the CEC still did not have the exact number for Abkhazia’s population
and the number of voters. “How can you hold fair elections without
these data?” he asked.

Abkhazia not mentally prepared for pollMore critically minded
commentators are pessimistic regarding the elections. Oleg Damenia,
an Abkhaz analyst, argues that the Abkhaz electorate is not mentally
prepared for a fair election, as its psychological makeup still
bears Soviet-era habits. “The pre-election campaign has overstepped
all permissible limits, and thus it’s difficult to forecast whether
the electorate would behave within the licit framework,” he said.
According to Damenia, losers will likely protest after election
day. Candidate Shamba has warned that vote rigging would only play
into the hands of external forces, and Abkhazia might see a replay
of the Georgian or Yugoslav revolutions. Recently, representatives
of the Sukhumi-based branch of Soros Foundation have dismissed some
media allegations that the Foundation might financially support a
“pro-Georgian” candidate. Some analysts still consider that Ardzinba’s
departure creates an opportunity to change the relationship between
Georgia and the Abkhaz leadership. They argue that Tbilisi could take
advantage of the struggle between the Moscow-backed Khadzhimba and
his opponents. But the Abkhaz separatists have resolutely rejected
any plans for reintegrating Abkhazia with Georgia. On 29 September,
the Abkhaz Ministry of State Security claimed that Georgian task
forces and weaponry are concentrating along the Abkhaz border,
and it called on residents of Abkhazia to exercise vigilance. The
ministry’s special statement also claims that President Saakashvili
directed Georgian special services to step up subversive activities
in Abkhazia, particularly in the Georgian -populated Gali district, in
order to provoke conflict among supporters of the Abkhaz presidential
candidates. Tbilisi has not responded to these statements.

This article originally appeared in Eurasia Daily Monitor,
published by The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC., at
(). Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan
organization supported by tax-deductible contributions from
corporations, foundations, and individuals.


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