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Georgia: Separatist Region Gears Up For Presidential Polls

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgia's separatist republic of Abkhazia holds presidential elections on 3 October to replace its ailing leader, Vladislav Ardzinba. For the first time since the Black Sea region won de facto independence, the poll is marked by a relatively broad variety of candidates. Yet, whoever rises to power in Sukhum, a quick resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict seems unlikely.

Prague, 30 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The polls on 3 October coincide with the 11th anniversary of the fall of Sukhum in the hands of Russian-backed Abkhaz forces.

On 27 September 1993, separatist troops broke a two-month-old truce and recaptured the Abkhaz capital. Three days later, the last Georgian troops withdrew from the Black Sea province.

The war officially ended the following spring, with both sides signing a cease-fire agreement and mandating Russia to deploy a peacekeeping force along the demarcation line that separates the province from the rest of Georgia.

The conflict claimed thousands of lives. By driving tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians out of Abkhazia, it also affected dramatically the demographic balance of the region.

Since the end of the war, Abkhazia has maintained close political and economic ties with Russia. A majority of Abkhaz have Russian passports, and a direct railway link connecting Sukhum to Moscow was reopened earlier this month, raising protests from Tbilisi.

The Abkhaz leadership has in the past suggested it may request the region become an associated member of the Russian Federation. But the Georgian government insists it will bring Abkhazia back into its fold.

Addressing reporters on 28 September, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili reiterated an offer to resolve the dispute through the creation of federative links that would grant Abkhazia the broadest possible degree of autonomy. "Whatever the stratagems, whatever passports are given Abkhazia, whatever steps are taken, Abkhazia is Georgia," Saakashvili said. "Abkhazia has been Georgia for the past two millennia, it is Georgia today and it will remain Georgia as long as Georgia exists."

The separatist authorities have already dismissed Saakashvili's peace plan, saying they intend to remain out of Georgia's orbit.

On 28 September, Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba told Russia's Interfax news agency that "the people of Abkhazia have already made their choice" and that the status of the northwestern Caucasus republic should not be a matter of discussion.

Khadjimba is one the leading contenders in the 3 October presidential polls. A former state security and defense minister, he has been effectively in charge of the separatist republic ever since health troubles forced President Vladislav Ardzinba to spend most of his time in Moscow clinics.

The ailing Abkhaz leader, who has given up plans to seek a new term, has officially endorsed Khadjimba as his preferred candidate. Apparently, so has Russian President Vladimir Putin, who on 29 August held talks with the Abkhaz prime minister in the Black Sea resort of Dagomys.
Georgia has already said it will not recognize the upcoming election. Yet, it cannot remain indifferent to its outcome.

Although the two men officially discussed ways to enhance cooperation between World War II veterans' organizations of Russia and Abkhazia, the Georgian leadership has interpreted the meeting as evidence of the Kremlin's backing of Khadjimba.

Thornike Gordadze is a Caucasus expert at the Paris-based Institute of Political Studies. He told RFE/RL that, whatever the outcome of the election, it is a landmark in Abkhazia's recent history. "The Ardzinba era is nearing its end. For the first time in Abkhazia there is a variety of candidates. Even though all the registered candidates support Abkhazia's independence, not all of them share a similar approach to that issue," Gordadze said. "Things are, of course, not so clear-cut. But, to put it simply, we have on the one hand [what I would call] an 'Abkhazo-Abkhaz' faction -- that is, people who hold firm nationalist views and who somehow mistrust Russia, are wary of its attempts at controlling everything in Abkhazia. On the other hand, we have people who, like Khadjimba, embody the institutional continuity of the separatist leadership. If he is elected, Khadjimba's degree of autonomy from Russia will be even weaker than that of Ardzinba."

Other candidates in this weekend's poll include Sergei Bagapsh, a former Soviet communist youth leader and separatist prime minister who now chairs Abkhazia's Chernomorenergo power company; former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba; former Prime Minister Anri Djergenia; and People's Party leader Yakub Lakoba.

Opinion polls show Bagapsh and Khadjimba are leading the race and suggest a second round may be required. Results of a recent opinion poll conducted by students of the Sukhum branch of Tbilisi State University indicate Bagapsh could garner 42 percent of the votes. The same poll shows Khadjimba has less than 40 percent of support among Abkhaz voters.

Khadjimba's supporters argue his pro-Moscow orientation is the best guarantor against any possible Georgian attempt at forcibly regaining control over Abkhazia. They also credit their candidate with improving economic and social conditions in the region through increased cooperation with Russia.

Opponents, in turn, believe Khadjimba's popularity is limited to Sukhum and claim his main asset is the leverage he can exert on the republic's administrative resources.

Khadjimba's main rival, Bagapsh, is supported by the recently created United Abkhazia opposition movement and Amtsakhara, an influential nationalist grouping whose nucleus is made of veterans of the 1992-93 conflict. Amtsakhara has long been demanding Ardzinba's resignation and one of its leaders, Gari Ayba, was gunned down in Sukhum last June. The organization had previously been the target of similar attacks, including one in Moscow.

Georgian political expert Ivliane Khaindrava told RFE/RL that despite being backed by nationalist groupings, Bagapsh to a certain degree is considered a moderate. "Let's say [he] is more flexible, more open to dialogue and all sorts of initiatives," Khaindrava said. "I think that if Bagapsh were elected, that would help decrease the degree of confrontation we've been witnessing in Abkhazia's society, precisely because he's more prone to make contact with various groupings. By contrast, Khadjimba would be a more hard-line successor to Ardzinba, despite his relying openly on Moscow."

Georgia has already said it will not recognize the upcoming election. Yet, it cannot remain indifferent to its outcome.

Thornike Gordadze in Paris believes that, paradoxically, Tbilisi would benefit from a predominantly nationalist vote. "For the Georgians it would be better if those so-called patriotic forces were to win the election," Gordadze said. "Even though Abkhaz nationalists are against reuniting with Georgia, at least they share with the Georgians the same mistrust toward Moscow. Therefore, it would be relatively easier for the Georgians to sit at the negotiation table with Abkhaz 'nationalists' -- quote-unquote -- than with the fraction represented by Khadjimba."

Georgian expert Ivliane Khaindrava also believes Saakashvili's government would find a better negotiating partner in a nationalist Abkhaz leader. "I believe it would be better if the election were won by someone who has a genuine Abkhaz national project, who realizes that any form of integration into Russia is fraught with much greater risks for Abkhazia than normalization of ties with Georgia," Khaindrava said. "Personally, I don't think the Abkhaz national project and the Georgian national project exclude each other. By contrast, history shows whatever national project a small people may come up with, it invariably conflicts with Russia's [hegemonist] ambitions."

Yet, Khaindrava warns, even if the pro-Moscow faction were to be defeated in the 3 October polls, it would be premature to anticipate a quick rapprochement between Tbilisi and Sukhum. "Georgia needs time to prove to itself and others that it is becoming a normal state worthy of the name," the Georgian expert said. "The Abkhaz society needs time too, because this is the first time alternative political opinions are emerging in the open."