Whatever the final outcome of Abkhazia's confused presidential election, one thing remains clear -- the result is unlikely to have any immediate bearing on the separatist republic's stance toward Tbilisi.
All five candidates have vowed to keep Abkhazia independent from Tbilisi, despite a pledge by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to bring the Black Sea region back under Georgian control.
That said, it remains far from clear which of the candidates actually won. The result, at least for now, adds a touch of irony to a statement made by Prime Minister -- and presidential candidate -- Raul Khadjimba on yesterday. "I am in a good mood," he said. "I think these elections will show whether we can build a normal, democratic state."
Bagapsh is claiming outright victory, though he said he believes that election officials will invent violations to annul his win.
Khadjimba has vowed to keep strong ties with Russia and is widely seen in Georgia as being Moscow's protege. His main challenger, Sergei Bagapsh, is seen as more of a moderate nationalist seeking genuine independence.
Earlier today, a website claiming to carry official election results gave the victory to Khadjimba, with almost 53 percent of the vote. The site showed Bagapsh, a former prime minister who now runs the state energy company, with almost 34 percent.
But within an hour of the appearance of those figures, election officials in the regional capital of Sukhum disowned the information. The Central Election Commission said it has yet to publish any results and has nothing to do with the website that posted them.
Meanwhile, Bagapsh is claiming outright victory for himself. But he said he believes that election officials will invent violations to annul his win.
Such confusion is probably not what Djumber Salakaya, head of the regional election commission, had in mind when he addressed reporters yesterday. "We have never seen such electoral activity in previous elections," he said. "We have observers here from all candidates and do not have any problems. People are very active."
It remains unclear when new official results will be released. Turnout for the vote is estimated to be between 63 and 65 percent.
Like the other candidates, both Bagapsh and Khadjimba, a former Soviet KGB officer, have said they will not compromise on the issue of Abkhaz independence. The election could inject further tensions into relations between Georgia and Russia, especially if pro-Russian Khadjimba wins.
Georgia accuses Moscow of having double standards in supporting Abkhaz separatists while cracking down on separatists in Chechnya. Asked which candidate Tbilisi prefers, Georgia's minister for conflict resolution, Georgi Khaindrava, said today that "there are no pro-Georgian politicians in Abkhazia now."
Much of the campaign focused on Abkhazia's bad economy and lack of international recognition. Bagapsh said yesterday that results of the vote will shape the region's future. "I voted for my future, for the future of my country," he said. "I want to see Abkhazia independent and prosperous, with a united population. I want people to respect their leader -- and the leader must respect the people."
Most Abkhaz are unemployed and have Russian citizenship. The region uses the Russian ruble, not the Georgian lari, and its lush Black Sea coast is a popular destination for Russian tourists.
(compiled from wire and staff reports)