Prague, 13 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 11 October, the Central Election Commission (CEC) pronounced opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh -- a former separatist prime minister who now heads Abkhazia's Chernomorenergo power monopoly -- the winner of the election with more than 50 percent of the vote.
But in a statement yesterday, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba said the ruling was reached only under pressure from Bagapsh's campaign staff and described the decision as "absurd" and "illegal." He also accused the candidate of driving the Black Sea province toward "bloodshed."
In an interview today with RFE/RL, Bagapsh denied those claims. Instead, he blamed the Abkhaz leadership for fostering civil unrest.
"I think Ardzinba's statement is a call to civil war. We won this election and we believe everything we did was done within the framework of the existing legislation, honestly and rightfully," Bagapsh said. "The CEC decision is perfectly realistic. For the first time the CEC has said the truth. Even if we had won 100 percent of the votes, the president and his entourage would have done their utmost to challenge the legitimacy of the polls for a very simple reason: they do not want to leave power; they do not want to be replaced by a new leadership that will bring order to Abkhazia."
Bagapsh's main rival and Ardzinba's preferred candidate, former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, maintains the election was fraudulent and demands that a new vote be held.
Khajimba alleges most irregularities took place in the southern Gali region, which is populated by thousands of ethnic Georgians who have returned after the 1992-93 war that led to Abkhazia's de facto independence.
Khajimba reiterated his accusations at a press briefing today in Sukhum.
"All documents we have obtained clearly indicate falsifications took place [in Gali]," Khajimba said. "If we exclude documents that are written in the Georgian language, our opponents have been unable so far to produce evidence justifying their claims [that there has been no fraud]."
"Even if we had won 100 percent of the votes, the president and his entourage would have done their utmost to challenge the legitimacy of the polls for a very simple reason: they do not want to leave power." -- Bagapsh
Khajimba has lodged three appeals with the Abkhaz Supreme Court, including one protesting the CEC's decision to pronounce Bagapsh the winner of the polls. Yesterday, Prime Minister Nodar Khashba said that the CEC ruling had no validity until the judiciary validates it.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to start hearing Arzdinba's appeals tomorrow. Its final decision will prove decisive for the outcome of the election and, ultimately, for political stability in the province.
Bagapsh does not believe the court is likely to overrun the CEC ruling. He tells RFE/RL that, "in the worst-case scenario," the panel might accept a previous CEC decision to hold a re-vote in Gali on 17 October. The Abkhaz Constitution bans partial election reruns, but the Abkhaz parliament yesterday ruled that partial election reruns are possible in exceptional cases.
Bagapsh also said that, to counterbalance the information blockade that he claims the Abkhaz leadership has imposed on him, he has called for a large meeting tomorrow in central Sukhum.
"We do not plan to take over state television. This is why we have decided to call for this national rally and invite representatives from all of Abkhazia's regions -- we hope some 10,000 to 15,000 will show up -- to explain to them what is going on," Bagapsh said. "It is a tradition of the Abkhaz people. Whenever the country is going through difficult times, whenever it finds itself in a stalemate, the people have the right to decide who they want their leader to be. This is why we are planning this rally tomorrow, which, we believe, will be peaceful. We have the obligation to tell the people what is going on at the top of the state and who should be held responsible for the current situation."
The editor in chief of Abkhazia's state television, Otar Lakrba, today told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency that he and 20 of his staffers have decided to resign to protest political pressure exerted on them by the two main presidential candidates.
Bagapsh, however, denied any attempt at influencing the media. On the contrary, he said he had himself fallen victim to a discrimination campaign orchestrated by the authorities.
In particular, he referred to a televised report broadcast on the night of 12 October in which he was portrayed as a pro-Georgian politician. Describing these allegations as groundless, Bagapsh said that, if he were to be confirmed president, he would prove himself a strong defender of Abkhazia's independence.
"The people of Abkhazia have already made their choice, which is to be independent," Bagapsh said. "If Georgia wishes to talk to us like partners who enjoy similar rights and sovereign status, then we will be ready to start dialogue. But we will never let anyone threaten us with force."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to restore his country's territorial integrity through peaceful means only. Yet, his recent decision to dispatch troops to South Ossetia -- Georgia's other breakaway province -- and the flare of tension that followed have raised widespread concerns in Sukhum that he might resort to force to achieve his objective.
Russia, which has helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia win de facto independence and maintains strong political and economic ties with both regions, is also wary of Saakashvili's possible next moves.
In Georgia, many believe Bagapsh -- despite his reputation as a moderate nationalist -- would be a potentially better interlocutor than the overtly pro-Kremlin Khajimba.
But the opposition candidate told RFE/RL that, were he to become Abkhazia's next leader, he would seek even stronger ties with Russia.
"For us, relations with Russia are a priority," Bagapsh said. "Russia has been on our side when we went through the darkest moments of our history and when we recovered our sovereignty. Russia has peacekeepers along the Inguri River that separates the Gali region from Georgia. The only country that helps Abkhazia today is the Russian Federation. So we will continue to strengthen our ties with Moscow."
Some in both Russia and Georgia see Khajimba's failure to secure a victory in the first round of the election as a crushing defeat for Moscow.
Russia has so far reacted cautiously to the developments in Abkhazia, taking what some observers have called a "wait-and-see" approach.