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Caucasus Report: October 14, 2004

14 October 2004, Volume 7, Number 39

ABKHAZ ELECTION DEADLOCK CONTINUES. The 3 October ballot to elect a successor to Vladislav Ardzinba, the ailing president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has compounded tensions between rival political factions in Abkhazia and called into question the extent of Moscow's influence over developments there.

Initial returns released by the Central Election Commission on 4 October suggested a first-round victory for Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba, whose candidacy both Ardzinba and Russian President Vladimir Putin had publicly endorsed. Khadjimba was said to have polled 52.84 percent of the vote, compared with 33.58 percent for his closest rival, Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh. Former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba reportedly garnered 9.92 percent, Yakub Lakoba 2.73 percent, and former Prime Minister Anri Djergenia 0.94 percent. Bagapsh's supporters immediately challenged those figures, claiming that he polled not less than 63 percent of the vote. Bagapsh's campaign staff later revised that figure to 52-53 percent.

Later on 4 October, Khadjimba told supporters in Sukhum that the ballot was not fair or democratic, and that voters in Ochamchira Raion had been "pressured." Khadjimba said he would protest those alleged violations to the Supreme Court. (Late on 3 October, members of Khadjimba's staff had stated that they had deployed observers at all polling stations, but had not witnessed any "serious" violations" of voting procedure, Caucasus Press reported, citing Apsnipress.)

On 5 October, Khadjimba, together with Shamba, Lakoba and Djergenia jointly filed a complaint with the Supreme Court alleging violations of election regulations not in Ochamchira but in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, whose predominantly Georgian population overwhelmingly support Bagapsh. One of the key tenets of Bagapsh's election platform was improving socioeconomic conditions and security in Gali to encourage Georgians who fled the district during the 1992-93 war to return (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 October 2004). Khadjimba's campaign manager, Guram Inapshba, told Apsnipress that members of election commissions in the three polling stations in Gali openly called on voters to cast their ballots for Bagapsh and tried to intimidate Khadjimba's observers. Bagapsh rejected those allegations of malpractice, pointing out on 5 October that international observers did not register any such procedural violations in Gali.

On 5 October, the Central Election Commission (CEC) released returns from Sukhum and Gagra showing Khadjimba in the lead. The following day, some 300 Bagapsh supporters congregated outside the CEC to demand that data for all districts be made public. The CEC then released returns from all seven districts except for Gali, giving Bagapsh 35,092 votes and Khadjimba 30,120. (Bagapsh defeated Khadjimba in four of those districts -- Gagra, Gudauta, Ochamchira, and Tkvarcheli, but not in the city or raion of Sukhum or in Gulripsh Raion.) The total number of votes cast for all five candidates republic-wide was given as 76,656.

Also on 6 October, CEC Chairman Sergei Smyr announced that repeat voting would be held in Gali on 17 October. ITAR-TASS quoted Smyr as acknowledging that that ruling contradicted the Abkhaz law on the presidential election, which makes provision only for repeat voting throughout the republic but not in individual districts. "Vremya novostei" on 7 October quoted Smyr as saying the decision on repeat elections in Gali was "political," and necessitated by "rising tension."

Ardzinba, however, criticized the CEC ruling on repeat voting in Gali as unconstitutional, as did Khadjimba. Apsnipress on 7 October quoted Khadjimba as calling for repeat voting throughout Abkhazia. Ardzinba dismissed Khadjimba as prime minister late on 6 October and named Nodar Khashba, an employee of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, as acting prime minister. Khashba told journalists in Sukhum on 7 October his brief was to "normalize" the situation in the run-up to the repeat vote on 17 October. Khashba met later on 7 October with both Bagapsh and Khadjimba but no details of those meetings were made public.

The Supreme Court was originally scheduled to deliver a ruling on 8 October on the validity of Khadjimba's complaint, but postponed doing so until 11 October. Late on 10 October, a bomb exploded outside Bagapsh's campaign headquarters in Sukhum, but caused only minimal damage and no injuries. On 11 October, the Supreme Court again declined to rule on Khadjimba's appeal. Later that day, the CEC announced that 12 of its 15 members considered the 3 October poll valid and proclaimed Bagapsh the winner with 43,366 votes of a total of 76,645 votes cast, compared with 30,815 for Khadjimba. That is equal to 50.08 percent of the total vote. On 13 October, however, Khadjimba belatedly challenged the CEC's arithmetic, claiming that Bagapsh polled only 49.89 percent of the vote, according to ITAR-TASS. Smyr was one of the CEC members who did not endorse Bagapsh; he submitted his resignation as CEC chairman later on 11 October.

On 12 October, Ardzinba criticized as "illegal and absurd" the CEC ruling designating Bagapsh the winner of the 3 October ballot. Ardzinba said the CEC should have waited until the Supreme Court considered Khadjimba's appeal. Prime Minister Khashba similarly told some 2,500 Khadjimba supporters who convened in Sukhum on 12 October that "the legal procedure of the presidential election is not over yet, and we must wait for a ruling by the Supreme Court." Meanwhile, on 12 October the Abkhaz parliament voted to amend the law on the presidential election to permit repeat voting at individual polling stations, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 October.

Khadjimba immediately appealed to the Supreme Court the CEC ruling naming Bagapsh the winner, ITAR-TASS reported on 12 October. But Interfax on 12 October quoted Bagapsh as saying that "we won the election in an honest battle." He stressed that he does not oppose the campaign for Abkhazia's international recognition as an independent state, but that "there is opposition to the system of authority that has taken shape in Abkhazia." Vice President Valerii Arshba, who quit the race on 3 September and subsequently endorsed Bagapsh, similarly told Interfax on 6 October that it is wrong to designate Bagapsh the "opposition" candidate. Arshba stressed that all candidates have the same goals: to strengthen both Abkhaz independence and ties with Russia.

In that respect, what is at stake in this election is less future government policy than assets and power. Bagapsh told RFE/RL on 13 October that the current leadership simply "do not want to leave power." Moreover, Bagapsh and former Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, tipped as Bagapsh's choice for prime minister, have vowed to make combating crime and corruption a priority. In mid-August, before Ankvab was denied registration for the ballot, "Russkii kurer" predicted that in the event he became president, many members of the present leadership who have accumulated wealth and property by dubious if not criminal means would be faced with the choice of jail or fleeing Abkhazia.

Given the similarities between the five candidates' election platforms, what induced voters to reject the candidate who stood for continuity? A correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting suggested that Russia's unambiguous promotion of Khadjimba may have misfired, and that many voters may have backed Bagapsh because they are suspicious of Moscow's ultimate objective in Abkhazia. Others, especially those struggling to survive financially, may have been seduced by Bagapsh's plans to turn Abkhazia into an offshore zone.

The disinclination of many voters to vote in accordance with the stated wishes of the current leadership was paralleled by the independence demonstrated by the CEC in designating Bagapsh the winner. The situation now hinges on the Supreme Court ruling: will that body bow to Ardzinba and Khadjimba and annul the CEC's ruling on repeat elections in Gali? And if it does, will Ardzinba then fire the remaining members of the CEC and replace them with a loyal team that will subsequently oversee a repeat ballot republic-wide? "Nezavisimaya gazeta" predicted that a repeat election will indeed be held, noting on 12 October that last week Ardzinba decreed that the population of Abkhazia is shortly to be issued with new passports, which will constitute the sole authorized identification to be produced when voting in future elections. Gali's Georgian population, the Russian daily reasoned, are unlikely to exchange their Georgian passports for Abkhaz ones, and will thus be unable to vote -- depriving Bagapsh of crucial support. Conversely, a repeat vote in Gali alone would serve only to cement Bagapsh's lead over Khadjimba, especially given that both local election officials and the pro-Bagapsh CEC would be on guard against any attempts to falsify the ballot in Khadjimba's favor.

Bagapsh, however, predicted in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 14 October that there will be no republic-wide repeat poll. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY READY TO ACKNOWLEDGE KARABAKH'S INDEPENDENCE. The international community has come to terms with Nagorno-Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan and is ready to recognize its de facto independence, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian declared on 13 October in response to a question from an Armenian parliamentarian. "Whereas six years ago nobody was letting us even dream about Karabakh not being part of Azerbaijan [under a future peace accord], today not only we but also the international community, including the co-chairs of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's] Minsk Group, are freely talking about that," he said.

"Today the fact of Karabakh not being part of Azerbaijan is real, and the international community looks at it in a very normal manner. This doesn't mean they will publicly affirm it. But I can state for certain that they consider that option a real one."

Oskanian was apparently alluding to a Karabakh peace agreement worked out during talks in Paris and Florida during the spring of 2001. According to Western press reports, the plan put forward by French, Russian, and U.S. mediators called for Karabakh's formal incorporation into Armenia in return for the latter guaranteeing a transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave. The Armenian side maintains that the two sides came close to signing that accord, but that Azerbaijan's former President Heidar Aliyev backtracked on the deal. However, Baku claims that no such agreements were reached at the time. (Emil Danielyan)

POLLS SHOW ARMENIANS CYNICAL ABOUT DEMOCRACY, INDEPENDENCE... Less than one in five Armenians believe that their country stands on the path of democratization and is truly independent almost 13 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to an opinion poll released on 7 October. The nationwide survey by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), an independent think tank, suggests that as many as 70 percent of Armenian citizens feel that major decisions taken by their government are dictated by foreign powers, notably Russia.

ACNIS pollsters said only 18 percent of some 1,500 people interviewed across Armenia think that it is on course to become a democracy. Almost two-thirds of them do not expect that to happen in the next 25 years.

The survey also confirmed widespread public disenchantment with independence, with nearly half of the respondents saying that they were better off prior to the collapse of the USSR and another 27 percent seeing no socioeconomic change in their lives. "The overwhelming majority of the public has felt no positive impact on their living standards over the past 13 years," said Stepan Safarian, a senior ACNIS analyst.

Consequently, economic hardship and "the formation of [government-linked] clans" were identified by most respondents as the most negative phenomena that have characterized Armenia's post-Soviet history. They also singled out the "falsification" of the presidential elections held since independence as well as the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament as the most significant factors that have hampered the country's progress.

When asked about Armenia's biggest postindependence achievements, 29 percent mentioned the creation of the national army while 18 percent pointed to the victory in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh. About one in 10 of those polled singled out the country's closer ties with its worldwide diaspora. (Anna Saghabalian)

...AND 'LARGELY IGNORANT OF CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM.' An opinion poll released on 9-10 October suggests that less than 10 percent of the residents of Yerevan, which is home to at least one-third of Armenia's population, are familiar with constitutional amendments prepared by their government.

Vox Populi, an independent polling organization that conducted the survey, said only 9 percent of over 600 respondents in the capital have decided to take part in a planned referendum on the changes drafted by President Robert Kocharian and his leading political allies.

The Armenian authorities will put on the referendum, expected next year, a revised version of a package of amendments rejected by voters last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May 2003). They say the amendments would curtail Kocharian's sweeping powers and strengthen human rights safeguards in the basic law. The Armenian opposition, however, strongly denies this, saying that Kocharian would only gain more powers as a result. The opposition leaders are certain to urge the electorate to vote against the package.

The findings of the poll show that the authorities still have a long way to go before winning sufficient public support for their proposed constitutional reform. The majority of those polled by Vox Populi said they are unaware of its details. Only 8 percent said they know what the amendments are all about. Public awareness of the issue could even be lower in the areas outside Yerevan where access to the mass media is much more limited.

Almost a third of the respondents stated that they have already decided to boycott the referendum, with another 15 percent saying that they are likely to do so.

Reform of the current constitution enacted in 1995 was one of the conditions for Armenia's hard-won accession to the Council of Europe about four years ago. In a resolution adopted last week, the organization's Parliamentary Assembly urged Yerevan to "rapidly prepare draft amendments to the constitution, present them to the Council of Europe in 2004 for expert appraisal and organize a referendum as soon as possible and in any event by June 2005 at the latest." (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I am sure that there are no differences between the president of the republic and [Defense Minister] Serzh Sarkisian." -- Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, dismissing persistent speculation about a serious rift between Sarkisian, widely regarded as the second-most-powerful man in Armenia, and President Robert Kocharian (quoted by "Haykakan zhamanak" on 14 October).