Bagapsh has rejected that criticism, but continues to stress that the new legislature should include representatives of all "ethnic minorities."
The existing election law, which both opposition and authorities acknowledge needs amending or replacing, provides for the election of 35 parliament deputies, all in single-mandate constituencies.
Bagapsh told regnum.ru in a January 19 interview that the parliament should be made up not only by Abkhaz but include representatives of other ethnic groups, including Russians, Armenians, and Greeks. He therefore advocated a "gentlemen's agreement" under which representatives of different nationalities would not compete against each other in any given constituency.
A total of 130 candidates, including 26 deputies from the outgoing parliament, initially registered for the ballot, of whom 13 subsequently withdrew. The main ideological divide pits representatives of the three political forces that backed Bagapsh in the October 2004 and January 2005 presidential ballots -- United Abkhazia, Amtsakhara, and Aytayra -- against the opposition Forum of National Unity that took shape in early 2005 to support Bagapsh's election rival and now vice president, Raul Khadjimba.
The pro-Bagapsh camp is fielding candidates in all 35 constituencies; to judge from their surnames, as listed in an appeal to the electorate posted on February 26 by the official website apsny.ru, they include three Slavs, two Armenians, and one Georgian.
On February 23, Bagapsh held a press conference (originally scheduled for February 12), carried live by state television, in which opposition deputies subsequently claimed he made derogatory comments about them that constitute direct interference in the election process and that triggered "a storm of indignation and concern" among the population at large. That allegation was made in a February 26 statement carried by the website kavkaz-uzel.ru and signed by 19 opposition candidates, against five of whom Bagapsh is said to have leveled unfounded criticism.
One of the five is Anri Djergenia, who from June 2001-November 2002 served as prime minister under Bagapsh's predecessor Vladislav Ardzinba. The statement further quotes Bagapsh as having told the electorate they have a choice between voting for "those who will bring peace and stability, or those who want to bring us to the verge of civil war."
Specifically, Bagapsh is said to have admitted that he has tried to persuade one of the 19 signatories, Lieutenant General Vladimir Arshba, a former first deputy defense minister and chief of General Staff, to withdraw his candidacy in a "Russian" constituency and register in a constituency where the rival candidates were Abkhaz.
Eight of the 19 opposition deputies also signed a formal request to Abkhaz Prosecutor-General Safarbey Mikanba and State Security Service Chairman Yury Ashuba to convene a press conference and comment on Bagapsh's alleged accusations against Arshba, according to regnum.ru on February 26. Regnum.ru also quoted Arshba as accusing the republic's authorities on February 26 in a televised campaign address of slander, infringing on his constitutional rights, and trying to "get rid of an inconvenient candidate."
Bagapsh admitted in a February 27 statement that he asked Arshba to "take into account the importance" of Abkhazia's Russian community and not put forward his candidacy in a constituency where a Russian was already registered. At the same time, Bagapsh insisted that his sole consideration in making that request was to preclude interethnic tension. He further affirmed his conviction that he had "the moral right" to make such a request, and that it did not constitute a violation of the constitution.
But in a seeming departure from his earlier appeal to the electorate not to classify society in terms of "us and them," he went on to say that "it seems we are pursuing different goals. One is left with the impression that some opposition representatives are prepared to do a great deal, including using the rostrum of the election campaign, in order to slake their thirst to return to power and appease their pathological desire to gain control once again over public property," apsnypress reported.
Georgian media have seized on the indications of rising tensions between the Abkhaz authorities and opposition. Bagapsh's spokesman Kristian Bzhania rejected on February 27 as untrue Georgian media reports of exchanges of fire in Sukhum(i) between supporters of Bagapsh and Khadjimba.
Nonetheless, Abkhaz Interior Minister Otar Khetsia told Apsnypress on February 28 that additional police will deployed to Gali Raion on polling day to maintain calm. Bagapsh's representative in Gali, Ruslan Kishmaria, claimed that Georgian special services are threatening to burn down the homes of any villagers who cast their ballots in the March 4 poll.