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Georgia: Abkhaz Election Officials Order New Vote In Disputed Region

Raul Khadjimba voting on 3 October Abkhazia's Central Election Commission on today ordered a rerun in one region of the disputed 3 October presidential election. But election officials decided to validate returns from the other regions showing the main opposition candidate in the lead. That means the revote in the Gali region could decide who will be the next president of the separatist Black Sea republic.

Prague, 6 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Abkhazia's Central Election Commission ordered today that a new vote be held on 17 October in the disputed Gali region.

Announcing the decision today, commission member Razhden Khikuba said that although the Abkhaz Constitution does not allow for partial reruns, all five contenders had agreed on the need to compromise and avoid further confrontation. Khikuba also said the commission had ruled to validate returns from other regions.

Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency later quoted Central Election Commission Chairman Sergei Smyr as saying the decision to infringe on the self-proclaimed republic's constitution was "political" and met "the interests of the Abkhaz people."

The compromise is likely to temporarily defuse tension in the Black Sea province. It also leans towards demands made by the main opposition candidate.

Confusion over the polls reached its peaked yesterday with the two leading candidates -- pro-Russian Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba and nationalist opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh -- trading accusations of fraud.

Khadjimba accused his main rival of stealing votes in the Gali district, a region that has a large ethnic Georgian population. Displaying what he said were voter lists from one of Gali's three election districts, the prime minister claimed to have gathered irrefutable evidence of vote rigging.
Before the election commission ordered a rerun in Gali, Khadjimba had demanded that the 3 October election be annulled and that a new nationwide vote be held.

"You have here some of the documents that come from a Gali polling station. One may ask what kind of identity papers voters did actually produce to obtain their ballot papers. As a matter of fact, no one had to prove his identity. Yet, you can see here the signatures of people who allegedly took part in the vote. Now, another thing. You see here that some signatures are perfectly identical, which indicates that one person actually signed on behalf of three or four individuals," Khadjimba said.

Before the election commission ordered a rerun in Gali, Khadjimba had demanded that the 3 October election be annulled and that a new nationwide vote be held.

Khadjimba is the heir apparent of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba and has the apparent backing of the Kremlin.

Early on 4 October, the prime minister was prematurely -- and erroneously -- declared the winner of the election. However, not only did he fail to overcome the 50 percent-plus-one-vote barrier required to be elected in the first round, he is now trailing behind his main rival.

Partial results released late yesterday by the Central Election Commission indicate that Bagapsh was largely ahead with nearly 48 percent of the vote, while Khadjimba was trailing behind with 38.5 percent.

An election commission statement posted on the official website of the breakaway Georgian republic shows that while the prime minister was more popular in Sukhum and Gulripshi, Bagapsh got the most votes in Gagra and Gudauta.

These returns do not include the controversial Gali district, where Khadjimba's campaign staff claim residents were forced through intimidation to vote for Bagapsh and opposition supporters attempted to disrupt the counting of ballots.

Speaking to journalists yesterday, Bagapsh denied any wrongdoing and blamed in turn the rival camp for irregularities in other regions. "If, after the Central Election Commission checks voting protocols, it appears that we made some mistakes, we will abide by the decision of the commission," he said. "We will not look for irregularities in Sukhum and other districts -- although, believe me, we have gathered enough evidence."

A former Communist Youth official and separatist prime minister, Bagapsh is the head of Chernomorenergo, Abkhazia's state-owned power company. He is supported by United Abkhazia and Aitaira (Revival), Abkhazia's two main opposition political movements. He also has the official endorsement of Amtsakhara, a nationalist grouping principally made of veterans of the 1992-93 war that led to Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia.

Despite this, Bagapsh is said to be popular among Gali's ethnic Georgians, who have recently returned after being driven from their homes during the separatist conflict. Yet it remains unclear how many Georgians live there and how many were allowed to vote.

Addressing supporters gathered in front of the election commission building, Bagapsh said late yesterday that a new vote in the Gali district would only confirm his popularity there. "We will hold new elections, all candidates without exception," he said. "But only in the Gali district, only in the Gali district. We will hold a new vote [there] to show once again that we won these elections."

Further delay in resolving the election deadlock could have led to political unrest.

Early yesterday, up to 300 opposition supporters demonstrated in front of the election commission building to demand that final election results be released without delay.

As President Ardzinba discussed the situation with election officials and the two main candidates, Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Zantaria urged a crowd of pro-government supporters to show restraint and refrain from statements or actions that could "split Abkhaz society."