Prague, 7 October 2004 -- Raul Khajimba was taken aback by news that the Central Election Commission had set a vote rerun in the southern Gali region on 17 October.
Addressing yesterday, Khajimba said he would appeal the decision and insisted that a new vote must be held in all areas of the Georgian separatist province: "We will demand that the CEC revert its decision and continue our election campaign. We will prove that we are right."
Khajimba accuses his main rival, former Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh, of rigging the 3 October election, particularly in the Gali region that borders Georgia to the north.
Bagapsh is said to enjoy greater popularity among Gali Georgians than Khajimba.
Gali is home to thousands of ethnic Georgians who have returned there after being expelled during the 1992-1993 war that led to Abkhazia's de facto independence.
Bagapsh denies accusations of election fraud and says he agreed to a rerun in Gali only to show his rivals that he won the polls.
Partial results endorsed by the CEC yesterday show that, with the exception of Gali, Bagapsh is leading the vote with nearly 48 percent of support. These same returns indicate that Khajimba is trailing with 38.5 percent of the vote.
CEC chairman Sergei Smyr yesterday suggested that the decision to validate these results and ignore Khajimba's calls for a new countrywide vote had received the backing of the highest political authorities: "This decision is not merely a legal act of the Central Election Commission. A certain tension has arisen in Abkhazia and this decision is also political."
Partial revotes are banned under the Abkhaz Constitution. Only hours after the CEC had made its decision public, President Vladislav Ardzinba dismissed Khajimba from the post of prime minister and replaced him with Nodar Khashba.
A former Russian government official, Khashba is also a co-founder of United Abkhazia, one of the three main political groupings that support Bagapsh.
Regional experts hold different views on the latest political developments.
Indira Bartsits is a political analyst for the official Abkhazpress news agency. She tells RFE/RL that, despite appearances, she does not believe Khajimba's position is weaker now that Ardzinba dismissed him: "[Khajimba] himself says this is a timely decision that will help Abkhazia reach the second round of the elections. It is difficult to say he is isolated because he still enjoys the support of the president. Kahshba himself says it is Khajimba who asked him to take over [as prime minister]."
But in neighboring Georgia, analysts believe Khajimba is paying the consequences of his failure to get elected in the first round.
Paata Zakareishvili of the Tbilisi-based Center for Development and Cooperation has long supported dialogue between Abkhaz and Georgians. In remarks late yesterday to RFE/RL, he said he believed the latest initiatives taken by the Abkhaz leadership aim primarily at averting possible confrontation with Amtsakhara, the influential 1992-1993 war veterans association that backs Bagapsh: "Both the Abkhaz -- and especially -- Russian authorities will use [these decisions] to bargain with Amtsakhara, to find common ground with it. More than anything else, they are very afraid of Amtsakhara. They fear bloodshed. Amtsakhara is ready to take up arms in order to defend its achievements. Two hours ago, Ardzinba appointed Khashba prime minister. This is an important development that shows the Russians are panicking. They did not expect such an outcome and they're trying now to influence Abkhaz society."
Although all five presidential contenders support Abkhazia's independence, they have different political agendas.
For most Georgians, Khajimba is considered Moscow's man. Government officials and political experts in Tbilisi believe that, were here elected, Bagapsh would prove a better interlocutor because, unlike Khajimba, he is not closely tied with Russia.
Yet, some in Abkhazia are more skeptical. Arda Inal-ipa is a member of the Voters' League for Fair Elections, a Sukhumi-based nongovernmental organization that monitored the 3 October election. She tells our correspondent that Bagapsh's nationalist backing and repeated pledges to keep his distances with Russia would not necessarily lead to a dramatic shift of Abkhazia's foreign policy if he were to succeed Ardzinba: "Our conflict with Georgia remains unsettled and Russia is nearly Abkhazia's only economic partner. The international community doe not want to help Abkhazia. So Russia is our only mainstay and I don't think any leader would be in a position to sever these ties."
Partial official returns show that, in absolute numbers, Bagapsh is just 5,000 votes ahead of Khajimba. Therefore the Gali rerun will be decisive -- even though it may fail to secure either candidate enough votes to win in the first round.
Despite being supported by separatist war veterans, Bagapsh is said to enjoy greater popularity among Gali Georgians than Khajimba. Some ascribe this to the fact that he is married to a Georgian. But Zakareishvili says there are other reasons: "It is not that Bagapsh is so popular there. Rather, it is that Khajimba is unacceptable [to local Georgians] because he is seen as Russia's candidate. He is absolutely unpopular. People do not vote for Bagapsh, but against Ardzinba's regime and candidate."
Abkhaz estimates put at 60,000 the number of ethnic Georgians who have resettled in Gali in recent years.
Inal-ipa of the Voters' League for Fair Elections says only those 9,000 to 10,000 Gali Georgians who have a residence permit and are registered voters were able to take part in the election.
But Zakareishvili argues that a much greater number of Georgians were able to cast their ballots and that nearly 90 percent of them voted for Bagapsh.
From Tbilisi, Zakareishvili concludes: "This is the paradox -- in the final analysis, it is Abkhazia's Georgian population that will decide who will be the next president."