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Georgia: Controversial Election Ruling Spreads Further Confusion In Abkhazia

Former Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba voting on 3 October Election officials in Georgia's separatist province of Abkhazia late yesterday declared opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh the winner of last week's disputed presidential poll. The ruling, however, has not eased tensions in the Black Sea region. Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba has condemned the decision, saying it could lead to "bloodshed." Russia, the main supporter of Abkhazia's de facto independence, has reacted cautiously to the announcement, saying the situation demanded clarification.

Prague, 12 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Appearing before a crowd of opposition activists late yesterday in Sukhum, Abkhaz Central Election Commission Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Adleiba made an unexpected announcement.

"Sergei Vasilevich Bagapsh is considered the elected president of the republic of Abkhazia," Adleiba said to cheers and applause.

Russia's ORT television channel reported the commission decided to declare Bagapsh the winner of the disputed 3 October presidential poll at the end of a stormy four-hour session. Adleiba said 11 of the commission's 15 members had voted in favor of the resolution, which he stressed was primarily aimed at avoiding political confrontation in the Black Sea province.

Bagapsh, who is supported by a number of nationalist groupings, immediately vowed to be the president of all Abkhaz, regardless of their political convictions. "Listen to me, all of you. I want you to understand one thing. Those who came to lead the republic are here for the sake of all their fellow citizens, regardless of whom they voted for," he said. "We've just had a difficult election period, and what awaits us now is considerable constructive work."

Hours later, however, Central Election Commission Chairman Sergei Smyr said he had resigned to protest the decision. "In view of the last session of the Central Election Commission and the present political problems, and considering that I am no longer in a position to fulfill my duties in accordance with the legislation of Abkhazia, I have resigned today from my duties of Central Election Commission chairman and Central Election Commission member," he said.
"We will seek justice only through peaceful means. Our supporters who will come here today will demonstrate that not all of Abkhazia is siding with Sergei Vasilevich Bagapsh."

Today, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba joined the fray, saying in a statement posted on Abkhazia's official website that the commission decision is "absurd," "illegal," and could lead to bloodshed.

Talking to reporters in front of the commission's offices in Sukhum, government candidate and former Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba accused his rival of exerting pressure on election officials and said he will seek justice in court.

"This is not a legal step on the part of our opponents," Khadjimba said. "We were considering sorting out our dispute before a court. But instead of that, they exerted pressure on the [commission] so that it took a decision that suits them. We will seek justice only through peaceful means. Our supporters who will come here today will demonstrate that not all of Abkhazia is siding with Sergei Vasilevich Bagapsh."

The commission yesterday endorsed results showing Bagapsh had garnered almost 51 percent of the vote on 3 October.

Yet, the same election commission on 6 October refused to validate results from the Gali region, saying the election there had been fraudulent. It also ordered an election rerun in that southern area, in violation of the Abkhaz Constitution, which bans partial re-votes.

Claiming widespread fraud across Abkhazia, Khadjimba is demanding that the entire election be voided. On 8 October, he appealed before the Abkhaz Supreme Court against the Gali re-vote decision.

Speaking to reporters at government headquarters in Sukhum, Abkhaz Prime Minister Nodar Khashba said today the commission has no right to validate the vote until a Supreme Court ruling on Khadjimba's complaint -- tentatively scheduled for 14 October.

"This issue can be finally settled only in court. We all agreed on that. Yesterday, I met in that very same room with the presidential candidates, the chairman of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor-general, [representatives of] all our law-enforcement agencies, the speaker of parliament, and the vice president. I wanted to have such an enlarged meeting with only one purpose: I wanted to call upon everyone to stay calm and obey the law. Everyone agreed with this decision," Khashba said.

Russia, which helped Abkhazia secede from Georgia in the early 1990s and has since maintained close ties with the province, has reacted cautiously to the latest developments in Sukhum.

In comments made in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted today that the decision by Abkhaz election officials had taken Moscow by surprise.

"The situation is unclear. I do not have the latest information. First, I heard news that the [Central Election Commission] had announced its decision, then reports saying the chairman of the [commission] had resigned. All I can say is that Russia would like to see all conflicts on CIS territories settled as soon as possible and on the basis of already reached agreements," Lavrov said.

Lavrov also urged Georgia to continue working toward a peaceful settlement of its dispute with Abkhazia, regardless of who eventually assumes the presidency. "I am convinced that whoever comes to power in Abkhazia, he will continue the process of settling the conflict on the basis of existing agreements and within the framework of existing mechanisms," he said. "That certainly implies that Georgia should also meet its obligations and cover its part of the path."

Although considered a moderate nationalist, Bagapsh is widely seen in Georgia as a potentially better interlocutor than the overtly pro-Russian Khadjimba.

Political analysts in Sukhum say Bagapsh is unlikely to sever ties with Moscow, however, if only because Russia is the only country that supports the internationally unrecognized republic of Abkhazia.

Addressing a crowd of Sukhum residents late yesterday, Bagapsh vowed not only to maintain relations with Russia, but also to develop them further. "Our main policy will remain unchanged," he said. "We've been with Russia in the past, and we will remain with Russia. We will strengthen and develop these ties and bring them to a higher level."

It remains to be seen whether Bagapsh's comments were primarily aimed at reassuring those Abkhaz who had cast their ballots for Khadjimba, or whether they indicate an arrangement with Russia is in the making.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Georgian services contributed to this report.)

[For the latest news on the elections in Abkhazia, see RFE/RL's webpage on Abkhazia and Georgia.]