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Georgia: Abkhaz Presidential Rivals Hold Emergency Talks In Moscow

The main two rivals for the presidency in Georgia's secessionist republic of Abkhazia were in Moscow today for consultations reportedly aimed at defusing tension in the Black Sea province. Meanwhile, in the regional capital, Sukhum, the political situation remains deadlocked, with supporters of both candidates vying for control over Abkhazia's main television station.

Prague, 2 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition presidential contender Sergei Bagapsh and government candidate Raul Khadjimba reportedly arrived in Moscow last night for emergency talks with Russian officials.

It was still not clear by mid-afternoon today with whom the two rivals had met, or would meet. Similarly unclear is the venue of the talks, which are shrouded in secrecy.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency said it had managed to reach Khadjimba by phone, but that he had refused to elaborate on his visit. Russian officials remained similarly tight-lipped.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Sukhum, civil rights activist and former Abkhaz lawmaker Natella Akaba said that -- whatever their outcome -- the Moscow talks have already had a positive, though limited, effect. "The situation here changes very quickly, even in the course of a single day. Sometimes, tension increases, sometimes it decreases," Akaba said. "The fact that both candidates are in Moscow has somehow defused the tension, and in both campaign headquarters people hope the visit will help them get a better picture."

Tension in Abkhazia suddenly heightened on 29 October when the Supreme Court announced that it had decided to uphold a Central Election Commission decision to declare Bagapsh the winner of the disputed 3 October election. Within hours, however, dozens of government supporters had stormed the court building and forced the panel to reverse its ruling.

Addressing reporters at an emergency press conference, presiding judge Giorgii Akaba later accused former Prime Minister Khadjimba and his allies of exerting both physical and psychological pressure on the court and said only the initial decision to confirm Bagapsh's victory should be considered legal.

Yet, by the time these accusations were made, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba had already issued a decree ordering that a new election be held. Under Abkhaz election laws, however, only the Central Election Commission has the right to rerun elections.
"It is in no one's interests -- neither Russia's nor Georgia's -- that a civil war breaks out in Abkhazia."

The standoff further deepened yesterday when Prime Minister Nodar Khashba ordered state radio and television to go off the air until opposition activists camping outside its headquarters leave the area.

The government accuses Bagapsh of trying to seize the province's main television station as part of an alleged "coup."

But civil rights activist Akaba dismisses that version of the facts, blaming instead the government for attempting to impose an information blackout on the breakaway republic. "On 29 October, immediately after the Supreme Court was stormed [by Khadjimba's supporters], authorities -- more precisely, the presidential guard -- dismantled television transmitters so that news [of the incident] was not spread," Akaba said. "Bagapsh and his supporters then entered into talks with Prime Minister Khashba and National Security Council members to tell them that TV broadcasting should resume. To avoid a similar situation arising in the future, they also offered to guard the television headquarters. Servicemen siding with Bagapsh effectively set up pickets that are changed regularly to guard the television tower, the transmitters, and the television building itself. But that does not mean that they have seized the television. They're just guarding it, and no one is denied air time."

Akaba said state television resumed limited programming overnight, with staffers trying to broadcast "only unbiased information and calls to preserve stability."

Meanwhile, Bagapsh insists he won last month's election and dismisses accusations of fraud leveled by his main rival. In an interview with Georgia's "24 Saati" newspaper yesterday, he said he plans to go ahead with his inauguration next month regardless of Ardzinba's decision to hold a new vote.

Adding to the tension, Khadjimba's supporters late yesterday cordoned off the Abkhaz parliament, denying lawmakers access to the building. They claim their objective is to prevent the legislature from impeaching Ardzinba and overruling his election decree.

Akaba said she hopes Moscow will exert pressure on both Bagapsh and Khadjimba so that they agree on a peaceful solution to their dispute. "I'd really like to believe it is possible. [Of course], 'Moscow' is a very broad concept, and the Russian leadership is made of several groupings," Akaba said. "But I do hope that it will manage to ease the tension. It is in no one's interests -- neither Russia's nor Georgia's -- that a civil war breaks out in Abkhazia."

Georgian State Security Minister Vano Merabishvili said yesterday that Tbilisi is closely following developments in Abkhazia and will do its utmost not to get involved in the political standoff there. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to restore some sort of control over Abkhazia, which has been enjoying de facto independence since 1993.

Although Bagapsh has vowed to tighten Abkhazia's relations with Russia when he enters office, Georgian officials believe he will eventually prove a better interlocutor than any candidate endorsed by the current separatist leadership.

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