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Abkhazia: Declared Presidential Victor Gears Up For Inauguration Amid Russian Threats

Tensions are running high between Russia and Sergei Bagapsh, the official winner of October's presidential election in Abkhazia. Russia this week announced a string of economic sanctions against Abkhazia that are obviously aimed at forcing Bagapsh to drop plans for his inauguration. But the Abkhaz opposition leader insists he will be sworn in on 6 December as scheduled.

Prague, 3 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Meeting with ambassadors of the Friends of Georgia group of countries, Georgia's Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili yesterday expressed concern at the political situation in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, saying developments there are fraught with danger.

Referring to a series of recent Russian initiatives, Zurabishvili accused Moscow of trying to force developments in Abkhazia -- a region that Georgia still sees as being under its jurisdiction, despite the fact that it has enjoyed de facto independence since a 1992-93 war.

"[These initiatives] show that Russia is trying to influence Abkhazia's [political] situation. The Georgian side, by contrast, is behaving with utmost caution," Zurabishvili said. "Our main problem is to not let the situation in Abkhazia deteriorate, so that it moves toward stabilization and that peace negotiations can resume as soon as possible."

The Friends of Georgia group -- comprising Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- has been mandated by the United Nations to help Tbilisi and Sukhum definitively settle their conflict.

Russia's Ambassador to Georgia Vladimir Chkhikvishvili did not attend yesterday's meeting with Zurabishvili. It is not clear whether he deliberately boycotted the gathering or was not invited.

Tbilisi earlier yesterday had sent Moscow a strongly worded note, in which it protested the presence in Abkhazia of a large government delegation headed by Russia's First Deputy Interior Minister Aleksandr Chekalin and Deputy General-Prosecutor Vladimir Kolesnikov.

Officially, the Russian envoys are in Sukhum to help both rivals in October's disputed presidential election reach a compromise and agree to a repeat election.

But Zurabishvili yesterday described the Russian mission as "suspicious."

Moscow, which maintains close political and economic ties with Georgia's secessionist province, is deeply involved in the two-month-old Abkhaz postelection standoff.

Opposition candidate Bagapsh has been pronounced the winner of the 3 October vote by Abkhazia's Central Election Commission, parliament, and Council of Elders, a traditional consultative body with no constitutional powers but with considerable authority. But the administration of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba has refused to concede the defeat of its candidate, former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba.

Ardzinba, who claims the vote was fraudulent, has demanded that a new vote be held. But his orders have remained largely unheeded, and parliament has refused to set a date for a new ballot.

Russia, by contrast, fully backs Ardzinba.

Addressing reporters during a visit to Sochi, in Russia's southern Krasnodar region, Russian government official Gennadii Bukaev on 1 December left no doubt about Moscow's political preferences.

"There is a legitimate president in the republic of Abkhazia -- Vladislav Ardzinba," Bukaev said. "The Russian leadership supports his persistent efforts to stabilize the sociopolitical situation in the republic and his decision to hold a new election."
Moscow, which maintains close political and economic ties with Georgia's secessionist province, is deeply involved in the two-month-old Abkhaz postelection standoff.

Bukaev also accused Bagapsh of links with organized crime, comments Bagapsh subsequently dismissed as "insulting."

"The steps that are being taken by the president of Abkhazia suit neither Bagapsh nor the criminal structures that stand behind him and are trying to seize power by force," Bukaev said.

Russian media initially presented Bukaev as an aide to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. But Andrei Loginov, the Russian government's envoy to the State Duma, told lawmakers yesterday that Bukaev is a member of the influential Security Council.

Russia this week suspended a direct railway connection between Sukhum and Moscow and strengthened border controls with Abkhazia. It also imposed a ban on agriculture imports from the Black Sea province -- officially for sanitary reasons.

In comments printed in today's edition of the Russian daily "Vremya novostei," Bagapsh said he sees those economic sanctions as a "warning" aimed at forcing him to quit the race for presidency.

Still, he said he will go ahead with his inauguration, set for 6 December.

Russia has said that if Bagapsh is sworn in it will seal its border with Abkhazia.

The Tbilisi correspondent for "Vremya novostei," Mikhail Vignanskii, a seasoned observer of Abkhaz political life, has been closely following the crisis. He told RFE/RL that the next few days will be crucial.

"[Russia] may, of course, make new attempts by Monday [6 December] to dissuade Bagapsh to enter office. But judging by his mood and that of his supporters, they will certainly go ahead with his inauguration," Vignanskii said. "What may happen before Monday is one thing. But what may happen on Monday or after Monday [is another thing]. There could be attempts at disrupting [Bagapsh's] inauguration. Maybe also some government officials will say that they will refuse to obey his orders, although most of Abkhazia's administrations have already said that they will follow his policy."

Bagapsh is a former regional Communist Party leader in Ochamchira, a region that lays just north of Georgia, and is supported by Amtsakhara, an influential group largely made of veterans of the 1992-93 war.

Despite his nationalist backing, Georgia sees Bagapsh as a potentially more acceptable interlocutor than the overtly pro-Russian Khajimba -- if only because he garnered a large number of votes among the ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia's Gali district.

Addressing a group of academics involved in Abkhaz peace talks, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today officially recognized Bagapsh's victory, despite the fact that Tbilisi considers the election illegal.

"It is absolutely clear that those who have been elected express the opinion of the absolute majority of Abkhaz who live on Abkhaz territory at the present stage," Saakashvili said. "This is why the Georgian government is ready to enter into dialogue with this leadership, with this team, and personally with Bagapsh, who enjoys the support of most Abkhaz."

It marks the first time Tbilisi has publicly entered the fray since the beginning of the crisis in Sukhum.

Bagapsh today rejected Saakashvili's offer. In comments made to Russia's Interfax news agency, he described the Georgian overture as a "provocation," saying: "That's all I needed!"

Yet, Vignanskii said that Russia's pressure on Bagapsh could backfire by forcing him to seek some kind of normalization with Georgia.

"If Russia continues this policy toward Abkhazia after 6 December, I think the chances of seeing both sides look for mutually acceptable ways to solve their conflict will be higher under Bagapsh than they've ever been under Ardzinba," Vignanskii said.

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