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Georgia: Could Abkhaz Election Deal Prove A Pyrrhic Victory For Russia?

Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khajimba has agreed to run as the junior partner on the new ticket (file photo) The two rivals in Abkhazia's disputed presidential election agreed yesterday to stand together in a new poll in early January. Russia, which has been maintaining close political and economic ties with Abkhazia since it won de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, was instrumental in helping secure the last-minute compromise. Supporters in both camps seem unhappy with the deal, which they see as being imposed upon them by Moscow.

Prague, 7 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Separatist militants appeared taken aback yesterday by the announcement that opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh, the official winner of Abkhazia's disputed 3 October presidential polls, has agreed to hold a new election -- and to run together on a joint ticket with his main rival, former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, as vice president.

Pointing at the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a veteran of the 1992-93 separatist war with Georgia voiced his anger before reporters: "I've been keeping this [rifle] for the past 12 years, and I don't want to hear of any 'joint' [team]. This I don't like. I don't like it. I don't like it at all."

Reporting on the initial reaction to the election deal, Russia's "Izvestiya" daily today quoted Bagapsh as asking voters for support against critics in his own camp and admitting that he was no longer totally in control of the situation.

Inal Khashig, editor-in-chief of "Chegemskaya Pravda," an independent Abkhaz newspaper, told RFE/RL that Bagapsh had a hard time convincing his supporters that a compromise with the rival camp was the only way to avert civil war.
"Only one thing made me do this -- it is the complicated sociopolitical situation and the [possibility] of an armed confrontation among the population. I have signed this agreement to avoid bloodshed and preserve the unity of the nation." -- opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh

"Initially, [they] did not understand Bagapsh at all. Some of them even accused him of betraying their interests and ideas. But in the final analysis of all [opposition] leaders, Bagapsh has been from the very beginning the one that has been the more open to a compromise," Khashig said. "Should another, uncompromising leader have run [the opposition] team, the outcome would have perhaps been rather disastrous. If yesterday one could hear people say that relations between Bagapsh and his supporters had somehow deteriorated, today, with the tension already decreasing, it is becoming clear that this compromise was the only possible solution he had."

In an interview with RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service’s correspondent Murat Temirov, Bagapsh explained his motives for dropping his inauguration plans.

"Only one thing made me do this -- it is the complicated sociopolitical situation and the [possibility] of an armed confrontation among the population," Bagapsh said. "I have signed this agreement to avoid bloodshed and preserve the unity of the nation."

Russian media reports on 5 December indicated that both camps were gearing up for violence, with armed army reservists supporting both sides pouring into Sukhum from across Abkhazia. Bagapsh had maintained that he intended to be sworn in as president yesterday. Local observers agree that the unexpected deal helped avert armed clashes by committing Bagapsh to shelve his inauguration plans and both camps to withdraw their forces from the capital.

Nadezhda Venediktova is the editor of the Sukhum-based "Civil Society" journal. She told RFE/RL's correspondent that under the deal reached on 5 December, Khajimba will be granted expanded prerogatives over the country's armed forces and that his supporters could hold up to 40 percent of portfolios in a coalition government.

She said it will take time for Bagapsh's supporters to accept the terms of the deal and for Khajimba's faithful to abandon all hopes of seeing their candidate become president.

"When the compromise was announced, many voters were in a state of shock," Venediktova said. "They had the impression things were getting totally absurd, that someone was making a fool of them. Whether [Bagapsh] will be able to change these feelings, whether common sense will eventually prevail, it is difficult to say now. The difficulty is that it is Khajimba's supporters who pose the greatest problems now. They fell into their own trap. For months they've been accusing Bagapsh of being pro-Georgian, up to the point that they're now convinced it is true. Therefore, it will be even more difficult for them to adapt to the new situation than it will be for Bagapsh's supporters."

Venediktova said the paradox of the 5 December deal is that, while being sponsored by Russia, it implicitly confirms the opposition's victory in the October poll.

Until the deal, government candidate Khajimba had refused to concede defeat, although Bagapsh had been declared the winner of the vote by the Central Election Commission, the parliament, and the Council of Elders -- a traditional consultative body with no constitutional powers but with significant weigh on domestic affairs.

Backing Khajimba's fraud claims, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba and his Russian sponsors had demanded that the results be voided and that a new vote be held.

Talking to reporters during a state visit to Turkey yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Abkhazia's presidential rivals for striking a deal and acknowledged the role played by Moscow's envoys -- Deputy General-Prosecutor
Vladimir Kolesnikov and State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin -- in helping the sides reach a compromise.

"Abkhazia's political leaders themselves, first of all, deserve credit for [this agreement]," Putin said. "They were able to listen to their people's opinion, they were able to overcome their personal ambitions and seek ways to cooperate. Although I was out of the country when all this happened, I know that mediators were involved -- mediators from Russia. But these people were mediators, no more. We, of course, will thank them for their active and fruitful efforts."

There is little doubt, however, that Russia was more actively involved in the deal than Putin suggested.

Russia last week suspended a recently reopened direct railway link with Sukhum and cited alleged sanitary problems to ban all imports of citrus fruits -- Abkhazia's main official source of revenue -- from the Black Sea region. It also threatened Abkhazia with an economic blockade in case Bagapsh was sworn in.

Whether any of the three other candidates who took part in the October poll will run again for president is unclear. In any case, regional analysts believe the rerun might prove a mere formality.

Venediktova said Russia's motives in striking a deal with Bagapsh -- a man it fears might prove less flexible than Ardzinba -- are still unclear. But she said she believes Moscow has achieved at least one objective.

"I believe Moscow, one way or another, wanted to save its face," Venediktova said. "For most Russian citizens, who do not really understand Abkhaz politics, the important thing is that a new election takes place. On this particular issue, I think Russia reached its goal. It had been recommending that new polls take place, and now there will be a re-vote. As for the rest, the Russian [citizens] do not care."

Khashig said he believes the postelection crisis, by opening the eyes of Abkhazians, might eventually backfire against Russia.

"Russia has been instrumental, first in raising tensions, then in defusing them," Khashig said. "This situation has sown many doubts among the Abkhaz. If up until now Russia had presented itself only in a favorable light by granting citizenship, paying pensions, and opening railway links, now Abkhazia sees Russia in its true colors. It has now seen both the [Russian] carrot and stick."

Khashig said he believes the coming weeks will show whether Moscow will be able to reverse the anti-Russian feelings that began emerging in the midst of the election crisis.

"What happened here during the past two months has given both Bagapsh's and Khajimba's supporters food for thought," he said. "As time passes, they will eventually digest all this and make their own conclusions."