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Georgia: Abkhazia To Elect President In New Vote Amid Concerns Over Low Turnout

Voters in Georgia's secessionist republic of Abkhazia will elect their new president tomorrow in a rerun election called after last year's political crisis that drove the tiny Black Sea province to the brink of civil war. Only two candidates are vying for the presidency, including opposition leader Sergei Bagapsh, the disputed winner of the previous election. But regional experts believe many voters may boycott the ballot.

Prague, 11 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In principle, Abkhazia's 113,000 officially registered voters will chose between Sergei Bagapsh, the official winner of the disputed 3 October presidential election, and People's Party Chairman Yakub Lakoba.

But Lakoba, who garnered just over 500 votes in the previous election, is generally seen as not posing a serious challenge to Bagapsh. All the more so because Bagapsh is running on a joint ticket with former Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba, his government-backed rival in the October vote.

Bagapsh and Khadjimba -- who garnered more than 90 percent of the votes in October -- on 4 December agreed to join forces in a bid to end a two-month political crisis that was threatening to degenerate into an armed conflict between their respective supporters.

Under the deal, Khadjimba is set to become vice president with large responsibilities over the armed forces, security apparatus, and foreign policy of the Black Sea republic, which is de facto recognized only by neighboring Russia. The compromise was reached after Moscow, which supported Khadjimba in the October vote, threatened to impose economic sanctions on Abkhazia if Bagapsh did not renounce plans to be inaugurated.

The two former rivals justified their decision by arguing that it was the only alternative left to avoid civil war and economic collapse. But former lawmaker Natella Akaba, who chairs Abkhazia's Women Association, told RFE/RL that many Abkhaz voters still resent the Bagapsh-Khadjimba alliance as imposed on them by Russia.
Under Abkhaz law, an election can be validated only if more than 50 percent of voters cast their ballots.

"There have been defections on both sides. Many of Bagapsh's supporters are disappointed. The same goes for Khadjimba's supporters, even though my impression is that Bagapsh's supporters have been displaying a greater loyalty to their leader," Akaba said. "It now appears clearly that many among those who supported Khadjimba [in October] did so, in fact, because they supported outgoing President [Vladislav Ardzinba], or members of his entourage. These people look unfavorably at the upcoming election, and I think they may eventually seek ways to torpedo its outcome."

Some 63 percent of Abkhaz voters took part in the October polls. Regional experts believe the turnout may be much lower this time.

In particular, this could be the case among those ethnic Georgians who have returned to Abkhazia's southern Gali district since the end of the 1992-93 separatist conflict. Most of the 20,000 to 30,000 Gali Georgian residents who were allowed to cast ballots in October supported Bagapsh, in what was generally interpreted as a protest vote against Khadjimba.

Conservative Russian State Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin yesterday told Georgian reporters that disappointment among voters could affect the turnout. "I do not rule out that the turnout may be lower this time than last fall," Zatulin said.

In remarks made to Georgia's "Imedi" television channel, independent Russian expert and former lawmaker Aleksei Vashchenko yesterday argued that low turnout might benefit the outgoing presidential administration, which resents the fact that Bagapsh looks set to become Abkhazia's next leader -- even though he will enjoy reduced powers.

Under Abkhaz law, an election can be validated only if more than 50 percent of voters cast their ballots.

On 7 January, a political movement known as Akhyatsa (Hornbeam) released a statement demanding that the election be postponed, saying conditions have not been met for a free and fair poll. Amtsakhara, an influential pro-Bagapsh association that includes many veterans of the 1992-93 war, reacted by saying that anyone calling for a boycott of the polls should face criminal prosecution.

Civil rights activist Akaba accuses Akhyatsa and other groups favorable to the outgoing president of openly seeking to disrupt the election. "[These people] actively advocate against the election," she said. "They're trying to convince people not to cast their ballots, saying these polls are not fair, that they were organized on such a short notice that they did not allow for all candidates to benefit from equal opportunities. They also claim that the tight time frame may have prevented other leading politicians from running for president. Yet, it is clear that all leading politicians have made themselves known, and it is unlikely that contenders [other than Bagapsh or Khadjimba] could vie for the presidency."

Presidential contender Lakoba yesterday complained of pre-election fraud, saying only two-thirds of Abkhaz voters will be allowed to take part in tomorrow's election, which he described as a "joke." Lakoba, however, did not call on voters to boycott the vote. Instead, he said he could agree to enter a coalition government, "but only as a deputy prime minister, or a prosecutor-general."

Abkhaz election law allows three days for the release of official results. But regional analysts believe the outcome of tomorrow's election should be known much earlier.

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