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Bagapsh Set For Landslide Victory In Abkhazia

Prague, 13 January 2005 -- Partial results released by election officials in Georgia's separatist republic of Abkhazia show Sergei Bagapsh winning yesterday's presidential election in a landslide.

Bagapsh today reiterated that he is ready to enter into dialogue with Tbilisi, but only if the Georgian government recognizes Abkhazia's sovereignty.

Batal Tabagua, the chairman of Abkhazia's Central Election Commission, released the initial results of the presidential rerun early today: "In all, 75,691 citizens took part in the voting process. [Out of this number], 68,225 people cast their ballot for Sergei Vasilyevich Bagapsh. That represents 90.1 percent of the votes. And 3,467 people -- or 4.5 percent -- cast their ballot for Yakub Vasilyevich Lakoba."

Election officials said up to 58 percent of registered voters took part in the election, 8 percent more than the turnout legally required to validate the poll.

Final results are due to be released no later than tomorrow.

It was still unclear by mid-afternoon today how many votes remained to be counted. Also unclear is whether the partial tally includes returns from the southern Gali district, an area populated mainly by ethnic Georgians who returned there after the 1992 to 1993 war that led to Abkhazia's de facto independence.

Limited Complaints

Incidents were reported in a number of Gali polling stations yesterday, with members of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba's guard reportedly trying to disrupt the vote.

Russia's State Duma Vice Speaker Sergei Baburin yesterday led an election observation mission to Gali. Upon his return to the Abkhaz capital Sukhum, he said voting continued unchecked toward the end of the day.

Baburin also accused supporters of People's Party Chairman Lakoba of intimidating voters in other regions: "We witnessed unprecedented behavior on the part of observers mandated by presidential candidate Lakoba. They were not just present in polling stations. They also [sometimes] supervised the voting process, checking the voters' identity papers and deciding who should be allowed to enter the polling stations, and who should not."

There was no immediate reaction from Lakoba, who had earlier described the election as a "joke."

A little-known figure with no clear-cut political program, Lakoba garnered only 500 votes in last fall's disputed election. He was not considered a serious challenger to Bagapsh.

All the more so that Bagapsh, who technically won the 3 October poll, ran on a joint ticket with his former main rival, ex-prime minister and government candidate Raul Khadjimba.

Abkhaz Ties With Moscow

The new vote was decided after Russia, who helped Abkhazia secede from Georgia in the early 1990s, supported Khadjimba's fraud claims and threatened to impose economic sanctions on the Black Sea province if Bagapsh did not renounce plans to be inaugurated.

Moscow's motivations for refusing to recognize the outcome of the October polls remain unclear. Russian and Georgian political analysts believe the Kremlin feared Bagapsh might prove less inclined than Khadjimba to keep Abkhazia's policies in alignment with Russia's regional interests.

But Bagapsh, who has vowed to revive Abkhazia's depleted economy, today reiterated an earlier pledge to strengthen ties with Moscow. He also said he would be ready to resume dialogue with Georgia, on one condition. "With regard to Georgia, my position is well known," he said. "I am ready to enter into a dialogue between two partners with equal statehood, a dialogue between two states. With regard to Russia, we will strengthen our ties and deepen the integration between our two countries. We will adopt laws identical to those that already exist in Russia. We will unify our legislations so that investments, the circulation of people and goods, all those things are simplified."

Abkhazia has no ties with the outside world and relies exclusively on Russian economic support and smuggling activities for its survival.

Reaction In Tbilisi...

Georgia, which does not officially recognize the legitimacy of the Abkhaz poll, yesterday once again accused Russia of interfering in its domestic affairs. A Foreign Ministry statement criticized Duma Deputy Speaker Baburin for publicly advocating international recognition of Abkhazia and calling for more formal ties with Moscow, thus "infringing on Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Citing Baburin, who this week publicly advocated international recognition of Abkhazia and called for more formal ties with Moscow, a Georgian Foreign Ministry statement blamed Russia for supporting separatism and "infringing on Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

...And In Russia

Russian officials reacted swiftly to the Georgian statement.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said today that Baburin's election mission to Abkhazia had not been agreed with the Russian parliament and bore no official character.

The Russian Foreign Ministry described the Georgian accusations as "irresponsible."

Talking to reporters in Tbilisi after meeting with Georgian Foreign Ministry officials, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chkhikvishvili denied any meddling in regional affairs.

"I was asked to elaborate on what makes us believe the Georgian statement is irresponsible," Chkhikvishvili said. "First, I believe, the Russian Duma sent no official delegation to the Abkhaz election. Those observers, including Mr. Baburin, went there privately. As for claims that [Russia] supports separatism, we've never made any such statement, all the more so at an official level."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is due to visit Georgia in February, said he hopes the end of Abkhazia's election deadlock will help ease tensions with Georgia.

"We've invariably said that the sooner this [deadlock] is solved, the quicker it will be possible to meet the necessary conditions to resume dialogue between Tbilisi and Sukhum with a view to settling the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict," Lavrov said. "Now that the election process seems to be over, we hope it will be possible to resume those negotiations."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has pledged to reassert Tbilisi's authority over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said recently that he would soon make new peace proposals to both separatist republics.