Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba affirmed on December 10 that "we want [the upcoming presidential election] to serve as an example for neighboring states where democratic elections are a rarity" -- a clear allusion to OSCE observers' less than wholehearted endorsement of the Georgian presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008.
But perhaps inevitably, Abkhazia's first elections since the republic was formally recognized as an independent state by Russia last year are not proceeding in line with the rulebook for a fair and democratic ballot.
Since the election campaign got under way on November 23, three of the five candidates participating in the December 12 presidential ballot have complained to the Abkhaz Central Election Commission (TsIK) about alleged procedural violations.
Both Zaur Ardzinba (who is distantly related to former President Vladislav Ardzinba) and former Vice President Raul Khajimba have formally complained to the TsIK that the Abkhaz authorities are unfairly promoting incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh's candidacy. Khajimba alleged on November 19 that state-sector employees are under pressure to vote for Bagapsh.
Ardzinba for his part told a press conference on November 24 that coverage of the election campaign by state-controlled media is biased in Bagapsh's favor. Ardzinba also cited as a violation of the election law a televised appeal to fellow Armenians on November 23 by the head of Abkhazia's large Armenian minority to vote for Bagapsh.
(Two years ago, the Georgian newspaper "Rezonansi" estimated the Armenian population of Abkhazia as between 70,000-80,000, compared with 65,000-68,000 Abkhaz and a similar number of Georgians. The Armenian vote could therefore well be the decisive factor determining the election outcome.)
The TsIK rejected those complaints against Bagapsh.
In a statement posted on December 7 on the website of his Party of Economic Development of Abkhazia, Beslan Butba complained that the republican TV channel in the neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic is campaigning on Bagapsh's behalf.
Ardzinba, Khajimba, and Butba have also formally questioned whether the format of the protocols that individual voting stations are required to complete and submit to the TsIK conform to the election legislation. The TsIK released a formal response on December affirming that it does.
Lack Of Trust
The tensions between the authorities and the various opposition candidates are paralleled by a lack of trust, let alone cooperation, between parts of the civil-society sector (widely perceived to be pro-government) and some groups of independent journalists (seen as backing the opposition), according to Mira Sovakar, an expert with the independent U.K.-based charitable organization Conciliation Resources that has sought over the past 15 years to promote dialogue between the central Georgian government and the population of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Sovakar pointed to recent amendments in the election law, one of which empowers civil-society groups (in the first instance the NGO League of Voters for Honest Elections) to monitor the vote. But the opposition argues that the league's perceived bias in favor of Bagapsh undermines the positive potential of that amendment.
In its first assessment of the election campaign, the League of Voters expressed regret that the candidates declined to sign a mutual agreement drafted by the Public Chamber pledging to abide by the election law. After Bagapsh refused to sign that document, the four opposition candidates said they would do so only under certain unspecified conditions.
The league appealed to all candidates to refrain from denigrating each other. It also expressed concern over two separate attacks in late November, one on a car belonging to a member of Butba's party and the second on an agricultural firm he owns.
The league also concluded that Butba had violated the election law, first by engaging citizens of "a foreign country" (clearly meaning Russia) as spin doctors, and second, by asking voters to sign a formal statement undertaking to vote for him. The league appealed to the TsIk to investigate.
TsIK Chairman Batal Tabagua responded with a cautiously worded warning to all candidates that efforts to bribe voters could lead to a candidate's disqualification from the ballot. Tabagua said he was aware of allegations that such efforts are being undertaken, but that "proving it isn't that easy."
Just days before the ballot, an attempt was apparently made to compromise the League of Voters. The league issued a statement on December 8 condemning the conduct of an opinion poll, allegedly on its behalf, by unknown persons. The statement pointed out that the election law bans the conduct of such polls starting 10 days before the election date.
On December 4, eight respected veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia, some but not all of them Bagapsh supporters, jointly appealed to the public in a TV broadcast not to permit a recurrence of the standoff after the first round of voting in the 2004 ballot between supporters of Bagapsh and Khajimba.
The Abkhaz Orthodox Church similarly issued a statement on December 8 appealing to the five candidates, their campaign staffs, and all voters to act "as dictated by their conscience" and by the church, and in accordance with the law. The candidates and the present authorities were enjoined to preserve civic peace and stability and to act in such a way as to ensure "the future positive development of our society."
Most observers anticipate that none of the five candidates will poll the required 50 percent plus one vote required for a win in the first round. Ardzinba, Khajimba, and Butba announced at a press conference on November 20 that if one of them faces Bagapsh in the second-round runoff, the other two will call on their supporters to back him.