The five are incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh; his former vice president and closest challenger in the 2004 presidential ballot, Raul Khajimba; businessman and Economic Development Party of Abkhazia Chairman Beslan Butba; academic Vitaly Bganba; and Zaur Ardzinba, director of the State Steamship Company. All five have successfully submitted to tests intended to assess their fluency in the Abkhaz language.
Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua told local officials on November 6 that all candidates are entitled to four hours' free airtime on state television. He said they must devote a minimum of one hour to answering viewers' questions, and that their designated vice-presidential running mates must likewise make themselves available to answer questions from voters.
The issues at stake 15 months after Russia formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent state are closely interrelated: the optimum level of cooperation with, and maximum acceptable level of economic and security dependence on, the Russian Federation; how best to develop the republic's economy without inflicting irreversible environmental damage; and continuing to build a genuine and democratic civil society.
Relations with Georgia are not an issue, especially after Avtandil Demetrashvili, chairman of the commission tasked with drafting amendments to the Georgian Constitution, went on record in September as saying that Georgia will remain a unitary state in which regions would enjoy varying degrees of autonomy depending on the size of the population. That approach would theoretically give Abkhazia less say in running its domestic affairs than the city of Tbilisi, which has a population of 1.5 million.
Most observers anticipate a fierce competition between Bagapsh, Khajimba, and Butba that may well necessitate a second-round runoff. Bagapsh projects confidence that the modest economic upswing of the past five years, coupled with the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, more than outweigh the accusations leveled against him by opposition parties of making too many unwarranted concessions to Russia, and by NGOS of political pressure on opposition politicians and journalists and of turning a blind eye to top-level corruption.
Khajimba stepped down as vice president in May, accusing Bagapsh of having done nothing over the previous four years to reform local government or increase the effectiveness of the law enforcement agencies, and of blocking initiatives and proposals by his subordinates.
And in July, Khajimba played a leading role in the opposition campaign that forced the parliament to annul controversial amendments to the law on citizenship that would have made it easier for Georgians who returned to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion to vote in the December election.
Khajimba's support base encompasses veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia, some members of the Soviet-era political elite, and the more radical opposition groups. It is conceivable that he also enjoys political backing from Moscow -- then-Russian President Vladimir Putin unequivocally endorsed him against Bagapsh five years ago -- but kavkaz-uzel.ru on November 1 quoted political commentator Maria Platonova as saying that there are no signs yet that the Russian leadership plans to try to influence the outcome of the vote.
Like Khajimba, the more moderate Butba too has accused the present leadership of incompetence and corruption. On October 23, Butba told the congress of his party that proposed him as a presidential candidate that Abkhazia still does not have a truly independent judiciary that is not afraid to bring corrupt officials to trial, and that if he is elected, the fight against corruption will be his No.1 priority. He further pledged economic incentives to reverse the declining birthrate and to support small business, and a five-year program to raise employment and living standards in rural areas, which unlike the capital, Sukhumi, have not benefitted from the influx of foreign investment.
In light of the similarity between their respective programs, some observers had anticipated that Khajimba and Butba might run as a team. But according to the Russian daily "Kommersant," relations between the two men soured some months ago after preliminary talks. Whether that rift was the result of a political disagreement, or Khajimba's abrasive personality, is not clear.
A subsequent attempt by Khajimba to team up with Ardzinba, who reportedly enjoys solid backing from some members of the business community, also came to nothing.