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Rebel Abkhazia Holds Disputed Presidential Vote

Incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh votes at a polling station in Sukhumi.
SUKHUMI (RFE/RL) -- Residents of Abkhazia, Georgia's separatist region, go to the polls today to elect a new leader.

This is the first Abkhaz presidential vote since Russia, Abkhazia's main ally, recognized the tiny Black Sea region as an independent state last year after a brief war with Georgia.

Abkhazia's 131,000 registered voters will choose between incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh, who is running for a second term, and four rivals who include former Vice President and ex-KGB agent Raul Khajimba and tycoon Beslan Butba.

Bagapsh's election campaign has played up his strong ties to Moscow, with ads showing him next to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, are uneasy about Russia's growing influence in their homeland.

All candidates, however, oppose a return to the Georgian fold.

RFE/RL's Andrei Babitsky, who is following the vote in Abkhazia, says this is the reason why the population will welcome any result.

"People's mood is such that they will more or less happily accept the election's results irrespective of who won, because no candidate is expected to introduce serious, revolutionary changes to the current course," Babitsky says.

The vote once again pits Moscow against Tbilisi, which has dismissed the election as a "comedy" orchestrated by the Kremlin. Russia has championed the vote, but has stopped short of naming a favorite.

The international community considers the election illegitimate and will officially ignore it. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed Moscow's lead in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgian rule in the early 1990s.

Russia has deployed some 3,600 soldiers and is currently building two military bases in Abkhazia.

The vote could also be a test of political stability for the rebel region, whose last presidential election in 2004 was marred by a bitter standoff between Bagapsh and Khajimba.

The opposition is already warning of voter irregularities in favor of Bagapsh.

Polls close at 8 p.m. local time (1700 GMT) and preliminary results are expected on December 13.

with agency reports