Abkhazia's electoral race appears to be back on track after a poison scare, violent street protests, and repeated delays that have underscored the volatility of politics in the Russia-backed breakaway region on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
Mired in disputes since what was supposed to have been a decisive runoff vote in September, the contest for the top role in Abkhazia veered off course again last week following inaccurate reports that a leading candidate had been poisoned or suffered a stroke.
Aslan Bzhania, who was hospitalized in Russia on March 2 after falling ill with a mysterious ailment that was later determined to be pneumonia, was reportedly moved out of intensive care on March 10 and was preparing to return to the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.
A post on the Telegram channel For Aslan Bzhania announced that the candidate was feeling well and would continue his campaign upon his expected arrival in the breakaway territory on March 11. Russian state news agency TASS on March 10 quoted doctors at the Krasnodar hospital where he was being treated as saying he was in stable condition and would be discharged "in the next few days."
Bzhania will rejoin a race that features two other candidates, Adgur Ardzinba and Leonid Dzapshba. All suspended their campaigns for the March 22 vote after uncertainty about Bzhania's condition led to public protests and subsequent demands by acting de facto President Valery Bganba that Moscow investigate the origins of inaccurate reports citing anonymous sources that he had been poisoned.
The Russian media reports added to the controversy surrounding the snap election, which was called after the September runoff was declared invalid. The self-declared territory's top court made that decision in January following violent protests against what demonstrators considered an illegitimate victory by the incumbent, Raul Khajimba, who stepped down amid the uproar and intervention from Moscow.
Bzhania, who was seen as the leading opposition candidate, had been forced out of the running after he claimed in April 2019 that he had been poisoned. His supporters alleged that the poisoning was political, and that Khajimba was responsible, a claim that Abkhaz authorities ruled out.
Bzhania was replaced as the main challenger to Khajimba by Alkhas Kvitsinia, who garnered enough votes in the first round in July to face Khajimba in the second round held in September. Kvitsinia won 46 percent of the vote, according to official results, to Khajimba's 47 percent.
Kvitsinia appealed after Khajimba was named the winner, arguing that the incumbent had failed to reach the required majority, and demanded a fresh vote.
It was under those conditions that hundreds of protesters assembled in front of the building that housed Khajimba's administration on January 9, one day before the territory's highest court was expected to rule on the appeal. Demonstrators stormed the building and, after initially refusing to bow to demands that he step down, Khajimba resigned on January 13.
The crisis attracted attention abroad and led Russia -- Abkhazia's economic lifeline and one of only a handful of countries to recognize its claim of independence -- to intervene.
Russia -- which strengthened its influence and military presence in Abkhazia and another breakaway Georgian territory, South Ossetia, after fighting a five-day war against Georgia in 2008 -- sent an envoy to try to settle the crisis in January.
When that didn't work out it sent Vladislav Surkov, the once-influential aide to President Vladimir Putin who was seen as the man behind Russia's policies in what it considered its backyard, including Ukraine.
Surkov arrived on January 12 and reportedly met with Bzhania but not with Khajimba, who once enjoyed the Kremlin's backing and who himself became de facto president on the back of protests that led to his predecessor's ouster in 2014. Surkov was dismissed as Putin's aide in February.
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In a statement on March 3, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "interested in the stability and security of friendly Abkhazia," was watching developments there closely, and had handed over information relating to the causes of Bzhania's illness to Abkhaz authorities.
The next day Bganba formally requested that Russia investigate inaccurate Russian media reports that Bzhania had been poisoned.
Georgia and South Ossetia broke from Tbilisi’s control in wars in the early 1990s. Georgia and Western countries including the United States do not recognize elections held in the breakaway regions.