Veteran opposition politician Raul Khajimba has been elected de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia by the slenderest of margins -- just 559 votes. He received 50.57 percent (50,494 votes) of the total 99, 869 ballots cast, defeating three rival candidates.
Voter turnout in the early election, which was necessitated by the resignation on June 1 of President Aleksandr Ankvab under pressure from an opposition Coordinating Council headed by Khajimba, was around 70 percent of the region's estimated 130,000 registered voters, marginally lower than during the previous presidential election in 2011 (71.92 percent). Some 22,000 Georgians were stripped of the right to vote on the grounds that the process by which they had acquired Abkhaz passports was illegal.
Although Khajimba's campaign staff had alleged "numerous" procedural violations in the course of the voting, one of which had been formally protested to the Central Election Commission, commission Chairman Batal Tabagua said after the polls closed that not a single formal complaint had been received from any of the four candidates.
The outcome of the ballot can hardly be regarded as an overwhelming endorsement of Khajimba, who had run unsuccessfully for the presidency on three previous occasions. Most recently, in 2011, he placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote after Ankvab and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who has since withdrawn from politics.
Rather, the result reflects the lack of a convincing alternative candidate not hamstrung by his identification with Ankvab and the outgoing leadership. Khajimba's closest challenger, former State Security Service head Aslan Bzhania, whom observers initially predicted would face Khajimba in a second-round runoff, garnered just 35.91 percent of the vote. The public endorsement of Khajimba's candidacy by acting President and parliament speaker Valery Bganba and 19 other parliament deputies may have tipped the balance in Khajimba's favor. To what extent criticism of Bzhania's professional reputation by the other three candidates, especially Khajimba and former Defense Minister Mirab Kishmaria, may also have turned voters against him to preclude a second round is impossible to quantify.
Speaking at a press conference on August 25, Khajimba identified as his most immediate priorities unifying society and changing the political system to transfer some powers from the president to the parliament. In an interview published in "Izvestia" on August 26, he explained that while the president currently appoints the prime minister, no one is currently empowered to hold the latter responsible for the government's shortcomings. Khajimba plans to amend the constitution to empower the parliament to demand the resignation of the prime minister, any minister, the prosecutor-general and the Control Chamber head.
On the eve of the ballot, Khajimba said in an interview with the Russian portal kavpolit.com that his first task would be personnel issues.
Just days before the vote, all four candidates had signed a pledge to form a new coalition government comprising "professionals" proposed by political parties and from among the four candidates' supporters. How that pledge can be reconciled with the fact that Khajimba has reportedly already chosen candidates for various key positions (including Party of Economic Development Chairman Beslan Butba as prime minister) is not clear. It does, however, suggest that Kishmaria may retain the post of defense minister that he has held for the past seven years.
Abkhazia's foreign-policy priorities will not change in the wake of the election. Regarded as the most pro-Russian of the four candidates, Khajimba has made clear that he favors negotiating a new treaty with the Russian Federation that would include the possibility of Abkhazia concluding an association agreement with, if not becoming a member of, the Eurasian Economic Union. He told "Izvestia" that treaty will be signed by the end of the year.
Khajimba also takes a tough line on relations with Georgia, affirming that "any attempts to try to persuade Abkhazia to become part of Georgia are senseless." At the same time, he told "Izvestia" Abkhazia would welcome the reopening of the railway running across its territory that links southern Russia with Georgia and Armenia.
Arguably the most daunting problem Khajimba and his team faces is the republic's moribund economy. In the six years since Moscow formally recognized Abkhazia's independence, millions of rubles' worth of subsidies have either been misspent or disappeared: Khajimba told "Izvestia" that the prosecutor's office is investigating how and why.
The task of reviving the economy (largely dependent on seasonal tourism) and reducing unemployment (currently at 70 percent) is all the more problematic insofar as the Russian leadership plans to slash subsidies by 80 percent and instead offer low-interest credits, while insisting that the Abkhaz leadership act independently to attract badly needed investment.
But that too is unlikely to be easy, especially in light of Abkhazia's ambiguous geopolitical status: its independence is formally recognized only by Russia and a handful of other states. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted expert Sergei Markov as pointing out that at present there are only a handful of Turkish and European businessmen active in Abkhazia. Khajimba's expression of support on August 25 for Ukraine's separatist Donetsk People's Republic is hardly likely to enhance Abkhazia's attractiveness even to the most imaginative and least risk-averse international entrepreneurs. (That expression of support may in fact be linked to hopes that an unnamed Indian investor who has reportedly expressed interest in reviving the coal-mining industry in Khajimba's native Tkuarchal district will succeed in his plans to purchase the necessary equipment in Donetsk.)
Even Russian businessmen may be deterred from investing in Abkhazia, at least in agriculture and tourism, by the current legislation that prohibits them from buying or owning land there.
-- Liz Fuller