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Breakaway Abkhazia Holds Election Under Cloud Of Controversy, Coronavirus

Abkhazia election officials talk to reporters during the run-up for the upcoming vote to select a de facto president in the separatist territory.
Abkhazia election officials talk to reporters during the run-up for the upcoming vote to select a de facto president in the separatist territory.

Just weeks ago, the leading contender in this election was lying in a Russian hospital bed recovering from the second mysterious bout of the flu to derail his bid to lead Abkhazia, prompting all candidates to suspend their campaigns.

But as voting day in the self-declared but globally unrecognized separatist republic in Georgia approached, even a looming pandemic was not threatening efforts to conclude a messy electoral process that started nearly a year ago.

After being rocked by poisoning scandals, protests, and the resignation of the territory's de facto president and the calling of a fresh vote, it appeared that the COVID-19 pandemic would not be enough to delay the March 22 election.

Here's a look at the candidates, the issues, and the scene as the Moscow-dependent, breakaway Georgian territory takes another stab at electing a leader.

The Field

The "presidency" in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia is built on sand because the breakaway Georgian territory's independence is recognized by only a handful of governments outside the Kremlin.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia as independent following the five-day Russia-Georgia war, which was fought partly on Abkhaz soil in 2008. Georgia has condemned the election as a sham and "yet another violation of our national sovereignty," and Western governments dismiss votes in Abkhazia as illegitimate.

But after a grueling process, three candidates to be de facto president are left standing.

Aslan Bzhania (file photo)
Aslan Bzhania (file photo)

Aslan Bzhania -- This is the candidate who recovered from mysterious illnesses that twice blew his campaign off course and is once again considered the favorite to win. The Opposition Forces Bloc leader has been a consistent rival of fellow former security service head Raul Khajimba, who defeated Bzhania in 2014 and denied allegations last year that he had poisoned his rival to keep him out of the 2019 race. When Khajimba stepped down in January amid protests and news that his 2019 runoff victory had been annulled, the 56-year-old Bzhania reentered the picture.

Adgur Ardzinba (file photo)
Adgur Ardzinba (file photo)

Adgur Ardzinba -- The 38-year-old is a former "economy minister" who has family ties to Abkhazia's first de facto president, Vladislav Ardzinba, and was tapped to replace Khajimba in the race. While entering as a virtual unknown, Ardzinba has tried to win voters over by promoting Abkhaz national unity, improving ties with Russia, and education -- including the development of the Abkhaz language.

Leonid Dzapshba (file photo)
Leonid Dzapshba (file photo)

Leonid Dzapshba -- Dzapshba finished fourth in the 2014 election and garnered just over 6 percent of the vote in the first round of the annulled 2019 race. The 59-year-old, who was dogged by embezzlement charges owing to his stint as head of the territory's soccer federation, served twice as Abkhazia's "interior minister," and is the head of the fringe Akzaara (Unity) party.

The Backdrop

The field may be set, but it doesn't look much like it did in May 2019, when the campaign first kicked off. At that time, Bzhania's supporters were taking to the streets to express their anger over his alleged poisoning, which was later determined by a Moscow hospital to have been a bout of pneumonia.

The protests led to the July election date being pushed back a month. But when Bzhania announced that he was not healthy enough to reenter the race, he pledged his support to Alkhas Kvitsinia of the opposition Amtsakhara party.

Kvitsinia went on to face Khajimba in a run-off in September, but when the incumbent was named the winner with 47 percent of the vote, compared to Kvitsinia's 46 percent, appeals were made to invalidate the results because nobody had reached the required majority.

More protests ensued in January as the breakaway territory's top court prepared to rule on the appeal, leading to the annulment of the vote, the departure of Khajimba, and the return of Bzhania.

Even the opposition candidate's reentry was not scandal-free, as on March 2 he was hospitalized for the flu again in Russia, while Russian media reported that he, again, had been poisoned.

The Issues

Abkhazia has long sought statehood, having declared independence from Georgia in 1992, before a 1992-93 war with Tbilisi. Following Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia as independent in 2008, the territory has tried to join the international community, but has been shunned by all but a few countries.

Its politics are heavily influenced by Moscow, which sent a delegation and the Kremlin's top ideologue to calm protests in January that led to Khajimba's resignation. The territory depends on Russia for much of its electricity and economy, and cooperates militarily with Moscow.

Despite its reliance on the regional heavyweight to the north, Abkhazia's ambitions to carve out its own national, economic, and political identity have all featured in the campaign.

Russia's Role

While Russia has a major military presence in Abkhazia, it does not mean that the territory always goes Moscow's way.

Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, said in e-mailed comments that "relations with Moscow are often quite strained" and that the Kremlin's "agenda for the place does not extend far into domestic politics, social policy and many other issues."

Russia has pledged reforms to the Abkhaz military and staged military exercises, offered to set up field clinics to stave off the spread of the new coronavirus, and pledged emergency electricity amid shortfalls ahead of the election. But on March 18 the Russian State Duma decided against sending election observers, largely due to coronavirus fears.

Georgia On Their Mind

Relations with Tbilisi are often a popular campaign topic.

"Maybe because candidates have differences on domestic issues, it is customary to take an aggressive stance against Tbilisi," de Waal wrote. But the South Caucasus expert said that currently "there is a strong feeling in Abkhazia that the overall political and economic situation is deteriorating which may make the next leader more open to dialogue."

While Bzhania has been openly supportive of Moscow, he has also expressed a willingness to talk with Georgia. His main competitor, Ardzinba, has been strongly against any nearing of ties with Tbilisi.

The Scene

Concern over the coronavirus pandemic has not escaped the Abkhaz. Officials met this week with a delegation from the World Health Organization, and pledges of aid were accepted. Border restrictions were tightened, and large events such as concerts canceled.

But the last days of campaigning offered no indication that the territory of 250,000, which as of March 20 had not reported any cases of COVID-19, was in the mood to mess with election day.

"The Abkhaz authorities and main candidates seem determined to press ahead with the elections, come what may," de Waal said. "There is footage of big election meetings in crowded rooms, despite the pandemic."

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