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Abkhazia's new president, Raul Khajimba, has a daunting challenge in front of him in reviving the breakaway Georgian region's moribund economy.

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he placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote after Ankvab and former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who has since withdrawn from politics.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 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

One of the leaders of the Abkhaz opposition, Raul Khajimba (left), looks the most likely victor, especially after receiving the backing of actingPresident Valery Bganba (right).

On August 24, the 132,861 registered voters in Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia will elect a new president to succeed Aleksandr Ankvab, who stepped down in early June, five days after protesters mobilized by the opposition Coordinating Council stormed the presidential administration building.

The outcome of the ballot is too close to predict, although the most recent in a series of weekly opinion polls suggests that longtime opposition leader and Coordinating Council head Raul Khajimba, who is running for the fourth time, might just receive the 50 percent-plus-one vote required for a first-round victory.

The election campaign has been tense, turbulent, and controversial, despite what Russian analyst Alla Yazkova termed the widespread perception of Abkhazia as "a fortress under siege." On August 20, Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua escaped injury when someone tossed an explosive device into the courtyard of his home in Sukhumi. It is not clear whether there is any connection between that incident and the systematic official disenfranchisement of some 22,800 Georgian residents of Abkhazia's Gali, Tkuarchal, and Ochamchira districts who are deemed to have been granted Abkhaz citizenship in violation of the law.

A public expression of support for Khajimba's candidacy by the acting president and parliament speaker, Valery Bganba, and 19 other parliament members was denounced by a rival candidate and members of the Public Chamber as a violation of the constitution and/or the election law.

Of the five men who officially sought to register as candidates, four were successful. The fifth, former Deputy Prime Minister Beslan Eshba, failed the mandatory examination to assess his fluency in the Abkhaz language.

The four registered candidates, all of them with a background in the military, police, or security forces, are

• Khajimba, 56, is a career KGB officer who despite the Kremlin's overt support lost the first round of the November 2004 presidential ballot to Sergei Bagapsh. Khajimba then ran as vice-presidential candidate with Bagapsh in the repeat vote, but resigned in May 2009 due to unspecified disagreements. He ran unsuccessfully against Bagapsh in the December 2009 ballot in which Bagapsh was reelected for a second term, and placed third with 19.83 percent of the vote in the August 2011 election necessitated by Bagapsh's premature death. His support base is the parties aligned in the Coordinating Council, the intelligentsia, and owners of small and medium businesses.

• Mirab Kishmaria, 53, was a career officer in the Soviet Army (he was wounded in Afghanistan) who in 1989 returned to Abkhazia, where he distinguished himself as a commander during the 1992-93 war with Georgia that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto but unrecognized (until 2008, by Russia) independence. In November 1993 he was named Abkhazia's deputy defense minister and in June 2007 defense minister. He enjoys the backing of the military and of the population of his native Ochamchira district.

• Aslan Bzhania, 51, began his career as a Komsomol activist then entered the KGB. He returned to Abkhazia in 1992 to work in the State Security Service, but left after the end of the 1992-93 war to engage in business in Moscow. He also served from 2009-10 as an adviser at the Abkhaz diplomatic representation in Moscow. In February 2010, Bagapsh appointed him to head the State Security Service. He is supported primarily by the government and bureaucracy appointed by outgoing President Ankvab, Russian businessmen with interests in Abkhazia, and the impoverished rural population desperate for state support.

• Leonid Dzapshba, 53, is a retired police major general who spent virtually his entire career in the Interior Ministry, serving as Abkhazia's interior minister from September 2010 until October 2011, when he was constrained to resign over the illegal distribution of passports.

The candidates' priorities are strikingly similar in most respects, even though none of them has prepared a detailed election manifesto. Kishmaria and Bzhania both admit that they do not have a detailed presidential program as they were not anticipating an early election and "you can't draft such a program in the space of one month." Even Khajimba is quoted as saying he would need 100 days to do so. All agree on the need to negotiate a new framework treaty with Russia , on which the region is heavily dependent financially, and for a comprehensive program to galvanize the economy.

The four candidates have nonetheless endorsed a 15-point "Social-Political Agreement" enumerating the "first essential steps" the new president should take, regardless of his political and ideological views, and stipulating the time frame for doing so. They include preserving the region's "sovereign status"; adopting measures to improve the demographic situation; cracking down on corruption; and drafting medium- and long-term social and economic development programs and a military doctrine.

Khajimba, Kishmaria, and Dzapshba signed the agreement on August 11, while Bzhania, who initially proposed unspecified revisions, did so a week later.

In fact, the sole major issue on which the four disagree is the chain of events that led to Ankvab's resignation. Kishmaria argues that while the opposition's frustration and anger with Ankvab's refusal to discuss their demands was entirely justified, "removing the president from power by force cannot be considered a legal basis for the president's resignation."

Bzhania for his part told a congress of the political party Amtsakhara on July 17 that supports his candidacy that "what happened on May 27 is clearly defined in Abkhazia's Criminal Procedural Code." Khajimba's supporters immediately construed that statement as a threat to bring to trial not just those persons who forced their way into the presidential palace on the night of May 27, but the organizers (including Khajimba himself) of the protest meeting that preceded it.

Bzhania subsequently backpedalled, affirming his intention to "turn the page and make a fresh start," and stressing that the most important thing is to ensure that a situation never again arises in which such action is perceived as the sole solution. But his rating has fallen since then, calling into question the conviction, widely held at the start of the campaign, that a runoff will be required between himself and Khajimba.

As in 2011, the candidates signed a formal Agreement of Social Accord pledging to ensure that the ballot is free and fair and not to resort to unethical behavior or to badmouth each other. But that commitment has not been universally honored. On August 17, Khajimba supporters temporarily occupied the state TV and radio building with the stated objective of preventing the broadcast by Bzhania's campaign staff of what Khajimba termed "inflammatory" and derogatory material.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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