Breakaway Abkhazia region holds 'presidential' vote

Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region held a "presidential" election Saturday viewed as illegitimate by most of the world but championed by Russia, the rebel region's main ally.


AFP - The rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia voted for a president on Saturday in an election hailed by sponsor Russia but marred by opposition allegations of fraud.

The five-way race is the first since Moscow recognised the Black Sea territory of 200,000 people as an independent state after a brief war with Georgia last year, and is a test of stability for the aspiring statelet.

Most of the world has shunned the vote, in which President Sergei Bagapsh is running for a second term. U.S. ally Georgia branded it a “comedy” led by Russia, Abkhazia’s economic lifeline and protector with thousands of troops in the region.

The opposition complained of irregularities, but Russian observers said voting had been “transparent”.

“The situation will be difficult,” Bagapsh rival and former KGB agent Raul Khadzimba told reporters. “It’s not excluded that in the end we will call for the election to be annulled.”

Turnout half an hour before polls closed was 64.29 percent.

Khadzimba warned earlier that mass violations would “detonate tensions”, remarks that recalled the last presidential election in late 2004 when he challenged Bagapsh’s victory and there was unrest in the streets.

Russia does not want to be embarrassed by a repeat.

Abkhazia and the rebel region of South Ossetia threw off Georgian rule when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Last year, after mounting tension, pro-Western Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia, drawing a devastating Russian counter-strike. Abkhazia took advantage to seize the Kodori Gorge, its last remaining enclave held by Georgia.

The West will not recognise the victor as leader of an Abkhaz state, but the territory is watched closely for its ability to stir friction between Russia and Georgia in the volatile Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.

In Sukhumi’s scarred New Region district, which saw the worst fighting of the 1992-93 Abkhaz war, police cadets held back crowds trying to get in before voting ended at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT) and the doors were closed on at least 100 would-be voters.


“Have you ever seen anything like it?” a member of the security services at the polling station asked a Reuters reporter. “This is our democracy,” he said.

Bagapsh said he had not heard of any major irregularities.  “All the candidates understand that in Abkhazia today we are choosing not just a president but our further course,” he said.

Moscow backed Khadzimba in the 2004 race, but has not come out publicly in support of any candidate this time.

Bagapsh draws support from the fact that Russia recognised Abkhazia under his watch. Nicaragua and Venezuela followed suit.

“We have been recognised as independent and we liberated the Kodori Gorge,” said artist and Bagapsh voter Roza Chamagua.

“I love him with all my soul, as a president and as a man,” she said after voting in Sukhumi, where new hotels stand alongside empty apartment buildings gutted in the 1992-93 war.

But some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, accuse Bagapsh of handing too much influence to former Soviet master Russia, on which Abkhazia depends for pensions, investment and at least half its budget.

Some 3,600 Russian servicemen patrol its borders and stunning coastline, where Stalin’s luxurious dacha still stands.

Russia is building military bases, has given Abkhazia use of its international dialling code and is running the railway.

Whoever wins will try to restore Abkhazia’s former glory as the playground of the Moscow elite. All the candidates reject Western calls to re-integrate with Georgia.

The right to vote was limited to Abkhaz passport holders, largely excluding some 40,000 remaining Georgians. Preliminary results are expected on Sunday.

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