The Abkhazia election controversy is shaping up as a potential policy disaster for Russia. The Kremlin's bungled attempt to manipulate the political succession process in breakaway region could end up depriving Moscow of a potential "trump card" in its often-contentious dealings with Georgia.
The deadlock over the results of Abkhazia's "presidential" election shows no signs of an early and amicable resolution. Election officials declared Sergei Bagapsh, a relative political outsider in Abkhazia, to be the winner in the October 3 vote, amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Raul Khajimba, the candidate supported by incumbent leader Vladislav Ardzinba, as well as by the Kremlin, has refused to admit defeat, plunging the region into its most serious political crisis since the 1992-93 armed conflict with Georgian government forces.
The Abkhaz "supreme court" started to consider Khajimba's petition for a new vote. However, judicial proceedings were interrupted when Khajimba supporters challenged the impartiality of the judge assigned to hear the case. Ardzinba has tried, without success, to resolve the crisis in Khajimba's favor. First, the incumbent leader called on parliament to dismiss Abkhazia's prosecutor-general, Rauf Korua, who had expressed support for the validity of Bagapsh's election victory. Parliament, however, did not act on Ardzinba's request. In addition, Ardzinba has muzzled four independent newspapers, denying them the ability to print their latest editions, opposition editors claim.
As parliament's reluctance to move against Korua suggests, support for Ardzinba among Abkhazia's political elite has eroded significantly as the political crisis has dragged on, some analysts in Moscow say.
"The reason for the split in the [Abkhaz] elite, the changing of allegiance of former supporters of Ardzinba to the side of Bagapsh, is obvious," said an October 19 commentary broadcast by Radio Russia. "First of all, it is a lack of confidence in Ardzinba's authority, and, secondly, it is pressure from the populace, for whom Bagapsh is the obvious winner."
The Kremlin's approach on the Abkhaz election has been marked by several major blunders, according to a scathing analysis published by the Moscow newspaper Kommersant on October 15. "Regardless of how the Abkhaz standoff is resolved ... the main loser of the Abkhaz election is already known," the analysis stated. "It is Russia."
To start, Russian leaders ignored numerous signs that Khajimba "did not enjoy particular support in the republic [Abkhazia]," the commentary said. Some policy analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to back Khajimba because of he is a former KGB officer. Putin's background is also rooted in the former Soviet security police. The Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper reported in late September that the Putin administration dispatched a top Foreign Policy Department staffer to the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi to help manage the election.
The Kremlin's overt electioneering for Khajimba may have needlessly alienated Bagapsh and his supporters. The Kommersant analysis indicated that it would have been wiser for Russian officials to have maintained a neutral stance, given that "none of the main contenders for the Abkhaz presidency was anti-Russian."
Moscow compounded its error by withholding recognition of Bagapsh's victory, even though he "has not once in recent days given anyone [reason] to doubt his favorable disposition towards Russia."
Russian government officials have disputed the notion that Moscow bungled the Abkhazia election. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, speaking to reporters on October 12, insisted that Russian policy towards Abkhazia would not change regardless of who emerges as the region's next leader.
Some experts believe Moscow may try to produce a compromise solution, pushing for the appointment of Nodar Khashba, who currently serves as Abkhazia's
Sergei Blagov contributed material from Moscow for this report.