A contested election has pushed Georgia's break-away region of Abkhazia to the brink of violence. The regional legislature has been "paralyzed" and local television has been taken off the air, indicating that the political environment has become dangerously polarized following an Abkhaz court ruling mandating a fresh election.
A volatile mood has hovered over Abkhazia since the region staged a "presidential" vote October 3 between Sergei Bagapsh, who the local election commission acknowledged as the winner, and Raul Khajimba, the candidate favored by Russia and the out-going Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Events over the past few days suggest that Russia is unwilling to permit Abkhazia, which has operated beyond Tbilisi's influence since the 1992-93 conflict, to decide its own political fate.
On October 28, the Abkhaz "supreme court" upheld the election commission's decision that Bagapsh won the election. The ruling prompted hundreds of Khajimba supporters to storm the court building. The next day the court rescinded its earlier ruling and issued a new decision that annulled the October 3 results and called for a new election to be held within two months.
A judge, Georgi Akaba, openly said the court's reversal was made under duress. "The second decision was made under strong pressure from Khajimba supporters, who had broken into the court building and were threatening him [Akaba], the state prosecutor [Mimoza Tsushba] and Sergei Bagapsh's supporters," according to an account published by the Apsnypress news agency.
Bagapsh announced that he will not recognize the second court decision, adding that he is planning to hold his inauguration in early December. "I won the election according to the [first] decision of the [Abkhaz] supreme court," the newspaper 24 hours quoted Bagapsh as saying. "It doesn't matter what happened [in the court] afterwards."
Rallying to their candidate's defense, Bagapsh supporters, some reportedly dressed in combat fatigues, set up pickets October 30 outside the offices of the local television station. "The aim is to prevent [a repetition of] what happened in the Abkhaz supreme court," the Interfax news agency quoted Bagapsh as saying. The same day, Ardzinba -- Abkhazia's ailing, outgoing leader -- signed a decree ordering the election commission to set a date for a new presidential election.
Since the court's reversal, Ardzinba and Khajimba have increased the pressure on Bagapsh supporters to relent in their opposition to new elections. On November 1, Ardzinba administration officials pulled the plug on television broadcasts, indicating that programming would resume when Bagapsh supporters had been dispersed. According to the Rustavi-2 television channel, Khajimba supporters surrounded the Abkhaz parliament building in the capital Sukhumi, preventing a legislative session from convening. Bagapsh supporters allege the action was designed to prevent parliament from validating the October 3 voting results.
If a new round of voting is held, many local observers believe Russia will intervene to ensure a Khajimba victory. In recent years, Abkhazia has become increasingly valuable to Russia as an outpost for the projection of geopolitical influence in the Caucasus. The region's importance is underscored by the fact that the vast majority of Abkhaz residents have been granted Russian citizenship. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Abkhazia, in turn, has depended on Russia for its economic survival.
Heading into the October 3 vote, Bagapsh, like Khajimba, was pro-Russian in outlook and generally hostile to the notion of a rapprochement with Georgian officials in Tbilisi. From Moscow's standpoint, then, it seemed to be a no-lose election. Nevertheless, Russia, from the start, expressed a strong preference for Khajimba. Having served as prime minister before becoming a presidential candidate, Khajimba was a familiar face to Russian officials. Bagapsh, an entrepreneur, was largely an unknown quantity in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a high-profile meeting with Khajimba at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in August. Photos of that meeting appeared in Khajimba's campaign posters and other election material.
Shortly after the election, Moscow engineered the appointment of Nodar Khashba as Abkhaz prime minister. Khashba, who had previously served as a top official in Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations, told news sources that Putin had tapped him to "stabilize the situation."
Khashba's actions since his appointment support the notion that he was dispatched to serve as Moscow's crisis manager. After the electoral commission declared Bagapsh the election winner, Khashba insisted that only the regional supreme court had the authority to rule on the outcome, echoing a stance adopted by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
In addition, Russian officials reportedly have engaged in a behind-the-scenes mediation effort, involving Bagapsh and Khajimba. According to an October 22 report by the Georgian news agency Inter-press, Moscow offered Bagapsh a deal under which he would be recognized as the winner as long as Khashba continued to serve as his prime minister. Bagapsh is said to have rejected the Kremlin's offer.
Some political analysts think that Moscow might resort to overt coercion to secure a Khajimba majority in a new election. Pressure would most likely be brought to bear on ethnic Georgian residents of the Gali District. The region supposedly turned out strongly in favor of Bagapsh on October 3 amid widespread reports of voting irregularities. Many district residents are Georgians who displaced during the Abkhaz conflict and who subsequently decided to return spontaneously. Only about 25 percent of these returnees were eligible to vote in the Abkhaz election.
John Mackedon is a Tbilisi-based writer. He works for the on-line publicatin Civil Georgia, and formerly served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country.