Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazia's reelected leader, is making economic development and strengthening the breakaway entity's independent profile the two top priorities of his second term.
Bagapsh won a resounding victory December 12 in Abkhazia's first presidential election since the territory was recognized by the Kremlin after the Russian-Georgian war during the summer of 2008. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The 60-year-old Bagapsh came first in every single electoral district in the December 12 race. Preliminary results announced on December 13 gave the incumbent 59.4 percent of the 96,750 votes cast, with the nearest challenger Raul Khajimba, the former de facto vice-president, coming in second place with 15.4 percent. The result means that Bagapsh easily cleared the 50 percent-of-the-vote threshold needed to win another five-year termoutright without a second round of voting.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Bagapsh said he would focus in the coming months on promoting economic growth. "This, of course, has long been our goal, but it is impossible to improve the economy in conditions of political instability," he said. "Now that we have received recognition from Russia and have pushed the Georgians out of the [Upper] Kodori Gorge, we can think about the economy and standards of living." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Abkhazia's independence has so far been recognized only by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bagapsh emphasized that there is no turning back for the territory, indicating that it is futile for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration to cling to the hope that one day Abkhazia could be reincorporated into Georgia. Bagapsh also derided Saakashvili's recent statements about the construction of a Berlin Wall-style barrier in Abkhazia's southern Gali District, along the border with Georgian-controlled territory.
"There will . . . be a proper, well-guarded border, through which people will be able to move freely," said Bagapsh. "But if the Georgian side continues its provocations, we will close it. Its as simple as that."
The election in Abkhazia went relatively smoothly. Claiming numerous alleged election law violations and falsifications, opposition candidates had threatened protests and possible street demonstrations during the run-up to the vote. At a late-night new conference on election eve, Khajimba claimed that common post-Soviet election tricks had been used, including the registering of "dead souls" and the manipulation of voter lists.
But in the aftermath of the vote, there seemed little appetite for mass protests. "So soon after recognition, we need to develop economically and take stock. Nobody wants sudden political changes or unrest," said Otar Kakalia, a former government minister and now a businessman and hotel owner. Khajimba said that the result could lead to serious tension, but there seemed little sign of the edgy standoff that followed the last elections in 2004. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The only delegations of election observers came from Russia and Venezuela. The Russian delegation, which included figures as diverse as Vladimir Churov, the Kremlin-friendly head of the Russian Central Election Committee, and Alexander Brod, an anti-racism and human rights activist, all had positive words to say about the voting process and fairness of the elections.
A somewhat eclectic mix of monitors from other breakaway states and Western non-governmental organizations also approved the results.
A Georgian government statement described the election as illegitimate on legal, political, and moral grounds.
Ministers gave differing figures about how much of the Abkhaz state budget for next year will come from Russian aid and loans, but most agreed that it was well over 50 percent. "I don't know any country in the world that can survive without help or influence from outside," said Kristina Ozgan, the de facto economics minister, in response to suggestions that the territory is turning into a de facto Russian province. "There is no threat to Abkhazia's independence from Russian financial help."
Local leaders hope an expansion of tourism will provide a boost the Abkhazia's economy; the government reports that 89,000 tourists stayed in Abkhaz sanatoria and hotels, and 715,500 came on daytrips in 2009. Abkhaz officials are now pushing ahead with plans to open the high-altitude Upper Kodori Gorge to tourists in 2010.
Russia's heavy economic influence in Abkhazia is a constant irritant to Tbilisi, where Georgian government officials maintains that Moscow has launched a full-scale occupation of Abkhazia, a territory over which the Georgian government lost control in 1993.
In the Gali district, mainly populated by ethnic Georgians, only 3,522 of the roughly 55,000 residents have been given Abkhaz passports and had the right to vote. "We want to get Abkhaz passports, and we want to be able to cross the border freely," said one elderly man outside a central polling station in the districts seat, Gali. "We dont have any problem with living under the Abkhaz leadership, but things need to change here." Other residents agreed, saying that the territory needed more jobs, and that they needed access to Zugdidi and the rest of Georgia
If change comes in Abkhazia's relations with Tbilisi, it must come on equal terms, Bagapsh asserted at a December 13 news conference. "We can only talk with leaders who understand one thing that Abkhazia is an independent state, and will never be part of Georgia again," he said. "In that case we are ready to have dialogue."
Shaun Walker is Shaun Walker is a EurasiaNet contributor and Moscow Correspondent for The Independent.