As the breakaway territory of Abkhazia lurches toward a de-facto presidential vote this Sunday, one key question hangs over the outcome — will this Black-Sea region take the plunge and move for still closer ties with Russia?
Whether via annexation or other means, merger with Russia is proving the separatist theme of the year in post-Soviet parts. South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s separatist sibling, also claimed by Georgia, already has expressed a longing for such a deal.
The Abkhaz say they don’t want to go that far, but candidate Raul Khajimba, the presumed frontrunner, has pledged that, if elected, he’d be willing to get rid of the de-facto border between Abkhazia and its protector, Russia.
“Open borders will allow us to resolve many questions in calmer conditions,” he told Russia’s Gazeta.ru on August 20. There’s “[n]othing dangerous” about this for either side, he continued.
But just don’t call such plans an “association” agreement, Khadjimba emphasized to Russia's state-run RIA Novosti. After all, that’s what Abkhaz-public-enemy-number-one, Tbilisi, has going with the European Union.
Instead, “[w]e’re talking about integration processes with Russia,” he said.
Such “processes” would include “the realization of security for our tiny Abkhazia, the creation of conditions for strengthening border cooperation, questions about social-economic cooperation . . . “ Khajimba continued.
If that sounds like a merger, think again, the onetime KGB hand advised. "Abkhazia cannot become any part of Russia," he told Gazeta.ru.
Russia shares the disdain for the a-word, but, it, too, has no problem with "integration."
A “new level” of relations with Abkhazia is “completely possible” after the August 24 vote, Russia’s de-facto diplomatic envoy to Sokhumi, Semen Grigoryev told Ekho Kavkaza on August 20.
This “new level” could include a “joint command [of Russian and Abkhaz armed forces] . . .a common grouping” of forces, Grigoryev detailed. But, so far, he claimed, talks on this topic have not been held.
Meanwhile, simplifying border procedures is “not a simple matter,” he added.
Plenty of talk is going on within Abkhazia about other matters as well, however.
One is the chance for clashes on August 24. So far this week, a grenade was thrown in front of the house of the de-facto head of Abkhazia’s election commission; Abkahzia’s de-facto state-run TV station was briefly taken over by Khadjimba supporters, alarmed by a supposed “provocation” in favor of a rival candidate; and State Security Committee officers rounded up youngsters allegedly handing out newspapers that defamed Khajimba, according to the de-facto official Apsnypress.
To top things off, someone in Sokhumi on August 22 also whipped out an automatic weapon to shoot up the parked car of the editor of the weekly Nuzhnaya Gazeta, Izida Chanya.
At latest report, the de-facto official newspaper Respublika Abkhazii called the mood “tense but stable.”
The lineup of those vying to take his place essentially boils down to “a classic confrontation between the elite,” commented Russian analyst Anna Yaz’kova to Kavkazsky Uzel.
Aside from Khajimba, a twice-failed de-facto presidential candidate and former de-facto vice-president, defense minister and prime minister, voters can choose between Aslan Bzhania, former head of the de-facto State Security Services; Leonid Dzhapshba, a former de-facto interior minister, and Mirab Kishmaria, the former de-facto defense minister.
Ethnic Georgian voters in the southern part of Abkhazia largely have been excluded from the vote. A de-facto Abkhaz passport is required to take part, but, to receive one, individuals must give up their Georgian passports. Many have refused, telling Georgian media outlets that the candidates do not represent their interests.
Khajimba, among others, has cited these Georgian passports as an illustration of the security threats Abkhazia supposedly faces.
In Abkhazia these days, he told RIA Novosti, “there’s a demand for order.”
For now, the betting is that voters will decide that Khajimba is the one to provide it.