Abkhazia insists independence from Georgia assured after disputed election

Pro-Russian incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh won a crushing first-round victory this weekend with 59.4 percent of the vote critics say was fraudulent.

By , Correspondent

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    President of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, speaks after he was announced as the winner of the presidential election by the region's election commission, during a news conference in Sukhumi capital of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, Dec. 13.
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It was a highly-controversial election, attended by almost no official observers, in a country most of the world refuses to recognize.

But officials in the Georgian breakaway state of Abkhazia and its only big friend, Russia, say they are highly pleased with the results of weekend polls that saw incumbent president Sergei Bagapsh win a crushing first-round victory over four opponents, netting 59.4 percent of the vote.

The rebel Black Sea republic's deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gunjia, reached by phone in the capital Sukhumi, says the elections may help Abkhazia break out of the diplomatic isolation that's been its lot ever since Russia's recognized its independence, along with the Caucasian breakaway statelet of South Ossetia, following a lightning war with Georgia over the territories last year.

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For example, Mr. Gunjia says, the Pacific nation of Nauru plans to officially extend diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Tuesday, making it only the fourth country in the world to do so, after Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

"We believe the successful conduct of these elections will put more weight behind our claim to independent existence," he says. "These elections went smoothly, and we regard them as a test of democracy. They are a sign that we are growing up into full nationhood."

No Western country or official organization sent observers to the Abkhazian polls, which are not viewed as legitimate.

"We have chosen our path, whether the European Union or the United States like it or not," Bagapsh told journalists after his victory was announced. "Abkhazia will never again be part of Georgia."

Georgia, which has not been able to enforce its rule over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in post-Soviet times, says the statelets remain its sovereign territory under international law. Georgian officials have denounced the election as illegal.

At least one Abkhazian opposition candidate is crying foul and claims he will challenge the outcome in court. But officials say that even if former vice president Raul Kadzimba's claims of inflated voter turnout are recognized, the results will still show that Mr. Bagapsh -- who ran on a platform of closer relations with Russia -- won overwhelmingly among the Black Sea territory's 127,000 registered voters.

Mr. Kadzimba, who won 15 percent of the votes, has complained that Russian TV in neighboring territories -- widely watched in Abkhazia -- campaigned openly for Bagapsh. He also alleges government workers were compelled to vote for the incumbent and that there was vote fraud in some polling stations.

Another losing candidate, businessman Beslan Butba, reached by telephone, declined to comment directly on the outcome, but nonetheless sounded bitter.

"It proved impossible to overcome administrative resources," meaning various forms of official interference in the electoral process, Mr. Butba said. "As a result, I think Abkhazia is facing another five years of stagnation."

Abkhazia, a subtropical strip of soaring mountains and balmy beachfront wedged between Russia and Georgia, was once the tourist paradise of the former Soviet Union. Its ethnically-distinct Abkhaz population declared independence from Georgia following the collapse of the USSR and, with Russian aid, won it's de facto independence in a bitter civil war 16 years ago.

But it lived in a twilight world, unrecognized by anybody until last year's Russo-Georgian war encouraged Moscow to unilaterally grant it full independence. Even before that happened, Russian investment and tourists were flocking back to the tiny territory, where the rouble reigns supreme and the Russian language dominates the streets.

Russia currently has about 3,000 troops in Abkhazia, including 1,000 border guards, and has recently dispatched the first ships of what will be a squadron of ten coast guard gunboats to protect Abkhazian waters from the Georgian navy, which claims the right to territorial control.

"Russian leaders are satisfied with the Abkhazian elections," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Bagapsh is in favor of improving Abkhazia's economy through growing cooperation with Russia."

Abkhazian opposition candidates complained that almost 90 percent of all investment coming into the territory is from Russia and that all of the republic's prized beachfront property was in danger of being snapped up by foreigners.

The biggest objection to the legitimacy of Abkhazia's government comes from refugee groups, who point out that nearly 250,000 ethnic Georgians were driven from the territory during the bloody civil war in the early 1990's and have since been deprived of any say in the territory's future.

"The real problem here isn't how free and fair the elections [among Abkhazian voters] were, but the issue of who is allowed to vote," says Nikolai Petrov, a regional expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"No one doubts that Bagapsh is a popular leader among Abkhazians, but his re-election merely continues the status quo" in the international standoff over Abkhazia's future, he says.

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