The breakaway region of Abkhazia has held early presidential elections on Sunday, August 24th. Allegations of corruption and misrule had forced the former President Aleksandr Ankvab to resign in early June, consequently rescheduling the date of presidential elections from 2016 to August 2014. The election of a KGB academy graduate has raised concern from the European Union and Georgia about the Kremlin’s involvement in the area.
Opposition leader elected
Despite a low turnout of 60%, Raul Khajimba won the presidential elections with 50,57% of the votes in the first round while his main rival Aslan Bzhani only gained 35,91%. The two remaining candidates Mirab Kishmaria and Leonid Dzapshba respectively obtained 6,4% and 3,4% of votes. Raul Khajimba, who graduated the KGB’s academy in 1980, was the leader of Abkhazia’s biggest opposition party, the Forum of the National Unity of Abkhazia. As former prime minister and vice-president of the region, he had already unsuccessfully stood three times as presidential candidate, in 2004, 2009 and 2011 and has played a key role in pushing for Aleksandr Ankvab’s resignation during last May’s mass protests. Although not officially appointed by Moscow, experts are divided over Khajimba’s links to the Kremlin. The newly elected Abkhazian President has had evolving comments on the region’s ties to Moscow. Although he was largely perceived as pro-Russian a decade ago, “he has made some critical comments about Russia and questioned the close relationship,” Uwe Halbach from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said.
Abkhazia’s dependence on Russia
Sunday’s elections have put the region’s relations with Russia on the agenda again. In reality, criticism of poor living standards was not the only driver of the recent demonstrations. The separatist region’s population has also increasingly denounced its excessive dependence on Moscow, which discourages other countries from investing in Abkhazia. Although all four candidates came down for greater relations with Russia, they did not advocate for the region’s integration to Russia. However, Vadim Mukhanov of the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) underlined that the winner “will have to cooperate with Russia because it is the guarantor of security and the most important financial donor for Abkhazia.” Since the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, Moscow has supported Abkhazia’s independence, and recognised it as such on the international scene. Today, Abkhazia is totally dependent on Russia to ensure both its security and its economic stability. Its economy notably functions with rubles, while two thirds of its budget is paid by Moscow. The situation has been denounced by Tbilisi, which maintain a de jure sovereignty over Abkhazia. In January 2014, the Georgian government had accused Russia of moving its frontier in order to increase its territory over Abkhazia, and violating its territorial sovereignty.
Illegitimate elections for EU and Georgia
International condemnations of the vote emerged first of all from the European Union and Georgia. The EU has opposed the elections under its “non-recognition and engagement policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia”, declaring that it “supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia, as recognised by international law.” In parallel, the Georgian foreign ministry issued a statement declaring the vote “illegal”. “It represents yet another unsuccessful attempt at disguising the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people by elements of ostensible democratic governance,” it read.
Both the EU and Georgia fear Russia may try to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it did in Crimea, while Georgia has joined the Association Agreement with the EU in July. Nevertheless, Vadim Mukhanov explains Abkhazia is likely to maintain its sovereignty in the long term, unlike Crimea. “[An annexation] would increase international tensions because there is growing opposition in Russia against strengthening ties with the Caucasus,” affirmed Uwe Halbach. Yet, 8,000 Russian soldiers remain stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a result of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
Background : Abkhazia became de facto independent from Georgia after driving out Georgian troops from its soil in a civil war that killed thousands between 1992 and 1993. Today, the region is only recognised as independent de jure by a handful of countries such as Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia revived tension in Abkhazia and annulled the ceasefire that had been agreed on in 1994. Since 28 August 2008, Georgia considers Abkhazia a “Russian-occupied territory” in one of the many post-Soviet frozen conflict that regularly shake the Caucasus.
Sources : Radio Free Liberty I, Radio Free Liberty II, Deutsche Welle, Trend.az, Democracy and Freedom Watch, ITAR TASS, Radio Free Liberty III, Reuters, Le Monde, Civil.ge I, BBC, Civil.ge II.
Map : RFERL