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Abkhaz opposition leader wins repeat ‘presidential vote’ in occupied Georgian region

A day after the so-called election on the 22nd of March, opposition leader Aslan Bzhania was declared the winner for the de facto presidency by separatist officials in the globally unrecognized Abkhaz republic (an occupied region of Georgia). Bhazia received 56.6 percent of the votes of the 95,109 ballots cast. The total turnout far exceeded the 50 percent threshold with 71.6 percent. This election was a rerun of the September 8th 2019 ‘presidential election’ in which Raul Khajimba claimed victory. However, soon after demonstrations broke out against his win. On the 10th of January the Supreme Court annulled the disputed election victory of Raul Khajimba and Khajimba resigned on January 12th 2020 after protesters occupied the territory’s main administrative building.

Rerun vote

In the rerun elections there were two favorites; Adgur Ardzinba and Aslan Bzhania. Bhazia was also a main contender in the first election in September but had to retire from the race in April 2019 after he was hospitalized due to a suspected poisoning.

The policies of the two candidates could not be further apart from each other. Ardzina has been linked to the Khajimba’s government his win would have meant a continuation of Khajimba’s hardline policy on Georgia. Khajimba and Ardzina refused to have talks with the Georgian government until it recognizes the independence of Abkhazia, while Bzhania came out as being more open to hold at least informal dialogue with the Georgian government. Bzhania’s win could mean an ease on the border restrictions with Georgia, such as reopening border crossings that cut through villages leaving them separated, that Khajimba imposed in 2017.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic the elections went on as planned but some measures were put in place. Voters were allowed to bring their own pens, every polling station provided hand sanitizer and polling places were disinfected ahead of the vote. Regardless on these measures, the foreign monitoring of the vote was limited due to travel restrictions. Russian delegates who usually observe election were not present, but instead eight officials from Russia’s embassy in the region took their place. Observers from Abkhazia’s fellow globally unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Transnistria however were present. Due to the fact that most countries do not recognize Abkhazia as independent, no other international observers were present for the election that they deemed illegitimate.

Responses to the so-called ‘presidential election’

Prior to the rerun election, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia released a statement in which it addressed the illegality of both the Abkhaz republic and the upcoming election. The statement read; “the so-called presidential elections in occupied Abkhazia region taking place on 22 March 2020, […] fully contradict the fundamental norms and principles of international law and blatantly violate Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. These so-called elections are illegal and cannot have any legal effect […] the Russian occupying power exercises full effective control on the ground.”

After the election, Russian president Putin was one of the first people to congratulate Bzhania on his win and looked forward to “work with Bzhania and strengthen the alliance between Russia and Abkaz

The international response was very different from that of President Putin. Fifteen countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, brought out a joined statement that read; “we reiterate our fill support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders, and remain deeply concerned over the continued occupation of the territory of Georgia.” A similar statement was made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for the monitoring of Georgia. PACE’s statement read; “we reiterate our full support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally-recognized borders. The so-called ‘repeat presidential elections’ in the Georgian region of Abkhazia on 22 March 2020 are therefore neither legal nor legitimate. As we have said before, such so-called elections hinder the peaceful settlement of the conflict and instead of uniting people they only drive them further apart. We only condemn that.”

The European Parliament’s Delegation to the EU-Armenia Parliamentary Commission, the EU-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and the EU-Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee also commented on the so-called ‘election’. The chair of the delegation, Marina Kaljurand, echoed the statement made by PACE in saying that the so-called ‘presidential election’ was held in occupied territory despite the disapproval of the international community and the European Union therefore does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which it has taken place. She also pressed that this so-called ‘election’ could undermine the on-going efforts towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh elections

Marina Kaljurand made a similar statement regarding the so-called ‘parliamentary and presidential elections’ in Nagorno-Karabakh that were held on the 31st of March. She reiterated that the European Union does not recognize the framework in which these ‘elections’ were held and that these ‘elections’ do not help to create an environment conducive to reconciliation.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that was seized by Armenian-backed separatists in a conflict that lasted from 1988 to 1994. Amid the fighting, the separatists declared independence that has not been recognized by most of the countries in the world.

Sources: Radio Free Europe 1 / Radio Free Europe 2 / Foreign Brief / Eurasianet / US News / JAM News / Agenda / PACE / Euractiv / European Parliament 1 / European Parliament 2

Photo: former president Raul Khajimba (