by Karolina Stefańczak, PhD candidate at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution And Reconstruction, Dublin City University
Abkhazia, a small, de facto state in the southern Caucasus, has elected its fourth president. Raul Khadjimba, the leader of the Forum of National Unity and the former vice-president and prime minister, received 50.6% of the vote and secured victory in the first round of the contest.
It is very difficult to write about the presidential election in a manner that will please all parties inside this mostly unrecognised state and external observers, as there is no agreement on what to call the process, how to refer to the victorious candidate or, indeed, how to understand the events which led to these elections.
For the government in Tbilisi, Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia, which they describe as a territory occupied by Russia. Georgians don’t recognise Abkhazia’s statehood, institutions or any electoral process on its territory. The European Union and the US readily support Georgia’s position, which is reflected in official statements condemning every election held in Abkhazia. For Abkhazians the lack of wider international recognition of their statehood and the internal processes that regulate its functioning is an unfair denial of a new reality which was created by the collapse of the USSR and the 1992/1993 war that facilitated separation from Georgia. Georgians and Abkhazians use different terms for the war, the border dividing them, and for describing Russia’s role. Place names are even a matter of dispute. Abkhazia’s capital is called Sukhum by Abkhazians and Sukhumi by Georgians; the name of river dividing them is either Ingur or Inguri and the mostly Georgian-populated southern district of Abkhazia is referred to as Gal or Gali.
Then there is the internal division in Abkhazia connected to the events that led to the snap elections on 24 August. When I met with Leonid Lakerbaia, prime minister under the ousted President Alexander Ankvab and campaign manager of presidential candidate Aslan Bzhania, he described the May protests and the takeover of government administration as a coup. By contrast, the influential activists of the Coordination Council and close allies of the then-opposition leader described the demonstrations as a “People’s Assembly”, a gathering which has the highest powers according to Abkhaz traditions. The use of the term “opposition” was confusing as well, as the camp that held power for the three months prior to the elections, as well as the outgoing administration both used this phrase when referring to themselves. In fact all four candidates contesting the elections – all male, in their fifties and army generals – were presenting themselves as newcomers, and the harbingers of change.
The controversial disenfranchisement of over 22,000 ethnic Georgians just weeks before the elections was also interpreted differently by the two rival camps. Suren Kerselyan, an ethnic Armenian and prominent Khadjimba’s supporter, regarded removing this substantial group of the electorate from the electoral list as a simple execution of the existing law, pointing out the alleged illegal possession of two passports by the residents of Gal/i. Lakerbaia, on the other hand, described the elimination 15% of the citizens of Abkhazia from the electorate as “illegal”. Ethnic Georgians did not support nationalistic Khadjimba or his party in the previous elections and constituted the constituency least likely to vote for him in the 2014 contest. For their part Bzhania’s team complained of unlawful distribution of passports to the Abkhaz diaspora in Cherkessk in days and weeks before the election. Indeed Khadjimba’s vote in this polling station, according to the tweet of his close ally Roin Agrba, was much higher than average: 1080 votes of a total 1200 cast (90%).
Accusations proliferated during this dirty campaign and the atmosphere in Sukhum/i during the days leading up to polling day was very tense. Many of the allegations of corruption, unclear business links, murky pasts, manipulating the electorate and vote buying, were based on rumours or not backed up by hard evidence. Occasionally the tension manifested itself in violent incidents: the throwing of a grenade into the garden of the head of the Central Election Commission, firing an automatic gun at the (empty) car of a politically involved journalist, or a fight that many of us witnessed at the front of the CEC Press Centre in Sukhum/i.
Given the history of Abkhazia’s unpredicted election results of 2004 and 2011, and the absence of any opinion polls, the outcome of the vote was difficult to forecast. The organizations and individuals united behind Raul Khadjimba, which included his former rivals Sergey Shamba and Beslan Butba, were not ready to accept defeat. They were openly preparing to contest the possible success of Aslan Bzhania by questioning the voter lists and the credibility of the CEC chair. In the end, they readily accepted the narrow victory of just a few hundred votes over the required 50% threshold. The three losing candidates did not contest the results.
In this way, Khadjimba has won the presidential race at the fourth attempt. He will face major challenges during the coming months, which include fulfilling his ambitious election promises and uniting the divided Abkhazian society. He will also need to deal with the status of ethnic Georgian residents of Gal/i, who are a substantial and politically underrepresented minority.
There are reasons not to recognise the legitimacy of the elections, but irrespective of the level of internal and external recognition of the result Abkhazians will inaugurate their fourth president on 25 September. For the next five years Raul Khadjimba and his administration will govern and represent Abkhazia abroad, participating in Geneva talks and in relations with Russia, regardless of whether the international community recognises his status or not.
In this post I use the terms which are employed within Abkhazia to describe the representatives, offices and political figures, I also use ‘Abkhaz’ as an ethnic category and ‘Abkhazians’ as a category of citizenship that include non-ethnically Abkhaz residents of Abkhazia.