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Crisis Deepens in Abkhazia - Update
/ 12 Oct.'04 / 20:37
Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

Bagapsh Tries to Unravel the Knot of Contested Abkhaz Elections

On October 10 Sergey Bagapsh, declared president-elect by the Abkhaz Central Election Commission (CEC), called for an all-Abkhaz National gathering (Convent) in an attempt to wrestle control from the outgoing Abkhaz authorities. This decision may lead to a potentially dangerous standoff.

The crisis in Abkhazia, which follows highly contested October 3 presidential elections, deepened after outgoing President of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba openly slammed Bagapsh in his address to the nation on October 12, calling the decision of the CEC to announce Bagapsh president-elect "absurd" and warned of potential bloodshed. Abkhazia’s outgoing President alleged that the recent events in Abkhazia are "well thought-out actions, based on a Tbilisi scenario."

By calling for a National Convent, Bagapsh is trying to appeal directly to the public. The convent has symbolic value, and dates back to a medieval tradition. Its purpose is to gather all Abkhaz elderly and the majority of the Abkhaz nation. Traditionally, only ethnic Abkhazians attended. The Convent has also played a role in recent history as well. In 1989, a National Convent of the Abkhaz was called in Likhny and participants appealed the Soviet authorities to succeed from Georgia. This led to an upsurge of ethnic nationalism in Georgia, as well as the first Abkhaz-Georgian clashes in Sokhumi.

Bagapsh is trying to distance himself from allegations that he has Georgian backing - an anathema to any Abkhaz politician. The Convent, rooted in Abkhaz tradition is supposed to provide legitimacy for Bagapsh’s presidency and unravel the legal knot created by the conflicting decisions of the CEC and outgoing Abkhaz president.

According to Bagapsh, the decision to call the Convent is a response to the airing of "biased, compromising materials" regarding himself on Abkhaz TV. "This airing has slashed the moratorium on 'black PR'. The authorities are fully responsible for the further development of the situation," Bagapsh said at a press-conference in Sokhumi, reports Regnum. This may herald a decisive break from the tense, but relatively restrained position of Bagapsh, who claimed earlier that he would comply with the decision of the Abkhaz Supreme Court.

The events in Abkhazia move dangerously closer towards civil unrest. Subsequently, the Editor-in-Chief of the Abkhaz TV, Otar Lakrba, and its 20 leading journalists resigned, quoting immense pressure from the electoral staffs of both Bagapsh and pro-governmental candidate Raul Khajimba.

In similar situations in Georgia, the resignation of the state TV officials was an unmistakable sign of the deep crisis and impending civil confrontation, both when President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was unseated in a military coup in 1991-1992 and when President Eduard Shevardnadze was forced to leave office in 2003.

If plans to hold the National Convent on October 14 go through they will vividly show the real degree of control that Bagapsh is able to exercise in Abkhazia, as well as the real degree of popular fatigue of Ardzinba's current rule. It would also indicate whether acting Prime Minister Nodar Khashba, a Russian appointee, would be willing to commit to an armed solution to the crisis.

Outgoing Leader Warns of "Crawling Coup"

"Once again we see the "law of the fist" applied in Abkhazia, which found vivid expression during the so-called democratic elections. All of this may lead to bloodshed. Speculation that somebody is not orchestrating this process is completely groundless. Well thought-out actions, based on a Tbilisi scenario, are apparent and there is an experienced puppet-master behind them. In essence, we are witnessing a crawling coup in Abkhazia," said ailing, outgoing leader of Abkhazia during an address to the nation.

He also said that the Abkhazian people are facing the "real danger of losing liberty and independence." "As the president of the country, I am obliged, and will do everything possible, to protect constitutional order and our independence. This is my life’s work; this is my obligation to the memory of those who died [during the conflict with Georgia]," wrote Ardzinba.

Some observers tend to interpret these last statements as a readiness by the Abkhaz President to introduce martial law in order to prevent Sergey Bagapsh, who is supported by the opposition movements and by the influential group of Abkhaz War Veterans, to become the next President of Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, acting Prime Minister of the unrecognized republic Nodar Khashba said on October 12 that the Supreme Court of the breakaway region "will have thefinal say about the [October 3 presidential] elections" and called for the situation to remain calm. Nodar Khashba, who previously served in the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, was appointed as acting Prime Minister after the October 3 presidential elections.

Raul Khajimba, who along the local government’s support also enjoys with backing from Moscow, appealed the Supreme Court, demanding the cancellation of the Central Election Commission’s October 11 protocol, which declared Sergey Bagapsh as the winner of the elections, with 50.08% of the vote.

But no court hearing is scheduled so far. The Itar-Tass news agency reported quoting Chairman of the Abkhaz Supreme Court Alla Avidzba as saying that the court can launch a hearing only after new members of the Central Election Commission are appointed. The Chairman of the 15-member CEC, Sergey Smir, together with another three members, filed their resignation on October 11, citing pressure from supporters of Sergey Bagapsh. According to the Abkhazian law, a court hearing will be appointed only after four new members take the vacant seats in the CEC.

But the Supreme Court also has to discuss a different appeal by Raul Khajimba on October 14. Following the disputed elections, which were condemned by the pro-governmental candidate’s supporters as totally rigged, the CEC decided to hold repeat elections in the Georgian populated Gali district - the region where most of the violations were reported. But pro-governmental candidate Raul Khajimba challenged the decision and appealed the Supreme Court, demanding a re-vote not only in Gali, but the entire republic.

Moscow’s ReactionRussian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented regarding the recent developments in Abkhazia on October 12 by saying that the outcome of the presidential elections in breakaway Abkhazia is not yet clear.

"I don’t have the latest news, but I’ve heard that the Central Election Commission has announced its decision, which was followed by the resignation of the Chairman of the commission [Sergey Smir]," Sergey Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies.

The Russian Foreign Minister also said that "whoever becomes Abkhazia’s new President, he should continue working on the basis of current agreements and mechanisms." "This also refers to the Georgian side, which should follow its commitments," Sergey Lavrov added.

"We can not remain indifferent towards the developments in this region, as we wish to live in friendship with Georgia and see Georgia as a democratic state, where all ethnic groups and nationalities enjoy equal rights," Sergey Lavrov added.

After a face-to-face meeting between then-Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khajimba and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in late August, it became clear that outgoing Abkhaz President Ardzinba’s favorite candidate became the Kremlin’s choice as well. During the pre-election period, many Russian politicians, including parliamentarians, visited Abkhazia and campaigned in support of Khajimba.

But, Georgian officials say that the Kremlin’s support was not enough for Khajimba to succeed in the polls. "The most important thing during these events was that the Abkhaz people did not allow for an appointment of [their] President from Moscow," Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues Goga Khaindrava told Civil Georgia on October 11.

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said that the recent developments in Abkhazia demonstrated the "failure" by Moscow in its Abkhazian policy. "I can not say for sure whether [Russia] had a strategy and failed to deliver it, or whether there was no strategy at all. The fact is that there was a failure," Salome Zourabichvili said in a live interview to the Tbilisi-based Imedi radio station on October 7.

Tbilisi's Reaction

The outgoing Abkhaz President alleged that the recent events in Abkhazia are "well thought-out actions, based on a Tbilisi scenario." The Georgian side is closely watching the situation in Abkhazia, but at the same time, is trying to distance itself from the recent developments there.

State Minister Goga Khaindrava said that in terms of personalities it makes little difference for Tbilisi who will become the new Abkhaz leader. "We are ready to hold dialogues with any future President of the breakaway region. This is irreversible," Khaindrava told Civil Georgia.

Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said that Georgia had an "extremely restrained position" regarding the Abkhazia developments.

"And I think this was the only right decision. We did not interfere and let the Abkhazians decide their internal issues. And they did; it seems that they are not going to hand over their future and fate to Moscow. This is very important for the entire Caucasus region," Salome Zourabichvili told Imedi radio station on October 7.

The Georgian Foreign Minister also emphasized that the elections in Abkhazia marked the fact that "democracy infiltrates into every region, even in the most isolated areas."

"I do not say that the elections in Abkhazia were democratic. But the elections showed that not everything is dictated in Abkhazia," she added. Salome Zourabichvili also said that Tbilisi can not undertake any measures towards Abkhazia yet. "I think we should let the process develop itself in Abkhazia. We will see then," she said.

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