Aslan Bzhania, an opposition leader, has been elected president of Abkhazia, one of two Georgian regions occupied by Russia.
According to the Central Election Commission of Abkhazia, Mr Bzhania took more than 95,000 votes (56.5 per cent) on a turnout of 71.6 per cent. His main opponent, economy minister Adgur Ardzinba from the ruling Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia (FNUA) took 35.4 per cent.
Mr Bzhania is expected to be sworn-in during the next 30 days, and will install a new government.
Georgia’s foreign ministry was quick to condemn the election, calling it “yet another futile attempt to legitimise the ethnic cleansing, the ongoing illegal occupation and factual annexation process in the Abkhazia region.”
The EU also condemned the vote.
“The European Union supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia, as recognised by international law,” the EU’s European External Action Service said.
Here are four takeaways on what the vote means for the breakaway territory.
1. Months of domestic political turbulence has come to an end
The vote on March 22 was a rerun of an earlier presidential election, first held last September. Mr Bzhania had been expected to win but was forced to drop out of the race after being hospitalised with a severe condition in Moscow. While many of his supporters believed he had been a victim of political poisoning, Russian doctors found that he had suffered from pneumonia.
With Mr Bzhania unable to run on the September vote, he pledged to support Alkhas Kvitsinia, the candidate of the opposition Amtsakhara party, in a run-off against incumbent Abkhaz president Raul Khajimba. Mr Khajimba won – with 47 per cent of the vote to his opponent’s 46 per cent. However, in January the region’s supreme court declared the results of the election void. Khajimba resigned, forcing a new election in which the now healthy Bzhania was finally able to stand.
2. The new president wants dialogue with Tbilisi
“Looking at the pre-election debate between the candidates and the messages spread during the campaign, it was obvious that opposition leader Bzhania has a more pragmatic approach,” Natia Chankvetadze, a Peace and Conflict Researcher, tells Emerging Europe, adding that a key difference between the candidates was their approach towards the government in Tbilisi. Although he has vowed to protect what he calls Abkhazia’s “independence”, Mr Bzhania has on several occasions expressed a willingness to hold talks with Tbilisi.
Speaking in an interview with Russian news agency RIA Novosti on March 23, Mr Bzhania said that Georgia and Abkhazia needed “a bilateral platform for talks” since the Geneva format, the international forum for dialogue between Georgia and the breakaway region, was insufficient. “Georgians and Georgia are our neighbours. Whether we like it or not, we have contacts regarding Georgian and Abkhazian citizens,” he said, pointing to a number of cross-border issues, including Abkhaz people seeking medical care in Georgia or the operation of the Enguri Dam in northwest Georgia.
“I do not think that the Abkhaz political and civil elite or wider public are ready to make any radical changes in their attitude towards Georgia. However, I also believe that there are more and more people who think pragmatically and understand that a harsh and uncompromising relationship with Georgia does not help to solve the problems. On the contrary – it makes the region more vulnerable,” Ms Chankvetadze continues, adding that the stance of Abkhazians towards Georgia will not change without Georgian support.
“Georgia itself should transform its attitude towards Abkhazia and take a more pragmatic approach,” she says.
3. Support from Moscow remains critical
Relations between Georgia and Abkhazia have been under strain since 1992 when the region declared independence and the two sides fought a year-long war. That was followed by a brief military conflict between ethnic Georgians and secessionist Abkhazians in 1998. A decade later, Russia fought a five-day war with Georgia that resulted in the occupation of Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) and Abkhazia.
While the mere existence of the Black Sea territory heavily relies on Moscow’s support, especially its military presence, Russian influence is seemingly aligned with the country’s foreign policy, disregarding domestic political issues in Abkhazia.
“People in the region are not happy about their current situation, they talk about corruption, poverty, the weakness of the ‘government’ and many other problems affecting everyday life,” Ms Chankvetadze explains, adding that while Russia is stepping up its military presence, Russian financial aid is decreasing. “Russian influence over Abkhazia is negative and I believe that Russia does not and will not invest in the region’s real development. What Russia does is maintain the existing level of poverty, corruption and keeps a loyal political leadership in the region, without making actual, real investment in region’s development.”
Ms Chankvetadze says that Mr Bzhania will not make radical changes in Abkhaz-Russia relations. However, he did make several critical remarks as part of his presidential campaign, not least in pointing out that the region does not have its own currency: it uses the Russian ruble, which is “directly connected to Russian influence over the region.”
Shortly after reentering the race, Mr Bzhania again fell ill on March 2, a few weeks before the vote. In an unusual move, Abkhazia’s interim leader, Valeriy Bganba, issued a furious warning towards Russia, accusing Moscow of poisoning the presidential hopeful and calling the move “an overt attempt to destabilise the social-political situation in Abkhazia, which could lead to civil strife.”
4. Despite the facade, Abkhazia is a flawed democracy
“The state of democracy in breakaway Abkhazia is extremely fragile for many reasons,” Ms Chankvetadze continues, pointing to three specific issues.
“Firstly, Russia’s presence poses limitations to democratic development of the region (if any). Secondly, only ethnic Abkhaz are taking high or middle level positions in the region’s political establishment. And third, ethnic Georgians, living in Gali district, alongside with other restrictions are also deprived of the right to receive an education in their mother tongue, vote in elections and cross the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between Abkhazia and Georgia properly,”she says.
Prior to the vote, the Georgian government stressed that half a million of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been expelled from Abkhazia due to “ethnic cleansing.”
In its latest report on the breakaway region, Freedom House claimed that Abkhazia was only a “partly free” territory, with freedom scores similar to those of Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan.