Abkhazia’s elections headed to a run-off after a tie on August 25. The run-off contest was held on September 8 between incumbent Raul Khajimba and opposition candidate Alkhas Kvitsinia. Khajimba received 47.3 percent of the vote, beating out Kvitsinia’s 46.17 percent. Kvitsinia’s team disputed the results over Article 19 from the law “On the Election of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia,” which “ambiguously describes the protocol” to determine the winner of a second-round election (1). His argument—which Abkhazia’s supreme court struck down—was that the law requires the winner to receive over 50 percent of the vote.
At no surprise, Georgia declared the elections as illegal. “The Abkhaz authorities are de facto holding the illegitimate presidential election today. Georgia condemns this sham process as one more violation of our national sovereignty” said Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili on Twitter (4). Georgia and 14 of its western allies, including the United States, issued a joint statement on August 26 condemning the elections as illegitimate and calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from the region.
Abkhazia is a frozen conflict zone within UN-recognized Georgian territory. The area is only recognized as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru, the final of which received Russian foreign aid shortly after recognizing Abakhazia’s independence (12). While Georgia initially granted Abkhazia autonomy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it invaded the territory in 1992 after it proposed a federation (3). This war proved deadly for Abkhazia, which lost three-fifths of its pre-war population (9). Major conflict over the region broke out again in the nine-day 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Since then, with support from the Russian military, Abkhazia has isolated itself from Georgia and held separate elections.
In May, hundreds of protesters gathered in Sukhumi after candidate Aslan Bzhania came down with a mysterious illness and withdrew from the race. Protesters demanded that the government delay the election until autumn to give Bzhania time to recover and rejoin the race. After an emergency parliament session on May 20, the Abkhaz government postponed the elections, originally scheduled for July 21, to August 25. The postponement until August did not allow Bzhania enough time to recover. This move by parliament appeared to be an attempt to appease protesters, who demanded that the elections be postponed until November 23. The proposal lost in parliament after 17 of 32 members voted to oppose postponement. In order to win in parliament, the proposal would have needed a two-thirds majority (5).
Bzhania alleges that Khajimba’s team poisoned him. While doctors in Sochi and Moscow were unable to determine his illness, results from a Munich lab found large amounts of mercury and aluminum in his blood, “which could appear there only with the help of an external influence,” according to a statement his campaign issued. Khajimba’s team claimed that no external forces made him ill, that he had an autoimmune disorder. However, Bzhania’s body guards also became ill and were hospitalized, making poisoning a much more plausible cause than autoimmune disease (6).
Khajimba’s Kremlin Backing
Khajimba was the Kremlin’s favorite, and some Abkhazians suspect Russia was behind, or at least supported, the poisoning (2). Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Khajimba is a former KGB agent. Demonstrating his support, Putin publicly met with Khajimba three weeks before the polls opened. During the August 6 meeting, Putin said he hoped the election would “promote further stabilization” in Abkhazia (11). By stable, Putin is likely referring to keeping the region in Russia’s sphere of influence, as opposed to Georgia’s and the West’s.
The Kremlin has an interest in keeping Abkhazia in its sphere of influence as the frozen conflict in the region, as well as that in South Ossetia, prevents Georgia from fully joining the European Union, NATO, and other western organizations. Russian troops occupy about 20 percent of Georgian territory, a fact which in part led to the Tbilisi protests this summer (13). Russia shows no sign of easing its military support in Abkhazia, as it agreed to finance a modernization of Abkhazia’s military on August 23 (10).
Relations with Russia
However, Abkhazia is pushing towards independence, even from Russia. While it relies on Russia for its security and two-thirds of its budget, voters rejected an integration treaty with Moscow in 2014 and it is still illegal for any foreigners, including Russians, to buy real estate in the region. Since 2014, Moscow has provided Abkhazia with less aid and fewer Russian tourists have been visiting the region. As a result, Abkhazia’s budget has taken a major hit. An Abkhaz lawmaker called the 2019 budget “not of development but of stagnation” (2).
Bhzania and his replacement, Kvitsinia, represented the Amtsakhara party, “which originated as a public organization representing [the] concerns of veterans of the 1992-93 war” but morphed into a political party “promoting Abkhaz nationalism” (7). Amtsakhara’s nationalist positions present another reason for the Kremlin to back Khajimba. Nationalist moves by the Amtsakhara would tip the regional status quo and could cause more trouble for Russians living in the territory.
During the 2016 referendum “the debate in Abkhazia [was] not about whether partnering with Russia is good or bad, it’s about the quality of independence” (9). The same can be said about Abkhazia today. The region wants to carve out its own version of independence, which proves a fickle situation for Russia, which supports the territory in part to prevent Georgia’s accession to the EU. On the question of Abkhazia’s relations with Georgia, Khajimba is unlikely to warm to what his electorate views as an occupying state. With Russia, Khajimba will likely reexamine policies banning Russians from buying real estate. Without economic support from Russia, Abkhazia’s ambitions for independence from any country will run aground.
1. “Abkhazia: court confirms victory of Khajimba in presidential elections despite opposition protest.” September 20, 2019. JAMnews. https://jam-news.net/abkhazia-opposition-contesting-results-of-presidential-elections/.
2. De Waal, Thomas. 2019. “Abkhazia and the Danger of ‘Ossetianization’.” July 16. The Moscow Times. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/07/16/abkhazia-and-the-danger-of-ossetianization-a66437.
3. “Georgia: Latest Peace Proposal For Abkhazia A Nonstarter.” April 3, 2008. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/1079731.html.
4. “Georgian president labels Abkhazia election ‘a sham’.” August 26, 2019. Emerging Europe.
5. Gogoryan, Anaid. 2019. “Abkhazia’s Confused Elections.” June 26. Institute for War and Peace Reporting. https://iwpr.net/global-voices/abkhazias-confused-elections.
6. Khashig, Inal. 2019. “The poisoning of the Abkhaz opposition leader – did or didn’t it happen?” June 7. JAMnews. https://jam-news.net/the-poisoning-of-the-abkhaz-opposition-leader-did-or-didnt-it-happen/.
7. Lacroix, Rejeanne. 2019. “An Election Brings Abkhazia Back into Focus.” August 23. Fair Observer. https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/abkhazia-election-south-ossetia-georgia-russia-world-news-today-48059/.
8. Lomsadze, Giorgi. 2019. “Abkhazia presidential election heads to runoff.” August 26. Eurasianet. https://eurasianet.org/abkhazia-presidential-election-heads-to-runoff.
9. Markedonov, Sergei. 2016. “Referendum Fails to Unite Divided Abkhazia.” July 25. Carnegie Moscow Center. https://carnegie.ru/commentary/64160.
10. Menabde, Giorgi. 2019. “Russia Declares New Initiatives to Modernize Army of Breakaway Abkhazia.” September 25. Jamestown Foundation. https://jamestown.org/program/russia-declares-new-initiatives-to-modernize-army-of-breakaway-abkhazia/.
11. “Putin, Khajimba Meet in Sochi.” August 7, 2019. Civil.ge.
12. TASS. 2018. “Countries that recognized South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence.” May 28. https://tass.com/world/1007058.
13. The World Staff. 2019. “NATO agreed Georgia would join. Why hasn’t it happened?” March 27. Public Radio International. https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-03-27/nato-agreed-georgia-would-join-why-hasn-t-it-happened
14. Шария, Виталий. 2019. “Абхазская головоломка – 2019.” September 16. Эхо Кавказа. https://www.ekhokavkaza.com/a/30167359.html