Sham elections in Abkhazia should not distract us from finding peace in the Caucasus

The Rt Hon Bruce George argues that elections due to take place in Abkhazia on August 26th will be no more than a sham and that UK policy makers must maintain their commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity.

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Campaign posters used in a hearts and minds approach
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Rt Hon Bruce George
On 18 August 2011 16:04

Later this month elections are taking place in Abkhazia. However, to describe them as elections in any traditional sense of the word is stretching the term to breaking point.

During my time as a Parliamentarian I regularly led monitoring missions of foreign elections, but I cannot think of one that took place in the circumstances of next week’s vote.

The territory, which along with South Ossetia is recognised by the international community as part of Georgia, remains under the occupation of Russian troops. Only certain members of the population are permitted to vote. And whoever wins will only have illusory power, with the Kremlin calling the shots.

I have just returned from Georgia, my second visit this year. I took part in a conference in Batumi, on the Black Sea coast, to discuss security issues and the steps Georgia is taking to prepare for NATO and EU membership. As Vice President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly I regularly did battle with those who wanted to turn a blind eye to Russian aggression. But at this conference there was a positive spirit and great ambition for Georgia’s future. The new hotels and rapid development of Batumi are testament to what is being achieved.

Compare this to life in Abkhazia. Residents live in rundown conditions. There is little or no infrastructure and corruption is rife. Russians are militarising the area, with one base holding as many as 4,500 soldiers. Weaponry, including S-300 surface to air missiles, have been stationed. It is a miserable situation for all concerned.

Let us not forget that many of Abkhazia’s inhabitants have been forced to leave in a co-ordinated campaign orchestrated by Moscow. Prior to 1992, ethnic Georgians made up half of the population of the area. Since then, the vast majority of Georgians have been forced out, their lives ruined, homes destroyed, and their property handed over to new Russian dwellers. These displaced people now live in other parts of Georgia, in accommodation provided by the Government, or with friends and family, but they dream of returning to their homes.

I discussed these matters with President Saakashvili on both of my recent visits to Georgia. I welcome his pledge, made to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, not to retake the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. His Government has put forward a strategy to win over hearts and minds.

The policy proposals include opening up Georgian healthcare and educational facilities to residents of Abkhazia, rebuilding transport links, and facilitating greater connections between communities. When residents see what is being achieved in Georgia, as I witnessed in Batumi and Tbilisi, and compare it with the dilapidation of Abkhazia, they will know there is a better way forward than life under Russian oppression.

But sadly, and outrageously, the people displaced by the Russian campaign of ethnic cleansing have no voice in the elections next week. The small remaining ethnic Georgian population are refused a vote. The thousands of residents expelled from Upper Abkhazia during the August 2008 war are not allowed a say. Nor are the almost four hundred thousand removed in previous conflicts.

Last time elections took place in Abkhazia they were condemned around the world. The European Union stated it did not “recognise the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place”. In addition, the EU added that “elections in this region of Georgia can only be valid after all refugees and internally displaced persons are given the right to a safe, secure and dignified return to their homes”.

Those arguments apply as strongly now as they did then. And it is notable that Russia’s campaign to gain international recognition for their annexation of Abkhazia has been a hopeless failure. The only countries that have gone along with it are the motley crew of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru.

It was election monitoring that first brought me to Tbilisi in 2003, when I exposed and condemned the corruption of the Shevardnadze regime. I went onto become the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia. The group contained politicians of all political persuasions, but we were united by a love of Georgia and a passion to help resolve the conflicts in the Caucasus.

The challenges in the region remain serious and significant.

In my view, it is vital that policymakers keep their eye on the ball and maintain their commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity. My experience of election monitoring means I know a sham election when I see one, and that is what will happen in Abkhazia next week.

That the Russians have responsibility for these elections, when in my view none of the elections in their own country have met credible international standards, would be amusing if it was not so serious. All of us in the West must remain vigilant in the face of Russian aggression and as determined as ever to see those displaced by this conflict returned to their homes.

The Rt Hon Bruce George served as the Member of UK Parliament for Walsall South from February 1974 until April 2010. He is the Vice President of the Security Institute and a former UK Parliamentary Representative to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE.

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