The Abkhazian Presidential election: an irrelevant sideshow
Abkhazia's recent election does nothing to strengthen the case for its independence. As long as Moscow continues its policy of annexing the province by stealth and sponsoring policies designed to prevent the return of ethnic Georgians, Abkhazia will remain the pariah of modern-day Europe.
On Friday, residents Abkhazia voted in an election to choose a successor to “President” Sergei Bagapsh, the man who had presided over the breakaway region of Georgia since 2005.
The election was won by “Acting President” Alexander Ankvab, a former Communist official who accumulated a vast business fortune after relocating to Moscow in the early 1990s. Upon his return to Abkhazia in 2004, he served as the breakaway Republic’s Prime Minister from 2005 before joining the Bagapsh administration as Vice-President last year.
While a lack of opinion polls and reliable news sources in Abkhazia has made the election difficult to follow, Ankvab’s personal fortune and influence as Acting President saw him gain “favourite” status early in the campaign.
He was elected with 55 percent of the vote, outpacing his nearest challenger Prime Minister Sergei Shamba by nearly thirty-four points.
In the hours following his victory, Ankvab issued a statement addressing the region’s relations with Moscow, describing Russia as Abkhazia’s “treasured… strategic ally” with whom his administration intends to “further develop” links.
Such a position is entirely predictable, particularly given that Russia (along with Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Pacific island of Nauru) is one of only a handful of states to recognise Abkazhia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Georgia.
While much attention has been trained on the other Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia since the Russian invasion in August 2008, Moscow has been far from intransigent towards Abkhazia in recent years. Russia has seized control of the region’s burgeoning construction sector, invested heavily in leisure industries and instigated direct rail and air links to Moscow - each of these efforts designed to weaken the chances of Georgia ever again asserting sovereignty over the region.
This election does nothing to strengthen the case for the independence of Abkhazia. Indeed, the basic mathematics associated with Friday’s poll merely serve to highlight the farcical nature of the Abkhaz independence movement and highlight the true extent of ethnic cleansing which has been perpetrated in the region.
Figures from the Moscow-based Interfax news agency suggest that a total of roughly 85,000 valid votes were cast on Friday from a total of 143,000 registered voters. Such voter participation figures represent but a fraction of the true population of Abkhazia.
According to estimates offered by the International Crisis Group, the total number of Georgians who have been expelled from their homes in the region since the start of the civil war in 1992 is estimated to stand at between 200,000 and 250,000 - a figure equivalent to roughly half of the pre-1992 conflict population of the region.
The formal position of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as adopted at its Budapest, Lisbon and Istanbul summits in 1994, 1996 and 1997, is to recognise the mass expulsion of ethnic Georgians ordered by the Russian-backed Abkhaz authorities as "war crimes".
To date, less than 47,000 of those forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in other areas of Georgia have returned to their homes, predominantly in the Gali area close to the Abkhaz line of occupation.
A Human Rights Watch report last year which examined the welfare of ethnic Georgians returning to the province was scathing, outlining the “arbitrary interference by Abkhazia's de facto authorities with returnees' rights to freedom of movement, education, and other political and economic rights”.
The evidence contained within the Human Rights Watch report appears to point to a clear violation of a May 2008 resolution of the United National General Assembly, demanding that the property rights of those Georgians temporarily displaced from the region be safeguarded. In reality, the majority of Georgian homes in Abkhazia have long been bulldozed in order to ensure that their return is a practical impossibility.
Beyond the physical damage which has been done to the homes of ethnic Georgians who may wish to return to the province, the Abkhazian regime have instituted a system in which all those in the province who wish to purchase property, obtain educational qualifications or pass freely across the line of occupation must obtain Abkhaz ‘nationality’ documents. Residents of the region are also issued with Russian passports in a clear effort by the Kremlin to further exert its influence over the province.
For the majority of Georgians, leaving the province altogether is preferable to essentially accepting either Russian nationality or the ‘sovereignty’ of the Abkhaz government over their home territory. As such, Human Rights Watch has been further critical of the regime for erecting barriers to civil and political rights that “create serious obstacles for large-scale, sustainable returns”.
Despite claims from Moscow and the Ankvab campaign that the elections are practical demonstration of Abkhazia’s will for self-determination, the results have rightly been ignored by the international community. Both the State Department and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy have been clear in their commitment to the territory integrity of Georgia.
While politicians in Georgia have, over the past two decades, shown an occasional tendency to resort to bellicose language when outlining their proposals to reintegrate Abkhazia into its territory, the Saakashvili regime’s approach has been far more practicable. All residents of Abkhazia are now fully entitled to enter areas under Georgian government control to access employment opportunities, education and healthcare facilities. The prospect of full autonomy for Abkhazia is now on the table, including promises from the Tbilisi authorities to protect the teaching of the Abkhaz language in public schools and safeguard the province’s distinct religious freedoms.
Abkhazia’s future status – whether that takes the form of full independence or regional autonomy – is not, however, a matter for either the Saakashvili government in Tbilisi or the Ankvab administration in Sokhumi. The decision must lie with all of the people of Abkhazia, not simply those permitted to participate in this sham “Presidential” election.
As long as Moscow continues its policy of annexing the province by stealth and sponsoring policies designed to prevent the return of ethnic Georgians, Abkhazia will remain the pariah of modern-day Europe.
Daniel Hamilton is Director of Big Brother Watch. He writes in a personal capacity.
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