London, United Kingdom (PressExposure) December 14, 2009 -- When Abkhazia elects a new president on Saturday, observers will be watching closely because the outcome of the vote is hard to predict and it will shape the future of one of the Caucasusâ most strategically important regions.
Officially, five candidates are vying for the tiny Black Sea territoryâs leadership, yet only two are seen as having a real chance to win âincumbent president Sergei Bagapsh and former vice president and prime minister Raul Khadzhimba.
Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state together with South Ossetia after the five-day war with Georgia in August 2008. But only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit, and most of the rest of the world continues to view the two territories as parts of Georgia controlled by separatists.
The winner of Saturdayâs election is unlikely to divert from the path of close association with Moscow, while Western influence in the region promises to remain minimal as long as no other countries recognize Abkhazia as independent, observers said.
âBoth sides will continue the policy of maximum integration with Russia while maintaining Abkhaziaâs independence,â said Sergei Markov, a State Duma deputy for United Russia.
Yet Abkhazia is not like South Ossetia, whose leadership has suggested in the past that it would like unification with Russia. Abkhaz leaders are adamant that they do not want to become a satellite but achieve real independence.
This stance helped Bagapsh to win the presidential election five years ago, when he beat the more pro-Russian Khadzhimba with the help of votes from Abkhaziaâs Georgian minority.
The October 2004 election ended in an impasse when Khadzhimba, who had been tacitly backed by then-President Vladimir Putin, refused to concede victory to Bagapsh. The vote was repeated in January 2005, when the rivals ran on a joint ticket and garnered more than 90 percent of the vote.
This time, voters without Abkhaz passports will not be allowed to vote after Khadzhimba successfully campaigned against a law that permitted voting by residents without the passports.
But Bagapsh might be able to harness the benefits of the national exuberance that has spread over the region since Moscowâs decision to recognize its independence. Since August 2008, he has acted closely with the Kremlin and signed numerous cooperation treaties.
Bagapshâs best chance is to win in the first round, said Alexander Krylov, a Moscow-based political analyst who studied Abkhaziaâs last presidential vote.
âIf a second round becomes necessary, it will be complicated and falsifications will be likely,â said Krylov, who works with the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations at the Academy of Sciences.
The other candidates in the weekend election are Beslan Butba, leader of the opposition Economic Development of Abkhazia Party; shipping company director Zaur Ardzinba; and unemployed philosopher Vitaly Bganba.
Khadzhimba has said he, Ardzinba and Butba would support each other should one of them reach the second round.
Krylov said the outcome of Saturdayâs vote was hard to predict because there was little information about voters. âTo my knowledge, votersâ lists will not be published,â Krylov said in an interview.
Batal Tapagua, head of Abkhaziaâs election commission, said Thursday that the region had 130,000 voters.
Abkhazia claim to have 215,000 residents, but international experts believe that the real figure is well under 200,000. The regionâs pre-1993 war population of 525,000 was more than halved when over 200,000 ethnic Georgians fled.
Voters must identify themselves by presenting their new Abkhaz passports, Krylov said, but he added that most of the regionâs remaining 40,000 Georgians had rejected them to keep their Georgian citizenship.
Many of Abkhaziaâs Georgians today live in Russia, and they have little hope of ever returning to their homeland. âIt is sad to see all this happening and we cannot take part,â said Valera Dzhalagonia, a building materials trader in the Moscow region.
âI have a Russian passport, but because of my name and birthplace I need a special permit to enter Abkhazia, and that is very difficult to get,â said Dzhalagonia, 54.
Krylov said it would help if Western election observers traveled to the region, and he criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation for sending observers only to member states.
OSCE spokesman Jens-Hagen EschenbÃ¤cher confirmed by e-mail that the organization could not send observers to Abkhazia.
Tapagua, Abkhaziaâs election chief, said he expected 83 observers from 21 countries, including some from the United States and Europe.
Krylov said observers from countries that did not recognize Abkhazia could only come as private citizens.
Russiaâs Central Election Commission has said it is sending an observation delegation led by commission chief Vladimir Churov.
With much of its territory in ruins since the vicious war with Georgia in the early 1990s, Abkhazia is heavily dependent on Russian aid. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised nearly $350 million in aid during a visit to Sukhumi, the regional capital, this summer.
European influence in the area, meanwhile, is stifled by a Western pledge to support Georgiaâs territorial integrity. âThe situation with Abkhazia has gotten much more difficult, both because of the bigger Russian influence and because Moscowâs recognition has forced Europe to maintain a stricter nonrecognition policy,â said Svante Cornell, research director of the Stockholm-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
The European Union had initiated a new push for a settlement between Tbilisi and Sukhumi just before the war in August 2008.
Igor Аkhba, Abkhaziaâs ambassador to Moscow, said he welcomed better relations with Europe and the West aimed at peace and security. âIf they want that, they should please do â just recognize us and send ambassadors,â he told The Moscow Times.
Cornell agreed that recognition was probably the only way to get a foothold into Abkhazia and compete with Moscow after the 2008 war.
âThe last thing [Russia] wants is European recognition because that would reduce its influence,â he said.
Assuming that this is unrealistic, the regionâs independence will probably continue at a level similar to that of Russiaâs ethnic republics, he said. âWe should compare Abkhazia to Tatarstan or Chechnya, were local leaders have a certain freedom of movement,â he said.
Copyright: The Moscow Times Source: http://www.newscolony.com