Abkhazia held a presidential election this past Sunday. Outside of the dwindling circle of Western Caucasus observers, few noted the importance of the election or even that it occurred. Why does it matter? The Caucasus is a pivotal region and the geographic point where the geostrategic interests of several prospective hegemons, countries with long-term interests in the transportation of natural resources, cross. Iran, Russia, and Turkey all have substantial interest in the continued stability of what is an essential geographical location for the transportation of energy resources extracted from the Caspian Sea basin.
Abkhazia is located in northeastern Georgia. Abkhazia officially declared secession in 1999 with Russian support. While the international community still recognizes the territory as part of Georgia, Abkhazia (along with South Ossetia) was officially declared an “occupied territory” by the Tbilisi government in late August of 2008 after the arrival of Russian military troops. While the issue of Abkhazian independence and autonomy, its administration by the newly independent former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1991, and its present status as an “unrecognized state” goes back generations, for our purposes here I will focus upon the period following the declaration of the region as an “occupied state” in mid-2008.
Following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Georgian authorities and government officials regularly accused Russia of supplying the separatist campaign in Abkhazia with weapons and money. While Russian troops remain in Abkhazia, separatist leaders have had a difficult time establishing international legitimacy for statehood. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Narau officially recognize Abkhazia as a state.
On June 1, Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab (considerably more Georgian-friendly than many separatist leaders preferred) stepped down, ostensibly ousted by large-scale protests following his failure to cede to the demands of separatists. In a May 5 ultimatum which demanded the dismissal of his government and the installation of radical reforms, President Ankvab was cornered by political opponents into ceding to the demands of a powerful separatist movement that was demanding radical reforms to established laws in the breakaway region. Following the political turmoil, Ankvab was unable to maintain his grip on power. He resigned June 1.
International observers from the Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organization (UNPO) conducted a Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM), and observers from 23 countries, were invited to monitor the election. Raul Khajimba, the presumptive favorite of campaign observers heading into Sunday’s contest, was determined to be the winner shortly after the polls closed:
The head of the region’s election commission, Batal Tabagua, told journalists on August 25 that Khajimba, who has unsuccessfully run for president three times since 2004, won 50.57 percent of the votes to avoid any runoff.
His main rival, Aslan Bzhania, gained 35.91 percent.
Mirab Kishmaria was third with 6.4 percent, followed by Leonid Dzapshba with 3.4 percent.
Turnout was about 60 percent. (RFE/RL, August 25)
The government of Azerbaijan issued an official announcement declaring its support for the “…sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia…’, underlined by Baku’s refusal to recognize the elections. Here we find geopolitical strategy. The interests of Azerbaijan and Georgia, though lacking a common thread of culture or religion, are bound by the necessity of transporting valuable natural resources, notably oil and gas, from the Caspian Sea basin to markets in Europe.
Baku and Tbilisi sustain close ties and the involvement of the government in Ankara ensures that NATO member-states will have at least a modicum of influence in ensuring that Georgia and Azerbaijan remain committed to common goals. Armenia, especially in the context of its battle with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, is a useful ally of Russia. The ties that bind Moscow and Yerevan will be wound tighter as a result, even as the Kremlin poses as an impartial mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.
For Russia, the opportunity to heighten their reach into the Caucasus is one that strategists in the Kremlin appear unable to avoid:
Abkhazia seeks to strengthen ties with Russia, but a full unification is not on the agenda, the chairperson of the Abkhazian Civic Chamber told Tass on Monday.
“The majority in Abkhazia believe the country must remain independent, but maintain very close relations with Moscow, as we have a very big programme in security sphere,” Natella Akaba said. “We live in a restive region, we see geopolitical processes underway,” with Georgia refusing to sign a peace treaty with Abkhazia, she added.
Focusing on relations with Russia after Abkhazia’s presidential election, she said “I think the agreements signed between Abkhazia and Russia don’t work in full”. “Russia is the only big state that recognized Abkhazia, it is our ally and there can be no alternative,” she added.
Commenting on the recent presidential election, she said it had proceeded calmly with “just a few unpleasant incidents”.
She also welcomed the fact that no second round would be needed, as “all in Abkhazia are a bit tired of political processes and want stability and certainty”. (Famagusta Gazette, August 25)
The election in Abkhazia was largely determined by voter turnout, pivoting solidly on the exclusion of ethnic Georgians. While beneficial for the success of Khajimba, the marginalization of Georgians (numbering roughly 20% of the population in Abkhazia) could also catalyze a counter-secessionist movement, encourage ethnic alignments that could encourage political fissures, and erode stability in the territory.
If history is any guide, the marginalization of ethnic minorities has a tendency to incite violent insurrection and rebellion. Given the interests of several powerful states in the future of the political apparatuses governing the Caucasus, it is advisable that the new administration in Sukhumi would seek to repair the damage done to the cohesiveness of the public in Abkhazia. The echoes of the Balkan wars of the 1990s are good historical precedent for failure to address historical grievances.
(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The writer wishes to thank both Kalitor and AJ for links and analysis)