Abkhazia goes to the polls on Saturday in order to elect its president and the contest is likely to be dominated by two contenders who last went head to head four years ago. Sergei Bagapsh is the current incumbent and Raul Khadzhimba is his main challenger and the current prime minister.
The Black Sea region, which traditionally attracted Soviet officials seeking rest and recuperation, is ostensibly identical in status to South Ossetia. Its independence is recognised by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The rest of the world considers it part of Georgia.
However, whilst prevailing opinion in Tskhinvali favours eventual absorption into the Russian Federation, and unification of the southern and northern parts of Ossetia, in Sukhumi there is a more complicated relationship with Abkhazia’s Moscow patron. Leaders insist that they are animated, not by an aspiration to reunify with Russia, but by the desire to achieve full independence for Abkhazia.
In the previous election the Kremlin offered its backing to Khadzhimba, and Bagapsh’s eventual victory was attributed to a buoyant sense of national identity, although he gained important votes from ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, who still number about 40,000.
This time, the potential electorate has been limited by a requirement for Abkhaz passports to be used as identification. Russia is not officially supporting any of the five strong field.
It is expected that the election could require a run off and that, in this eventuality, falsifications would be likely. Because Abkhazia is not a member country, OSCE observers will not be present to assess the legitimacy of the election. The Moscow Times reports that Russia’s Central Election Commission will attend. However, international observation will be badly circumscribed, in deference to Georgian territorial sensibilities.
Territorial integrity is certainly an important concept and unilateral declarations of independence should be discouraged in almost every circumstance. I am no more eager that Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria should be recognised internationally, than Kosovo. Perpetuating a dangerous precedent is no more desirable that the precedent itself.
However Abkhazia and South Ossetia have never willingly been part of an independent, post Soviet Georgian state. Certainly neither region assented to the unilateral abolition of their autonomy which Tbilisi attempted in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Georgia’s sovereignty never extended, de facto, to its breakaway territories.
It is up to the international community to deal with the circumstances in the Caucasus as they are, rather than as they would like them to be. In the FPC’s Spotlight on Georgia report, Thomas de Waal argued that the western policy response had not yet addressed the actual situation in the two territories. He called for ‘status neutral’ interventions, which would not necessarily entail abandoning support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Making a meaningful attempt to observe Abkhazia’s elections would be a useful start. And ultimately Georgia should be encouraged to institutionally acknowledge the regions’ exceptional circumstances.