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The latest election had a record number of nine candidates, including the incumbent Raul Khadzhimba, who has held the office since 2014 and ran for the fifth time. Khadzhimba will likely face opposition candidate Alkhas Kvitsiniya in the run-off ‘within two weeks’.
The presidential election in Abkhazia will go to a run-off after no candidate won more than 50% in Sunday’s vote, according to preliminary results from Abkhazia’s Election Administration announced on Monday.
With votes from 97% of precincts counted, the incumbent President Raul Khadzhimba leads with 24% followed by Alkhas Kvitsiniya, chair of opposition Amtsakhara party and the former Vice Mayor of capital Sukhumi (2005–2014), with 22%.
Oleg Arshba, the former Interior Minister and ex-head of State Security Service who was backed by former president Aleksandr Ankvab, came third with slightly less than 22%.
‘Whoever wins second place seems likely to win the second round as those who will transfer their first preference to Khadzhimba are less obvious’, Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University told OC Media.
In case Khadzhimba is confirmed as president, his running mate Aslan Bartsits, the Chair of the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia, will be Abkhazia’s new Vice-President. Kvitsiniya’s running mate is MP Dmitry Dbar.
The turnout, according to the CEC, was 67%.
Tamaz Gogiya, the Chair of CEC, said on 26 August that there was no violation observed during the vote that could have jeopardised the overall result.
The latest presidential run saw a record number of candidates — nine, compared to four and five in previous elections.
Other relatively visible candidates included MP Almas Dzhopua, 40, the youngest among the contenders, yet another former chief of State Security Service Astamur Tarba, former Interior Minister Leonid Dzapshba fielded by Akzaara (‘unity’) party, and former Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Adzinba.
There were also two newcomers: Astamur Kakaliya who actively campaigned for anti-corruption bill on illegal enrichment of government officials, and a history professor Artur Ankvab.
No women were among presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
All winners in Abkhazia’s second, third, fourth and the previous, fifth presidential elections (2005, 2009, 2011, 2014) managed to avoid a run-off, but none ever garnered over 65% of support.
Observers and reactions outside Abkhazia
According to Abkhazian state-run news agency Apsnypress, 67 international observers — including from Russia, South Ossetia, Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Belarus — followed the voting process.
A handful of European observers were headed by Bundestag member from the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), Stefan Keuter. The group also included member of Berlin’s chamber of deputies Gunnar Lindemann (also from AfD) and Patrick Poppel, Director of Austrian Suvorov Institute.
Among the observers, there were also members of international group Friends of Crimea, a Kremlin-supported association aiming at fostering international ‘recognition of the 2014 Crimea referendum’s legitimacy’.
The foreign ministry of Georgia, which never recognised a legitimacy of any elections held in Abkhazia since losing control over it after the 1992–1993 military conflict, denounced the vote on 25 August, calling it ‘another illegal act directed against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia’.
Also today, on 26 August, Abkhazia marks the anniversary of Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence in the aftermath of the 2008 August War.
Only four other UN members recognise Abkhazia as an independent state, with the rest of the international community recognising it as a Georgian territory.
Ethnic Abkhaz president and the language issue
Article 49 of Abkhazia’s constitution required from candidates to be 35–65 of age and to be an ethnic Abkhaz who has resided in Abkhazia for the past 5 years.
The Law on the Election of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia also required from the presidential candidate to be fluent in the Abkhaz language, tested by a special commission set up by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).
While the CEC said that all candidates passed the language test before the election date, the state TV complained on 12 August that some of the contenders frequently replied in Russian during their one-hour interviews, ‘violating’ thus the rules set by the election authorities.
The candidates were allowed to buy additional airtime to communicate in Russian, but those not doing it or not being able to buy it managed in this way to get their messages across to non–Abkhaz-speaking population.
The recent Law on State Language requires civil servants to speak Abkhaz, something that different groups had been complaining to be a formality still not implemented.
A series of individual interviews with the candidates were followed on 23 August by debates, for which three candidates, including President Khadzhimba, did not show up. Candidates reprimanded incumbent Khadzhimba for his absence, and Oleg Arshba refused to participate for that reason.
During the debate, candidate Artur Ankvab agreed to measures aimed at fostering the Abkhaz language but protested the expectation to speak in Abkhaz only.
‘There is no candidate here who wouldn’t be able to express […] himself in Abkhaz, but we live in a multiethnic state and apart from Abkhaz, the Russian-speaking population also needs to understand us’, Ankvab said.
Alleged poisoning and shooting
Amtsakhara presented Kvitsiniya as a replacement for Aslan Bzhaniya, whom the wider opposition coalition, centred around Amtsakhara, regarded as the main challenger to Khadzhimba.
Bzhaniya didn’t run after, according to his opposition alliance National Movement for the Protection of Statehood (OND), he suddenly fell ill and had to be hospitalised first in Moscow, then in one of the clinics in Berlin.
Bzhaniya’s team claimed poisoning. In May, they blocked the main motorways in Abkhazia and briefly paralysed public transport in capital Sukhumi demanding the elections, slated for 21 July, to be delayed.
The Abkhazian authorities denied allegations over Bzhaniya’s poisoning, but on 21 May, as a compromise to opposition groups, Khadzhimba agreed to set the voting day for 25 August.
Kvitsiniya was never endorsed by all the groups that had mobilised behind Bzhaniya, but three days before the voting day, Bzhaniya’s team released a statement from the former candidate calling on Abkhazians to vote for Kvitsiniya.
The election period was also marred by a shooting: According to Abkhazia’s Interior Ministry, on 21 August, the headquarters of the presidential candidate Oleg Arshba in the village Mgudzirkhua (Mugudzirkhva) of Gudauta District was shot multiple times by unidentified people.
The authorities said the investigation was pending.
Contested citizenship policy
The Abkhazian authorities claimed that over 121,600 nationals were eligible to choose their favourite from among nine candidates in 154 polling stations, including two outside Abkhazia: in Moscow and Cherkessk, the capital of the Russian Republic of Karachay–Cherkessia bordering Abkhazia to the north.
On 16 August, Tamaz Gogiya, the Chair of CEC, said there were approximately 133,000 eligible voters during the parliamentary elections in 2017. He explained the drop in number with the unfinished passport replacement process, including 5,000, according to him, issued but not yet taken by owners.
The CEC later announced that 129,000 voters were registered for the election.
The voters were required to present new Abkhazian passport issued after adoption of 2015 Law on Citizenship.
The law made the updated ‘internal’ passports, IDs, and citizenship available to be reacquired only to those with a proof of residing in Abkhazia for five years prior to the proclamation of Abkhazian Independence in 1999.
This process, started on the eve of 2014 presidential elections, disenfranchised almost 23,000 voters, mostly ethnic Georgians in the Gali District who were only allowed to return to Abkhazia in 1999. It coincided with the opening of polls in Istanbul and Cherkessk for Abkhaz diaspora voters. However, currently those with double citizenship are not allowed to vote.
[Read more in Stella Adleyba's feature on OC Media: Equal and more equal: Abkhazia’s passport policy]
On 15 August, presidential contender Almas Dzhopua complained about Georgia issuing Georgian passports to Abkhazians as a basis to provide them with medical treatment.
Georgians of the Gali District
In recent years, the legal status of ethnic Georgian population living in Abkhazia’s easternmost Gali (Gal) District has been a subject of controversy.
A week before the voting day, Khadzhimba-backing Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia lauded the incumbent president and his government for stopping mass issuance of Abkhazian citizenship and passports to ‘Georgian nationals’ living in Gali District.
In March 2017, only 0.5% of Gali residents were allowed to vote due to their legal status, a result of new citizenship policy.
Granting passports to those residing in Gali District and holding residence permits and also Georgian citizenship has been regarded by all known political groups in Abkhazia as a security matter.
Meeting Gali residents several days before the voting day, Kvitsiniya insisted on their right to hold citizenship, adding that ‘sitting on two chairs would be impossible’, implying that they had to renounce their Georgian citizenship first.
Russian–Abkhazian past presidential election crises
Khadzhimba, 61, ran partly on his record of securing Syria’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence and advancing Abkhazia’s ties with Russia.
Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 6 August, Khadzhimba thanked him for Russia’s support in rebuilding Abkhazia’s infrastructure with financial help through Russia’s Investment Programme. Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov visited Abkhazia a week earlier to oversee the progress.
In June, Russia promised to approve ₽4.5 billion ($68 million) to rebuild Abkhazia, mostly its infrastructure, by 2022.
Two days before the voting day, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu also announced the financing of the modernisation of Abkhazia’s armed forces.
‘Our meeting is taking place on the eve of the elections in Abkhazia, and I very much hope that they will be held in strict accordance with democratic principles’, Putin said during the meeting.
After serving as prime minister, then as vice president, and later becoming an MP, Raul Khadzhimba returned to power through May 2014 protests by opposition groups.
As a result of the mid-2014 political crisis, Khadzhimba replaced ousted President Ankvab through snap elections, with substantial help from Russia.
In the August 2014 snap presidential elections, he barely passed the threshold with 50.6%, winning a presidential seat after failing in his previous three attempts in 2011, 2009, and 2004.
Russia intervened in the political crisis in Abkhazia also on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections, actively supporting Khadzhimba even after he came second, falling behind Sergey Bagapsh with an 18% gap. After pressuring Bagapsh amidst civil confrontations between the two camps, he decided to run with Khadzhimba on a joint ticket as his vice-presidential candidate in 2005 snap elections.
Clampdown on corruption — a popular demand
Khadzhimba laid out his plans for the second term on 24 July, vowing to tackle corruption and make the government more open and transparent, including the incomes of government officials.
Abkhazian lawmakers approved an anti-corruption draft law with the first hearing in February, against the backdrop of a rally outside the legislature organised by the activist groups that demanded criminalisation of illegal enrichment.
The initiative group that mobilised on social media before hitting the streets in February campaigned for over a year for ratifying Article 20 of the UN Convention Against Corruption.
The draft bill, initially pre-approved, got later stuck in the parliament amidst the debates over whether all civil servants should declare property and income, and which would be a supervisory body overseeing the transparency.
Apart from tackling the corruption, Khadzhimba promised to reform Abkhazia’s law enforcement system and also called on lawmakers to support his bill against organised crime, targeting international crime groups.
Khadzhimba’s anti-crime draft bill, submitted to Abkhazia’s parliament in March, would also criminalise membership in organised crime tied to ‘thieves-in-law’.
Along with corruption in the government and energy policy, alleged hike in organised crime was among the top election issues through recent months.
The killing of one Russian in Ochamchira (Ochamchire) District and an assasination attempt on another in Gagra District within two days in mid-January made some of Russian media talk about ‘an open hunt’ on Russian businessmen residing in Abkhazia.
This exasperated Abkhazian fears of decline in tourism, a major sector in Abkhazia’s economy.
One of the high-profile cases this year was also the kidnapping of Omar Mertskhulava from the village of Gumista of Sukhumi District in April. The high-profile case turned into an even bigger scandal after one of the suspects detained for the kidnapping was tortured to death by the Interior Ministry officers during the questioning.
Oil and energy among hot campaign issues
On 20 August, seven presidential candidates (one of them was disbarred from running later), including possible runner-up Alkhas Kvitsiniya, issued a joint statement lambasting President Khadzhimba for advocating a ‘predatory’ and non-transparent oil deal that he was critical of before his presidency.
The group of seven also reprimanded Khadzhimba and his government for hiding from the public that the state company Chernomorenergo didn’t own the Enguri (Ingur) Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP).
The candidates demanded a transparent audit of the oil and energy sectors and renationalising Enguri HHP.
The winner of the third place, Oleg Arshba never shared the sentiment of the authors of the statement, and apart from the incumbent president not being present, named some of candidates’ intention to ‘scandalously’ speculate on oil production and energy issues as a reason to also pass up TV debates.
On 16 August, presidential candidate Almas Dzhopua, who headed the parliamentary investigative committee into Chernomorenergo, accused the Speaker Valery Kvarchiya of blocking the release of the inquiry.
He nevertheless shared with media his ‘own conclusions’ as of the Committee Chair, alleging that Chernomorenergo management was in ‘corruption scheme’ with Georgian Economy Ministry and that Abkhazia had no actual control nor they actually received the alleged 40% share of generated energy meant for Abkhazian consumption.
The electricity generated by Enguri HHP is shared by both Abkhazian and Georgian sides.
On 19 August, presidential candidate Astamur Tarba, who headed the security service and later the Security Council for 10 years overall, attacked the government for the oil extraction project by company Abkhaz Oil in Ochamchira District, something that he called dangerous for Abkhazia’s ecology.
Tarba also agreed with others that ‘foreign companies’ owning most of Abkhazia’s energy sector was ‘unacceptable’.
Alkhas Kvitsiniya, whose Amtsakhara party initially supported oil extraction idea, insisted during the election campaign that he was open to any source that Abkhazia would benefit from, but they never were for ‘uncontrolled’ oil extraction and ecological concerns should also be considered.
In early August, former Abkhazian President Aleksandr Ankvab, who backed Oleg Arshba as president, criticised the current political leadership during one of the meetings with voters for failing to develop cooperation with Russia and its state-owned Rosneft company.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.