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‘Competing to be most pro-Russian’: Abkhazia prepares for Russian presidential elections

13 March 2024
Illustration: Tamar Shvelidze/OC Media

Abkhazia’s government and opposition have for months been calling for Abkhazian citizens to vote in the upcoming Russian presidential elections. While both sides have openly praised Russia’s president, the mood amongst Abkhazia’s people is less clear-cut. 

From 15–17 March, many residents of Abkhazia will vote in the Russian presidential elections, which are expected to result in Vladimir Putin’s reelection for a fifth term. According to Russian media, more than half of Abkhazia’s population hold Russian citizenship. 

Abkhazia’s government has been outspoken in its support for both the election process and Putin himself. 

In December, Abkhazia’s President Aslan Bzhaniya announced that ‘all the necessary conditions’ would be created for those with Russian citizenship to vote, with 30 polling stations to operate in Abkhazia. 

‘We need to fully prepare for this very important event in order to reach the largest number of voters’, said Bzhaniya, also noting that Abkhazia’s people had ‘great respect and sympathy’ for Putin. 

Speaking two months later, he added that officials should provide comprehensive assistance to Russia’s embassy in Abkhazia in organising voting, and run campaign events for state and municipal employees to increase voter turnout. 

Russia has also been working to mobilise Abkhazia’s voters. The country’s ambassador to Abkhazia, Mikhail Shurgalin, announced in February that Russian citizens in Abkhazia would even be able to vote using expired passports. 


‘You can’t cross the border [with an expired passport], but you can vote for a president’, one resident of Sukhumi (Sukhum) told OC Media.

And Abkhazia’s officials have made clear which president that should be.

Speaking at a session of a youth forum in Abkhazia on 12 March, Inal Khishba from the Presidential Administration stated that  Abkhazia’s youth ‘support President Putin and his policy’. 

‘We have no doubt that under his leadership, Russia will overcome all difficulties and emerge victorious’, said Khishba.

A day later, the secretary of Abkhazia’s security council and chair of the ruling United Abkhazia party, Sergei Shamba, stated that the party ‘unanimously supported’ Putin. 

However, sentiment is significantly less unified amongst Abkhazia’s population, particularly in the wake of a number of scandals regarding Russia’s involvement in Abkhazia. 

Mixed opinions

In 2023, there was significant conflict between Abkhazia’s ruling party and the opposition regarding its relationship with Russia. 

The controversial transfer of the Pitsunda Dacha to Russia and disputes over changes to planning laws that were thought to make it easier for Russian citizens to buy property in Abkhazia were long-running disputes that remain contested. 

Since the beginning of 2024, tensions have only intensified. In February, President Bzhaniya proposed a  ‘foreign agent’ law that appeared to closely mirror Russia’s. The law was understood to threaten civil society organisations and individuals who opposed the government, and prompted strong condemnation from the opposition. The weeks following also saw a number of opposition figures detained and interrogated by Russian border guards, as well as the leaking of controversial documents suggesting that Russia’s National Guard could be deployed to Abkhazia to maintain public order, further driving concerns about the involvement of Russia in Abkhazian politics. 

Despite the events of the past months, older adults in Sukhumi who spoke to OC Media appeared to enthusiastically support the current Russian government. 

One resident recalled that during the last presidential elections in 2018, people were able to vote several times at different polling stations.

‘I voted at three polling stations in Sukhum: in the New District, next to the supermarket, and in the city centre’, she said. ‘You give your passport, they give you a ballot, they don’t make any marks in the passport. The fact of my voting is recorded at the polling station, but the information is not transmitted to others.’

The woman added that last time she voted for Vladimir Putin, and intended to use the same approach this time. 

‘I love Putin. He gave me citizenship, and I began to receive a pension under him, whereas before that my children helped me with money. The young people themselves were living from penny to penny, and they still supported me’, she said, adding that her son would take her to the polling stations. 

She noted that she was a ‘labour veteran’ — a person who has spent the majority of their life working — and that it was only Putin who had given her a pension. 

Amongst younger people, however, there was notable opposition to the current Russian government. 

Of five people under 25 that OC Media spoke to, all of whom were eligible to vote, only two said that they would vote in the upcoming elections, but ‘definitely not for Putin’. Asked for their reasons for abstaining or opposing the current president, they cited their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and their desire for development in Abkhazia. 

But many of Abkhazia’s young people do not have a Russian passport: after Russia recognised Abkhazia in 2008, the simplified process for receiving Russian citizenship was suspended. As a result, many who might have received citizenship during their childhood years did not, leaving many under 30 with only Abkhaz citizenship. 

‘No reason to doubt Russia’

Despite the tensions between the government and opposition over relations with Russia, in the run-up to the presidential elections, they have shown uncharacteristic unity. 

Five leading opposition political parties and public organisations on 7 March issued a call encouraging people to go to the polls, and praising Russia’s current president. 

‘The Russian Federation is our faithful friend and ally, which recognised the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia in 2008’, states the appeal. ‘We highly value the fraternal relations between our countries and are very grateful to the role of the current President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, in the fate of our motherland.’

Some have suggested that the opposition’s alignment with the government is a move intended to demonstrate loyalty to Russia, and thereby prevent the government from accusing them of ‘anti-Russian sentiments’. 

One commentator from Sukhumi suggested that the government and opposition were ‘playing a game of who is more pro-Russian’ with the presidential elections. 

They additionally noted that Abkhazia would hold its own presidential elections in 2025, suggesting that that could explain the opposition’s deference to the Kremlin. 

‘In many ways, the result of these elections will depend on which candidate Moscow will bet on’, they noted.

And Abkhazia’s government is making sure that Moscow knows they have their full support. 

In late February, President Aslan Bzhaniya stated at a roundtable meeting on Russian-Abkhazian relations in light of the Russian presidential elections that ‘Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, has never given us any reason to doubt anything’. 

‘After recognition, the level of our security has increased qualitatively. We were able to acquire sovereignty over the entire territory of Abkhazia only in 2008 with the decisive role of Russia,’ he noted.

‘It must be clearly stated that the possibility of our serious development is connected only with Russia’, added Bzhaniya, adding that Russia was Abkhazia’s ‘only ally and guarantor of security’. 

 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.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.
Read in Russian on SOVA.News.
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