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Incumbent president Raul Khadzhimba ‘wins Abkhazia poll’

9 September 2019

 

Raul Khadzhimba casting his vote (official picture)

Incumbent president Raul Khadzhimba has narrowly seen off opposition challenger Alkhas Kvitsiniya in Abkhazia’s presidential run-off, preliminary results suggest.

According to the results released on Monday by Abkhazia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), Khadzhimba won 47% of votes in Sunday’s election, beating Alkhas Kvitsiniya who received 46%. Turnout was 66%. The final results are expected within 3 days.

CEC chair Tamaz Gogiya said that the count did not yet include ballots from the village of Pskhu, but that they would not affect the overall outcome.

Following the announcement, Kvitsiniya demanded that the results be voided, claiming that Khadzhimba ‘failed to garner the number of votes necessary according to the law’ as he failed to win over 50%. The option to vote ‘against all candidates’ was on the ballots, with 3,154 people choosing this option.

Late on Sunday, several political parties and organisations supporting Kvitsiniya, including Amtsakhara, United Abkhazia, and the National Front of Abkhazia, voiced a similar demand.

Three candidates who ran in the first round, Astamur Kakaliya, Artur Ankvab, and Oleg Arshba also appealed to the CEC with a similar call.

On 5 September, just days before the vote, CEC issued a statement clarifying that candidates did not need to pass 50% in order to win, only to gain more votes than their opponent, provided at least 25% of voters cast their ballots.

Supporters of Khadzhimba scolded the opposition contender for breaking his vow in early September not to question the legitimacy of results in the event the candidate with the most votes failed to pass 50%.

Tamaz Gogiya said that candidates had the right to challenge the results within three days after the announcement of the final numbers.

If 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 was opposition MP Dmitry Dbar.

Abkhazians voted in 154 polling stations on Sunday, including two in Russia: in Moscow and Cherkessk, the capital of the Republic of Karachay–Cherkessia, which borders Abkhazia to the north.

According to the Central Election Commision (CEC), over 127,000 people were eligible to vote.

Observers included MPs from the Russian Duma’s foreign relations and defence committees and delegations from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and South Ossetia.

The foreign ministry of Georgia, which has never recognised the legitimacy of any elections held in Abkhazia since losing control over the territory in the early 1990s, denounced the vote on 25 August, calling it ‘another illegal act directed against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia’. The ministry reiterated their position on 8 September.

The election was also condemned by Azerbaijan and Ukraine, and by 15 western countries, including the UK and the US, in a joint statement.

What happened during the first round?

None of the nine candidates competing for Abkhazia’s top political post overcame the 50% threshold to win the first round on 25 August outright.

The final results, announced two days after the vote, sent incumbent President Raul Khadzhimba (with 25% of votes) and the leader of the opposition Amtsakhara Party, Alkhas Kvitsiniya (with 23%) to the second round. Turnout in the first round was 67%.

[For more on the campaign, read on OC Media: Abkhazian presidential elections to go to second round]

Kvitsiniya, who lagged behind Khadzhimba by almost 1,600 votes, beat another opposition leader, Oleg Arshba, by just 327 votes.

Most of the candidates conceded defeat and no candidate was reported to be challenging the results of the first round.

Issues and TV debates

Speaking to Ekho Kavkaza after casting his ballot on Sunday, Kvitsiniya said that the election climate on the voting day was not tense but complained about the use of ‘administrative resources’ by his opponent’s camp.

During a TV debate with Khadzhimba on 6 September, Kvitsiniya accused his opponent of intensifying ‘massive’ roads and infrastructure rehabilitation works on the eve of elections.

The televised debate lasted for over two hours, during which time opposition challenger Kvitsiniya criticised the incumbent president for rising levels of crime, a lack of jobs, and for raising taxes that he said hindered the development of local business.

Throughout his campaign, Kvitsiniya ran on a promise to stimulate jobs by helping agriculture and industry in Abkhazia.

Along with corruption and energy policy, an alleged hike in organised crime was among the top issues in the election.

The killing of a Russian national in Ochamchira (Ochamchire) District and an assassination attempt on another in Gagra District within the span of two days in mid-January made some in the Russian media talk about ‘an open hunt’ on Russian businessmen residing in Abkhazia.

This exasperated Abkhazian fears of a decline in tourism, a crucial sector in Abkhazia’s economy.

Another high-profile case this year was the kidnapping of Omar Mertskhulava from the village of Gumista near the capital Sukhumi in April.

In March, Khadzhimba submitted to Abkhazia’s parliament a draft ‘anti-crime’ bill. If passed, it would criminalise membership of groups with ties to ‘thieves-in-law’ — high-ranking members of organised criminal groups.

During the election debate, Khadzhimba claimed that although there were 18 cases of kidnapping within the last five years, the authorities were able to solve six of them.

Ex-president Ankvab endorses opposition leader

On the eve of the run-off, Abkhazia’s third president, Aleksandr Ankvab, who backed Oleg Arshba in the first round, endorsed Kvitsiniya for president. Ankvab was ousted from power by Khadzhimba in 2014 with substantial help from Russia.

Ankvab, 66, was not able to run for the presidency as the Constitution of Abkhazia puts an age limit of 65 for candidates.

Khadzhimba’s camp reacted promptly to the news, hinting in a statement on 6 September that Ankvab’s endorsement was opportunistic, and claiming he had been offered a position in Kvitsiniya’s administration.

Kvitsiniya denied rumours he had offered Ankvab the Prime Minister’s post.

Five days before the second round, three former presidential candidates Almas Dzhopua, Artur Ankvab (no relation with the ex-president) and Astamur Tarba (who was disqualified after his running mate dropped out) announced they would launch Alternative, a political alliance pushing to reform the constitution, law enforcement system, and work on problems in Abkhazia’s energy sector.

Bzhaniya’s ‘poisoning’

The Amtsakhara Party chose Kvitsiniya to run as a replacement for Aslan Bzhaniya, whom the wider opposition coalition centred around Amtsakhara regarded as the main challenger to Khadzhimba.

Bzhaniya dropped out of the running after falling suddenly ill on 17 April. According to opposition alliance the National Movement for the Protection of Statehood (OND), he had to be hospitalised first in Moscow before being taken for further treatment in Berlin. Bzhaniya’s team claimed he was poisoned.

In May, supporters blocked the main motorways in Abkhazia and briefly paralysed public transport in Sukhumi, demanding the elections, slated for 21 July, be delayed.

The Abkhazian authorities denied allegations of Bzhaniya’s poisoning, but on 21 May, 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 first round, Bzhaniya’s team released a statement from the former candidate calling on Abkhazians to vote for Kvitsiniya.

Aslan Bzhaniya vowed to ‘stand by’ Kvitsiniya as soon as he recovered. Photograph: Apsny Today.

On 4 September, Bzhaniya intervened again, releasing a video address in support of Kvitsiniya.

Disenfranchised ethnic minorities

A week before Sunday’s vote, supporters of both presidential contenders accused each other of voter intimidation.

Khadzhimba’s camp reported ‘intimidation’ against supporters in Gali (Gal) District by the opposition. Addressing residents of Gali, they spoke of the ‘achievements’ of the incumbent president in ‘normalising’ the situation in Gali, expressing hope that they would support him in the run-off.

Gali’s population, which is overwhelmingly ethnic-Georgian, has long complained of discrimination by the Abkhazian authorities.

On 3 September, Kvitsiniya’s camp accused supporters of Khadzhimba of visiting and directly intimidating ethnic Armenians in Abkhazia, and also of pressuring ethnic Russians and Armenians through phone calls from unidentified numbers.

In recent years, the legal and political rights of non-Abkhaz minorities were closely tied to Abkhazia’s controversial citizenship policy and passport regime.

In line with the 2015 Law on Citizenship, voters were required to present new Abkhazian passport, making citizenship available only to those with proof that they had resided in Abkhazia for five years prior to the proclamation of Abkhazian Independence in 1999.

This process, which started on the eve of the 2014 presidential elections, disenfranchised almost 23,000 voters, including most ethnic Georgians in the Gali District, who were only allowed to return to Abkhazia in 1999.

Stella Adleyba reported for OC Media in early 2019 that the application of the citizenship law mostly affected Georgians, Armenians, Russians and other ethnic minorities, less so ethnic Abkhaz people.

Meeting with presidential candidate Alkhas Kvitsiniya on 5 September, some representatives of Abkhazia's Russian community complained about obstacles to renewing their passports.

 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.

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