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Political tensions continue in Abkhazia as opposition loses appeal over election

23 September 2019
The Abkazian Supreme Court. Photo: Apsadgil.

Abkhazia’s opposition runner-up has lost an appeal in court against the results of 8 September’s presidential vote, in which incumbent Raul Khadzhimba was re-elected. The opposition has vowed to continue to fight the result.

On Friday, Abkhazia’s Supreme Court struck down an appeal by opposition presidential candidate Alkhas Kvitsiniya, chair of the Amtsakhara Party. Kvitsiniya had appealed to the court to suspend the decision of the Central Election Commission (CEC) recognising incumbent Raul Khadzhimba as the winner of 8 September’s presidential election. 

A run-off was set for 8 September after none of the nine presidential hopefuls received enough votes to cross the 50% threshold required to win in the first round of the election on 25 August. Khadzhimba received 25% of the vote while Kvitsiniya came second with 23%. 

[Read more on OC Media: Incumbent president Raul Khadzhimba ‘wins Abkhazia poll’]

Dmitriy Shamba, representing the CEC, argued in court on 20 September that it would be wrong to merge votes cast ‘against all’, ‘the protest voting’ as he described, with the votes ‘of any candidate’. 

Kvitsiniya’s representatives vowed to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, Khadzhimba’s office told Russian news agency Ria Novosti that the president-elect would be sworn in on 9 October.

On 9 September, the CEC pronounced Khadzhimba (right) the winner after he won 47% of the vote, with Kvitsiniya trailing just over a percentage point behind

During the court hearings on 17–20 September, supporters of both candidates gathered in front of their offices separately to support their candidates. 

On 19 September, Khadzhimba confirmed to his supporters gathered in front of his office that two days earlier he met Kvitsiniya and offered him the position of Prime Minister, but that Kvitsiniya had refused. 

Khadzhimba also said that he had rejected a counter-offer from his opponent to make Aslan Bzhaniya Abkhazia’s Prime Minister. 

Kvitsiniya replaced Bzhaniya, an Abkhazian MP, as a candidate for the presidency after the latter fell suddenly ill and was hospitalised. The timing and seriousness of Bzhaniya’s illness triggered allegations among his supporters that he was poisoned. 

Opposition threats

In a 22 September interview with Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Bzhaniya insisted that ‘president was not elected’ in Abkhazia. Responding to a question about the opposition’s plans, Bzhaniya responded: 

‘All that Khadzhimba used for political goals will be applied by us with double the energy […] All that he used to do, will be repeated but only in a more precise and sharp manner’.  

After losing to Sergey Bagapsh in October 2004 presidential elections, Khadzhimba led mass upheaval occupying the Supreme Court and Parliament buildings. A political stand-off ultimately gained him the Vice President’s seat under Bagapsh. 

Khadzhimba ran again In December 2009, only to lose once again to Baghapsh. He came third in May 2011 elections. 

Aslan Bzhaniya. Photo: Facebook

The incumbent president won the presidency in the autumn of 2014, following yet another political stand-off earlier that year when Khazhimba’s supporters seized the Presidential Palace. 

In a separate public address following the Court's rejection of Kvitsiniya's lawsuit, Bzhaniya said that ‘only impostors can nominate themselves as elected president’. 

A ‘gentleman’s agreement’

Kvitsiniya disputed the legitimacy of Khadzhimba’s win as soon as preliminary results, which suggested that both candidates would end up below 50%, started to roll in on 8 September.

The opposition leader based his argument to scrap the results on Article 19 of the Law on the Election of the President of Abkhazia

It states that the winner in a run-off vote is the candidate who not only receives more votes than their opponent but whose share of the vote surpasses the number of ballots cast against them. 

Kvitsiniya dismissed a pledge he had made three days before the run-off with Khadzhimba to support the principle of defining a winner without taking into consideration votes cast ‘against all candidates’ (an option on the ballots) as counting ‘against’ the winner.

According to the CEC, over 3,100 voters, almost 4% of the 84,000 who voted, voted against both candidates on 8 September.

Kvitsiniya explained his change of heart to supporters gathered at his headquarters on the election night. He said that keeping his pledge would violate the election law and since ‘none of the candidates gathered enough votes to become President’, the CEC’s announcement needed to be challenged in court. 

On 9 September, the chair of the CEC, Tamaz Gogiya, dismissed Kvitsiniya’s appeal to recognise the elections as invalid and call new elections. Later that day, Gogiya announced the final results confirming that Khadzhimba had been re-elected and his running mate, Aslan Bartsits, was to be the new Vice-President.

The following day, as supporters of both Kvitsiniya and Khadzhimba held separate rallies in the capital Sukhumi (Sukhum), Khadzhimba was congratulated on his re-election by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. 

Russia and Nicaragua are among only five UN member states, together with Syria, Venezuela, and Nauru, that recognise Abkhazia as an independent country. The majority of the international community recognises it to be a part of Georgia. 

At the 42nd Regular Session of Human Rights Council, Georgia's Permanent Representative to the UN Victor Dolidze condemned recent parliamentary elections in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The day before the Supreme Court’s decision, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, also congratulated Khadzhimba on his re-election. 

On 23 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved his government’s proposal to finance the modernisation of Abkhazia’s armed forces, an agreement signed between the two sides on 23 August, two days before the first round of the presidential vote. 

Abkhazia's Defence Minister Mirab Kishmariya meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu in Moscow. Sreengrab from Russia’s Channel One.

Meeting with journalists on 10 September, Khadzhimba insisted that an earlier ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Kvitsiniya was ‘in line with the law’ and that there was no reason to doubt the election results.

Interventions, all sorts of

On 19 September, Abkhazian Human Rights Commissioner Asida Shakryl made an unexpected appearance at the Supreme Court hearing and requested to participate in the proceedings.  She claimed that the CEC ‘neglected’ the rights of voters who voted ‘against all’ candidates, but the Court denied her request.  

Shakryl told Apsny Today that by dismissing people’s votes ‘against all’, the CEC would ignore their ‘right to participate in governing the country through elections’.

A day earlier, former President of Abkhazia Aleksandr Ankvab also tried to intervene. 

‘Election results are being challenged in the court by one of the sides. However, and I am confident about it, any decision by the court will not be accepted either by the plaintiff or by the defendant. It will be followed by a series of new plaintiffs but every verdict will yet again be rejected not only by you, but […] by many of your supporters’ 

‘In my opinion, the existing situation can not be solved exclusively by legal instruments, it also needs a political decision’, Ankvab remarked in an open address to both candidates.

He suggested the lawsuit be dropped and for the two to re-run on a joint ticket — Khadzhimba for a president and Kvitsiniya as his vice president. 

On 20 September, before the Supreme Court announced their final ruling, Abkhazia's Orthodox Church sprinkled several locations of Abkhazia with holy water from a helicopter, Russian state-run outlet Sputnik Abkhazia reported

Praying ‘for peace in the republic and for the end of disagreement in the Abkhaz society’, priests sprinkled 12 litres of holy water. 

 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.