Breakaway Abkhazia hold election for 'president'
Breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia voted for a president in an election hailed by sponsor Russia but shunned by most of the world.
The rebel Black Sea region of Abkhazia voted for a president on Saturday in an election hailed by sponsor Russia but shunned by most of the world.
The five-way race is the first since Moscow recognised the sub-tropical territory of 200,000 people as an independent state after a brief war with Georgia last year, and could prove a test of stability.
U.S. ally Georgia has branded the vote a "comedy" led by Russia, which has thousands of servicemen in the territory.
Semyon Grigoryev, Russia's ambassador in the sleepy seaside capital, said on Friday he was sure Abkhazia would pass its first democratic test since Russia's and Abkhazia's "fortunes became intertwined" with Kremlin recognition.
Officially the West will ignore the vote.
But Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, is watched closely for its ability to stir friction between Russia and Georgia in the volatile South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.
Incumbent president Sergei Bagapsh is running for a second term against four rivals who include former vice president and ex-KGB agent Raul Khadzimba and tycoon Beslan Boutba.
The opposition is already warning of foul play.
Russia does not want to be embarrassed by a repeat of the standoff that marred the last election in late 2004 when then Russian-backed Khadzimba challenged results that gave Bagapsh victory and there was unrest in Sukhumi.
"We have been recognised as independent and we liberated the Kodori Gorge," said artist and Bagapsh voter Roza Chamagua, referring to an enclave seized from Georgian control last year.
"I love him with all my soul, as a president and as a man."
Some analysts predict a run-off between Bagapsh and his strongest challenger. Moscow has not named a favourite.
Bagapsh draws support from the fact Russia recognised Abkhazia under his watch. Nicaragua and Venezuela followed suit.
But some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, accuse him of handing too much influence to former Soviet master Russia, impoverished Abkhazia's economic lifeline and military protector.
"We must preserve our dignity, defend our position, and not create some kind of amorphous space without rights or responsibility," Khadzimba said.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia threw off Georgian rule.
Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia in August 2008, drawing a devastating Russian counter-strike. Abkhazia took advantage to seize the Kodori Gorge held by Georgia.
Some 3,600 Russian servicemen now patrol its borders and stunning coastline, where Stalin's luxurious dacha still stands.
Russia also is building two military bases. But there is unease at the scale of the Russian presence and Abkhazia's huge dependence on Moscow for donations, pensions and investment.
Whoever wins will try to restore Abkhazia's former glory as the playground of the Moscow elite. But the result will make no difference to the West, which wants Abkhazia to re-integrate with Georgia -- something all candidates say will never happen.
Russian observers and local non-governmental organisations will monitor the election.
The right to vote is limited to Abkhaz passport holders, largely excluding some 40,000 remaining Georgians of which some 3,500 hold the passport.
Reuters Last Mod: 12 Aralık 2009, 11:44