The campaign posters have long been up on every billboard and lamppost, the candidates have been giving impassioned press conferences and trading accusations, and now the motley crew of “international” election observers has arrived in town. It doesn’t matter that most of the world thinks the country doesn’t exist – the presidential election in Abkhazia has captured the public imagination here.
The people of the small subtropical strip of land on the Black Sea coast are voting today in their first presidential election since Russia recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after last summer’s war with Georgia. Only Nicaragua followed suit, with European nations and most of the rest of the world insisting that Abkhazia is an inseparable part of Georgia.
But Tbilisi has had no sovereignty here since a vicious war in the early 1990s, when the large Georgian population was kicked out. Georgian houses in Sukhumi still stand ruined and abandoned, and in the Gali region, where ethnic Georgians have returned, tensions are high. While Abkhazia has not taken orders from Tbilisi for over two decades, recognition from Moscow has led to a burst of investment in the country, which largely survives on revenues from its Black Sea tourist industry.
There are five candidates standing for office – none of whom favour any kind of negotiations with Georgia. The main platform of incumbent Sergei Bagapsh is based on the fact that he led the country to recognition from Russia. Four opposition candidates are also running, including Beslan Butba, one of the richest men in Abkhazia, who made his fortune in the Moscow construction industry. Bagapsh is the clear favourite, and few doubt he will win even if it takes a second round of voting. Pictures of him with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev abound on billboards across the country, but the other candidates are not completely excluded from the limelight. Butba has his own television station, which unsurprisingly features him prominently, and all the candidates have their own advertising and TV slots. By regional standards, these are pretty democratic elections.
Not many people will take much notice, however. There is no longer any official contact with the European Union or the US, and most of the international NGOs who worked in the territory have pulled out since Russia recognised Abkhaz independence. The long-standing UN mission in the territory withdrew after Russia insisted that it could no longer be called the “UN Mission in Georgia” and must change its name to recognise the new reality of Abkhaz independence.
“We’re ready to talk to anyone who wants to talk to us,” President Bagapsh told me. “The contacts have all been cut off, but it wasn’t us who initiated that. We recognise that European countries are important, that they are democracies, and we want to work with them and learn with them, but they don’t want to work with us.” Earlier this year, Bagapsh was invited to Paris to deliver a lecture, but was denied a visa. In the absence of contact with Europeans, the Abkhaz have sent delegations to Libya, Iran and Venezuela in the hope of finding new friends. The election observers are mostly Russian, but have also arrived from Venezuela and other post-Soviet “breakaway states”.
Russia is building a military base here and flooding the territory with Russian cash, and with Europeans refusing to deal with Abkhaz, the stage is set for Abkhazia to become a de facto province of Russia. Not many in Abkhazia like that, but they realise that they don’t have any other choice. Nobody here is prepared to negotiate with Georgia.
“It’s not important to us how many countries recognise us,” said Bagapsh. “After all, the biggest country in the world has recognised us.”