Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Russia Sends Coast Guard Ships to Georgia’s Abkhazia Region, Holds “Elections”

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On December 12 the Georgian media reported that Russia reinforced its naval presence in the occupied Georgian province of Abkhazia by sending five patrol ships there. The Mangust and Sobol-type Russian ships entered Ochamchire harbor in central Abkhazia, which had been a significant naval port during the 70 year-long existence of Soviet Georgia.

Reporting this story, the Russian media quoted the FSB’s center for public relations as saying that “the coast guard ships” would participate in “providing security to the state borders and the maritime space” of Abkhazia.

The Kremlin’s move to strengthen its forces through a naval reinforcement coincided with “the presidential elections” in Abkhazia on December 12. As expected, Sergei Bagapsh, the incumbent and Moscow’s longtime protégé won reelection right in the first round, collecting 59, 4 percents of votes and obviating the necessity of holding a runoff election. His main competitor Raul Khajimba, no less faithful to Moscow, though seen as more nationalistic than Bagapsh, came in second with slightly more than 15 percent of the vote.

This was the first time “elections” were held in Abkhazia after Russia’s military aggression against Georgia in August 2008 and the subsequent occupation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali in western and central Georgia, All five candidates allowed to participate in the “election” are strong supporters of the Russian occupation and, presumably would not challenge the status quo created by the Kremlin. Nonetheless, it became clear right at the beginning of the “election campaign” that Moscow’s only choice was Bagapsh and that the Kremlin had no desire to risk even the slightest chance of unpredictability by supporting someone else at this point.

Both the European Union and the United States once again showed their solidarity with Tbilisi by issuing statements on the occasion. The “Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the European Union on ‘presidential elections’ in Abkhazia, Georgia” stated that “The European Union does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place. The European Union continues to support Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Similarly, the U.S. Department of State’s Spokesman Ian Kelly said on December 14 that “The United States regrets the decision to hold ‘elections’ in the Abkhazia region of Georgia …and recognizes neither the legality nor the results."United States reiterates its support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”

Georgia’s foreign ministry made a special statement on December 12 calling the “presidential elections” “a farce” and requested the international community to continue with “a coherent policy of non-recognition toward the two occupied Georgian provinces.”

As Russia tightens its rule in Abkhazia, more and more ethnic Abkhaz find themselves disappointed with the situation and find ways to cross the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia to request status of an internally displaced person (IDP) from the central government in Tbilisi. According to Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2, some ten Abkhaz families have already fled the Abkhazia region in December “in protest to the intolerable regime of Russian occupation” and they have been given shelter and other provisions by the Georgian authorities. Although this development is not entirely unprecedented and ethnic Abkhaz in previous years too protested the Russian presence in Abkhazia and requested assistance from the central authorities in the Georgian capital, reports say that the number of these cases have only increased since Moscow imposed a direct rule over Abkhazia in August 2008.

More than 300 000 Georgian citizens, mostly ethnic Georgians, have been expelled from Abkhazia since early 1990’s when Moscow militarily ousted Georgian rule in the province. According to some estimates, only one third of the half a million prewar population remain in Abkhazia, including tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians living in constant fear for their lives in the southernmost Gali district.

Unlike the “presidential elections,” Moscow’s decision to send its patrol boats “to guard” the occupied region in violation of the international law has not yet received worldwide condemnation even though, analysts believe, both events are equally dangerous and constitute political and military dimensions of the same process, which is the illegal occupation of parts of Georgian land and territorial waters. The Georgian parliament plans to address both issues in a special address to the international community on December 15.

A different View on Abkhaz Elections.

Paul Goble contributed a somewhat different view of the rlections. The full text of which is available on his blog Window on Eurasia.
Sergey Bagapsh was re-elected president of Abkhazia over the weekend with just over 60 percent of the vote, an outcome that poses challenges both to Moscow, his republic’s chief patron, and to Georgia and the West, which insist that his breakaway republic is illegitimate and thus any elections there invalid.

On the one hand, winning the election in the way that he did – with nearly 40 percent going to his opponents – Bagapsh set himself apart from recent voting in the Russian North Caucasus where leaders routinely claim implausibly large margins of victory, an outcome certain to create problems for Moscow across that region.

And on the other, Bagapsh’s willingness to conduct what appears to have been a free and fair election both reaffirms his own commitment to democracy, something Georgia and the West may find it difficult to counter, and almost certainly gives him greater freedom of action relative to Moscow than many in the Russian Federation might like.

Those conclusions are suggested in a prescient essay by Sergey Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most distinguished commentators on the Caucasus as a whole, his examination of the Abkhazia elections and their likely consequences not only for that republic but for its friends and opponents abroad."

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