Vienna, December 14 – 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 (www.politcom.ru/9292.html).
Saturday’s vote, he argues, did not revolve “around images of the past” but rather “around images of the future,” a conclusion that is obvious if one compares it with the 2004 elections in which Bagapsh, despite Kremlin opposition, succeeded Vladislav Ardzinba, who had defined post-Soviet Abkhazia up to that time.
The 2004 vote, Markedonov continues, was the one in which “Abkhazia solved the most complicated problem for ‘a transitional state’ – the transfer of power from a departing leader to a successor,” a challenge many fail at but one Abkhazia with Bagapsh succeeded, creating in the process “a genuine internal politics, that is, a public argument” about the future of the state.
At that time, as the Moscow analyst points out, “Russia supported the principle of the territorial integrity of Georgia, and in Moscow possibilities of a search for a compromise with the Georgian leadership, with which today the Kremlin demonstratively does not want to have any dealings.”
But the elections just passed “took place in new conditions,” one in which according to Markedonov, “’the Georgian factor’ was minimal.” During the election, “no one seriously played the card of ‘pro-Georgian politicians,’ as it was acceptable to do in the Ardzinba epoch and even in 2004” when independence seemed an impossibility.
As a result, this year’s “elections were constructed not around models of the past but rather among images of the future.” The various candidates discussed citizenship and the problems of integrating ethnic Georgians and making Abkhazia a civic rather than ethnic republic because “the problem of independence from Georgia is already decided.”
Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia is actively seeking international recognition; and while today the process of recognizing Abkhazian independence is not proceeding with particular speed, the conduct of the elections and the selection of a president without excesses under competitive conditions objectively work in favor of Abkhazia.”
And even if Georgian and international opposition succeed in keeping many countries from establishing diplomatic ties with Abkhazia, Markedonov suggests, non-diplomatic contacts between other countries and Sukhumi are increasing in number and, in cases like Turkey, in breadth and depth.
Bagapsh’s margin of victory in this election – he did not receive what Markedonov calls “Central Asian percents of support” – is likely to prove especially important. The Abkhaz leader cannot rely only on his supporters and ignore those who voted against him as many officials in other post-Soviet states do.
Instead, the Moscow analyst says, “the Abkhaz victors of the December elections must understand a simple truth: If you want to avoid ‘a color revolution’ of one kind or another and a crisis of legitimacy, you must conduct a normal dialogue both with society as a whole and with the opposition,” something many CIS regimes are unprepared to do.
While the vote gives Bagapsh greater freedom of action vis-à-vis Moscow, it does not eliminate “the Russian factor” in Abkhazia. Indeed, Markedonov insists, that is likely to grow. But even if it does, this “friendship like any other will be subjected to tests” coming from both sides.
The just-concluded elections represent “a definite divide for Moscow,” and the quicker in the Kremlin, in Staraya and Smolenskaya squares [sites of the Russian government and the Russian foreign ministry] people understand that the period of ‘the five day war’ has passed and that a new order of the day is necessary, the better.”
Russian officials keep talking about the August war, but “in Abkhazia new problems have arisen” and “’the Tbilisi factor’” is more or less rapidly becoming a subject of historical rather than political interest. Consequently, the Russian government must think about how to deal with Abkhazia as the independent state it proclaims that republic to be.
That will require, Markedonov says that the Kremlin adopt “a better quality policy” than it has in the past. And in this connection, he says, it would be “more useful” to consider “not the experience of the Soviet Union in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1945-1989 but the practice of the US in West Germany or in Japan.”
By using soft power and avoiding the application of pressure on Abkhazia, Russia will have more success. Whether Moscow will be able to make that shift remains to be scene, but Bagapsh’s reelection and the manner in which he achieved it has opened “a new act of a political play which promises to be no less intriguing than the one it replaces.”