MOSCOW — Abkhaz incumbent leader Sergei Bagapsh on Sunday was declared the winner of his region's presidential elections by a wide margin amid allegations of fraud.
The neighboring country of Georgia greeted the news by reminding the world that Abkhazia is not in fact a country, but rather a Georgian territory occupied by Russian troops.
Bagapsh’s main opponents claimed the election process had been so severely corrupted that the results should be thrown out. It was another topsy-turvy day of politics in a country that does not legally exist.
The numbers announced by the Abkhaz government’s election commission favored Bagapsh by a bigger amount that was expected – he reportedly captured more than 59 percent of Saturday’s vote, compared to some 15 percent by his closest rival, recently resigned Vice President Raul Khadjimba.
Many observers had thought Bagapsh wouldn’t muster the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff; his opposition had agreed to join forces if that happened.
During Abkhazia’s last elections, in 2004, both Bagapsh and Khadjimba declared themselves winners and the ensuing tensions threatened to break out into armed confrontation until the two men agreed to run together in a second round of elections.
This time around, Khadjimba’s camp is alleging fraud in polling stations across Abkhazia, saying that the voter rolls, initially set at about 127,000 people, increased throughout the day.
“There were many additional (voter) lists,” Khadjimba, a former member of the Soviet KGB security services, told Russian newswires on Sunday. A senior aide, who asked that only his first name be used, Timur, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy that the Khadjimba campaign would be contesting the outcome: “We are going to appeal to the courts, and if that won’t help, we will try to organize demonstrations.”
The head of the Abkhaz election commission, Batal Tapagua, said there were limited problems at polling sites, occasional mistakes like incorrectly filled ballots, but nothing significant.
Neither European Union nor United Nations teams were present to monitor voting in a place that a EU report this year said had no right under international law to secede from Georgia.
“They simply ignored our elections,” said Bagapsh aide and spokesman Nadir Bitiev. Nonetheless, Bagapsh seemed pleased, holding a press conference to acknowledge his second term as president and to reiterate that “whether the EU and the US like it or not, Abkhazia will never be a part of Georgia again.”
Russian officials also welcomed the results and said that the election had been transparent. After its war with Georgia last year, Russia recognized both Abkhazia and another rebel Georgian region as independent states, and sent thousands of troops to support their governments.
The Georgian foreign ministry released a statement on Sunday saying the process was “a political farce with no legal basis.”
The day before, the foreign ministry said given that almost the entire population of ethnic Georgians – about 250,000 -- fled Abkhazia after a 1992 war with Georgia, the idea of holding an election there is “not only fraudulent by nature, but also constitutes an act of sacrilege.”
As the afternoon hours got later on Sunday, the apparent losers of the elections were trying to figure out what to do next.
An aide to a second opposition candidate, businessman Beslan Butba, said his camp was mulling over whether to also protest the elections. Butba had expected to receive between 15 and 20 percent of the vote, and ended up with a little less than 8 percent by government tallies. “It looks very strange,” said the aide, Belsan Baratelia, an economist by training. “It’s very difficult to believe these results.”
McClatchy Special Correspondent Dina Djidjoeva contributed to this report.