Samantha Shields in Sukhumi -
Georgia's rebel region of Abkhazia elected its de facto President Sergei Bagapsh for a second term December 12 in a vote lauded by Russia, condemned by Georgia and ignored by the rest of the world.
Georgia lost control of Abkhazia, a tiny subtropical chunk of territory on the eastern coast of the Black Sea that was Stalin's favourite holiday destination, after its short and disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela are the only three countries that recognize Abkhazia's independence.
The Georgian government stressed in a statement released as preliminary results were being announced Sunday that the territory of Abkhazia, occupied by Russia as a result of its 2008 invasion of Georgia, is not recognized as independent by the international community. "As such, any 'presidential' election is a political farce with no legal basis."
The count showed Bagapsh with 59.37% of the vote and his closest rival Raul Khadzimba trailing on 15.44%. Russian observers who were sent to monitor the election said it was fair and transparent. Khadzimba accused Bagapsh of falsification and threatened to challenge the result.
A similar standoff between Bagapsh and Khadzimba after the 2004 election led to minor rioting on the streets of the capital Sukhumi. This time around there was nothing but a few celebratory rounds of gunfire from Bagapsh's supporters and the streets of the seaside town remained otherwise quiet.
Russia acts as Abkhazia's protector to such a degree that it has been accused by Georgia of trying to annex it. It has sent around 3,000 troops to Abkhazia since the end of the August 2008 war and contributed RUB2bn to the region's budget last year, 57% of the total. Russia plans to match that contribution this year, according to Abkhazia's Economy Minister Kristina Ozgan. "Russia is the only country that is helping us now," she says, adding that around 80% of the small investment inflow that exists in Abkhazia at the moment comes from Russia. The sectors that desperately need investment are tourism and agriculture, she said.
Russia insists it takes Abkhaz independence seriously and Abkhaz officials, while admitting "Russification" is a concern, say they see Russia as a friendly partner. "Today no-one is interfering with what we do," said Bagapsh.
Russia's ambassador to Abkhazia, Semyon Grigoriev, said the embassy in Sukhumi operates in exactly the same way as any embassy abroad and does not act as a supervisor or advisor. "We do normal diplomatic work characteristic of bilateral relations," he said, adding that Moscow had not named a preferred candidate in the presidential election.
In its Soviet heyday Abkhazia was a thriving holiday destination famed for its unspoiled coastline, palm-tree lined boulevards and juicy mandarins. But a bloody war in the early 1990s when it first broke away from Georgia caused an estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgians to flee.
Today, most of the hotels and cafes along Sukhumi's seafront are abandoned and the place feels like a ghost town after dark. There are only around 200,000 people living in Abkhazia, and the administration is trying to tempt back the diaspora and encourage the people who are left to have bigger families.
Russia has already made small investments in timber, brewing, fruit processing and packaging in Abkhazia. Rosneft is already supplying petrol to the region and Grigoriev says Gazprom or one of its subsidiaries might be interested in expanding to the territory in the future.
The 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is just 20 kilometres from the Abkhaz border, will provide a boost to Abkhazia as it's already supplying building gravel, and will house construction workers. "Russia is providing us with the resources for our economic development. It's our biggest neighbour, our goods are sold on the territory of the Russian Federation and their tourists still come here," said Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba.
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