Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
The US became the latest to slam the presidential election held in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, which was won by Alexander Ankvab, acting president and former prime minister, with 54.9% of the vote on August 26.
Speaking to journalists on August 29, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "The United States does not recognise the legitimacy or the results of the August 26 so-called elections in the Abkhazia region of Georgia"
The EU and Nato have already issued statements saying they consider the August 26 poll to be illegitimate. Abkhazia declared its independence in 1991, but is only recognised by a handful of countries and under international law remains part of Georgia.
According to Abkhazia's Central Electoral Commission, Ankvab won the election outright on a turnout of 72%. He beat Prime Minister Sergei Shamba and opposition leader Raul Khajimba, who took 21.02% and 19.82% of the vote respectively - a smaller share than expected. Khajimba claimed on August 27 that there had been electoral violations.
Abkhazia declared its independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, and has been de facto independent ever since. However, it only gained international recognition from Russia after the brief war between Russian and Georgia over another Georgian separatist republic, South Ossetia, in August 2008. Four other countries - Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific islands of Nauru and Vanuatu - have since followed Russia's lead in recognising the two republics, but the international community has not followed suit.
Tbilisi responded angrily to the elections on what is still officially Georgian territory. "The Russian occupation forces and its proxy regime in Sokhumi conducted another cynical act of the pseudo-democratic policy - the so-called 'presidential elections'... There is no justification for such mockery of the international law," said a scathing statement from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on August 26.
More muted statements denying the legitimacy of the elections have also been issued by the EU, Nato and the US State Department. Both Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton reaffirmed their organisations' support for Georgia's territorial integrity.
Ankvab is a former communist party official who quit Tbilisi to join the government of the new Abkhazian republic after its declaration of independence. After serving in the 1992-93 war between Abkhazia and Georgia, he turned down the post of justice minister to join the opposition, then moved to Moscow in the mid 1990s.
In 2000, Ankvab returned to Abkhazia and set up the Aitaira opposition movement. He backed Sergei Bagapsh in the 2004 presidential elections. After Bagapsh was elected president, he appointed Ankvab prime minister in 2005, later giving him the vice presidency in 2009. In the last six years he has survived five assassination attempts
On the top issue facing Abkhazia, there is little difference between Ankvab and the other two presidential candidates: all three are firmly opposed to any form of reintegration with Georgia. "Given a strong anti-Georgian sentiment in Abkhazia, expressed by all presidential candidates including Ankvab, any rapprochement with Georgia is highly unlikely," writes Lilit Gevorgyan, country analyst at IHS Global Insight.
Gevorgyan points out that Ankvab is also known for taking a tough stance on corruption and the rule of law. "His clear election is welcome news for those in the breakaway republic who believe that corruption and nepotism are hampering the region's economic development," Gevorgyan says.
Speaking on August 27, Ankvab told journalists that there was no immediate prospect of moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system and that people hoping for shared responsibility would be disappointed. He added that it was "quite possible" several posts, including that of vice president, might be abolished in future.
Abkhazia is located in northwest Georgia on the Black Sea coast, bordering Russia to the north. It has a population of just 250,000. Economically, it is heavily dependent on Russia, which provides 80% of its investment.
Moscow has been the strongest supporter of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's separation from Georgia. It provides economic and military support to both republics and has issued passports to most of their citizens. Ankvab himself holds a Russian as well as an Abkhazian passport.
A statement from Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the day of the elections said that, "Russia welcomes the successful holding of the presidential elections in Abkhazia as an important step on the path of the development of statehood and civil society in that friendly neighboring country."
However, in Sukhumi, there are concerns about the future viability of the republic. The rejection of its bid for independence by the West has given Abkhazia no option but to look to Russia for support. While Russia has supported Abkhazia's separation from Georgia, the new republic's high and growing level of dependence puts it in a position where in future end up being effectively ruled from Moscow rather than Tbilisi.
"The prospects of Abkhazia's bid for independence remain bleak," writes Gevorgyan. "On the one hand, hostile relations with Georgia mean that any reasonable reintegration is off the table in the coming years, while the prospect of Western recognition of Abkhazian independence is unlikely. On the other hand, Russian support for Abkhazia's independence may lead to the opposite - the loss of it to Russia."
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