Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh to Hold Elections
Copyright =A9 1996 Reuter Information Service
TBILISI (Nov 21, 1996 06:18 a.m. EST) - Shunned by the world community, leaders of the breakaway Caucasus regions of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh are to hold elections this weekend in a defiant show of their self-styled claims to independence.
Separatist Abkhazia, a lush subtropical region in northwest Georgia, holds a parliamentary poll on Saturday which has been condemned by the United Nations and Georgian government.
Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but home to ethnic Armenians, holds a presidential poll on Sunday.
U.N. observers manning a border zone between Abkhazia and Georgia say they fear possible violence during the vote, in which 78 pro-independence candidates will contest 35 seats.
The Abkhaz have put police on alert, saying armed Georgian units plan to disrupt voting. Georgia says the separatist government is illegitimate and the vote illegal.
Abkhazia has run its own affairs since 1993 when its troops, with Russian military help, humiliated Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze by routing his forces after a year-long war in which 10,000 people were killed.
The U.N. and Georgia want the Abkhaz to allow tens of thousands of ethnic Georgian refugees to return home, and Abkhazia's political status to be resolved. Georgia says Abkhazia must be part of its federal system.
The Abkhaz say they want total or virtual independence, despite a crippling economic blockade imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of most of the republics which once formed the Soviet Union.
The blockade has left Abkhazia's once flourishing resort economy reliant on occasional exports of scrap metal left behind by the devastating war.
Analysts say the vote should help consolidate the rule of Abkhaz "president" Vladislav Ardzinba -- a 51-year-old ethnographer and founding leader of the separatist movement -- and give him a free hand in peace talks with Georgia.
The Abkhaz government puts the electorate at 219,000.
Ethnic Abkhaz made up just 18 percent of the region's population before the war. Georgians accounted for 45 percent, but most fled the separatist advance, fearing ethnic cleansing. Only two of the 78 candidates are Georgian.
Tbilisi says it will hold a referendum on Saturday among 170,000 ethnic Georgian refugees in which they will get a chance to condemn the Abkhaz vote going on without them.
Another of Georgia's rebel regions, South Ossetia, held a presidential poll earlier this month and elected Lyudvig Chibirov to a five-year term.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, current leader Robert Kocharyan is expected to win easily over two lesser-known rivals.
Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bitter war from 1988-94. A subsequent shaky ceasefire forged after sweeping Armenian gains left Azerbaijan without Karabakh and a swathe of territory around it.
Karabakh, officially independent, makes no secret of its desire to join Armenia. Azerbaijan refuses to consider anything more than autonomy for the region.
Western countries have joined Azeri President Haydar Aliyev in condemning the vote, saying it could jeopardise peace talks.
The mountainous Caucasus region, a patchwork of more than 60 ethnic groups, has been torn by wars since the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the communist giant's meaningless internal boundaries became national frontiers overnight.
Alex Rondelli, Professor of International Relations at Tbilisi State University, said the success of nearby Chechnya's independence fighters against the Russian army had inspired separatist movements throughout the volatile region.
"They see that tiny Chechnya was able to humiliate a superpower like Russia and get away with it. It gives them hope that they can do the same thing," he said.