Georgia: Rebel Abkhazia re-elects leader, Russia hails vote

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- Incumbent wins majority, avoids run-off

- Vote hailed by Russia, shunned by West

- Russian observers satisfied, opposition cries foul

By Matt Robinson

SUKHUMI, Georgia, Dec 13 (Reuters) - The rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia re-elected President Sergei Bagapsh in a vote trumpeted by sponsor Russia as a successful test of statehood but shunned by most of the world.

The result of the election on Saturday was never likely to change Abkhazia's deepening dependence on Russia, its economic lifeline and military protector with thousands of servicemen in the Black Sea territory of 200,000 people.

Moscow recognised Abkhazia in August last year after crushing an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the other pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia in a five-day war.

Venezuela and Nicaragua followed suit, but the West says Abkhazia must re-integrate with Georgia more than 15 years since throwing off rule from Tbilisi with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Abkhaz say this will never happen.

Volleys of celebratory gunfire broke out in the sleepy seaside self-styled capital on Sunday after election authorities announced that Bagapsh had won 59.4 percent of the vote, well ahead of second-placed former KGB agent Raul Khadzimba on 15.4 percent.

Turnout was 73.4 percent.

Khadzimba had already cried foul over what he said were widespread irregularities, but there was no sign of the tense standoff that followed Bagapsh's first victory over Khadzimba in late 2004 which led to unrest in the streets.

Russia did not want to be embarrassed by a repeat. The West officially ignored the election, but Abkhazia is watched closely for its ability to stir friction between Georgia and Russia in the South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.

"The republic passed with dignity the test posed by elections in any state," said Vasily Likhachev, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma.

"The elections in Abkhazia demonstrated the role and significance of such an important factor as national sovereignty." Georgia said it was a "farce".


"This election was held by a puppet regime and staged by occupiers," Georgian National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili told Reuters. "It is illegitimate and cynical."

Sixty-year-old Bagapsh drew support from the fact Abkhazia won recognition under his watch.

"These elections were to set the course of the country for the next five years," Bagapsh said on Sunday. "If the people voted, it means they believe, and that belief must be answered."

But some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, accuse him of handing too much influence to former Soviet master Russia, on which Abkhazia depends for pensions, investment and at least half its budget.

Russia has some 3,600 servicemen patrolling Abkhazia's borders and stunning coastline, where Stalin's luxurious dacha still stands, and is building two military bases.

"We're becoming a region of Russia, and I don't want to be part of today's Russia," said a man who refused to give his name but said he voted for third-placed Beslan Boutba, a businessman.

Bagapsh will try over the next five years to restore Abkhazia's former glory as the playground of the Moscow elite. Russian tourist numbers are up, but the sliver of sub-tropical land remains strewn with scorched homes from the 1992-93 war.

Some 40,000 of the estimated 240,000 Georgians who fled Abkhazia with the end of the war have returned to the eastern Gali region, but were excluded from Saturday's vote by a rule limiting the electorate to Abkhaz passport holders.

Even some passport holders did not get to vote.

In the scarred New Region district of Sukhumi, where Abkhaz and Georgian forces traded heavy artillery fire in 1992-93, police cadets closed the doors of a polling station on at least 100 people who did not get to cast ballots before polling ended.

"Have you ever seen anything like it?" a member of the security services at the polling station asked a Reuters reporter. "This is our democracy."

(Editing by Matthew Jones)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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