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Bzhania becomes de-facto president of occupied Abkhazia

By Natalia Kochiashvili
Wednesday, March 25
Aslan Bzhania, the local opposition candidate, became the fifth leader of Russia-occupied Abkhazia as he received 53 741 votes accounting for 56.5% of all ballots cast in the re-election of the de-facto president of Abkhazia. Bzhania’s running mate Badra Gunba is set to become the new ‘vice-president.’

According to the de-facto election administration of the occupied region, turnout in the repeat presidential election on March 22 was 71% with 95 109 voters amid pandemic. Thousands of ethnic Georgias, living in the Gali district of Eastern Abkhazia, have been removed from the voter list since 2014.

Among the three candidates vying for the top political post in the breakaway region were the de facto vice-premier Adgur Ardzinba who received 35.42% of the vote and the former de-facto interior minister, leader of the Akhzara Party, Leonid Dzapshba scoring 2.22%. According to the constitution of the de facto republic of Abkhazia, the candidate who receives more than 50% of the votes will be considered elected.

The Georgian authorities and the international community declare any elections in Abkhazia illegitimate. Georgian ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement, calling the elections in occupied Abkhazia a blatant violation of international law, claiming it represents “yet another unsuccessful attempt to legitimise the process of ethnic cleansing, ongoing illegal occupation and actual annexation in the Abkhazian region.”

The OSCE Group of Friends of Georgia, which includes Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States of America also released a joint statement expressing their deep concern over the ‘continuous occupation’ of Georgia. Calling on Russia “to reverse its recognition of the so-called independence of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the group urged Moscow “to fulfill all of its obligations under the EU-mediated 12 August 2008 ceasefire agreement, including the withdrawal of its forces to their positions prior to the outbreak of hostilities and the provision of free access for humanitarian assistance to these regions.”

A number of other countries have also denounced Abkhazian elections, including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.

Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union Peter Stano also made a statement, according to which, the EU “does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework” of the March 22 ‘presidential elections’ in Abkhazia.

He further stated that the EU continues to support Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders, adding that “the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia remains fully mobilised in this regard.”

NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai also posted similar content on Facebook.

Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Bzhania on his victory in the ‘elections.’ The statement expresses hope that “the new president’s leadership will secure Abkhazia's interests on the international level.”

Interestingly, Bzhania made a statement about relations with Tbilisi in a TV debate. The future leader of the de-facto republic said that the format of the Geneva talks should be maintained, but he also recalled the words of Vladislav Ardzinba in 1999 (“need to speak and solve problems ... we are the winning side and we must act accordingly”), adding that the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity is not to be discussed with the Georgian side, but “it is necessary to talk about the commitment to non-resumption of hostilities, the signing of a relevant agreement... not with us, but with the UN, for example.”

The re-elections were called after the local court declared the September 2019 leadership runoffs as invalid on January 12th, followed by the Moscow-facilitated resignation of Raul Khajimba later that day. Bzhania was the main rival of Khajimba in the 2019 runoff, but after being allegedly poisoned, he had to quit. Twenty days before the 2020 elections, he was hospitalized again. The next day, his supporters, who believed that Bzhania was poisoned to prevent him from participating in elections, held a demonstration in Sokhumi – storming the ‘presidential administration’ building, demanding the resignation of the acting leader Valeri Bganba. On March 11th, Bzhania was sent home from the hospital after being treated for double multilobar aspiration pneumonia.

Conflict expert Paata Zakareishvili believes that Aslan Bzhania will not change much in Abkhazia’s so-called foreign priorities, even though some expect the opposite.