President re-elected in separatist area of Georgia

AP News
Posted: Dec 13, 2009 10:47 AM

The president of a separatist region of Georgia vowed on Sunday to maintain close ties with Russia after officials announced he has won a second term in office.

President Sergei Bagapsh defeated four other candidates in Abkhazia, according to preliminary results, the region's election commission said.

However, Georgia's national security council head denounced the election in the Russia-backed region as illegitimate and amoral, and other candidates alleged vote fraud.

Abkhazia spun out of Georgia's control in fighting in the early 1990s. After the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and another separatist region, South Ossetia, as independent. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed suit.

Although the war focused on South Ossetia, Abkhaz forces with help from the Russian military succeeded in pushing Georgian troops out of the last bit of territory they held in Abkhazia.

The Abkhazian elections commission said that a preliminary official tally showed Bagapsh won 59 percent of the vote in a race with the four other candidates.

His main challenger, Raul Khadzhimba, and two other candidates decried what they called widespread violations in Saturday's vote.

"We do not recognize the results and will appeal to the elections commission and in court," Khadzhimba, who tallied 15 percent of the vote, told reporters Sunday.

If final vote results confirm his election, Bagapsh's main tasks will include boosting the economy of the region, which was once was a popular tourist destination for its subtropical beaches and soaring mountains but has been battered by war and isolated by Georgia.

Russia has thousands of troops based in Abkhazia and is deeply interested in the region's stability. It lies just to the south of Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and trouble there could draw wide attention.

Unlike some officials in South Ossetia, Bagapsh appears to have no interest in eventual unification with Russia, but he cultivates close relations with Moscow.

"The voters supporting my candidacy voted for a course aimed at closer relations with Russia and consequently for strengthening the security of our republic and the development of Abkhazia's economy," Bagapsh was quoted as saying Sunday by the Interfax news agency

Khadzhimba ran against Bagapsh in 2004 and also refused to recognize that result. Hundreds of his supporters stormed the region's highest court and the body annulled its ruling declaring Bagapsh the winner. After Russia-brokered talks, a new election was held with Khadzhimba as Bagapsh's running-mate; he resigned as vice president in May.

About 70 percent of the 130,000 registered voters took part in the vote, the elections commission said.

The province is also home to some 40,000 ethnic Georgians who are not eligible to vote because they don't hold Abkhazian passports. An estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia in the 1990s

"Any kind of elections which take place in a context that is the result of ethnic cleansing ... are not only illegitimate but amoral and cynical in their essence," said Eka Tkeshelashvili, the Georgian national security council head. "Abkhazia is a part of Georgian territory. Any elections that don't correspond with the laws of Georgia are illegal."


Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.