Breakaway Georgian region elects president

AP News
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Posted: Aug 26, 2011 11:25 AM
Breakaway Georgian region elects president

Abkhazia _ a once-prosperous tourist destination dubbed the Soviet Riviera _ is electing a new president Friday, with three veterans of the early 1990s separatist war against Georgia vying for the post.

The presidential election is the first in Abkhazia _ sandwiched geographically between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and cornered politically between Russia and Georgia _ since Moscow recognized its independence in 2008.

Russian recognition followed the 2008 Russia-Georgian war fought over another Georgian breakaway republic, South Ossetia. The presidential vote is being held on the third anniversary of recognition.

Georgia, however, still calls the presence of Russian troops an "occupation" and vows to return some 200,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia, which is around the same size of Kosovo. The U.S. and European Union consider both provinces an "integral" part of Georgia.

Polling stations opened Friday morning just three months after the death of President Sergei Bagapsh, who cemented his nation's pro-Kremlin course backed by lavish financial aid from Moscow. Russia also has about 5,000 soldiers and border guards stationed in Abkhazia.

Analysts say the Kremlin has distanced itself from the election and there is no certain front-runner.

Abkhazians queued to vote in shabby, war-damaged buildings _ remnants of a conflict that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced _ while Russian tourists frolicked nearby on palm-fringed beaches on the Black Sea.

Election officials said more than 60 percent of nearly 145,000 people registered to vote had cast their ballots by 1400 GMT. Preliminary results will be announced Saturday.

All of the candidates favor continuing Abkhazia's strong relations with Russia, foretelling a continuation of tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi over the region which lies just south of Sochi, the Russian city where the 2014 Winter Olympics are to be held.

Georgian authorities have repeatedly called on Russia to relocate the Games, saying the venue is too close to "occupied" Georgian territory and have threatened a boycott. Russian and Abkhazian officials allege Georgians will try to thwart the event through terrorism.

All presidential candidates _ Vice President Alexander Ankvab, Prime Minister Sergei Shamba and opposition leader Raul Khadjimba _ fiercely reject reunification with Georgia.

Ankvab, 59, has been serving as acting president since Bagapsh's death. The former Communist official and ex-head of Abkhazia's police has survived five assassination attempts _ incidents he described as the result of disputes with local criminals.

Shamba, 60, is a former medieval historian who became an influential military commander and then served as foreign minister, while opposition leader Khadzhimba, 53, is an ex-KGB officer who headed the Abkhazian intelligence service and once served as prime minister.

Khadzhimba lost his previous presidential bid in 2004, despite open support from Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Bagapsh's victory almost triggered a civil war, until Russia threatened to stop financial aid and prompted the new president to name Khadzhimba as his number two.

Khadzhimba has lambasted corruption in the current government and says Abkhazians should seek economic independence from Moscow, learn to "maintain themselves" and eradicate corruption and petty crime that repels tourists.

During Soviet times the area was a thriving tourist destination, but the war and subsequent tensions between the central Georgian government and separatist authorities drove tourists away.

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Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow.