Abkhazia Elects New President


Abkhazia has elected a new president in an early election that gave the opposition an opportunity to assemble a government. On Sunday, the election commission announced that opposition leader Rual Khadzhimba had won with just over 50 percent, thereby avoiding a runoff.

Abkhazia is a strip of land nestled in tall mountains along the Black Sea and sandwiched between Georgia and southern Russia. Most countries do not recognize it as an independent country due to a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, which separated Abkhazia from Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains.

Abkhazia During the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazia declared independence again, and today is a Russian protectorate, although most of the world considers it a disputed province of Georgia.  Russia has military bases with some 8,000 troops in Abkhazia and supports the government financially.  The breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia also declared independence during the 2008 war.

This May, the public revolted against corruption, and President Alexander Ankvab was forced to resign. At that time, parliament scheduled an early election even though the next scheduled election was to have been held in 2016.

A series of interviews with the German news magazine, Deutsche Welle (DW), revealed that most locals prefer to remain independent of Russia as well. Abkhazia’s total population is under 243,000 according to a 2012 census.

Even though Abkhazia’s voters have elected a new president, regardless of who wins elections in this isolated region, politicians rarely have the ability to make positive changes in daily Abkhazian life. The economy has no manufacturing base, and outside of tourism, which is slowly growing but still limited, business opportunities are very hard to find. Even six years after the Russian-Georgian war, many houses remain damaged and the infrastructure in a state of disrepair. The typical income in Abkhazia can be as little as $5,000 annually -extremely low for a moderately developed region. The currency of Abkhazia is the Russian ruble.

Centuries ago, Abkhazia was its own kingdom, but in 1864, it was annexed by Russia and later forced into the Soviet Union as a province of Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet state, Abkhazia declared independence and fought a civil war against Georgia, culminating with Russian peacekeepers sent in by Moscow to stop Georgian forces.  The main border checkpoint is a short distance from the Russian city of Sochi.

Most Western readers have probably heard very little of Abkhazia, but it is home to one of Joseph Stalin’s most loved summer Abkhaziahomes, his famed “Mysra” dacha. Constructed in 1932, Stalin’s Mysra summer home was built on a wooded hillside just above the Black Sea. Stalin, whose real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, was ethnic Georgian and he felt at home in the area. In Soviet times, Abkhazia was part of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s feared henchman, Lavrenty Beria, was ethnic Abkhazian.

Once a popular resort destination for the Soviet elite, Abkhazia is slowly regaining some tourist travel, mostly by Russians and especially around the Ritsa lake area. Ritsa is one of the clearest and is thought to be one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in Europe. For Orthodox Russians, another Abkhazia attraction is the historic Novy Afon (New Athos) monastery, situated along the Black Sea. The number of pilgrimages to this monastery is slowly increasing each year. The stunning church of Saint Pantaleon boasts a bell tower that is 50 meters high, and the church bells can be heard for miles away.

Given tensions with the Georgian government, most visitors to Abkhazia enter via Russia and so a Russian visa is required. A visa from Abkhazia is also required and can be obtained for $10 upon arrival, but only at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in the capital city of Sukhumi. Abkhazia enjoys a subtropical climate with mild summer weather and  cold winter temperatures that showcase snow-covered mountains. Views any time of the year are breathtaking, with tall mountains that from a distance seem to plunge into the Black Sea.

The question of whether Abkhazia can reverse the lingering economic malaise was certainly one reason why Abkhazia’s voters, apparently fed up with corruption by politicans, have elected a new president. The presidential term is five years in length, and with only 35 members in parliament, it should not take long for the newly elected leader to reach across the aisle and form a consensus government.

By Jim Hanemaayer

Deutsche Welle
The Moscow Times

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