Head of Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region dies
The head of Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region, Sergei Bagapsh, died Sunday in a Moscow hospital, with analysts predicting his successor will stay to a pro-Russian course.
"Bagapsh was a staunch supporter of friendship and alliance with Russia," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a statement. "He worked tirelessly on strengthening the deep ties between our countries."
In power since 2005, Bagapsh, 62, was re-elected as head of the separatist region by a crushing margin in 2009, slightly over a year after Russian forces defeated Georgia in a five-day war and proclaimed its independence.
Culturally and religiously distinct from Georgians, Abkhaz separatists waged a fierce war in the 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union that killed thousands and caused some 250,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, to flee their homes.
The Black Sea region and South Ossetia, also declared independent by Russia following the August 2008 war, are still claimed by Georgia and not recognised by the West.
A source in the Abkhaz administration said Bagapsh died of complications from a May 21 lung operation in Moscow.
Alexander Ankvab, his deputy, has been appointed acting president, with new elections required by the region's constitution within three months.
"We are deeply shocked by the death of Sergei Bagapsh," the acting head of Abkhazia told the Interfax news agency.
"This is a great loss for all the Abkhaz people," the acting leader said.
The region's security council was expected to meet later Sunday to discuss the situation.
There was no immediate official reaction to the news from Georgia, whose Western-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili is now facing almost daily street protests from pro-Russian opposition forces.
The acting leader Ankvab, 58, was born in Abkhazia and educated in Russia, according to his official biography.
He briefly served as interior minister after the Soviet Union's collapse before going into business and moving to Moscow for six years.
Ankvab served as prime minister between 2005 and 2010, and was appointed vice president in February 2010.
Analysts said Ankvab is one of several potential replacements for Bagapsh, although none was expected to alter the region's friendship with Russia.
"There will be no significant changes. There will be another consensus figure," said Kirill Koktysh, a regional expert at Moscow State University of International Relations.
"Neither will the republic's status change," the analyst told Moscow Echo radio. "An independent Abkhazia that is close to Russia is now the guiding principle for the Abkhaz people."
But others said the news was still likely to create jitters in Moscow, coming against the backdrop of renewed pressure on Saakashvili's government.
"We are likely to see a more active Georgian policy toward Abkhazia," said Moscow State University professor Alexei Vlasov.
"This will create headaches in both Moscow and (the Abkhazia capital) Sukhumi," he said.
© 2011 AFP