Rebel Abkhazia elects third leader in troubled history
Rebel Abkhazia goes to polls Friday to elect a third leader in its tumultuous history since it broke from Georgia in the 1990s in a move recognised only by Moscow and a handful of states.
The snap elections follow the death of its veteran president Sergei Bagapsh after lung surgery earlier this year and will be viewed as illegitimate by most of the world.
Symbolically, the vote coincides with the third anniversary of Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, which followed Russia's five-day war with Georgia in 2008.
Three contenders will compete for the top post in the rebel region which besides Moscow was only recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru, much to the Kremlin's chagrin.
Moscow has since stationed thousands of troops in the rebel region -- a lush sun-drenched coastal strip of land wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains -- in a move Georgia describes as occupation.
After Abkhazia's previous president, the 62-year-old Bagapsh, died in a Moscow hospital in May following lung surgery, his prime minister Sergei Shamba is seeking to take over his job.
Two challengers -- Vice-President Alexander Ankvab and opposition leader Raul Khajimba -- are taking him on in the polls that are unlikely to signal a major shift in policies or put an end to Abkhazia's isolation.
Despite their differences, all the three candidates are Kremlin-friendly and strongly opposed to reunification with Georgia.
None is considered an outright front-runner for the job of Abkhazia's third president.
Bagapsh's predecessor and Abkhazia's first leader Vladislav Ardzinba, who led the region into civil war with Tbilisi and then de-facto independence, ruled over the region between 1994 and 2005. He died in Moscow last year.
Abkhazia last voted in presidential polls when it re-elected the late Bagapsh in December 2009.
"Unlike the previous election, which saw various personalities representing different forces clash, today we speak of the country's internal evolution," said Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"No matter what the result is, Russia will not lose," he said.
Abkhaz separatists waged a civil war with Georgia in the 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union that killed several thousand people and left 250,000, mostly ethnic Georgians, as refugees.
Since Moscow's declaration of its independence, Abkhazia has been boosted by significant Russian aid and visits by large numbers of Russian tourists. But its economy remains stricken by the lack of international recognition.
The Pacific Ocean archipelago of Vanuatu became caught up in a diplomatic dispute earlier this year when it moved to recognize Abkhazia, only to quickly deny it had ever happened.
© 2011 AFP