Rebel Abkhazia elects pro-Russian as new leader

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Abkhazia elected a top politician who advocates firm ties with Russia as the new president of the rebel Georgian region after polls widely seen as illegitimate, officials said Saturday.

Alexander Ankvab, who has served as prime minister of Abkhazia and vice president over the last half decade, won 54.86 percent of the vote, easily beating off his two rivals, the central election commission said.

The snap elections were forced after Sergei Bagapsh, who led the breakaway region since 2005, died in a Moscow hospital in May of complications following a lung operation.

Ankvab beat off prime minister Sergei Shamba, who won 21.04 percent of the vote and opposition leader Raul Khajimba who garnered 19.83 percent. Turnout was high at 71.92 percent.

Abkhazia broke away from Georgia after a devastating civil war in the 1990s. But its independence claim has only been recognised by Russia and a handful of far-flung states, following Moscow's 2008 war with Georgia.

Symbolically, the vote coincided with the third anniversary of Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and fellow breakaway Georgian region South Ossetia as independent states, a move that was slammed by the West.

The Georgian foreign ministry condemned the elections as a "cynical act of pseudo-democratic policy" and a "farce" which made a "mockery of international law".

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement the Alliance did not recognise the polls, saying they did "not contribute to a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia."

All three candidates in the vote were Kremlin-friendly and strongly opposed to reunification with Georgia.

However Ankvab is a strong backer of a controversial law change to allow Russians to buy property and possibly land in Abkhazia, a controversial issue which some critics could lead to de-facto annexation by Russia.

"Russia was and will remain a strategic partner of Abkhazia in all areas," Ankvab told the Interfax news agency.

© 2011 AFP

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