While very few Americans (and Western Europeans for that matter) would be hard pressed to successfully locate the Republic of Abkhazia on a map (it’s the northwest corner sandwiched in between the Russian Federation and Georgia, its western shores lapped by the Black Sea), even fewer (de facto, no one) would be able to tell you that for the last month a very curious and potentially tense international situation has been brewing there over the holding of presidential elections. There has already been plenty of local and regional coverage over just how the first two rounds have gone for President of Abkhazia. In short, no one won a commanding victory in the first round, which automatically triggered a second round run-off between incumbent local leader Raul Khajimba and head of the opposition party, Alkhaz Kvitsiniya. In that second round, which just took place last week, Raul Khajimba was declared the winner in an extremely close race (39,793 votes for Khajimba vs. 38,766 for Kvitsiniya). Kvitsiniya has subsequently spent the past week declaring the illegitimacy of the election, even going so far as to take the decision to court with the Central Electoral Commission, which reviewed the complaint and ultimately decided unanimously to uphold election results. Kvitsiniya is still hoping to garner enough local, regional, and international support to nullify the elections, claiming illegitimacy basically on two principles:
Khajimba did not garner a 50% majority share of the votes in the second round run-off (his percentage was 47.39%).
The overall amount of ‘against all’ in the election was 3,155. This amount, combined with the amount of votes received by Kvitsiniya, exceeds the amount tallied by the declared winner and thus it is illegitimate that Khajimba should be President.
There are two immediate problems at the local level with this logic. Firstly, there does not seem to be a provision in Abkhazian electoral legal documents that demands a second round run-off winner has to receive more than 50% of the votes cast. It seems as if people who favor Kvitsiniya are taking the first round rules (in which any candidate that received more than 50% of the overall vote would have automatically won the presidency and no second round run-off would be necessary) and applying them arbitrarily to the second round. But again, it is not clear that Abkhazian electoral law stipulates this and there is some documentary evidence to show the opposite is true: in the second round, you simply need to win a simple majority against the main opponent. Secondly, the idea of combining the losing candidate’s votes together with the ‘against all’ tally is simply absurd and ludicrous. Those in support of Kvitsiniya seem to be very conveniently arguing that a vote ‘against all’ is obviously a vote against Khajimba. Even more conveniently, they are also forgetting that a vote ‘against all’ is without doubt a vote against Kvitsiniya as well. So, the idea that his supporters have an exclusive right to take the ‘against all’ vote for their own favor is ridiculous. After all, if you add the ‘against all’ votes on the same principle and give them to Khajimba, his overall total now becomes 42,948, which is actually 52.55% of the overall vote, which would make null and void Kvitsiniya’s first complaint of illegitimacy. Not surprisingly, supporters of Kvitsiniya strive to keep these numbers out of the media.
The idea of local elections, even at the ‘presidential’ level, across areas of the former Soviet Union being hotly contested, with claims of corruption, chicanery, and unfair double-dealing, is not exactly surprising. This type of controversy has happened all over the Post-Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. And there are plenty of extremely talented political analysts and electoral observers all over Russia and Georgia fully capable of covering this race. The race itself does not explain why I am so interested suddenly in Abkhazian affairs. What intrigues me most is how much foreign affairs, Russian-American relations, and global power competition are embedded within these elections while Western observers try to claim innocence and pretend that the current tense state between Russia and America does not play a role. Note that at the very beginning of this article I mentioned the declared winner of the Abkhazian Presidency was the local leader Khajimba. Most western media outlets are using the term ‘separatist’ to describe him but conveniently NOT explaining what this ‘separatism’ means. Khajimba is a local resident of Abkhazia who in the past has been a member of Parliament in Georgia and has previously participated in presdiential elections in Abkhazia in 2004, 2009, 2011, and 2014. This was all before there was ever any formal conflict or tension with Georgia and Russia. Khajimba simply believes the best future fate of his native region lies with more sovereignty and independent governance for Abkhazia by Abkhazia. For him the issue is not about whether Russia or Georgia should control Abkhazia at all. He has even put in his own case in court to push for this, but through the proper legal process and with respect to the rule of law. It has been the opposition opponent and his group that have tried to block, postpone, and delay this court petition, subverting the rule of law de facto. This subtlety is missed in the West and instead Khajimba is painted with the broad and negative brush, ‘separatist.’ That record should be corrected.
So when more than a dozen western countries come out against not just the election results but actually against the very holding of elections at all (calling them a ‘sham’ and ‘fake’), it is not so much about legal precedents as it is about America fearing the Russian bogeyman, seeing Abkhazia destined to go the way of Crimea – back into the territorial fold of the Russian Federation – regardless that Khajimba has never uttered any desire for that to happen. Russian readers can be forgiven if they do not know that since Crimea rejoined the Russian Federation, every single western media outlet, bar none, has addressed that event as the ‘annexation’ of Crimea. To date, I am the only Western scholar I know on record as using the term ‘secession’ instead. What’s in a word? Quite a bit, actually. The use of the term ‘annexation’ implies forced compliance and non-voluntary action. ‘Secession’, on the other hand, means the opposite. Since Western analysis of Russia today is incredibly biased in portraying Russian interests as always heavy-handed and manipulative, Crimea will always be ‘stolen’ rather than a willful vote of the majority of the local population to decide their own future political status. Abkhazia, to me, is very much in a similar position with the election of Khajimba as President. Perhaps more cynically, it is highly doubtful the United States really cares so intensely about the ‘territorial integrity’ of Georgia. It is also highly doubtful that it truly believes hard data and factual evidence shows that Abkhazia would be better off under Georgian rule rather than under its own management.
The only real reason the United States voices such staunch opposition is simply because it is an American cardinal interest to keep Russian dominance within its own regional neighborhood tamed. At the time, many in the West warned that Crimea was going to be a ‘stepping stone’ to Russia taking over other parts of Eastern Ukraine, and then Poland, and after that the Baltics. Of course, none of that has even come close to happening, with Russia not really showing that much interest in causing so much regional disruption. Not surprisingly, no one in the West has recanted those dire predictions and or admitted to being wrong about declaring the ‘rebirth of a violent new Russian empire.’ So people should be forgiven if they are not willing to listen now to similar American claims about how allowing Abkhazia to become closer in diplomatic and economic terms with Russia will signal a new cascade of annexations, where soon enough there will be no more Caucasus at all but a new Russian empire in its place. The American boy who cried about the Russian power wolf. Again.
The greater philosophical questions worth debating deal with power. Who has the right to secede? Who does not? What reasons are legitimate to change territorial allegiance or membership status in a given country? What reasons are illegitimate? Should such considerations be a strictly local issue, based on the true and fair political will of the local people expressed through elections? Or are these considerations at the mercy of greater international powers, rendering regions like Abkhazia nothing but pawns in a greater chess game taking place on the international stage? It is beyond the scope of this article to answer those questions. But this article does warn all readers from believing anyone who would give easy and trite answers to such complex, profoundly problematic questions, with Russia always conveniently being placed in the role of villain.