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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 01:58 GMT 02:58 UK
Abkhazia celebrates election choice
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC, Sukhumi, Abkhazia

Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia has held presidential elections to find a successor to the man who led the republic in its fight for independence.

Abkhazia's status is not recognised internationally but its people took the vote extremely seriously. This is the first time they have been offered a choice of candidate for president.

Candidate Raul Khadzhimba
Khadzhimba says unity with Georgia is a thing of the past
Moments after they opened their doors, polling stations across this battle-scarred republic were filled with voters.

In the centre of Sukhumi there were chaotic scenes inside School No 14.

Crowds swarmed around the polling booths. Groups of voters gathered in noisy groups to argue the pros and cons of the candidates. Others scanned electoral lists taped to the walls, looking for their names.

Perched on a chair next to the ballot box, Vella Konstantinovna spent the whole day on duty. She counted in every single slip.

Vella says the minimum turnout was achieved very quickly.

"We had 25% by 11 am and now there are many, many more", she says, marking off another vote cast on her list. The Abkhaz people are "active voters", she says. This is a day of celebration for everyone."

In the office of the Voters' League for Fair Elections, in the shadow of the bombed-out wreck of the Intourist Hotel, they have been keeping an independent eye on the vote.

'Organisational problems'

There is widespread fear these elections will be rigged in favour of the man closest to Abkhazia's outgoing president. But society does appear genuinely divided so there is serious concern any hint of a fix would spark civil unrest.

Abkhaz capital Sukhumi during the war
Abkhazia claimed military victory against Georgia 11 years ago
Alkhaz Tkhagushev says the league has witnessed no major violations yet.

"The voter lists were badly prepared, like we feared", he says. "Some people were missed off the lists altogether but the commissions are doing their best to cope. It's more organisational problems here than sabotage."

These elections come 11 years to the week Abkhazia claimed victory in a vicious war with Georgia. Ten thousand people were killed then.

More than 200,000 Georgians living in Abkhazia, who were made homeless in the conflict and fled to Georgia, were unable to vote.

Abkhazia's independence has never been recognised and now Georgia's new president says it is his life's aim to return this region to the fold.

Mikhail Saakashvili considers this vote illegitimate but in Abkhazia each of the five candidates is adamant there can be no compromise on independence.

Moscow's man

Registering to cast his own vote, Raul Khadzhimba is seen by many as the president in waiting here.

Abkhazia will continue in the same direction it's been heading, for full independence
Raul Khadzhimba
Vladislav Ardzinba named him as his preferred successor. Mr Khadzhimba's posters dominate the streets and the billboards. One in particular depicts him side by side with Vladimir Putin.

Raul Khadzhimba is seen as Moscow's man in a region where Russian influence and investment is increasing steadily, despite an official economic blockade.

For this unrecognised strip of land, Russia's support has provided a lifeline.

"Abkhazia will continue in the same direction it's been heading, for full independence", Mr Khadzhimba declared, emerging from the polling booth.

"Unity with Georgia is a thing of the past, now we look to Russia for economic integration, but as an independent state."

One hour after polls closed, an election official declared the vote valid with over a 60% turnout.

The count for a winner will go on late into the night. But whatever the result, the Abkhaz are convinced they are entering a new era.

They hope this vote will prove to the outside world too that they are serious about going it alone.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch a video report from Abkhazia



SEE ALSO:
Abkhazia holds first 'real' poll
03 Oct 04  |  Europe
Georgia's forgotten conflict
03 Jul 03  |  Europe
UN monitors kidnapped in Georgia
05 Jun 03  |  Europe
Abkhaz conflict looms again
09 Oct 01  |  Europe


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