Russia Threatens Blockade of Defiant Abkhazia

MOSCOW (Reuters/Interfax)–Russia on Wednesday told Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia to hold a rerun of presidential polls–after a pro-Moscow candidate was defeated–or face an economic blockade.

Abkhazia was plunged into turmoil in October when an independent candidate–Sergei Bagapsh–accused former Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba of election fraud. Bagapsh was declared the winner after a recount.

Under pressure from Moscow–ailing regional leader Vladislav Ardzinba has ordered a rerun of the polls despite rulings by the electoral commission–the supreme court–and parliament in favor of Bagapsh.

Bagapsh has defied Ardzinba’s orders and says he intends to go ahead with his inauguration on December 6.

Subsidies from Moscow and cross-border trade with Russia are the only source of income for Abkhazia–whose independence has not been internationally recognized.

"The Russian leadership supports Ardzinba’s…decision to hold new polls to elect the leader of Abkhazia," said Gennady Bukayev–a top aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

"The Abkhaz president’s decision does not suit Bagapsh and criminal groups behind him–which strive to seize power in the republic with the use of arms," he said in remarks broadcast by Russia’s state-run RTR television.

Many analysts see similarities between the Abkhaz crisis and post-election turmoil in ex-Soviet Ukraine–where allegations of election fraud have triggered street protests against a Moscow-backed presidential candidate.

Bukayev said Moscow would impose an economic blockade of Abkhazia if Bagapsh goes ahead with his inauguration plans.

"If Bagapsh continues his unconstitutional activities–fraught with heavy consequences for the republic–the border with Abkhazia will be sealed off," he said. "These sanctions…will be lifted immediately if the situation becomes stable."

Russia has been Abkhazia’s main sponsor since the region broke away from Georgia after a 1992-93 war. Moscow’s support for Abkhazia is a thorny issue in its relations with Tbilisi–which is keen to restore its rule over the region.

Bukayev said Russia has started reinforcing security on the border with Abkhazia–where more than 70 percent of the population have Russian passports–and would cut railway links with the region from Thursday.

The Kremlin has dispatched a deputy interior minister and a deputy prosecutor-general to examine ballot papers used in the October election.

Itar-Tass news agency quoted Bagapsh as saying: "Everything we do is in full accordance with the constitution and we will do everything to run the inauguration smoothly."

Georgian Separatist Conflicts Minister Giorgi Khaindrava on Wednesday criticized Bukayev for expressing support for Ardzinba.

"Russian officials should be more tactful when they make statemen’s about Abkhazia. It is another country–after all," Khaindrava told Interfax.

"Everyone should mind their own business and stay out of other people’s business–and this applies to Mr. Bukayev as well," Khaindrava said. He accused Bukayev of what amounted to "pure blackmail."

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