New Abkhazia President Pledges Close Moscow Ties

SUKHUMI (Reuters)–The winner of Moscow-backed elections in the rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia pledged close ties with Russia on Thursday and refused any deal that would return sovereignty to Tbilisi.

Soon after official results of the re-run on Thursday declared him the new president–Sergei Bagapsh told a news conference–"Foreign policy will only be directed towards integration with Russia."

Russia called instead for talks between Abkhazia and Tbilisi now that the political turmoil that followed the original disputed poll in October had ended.

"We have always emphasized that the sooner the situation was regulated–the sooner conditions could be created for talks between Tbilisi and Sukhumi on Georgia-Abkhazia regulation," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "I believe that now the issue has apparently been concluded–it will be possible to renew such talks."

Georgia–a Caucasus state whose democratic revolution in 2003 inspired Ukraine’s recent election of a pro-Western leader–accuses Russia of meddling in its internal affairs by backing Abkhazia’s separatist government.

The dispute is a major hurdle to friendly relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.

Official results gave the former businessman a landslide win. His victory in the October poll was disputed by local officials–who favored his Moscow-backed rival Raul Khadzhimba.

DEADLOCK

The disputed poll caused months of political deadlock which ended only when Russia forced a resolution by closing the border–Abkhazia’s only land route to the outside world. Bagapsh then agreed Khadzhimba could run as his deputy.

"Sergei Bagapsh–standing for the post of president–won 90.1 percent of votes from voters taking part. His opponent won 4.5 percent," said Batal Tabagua–election commission head.

Abkhazia won effective independence from Georgia in a 1992-93 war–but its economy is still devastated. Once-grand buildings in the capital Sukhumi are pitted with bullet holes and stand open to the sky.

Russia props up the economy by paying pensions–giving out passports and allowing cross-border traffic.

Georgia–home to 200,000 ethnic Georgian refugees who fled the war–has pledged to regain control over Abkhazia–as well as over another rebel region–South Ossetia.

But Bagapsh said he would not compromise to improve frozen relations with Tbilisi.

"Abkhazia will hold dialogue with Georgia mediated by Russia and the United Nations only on an equal basis," he said.

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