It was a 300-person-strong rally, but 58-year-old Alexander Ankvab, de facto vice-president of the breakaway region of Abkhazia and candidate for its de facto presidency, saw no need to address supporters with a microphone. And perhaps there was no need.
Abkhazia’s August 26 presidential vote, its second since recognition by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru as an independent country, is an election more about personalities than about policies, observers say.
“It’s sad,” commented Natela Akaba, head of the Public Chamber, a Sukhumi-based civil society watchdog group. “We don’t have real political parties here with individual platforms.”
The candidates themselves -- aside from Ankvab, they include de facto Prime Minister Sergei Shamba, 60, and 53-year-old opposition leader Raul Khajimba -- make no bones about it. “The program of each candidate is very similar. … There is no conflict of interest,” Ankvab told EurasiaNet.org.
Voting ended at 8pm local time, with the participation of “more than 70 percent” of registered voters, according to the territory’s official news agency, Apsnypress. The number of such voters was not provided. Preliminary results were expected late on August 26.
From a distance, it might not seem much of a contest. Each candidate advocates better living conditions, higher pensions and a more developed agricultural sector. Khajimba promises more kindergartens and modernized medical facilities. Shamba, who has pitched himself to the youth vote, calls for experts from Israel to advise on healthcare reform and experts from Tyrol to advise on agricultural reform. The details remain a matter of conjecture.
Each man toes largely the same line toward Russia, which has stationed hundreds of troops in the territory and provides Abkhazia with economic assistance. Each also steers well clear of any talk about reconciliation with Tbilisi.
Nonetheless, the race, a vote to choose a successor to de facto President Sergei Bagapsh, who died unexpectedly after lung surgery in May, remains unpredictable.
Sukhumi voters shied away from revealing their choice for president to visiting reporters. It is a sign that the vote remains a toss-up, some observers believe.
For the Abkhaz, the choice is about whom they trust, commented Liana Kvarchelia, a representative of the League for Fair Elections. In this tiny society, the three de facto presidential candidates are not unknown figures; they are known as neighbors, classmates or relatives, Kvarchelia continued, and judged accordingly. That makes it difficult for candidates not to be accountable, she reasoned, but, also, difficult for many voters to criticize them.
But this personality contest still comes with a certain degree of rancor. In an August 12 interview with Moskovskaya Pravda, Tengiz Kitovani, the former Georgian defense minister who led Tbilisi’s 1992-1993 armed crackdown on Abkhazia, claimed that Ankvab, then the region’s interior minister, had supplied Tbilisi with regular intelligence about Abkhaz separatist forces’ movements and plans.
The article sparked an immediate scandal among Abkhaz voters. Shamba has denied categorically that his campaign was involved with the interview, but, in August 25 comments to the Russian daily Kommersant, noted that “questions” nonetheless exist about Ankvab’s wartime activities. Ankvab, who has survived a few assassination attempts, left Abkhazia in 1994 for Moscow, where he spent several years working in business.
Fresh drama soon followed the Moskovskaya Pravda interview when Shamba was involved in a car accident on the campaign trail. Reports of the event vary; he has since demanded an investigation.
Other sources of candidate drama have proven relatively limited. In Abkhazia’s 2004 de facto presidential elections, Russia clearly backed Khajimba, then the region’s de facto prime minister, for the post of president -- a move that backfired when Khajimba, who now styles himself as a fiery Abkhaz nationalist, lost narrowly to Bagapsh. This year, Moscow has refrained from openly supporting any candidate.
Claims about fraudulent voter lists, often a source of complaint in Abkhaz de facto elections, have also faded from view, said Kvarchelia, who described the election as “low key” -- an evaluation largely echoed by the monitors from 27 countries reportedly on hand to observe the vote.
Gali, a predominantly ethnic Georgian district featured in past political smear campaigns, has also proven low-key, locals say. Residents have been more or less encouraged to participate in the election. Approximately 9,000 Abkhaz passports, which give the right to vote, have been issued to Gali inhabitants, as compared to 3,000 in 2009, according to official data.
As usual, Tbilisi has called the election bogus, citing the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and the absence of tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled the region after the 1992-1993 war with Abkhaz separatists.
But that criticism carries no weight within Abkhazia. Voters maintain they will craft their own future on their own terms, candidate conflicts and all. Says the League for Fair Elections’ Kvarchelia: “It’s a very complicated process that we’re going through, but we do have competitive elections.”
Paul Rimple is a Tbilisi-based freelance reporter.