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Abkhazian Elections Offer Several Surprises

Former Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab has made a successful comeback in politics after winning a seat in Abkhazia's 35-member parliament, one of several surprise results in the March 12 elections.

The parliamentary vote was the fifth to be held in the breakaway territory since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of the which have been ritually condemned as illegal by Georgia and Western governments. Recent elections have been genuinely competitive and unpredictable, however, and dramatic defeats of veteran politicians by independent challengers have been a regular feature. This year's edition did not fail to deliver.

The stakes were high for Abkhazia's opposition after it failed to depose President Raul Khajimba in a referendum in July 2016, and after a tense stand-off between opposition and government protesters in December ended in a draw. In late January, news emerged that former president Alexander Ankvab, ousted from office in 2014, had been nominated in three constituencies. This triggered a protest by pro-government veterans of the 1992-1993 war with Georgia, who proclaimed that while Ankvab had the legal right to participate, he did not have the moral right, having fled to a Russian military base in 2014.

Ankvab, who ran in his native Gudauta, won slightly over 50 percent of the votes in the first round, thus avoiding a run-off. Two of Ankvab's allies, former Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia and 2014 losing presidential candidate Aslan Bzhania, also did well and only narrowly failed to win outright majorities.

In a sign that Abkhazians want to maintain a certain distance from Russia, voters re-elected Almas Japua, an outspoken opponent of Russian ownership of Abkhazian real estate whose car was blown up under suspicious circumstances in April 2016. Meanwhile, they inflicted a crushing defeat on Sergei Shamba, the leading pro-Russian advocate of the outgoing parliament, one of the leading figures of Abkhazian politics for nearly thirty years, and still chairman of Abkhazia's largest party, United Abkhazia.

Outgoing speaker and former acting president Valeri Bganba also suffered a surprise defeat, following in the footsteps of his two predecessors. A number of former government members had mixed success. Outgoing Central Election Commission chairman Batal Tabagua was elected, while former foreign minister and linguist Viacheslav Chrikba was not. Former first vice premier Shamyl Adzynba, who decried the failure of the cabinet to enforce Abkhaz as its working language, will have to contest a run-off.

Given the large number of independent candidates, the new balance of power will only be established when the new speaker is elected. If the opposition ends up with the support of enough deputies, it could be in the unique position to influence government policy during the remainder of Khajimba's presidency. The second round of voting will be held March 26.

Abkhazian Elections Offer Several Surprises

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