The Republic of Abkhazia in the Caucasus is gearing up for an early presidential election on 26th August. The vote was called after President Sergey Bagapsh died following cancer surgery.
A lot is at stake for any future leader, with the region still recovering from a long period of conflict with neighboring Georgia.
Abkhazia has been fighting for its independence from Tbilisi since the early 1990s.
It was recognized by Russia and a number of other states following Georgia’s military aggression on South Ossetia, another Caucasus republic, in the so-called 08.08.08 war.
Prime Minister Sergey Shamba, who is running for president, told RT about the serious challenges his country faces.
RT:The upcoming election is the second presidential poll since Abkhazia gained recognition. What does it say about Abkhazia as a modern independent state?
Sergey Shamba: We have been an independent state for a longer time than we’ve been recognized, so this is in fact already our fourth election. Democracy is working its way into our society and so, each time, elections get more democratic, the public gets involved more actively, and so we expect this time it will be a democratic process.
RT:How many international observers will be there to witness the elections?
SS: We’ll have a number of international observers, no doubt. We had quite a lot of them during the previous election, and they came from different countries, including some European states.
RT:Who has been invited and who has agreed to come?
SS: We’ll definitely have representatives from those countries that recognize us, as well as officials from multiple international organizations, political parties, including those from Europe. They will receive invitations from our parliament and our central election committee.
RT: What else is being done to make sure these elections are fair and conform to international standards?
SS: The observers reported that our previous election conformed to democratic standards, and that the election procedure was well thought-through, although there has been some feedback from the candidates on what could be improved, and it has been considered by parliament in order to make the election outcome even more reliable.
RT:You’re the prime minister of Abkhazia. Your main election rival is the acting president. How do you manage the country?
SS: The governmental mechanisms are working, and currently, in accordance with our constitution, presidential duties are performed by the Parliament Speaker. All the ministries are working as usual.
RT: You voiced concerns that elections might be falsified and promised to fight if your victory was taken from you. How far are you ready to go?
SS: Election fraud is nothing but lying to our own people, it’s the worst crime that one could commit against one’s people, therefore all of us here in Abkhazia will do everything to never let that happen.
RT:Political tensions pushed the country to the brink of a civil war in 2004 – are they a threat today?
SS: If someone attempts to rig the ballot or pull any dirty tricks, then of course it can be a threat.
RT: What will your foreign policy priorities be?
SS: Our priority strategic partner is Russia, and our foreign policy will focus on relations with Russia.
In addition to this, we continue to work on getting other, more distant countries to recognize us. We are looking for partners, for friendly states which are less dependent on NATO’s policy and the United States, despite some quite high pressure from the major powers. Such states are out there, this process continues and it will not stop. We are convinced that achieving further international recognition will, to a significant extent, depend on how we keep on developing as a country, on our progress in home affairs and what example we’ll be setting.
RT: Is joining Russia an option any time in the future?
SS: We are highly interested in joining those international organizations that Russia, our strategic partner, is a member of – for instance, such organizations as the Shanghai Co-operation Organization with its joint military program; also EurAsEC, and the Customs Union, and many other organizations. We’d like to participate wherever possible, that’s our interest. But we are not talking about becoming part of another state, and neither is Russia thinking in such terms.
RT:Are talks with Georgia possible?
SS: In a certain format, the talks with Georgia are still ongoing – if we think of the Geneva Talks. As for direct dialogue, I think it is possible and will be necessary in future, though right at the moment the prospects of reaching a consensus on this matter appear quite negative.
First of all, the Georgian authorities have themselves restricted possibilities for dialogue by adopting the law on occupied territories. This doesn’t leave any chance of maintaining a dialogue.
RT: Is there a fear of further Georgian aggression?
SS: We are quite used to it by now, we have had to deal with a number of acts of aggression, but now that we have a strategic partnership with Russia which defines our mutual obligations, it gives us reliable security guarantees, and our society has stopped considering the external threat to our security as a priority issue, we have other top-priority threats to deal with now.
RT: How far is Georgia prepared to go to restore what it calls its “territorial integrity”?
SS: The roots of our conflict lie in the fact that Georgia is claiming our territory. As long as it keeps claiming it, there is no way to reach an agreement.
RT: Georgian refugees are allowed to return to the neighboring district of Gali. Are you prepared to let them return to their homes and to the Abkhazian capital, Sukhum?
SS: This process has already been completed. Those people who wanted to return did so, while those who didn’t are adapting to their lives at their new places of residence, and they should be receiving help both from the international community and Georgian authorities, because the problem of refugees is a two-way problem which should be addressed everywhere via a combined two-way approach. Those people who can be brought back home should be helped to return, and that’s what we did when the time was right, while those who couldn’t return should be helped with accommodation where they ended up living.
Those people who have returned home want to be Abkhazia’s citizens with full rights – we have been visiting towns and settlements in the neighboring district of Gali during the election campaign, and the main thing the district’s residents are asking for is to speed up the process of recognizing their citizenship, providing them with passports, and that’s what we want – to help them become our country’s citizens with full rights and adjust to all internal processes.
RT: There is a whole generation of people in Abkhazia who survived two wars with Georgia over the past 20 years. How is it possible at all for these people to live normal lives?
SS: If we speak of youth organizations, we have 12 such groups in Abkhazia, and two of them are participating in the Fair Election campaign. Their position is neutral and they are going to be observing the upcoming election. Ten other organizations have gone public with their decision to support my candidacy.
RT:Abkhazia needs foreign investment but is it possible to attract capital into the projects in the country when its legal and economic status is doubted by some potential investors?
SS: We have a law that provides guarantees to businesses and international investors, and we are working on other additional mechanisms to provide security guarantees for their business. We are very interested in it, and our laws will be increasing the extent of security guarantees for their business. We do want to attract more investors.
RT: The Russian city of Sochi is very close to Abkhazia – is there any profit for Abkhazia in the fact that so much is being invested into Sochi’s Olympic project?
SS: At the current stage, we are already co-working on this project, we are supplying the Olympic construction sites with materials, and there are a number of other projects which we are interested in participating in, and it is possible we will. At any rate, we are already receiving support on some communications projects, as you know, we’ve obtained a loan to restore our railway system, and we’ve signed a letter of intent pertaining to the reconstruction of our airport. And we are considering all this in the context of the Sochi Olympic project.