Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Abkhazia hopes to keep Georgia at bay with election

AP , TBILISI, GEORGIA

Five candidates squared off yesterday in an election for the presidency of Abkhazia, all sharing a commitment to keep their breakaway region from submitting to Georgian rule.

Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba, backed by outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba and by neighboring Russia, was the front-runner, but opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh posed a strong challenge.

Polls opened at 8am and were scheduled to close at 8pm.

Yesterday's vote was the first time Abkhazians cast ballots since Ardzinba, 59, took the helm of the Black Sea region more than 15 years ago -- when Abkhazia and Georgia were still part of the Soviet Union. Ardzinba was legally prohibited from seeking another term.

The election underscored tensions with Tbilisi, which, under President Mikhail Saakashvili's leadership, has sought to rein in renegade regions.

Abkhazia's languishing economy -- crippled by sanctions from Tbilisi and a lack of international recognition -- has been the focus for much of the candidates' campaigning. Most Abkhazians are unemployed.

Bagapsh, head of the Chernomorenergo state energy company and leader of the United Abkhazia opposition movement, has campaigned on promises of raising the average wage and combatting rampant crime.

Georgian media have ignored the election, which Georgian officials insist is illegal.

"What's to be said about the situation? Foremost that there is no justice. They threw us out of our homes there," said Lado Adamiya.

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