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Presiding Over Nowhere: Abkhazia's New President Will Have to Walk a Fine Line to Maintain the Interests of the Republic, Russia and the West

Abkhazia, one of Georgia's two breakaway republics, has elected former Vice President Alexander Ankvab to become the country's third president. For Ankvab, the next few years will remain key as he tries to maintain a working relationship with his Russian patron without selling the country out to Russian business and political interests. While the elections have been called illegitimate by nearly every major world player other than the Russian government, there may be a way forward for Abkhazia on the world stage, note experts, by focusing on integration without diplomatic recognition.

Ankvab won what appeared to be free and fair presidential elections with a high turnout, receiving close to 55 percent of the vote. Following an acrimonious elections season, when he was accused of spying for Georgia during the earlier Abkhaz separatist war in the early 1990s, he received congratulations from President Dmitry Medvedev and pledged to maintain a close relationship with Moscow during his term.

Several factors came together to push Ankvab to victory in a vote that pitted him against the country's Prime Minister Sergei Shamba and former Vice President Raul Khadzhimba, noted Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While Khadzhimba, who promoted himself as an opposition candidate, was seen as too radical, Shamba's close links to Moscow probably hurt him in the eyes of the electorate. Ethnic cleavages also may have played a role in the vote, with many Abkhazians likely voting for Khadzhimba, he added.

Ankvab takes over after several months as acting president, following the death of two-term President Sergei Bagapsh. Bagapsh was in power during the Georgian war with Russia in 2008, largely steering Abkhazia through a difficult transition period into an independent, albeit shaky, government. Only five countries in the world have recognized Abkhazia (one of those being the islands of Vanuatu), making the country especially vulnerable to Russian influence.

With over 5,000 Russian soldiers stationed on Abkhaz territory and Russian state business interests, like Rosneft, taking advantage of Abkhazia's newfound independence to conclude gas and oil deals, a fear that the republic might be annexed or simply controlled by Moscow's economic interests is ever present. Accordingly, Abkhazia's president-elect is expected to thread the needle between outright subservience to Moscow and being careful not to offend its patron to the north. "There was an understanding that while each candidate had to be pro-Russian, they would have different visions for a relationship with Russia, and would essentially work in a triangle of relations: Abkhazia, Russia, and the rest of the world," said Malashenko. "In Abkhazia, they need foreign economic and political presence badly, but they also want to perform the role of an independent state. This will be a headache for both Abkhazia and Russia, and next year will be a time of diplomacy."

Meanwhile, Georgia and a chorus of supporters from the West, including NATO, the European Union and the United States have called the Abkhazian elections illegitimate, signaling that Abkhazia should not expect to receive diplomatic recognition from the West anytime soon. Despite that quick rejection, however, Abkhazia's goal over the next year will be to show that it is a country that the West can work with despite its lack of international recognition, said Malashenko.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, the authors argue that the key to stabilizing some of the worst frozen conflicts in the world, in places like Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdnestr, as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would be engagement from Western countries. "By insisting on territorial integrity, the United States and other countries forgo the chance to turn phantom states into responsible players. So long as phantoms are denounced as separatists or outposts of illicit commerce, the international community has little opportunity to hold their leaders accountable," wrote the authors.

While engagement from the West is a possibility, Abkhazia and Georgia will likely not be able to normalize relations, said Malashenko, and the return of Abkhazia to Georgia is already out of the question. "Russia would have to collapse in order for Abkhazia to return to Georgia," he said.

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