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Sokhumi Postpones Election Date after Allegations of Candidate Poisoning

Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba has agreed to postpone the date of ‘presidential’ elections, following his talks with opposition leaders. The sides decided to hold the polls on August 25, instead of July 21.

The decision was announced early morning on May 22, two days after opposition activists called ‘non-stop’ rallies in Sokhumi, the regional capital, triggered by allegations that Aslan Bzhania, one of the leaders of the opposition and a potential ‘presidential’ candidate, was poisoned with heavy metals.

Bzhania, 56, was hospitalized on April 17 with signs of breathing difficulties and speech impairment. He was first treated in Sochi in southern Russia, but was later transferred to Moscow, where he remains until now. Bzhania’s two guards were hospitalized with similar symptoms, but were discharged shortly.

Aslan Bzhania was the head of the Abkhaz security service from 2010 to 2014, serving under ex-leaders Sergey Bagapsh and Alexander Anqvab. He was Khajimba’s main rival in the 2014 ‘presidential’ election, held shortly after Ankvab was forced out of office as a result of street protests. He now leads the Apra foundation and is a member of the region’s legislature.

Initially, the opposition claimed there was no reason to question the official medical diagnosis issued by a Moscow hospital, which – they said – determined that Bzhania suffered from heavy forms of viral pneumonia. But on May 17, they published the results of an independent examination carried out by a Munich-based lab, alleging that the man was poisoned with heavy metals.

On May 20, several hundred opposition supporters gathered in front of the region’s legislature in Sokhumi, demanding rescheduling of elections to November 2019. The 35-seat assembly deliberated on the issue the very same day, but the request was declined, with only 14 lawmakers voting in favor.

Protesters met the decision with fury; they called for Khajimba’s resignation, announced permanent rallies and blocked the region’s east-west highway for few hours. They also threatened to boycott the upcoming elections. Protesters stayed in front of the legislature through May 21, but ended the demonstration early morning on May 22 after reaching agreement with Raul Khajimba.

Teimuraz Khishba, one of the protest leaders, said extra time will allow the opposition leader to engage in the election process fully. According to Khishba, Khajimba also agreed to their proposal that Bzhania will not have to be physically present for registration procedures.

Khajimba has yet to comment on the decision. Previously, he was strongly against postponement, accusing the opposition of speculating over Bzhania’s health and of destabilizing the situation ahead of a touristic season. On May 20, he also announced that Abkhaz investigators were working together with their Russian counterparts to “determine the truth into the case.”

Elections in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions are denounced as illegitimate by Tbilisi and the international community, except of Russia and four other countries (Nauru, Venezuela, Syria and Nicaragua), which have recognized the two regions’ independence from Georgia.

This post is also available in: Georgian Russian

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