Saturday, January 5, 2008

Gali residents reportedly face difficulty reaching polling stations

It is being reported that registered Georgian voters residing in Gali district, in the Abkhaz conflict zone, are facing difficulty reaching their closest polling stations, in Georgian-controlled territory, south of the Enguri River which runs along the administrative border of the breakaway republic.

A representative of the Zugdidi Election Commission, close to the administrative border, confirmed that Gali residents had cast votes at polling stations in Zugdidi but could not give figures.

Political expert Archil Gegeshidze told the Messenger that most ethnic Georgians in Gali are expected to vote for former president and United National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Territorial integrity has been a key rallying point in presidential campaigns, and authorities want a strong show of support for Saakashvili in conflict regions.

However, the past few days have seen media reports that de facto authorities are engaging in voter intimidation in the region.

Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV channel had reported that the Abkhaz militia conducted a military operation in Gali district, burning down seven houses and arresting eight villagers in the conflict zone.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on January 3 claiming that the alleged raids were “aimed at intimidating the local population… thus preventing them from participating in the forthcoming presidential election.”

On January 4, on the eve of the election, de facto Abkhaz officials denied Tbilisi’s claims that ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone were being subjected to intimidation.

Whether physical intimidation has taken place or not, de facto foreign minister Sergey Shamba had strong words for ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone planning to nip over the Enguri River and place their vote in Zugdidi polling stations on January 3.

“If someone wants to be engaged in [Georgian] politics, then they can be engaged in politics in Georgia. They were warned that if they want to take part in the elections, they will encounter problems coming back,” Shamba told Mze TV on January 3.

Increased tension in the breakaway region of Abkhazia has been a continuing theme in the run-up to the election, with Tbilisi making repeated allegations that de facto Abkhaz authorities, in cooperation with Russia, have been orchestrating a military build-up in the conflict zone. The allegations have been flatly denied by both Moscow and Sokhumi.


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