SUKHUMI, Georgia (AP) — The vice president of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia was preliminarily declared the winner of the presidential election Saturday.
Alexander Ankvab obtained 55 percent of Friday's vote, Election Commission chairman Batal Tabagua said.
The presidential election is the first in Abkhazia — sandwiched geographically between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and caught politically between Russia and Georgia — since Moscow recognized its independence in 2008.
Russian recognition followed the 2008 Russia-Georgian war, fought over another Georgian breakaway republic. Russia has about 5,000 soldiers and border guards stationed in Abkhazia, which Georgia calls occupation.
The vote was held three months after the death of President Sergei Bagapsh, who cemented Abkhazia's pro-Kremlin course backed by lavish financial aid from Moscow.
Ankvab, 59, was running against two other seasoned politicians and veterans of the separatist war that Abkhazia waged against the Georgian government in the early 1990s that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced. The former Communist official and ex-head of Abkhazia's police has survived five assassination attempts, which he described as the result of disputes with local criminals.
Prime Minister Sergei Shamba garnered 21 percent of the vote and opposition leader Raul Khadjimba won 20 percent, the election commission said.
Shortly after the announcement, Ankvab stressed the role of Abkhazia's ties with the Kremlin:
"We cherish that relationship and we're going to foster it as much as we can," he said, quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Konstantin Kosachev, a senior lawmaker from the Russian parliament on an observer mission in Abkhazia, hailed the transparency of the vote.
While Georgian officials are dismissing the election as illegitimate, opposition leaders see the vote as a chance for the final peace settlement.
Prominent Georgian opposition politician Irakli Asalaniya told The Associated Press that the election had named a figure that Georgians should talk with to establish a lasting peace in the region.
Asalaniya credited Ankvab with a genuine "desire of peace" and helping many ethnic Georgians during the 1990s war.
"Ankvab is the man that we can find common language with," he said.
The 1991 Soviet collapse and the increasingly nationalist policies of the Georgian government led to disagreements between the central Georgian government and its autonomous republics that exploded into a civil war.
Throughout the 1990s, Abkhazia's tourism- and agriculture-dependent economy went through a deep recession, while hostilities with the Georgians continued.
Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili contributed to this report from Tbilisi, Georgia.