SUKHUMI, Georgia (AP) — Abkhazia — a lush sliver of subtropical land once dubbed the Soviet Riviera— is electing a new president Friday, with three veterans of the early 1990s separatist war against Georgia vying for the post.
The presidential election is the first in the separatist Georgian province since Russia recognized its independence in 2008. It is being held on the third anniversary of recognition.
Polling stations opened Friday morning just three months after the death of President Sergei Bagapsh, who cemented his nation's pro-Kremlin course backed by lavish financial aid from Moscow, which also has about 5,000 soldiers and border guards stationed in Abkhazia.
Analysts say the Kremlin has distanced itself from the election and there is no certain front-runner.
Abkhazians queued to vote in shabby, war-damaged buildings — remnants of a conflict that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced — while Russian tourists frolicked nearby on palm-fringed beaches. Election officials said nearly 145,000 people are registered to vote and preliminary results will be announced Saturday.
All of the candidates favor continuing Abkhazia's strong relations with Russia, foretelling a continuation of tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi over the region, which lies just south of Sochi, the Russian city where the 2014 Winter Olympics are to be held.
Georgian authorities have repeatedly called on Russia to relocate the Games, saying the venue is too close to "occupied" Georgian territory and have threatened a boycott. Russian and Abkhazian officials allege Georgians will try to thwart the event through terrorism.
The candidates — Vice President Alexander Ankvab, Prime Minister Sergei Shamba and opposition leader Raul Khadjimba — fiercely reject reunification with Georgia.
Experts have so far said the campaign say is free from Kremlin meddling.
Ankvab, 59, has been serving as acting president since Bagapsh's death. The former Communist official has survived five assassination attempts — incidents he described as the result of disputes with local criminals. He headed Abkhazian police in the early 1990s, made a fortune in Russia and returned to Abkhazian politics to position himself as a champion of tough anti-corruption measures.
Prime Minister Shamba, 60, is a former medieval historian who became an influential military commander and then served as foreign minister. He is seen as a liberal who calls for the promotion of younger politicians within the ranks of the somewhat stagnant political system.
Opposition leader Khadzhimba, 53, is an ex-KGB officer who headed the Abkhazian intelligence service and once served as prime minister.
He lost his previous presidential bid in 2004, despite open support from Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Bagapsh's victory almost triggered a civil war — until Russia threatened to stop financial aid and prompted the new president to name Khadzhimba as his number two.
In his role as vice president, Khadzhimba has lambasted corruption in the current government, saying it has"irrationally" misspent Russian financial aid. He has also tried to win the support of Armenians, the largest ethnic minority in Abkhazia.
Khadzhimba also says Abkhazians should seek economic independence from Moscow, learn to "maintain themselves" and eradicate corruption and petty crime that repels tourists.
Abkhazian independence has also been recognized by two Kremlin-friendly Latin American nations and the minuscule Pacific nation of Nauru. Georgia, however, still calls the presence of Russian troops an "occupation" and vows to return some 200,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia, which is around the same size of Kosovo.
Associated Press Writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow