MOSCOW – The leader of Abkhazia, a separatist region of Georgia aligned with Russia, died Sunday in a Moscow hospital where he was being treated for lung cancer. He was 62.
Sergei Bagapsh underwent successful surgery on his right lung on May 21, but in the two days before his death his condition took a sharp turn for the worse and he was placed on a respirator, his spokesman Kristian Bzhaniya said.
Bagapsh, who had led Abkhazia since 2005, was credited with leading the region to de facto independence.
Abkhazia had spun out of Georgia's control in fighting in the early 1990s. But during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhaz forces with help from the Russian military succeeded in pushing Georgian troops out of the last bit of territory they held in Abkhazia.
Moscow then recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another separatist region and the focus of the brief war. Only Nicaragua, Venezuela and the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru have followed suit, while the rest of the world still considers both regions to be Georgian territory.
The following year, Bagapsh was re-elected to a second presidential term and vowed to maintain close ties with Russia.
Russia has thousands of troops based in Abkhazia and is deeply interested in the region's stability. It lies just to the south of Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia's president and prime minister expressed their condolences to Abkhazians over the loss of Bagapsh, whom they praised for what they described as putting Abkhazia on the path to international recognition of its sovereignty and for strengthening ties with Russia.
Unlike some officials in impoverished South Ossetia, Bagapsh appeared to have no interest in eventual unification with Russia. His main focus was the economic development of Abkhazia, which is endowed with subtropical beaches and abundant citrus fruit.
A memorial ceremony for Bagapsh will be held Monday in Moscow. He will be buried in his home village in Abkhazia on Thursday.
Vice president Alexander Ankvab will lead Abkhazia until new elections are held, expected within three months.
Ruslan Khashig in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, contributed to this report.