Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
The year 2021 was difficult for the de facto republic of Abkhazia during which problems such as the pandemic, criminogenic situations, cryptocurrency production and the energy crisis remained unresolved. The political situation became so tense that there will be a lot of challenges in 2022. Below, I will share some important information about the events that took place in Abkhazia in 2021.
Pandemic and Russian Tourists
In 2021, the coronavirus pandemic claimed the lives of many people in Abkhazia. A total of 9,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection were reported in 2020. In 2021, the infection was confirmed to 29,000 and caused death of 433 people. It would be difficult for Abkhazia’s healthcare system to deal with the pandemic without the support of international organizations and Russia. A Russian Ministry of Defense field hospital was deployed on the territory of Abkhazia for months.
Amid the global pandemic, the only positive development was observed in the field of tourism. Given the restriction on travel, Abkhazian resorts appeared to be the closest and most accessible for Russian tourists. Abkhazia hosted an unprecedented number of Russian tourists in 2021. Talks have been going on for years about cases of crime and fraud, as well as violence from the militia against Russian tourists. This year, against the background of the abundance of Russian tourists, the attitude of the locals towards them was still relevant. The June 15, 2021 incident in Bichvinta, when a local, Dmitry Pilia, wounded two Russian tourists in a cafe with a firearm, was highly resonated. In Abkhazia, carrying weapons, even illegally, and aggressive behavior against Russian tourists by abusive citizens is common. Russia often criticizes criminal facts; however, as a rule, local justice is not properly rigorous towards criminals.
Crime and “Thieves-in-Law”
Defeating criminals has become an unfulfilled mission for the de facto President, Aslan Bzhania, as well. One of the reasons for Raul Khajimba’s resignation from the post of “president” in 2020 was the criminogenic situation and the growing influence of the criminal world. The most notorious criminal case of the last year was the killing of Kemal Ardzinba, Vladislav Ardzinba’s nephew, in Sokhumi, on May 18. Kemal was not a thief-in-law but he was believed to have close ties to criminal authorities. There is speculation that his murder was a revenge for the murder of two thieves-in-law, Astamur Shamba and Alkha Avidzba, who were killed in Sokhumi in 2019. It was the aftermath of this assassination which accelerated Raul Khajimba’s resignation. As a rule, due to the existing regional or kinship ties, it is not possible to arrest the perpetrators and often criminals avoid long-term imprisonment with the help of influential patrons.
In 2021, there was an energy crisis in Abkhazia. The crisis was also facilitated by the several-month shutdown of the Enguri HPP for rehabilitation. The main reason for the energy crisis was the increase in the production of cryptocurrencies using cheap electricity. As a result, the consumption of electricity in Abkhazia was almost equal to the electricity consumption level of Tbilisi. The cheap electricity is actively used by cryptocurrency mining farms which are everywhere, at homes or farms far from populated areas. Authorities declared war on cryptocurrency production but the seizure of cryptocurrency devices and restrictions imposed could not rectify the situation. The reason for this is the involvement of local influential people in the business of cryptocurrency production. During the crisis, the de facto government had to demand additional electricity from Russia and set a schedule for electricity supply.
Against the background of the existing problems, they suspect that Aslan Bzhania’s “government” is trying to artificially create an energy crisis in Abkhazia in order to transfer the Abkhazian energy sector to Russia. The Abkhazian energy sector is outdated and the de facto government cannot rehabilitate it without large investments. According to the de facto president, the sector needs to invest over RUB 10 billion and Russia is the only investor which has the opportunity and the desire to invest in the Abkhaz energy sector. Bzhania’s opponents believe that the transfer of the energy sector to Russia will undermine the “sovereignty” of Abkhazia and increase the price for electricity.
New “Minister” and Anti-Georgian Hysteria
Aslan Bzhania tried to find ways to cooperate with the Georgian government and openly spoke about it in the first year of his “presidency” (2020). Bzhania’s team used the economic issue as an argument. In their opinion, the legalization of economic activities with the Georgian side, which were illegally underway, would have brought revenues to the Abkhaz budget. A big scandal was caused by Benur Kviraia’s (former Assistant to Aslan Bzhania and a businessman) confession about his visit to Tbilisi to meet with investors. Kviraia, who was a participant in the Georgian-Abkhaz war, could not be accused of pro-Georgian sentiments and treason; however, his voyage to Tbilisi turned out to be a “red line” since part of the opposition and Abkhaz society think that no relations should be established with the Georgian side until Tbilisi recognizes Abkhazia.
Bzhania was put under fire for a phrase in the Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Abkhazia (adopted December 4, 2020) that sought to create an additional format for negotiations with the Georgian side. At first glance, this general phrase caused great controversy in Abkhaz society. The pressure was so strong that Bzhania removed the phrase from the Concept on May 25, 2021.
The anti-Georgian hysteria continued with the appointment of Inal Ardzinba, a former high-ranking official at the Russian Presidential Administration, as the “Minister” of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia on November 17, 2021. In Abkhazia, Ardzinba is considered to be a “Moscow man.” Although new to Abkhaz politics, he is still well-known to Abkhazians for his anti-Georgian sentiments. Inal Ardzinba deems that relations with official Tbilisi within the Geneva format are sufficient. He considers the recognition of Abkhazia’s independence as a precondition for a dialogue with Georgia.
Inal Ardzinba started his career as a “minister” by making loud statements. He gave one of his first instructions to international organizations working on the territory of Abkhazia and strongly warned them not to carry out projects without the permission and coordination with the “Ministry.” Ardzinba aims at establishing the same control over international governmental and non-governmental organizations as it is in Russia. If in the past, international organizations facilitated the development of the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue, at least on a small scale, it will become impossible during Ardzinba’s tenure at the “Ministry.” There is no doubt that Ardzinba influences Abkhazia’s “foreign policy” Entirely. Any prospects for the development of relations with the Georgian side should not be expected during his work in the Abkhaz “government.”
Domestic Political Instability
After Khajimba’s resignation, the year 2020 was a kind of preparatory period for the opposition forces and the political temperature rose sharply in 2021. The year 2021 symbolically began with Akhra Avidzba’s (one of the organizers of the 2020 Abkhaz revolution) arrest who turned from an ally into an opponent of Aslan Bzhania. He was initially arrested on charges of plotting a coup and was released only after spending three months in prison. Mr. Avidzba turned out to be an overly odious figure for Bzhania’s “government” and his political ambitions also oppose the latter’s plans.
An irreversible political crisis followed the September 30 incident when Gary Kokaia, a member of “parliament,” and his fellow villagers from the village of Adziubzha, the Ochamchire region, were physically assaulted by police officers and the Interior Minister, Dimitri Dbar. According to representatives of the opposition, Kokaia and the Adziubzha war veterans were physically injured. The insulted war veterans demanded the “minister’s” resignation. Aslan Bzhania was forced to dismiss his loyal comrade; however, he appointed him as the Head of the State Protection Service.
The political crisis was exacerbated ahead of the New Year when an opposition rally attacked the government buildings on December 21 in response to which the authorities used force and arrested opposition protesters. Aslan Bzhania remembers well how his predecessor resigned (in which he himself played a big role) and tries to fight the opposition with strict methods in order to prevent political revenge.
What to Expect in 2022
The main political event of 2022 is the “parliamentary elections” scheduled for March 12 where Aslan Bzhania will try to defeat the opposition and increase his influence. For their part, some of the opposition forces are trying to consolidate and defeat the government candidates. Despite results of the “elections,” there is no quick way to solve the problems accumulated in Abkhazia and so the struggle for power will be the main challenge for Bzhania in 2022.