|Author: Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation|
On November 25, 2020, a document titled “Plan of measures for the formation of a common socio-economic space between the Russian Federation and Abkhazia” was published on the government websites of the Russian Federation and internet resources belonging to the unrecognized Abkhazia. The document was signed by Aslan Bzhania, the de facto president of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab, the prime minister, and Dimitri Kozak, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration. The document consists of 45 paragraphs and covers issues such as customs and tax legislation, energy, healthcare, education, social security, economy and real estate. Alongside every paragraph in the document, the relevant responsible agency and the estimated years of its implementation is indicated. Most of the agreement provisions entail the harmonization of the legislations of Russia and Abkhazia. This document is a logical continuation of the recognition of Abkhazia’s sovereignty by Russia in 2008, and the subsequent agreements. Notable among these agreements is the 2014 “Alliance and Integration Agreement”, which, among many other clauses, includes the transfer of command of Abkhazia’s de facto armed forces to the Russian General Staff.
The aforementioned document was met with mixed assessment in Abkhazian political circles and media. Inal Khashig, a journalist and editor-in-chief of the “Chegemskaya Pravda” newspaper, positively assesses the prospect of an increase in pensions and budget salaries under the agreement, but is wary of a number of points in the document.
The document contains several points that invoke certain fears in Abkhazian society. The most painful of these is the issue of real estate. Currently, according to the de facto constitution of Abkhazia, only Abkhaz citizens have the right to purchase real estate on the territory of Abkhazia. Due to this restriction, foreigners, including Russian citizens, are unable to purchase real estate in the tourist areas. Acquisition of a de facto citizenship of Abkhazia is associated with rather complicated procedures, where preference is usually given to the Abkhaz diaspora of Turkey and Syria, as well as to the Abas people living in Karachay-Cherkessia. The ruling elite of Abkhazia, however, is trying to find compromising ways to resolve this controversial issue. For example, Natela Akaba, chairwoman of the Constitutional Reform Commission under the de facto president of Abkhazia, has an initiative to create pre-development areas in the eastern regions of Abkhazia. In addition to the creation of special economic zones in these areas, it is also planned to build residential communities, where foreigners will also be able to buy real estate. A potential location for the development of such a territory is the seaside village of Varcha in the Gulrifshi district, which was abandoned by Georgians; the announcements of land plots for sale in that area are being actively spread on Abkhazian real estate websites. Permitting the sale of real estate to foreigners raises two main fears in Abkhazian society, the first being the expected demographic expansion of ethnic Russians and the acceleration of assimilation processes in Abkhazia. According to the census conducted on the territory of Abkhazia in 2011, the number of Abkhazians reached 124 thousand people and amounted to 50.71% of the total population. However, demographic experts have long questioned the reliability of these figures, believing that the actual number of Abkhazians is lower, and that of Armenians is higher. Abkhaz society fears that by lifting restrictions on real estate, Abkhazians may become the minority once again, threatening their further international recognition and strengthening of sovereignty. The second issue that is feared in Abkhazia is the return of Georgian IDPs with Russian citizenship, or the purchase of real estate by ethnic Georgians who are Russian citizens. In his interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the issue of ethnic Georgians who are Russian citizens in Abkhazia, as well as single ethnic Russian pensioners. Abkhazians fear that the Russian citizen ethnic Georgians will rely on the support of official Moscow and will be utilized as a mechanism of pressure.
The second issue treated cautiously in Abkhazia is energy. Currently, Abkhazia is supplied with electricity from Enguri HPP. Since one part of the Enguri HPP infrastructure is located in Tsalenjikha Municipality and the other in the Gali area, the Georgian side and the de facto Abkhazian authorities, through verbal agreement, equally share the electricity generated by the Enguri HPP.
Currently, energy distribution on the territory of Abkhazia is managed by the company “Chernomorenergo”, which is affiliated with the local political elites. The electricity received from Enguri HPP is supplied to the local population at much lower than the market price. Currently, an energy crisis is raging on the territory of Abkhazia, caused by the extraction of cryptocurrency (so-called mining). Cheap electricity in turn is responsible for the prevalence of mining. In addition, the owners of mining farms are persons close to the ruling circles and protected clans, which is why it is not possible to restrict this activity. Therefore, today, the population of Abkhazia is supplied with electricity on a schedule. There is a risk that the only solution to overcome the deep energy crisis will be the sale of Chernomorenergo and other energy facilities in Abkhazia to Russian companies. In addition to the fact that Abkhazian elites will lose control of the energy facilities, in case of privatization, the price of electricity will increase at least sixfold, putting an additional burden on the population.
The third issue is the clause that will allow Russian citizens to obtain de facto Abkhazian citizenship. In addition to being able to buy real estate, they will acquire the right to vote, thus influencing the election process. All this may be accompanied by even more active protection of Russian citizens and Russian business interests on the territory of Abkhazia. This may significantly reduce the various forms of corruption and fraudulent schemes utilized by the clans and groups affiliated with local elites.
Another important detail of the agreement is the issue of NGOs. Paragraph 37 of the agreement envisages the “drafting of a memorandum and a roadmap, which, in order to regulate foreign non-profit organizations and foreign agents, will harmonize the legislation of the Republic of Abkhazia with that of the Russian Federation.” This clause of the agreement directly targets non-governmental organizations funded by Western donors. The introduction of this law in Russia has significantly hampered the functioning of the non-governmental sector and collaboration with donors. The harmonization of the de facto legislation of Abkhazia and Russia will, first of all, threaten the non-governmental organizations in Abkhazia, which for the last two decades have developed close relations with Western donors. Business ties between the Abkhaz civil sector and the UN mission in Abkhazia may also be curtailed. The category of “foreign agents” may include those Abkhazians repatriated from Turkey who work closely with Turkish political, business, and religious circles while engaging in entrepreneurial activities or charity in Abkhazia. As such, this clause of the agreement may pose a threat to Georgian-Abkhaz public diplomacy and severely restrict contacts between Abkhaz civil society activists and their Georgian counterparts.
Several aspects of the document also cover the field of customs. As is known, a large amount of food products and clothes enter the territory of Abkhazia from Zugdidi municipality, while nuts and smuggled cigarettes are imported from the Gali municipality. Abkhazian political circles have long considered establishing control over this trade-economic practice. The former de facto leader of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, proposed an initiative to set up a customs checkpoint on the Enguri Bridge and legalize the existing underground trade. Under the new agreement, this process may be expedited, and traders on both sides of the Enguri River will have to pay customs duties corresponding to the Eurasian Customs Union. All this may to some extent hinder the practice of informal trade between the inhabitants of the Gali and Samegrelo regions.
The issue of Georgians living in Gali district deserves a separate discussion. As is well known, due to public pressure, the de facto government of Abkhazia was forced to revoke Abkhazian passports for Gali residents with Georgian citizenship, thereby putting Georgians living in the region in an even more difficult situation. Today, most of the residents of Gali use a temporary residence permit, the so-called “Form 9”, the nullification of which usually depends on the good will of the de facto administration. If the immigration legislation of Russia and Abkhazia is harmonized, it will further complicate the movement of citizens across the Enguri Bridge, and put the population of Gali at constant risk of deportation. Along with legislative leverage, the voluntary migration of Gali Georgians to Georgian-controlled territory may be encouraged through various informal means and restrictions.
Even though the military sphere is mentioned only indirectly in several paragraphs, it is expected that the Russian military presence in Abkhazia will expand, especially in the east. Based on the experience of the Karabakh War, Russia may use some kind of additional equipment and tactical innovation.
The signing of the document by Bzhania and Ankvab, and the implementation of certain paragraphs, will be, first of all, the responsibility of the ruling political team in Abkhazia. The positions of the ruling team of Aslan Bzhania and Alexander Ankvab have been significantly weakened by the current economic crisis, energy shortage, and pandemic. The statements of Sergei Shamba and Aslan Bzhania, the Secretary of the De facto Security Council of Abkhazia, about the desire to start an unconditional dialogue with Tbilisi, and the visit of the Georgian political party “Patriots Alliance” to Abkhazia and gifting of the icon to the monastery of Ilori also caused great dissatisfaction among the nationalists and war veterans there. The execution of some controversial sections of the document may lead to accusations of “weakening Abkhazia’s sovereignty” vis-à-vis the ruling team. Against the background of all this, the Bzhania-Ankvab political team will face the next parliamentary and presidential elections in Abkhazia with even less political capital. Given that Raul Khajimba’s team, which has a strong negative attitude towards Tbilisi, has the strongest positions on the opposition wing, this may further reduce the likelihood of a constructive dialogue with Tbilisi.
All in all, the signing of the new agreement is a planned and long-term political strategy of Russia, aimed at the absorption of Abkhazia into the Russian political and economic space. As a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia has expanded its sphere of influence in the Caucasus region, and by placing a peacekeeping contingent, another country has appeared on the world map in which Russian military units are stationed. Given this geopolitical reality, Russia is expected to strengthen its positions in Abkhazia, and the latest document is one part of this long process.