Author: Shota Utiashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Anyone who is keeping an eye on the news stories from Abkhazia would have noticed one trend – political and economic news have almost completely been replaced with the news about crimes. If you look at the headlines it becomes clear that the occupied region is plagued with the struggle for power between thieves in law, crimes committed by public officials and their relatives and the ineffective enforcement regarding these cases from the so-called law enforcement structures. Because of this situation, Raul Khajimba even replaced the Minister of Internal Affairs.
Growth of crime is bad news everywhere; however, it is especially inflammatory for the region where tourism is the main source of income. The fact that this year’s tourist season was rather unsuccessful is a secret to no one. When we are talking about Abkhazia, citing precise numbers is virtually impossible; however, even the so-called government of Abkhazia, which has been boasting about “over a million Russian tourists” for the past few years, admits the significant reduction in the number of tourists. In fairness, it should also be pointed out that apart from the increasing crime rates the number of Russian tourists was also affected by the opening of Turkish resorts for Russians and bad weather conditions at the beginning of summer.
There is a serious problem in the second largest sector of the Abkhazian economy, agriculture as well. The Asian Stink Bug has been able to deal at least as much damage to the agricultural production of Abkhazia, as it has in Samegrelo. The only success of the so-called government of Abkhazia in combatting this bug has been the formation of a special commission.
Increasing crime rates, the Asian Stink Bug and the reduction of the number of tourists, are, of course, temporary problems, which can be solved by an effective government sooner or later; however, the main problem of Sokhumi is that the government itself is dealing with a severe crisis.
Much like the precise number of tourists, it is practically impossible to accurately measure the rating of the so-called government of Abkhazia; however, all sources talk about the fact that the ratings and influence of Khajimba have fallen catastrophically. In fact, there are now three parallel governments operating in Abkhazia: Khajimba and his so-called government, Russians, who have practically managed to complete the creation of parallel special forces in Abkhazia and thieves in law, which are, as always the first to utilize the lack of the formal government.
All this is complemented with the constantly existing but recently exacerbated social problems: virtual absence of the healthcare system, which forces hundreds of Abkhazians to look for health care institutions in the rest of Georgia every year; drug addiction, which has reached a catastrophic scale and a very weak educational system.
In short, the scary stories told by the Georgian politicians to their voters, namely those about “going back to the 90s” are definitely taking place in front of our very eyes, across Enguri river, in Abkhazia (if only it were possible to organize a trip to Abkhazia for those Georgians who dream about the approximation with Russia, in order for them to see what the Russian “protection” actually looks like!).
The crisis is further worsened by the fact that, in the expectations of the Abkhazians, everything should have gone very differently: in 2008, after getting the recognition of their independence from Russia, Abkhazians were expecting that they would also get recognition from the rest of the world, which would stimulate an endless chain of tourists, investments and wealth. Everything that happened afterwards was exactly on the contrary. Now it is very difficult to even say what needs to be changed in order for the situation to improve. This is especially due to the fact that the changes in government are less and less dependent on the Abkhazian people. The changes need to be approved by Moscow as well, who might have an agenda different from the one entertained by the Abkhazian public.
The Abkhazian crisis has also generated debates on this side of the Enguri River as well: what can be done by Georgia? One side claims that now that the Abkhazians have seen that their future with Russia is very vague, Tbilisi must show extraordinary good will towards the “Abkhazian brothers”, which must, on the one hand be manifested in directing increasing financial resources on the Abkhazian side of Enguri River, whilst on the other hand it should also include the lifting of the international blockade instituted towards Abkhazia, in order for the Abkhazians to gradually be able to see who their real friends actually are. The other side states that, at this stage, the Georgian policy must become as strict as possible, including the termination of the medical aid program, in order for the Abkhazians to fully taste the results of their choice.
These debates are quite necessary and both sides do have their arguments. However, I believe that we have a much more severe and urgent matter on our hands – the issue of Gali.
As the crisis worsens in Sokhumi, the level of tolerance of the so-called government and the public of Abkhazia towards the people of Gali reduces. At first, they had their passports and consequently their votes taken away, then the right of getting education in their native tongue was gone; afterwards they were asked to hand over their Georgian passports and now they are being pushed to change their ethnicity in their passports from Georgian to Abkhazian. According to the most recent changes, the part of the Gali population who migrate from Gali to Zugdidi seasonally, will no longer have the right to reside in Abkhazia.
Georgians of Gali (according to various estimations their number varies from 40 to 50 thousand) are under a two-fold pressure – from Abkhazians and from the Russians as well.
History teaches us that for the societies in crisis, ethnic minorities become the main targets. As the situation for the Abkhazians worsens, the pressure on the Georgian minority, which has already been practically leaving under an apartheid regime, intensifies.
Russians would also love to participate in the gradual removal of the people of Gali. This is first of all due to the fact that moving the factual border of the Russian Federation from Psou to Enguri River is a part of their declared policy. More-or-less free movement of the Georgians of Gali across Enguri River is directly contradictory to this policy. Also, in the case of a strong and consolidated Abkhazian society, Russia would probably still tolerate the existence of a substantial Georgian minority in Abkhazia; however, as the situation stands, the Georgian minority, in case of consolidation, poses a potential threat to Russia. In addition, due to the Abkhazian crisis, the ability and desire of the Russians to assimilate Georgians diminishes. Why did Russia put a fence around “South Ossetia”? Probably because it thought that, a small and weak Ossetian society would be unable to withstand social and demographic pressure from Georgians. Same logic applies to Gali today as well.
It is impossible to predict when, how many and how fast the people will be removed; however, it is highly probable that both the occupation regime as well as the Abkhazians will try to reduce the number of Georgians living in Gali.