The political crisis in Abkhazia – expectations in Tbilisi

Olesya Vartanyan, journalist, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


This article is a version of the paper delivered at a roundtable organised by International Alert on 28 July 2014 entitled '(Mis-)calculations in the Caucasus: The political crisis in Abkhazia and new geo-political challenges for the region'. Read articles by other speakers here.

During street protests in Sukhumi at the end of May, one of the Georgian TV channels sent a film crew to the central avenue in Tbilisi to find out how much the city’s residents knew about the developments in Abkhazia.[1] The journalists interviewed around 10 respondents, only one of whom was able to name the then leader of Abkhazia Alexander Ankvab. The rest said that they knew very little about the events in Sukhumi or were of the opinion that everything was decided by Russia anyway.

The picture speaks for itself. Over the past six years, since Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, Georgian society has lost interest in the details of the developments in the de facto republic and has tended to perceive the situation there solely through the prism of Russian interests in the region.

Such attitudes in Georgian society do not encourage practical changes in the government’s policies. Any statement by a member of the government that even slightly deviates from the narrative about Abkhazia being nothing more than an occupied region, with its leaders incapable of taking independent decisions even on the key questions, causes resentment, especially among the current Georgian opposition, whose leaders had governed the country for the past nine years.

Georgia’s internal political alignment

Past experience shows that, as soon as the Georgian government enters a period of crisis, it decelerates the process of reform and tries to avoid unpopular steps, primarily, vis-à-vis the conflict regions.

Local government elections that took place at the beginning of the summer showed that the Georgian Dream ruling coalition was beginning to lose popularity in the country. In the elections for the capital’s mayor and in most regions, its candidates managed to secure victory only in the second round. Despite this fact, Georgia’s current leadership still claims its readiness to continue the course towards the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, declared after their coming to power in the autumn of 2012.

Meeting with the electorate in Zugdidi during the election campaign in April 2014, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said that his government continued to maintain a friendly attitude with regard to the population of the breakaway Abkhazia.[2] Assessing the May events in Sukhumi, in sharp contrast with the majority of the members in his Cabinet, Garibashvili stated that he did not see any sign of the Kremlin’s involvement in the developments in Abkhazia.[3] The Georgian prime minister also made an appeal not to escalate the situation by speculations that the political crisis in Abkhazia could exacerbate the situation in the Gali district.

The Cabinet reshuffle that took place after the local elections did not affect the author of the government’s current strategy for the conflict regions, Paata Zakareishvili. Having kept his ministerial portfolio, Zakareishvili continues to claim readiness to follow the course of reconciliation.

The next electoral cycle in Georgia begins in two years. If the current Georgian authorities have the political will, they can use this breathing space to take some practical steps on the conflict, without taking too much notice of the criticisms voiced by the opposition and the public.

Attempts to establish contact with the former de facto leadership of Abkhazia

After its election, the current Georgian government tried to create an enabling environment for the beginning of the reconciliation process with Abkhazia.

Over the period of three years:

  • There have been no claims by the de facto authorities that the Georgian special services and their associated gangs have carried out terrorist attacks in the Gali district, or tried to recruit people at checkpoints along the Inguri River. With the previous Georgian government, such statements were a regular occurrence.
  • The Georgian leadership has tried not to make statements that Sukhumi could regard as interference ‘in their internal affairs’. For example, for the past 18 months, while the Abkhaz politicians continued internal debates on the issue of Gali passports, Tbilisi has not expressed any public protest about it. The Georgian authorities’ first comments were made only once Sukhumi took a final decision on the matter.
  • The current Georgian authorities have embarked upon the process of dealing with the recent past, including the period of escalation of tensions prior to the war and the outbreak of hostilities in August 2008.

Sukhumi has not yet sent any public signals that would indicate that they have taken note of Tbilisi’s efforts and are ready to change the format of relations.

The previous president of the de facto republic Alexander Ankvab had preferred to stick to the old rhetoric with reference to Tbilisi. He openly stated in August 2013 that he saw no point in beginning a direct dialogue with Tbilisi, resorting to the familiar formula: first, an agreement on the non-use of force – then talks.[4]

Ankvab had at least two reasons to say ‘no’. Firstly, the new Georgian leadership had succeeded in reviving the mechanism of a direct intermediary between Sukhumi and Tbilisi. Immediately after the war in the early 1990s, both the Abkhaz and the Georgian leaderships delegated a person to liaise between the capitals and help to sort out different issues. After the 2008 war, the government of Mikheil Saakashvili no longer engaged his services. Saakashvili’s successors in Tbilisi revived the mechanism.

Over the past two years, with the help of the mediator, Tbilisi and Sukhumi have managed to resolve day-to-day problems, such as detention and release of people, for example. This was of particular importance since the Gali Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM)[5] for dealing with such issues was still not functioning.

The role of the mediator was not publicised, which was, apparently, the main contributing factor to its effectiveness.

Secondly, having an albeit limited, but still direct contact with Tbilisi, Ankvab saw no point in progressing to the next level of the relationship – the beginning of direct negotiations.

Over his 10 years in politics, Ankvab had often been the subject of political speculations claiming that he was an advocate of closer links with Tbilisi. Opponents pointed to the fact that for the period of six years in the 1980s Ankvab had served as a top civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior of the Georgian Soviet Republic. They referred to some of Ankvab’s activities during the Georgian-Abkhaz war (including during hostage exchanges), which they believed should be qualified as treason.

During his tenure as the de facto president, Ankvab chose not to deepen cooperation with Tbilisi, realising that he could become the object of new attacks by his opponents. The new leader of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba has no such political constraints. During 10 years in opposition, he has established himself as a man who is ready to defend the interests of the Abkhaz.

Some people in Abkhazia and beyond believe Khajimba to be a radical nationalist. They point to the fact that he was at the forefront of several political scandals associated with the Georgian population of the Gali district, including the latest: Khajimba was among the deputies who had set up a parliamentary commission to investigate the facts of illegal issuing of passports to the residents of Abkhazia’s eastern regions. The story had become a central issue in the political crisis that led to street protests at the end of May 2014 and resulted in Ankvab’s resignation.

Prospects for informal dialogue

The team who came to power with Raul Khajimba is far from homogenous. When the struggle for power began in 2013, the opposition Coordinating Council united under its umbrella all politicians unhappy with Ankvab’s rule and his actions. Since the ‘main enemy’ left the political arena, Khajimba has faced a difficult task: he will have to carry out reforms with reference to groups of people whose political and personal views are often at odds with each other.

During the election campaign, Khajimba promised a change in the political system of the de facto republic, handing over some presidential powers to the parliament. His main task is to attract Russian investors to Abkhazia and to ensure a regular budgetary increase that would allow him to implement one of his key campaign promises – to raise pensions and salaries.

During the pre-election period I spent two weeks in Sukhumi and had the opportunity to meet with a few close supporters of the new de facto president. Khajimba’s entourage are generally sceptical about the idea of establishing relations with Tbilisi.[6] They cannot see how any talks with the Georgian authorities could help to revive the Abkhaz economy and attract investment.

Khajimba’s supporters can be roughly divided into two groups. The radical wing, consisting mainly of relatively young politicians, who rule out the possibility of establishing relations with Tbilisi as long as Georgia does not recognise the independence of Abkhazia. The more mature politicians tend to agree with the fact that a direct dialogue with Tbilisi is possible, subject to certain conditions.

No one from his camp has any intention of starting discussions on the political status of Abkhazia. They believe that the topic has long been exhausted and that Abkhazia will remain an independent state.

There are no changes on this issue in Tbilisi either. Despite this fact, Tbilisi declares its readiness to start informal negotiations.[7] The Georgian officials have no clear idea of the topics that could be discussed with Sukhumi. Tbilisi prefers to maintain flexibility in the choice of topics, in the hope that the new Abkhaz authorities might agree to join them at the negotiating table with their own proposals.

The Abashidze-Karasin Prague meetings can be considered a possible negotiating format.[8] From the very outset, the Georgian and Russian special envoys identified a number of issues that would not be discussed, as there is no possibility of the parties reaching agreement on them at the moment: the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and associated topics.

The Karasin-Abashidze format has helped to revive the economic and humanitarian ties between the two countries. Representatives of both parties do not rule out the possibility that, with the favourable development of Georgian-Russian relations, they might begin to discuss issues that might affect the Georgian breakaway regions, albeit not directly.

Over the past three years President Vladimir Putin has twice stated that Russia was not going to help, but would not interfere either, with the process of the establishment of Georgian-Abkhaz relations. In August 2014, Russia’s Ambassador in Sukhumi, Semyon Grigoriev, did not rule out the possibility of Russia’s enabling the start of a relationship between Sukhumi and Tbilisi.[9]

Gali district

Destabilisation in the Gali district will eliminate any chance of establishing such relations.

Starting from January 2015, the Abkhaz de facto authorities intend to begin the process of replacing old Abkhaz passports with the new ones. It is well known that a significant part of the Gali population will be denied the new documents.

The results of the parliamentary commission’s investigation show that in the past five years more than 20,000 residents of the eastern districts of Abkhazia have received passports in violation of local laws. While getting Abkhaz documents, they continued to use their Georgian passports – even though only Russian citizens are allowed to hold dual citizenship in Abkhazia.

The Georgian leadership does not intend to oppose the process of replacing the documents.[10] Their main priority is to prevent a new wave of temporarily displaced people from Abkhazia. This will be possible if Khajimba’s team fulfils its campaign promise and prevents destabilisation of the situation in the Gali district.[11]

In the spring of 2014 the Parliament of the de facto republic developed and passed a new law ‘On Foreign Nationals’ in the first reading. The document that I have been able to see is due for some amendments.

Aslan Kobakhia, one of the Abkhaz MPs, said that during the consultations with Raul Khajimba shortly after the elections it was decided to extend to the Gali residents the opportunity to obtain so-called residence permits.[12]

According to the bill, ‘residence permits’ will be issued for a period of five years. To be extended any number of times. The criteria for issuing this document are rather narrow and can become an obstacle in obtaining one.

Residence permits can be issued to anyone, with the exception of those who took part in the Georgian-Abkhaz war, acted “against the independence and state sovereignty” of Abkhazia, have faced administrative penalties for violating the border regime more than twice, or have lived outside the de facto republic for over six months.

Hundreds of the Gali residents who have been fined for ‘illegal border crossings’ and received higher education or worked in Georgian cities could be penalised under the latter articles.

Residence permits guarantee all but political rights. The Abkhaz MPs consider allowing the document holders a chance to acquire property and to vote in municipal elections. They will not be conscripted into the army and be unable to stand for election.

The new document safeguards the Gali residents’ two main rights – to study in local secondary schools and to cross the administrative boundary. If the Georgian villages in Gali do not have schools, the settlements will be doomed to depopulation. Without the ability to cross the administrative boundary, the residents will not be able to buy relatively cheap food and household items in Zugdidi.

The bill will be going through its second and third readings in the Parliament after the inauguration of new de-facto President, following which the document will go to the president for signature. They intend to complete the process of issuing new documents in eastern Abkhazia by the end of 2015.