Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Stanislav Lakoba loses Security Council Secretariat over passport policy — again

In the ongoing row over whether local authorities in Abkhazia’s Gali, Ochamchira and Tquarchal Districts have been handing out passports to Georgian residents too liberally, Stanislav Lakoba has been fired as Secretary of the Security Council on 28 October. His replacement is veteran politician Nugzar Ashuba, who was Speaker of Parliament before suffering a second-round defeat in the 2012 elections.

There is a considerable sense of déjà vu here, since Lakoba already once himself stepped down from the same position over the same issue — in 2008, during the presidency of Sergei Bagapsh. He was reappointed in 2011 after Bagapsh had passed away and was succeeded by Alexander Ankvab (previously Vice President). This time, the falling out has been much more acrimonious. After his dismissal, Lakoba gave a press conference accompanied by opposition MP Aslan Kobakhia, in which he explained his position and leveled accusation at the current government and President Ankvab in particular. This in turn prompted a public response by Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaia, a long term ally of Ankvab.

During the press conference, Lakoba stressed that he had no personal disagreement with President Ankvab. He also denied that his confrontational stance was inspired by any presidential ambitions of his own, citing his old age and hinting at his lack of proficiency in Abkhaz, which makes him ineligible. Lakerbaia for his part dwelt for some time on his long cooperation with Lakoba, both in opposition and in government.

The discord boils down to three points. Firstly Lakoba and Lakerbaia disagreed over what was and what was not said during Security Council Meetings. These claims are difficult to evaluate and are ultimately not very significant — whether the other Security Council Members agreed with Lakoba’s position, whether the President unlawfully invited non-members to attend meetings and whether the President failed to convene the Security Council when Russian diplomat Dmitri Vishernev and his wife were murdered, or whether it would have been Lakoba’s responsibility to take the initiative.

Secondly, Lakoba agrees with the opposition that the unlawfully issued passports to Georgians constitute a big problem and that not enough is being done to rectify it and to punish the officials responsible, even going so far as to warn that unless reversed, the current policy will result in the annexation of Abkhazia by Georgia. Lakerbaia for his part repeatedly voiced the official government position that individual cases of abuse must be dealt with.

But the most fundamental disagreement is over the position of Georgians in Abkhazia’s society. Lakoba argued that some Abkhazian passports have been obtained by Georgians not even resident in Abkhazia and by those who fought against Abkhazia in the past, while other Georgians who attended the University of Sukhum and who joined the Abkhazian army have gone without. And moreover, that the government has failed to introduce a system of resident permits for those Georgians that do not qualify for citizenship. Lakerbaia concentrated on this latter point, claiming that Lakoba had during the Security Council meeting of 30 April presented resident permits as a general solution for all Georgians, and had even suggested that those unwilling to submit to Abkhazian institutions should leave Abkhazia. In Lakerbaia’s words, on that day “his friendship with Lakoba ended”.

Lakoba is right to point out that Abkhazia should have a system of resident permits for non-citizens, and the Baltic countries have already demonstrated the practice of issuing resident permits to a large part of society. However, the Baltic approach is perhaps not to be emulated, and invalidating passports on a large scale would be unjust in itself and prove absolutely detrimental for Abkhazia’s prospects to integrate its Georgian residents. Most importantly, Lakerbaia convinces when he makes the plea that Abkhazia should embrace its Georgian residents, for this is not a populist position. By firing Lakoba, the Abkhazian government has — at least for the moment — chosen not to give in to nationalist pressure and to stay a moderate course.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, Human Rights, , ,

Why is the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics led by TI Georgia and ISFED?

Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia) and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) are spearheading a petition that calls on the Georgian government to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. This not on account of the corruption and rights violations during their preparation, but because TI Georgia and ISFED consider that the Russian government is breaking the cease fire agreement that ended the August 2008 war. (A particular source of ire is the fact that one of the Russian pilots of that war who has received the title of National Hero has been chosen to carry the Olympic torch. While he is only one among thousands to be bestowed that honour, his run was prominently shown on Russian state TV.)

Regardless of whether one agrees with the cause, neither should be involved, let alone organise this campaign. Organisations like TI Georgia and ISFED hold the moral high ground because they focus on single ideals (fair elections, no more corruption) that are above debate, so that even governments generally have to pay lip service to them. By branching out into political issues, these organisations become themselves politicised. Instead, they should try to avoid giving the government any sticks to beat them with.

In this particular case, TI Georgia and ISFED also risk distracting from the Georgian Presidential election due in less than two weeks, which deserves all their attention.

Filed under: Elections, Georgia, Human Rights, Russia, , ,

For twenty years now the West has shirked its responsibility in Abkhazia

I have written a commentary for AbkhazWorld.com on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the end of the 1992–1993 war between Georgia and Abkhazia.

It can be read here.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Chechnya, European Union, Georgia, Human Rights, Kosovo, United States of America, , , ,

Book review: Under Siege by Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm and David Szakonyi

Under Siege: Inter-Ethnic Relations in Abkhazia

Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm, and David Szakonyi

Hurst & Company, London
September 2010
160 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84904-020-4

(co-published by Columbia University Press, ISBN: 978-0-231-70130-3)

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that after the exodus of much of Abkhazia’s Georgian community in September 1993, Abkhazia is now mainly populated by Abkhaz. But the truth is that Abkhazia is still very much a multi-ethnic society, and that Abkhaz only form the largest minority, not a majority of the total population. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has generated a steady trickle of publications over the years, but there has been a dearth of literature on the development of Abkhazia’s society since independence and how this has worked out for the various ethnic communities. Under Siege, by Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm and David Szakonyi was conceived to fill that gap.

Under Siege starts out with a chapter with background information on Abkhazia, which is followed by two useful chapters on the demography of Abkhazia now and throughout recent history and on the specific situation in the Gali district, where Abkhazia’s Georgian population is now concentrated. Then comes the core chapter of the book, which discusses the ethnic dimension of a number of different topics, ranging from language policy and the media to property rights and the economy. This is followed by a conclusion and two appendices. The first appendix could just as well have been part of the main text, it gives individual portraits of the Abkhaz, Georgian, Armenian, Russian, Greek, Estonian, German, Polish, Turkish, Jewish, North Caucasian and Rom communities. The second appendix contains a number of tables concerning the ethnic make-up of Abkhazia’s population.

Is Under Siege a good book? Well, at its core, yes, but there are also three ways in which it disappoints.

Firstly, Under Siege struggles with its stance vis-à-vis the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. In its introduction on page 4, it acknowledges that many issues are contested, and it takes that consideration into account in its use of place names. This in itself is sensible, but the solution is not reader-friendly: forms like Gal/i and Ochamchira/e are ok, forms like Sukhum/Sokhumi and Tkuarchal/Tkvarcheli diminish readability. The book could instead have stuck to the names used in Soviet times, or to the locally used variants (seeing as it aims to describe the situation on the ground) in combination with a disclaimer that this choice is a practical one, and does not entail taking a side in the political conflict. (Similar disclaimers are already in place in the introduction.)

Contrasting sharply with the sensibility displayed in relation to place names, the book straight-out sides with Georgia when it comes to the legal status of Abkhazia, as if this were not the most hotly disputed issue of all. It claims as fact the (widely, though certainly not universally held) opinion that Abkhazia is de jure part of Georgia and that “it is not entitled to have a legislative complex of its own according to international norms” (page 74). Even with that opinion in mind, the practice of modifying every second (the implementation is inconsistent) instance of ‘Abkhazia’, ‘authorities’ and related terms (‘legislation’, ‘law enforcement officers’, ‘ministry’, ‘law-makers’, ‘constitution’, ‘borders’, ‘armed forces’) with the qualifier de facto is enormously annoying — over a course of 150 pages, the term ‘de facto’ appears some 300 times. It claims that this ‘nomination’ is “in line with international law” — even if one agrees with that notion, when has international law ever restricted editorial liberties? All this is all the more annoying since this being a book that aims to describe the situation on the ground, the broader issue of the legitimacy of Abkhazia’s independence is not really relevant, and a short disclaimer in the introduction that the authors do not in any way mean to imply the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Abkhazian state or any of its institutions would have sufficed to put the issue aside.

The book’s apparent failure to uphold neutrality in its presentation is especially regrettable because it distracts from the fact that its observations, assessments and conclusions turn out to be rather well-balanced. The book seeks to answer a number of questions (on page 3), like “Do the non-Abkhaz population groups in Abkhazia support the drive for independence?” and “Is Abkhazia an ‘ethnocracy’, where a minority group imposes its rules over the majority of the population, or are other ethnic groups involved in the decision-making processes?” The answers reached are not straightforward. Except for the Georgian population, the non-Abkhaz communities do support Abkhazian independence, but only tacitly. And the Abkhaz struggle for survival as a nation has developed into a system of “practice-formalised social exclusion”, by which the interests of ethnic Abkhaz are put above other ethnicities’ interests. But this is partially due to “the loyalty and passivity” of the non-Abkhaz communities themselves. And it “has not led to a clear-cut ethnocentrism”, and Non-Abkhaz do enjoy limited representation in government, especially lower government. While the Abkhaz won the 1992–1993 war, since they still only constitute a minority of the total population, they simply cannot afford to ignore the other minorities.

Secondly, while it is not completely unorthodox that the book should start with ‘Acknowledgements’ in which the people responsible for copy-editing and proof-reading are thanked, there are some shortcomings in these departments. Some mistakes are mere slip-ups, like the occasional misspellings and attributing the 2003 census results on the ethnic composition of Abkhazia’s population in the second appendix to the government in exile’s statistical department. Other mistakes are in essence minor as well, but they convey the unfortunate impression that the person responsible didn’t know better. For the interested reader, a list of problematic passages has been appended to the end of this text.

While these shortcomings are superficial in nature, they have the very regrettable effect of diminishing the authority of the text. They don’t do justice to the extensive field-work carried out by the authors, who interviewed over 90 people between February and December 2007. It is this research which makes the book really valuable.

Thirdly, at 150 pages, the book is not very long. It focusses mostly on the Abkhaz, Armenian, Georgian and Russian communities, which is understandable, because these are the largest. But the profiles of the smaller ethnic groups in the first appendix leave the reader wanting to learn more. The authors could perhaps also have addressed in more detail the interesting phenomenon of gastarbeiter coming to Abkhazia in recent years, mostly from Russia and Central Asia.

A comparison with other societies could also have formed a useful addition to the book. For example, the authors point out on page 82 that Abkhazian citizenship law discriminates in favour of Abkhaz, Abaza and Circassian ethnicities, any member of which can obtain Abkhazian citizenship. It would have been very interesting to compare this with similar arrangements for Israeli and Armenian citizenship. Likewise, on page 11 it is said that “Abkhazia does not qualify as a democratic entity and elections cannot be classified as free and fair, particularly as … about 200.000 displaced Georgians cannot vote.” This immediately invites comparison with the situations in Estonia and Latvia, where large parts of the Russian populations are stateless, and therefore cannot participate in elections. (There is definitely a democratic deficit here, but to claim that these societies therefore do not have free and fair elections is not very useful, and is somewhat akin to claiming that there were no Western democracies before the introduction of women’s suffrage. To be sure, there are other issues with the free- and fairness of Abkhazian elections.)

It is also a shame that while published only now, in September 2010, the book does not seem to have incorporated any events subsequent to the recognition of Abkhazia by Russia and Nicaragua in August and September 2008, which gives it a slightly outdated feel. This includes the frequent references to UNOMIG, which came to an end in June 2009, the autumn 2009 citizenship debate and the December 2009 presidential election, in which due to a change in election rules far fewer Georgian were allowed to participate than during the last presidential election.

Under Siege is not a perfect book, but its shortcomings are not so great that they couldn’t be fixed in a second edition. As it stands, they somewhat distract from the authors’ good field work and sensible considerations. In any case, the book is a very useful addition to the existing literature on Abkhazia.

List of Errata

  • Note 44 on page 40 reads:

    “According to linguists and ethnographers, the main feature that differentiates the Abkhaz from the Abaza is the letter `kh’ (`x’ in Cyrillic), which was added by Tsarist authorities, who were interested in severing the close connections between the sub-groups on either side of the Caucasian mountain ridge.”

    This phrasing is so unfortunate, it actually constitutes a direct insult to ‘linguists and ethnographers’. Reducing the differences between the Abkhaz and the Abaza people (or any two communities for that matter) to a minor orthographic detail is ludicrous, the idea that a minor orthographic difference should have the potential to contribute significantly to a split between two communities is fantastic, the claim that the Tsarist authorities designed the orthographies of the Abkhaz and Abaza languages is false and the idea that the linguists who did do so did so in order to sow dissent is a serious accusation that should be backed-up by a credible source. It so happens that Abkhaz and Abaza are indeed closely related people, and it would not have taken a lot of trouble to find out that the Abaza were probably formed through two distinct episodes of out-migration from Abkhazia.

  • On page 56, it is said that the period between 1910 and 1917 witnessed a “realignment with North Caucasian people” — which leads one to wonder: a re-alignment where from?, when the Abkhaz had just spent the better part of the 19th century fighting the Russian Empire along-side the North Caucasian people.
  • Page 74 claims that Abkhazia declared independence on 12 October 1999, but overlooks the fact that the ‘declaration’ which was passed on that date merely states that Abkhazia has been independent (de facto and de jure) since the war ended on 30 September 1993. This oversimplification then leads to the observation that the constitution had ‘however’ already been adopted in 1994, and the mistaken suggestion that its first article describes Abkhazia as a “sovereign, democratic, legal state” only after amendments passed in conjunction with the 1999 ‘independence’ declaration. (The relevant amendments concerned the appointment of judges.)
  • Page 100 introduces ‘the editor of Chegemskaya Pravda’, while a footnote two pages later mentions ‘a prominent newspaper editor, Inal Khashig’, whereas these are of course one and the same person.
  • On page 101 the state news agency Apsny Press is confused with its weekly publication Apsny.
  • On page 114 it is said that while more than two centuries of Ottoman rule led many people to identify as Muslims, Orthodox Christianity “seems to have gained more ground among Abkhazians”, which is a rather wry thing to say given that in the 19th century, the Muslim majority of Abkhazia fled the Russian conquest (which is discussed on several other occasions throughout the book.)

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Human Rights, , , , , , ,

Genocides and politics in the Caucasus

The Georgian parliament may be moving in the direction of formally recognising the Circassian genocide perpetrated by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. This genocide took place around the year 1864, the official end of the 50 year Caucasus war that more or less concluded Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus. As always with such events, it is controversial to what extent the Russian Empire intended to kill Circassian civilians, and whether the term genocide can be applied to it, but there is no doubt that the result was horrendous. In 2005 the Cherkess Congress issued a statement in which it claimed that even according to the Russian Empire’s own figures, 400,000 people were killed, 497,000 forced into exile in the Ottoman Empire and only 80,000 remained.

These events clearly merit recognition, but there are extra incentives that could play a role in Tbilisi’s decision. During the Caucasus War, the Russian Empire also killed and deported a large number of Abkhaz, with the result that there are now also more Abkhaz in Turkey than in Abkhazia itself. The larger Circassian diaspora has always supported the Abkhaz diaspora and Abkhazia, and this is what Georgia may want to try to change – it may hope that the Circassian diaspora will stop lobbying in favour of Abkhazia’s interests in Turkey and the Middle East.

Georgia may also simply be trying to win the hearts and minds of Abkhazian society, by showing that it values its past sufferings more than does Russia. And recognising the Circassian Genocide naturally fits well within Georgia’s ideological conflict with Russia.

That politics really does enter into these matters is illustrated well by the fact that a request by Georgia’s Armenian community made on the 23rd of April to formally recognise the Armenian genocide has so far been ignored. While Georgia and Armenia are on good terms, due to its political isolation Armenia needs Georgia more than the other way around. Recognising the Armenian genocide would seriously damage Georgia’s relations with Turkey. In the worst case scenario, Turkey might respond by recognising Abkhazia – although that would be very ironic, given that Abkhazia also recognises the Armenian genocide.

Abkhazia sits right in the middle of this web of political alliances and past grievances. It has to stay friends both with the Circassian diaspora and Russia, and with both Turkey and its Armenian population. Armenians form Abkhazia’s second largest ethnic group and their support is crucial for the survival of the Abkhazian state. This balance of interests is manageable so long as the status quo is maintained, and in this respect Abkhazia is lucky that it has already recognised the Armenian Genocide. Occasionally, the underlying tensions come to the surface, as when a couple of years ago the idea was raised to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: protests by the Armenians and the Orthodox Church put a quick end to that.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Armenia, Circassians, Georgia, Human Rights, Russia, The Great Recognition Game, Turkey, , ,

What to think of Saakashvili and his government?

Most independent observers will agree that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government have their flaws. No one was happy with the November 2007 crackdown of opposition demonstrations, the attack on Imedi TV and its take-over by government-friendly owners, the unfair advantages enjoyed by government candidates in election campaigns and especially the lack of a pluriform, responsible media landscape. And most people put at least a certain amount of blame for the August 2008 war at Saakashvili’s feet. This slow but steady tarnishing of his image has been accompanied by an equally steady outflow of former allies into the opposition ranks.

But it is also generally felt that Saakashvili and his government have done a lot of good things for Georgia: reducing corruption, modernising its society and, perhaps most importantly, stimulating economic development throughout the country. It is also often pointed out that despite everything, Georgia’s opposition can express its grievances as loudly and as many times as its wants, and that Georgia is anyhow a lot freer than Russia, Armenia or Azerbaijan.

So the question arises: does Saakashvili’s government have the right intentions, despite its flaws, or is it essentially on the wrong track, despite its positive achievements?

A number of incidents from the last couple of months suggest that Saakashvili and his government are fundamentally misguided.

In January it surfaced that in July 2008, the Ministry of Defence-affiliated TV station Sakartvelo TV had run a documentary quoting Hitler:

It must be thoroughly understood that the lost land will never be won back by solemn prayers, nor by hopes in any League of Nations, but only by the force of arms

The choice to quote Hitler reflects a very poor sense of judgement, but as they say, mistakes happen. What is perhaps more worrying is the content of the quote itself, which betrays a deeper misguidedness.

Then on the 26th of January, Saakashvili himself evoked Nazi Germany and Hutu Rwanda, comparing Russia to the perpetrators of two genocides and Georgia to their Jewish and Tutsi victims. Not even by Georgia’s own sanctimonious account of the August 2008 war does this remotely make sense – Saakashvili’s statement can only be qualified as deeply immoral.

And now we have Imedi TV’s absurd fake Russian invasion news bulletin. As with Sakartvelo TV quoting Hitler, it thoroughly discredits the people responsible for its production. What is more troubling is that Saakashvili’s first reaction was that the fake story “maximally reflected reality”. Even if demonising Russia can be explained (though not excused) by misguided nationalism – it is unforgivable that the programme portrayed opposition politicians Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Noghaideli as Russian collaborators.

These are in a way ‘just’ a couple of incidents, but each of them is worrying, and taken together they show that there is a fundamental problem. Saakashvili’s greatest political example is probably Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’, but he may be emulating him in more ways than one. Despite that man’s positive reputation for thoroughly modernising and emancipating Turkish society, his economic and especially his democratic and human rights track record was less than stellar.

Filed under: Georgia, Human Rights, Media, , , , , , , , , , ,

Georgian investigative journalist requests asylum in Switzerland

Three weeks ago, the Georgian investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze requested asylum in Switzerland. Komakhidze worked for the Reportiori studio, which has been responsible for several government-critical documentaries. One documentary revealed that the attack on two buses in the village of Khurcha on the day of the 28 May 2008 parliamentary election had been staged by the government, which had itself accused Abkhazian forces. Another documentary questioned the official account of the death of Zurab Zhvania.

Komakhidze has said that he has come under severe government pressure following his visits to Tskhinval for a documentary about the August 2008 war. To the extend that they are true, the findings of Komakhidze and his colleagues are a disgrace for the Georgian authorities. But the fact is that in many neighbouring countries, they wouldn’t have been able to do their work in the first place, and this speaks in Georgia’s favour. That is what makes this recent development so very sad. It can only be hoped that he will be able to return, and in the meantime, that he is able to finish his documentary.

Filed under: Georgia, Human Rights, Media, Switzerland, , , , , , , ,

The re-election of Sergei Bagapsh – probably the best outcome

On 12 December 2009, Sergei Bagapsh won a second term in the Abkhazian presidential election – Alyksandr Ankvab, the current Prime Minister, will become Vice President. Before the pair will be inaugurated on 12 February, I want to take a look back and argue that Bagapsh’s re-election was probably the best outcome for Abkhazia. I will begin by giving a quick summary of the circumstances that led to Bagapsh being elected for the first time five years ago, then I will discuss his track record during his first term in office and I will conclude by discussing his rivals in the December 12 election.

Bagapsh first came to power in 2004/05. In the 4 October 2004 election, he was the principal opposition candidate challenging then Prime Minister Khajimba, who had the support of out-going President Vladislav Ardzynba. The election resulted in a stand-off between Khajimba and Bagapsh that deeply divided Abkhazia’s society. Eventually Khajimba more or less accepted that Bagapsh had won the election and the two reached a power-sharing agreement: Khajimba would become Vice President and a new election was organised on 12 January 2005 to formalise the deal.

At the time, Bagapsh was the main candidate of the opposition that had arisen from the discontent with the state of the country under Ardzynba. It was inevitable that he would not completely live up to the hope that all would become better. In most areas, his results have been mixed.

Corruption is one of the most prominent problems in Abkhazian society. While there haven’t been any scandals implicating members of the central government, neither have there been many concrete results in the fight against corruption. The most notable case to be uncovered during Bagapsh’s presidency involved the Mayor of Sukhum Astamur Adleiba and the Municipal Housing Department. His removal was a success, but Adleiba had been appointed by Bagapsh upon his coming to power, and the case was made public while Bagapsh was in Moscow for medical treatment – not surpising then that Khajimba claimed the credit.

One of the major achievements of Bagapsh’s government and at the same time an important concern regards the amount of dissent tolerated in society. While even under Ardzynba, newspapers had always enjoyed a certain amount of freedom – only the room for plurality in Abkhazian society already present made Bagapsh’s election victory possible – society is generally seen to have become freer since. The opposition is free to protest, and no one was excluded from running in the recent election (in 2004 Alyksandr Ankvab was excluded on very dubious grounds, although this actually made the opposition’s victory possible, since the popular Ankvab then threw his support behind Bagapsh). Bagapsh also arranged for ordinary citizens to visit him and present their problems in person.

Yet there have been some incidents that are a cause for worry. In February 2009, the journalist Inal Khashig became the centre of a curious controversy. On the 3rd of February, Khashig had published an article in his newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda about the recent congress of President Bagapsh’s party United Abkhazia, which he criticised for lacking a political programme and blind loyalty towards the government. Then two weeks later, it was reported that on the 6th, Khashig had been taken by car to a sub-urban wasteland and threatened the fate of Dmitry Kholodov and Anna Politkovskaya lest he change his tone. Among the three perpetrators was said to be David Bagapsh, a nephew of the President and head of his presidential guard.

The news caused an outcry among opposition politicians, on the 18th a group of 31 journalists petitioned President Bagapsh to address the incident and members of the Public Chamber voiced their concern. Then, after initially refusing to comment Khashig himself essentially defused the story when he issued a statement in which he denied some of the more serious speculations. By Khashig’s account, the three man had merely him to a deserted part of the coastline, and taking into account that he was acquainted with two of them, he couldn’t describe the conversation as improper. Still, the episode left a bitter after taste.

More recently, on the 21st of September, the journalist Anton Krivenyuk was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence for libel. Krivenyuk had written an article for a Russian website, in which he criticised Bagapsh for handing over control of the Abkhazian railways to Russia, and the article had been republished in Abkhazian newspapers. This was the first time a journalist had been prosecuted in Abkhazia’s post-war history, even under former President Ardynba that had never happened.

These and smaller incidents were seen by some as directly related to the upcoming Presidential election. The election itself was generally perceived to have been reasonably free and fair, but far from perfect. One of the greatest problems was the undue advantage presented to Bagapsh and Ankvab through the use of administrative resources – including the participation of government officials in their campaign and the state TV’s extensive coverage of the government’s achievements.

A last area in which Bagapsh can be seen to have performed not as well as hoped is security. On the positive side, the situation in the Gali District is probably more peaceful than five years ago, mostly thanks to the policies of Bagapsh’s government. Furthermore, the capture of the upper part of the Kodor Valley during the August 2008 war and the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Russia greatly reduced the threat coming from Georgia, although it is not clear whether Bagapsh can be credited for this.

But what hasn’t changed is the government’s incapability to solve high level murder cases. Post-Soviet Abkhazia has seen a number of political assassinations which remained unresolved, among which the well-respected academic and Vice Premier Yuri Voronov in September 1995, and the former Mayor of Sukhum and opposition politician Garri Aiba in June 2004. During Bagapsh’s first term in office, Deputy Minister of the Interior Zakan Jugelia was added to that list when in January of 2009 he was shot while sitting on the verandah of café Kiki in Sukhum. Similarly, while it probably speaks in his favour that Prime Minister Ankvab was the target of no fewer than four assassination attempts during his time in office, what does not is that despite all its big words, the government has failed to identify any of the perpetrators. Nor has it been established who was responsible for the June and July 2008 and August 2009 bombings that killed a total of 6 people and injured at least 21 in the middle of the tourist seasons.

The government’s track record thus present a reasonable case that Bagapsh and Ankvab had not delivered enough, and that it was time for a new leader who would bring about the necessary government reforms and continue their work. But for better or worse, none of Bagapsh’s challengers in the election seemed suitable for that role.

Bagapsh had four opponents. Of these, the academic Vitali Bganba and his Vice Presidential candidate David Dasania are little known, and they did not feature at all in the campaign. Consequently, little can be said about them. The other three candidates were the subject of a useful background article written by Ardavadz Melkonian for NewCaucasus.com.

Bagapsh’s principal opponent was Raul Khajimba, who had lost the 2004 election and who had served as his Vice President until he resigned in May of 2009. Khajimba’s rhetoric during the election was good, and it spoke in his favour that Stanislav Lakoba – Bagapsh’s Vice Presidential candidate in 2004 – spoke highly of cooperating with Khajimba while in government and that he gave him his private support. Yet while Khajimba can be excused for not achieving much during his Vice Presidency, he doesn’t seem to have been much more effective as Prime Minister prior to the 2004 election. More damning still was the fact that Khajimba had been partially if not wholly responsible for the attempted election fraud in his favour in 2004. This presented a serious problem for his credibility. If indeed Bagapsh had not managed to resolve all the problems from Ardzynba’s era, and another step forward was required, Khajimba would actually have meant a step backward.

This was also the problem with Zaur Ardzynba, the next candidate, who acted closely in tandem with Khajimba throughout the campaign – the pair almost agreed to run as one team. Zaur Ardzynba’s post-independence CV did not extend much beyond having headed the State Shipping Company since 1994 and being rumoured to having become one of Abkhazia’s richest persons through controlling the fuel market. This firmly linked Zaur Ardzynba to the old system and it suggested a rather unfavourable disposition towards good governance et al.

The remaining candidate was the businessman Beslan Butba, and he was best positioned to claim that he would bring about real change. At 49, Butba was the youngest candidate, and he could already boast of financing a number of philanthropic projects, founding Abkhazia’s first private TV station Abaza TV, starting his own Party for the Economic Development of Abkhazia and presenting a number of concrete political proposals. But this record was seriously tarnished by the fact that he had replaced all of the journalists of his previously independent newspaper Ekho Abkhazii with political activists, and the fact that his campaign had solicited voters to sign a contract that they would vote for Butba. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, while it is a very good development that Abkhazia now has a private TV station, this would be for naught if its owner became President.

There is one more reason why it is probably for the best that these three opposition candidates did not win the election. One of Abkhazia’s greatest challenges in the coming years will be how it deals with the Gali District. The Gali District is inhabited almost exclusively by Mingrelians, and most of these do not hold Abkhazian citizenship (only 3522 passports have been distributed to the District’s 30,000 inhabitants). Now, until a couple of years ago, that did not matter much. But the current government has introduced the Abkhazian passport, which has become the central Identity Document within Abkhazia. This threatens to create a form of apartheid not unlike the situation in Palestine, and to turn Mingrelians into second-class citizens not just ethnically, but also administratively. And like Palestine, this not only presents a human rights problem, it also threatens Abkhazia’s hold over the Gali District. By necessity, at present its inhabitants mostly focus on their everyday survival, but as Abkhazia develops they will inevitably start to voice their discontents. And unless they have a future inside Abkhazian society, they will ultimately demand the secession of the Gali District to Georgia.

Many inhabitants of the Gali District do not want to adopt Abkhazian citizenship, especially since it would force them (by Abkhazian law) to abandon Georgian citizenship. But for many more, it is not even possible to obtain Abkhazian citizenship, since they did not live continuously in Abkhazia since 1993, having fled during the 1992-1993 or the May 1998 wars. Last summer, Bagapsh submitted to the People’s Assembly a law that would have made possible Abkhazian citizenship for those that returned no later than 1999. However, the plan provoked an outraged reaction from the united opposition. Its arguments were apparently the fact that the Mingrelians might come to act like a fifth column within Abkhazia, and/or that they would en masse vote for Bagapsh, as they had done in 2004, when they were still allowed to vote despite lacking citizenship. The government was forced to postpone it until after the election. It is to be hoped that now that Bagapsh has been re-elected, it will be adopted after all. Abkhazia cannot possibly hope to integrate the Gali District without granting citizenship to its inhabitants.

I have argued that there are several reasons why it was a good thing that Sergei Bagapsh was re-elected two months ago. But we have also seen that there is a lot of room for improvement. It is up to Sergei Bagapsh and Alyksandr Ankvab to live up to the renewed trust expressed in them by Abkhazia’s voters.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, Human Rights, Media, , , ,

Council of Europe publishes prison report without asking Abkhazia – finds no torture

On 23 December the Council of Europe published the report of the Council’s Anti-Torture Committee on its visit to Abkhazia from 27 April to 4 May 2009. Caucasian Knot reports that the publication is controversial, because Abkhazia claims that it had been agreed beforehand that the report would only be published with Abkhazia’s permission, which it did not give. Abkhazia says that its officials were still studying the report, because it had only been submitted to Abkhazia on 10 December, and only in English.

The Council of Europe published the report at the request of Georgia. Presumably it did so because it recognises Georgia’s sovereignty over Abkhazia. Still, even from that perspective, I think it was unwise of the Council, and it was unwise of Georgia to request the publication (assuming it had already obtained a private copy).

The Committee did not find any signs of torture in Abkhazia, and overall, its assessment seems not that negative, given the socio-economic circumstances. Abkhazia would have given its permission to publish the report, since it provides hard evidence against Georgian accusations of torture.

On the part of the Council of Europe then, it was unnecessary to break its promise towards Abkhazia, and bad behaviour on top. More importantly though, Abkhazia will think twice before it again provides free access to its prisons to an organisation which squarely denies its statehood. Since Abkhazia is not a member of the Council of Europe, the Council won’t have any leverage over Abkhazia to change its mind. In the end, it is just the people inside Abkhazia’s prisons who will lose out.

To the extent that Georgia really is concerned about Abkhazia’s prisoners, it is subject to the same criticism. Furthermore, while the Council of Europe may have felt compelled to comply with Georgia’s request for publication, it is unclear what Georgia gained from requesting the publication in the first place. Had the report found any signs of torture, Abkhazia would have been embarrassed by its publication: a PR victory for Georgia. Now the only thing Georgia achieved was irritating Abkhazia – I don’t know how that fits in with trying to achieve lasting peace and rapprochement.

What is at risk is a good working relationship between the Anti-Torture Committee and Abkhazia’s authorities. While the present report did not find any signs of torture or violence between prisoners, it did identify many shortcomings. Ideally, the committee should visit Abkhazia every year, evaluating whether past recommendations have been followed.

The most serious finding in the current report describes the situation of the only man in Abkhazia still on death row (there is a moratorium on the death penalty in force since 12 January 2007). The Committee found that the man in question is being held in isolation, only being allowed one hour visits by family two to four times each year. His cell measures just 8.5 square meter, which is further limited by the fact that it contains not one but two bunk beds. It is also very damp, the toilet is in very bad shape and the natural and artificial lightening is so weak that the man can only read while sitting directly underneath the light bulb. As a result of his ill-treatment, he lost his upper teeth and has trouble seeing and walking.

Some of the other points raised by the report concern the fact that prisoners often depend on their relatives for drugs, personal hygiene products and part of their nutrition, the lack of exercise, organised activities and work for prisoners and the lack of hygiene, ventilation and natural light in many of the cells.

On a couple of occasions the report speaks of improvements made during the last few years. This fits into the pattern of modest improvements since Sergei Bagapsh became President and Alexander Ankvab Prime Minster. It is to be hoped that many of the points raised by the current report will be addressed now that Bagapsh starts his second term.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Council of Europe, Georgia, Human Rights, Reports, , , , , , , , ,

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