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Bzhania Talks Aibga Controversy, Energy, Trade with Tbilisi

Aslan Bzhania, Kremlin-backed leader of Abkhazia, discussed in a nearly 3-hour-long press conference some of the pressing issues of the occupied region, including the Aibga village border controversy, cryptocurrency mining, trade with Tbilisi,  dual citizenship deal with Moscow as well as efforts to combat crime.

Aibga Controversy Continued

Journalists asked Bzhania to disclose details about the disputed Aibga village, which lies on the both, Russian and Abkhaz-controlled Georgian sides of Psou River, inquiring about the meetings of Abkhaz-Russian “delimitation and demarcation commission” the last week.

“No one is making territorial claims at this point,” Bzhania was cited as saying. He clarified that the commission is working on the “border” from east to west, and has not yet reached the controversial area, located in the northwesternmost Gagra district. 

The issue of Aibga has remained unresolved over the decades between the several different Kremlin-backed Sokhumi leaderships and Moscow, also triggering controversy within the Abkhaz political spectrum.

The last week opposition Abkhaz People’s Movement, led by Adgur Ardzinba, Bzhania’s key rival in 2020 leadership race and former “economy minister,” called on the authorities to disclose details about the commission’s work, noting the issue of Aibga “is extremely sensitive.”

Energy Sector, Cryptocurrency Mining

Bzhania also discussed cryptocurrency mining, an issue that contributed to the occupied region’s severe energy crisis which led to frequent electricity shortages, and rolling power cuts of 2020.

The Abkhaz leader slammed his predecessor Raul Khajimba’s ban on cryptocurrency mining in 2018 – a move he said no one knew how to implement. “Mining is a good business. It is not robbery, it is not theft. It generates income, but this activity should not be carried out by some to the detriment of others,” Apsnypress cited Bzhania as saying. 

He reportedly vouched for organizing the cryptocurrency business by making mining legal and open. “The problem cannot be strangled, it must be solved,” said Bzhania.

Alluding to the 2020 ban his administration imposed on the import of mining equipment, Bzhania said the authorities have seized some 6,000 devices but about 30,000 units of mining computers remain in the hands of Abkhaz locals.

Continuing on electricity issues, Bzhania underlined that 24-year total consumer debt for electricity stands at RUB 1.8 billion (USD 24.7 million), despite the low tariff rate of 40 Russian kopeks (USD 0.0055), according to Apsnypress. He reportedly said some villages refuse to pay the tariffs completely.

He also voiced plans to gradually introduce progressive tariff rates tailored to different categories of consumers. 

Abkhazia’s energy crisis was exacerbated especially as Enguri HPP, which provides the region’s electricity went offline in early 2021 for several months due to reconstruction work, and the region had to resort to electricity provided by Russia. Abkhazia canceled its rolling power cuts on April 28, after the plant went online again.

Enguri HPP’s 271.5-meter-tall concrete arch dam is located on Tbilisi-controlled territory, while its five generators are on the Abkhaz side, in Gali district. As per a long-standing informal agreement, Tbilisi and Sokhumi have been sharing the electricity generated by the plant.

Smugglings Over Enguri

Bzhania called for “legal” trade with Tbilisi, when discussing smugglings over the dividing line the rest of Georgia. Citing statistics, he said about RUB 1 billion (USD 13.7 million) worth of goods are smuggled to Tbilisi-controlled territory, and the same amount is smuggled back. He said Abkhaz goods entering Tbilisi-controlled territory are mostly walnuts, exempt from Abkhaz “export duty.”

The Abkhaz leader also asserted that imposing a tax on goods smuggled into the occupied region could generate RUB 50 million (USD 687,000) in revenue.

Accusing opponents of politicizing the issue of trade with Tbilisi, Bzhania said: “I am in favor of legalizing the trade process at this border. So far we have not been able to do this, but we’ll return to this issue, when time will force us to come to this.”

In February 2021, head of the “security council” of the occupied region, Sergei Shamba faced backlash after calling for “legal trade” with Tbilisi, with Aruaa, an influential group of hardline Abkhaz war veterans warning they would demand his resignation should he continue “lobbying” trade with the rest of Georgia. 

Dual Citizenship with Russia

Bzhania also announced that the Kremlin-backed Abkhaz authorities have concurred with Russia on a draft agreement on dual citizenship, and sent it over on August 25, according to Apsnypress. The deal has to be now signed off by President Vladimir Putin, and would simplify for Abkhaz locals to receive Russian citizenship.

Around 200 thousand residents in Abkhazia – the region with less than a quarter million people – are estimated to have Russian passports.

Agreeing on dual citizenship was one of the key provisions of the “common social and economic space” program signed by Sokhumi and Moscow in November 2020, a deal decried by Tbilisi as “another illegal step towards de-facto annexation.” Tbilisi has also repeatedly denounced the push for dual citizenship deals between Russia and occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia.

Combatting Crime

Bzhania also discussed the authorities’ efforts to tackle crime, arguing statistics show a decrease in grave crimes and an uptick in detecting such activities. He said the Kremlin-backed authorities were able to mobilize the law enforcement agencies, but added that “this does not mean we have solved all the problems.”

According to Apsny Today outlet, Bzhania noted he has also selected new leadership for “interior ministry,” “security service,” and “prosecutor’s office,” – agencies he said have been long criticized by the public. But he reportedly acknowledged that complaints remain.

Bzhania asserted that “crime bosses” have also been imprisoned or put under administrative oversight. He
reportedly recalled that years ago it was a common occurrence for the criminals to walk around with their entourage in public.

He also lauded law enforcers’ efforts at cracking down illegal arms and ammunitions circulation, noting 2.7 million pieces of the latter were seized in 2020.

This article was updated.

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This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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