AnalysisDeeper Look

Abkhazia Feels Russian Chokehold Tighten

Late 2023 and early 2024 have been marked by multiple crises in Abkhazia that have given rise to indignation and discontent among the population. These events are either directly or indirectly linked to Russia and reflect its tightening grip on the occupied region. To get a better picture, we took a closer look at the events that have shaped life in Abkhazia in recent months.

Crossing point troubles

Travelers crossing to Russia and back, to the the occupied region have been detained and interrogated by Russian FSB guards at the Abkhaz section of the Georgian-Russian border. This caused an outcry among the local population, especially after several well-known local journalists and public figures known for criticizing local de-facto authorities were detained.  

The ‘friendly conversations’ can last up to several hours. Russian border guards ask questions about attitudes towards Russia, developments in Abkhazia, including the transfer of Bichvinta (Pitsunda) to Russian ownership, and the detained persons’ views on Aslan Bzhania (‘president’) and Inal Ardzinba (‘foreign minister’). The opposition figures said the campaign to put pressure on the local population is organized by the de-facto leadership of Abkhazia. The interviewees suggest that there are certain blacklists of persons that the Abkhaz de facto authorities provide to the FSB guards.

Transfer of Bichvinta Residence to Russia

On December 27, the Abkhazian so-called parliament voted to transfer state property in Bichvinta (Pitsunda) into Russian ownership. The de-facto authorities moved the ratification of the “agreement” to an earlier date than planned and convened at nighttime to avoid large protests in the street. The issue had been highly controversial and sparked protests in the Abkhaz society, which claimed that the move was an encroachment on the “sovereignty” of Abkhazia. There has been criticism of de-facto leader Bzhania, who has been the main proponent of the deal.

According to the new agreement signed in January 2022, the “Pitsunda facility” is transferred free of charge into the ownership of the Russian Federation, while the land plot of over 180 hectares and a section of the water area are leased for 49 years with payment of 1 ruble per year for each plot. Moscow has the right to carry out capital construction on the leased land and to use the facilities “for state events with the participation of persons subject to state protection and recreation.”

Apartment Law

Even though, until now, Russians have not had the right to buy residential property, apartments are still being sold to them in Abkhazia – illegally, through various grey schemes. If adopted, the “law on apartments” will simplify the process. In mostly rural Abkhazia, under the so-called “law,” the apartments (essentially ordinary flats) will not be considered residential property but commercial property and, accordingly, will be subject to sale.

The law has been getting new traction lately, with the de-facto leader of the region, Aslan Bzhania, lobbying for it. The de-facto authorities have tried to seduce the local population, promising that this will allow Abkhazia to attract significant investments into the local economy, create new jobs, and significantly increase budget revenues.

Opponents argue that while not granting citizenship, there are loopholes for apartment owners to obtain an Abkhazian passport if they remain permanently in the occupied region, which could upset the demographic balance. Concerns include that housing prices will soar beyond the reach of the local population, that Abkhaz construction companies won’t be able to compete with Russian firms, which could benefit from tax breaks, and that the sale of apartments will negatively impact small and medium-sized hospitality businesses. There are also concerns that widespread corruption will incentivize using valuable land, including nature reserves, for housing.

Fuel Shortages

After the Kremlin-controlled oil company, Rosneft got the exclusive right to export oil products to Abkhazia in December 2023, the occupied region has been experiencing a shortage of petrol and other oil products. Even though the text of the decision is “for official use only,” the Abkhaz official in charge of the economy, Kristina Ozgan, said Rosneft and its subsidiaries now have the exclusive right to import the oil products.

Fuel companies in occupied Abkhazia refused to sign exclusive contracts with Rosneft. Since December 21, 2023, the quantities of fuel already purchased and declared prior to the Russian government’s decision have been stopped at the Abkhaz section of the Russian-Georgan border in Psou, thus aggravating the crisis. Although they were eventually allowed into the region, the situation has not improved significantly. “The essence of these restrictions, as we know, is a single supplier with exclusive rights, which we don’t agree with,” said the president of the fuel supplier’s association, Artur Ashuba.

Electricity Outages

Occupied Abkhazia has faced problems with its electricity supply and was plunged into an energy crisis at the end of 2023, when Russia refused to supply electricity to Abkhazia “on a humanitarian basis” (i.e. free of charge) during the autumn-winter period. Abkhazia had to pay RUB 700 million (approximately USD 7.6 million) by the end of 2023. Rolling blackouts have become an everyday occurrence in Abkhazia this winter. Abkhazia has been experiencing an electricity shortage for years, partly due to increased consumption, exacerbated by the rehabilitation of the Enguri HPP, and as many consumers simply don’t pay their electricity bills. The Georgian government does not charge Abkhazia for electricity from the Enguri HPP. However, the water level in the Jvari reservoir of the Enguri hydroelectric power station, jointly operated by Tbilisi and Sokhumi, is low and cannot s meet the growing needs of the occupied region.

Ozgan’s secret visit to the other side of Enguri demonstrated the seriousness of the crisis. She reportedly talked with the Georgian management of the Enguri HPP and requested additional electricity. Tbilisi reportedly refused to increase the supply quotas.

Sokhumi Airport Reconstruction Plans

In the summer of 2023, the so-called parliament of Abkhazia ratified the agreement between Moscow and Sokhumi on the implementation of the investment project for the reconstruction and resumption of operations at Sokhumi Airport. 

Reportedly, the Russian investor financing the project will receive unprecedented privileges and benefits, including exemption from property and profit taxes during the payback period of up to 25 years.

Russian Naval Base in Ochamchire

The de-facto leader of occupied Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, announced in October last year Russia’s intention to establish a naval base near Ochamchire, a coastal town some 35 kilometers from Anaklia, a key maritime location controlled by the central Georgian government on the Black Sea coast.

These reports were confirmed by Ukrainian intelligence, which confirmed the Russian navy’s plan to move their warships from the Bay of Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula to the occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia.

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy, speaking at the Second Parliamentary Summit of the Crimean Platform last year, said it was a sign of the success of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He also promised to reach the Russian warships wherever they went. This is probably more than the de-facto authorities bargained for when agreeing to accommodate Russia’s grand infrastructure plans.

Growing Self-Isolation

In November 2023, Sokhumi’s top diplomat, Inal Ardzinba, announced that international non-governmental organizations that consider Abkhazia to be occupied will soon be banned from Abkhazia by an upcoming “presidential decree.” He named USAID as one such organization, expressing discontent that its official website states that its projects are aimed at “countering the harmful influence of the Kremlin” and “restoring the territorial integrity of Georgia.

This was followed by Ardzinba’s announcement in December 2023 of the “new approaches” targeting USAID and its regional director, John Pennel, who was declared non-grata in the occupied region. The announced measures included the cessation of new projects with full or partial USAID funding and the prohibition of projects aimed at establishing contacts between Abkhazian residents and citizens of Georgia, etc.

Many of the local NGOs expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that it would undermine the process of building relations with various international organizations and further isolate the region.

Denial of Entry for EU Special Representative

On January, 26 EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Crisis in Georgia said his request to visit Abkhazia scheduled for the end of January had been rejected, this being the second rejection in the last six months. Toivo Klaar said, “Abkhazia’s relative openness should not become a casualty of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Citing various humanitarian projects supported by the EU in the occupied region, in areas such as education, small business support, and health care, Klaar noted that closing the space to international engagement, and thus the assistance, “will only exacerbate” the challenges faced by the local population.

“Foreign Agents” Law Back on the Table

On 7 February, while Abkhazia’s de facto leader Bzhania was on an extended visit to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and other Russian officials, a so-called draft law “On non-profit organizations and individuals acting as foreign agents” was submitted to Abkhazia’s de-facto legislature. According to the document, both non-profit organizations and individuals can be recognized as foreign agents if they receive foreign funding, except for funding from Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria, which recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia.

Attempts to introduce the law have been underway since 2022 and have been accompanied by opposition from local civil society organizations. Back then, an appeal against the law by the Abkhazian public was published, signed by hundreds of people, and addressed to the leaders of the occupation regime’s de facto executive and legislative branches.

Fears are expressed among the local population that the adoption of such a law, even in the most “mild” version, will inevitably lead to the vilification and eventual liquidation of the local “non-governmental” sector, with some expressing concern that “opposition politicians will be the next targets.”

Draft “agreement” on police cooperation

The Kremlin needs all the “friends” it can gather, and it needs their unequivocal loyalty reaffirmed in circumstances where it is isolated and sanctioned. It will not hesitate to pressure those it can (the smaller and weaker) into compliance.

In the social media of the occupied region, there have been reports of an alleged draft cooperation “agreement” between the Russian Federal Service of National Guard Troops of the Russian Federation (Rosgvardiya) and the so-called Ministry of Internal Affairs of Abkhazia. The reports were followed by statements expressing the concerns that the true intention behind the agreement is to suppress possible protest rallies in response to the questionable policies of the de-facto authorities, in particular, the so-called “law on foreign agents.” The Abkhaz opposition called on the de facto Interior Minister Robert Kiut to “abandon the very idea of signing an agreement with Rosgvardiya.”

Following concerted protests by the opposition and non-governmental organizations, as well as a meeting between them and the leadership of the so-called interior ministry, Kiut was compelled to promise on February 11 that the inter-agency agreement would not be finalized.

What to expect?

The current developments point to the limbo in which Abkhazia finds itself – tied in a dead knot with the pariah state of Russia – and reveal a slow, gradual, and consistent breakdown that will become more evident with time.

This Russian encroachment is expected to progressively grow, spurred on by the changing geopolitical environment. Abkhazia has taken on new relevance and importance for the Kremlin against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Moscow needs new routes to receive goods against the backdrop of international sanctions that appear to be long-term in nature. With this in mind, the Kremlin is keen to develop its foothold in the occupied region while squeezing the international players out of it.

The precision strikes by Ukrainian drones against Russian military vessels revealed an unexpectedly poor performance by the Russian navy. As a result, Russia is forced to look for alternative ports for its military vessels and announced the construction of a permanent military base in occupied Ochamchire. 

It is likely that Moscow’s suffocating embrace will lead to more and more discontent and protests in the occupied region. The more “the screws are tightened” in Russia, the more this will inevitably affect the mood and developments in Abkhazia. This is likely to lead to further protests and tensions in Abkhazian society. The possibility of an “agreement” with the Kremlin’s pretorians – Rosgvardia – bodes ill for the potential protesters.

Given Russia’s increasing pressure and assertiveness in carrying out its plans for the occupied region, it seems that it will use whatever leverage it can. And, as is often the case, provocations and attempts to play up the “Georgian threat” will be used to distract the local population.

Russia has traditionally resorted to the “Abkhaz card” in the run-up to elections in Georgia, too. To what extent and exactly how this will be played by Russia in coming months, in the run-up of the 2024 Parliamentary elections, remains to be seen. It seems that Russia is content – for now – with the official Tbilisi’s “pragmatic” policy and with the existing status quo. It therefore, may even add an allusion to carrots, to further maintain the status quo, to its more traditional toolkit of sticks.

This post is also available in: Русский (Russian)


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