2020 Developments in Abkhazia: “Elections,” the Pandemic and Deeper Integration with Russia
Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
2020 started with a political crisis in Abkhazia followed by the resignation of the de facto President, Raul Khajimba, and the calling of early “presidential elections.” The newly elected “president” faced difficult challenges as his “presidency” coincided with the new coronavirus pandemic. All significant developments during the year took place with the participation of Russia which by the end of the year demanded accelerated and deeper integration from the de facto government of Abkhazia. This article provides an overview of the important developments in Abkhazia in 2020.
Political Crisis and the Resignation of the “President”
The year 2020 started with a political crisis in Abkhazia. The culmination of the crisis was January 12 when the de facto President of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, who became the “president” in 2014 as a result of a similar crisis, was forced to resign due to growing domestic political pressure and mediation by Russian government officials. The Assistant to the President of Russia, Vladislav Surkov, and the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Rashid Nurgaliyev, who arrived in Abkhazia on a special mission to resolve the crisis, convinced Khajimba to resign and call early “elections.”
Early “Elections” and a New “President”
On March 22, 2020, early illegitimate presidential elections were held in Abkhazia. As expected, Aslan Bzhania, the leader of the United Opposition Forces, won the “elections.” He received 56.5% of the votes. Bzhania's victory over Khajimba was a kind of revenge for the 2014 events when the latter’s supporters forced the de facto President, Alexander Ankvab, to resign. Bzhania was Ankvab's team member. As a symbolic expression of revenge, Bzhania appointed Ankvab as the de facto prime minister who was unable to run in the elections due to age restrictions. Bzhania became the fifth de facto president of Abkhazia.
Pandemic and Challenges
Bzhania's “presidency” started amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Traffic with Russia was restricted to prevent the spread of the virus. Due to restrictions at the initial stage of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in Abkhazia was contained. On August 1, the “border” with Russia was opened to save the failed tourist season which led to a sharp increase in the number of infections. By the end of 2020, the total number of infected people reached 9,000. On New Year's Eve, Bzhania and Ankvab were tested positive for the coronavirus. The latter's state of health deteriorated so much that he was hospitalized in Moscow for treatment.
The pandemic has once again exposed the deplorable state of the healthcare system of Abkhazia with an inadequate infrastructure and a lack of specialists. At the request of the de facto government, Russia provided medical assistance and dispatched specialists to Abkhazia. In addition, the Russian Ministry of Defense opened a field hospital in Sokhumi which is still operating.
The closure of the “borders” dealt a severe blow to the economy of Abkhazia. The local tourism sector failed to receive the anticipated revenues. Due to the pandemic, the implementation of projects planned under the Russian-funded investment program was also delayed.
Energy Crisis and Cryptocurrency
Amid the economic challenges posed by the pandemic, the energy crisis has become an additional headache for the de facto government of Abkhazia. According to an informal agreement between Georgia and the de facto authorities of Abkhazia, Abkhazia consumes 40% of the electricity generated by the Enguri HPP. The population living in Abkhazia gets the electricity practically for “free.” “Businessmen” who turned the production of cryptocurrency into a profitable business also use the “free” electricity. A large amount of energy is required to produce cryptocurrency.
To overcome the energy crisis, the de facto government had to set a schedule for electricity supply and temporarily suspend the production of cryptocurrency (however, the production of cryptocurrency was not completely stopped). Russia has once again emerged as a “lifeline” for Sokhumi providing electricity to Abkhazia during the crisis. The de facto government of Abkhazia hopes that Russia will assist during an energy shortage in 2021 which will be caused by a shut-down of the Enguri HPP for several months due to the rehabilitation of the diversion tunnel.
Bzhania’s Visits to Russia and Meeting with Putin
Bzhania as “president” paid seven official visits to Russia. Little information was available in the media about the first five visits. Bzhania's clandestine visits raised suspicions that the Russian president refused to meet him face-to-face. Finally, Bzhania met with Putin on November 12, shortly after the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. As reported later, a new integration program for the formation of a common social and economic space between Russia and Abkhazia was signed on the same day. Bzhania’s seventh visit was particularly busy. During the visit, he met with several representatives of the Russian government before the New Year. The main purpose of the meetings was to discuss issues related to the implementation of the November 12 agreement.
November 12 Agreement and Deeper Integration
Within the framework of the program for the formation of a common social and economic space between Russia and Abkhazia, approved on November 12, 45 events are planned for a two-to-three year period. During this time, legislation should be harmonized in a number of fields: economics, finance (budget and tax policy, foreign economic and banking activities, investment protection, customs law), energy and the social sphere (medicine, education, social protection).
The implementation of most of the planned activities will not attract public attention but two that we would like to highlight will require a lot of effort from Bzhania’s team in 2021. The first is the issue of dual citizenship which will allow Russian citizens to obtain “citizenship” of Abkhazia – an opportunity to influence internal processes in the de facto republic. The second is the issue of purchasing real estate. At this stage, only Abkhaz “citizens” have the right to buy real estate in Abkhazia. The restriction was introduced as local society feared that wealthier citizens of Russia, including ethnic Georgians, would “buy” Abkhazia. The Kremlin has long called for a solution to this issue but facing the negative reaction of the Abkhaz people, no de facto president dared to comply with Moscow's demands. This time, it looks like Russia will be tougher in its demands and will take advantage of the difficult situation in Abkhazia to put pressure on Bzhania.
Messages to Tbilisi and a New “Concept”
In 2020, Bzhania and Sergey Shamba, the Secretary of the de facto Security Council of Abkhazia, in addition to the Geneva discussions, repeatedly announced the possibility of a direct dialogue with Georgia. Their sentiments were also reflected in the Foreign Policy Concept of the Republic of Abkhazia adopted on December 4, 2020. According to the concept, the Abkhaz side allows the creation of an additional format of negotiations to discuss the issues not resolved within the framework of the Geneva talks.
The statements of Bzhania and Shamba may be a signal that the Abkhaz side is ready to develop a different format of relations with the Georgian side. However, Bzhania's readiness will most likely be hindered by internal resistance in Abkhazia as well as by Russia which is not interested in developing direct relations between Georgia and Abkhazia. The lack of countermeasures from Tbilisi may also be a deterrent.
Forecast for 2021
If the newly elected de facto government of Abkhazia justified the existing problems in 2020 by the severe legacy from previous government and the pandemic, these arguments will not be sufficient for the local population and opponents in 2021. Bzhania's political opponents, who have taken a temporary passive stance since Khajimba's resignation, will try to step up pressure on Bzhania's government in 2021 and use public discontent for political revenge.
In addition to internal political or economic challenges, the de facto government of Bzhania will also have to deal with Russian pressure which calls for more integration from Abkhazia and a timely solution to problematic issues in bilateral relations (dual citizenship, the right of Russian citizens to purchase real estate in Abkhazia).
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