Occupied Abkhazia: Law on “Foreign Agents” - Supporters and Opponents
Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
While the ruling political power in Georgia, despite harsh criticism from the West, was trying to adopt the law on “foreign agents”, and still continues talks about “agents” and the need to adopt the law, in Russian-occupied Abkhazia it is still impossible to adopt such a “law,” despite Russia’s demands that they do so. This article discusses who is lobbying for the adoption of the “agents law” in occupied Abkhazia, who opposes it, and what the de facto government’s stance is.
The Law on “Foreign Agents:” Harmonization with Russian Legislation
On November 12, 2020, the “Program for the formation of a single social and economic space between the Russian government and the de facto authorities of Abkhazia, based on the harmonization of the legislation of Abkhazia with the legislation of Russia” was approved. As per the 37th measure of the program, the Abkhazian “legislation” should come into conformity with the Russian legislation, which will regulate the activities of non-profit organizations and “foreign agents.”
On December 23, 2021, during a video conference, the de facto Minister of Justice of Abkhazia, Anri Bartsits, and the Minister of Justice of Russia, Konstantin Chuychenko, signed a 2022-2023 cooperation program, as well as a memorandum and its respective action plan “on cooperation in the field of harmonization of the legal regulation of the activities of non-profit organizations and foreign agents.” According to the plan agreed with Russia, the process of adopting the law should be completed in 2023; however, Moscow believes that the process is being delayed and blames the Abkhaz side for the slow pace of adoption.
Who supports the Law?
The issue of passing the law on “foreign agents” became relevant in occupied Abkhazia at the end of 2021, when former high-ranking official of the Russian Presidential Administration, Inal Ardzinba, was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the de facto regime. Today, Ardzinba is the only figure from the de facto government speaking out about the need to adopt this law.
On September 15, 2022, Ardzinba announced that work was ongoing on a draft law “On non-profit organizations and public associations.” He noted that the purpose of the draft law is to increase the operational and financial transparency of these organizations and ensure their non-interference in the internal activities of the de facto republic. Ardzinba has made a lot of critical remarks directed at the main donors of Abkhaz civil society and international organizations. As per his assessment, the main goal of these organizations is the soft integration of Abkhaz society into Georgian society through humanitarian aid, conferences, educational trainings, and active work with young people.
Ardzinba requests that the main field of their activities be humanitarian and not include political projects. Further, that these organizations should agree planned projects on the territory of Abkhazia in advance and submit reports on the implementation, lists of employees, as well as data on sources of financing. Those projects which involve any kind of cooperation/dialogue with the Georgian side are especially unacceptable to Ardzinba. (For details about this issue, please see the article published on the Rondeli Foundation web-page: Occupied Abkhazia: The Attack on the Civil Sector and International Organizations).
Inal Ardzinba mentioned non-governmental organizations in a negative context during the recent developments in Tbilisi. On March 9, Ardzinba assessed the ongoing events in Tbilisi as another coup attempt in the post-Soviet space. According to him, “the so-called peaceful protesters actively use direct actions- Molotov cocktails, blocking streets and other forms of aggressive behavior, which clearly indicates that they were instructed by relevant units of the US State Department and the US Embassy in Tbilisi.” He highlighted the “destructive role” of the so-called NGOs in his message. Yet, in Abkhazia, they believe that where NGOs in Georgia can participate in certain political processes and support political groups for a power change, it is less likely that NGOs in the de facto republic will promote “color revolutions” to change the foreign policy vector.
Who Opposes and Who Abstains from Supporting the Adoption of the Law?
The adoption of the law on “foreign agents” in Abkhazia is overtly opposed by a civil society mainly financed by international organizations and Western funds. Representatives of the de facto government have so far either abstained from expressing their opinions, or limit themselves to making cautious statements on it.
The Civil Society Response
At the initial stage, local civil society responded harshly to Ardzinba's initiatives. In January 2022, about five hundred people signed an appeal to high-rank officials of the de facto government. They claimed the adoption of such a law would bring negative results and damage the international image of the de facto republic. The “Public Defender,” Asida Shakryl, also disagreed with the adoption of the law. On June 8, 2022, during his annual address to the de facto parliament, Shakryl said that the public had been tricked with the idea of adopting the law on “foreign agents,” as it does not reflect the Abkhaz reality. According to Shakryl, the initiative is aimed at limiting Abkhazia's external ties, as well as limiting rights and freedom in Abkhazia. A similar suggestion is circulating the civil sector.
Public Discussion in the “Public Chamber”
On November 15, 2022, a meeting was held in the so-called Public Chamber, which is a consultative body whose members are representatives of various spheres of society. The participants discussed the role of civil society in modern conditions and the legislation regulating the activities of non-profit organizations.
Prominent representatives of civil society (Arda Inal-Ifa, Inal Khashig, and Liana Kvarchelia among them) also participated in the meeting. They noted that the existing legislation has in place all mechanisms for regulating the activities of public organizations (the occupied Abkhazia adopted a law on non-profit organizations on October 21, 2005). According to their assessment, “this is an internal state issue which should be regulated as a result of the relations between society and the government; there is no need to harmonize it with the Russian legislation; issues such as customs or dual citizenship could be harmonized.”
It is noteworthy that representatives of the de facto government also attended the meeting. The Secretary of the de facto Security Council, Sergey Shamba, noted that NGOs have played a great role in the history of Abkhazia, claiming that even Russia does not cut off all channels of relations with the West, and, therefore, the issue “will be discussed with a special approach.” According to de facto Minister of Justice Anri Bartsits, he is ready for talks in any format to review what the “Ministry” is doing in terms of preparing the draft law. He says it has not yet been decided how the draft law will be adopted – as an amendment to the existing law or as a separate law. According to Bartsits, the draft law must go through several stages of review, and many details have yet to be clarified.
At the meeting, an opinion was voiced that representatives of the Abkhazian civil sector protect the interests of the de facto Republic of Abkhazia in the international arena. The hero of the de facto republic and the former de facto Interior Minister, Aslan Kobakhia, also expressed his opinion, saying that he categorically disagrees with these organizations on some issues and thinks that state bodies should more strictly control their activities; however, he noted that he is against recognizing them as foreign agents, since labelling someone as an agent is a great insult among Abkhazians. According to him, those who are to be turned into “agents” were active participants of the “national liberation movement of the Abkhaz people.” Kobakhia’s assessment is particularly noteworthy because he is not known in society for his sympathy for non-governmental organizations.
What Does the De Facto Government Say?
Unlike Ardzinba, other leaders of the de facto government are less critical of the activities of civil society and international organizations. They do not publicly criticize their activities, and see opportunities to develop relations with the outside world through relations with them.
Second-rank figures of the de facto government relatively overtly voice their opinions about the law. In an interview on October 26, 2022, Christian Bzhania, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the government of the de facto republic, speaking about the imposition of sanctions on Russia, noted that this would have a mirror effect on Abkhazia, and suggested that at some point Abkhazia will have to adopt the law on “foreign agents” and expel international organizations. The civil sector considers the issue should not be raised this way, since they believe that the presence of international organizations, especially the United Nations, in Abkhazia works against the Georgian claim that Abkhazia is occupied.
Maxim Gvinjia, the de facto Adviser to the President on International Affairs (the de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2010-2011), expressed an interesting opinion about the law. On March 12, in an interview with Russian media, he said that “after the war with Georgia in 1992-1993, and after the republic was under blockade, Abkhaz civil society became the main driving force in economic, cultural and foreign policy processes. Much of our civil society implemented projects within the framework of cooperation with Western organizations. I personally know that the majority of those of Abkhazian civil society who cooperate with the non-governmental organizations of other countries receive certain grants and are patriots of their country.”
- The adoption of the law on “foreign agents” in Russian-occupied Abkhazia is aimed at limiting the activities of local civil society and international organizations and establishing complete control over them, implemented as per the Kremlin’s orders and due to the desire to introduce the Russian model in the occupied region. The activities of Western organizations in Abkhazia and other occupied regions are perceived as a threat to Russia's interests.
- Against the high degree of economic and political influence from Russia in occupied Abkhazia, it is interesting that representatives of the local political elite either do not speak at all or make cautious statements about adopting the law, since they think that an open objection to this issue can be considered as an anti-Russian move.
- Many leading figures in the de facto government believe that representatives of the civil sector played an important role in the formation of the Abkhaz “state” during the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992-1993, and after it. In addition, the current de facto government recognizes that thanks to the civil sector and Western international organizations, a number of important social and humanitarian projects were implemented in the post-war period which were and still are vital for the de facto republic.
What Might Happen?
Attitudes of civil society and the local political elite in occupied Abkhazia indicate that the adoption of the law on “foreign agents” is perceived negatively, as a move that will limit the relations of the de facto republic with the outside world, weaken developed civil society in the region, reduce the financing of projects by international organizations/Western funds and will further increase the degree of the de facto republic’s dependence on Russia. The processes surrounding this issue in Abkhazia show that the de facto government is trying its best, despite pressure from Russia, to slow the adoption of the law and to avoid the introduction of the Russian model of controlling the activities of civil society and international organizations.
On the other hand, Russia believes that Abkhazia must fulfill its obligations and timely resolve those issues which Abkhaz society perceives with particular severity. Such issues include the transfer of the “Bichvinta state country house” to Russia, solving the issue of dual citizenship, granting Russian citizens the right to purchase real estate in Abkhazia, transferring the energy sector to Russia, and the adoption of the law on “foreign agents”. As Russia's problems on the Ukrainian front worsen and Moscow faces more challenges globally, pressure on the de facto government of Abkhazia to meet Russia's demands will likely intensify.
In the short term, the only factor that can stop or slow down the process of adoption of the law is Russia's failure in Ukraine, with which this issue loses meaning and relevance for the Kremlin.
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