Friday, 12 May 2023

Abkhaz President Heads for Open Conflict with de Facto Parliament Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Tomáš Baranec

May 12, 2023

On March 6, 2023, the de facto General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) of Abkhazia confirmed violations of local legislation in the interstate agreement on the lease of land in Pitsunda (Bichvinta in Georgian) to Russia. This factual rejection of the agreement in its current form seemingly closed a controversial topic that has been affecting Abkhazia for several months. However, it merely closes one chapter of the dispute, which has launched processes that are beginning to push the Russia-supported de facto President Aslan Bzhania into an increasingly open conflict not only with local society but also with the originally pro-presidential parliamentary majority.

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BACKGROUND: In defense of its decision, the Prosecutor’s Office pointed out, in particular, the inaccurate coordinates of the “Pitsunda State Dacha” object listed in the contract. According to the GPO, the State Commission for State Property Management and Privatization bears the responsibility for errors in the document constituting negligence in the management of state property. The State Office for Land Administration and the Cadaster also made a mistake by not verifying the coordinates in question. Nevertheless, no one will be prosecuted for negligence as the contract has not entered into force and no damage has been done.

The GPO acted on the initiative of the opposition Aidgylara and Aiaaira organizations and the civic association Committee for the Protection of the Sovereignty of Abkhazia from December 14, 2022. The office long remained silent on the matter, which only increased the activity of opposition movements and civil society, calling for demonstrations. In the meantime, and to Bzhania’s increasing irritation, the local parliament also blocked the ratification of the agreement. 

It may seem that under these circumstances the otherwise loyal GPO also courageously opposed the president’s will. However, it is more likely that the Prosecutor’s Office published the verdict with Bzhania’s consent. There have long been doubts regarding the GPO’s independence from the de facto president. Among other things, the GPO is suspected of protecting officials responsible for corruption in the reconstruction of the Achguar high-voltage line and has failed to respond to repeated appeals from the Abkhazian National Movement on the issue of alleged violations of the law when issuing passports in 2020-2022.

According to Abkhaz lawyer and activist Said Gezerdava, the GPO did not try to resist the executive power in the case of Pitsunda. While the responsible officials cannot be punished for errors in the contract merely based on the act of negligence, Gezerdava asserts that other and more serious crimes could have been committed such as “signing an illegal agreement.” Ignoring this fact, the GPO shields officials connected to the president from liability. Gezerdava also agrees with criticism from civil society actors that the GPO should not have needed three months to assess the given case. The length of the process and the timing of the decision also indicate that the GPO’s verdict was based on the instructions of the president. 

The verdict allowed the president to avoid open defeat and save face in a situation where protest potential was growing in the streets and the de facto parliament made clear that it would not ratify the treaty in its current form.

IMPLICATIONS: Bzhania has become increasingly isolated in recent months. After the Pitsunda agreement was rejected, his actions indicate that he pursues his policies with a complete disinterest in public opinion. In early May, this tendency was again demonstrated through the detention of a group of young activists protesting against the Pitsunda lease with banners featuring patriotic quotes from Abkhaz writers and politicians. In an effort to reduce the protest potential of the opposition and civil society, the president is putting the local secret service – the State Security Service of Abkhazia (SGB) – to more aggressive use.

The Abkhaz leader increasingly utilizes the SGB to intimidate critical journalists and civil society representatives. The SGB, which is closely connected with the Russian FSB, has started to detain and interrogate critics of the regime on the de facto border with Russia. Although no one has so far been prosecuted, it is a relatively effective method of exerting psychological pressure and intimidation.

Meanwhile, Bzhania also pushes for increased powers for the SGB, effectively transforming it into an instrument of repression. Currently, the SGB has symbolic powers and relies on intimidation and fear, while lacking legislative mandates for large-scale repression. On this issue too, however, the de facto president encountered staunch opposition from the parliament. Moreover, for the first time since Bzhania’s ascent to power, the conflict between executive and legislative power acquired a public character. Parliament not only rejected his proposal to strengthen the powers of the SGB, but several pro-government MPs even publicly and rather harshly criticized it in the plenary.

Tensions between the president and the parliament have gone from emerging over isolated incidents to acquiring an increasingly structural character. Unlike Bzhania, the deputies are more oriented towards moods in society and are not as ready to challenge public opinion. The cases of Pitsunda and the initiative to increase the powers of the SGB indicate that even many pro-presidential MPs are increasingly willing to side with the public against the executive power. According to Gazerdava, the pro-presidential faction also probably lacks influential and charismatic MPs who could influence the mood in the parliament. If the Pitsunda agreement is slightly modified Sukhumi and Moscow could plausibly strike a new agreement on it, however, there is no guarantee that the current parliament would ratify it. 

Although Bzhania has so far not been successful in his quest to strengthen the SGB, a factor that could potentially help him is the growth of anti-government protest potential in Tbilisi. On March 10, 2023, a crowd protesting in Tbilisi against the bill on foreign agents started chanting “Sokhumi, Sokhumi.” Local activists and ordinary residents of Abkhazia interpreted this as a manifestation of revanchism on the part of supporters of the Georgian opposition. 

Bzhania and Abkhazia’s de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately picked up on this narrative. Together, they launched an information campaign according to which, in case Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream would lose power, Abkhazia would face an immediate military threat from Tbilisi. Gazerdava stated that this campaign was quite effective and even engaged many of Bzhania’s opponents. It presently seems unlikely that the campaign will have a long-term effect and allow the Abkhaz leader to use the atmosphere of fear to strengthen the powers of the secret service. However, if the protests in Tbilisi would resume or the current government fell, such a development cannot be completely ruled out.

CONCLUSIONS: Under the present circumstances, unless Bzhania would unexpectedly change the methods of his rule, his conflict with a large part of the public and the parliament will further increase. The fact that Bzhania did not back down in response to the strong public opposition against his unpopular proposals, even in the context of absent parliamentary support, and decided to prioritize repressive elements, indicates a relatively high level of self-confidence. Since many of the proposals that the president so stubbornly promotes correspond to the interests of the Kremlin and Russian business groups, this self-confidence is likely rooted in support and guarantees from the Russian government. 

The continuous resistance from local residents of Abkhazia creates problems not only for Bzhania but for Russia as well. The decisive factor to the continued development of the situation in Abkhazia will therefore be Moscow’s reaction. Moscow has many tools of coercion vis-a-vis Sokhumi – especially regarding Abkhazia’s crumbling system of production and distribution of electricity. Nevertheless, such pressure would risk the outbreak of mass unrest in the region. 

Integrating Abkhazia into the Union of Russia and Belarus may become an alternative longer-term strategy to achieve these goals. For now, there are just indirect hints of such discussions taking place between Moscow, Sukhumi and Minsk. However, many experts in Sukhumi believe this might be the next move. This alternative currently faces much less resistance in the region than the idea of Abkhazia directly joining Russia. 

AUTHOR’S BIO: Tomáš Baranec is a Research Fellow and Head of the Caucasus Program of the Slovak think tank Strategic Analysis. He currently works as a field researcher on the Georgian-Ossetian ABL. Tomas studied Balkan, Central European and Eurasian Studies at Charles University in Prague.

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