Counter arguments from Abkhazia and protests in Moscow
A new scandal is forming in Abkhazia around a property dispute concerning a company owned by Russian businessman Mikhail Panov.
Panov claims that two Abkhaz businessmen have illegally taken control of his enterprise and that Abkhaz authorities have supported them in the process. The businessman recently began a permanent protest in front of the Abkhazian embassy in Moscow.
The two Abkhaz businessmen accused by Panov, Said Lakoba and Roman Geria, accuse the Russian businessman of violating the terms of their contract and of trying to seize total control of the company for himself.
Although the story has been developing for around two years now, neither the Russian nor Abkhaz authorities have gotten involved nor figured out how to resolve the conflict.
Background – Mikhail Panov’s version
Mikhail Panov, a Russian citizen, claims that he opened the SPS-Kavkaz plastic products factory in Lykhny village in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia in the summer of 2016. He says that his problems began almost immediately.
Panov recorded a video message in which he describes the event and names two Abkhaz citizens – Said Lakoba and Roman Geria – who supposedly came to him and offered him ‘protection’: that is, they demanded a portion of his income, and otherwise threatened to kill him if he refused.
Panov says that he refused their ‘protection’ and soon lost his business.
“On 20 September 2016 they [Lakoba and Geria] attacked the factory grounds with the help of a gang of about fifty people. They physically threatened the workers and personnel, and forcefully took the Russian employees to the Russian border and forced them to leave the territory of Abkhazia,” Panov told the Russian news outlet ‘The Caucasian Knot’.
Panov says that after 20 September 2016 he was no longer able to gain access to his own factory; all of his attempts to enter were prevented by the bandits who had taken control and threatened him with physical force, he says.
Background – Said Lakoba and Roman Geria’s version
Said Lakoba told the online media outlet Ekho Kavkaza that his initial ties with Mikhail Panov were of an exclusively official and business-like nature.
“Roman Geria and I met him at the border, we sat down at the negotiating table and agreed to construct a pipe factory. This was in 2010. I laid down the condition that we would take on full responsibility for the pipe factory – that we would solve all administrative land issues and the registration of all the necessary documentation. But we also said that the jobs would go to the local population.”
“Panov agreed, and said that he had no issues with these conditions. He said that we would go about everything on a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. We agreed.”
However, Lakoba and Geria say that after they fulfilled their part of the agreement – the partition and acquisition of land and territory and the registration of the documents for Panov – the Russian businessman refused to honour the agreement concerning the workers, and brought ‘his own people’ from Moscow to work at the plant.
Comments from the Abkhaz authorities
Neither the Russian nor the Abkhaz authorities have said anything official about the conflict.
On 5 March Mikhail Panov met with Adgur Ardzinba, the Minister of Economy of Abkhazia. The minister allegedly promised to look into the situation in detail.
The head of the General Prosecutor’s Office for the Supervision of the Enforcement of Legislation Beslan Tarkil said that Panov had made an appeal on several occasions and lodged a complaint against Lakoba and Geria, stating that they were not allowing him access to his factory and were threatening to kill him.
Tarkil told journalists that his complaints were looked into but were not confirmed. For this reason, Panov’s request that a criminal case be launched was not approved ‘due to a lack of criminal activity in the actions of Lakoba and Geria‘.
Tarkil also noted that ‘not one of the parties had appealed to court to solve the disagreements that had arisen’. He added that this argument should be solved in a court of arbitration in Abkhazia.
The protest begins
The Russian businessman believes that the authorities of Abkhazia are not looking objectively at the issue and are drawing out the resolution of the problem. For this reason he decided to resort to more active measures and starting on 2 March, together with SPS-Kavkaz employees, he has been protesting non-stop in front of the Abkhaz embassy in Moscow.
“We take turns being here. It’s a permanent picket line. We demand that the owner [of the factory], Mikhail Panov, have his rights returned to him,” said the Attorney General Director of the enterprise, Ilya Panov, to a correspondent of the Caucasian Knot.
Across the street from the embassy building there is an automobile with a banner which says ‘Yet another Russian business has been seized – SPS-Kavkaz. Who’s next?”
Ilya Panov said: “The place where the automobile is parked is a paid parking space. We paid for it and we will stand here until they satisfy our demands. This protest, with the participation of more than 50 people, will continue even after the Russian presidential elections.”