The risks of Abkhazia’s revitalized relations with Russia
The new plan of cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia, designed to cover the next three years, has been perceived by many in the Abkhaz public as a serious threat to their sovereignty.
What risks do the public see in the plan? What does it exactly include? What may follow? Below, a detailed analysis on all these questions and more.
Abkhazia was already in the midst of a difficult period: a severe energy crisis with rolling blackouts, and a socio-economic crisis which has dragged on for so long that many feel they’ve reached a hopeless dead end.
And during this very period, as if by chance, the ‘Action Plan for the Formation of a Common Socio-Economic Space between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia’ appears.
- Op-Ed: Abkhazia needs Russian money, but it might come at a high cost
- Op-Ed: Abkhazia without electricity and business above all
The document was simply posted on the Internet on November 25 without any preliminary comments.
The publicity problem that President Aslan Bzhania’s team suffers from is likely innate, and may be the effect of the intelligence officer’s past [ed. Aslan Bzhania is the former head of the State Security Service). Maybe the problems are so overwhelming that it’s better not to talk about them.
But the fact is that the information policy explaining the intentions of the government is close to the standards of Soviet minimalism.
This is not yet a detailed document, but the frame is quite visible – sufficient for the Abkhaz authorities to look at it at least with apprehension.
The program consists of 45 points and gives only three years for the harmonization of Abkhaz legislation with Russian.
The program contains items on social benefits that have always been perceived positively in Abkhaz society – pensions, salaries for state employees.
But there are also a few clauses on highly unpopular actions that many believe will hit the sovereignty of independent Abkhazia.
This primarily concerns three points
- Removal of the ban on the acquisition of real estate by citizens of states that have recognised Abkhaz statehood
- Russians will receive the right to acquire Abkhaz citizenship
- Denationalization of the Abkhaz energy sector and the arrival of Russian companies on this market
All three points could be called ‘phobias’ that have been circulating in Abkhaz society for a long time.
The most painful issue is that of selling real estate to foreigners
This fear has deep enough roots, leading at least to the Soviet past.
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of Abkhaz in the autonomous republic within Georgia was 17%. And the titular nation always has fears of being in the minority again in their homeland.
The idea of giving foreigners the right to buy real estate, even with the proviso “without further opportunity to obtain Abkhaz citizenship”, has always been perceived negatively.
And this sounds all the more negative now, when an item on dual citizenship has been added to the agenda.
Per the plan, any purchaser of Abkhaz real estate in the future could receive an Abkhaz passport with all the ensuing negative consequences for the Abkhaz statehood.
Electricity prices will go up 6-7 fold
The possible privatization of the Abkhaz energy sector and the admission of Russian companies to this market is also raising concerns.
In this case, the electricity tariff will rise sharply and reach the Russian standard.
Now electricity in Abkhazia costs 40 kopecks [about half a cent] per kilowatt (for individuals). This is the lowest tariff in the post-Soviet space.
For comparison, in Russia one kilowatt costs from 4.87 to 5.66 rubles [about seven cents].
And there would be a market for it, too: if the energy crisis in Abkhazia does not end, the number of people who prefer cheap electricity that cuts out all the time will become lower, while a considerable part of the population will prefer the option of ‘expensive but high-quality electricity.’
NGOs will become ‘foreign agents’
There is one more point that the Abkhaz public is uncertain about: the legislative transfer of Abkhaz non-governmental organizations financed from abroad into the category of foreign agents, per the Russian model.
For Abkhazia, whose independence is recognized by only six states, non-governmental organizations are, among other things, an opportunity to have at least unofficial contacts with the rest of the world, and above all with the countries of the European Union.
In Russia, non-governmental organizations that receive Western investment are perceived of as antagonists of the Kremlin.
However, in Abkhazia, non-governmental organizations always get along with the local authorities. Moreover, their representatives are actively involved as experts in many areas of government activity.
Russia is much stronger following the “second Karabakh war
Earlier, Abkhazia managed to fend off Moscow’s obsessive proposals to turn these organizations into foreign agents. But now it will be different. And the changes are associated with large-scale military actions in Karabakh in October-November 2020.
Armenia suffered a crushing defeat in the war with Azerbaijan. Moscow did not actively support Yerevan – and many explain this by the fact that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was “Soros’s henchman.”
After this war, the power of influence on the region of various world players changed greatly in favor of Russia. Now it will be difficult for Abkhazia to resist the pressure of Moscow.
No more bribes from Russian tourists and other points
The new cooperation plan includes a few more points that do not encroach on the sovereignty of Abkhazia and have no geopolitical significance.
They add restrictions – and a large dose of negativity to the mood in society in Abkhazia.
In particular, Abkhaz traffic police officers will be extremely unhappy with the fact that they will be legally prohibited from revoking the driver’s licenses of Russian tourists – as this will deprive them of significant earnings in the form of bribes collected during the holiday season.
What will happen next largely depends on the Abkhaz authorities.
It will be a very difficult task for the Abkhaz authorities to fulfill this program, since they will have to face rather serious public resistance.
Those who are accustomed to perceive any deviation from the established rules of unshakable sovereignty as a signal to storm government buildings will be opposed.
President Aslan Bzhania is apparently not going to bear responsibility for the implementation of this program alone. Therefore, the document also bears the signature of Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab.
The presence of the signatures of both the president and the prime minister makes the Abkhaz authorities more monolithic in the face of new challenges. And since the implementation of the main points is the prerogative of the parliament, it means that it will be involved in promoting an unpopular agenda.
Despite all of the above, it’s not fair to call the current climate a hopeless situation. This program is still only a skeleton. Now, the quality of the final product will depend on the active work of the Abkhaz authorities themselves in promoting their interests.