Abkhazia*

Partly Free
40
100
PR Political Rights 17 40
CL Civil Liberties 23 60
Last Year's Score & Status
41 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
* Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.

header1 Note

The numerical scores and status listed here do not reflect conditions in Georgia, which is examined in a separate report. Territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons. For more information, see the report methodology and FAQ.

header2 Overview

Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, has maintained de facto independence since the end of a civil conflict in 1993. The government is financially dependent on Russia, which has a military presence in Abkhazia and is one of a handful of states that recognizes the territory’s independence. The tumultuous political environment features significant opposition and civil society activity. Ongoing problems include a flawed criminal justice system, discrimination against ethnic Georgians, and a lack of economic opportunity.

header3 Key Developments in 2019

  • Raul Khajimba was narrowly reelected as Abkhazia’s president in September, defeating former Sukhumi mayor Alkhas Kvitsinia. The contest was postponed after candidate and former security chief Aslan Bzhania was hospitalized in April; in May, Bzhania claimed he was poisoned with mercury.
  • Border crossings between Abkhazia and Georgian-controlled territory were shut at least twice during the year. In January, authorities claimed that an outbreak of swine flu mandated the closure of the border; crossings were again closed in late June as major street protests took place in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and were not fully reopened until October.
  • In December, the parliament adopted criminal code revisions that punish “actions against the sovereignty of Abkhazia” and related offenses with prison terms, despite fears that the new code would discourage speech regarding the territory’s status.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

Abkhazia’s 1999 constitution established a presidential system, in which the president and vice president are elected for five-year terms.

President Khajimba, who was originally elected in 2014, was reelected in a two-round contest that ended in September 2019. The contest was originally scheduled for June, but was postponed after candidate Bzhania was hospitalized in April; in May, Bzhania reported that he was diagnosed with mercury poisoning. Bzhania ended his candidacy in favor of former Sukhumi mayor Kvitsinia. Nine candidates participated in the first round, but none were able to win the needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff. President Khajimba won the second round with 47 percent of the vote, while Kvitsinia won 46 percent.

While most established election monitors do not assess Abkhazia’s elections, informal observations indicated that the balloting and campaign were largely free. However, local observers also noted that President Khajimba used state resources to support his reelection campaign. Kvitsinia sued to overturn the results, alleging that the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) misinterpreted electoral law when verifying them; his lawsuit was rejected by the Supreme Court in late September.

The prime minister and cabinet are appointed by and accountable to the president. Valeriy Bganba, who became prime minister in 2018, was reappointed in October 2019 by Khajimba.

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the apparent poisoning of Aslan Bzhania, who was expected to compete in the year’s presidential election, cast doubt on the contest’s overall credibility.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

The parliament, or People’s Assembly, comprises 35 members elected for five-year terms from single-seat constituencies. The 2017 parliamentary election was marred by instances of intimidation, with violent attacks on two candidates. The voting was voided and rescheduled in one district due to ballot irregularities. Independent deputies dominated the new legislature, and many were oriented toward the opposition. However, about 20 legislators were considered supporters of the president, as was the new speaker, Valeriy Kvarchia.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

The legal framework does not support fully democratic elections. Eight members of the CEC are chosen by the parliament, and seven are appointed by the president. While the 2019 presidential election was competitive, all elections are predicated on the exclusion of ethnic Georgians.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2.002 4.004

A large number of parties and social organizations participate in Abkhazia’s fractious political system, and these movements generally enjoy freedom of association. Organizations representing veterans of the 1992–93 war with Georgia are particularly influential.

However, corruption within parties hampers their democratic functions, and a 2009 law forbids the formation of parties catering to the interests of any particular ethnic, religious, racial, or professional group. Parties are relatively weak as electoral vehicles and as forces within the parliament, with most candidates campaigning and serving as independents. In the 2017 parliamentary contest, 112 of 137 candidates ran as independents.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3.003 4.004

Although independent candidates are not able to draw on the sort of support or infrastructure typically associated with membership in an established political party, those running against incumbents have enjoyed some success. For example, while no candidates for the opposition groups Amtsakhara or United Abkhazia were elected in 2017, most incumbent legislators—including government ministers—lost their seats. In addition, despite initial fears that the CEC would refuse to register his candidacy, ousted president Aleksandr Ankvab returned to politics and gained a seat in the parliament.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 2.002 4.004

While the people’s choices influence domestic politics, the functioning of Abkhazia’s political institutions is almost entirely dependent on economic and political support from Moscow.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

Under the constitution, only a person of Abkhaz nationality who is a citizen of Abkhazia can be elected to the presidency. The Armenian and Russian communities traditionally have an informal agreement whereby parties nominate ethnic minority candidates in districts where they predominate. Ethnic Abkhaz dominate the political sphere; of the 35 members of the parliament, 32 have Abkhaz surnames and 3 are Armenian. The ethnic Georgian population is routinely excluded from elections and political representation. In 2019, authorities argued that the majority of Gali’s residents were Georgian citizens and therefore not permitted to vote.

A handful of cabinet-level positions and parliamentary seats have been held by women, but norms discourage women from running for office.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1.001 4.004

While Abkhazia’s president sets the tone for most domestic policy, the overall ability of elected authorities to determine and implement policies is limited by the economic and political influence of Moscow. The Russian government supplies most of the state budget, though its contributions have started to decline.

Several thousand Russian troops are permanently stationed in the territory. However, there has been significant pushback against a 2014 Russian-Abkhaz treaty, with critics arguing that some of its provisions threaten Abkhazia’s autonomy. Russia remains influential in Abkhazia’s security apparatus; the territory’s State Security Service (SGB) includes a representative of the Russian government in its leadership.

In addition to foreign influence, Abkhazia’s government has been affected by a pattern of political instability in recent years. Prime Minister Bganba, who was first appointed in 2018, was the territory’s fifth premier in four years.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption is believed to be extensive and is tolerated by the government, despite promises to combat it. In recent years, Russian officials have voiced concern at the large-scale embezzlement of funds provided by Moscow. In April 2019, auditors sent a report alleging 10 cases of misuse of a Russian investment initiative to Abkhazian prosecutors, but no progress was reported on these cases at year’s end.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2.002 4.004

Legal amendments from 2015 allow citizens to request information about any government decisions not classified as state secrets, and to receive a response within a month. Nevertheless, the territory’s political culture is nontransparent, and social stigmas prevent citizens from requesting information. Government officials are not required to provide declarations of income.

In February 2019, the parliament completed the first reading of a bill that would have required public officials to prove the legality and origin of their property and that of their close relatives. The bill, which was also intended to improve the transparency of recruitment for local positions, was ultimately unadopted by year’s end.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2.002 4.004

Broadcast media are largely controlled by the government, which operates the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company (AGTRK). Abkhaz journalists have criticized AGTRK for failing to air material that could be perceived as unflattering to the government. The internet and social media have become increasingly popular sources of information. Major Russian television stations broadcast into Abkhazia, and residents of the Gali district have access to Georgian channels. Some legal restrictions apply to both traditional and online media, including criminal libel statutes.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Abkhazia, but the Georgian Orthodox Church faces discrimination and restrictions. Most practicing Christians adhere to one of two branches of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church.

Muslims are allowed to practice freely, though some community leaders have been attacked in the past. There are no widely reported restrictions on the minority who identify with Abkhazia’s traditional pre-Christian religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned by a 1995 decree.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

The education system is affected by the separatist government’s political priorities. Schools providing instruction in Russian and Armenian generally operate without interference. However, Georgian-language schools in Gali have been undergoing reorganization since 2015 with the aim of replacing Georgian with Russian.

Universities in the capital have recently become more lenient about the enrollment of Gali Georgians, who are educated in Russian and lack Abkhaz passports. Nevertheless, bureaucratic complications still arise with respect to obtaining a diploma, and some argue that requiring aspiring university students to take Abkhaz-language proficiency exams as part of their graduation from secondary school disadvantages ethnic minorities.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3.003 4.004

Social media platforms host vibrant for discussion on political and other topics in Abkhazia. However, there is some self-censorship on sensitive subjects, especially those relating to Georgians in Abkhazia and relations with Tbilisi, or discussions related to the families of senior officials or local businessmen. In October 2019, a local blogger was severely beaten after posting critical comments regarding the wedding of a prominent businessman’s son.

In December 2019, the parliament adopted criminal code amendments that prescribe up to 15 years’ imprisonment for “actions against the sovereignty of Abkhazia.” The code also mandates prison sentences for the discussion of “anticonstitutional agreements” on the political status of Abkhazia. Some local observers expressed concerns that the bill could have negative repercussions for freedom of speech.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of assembly is largely respected, and opposition and civil society groups regularly mount protests. While violent confrontations between police and protesters have occurred in the past, protests were largely held without incident in 2019. In April, a local anticorruption nongovernmental organization (NGO) held a rally outside the parliament, accusing it of delaying its consideration of transparency legislation. In May, supporters of presidential candidate Bzhania held a rally calling for the election to be postponed. In September, Bzhania supporters marched in Sukhumi to protest the CEC’s endorsement of second-round results that showed President Khajimba in the lead.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2.002 4.004

Civil society organizations, particularly groups representing Abkhazia’s war veterans, exert influence on government policies. Around 300 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are registered, though only a fraction of these are active. Many groups struggle to secure sustainable funding, in part because partnerships with foreign or international NGOs are complicated by Abkhazia’s disputed status. NGOs that receive funding from governments or entities that do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence face criticism from local journalists and authorities.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Trade unions exist, but unions and labor activists have struggled to effectively defend the rights of workers. In recent years the territory’s federation of independent trade unions has clashed with the government over distribution of social insurance funds; in February 2019, the federation claimed that the government did not allocate a tranche of social insurance funds.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

Nepotism and corruption, often based on clan and ethnic ties, reportedly have a significant impact on Abkhazia’s judiciary. Implementation of judicial decisions remains inconsistent.

The 2017 pardon of Giorgi Lukava, a Georgian guerrilla leader who fought separatist authorities and was serving a 20-year prison sentence imposed in 2013, raised questions about respect for judicial rulings and judicial independence. Critics said the pardon was illegal, as Khajimba made the decision without the approval of the pardons commission. In 2018, a parliamentary commission examining the matter declined to make any legal assessment and referred it to the Constitutional Court. In March 2019, the court ruled the pardon constitutional.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

The criminal justice system is undermined by limited defendant access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and lengthy pretrial detentions.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Isolated acts of criminal and political violence occur in Abkhazia. In March 2019, however, the government reported a 9 percent fall in the overall crime rate for 2018 when compared to 2017.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reported attacks against Russian tourists visiting Abkhazia in 2019, though one ethnic Russian resident was killed in January.

Organized crime remains a problem in Abkhazia. In March 2019, interior minister Harry Arshba announced a bill that would mandate stricter punishment for leaders of criminal organizations. In late November, two members of a crime organization, along with one bystander, were killed by assailants in Sukhumi.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Ethnic Georgian residents of the Gali region continue to face discrimination, including police harassment and unequal access to documentation, education, and public services. In 2017, Sukhumi began issuing residence permits to Gali Georgians for five-year renewable terms. Permit holders may retain Georgian citizenship, reside in Gali, and cross the border into Georgia proper. The separatist authorities stated that they would grant Abkhazian citizenship to any Georgian willing to “rediscover their Abkhaz ethnic heritage.” Local officials warned Gali Georgians against attempting to hold both passports amid complaints of bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining residency permits.

LGBT+ do not enjoy comprehensive legal protections.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of movement is limited by the ongoing dispute over Abkhazia’s status. Travel permits remain expensive and burdensome to obtain. About 70 percent of Abkhazia’s residents hold Russian passports, as Abkhaz travel documents are not internationally recognized.

Crossings between Georgian-controlled territory and Abkhazia were closed at least twice in 2019. Border crossings were shut from mid-January to early February, with authorities claiming the closure was necessary because of an outbreak of swine flu in Georgia proper. Crossings over the Inguri River were closed in late June as street protests took place in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi; those restrictions were not fully lifted until early October.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

Criminal activity hampers the operations of local businesses. The constitution forbids foreigners, including Russians, from buying real estate in Abkhazia, a rule that has broad support in Abkhazian society. Uncertainty persists regarding property rights for ethnic Georgians in Gali, whose residency permits do not allow them to officially own or inherit property. The legal status of properties whose owners were expelled from Abkhazia during the 1990s is also unclear, as displaced people cannot return to claim them.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Personal freedoms are somewhat inhibited by conservative social mores and societal disapproval of certain identities and behavior, including “nontraditional” sexual orientations and gender nonconformity. A 2016 law banned abortions in all circumstances apart from prior fetal death.

NGOs have expressed concern about so-called honor killings of young women accused of moral transgressions. Domestic violence and rape are serious problems, and victims lack access to effective remedies for such abuse. There is no specific law to address domestic violence.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Equality of opportunity is limited by Abkhazia’s international isolation, as well as by corruption and criminality. In 2018, Russian and other foreign businessmen complained that criminal activity and arbitrary expropriations severely impaired their ability to work and invest in the territory. NGOs have expressed concern about human trafficking in Abkhazia.

On Abkhazia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    40 100 partly free