Abkhazia*

Partly Free
40
100
PR Political Rights 17 40
CL Civil Liberties 23 60
Last Year's Score & Status
40 100 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

Freedom in the World  reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers. Disputed 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 2020

  • In early January, opposition protesters took over the main governmental headquarters, and the Supreme Court annulled the results of the 2019 presidential election, leading to the resignation of President Raul Khajimba. Khajimba’s main political opponent, Aslan Bzhania, won a snap presidential election in March.
  • In June, a recently established human rights office released its first annual report on conditions in Abkhazia. In response to some of its findings, President Bzhania abolished certain regulations that discriminated against ethnic Georgians and called for a major reform of the law enforcement system.
  • Abkhazian authorities closed border crossings between Abkhazia and Georgian-controlled territory beginning in March, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The crossings were periodically reopened for essential travel or returning residents. Meanwhile, the border with Russia was closed in early April and reopened in early August despite increases in COVID-19 cases. By year’s end, more than 8,200 confirmed cases and 100 deaths had been reported.

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 directly elected for five-year terms.

President Khajimba, who was first elected in 2014, appeared to win reelection in a two-round contest that ended in September 2019. The balloting was originally scheduled for June, but was postponed after candidate Bzhania was hospitalized with mercury poisoning. Bzhania ended his candidacy in favor of former Sukhumi mayor Alkhas Kvitsinia. According to the initial results, Khajimba won the second round with 47 percent of the vote, while Kvitsinia took 46 percent. Kvitsinia sued to overturn those 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.

In a rapid series of events in early January 2020, opposition protesters broke into the government headquarters to demand Khajimba’s resignation, a majority of lawmakers similarly called on the president to step down, and the Supreme Court—ruling on an appeal of its September 2019 decision—annulled the results of the presidential election. Khajimba tendered his resignation a few days later, and a snap election was scheduled for March.

Bzhania won the new election, taking more than 56 percent of the vote in the first round. Two lesser-known candidates divided the remainder; Khajimba did not participate. Most established election monitors do not assess Abkhazia’s elections. However, notwithstanding the circumstances that led to the new presidential vote, informal observations indicated that the balloting and campaign period were relatively free. The campaign proceeded even as Bzhania was temporarily hospitalized with a respiratory ailment, which for a time raised suspicions of a second poisoning. COVID-19 was also a concern, but political rallies continued during the election period.

Under the constitution, the prime minister and cabinet are appointed by and accountable to the president. In April 2020, President Bzhania appointed Aleksandr Ankvab as prime minister; Ankvab had served as president in 2011–14 before being forced to resign amid street protests by Khajimba and his supporters.

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 elections were 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 Khajimba, as was the new speaker, Valeriy Kvarchia.

Following the March 2020 presidential election, four members of parliament left their seats to join the executive branch, including the new president himself and his prime minister. Their seats were filled through snap elections July and September 2020.

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 elections in recent years have been 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 the Georgian government 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.

After winning the 2020 presidential election, Bzhania invited representatives of alternative political groups to join his government, including Ankvab, who became prime minister, and Sergey Shamba of United Abkhazia, who became secretary of the Security Council. Meanwhile, Khajimba supporters quickly formed at least one new political group aimed at competing in the next parliamentary elections.

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 voters’ choices influence domestic politics, the functioning of Abkhazia’s political institutions remains dependent on economic and political support from Moscow.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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 members of ethnic minorities to represent 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. As with other recent elections, authorities argued ahead of the 2020 presidential vote that the majority of residents in the ethnic Georgian district of Gali were Georgian citizens and therefore not permitted to cast ballots.

Societal norms discourage women from running for office, and women and their interests remain underrepresented in the political sphere. In 2020, only one cabinet-level position and one parliamentary seat were held by women.

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-Abkhazian treaty, with critics arguing that some of its provisions threaten Abkhazia’s autonomy. In November 2020, faced with a pandemic and an economic downturn, Abkhazian leaders withdrew many of their previous concerns and signed an agreement with Russia that called for changes to a number of laws, including amendments that would give broader rights to Russian investors and impose restrictions on local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding. The Russian state 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 ministers have been frequently replaced, and Khajimba was the second consecutive president to be forced out of office amid antigovernment protests. In 2020, President Bzhania pledged to pursue constitutional reforms that would shift more power from the executive branch to the parliament.

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 about the large-scale embezzlement of funds provided by Moscow, but efforts to investigate and punish such malfeasance have been largely ineffective. After the change in government in 2020, prosecutors launched investigations into allegations of embezzlement and fraud at state-owned companies.

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 that are 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.

In February 2020, after roughly a year of discussion, the parliament adopted legislation requiring declarations of income, property, and expenses for all public officials and their close relatives. The law, which was also intended to improve the transparency of recruitment for public officials, was amended in March to expand its asset declarations to more relatives after activists organized a hunger strike in front of the parliament. However, the new rules would not come into force until lawmakers adopted parallel changes to the law on the civil service.

In June, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights released its first annual report on conditions in Abkhazia, having been established in late 2018. The office noted that it remained underfunded, with no basic security provided for its staff. It also reported that law enforcement agencies largely ignored the concerns it raised, refused to provide complete and relevant information, and did not respond to requests in a timely manner. The SGB was deemed the most opaque state structure. President Bzhania praised the report and promised to make it a basis for his planned reform of the law enforcement system.

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

The local media sector is dominated by the government, which operates the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company (AGTRK), a newspaper, and a news agency, though there are also some private outlets. Journalists have criticized AGTRK for failing to air material that could be perceived as unflattering to the government. News websites 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 broadcasts. 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. In 2020, local Muslim leaders reported ongoing difficulties in their efforts to obtain permission for the construction of an official mosque; Islamic religious services have generally been held in private homes, some of which were renovated and expanded during the year to accommodate increased participation.

There are no widely reported restrictions on the minority who identify with Abkhazia’s traditional pre-Christian religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses are formally banned under 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. In August 2020, days before the start of a new school year, the education minister ordered all new pupils of Abkhaz origin to register at schools teaching only in the Abkhaz language; however, the prime minister reversed the decree after it faced criticism from civil society.

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 members of 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

The freedoms of personal expression and private discussion are not severely restricted in practice. Social media platforms host vibrant discussions on political and other topics in Abkhazia. However, there is some self-censorship on sensitive subjects, especially those relating to ethnic Georgians and relations with Tbilisi, or to the families of senior officials or local businessmen. In October 2020, a young ethnic Georgian was detained in Gali after setting fire to the Abkhazian flag during public celebrations marking the anniversary of the end of the 1992–93 war.

Criminal code amendments adopted in late 2019 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 legislation 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 have occurred in the past, protests during 2020 largely proceeded without excessive uses of force by police. In early January, a small group of activists took over the main governmental headquarters to call for the resignation of then president Khajimba, resulting in damage to government property. In March, a hunger strike by local anticorruption activists contributed to the expansion of long-sought legislation requiring asset declarations for all state officials and their family members.

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. Some 300 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 foreign governments or entities that do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence face criticism from local journalists and authorities. While its November 2020 policy agreement with Russia called for special restrictions on groups that receive foreign funding, the government had not adopted such legislation at year’s end.

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 the distribution 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

Despite attempts to introduce more parliamentary oversight of the judiciary, nepotism and corruption reportedly have a significant impact on judicial independence. 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 then president Khajimba made the decision without the approval of the pardons commission. The Constitutional Court ruled the pardon constitutional in 2019.

The Supreme Court’s handling of the 2019 presidential election case raised a number of questions about judicial impartiality. Hearings on Kvitsinia’s appeal of the initial September 2019 decision were delayed for weeks, contributing to the political crisis in early January 2020. Just a day before the final ruling, which was issued in the midst of an opposition occupation of government offices, Kvitsinia’s lawyers successfully petitioned for the replacement of a judge on the case whose term had expired and who was therefore dependent on the president for extensions. Khajimba initially rejected the objectivity of the court’s decision to annul the 2019 results, citing pressure from the protesters, but he eventually agreed to end the crisis by resigning.

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.

In September 2020, in response to the first annual report by the human rights commissioner’s office as well as recent cases of serious misconduct by law enforcement officials, President Bzhania launched consultations with law enforcement and judicial agencies on the potential for systemic reforms.

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, though government data have shown declines in the overall crime rate in recent years. Conditions in prisons and detention centers are reportedly poor, and the 2020 report by the human rights commissioner’s office highlighted cases of alleged torture and mistreatment in custody.

Organized crime remains a crucial problem. In November 2019, two suspected members of a criminal organization, along with one bystander, were killed by assailants in Sukhumi. After the change in leadership in 2020, at least one of the former president’s private bodyguards was arrested for alleged involvement in the incident. Newly elected president Bzhania, who pledged to crack down on organized crime, ordered officials to compile a list of people who were granted firearms by his predecessor and recover the weapons from anyone with a criminal history.

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 district 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 de facto 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.

The 2020 report by the human rights commissioner’s office noted the government’s discriminatory policies toward ethnic Georgians and called for reforms to address them. In July, in response to some of the report’s recommendations, President Bzhania reduced especially high land taxes in Gali that dated to 2003 and reversed a 2019 order requiring extra payments from NGOs that sought to carry out projects in the district.

Many women in Abkhazia reportedly experience gender-based violence, with higher rates in rural areas. The territory lacks robust legal protections against discrimination affecting LGBT+ people.

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. More than 70 percent of Abkhazia’s residents hold Russian passports, as Abkhaz travel documents are not internationally recognized.

Crossings between Georgian-controlled territory and Abkhazia generally remained closed after March 2020, with authorities claiming the closures were necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; the crossings were opened for short periods during the year to allow essential travel and the return of local residents. Meanwhile, crossings on the border with Russia closed in early April, reopened in early August, and remained open despite subsequent increases in COVID-19 cases.

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. However, the 2020 bilateral agreement with Russia envisioned changes that could clear the way for Russian acquisition of Abkhazian land, for example by allowing Russians to obtain dual citizenship. 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. In its 2020 report, the human rights commissioner’s office called on authorities to overturn the abortion ban.

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.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    40 100 partly free