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 the UN member-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 2021

  • Authorities deployed the army and riot police in December to prevent opposition protesters from taking over the parliament building during an antigovernment demonstration. The protesters, who demanded the resignation of President Aslan Bzhania, were forcibly dispersed; despite the use of tear gas and batons, there were no reports of protesters or police being hospitalized.
  • In June, the parliament adopted legislation requiring all public officials and their close relatives to submit annual declarations of income, property, and expenses. The declarations were submitted in July before being made public the following month.
  • Abkhazian authorities opened the main crossing with Georgia for certain residents in February almost a year after it had been closed as a COVID-19-related health measure, The crossing was opened for all residents who possess locally authorized travel documents in July.

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.

In 2019, then-president Raul Khajimba appeared to win reelection in a runoff of the year’s presidential poll, which had been rescheduled after his opponent Aslan Bzhania was hospitalized with mercury poisoning. Bzhania ended his candidacy and was replaced by former Sukhumi mayor Alkhas Kvitsinia, who unsuccessfully sued to overturn the results of the election after he lost by 1 percent of the vote. In a rapid series of events in January 2020, opposition protesters broke into government headquarters to demand Khajimba’s resignation, a majority of lawmakers called on him to resign, and the Supreme Court overturned its 2019 decision and annulled the results of the 2019 runoff. Khajimba resigned a few days later.

Bzhania won a snap election called for March 2020, 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, informal observations indicated that the balloting and campaign period were relatively free.

Under the constitution, the prime minister and cabinet are appointed by and accountable to the president. In April 2020, President Bzhania appointed former president Aleksandr Ankvab as prime minister.

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, including many who were oriented toward the opposition, though about 20 legislators were considered supporters of Khajimba.

Following the March 2020 snap presidential election, four lawmakers left their seats to join the executive branch, including the new president and his prime minister. Their seats were filled through snap elections in July and September 2020. In December 2021, Bzhania announced that parliamentary elections would be held in March 2022.

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 Central Electoral Commission (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

Many 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 functioning, 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 several political groups with the goal of contesting the 2022 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 speaks the Abkhaz language and 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 2021 local elections that most residents in the ethnic Georgian district of Gali were Georgian passport holders 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, and only 16 of the 179 seats contested in the 2021 local elections were filled by women. Few politicians have participated in discussions about introducing legislative quotas to increase the presence of women in the parliament.

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. Despite Bzhania’s initial promises to pursue constitutional reforms that would shift some power from the executive branch to the parliament, no such change occurred in 2021.

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. One of these investigations resulted in the Sukhumi City Court sentencing a former official to a seven-year prison term in May 2021. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office alleged that a small number of doctors at one of Sukhumi’s hospitals had taken bribes and embezzled state funds and deployed a special forces unit to detain them. Opposition politicians and Abkhazian medical workers condemned the excessive force used to detain the doctors, accusing the chief prosecutor of ordering an unlawful police operation; the case remained unresolved 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 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 June 2021, after roughly two years of discussion, the parliament adopted legislation requiring all public officials and their close relatives to declare their income, property, and expenses. After the law came into force in July, the government published the declarations on an official website. Local activists questioned data in the declarations, which they said omitted information about the ownership of shares in private companies and expressed concern that local authorities would not be able to verify information about property and bank accounts registered outside of Abkhazia.

In 2021, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights released its second annual report on human rights conditions in Abkhazia. The report, which was presented to the parliament in March and published online in May, noted that law enforcement agencies continued to ignore the concerns the office raised, refused to provide complete and relevant information, and did not respond to requests in a timely manner. Despite earlier promises to use the work of the commissioner as the basis of planned law enforcement reform, the government pursued very little engagement with the office’s work in 2021 and refused to authorize the commissioner’s request for an increase in the office’s budget.

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. Though the Abkhazian Orthodox Church declared its separation from the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2009, its autonomy has not been officially recognized. In February 2021, Abkhaz Orthodox leaders temporarily suspended most religious services, saying that they would resume once the independent status of the church was confirmed by the Moscow Patriarchate. Services resumed several days later, but the autonomy of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church remained unrecognized by other Orthodox groups.

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 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. In June 2021, a Hare Krishna-run boarding school and education center was shut down following allegations that students were being sexually abused.

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 de facto government’s political priorities. Schools providing instruction in Russian, Abkhaz, 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 September 2021, teaching in Georgian was banned in Abkhazia, though it is still taught as a foreign language in many schools throughout the predominantly Georgian east.

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 Abkhaz flag during public celebrations marking the anniversary of the end of the 1992–93 war; he was sentenced to a nine-year prison term that December.

In March 2021, a young ethnic Abkhaz woman posted a short video in which she stated that “Abkhazia is Georgia.” The Interior Ministry launched an official investigation, interrogated the woman and her parents, and released footage of them apologizing and condemning the woman’s earlier statement. The same month, another video appeared of a local businessman, who had been a presidential advisor, in which he toasted Georgia during a trip to Tbilisi. The video provoked two days of street rallies in front of governmental headquarters, which ended after the man stated that he had not traveled to Tbilisi as a representative of the government.

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.

In December 2021, the authorities deployed both riot police and the army to prevent opposition protesters from violently taking over the parliament building during an antigovernment demonstration in Sukhumi. The rally had been organized in protest of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy crisis in Abkhazia, and the persecution of opposition members; the protesters demanded the resignation of President Bzhania. Despite the use of tear gas and batons, there were no reports of protesters or police being hospitalized; however, members of a television crew were injured. Although a criminal investigation was launched against the leaders of the protest, no opposition leaders were arrested by year’s end.

A similar opposition rally took place in March to protest against a former presidential advisor’s visit to Tbilisi. That protest ended without the use of force, but one of its organizers, Akhra Avidzba, was arrested. In June, Avidzba was found guilty of illegally possessing weapons, including grenade launchers; he was released after being given a fine and three years’ probation. Though some politicians suggested that Avidzba had planned to forcibly take over government headquarters, no related charges were filed.

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 is active. 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 by the end of 2021.

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 and typically have little say in policies or decisions made by the government or private businesses. Workers often rely on informal networks to settle disputes. In recent years the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of the Republic of Abkhazia (FNPRA) has clashed with the government over the distribution of social insurance funds. During the FNPRA’s May 2021 conference, union leaders criticized the government, saying that a lack of official support continues to negatively affect the federation’s work.

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.

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, 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 2021 report by the human rights commissioner’s office highlighted cases of alleged torture and mistreatment of detainees.

Organized crime remains a significant 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.

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. Local officials warned Gali Georgians against attempting to hold both passports.

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.

Beginning in 2011, the government facilitated the travel of hundreds of ethnic Abkhaz, Adyghe, and Circassian people from Syria to Abkhazia. Most of them reportedly soon left the region due to local economic problems, but a small number still lived in the territory at the end of 2021. Although all refugees were granted Abkhaz passports, they have maintained a distinct status as “repatriates” and still receive a monthly stipend from the government.

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 that had been closed in March 2020 reopened in February 2021 for the elderly, the poor, and people with health problems. In July, the crossings reopened for all other categories. Abkhazian authorities claimed that the closures had been necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; the crossings were opened for short periods during 2020 to allow essential travel and the return of local residents. Abkhazia’s border with Russia remained open throughout 2021.

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. In July 2021, the human rights commissioner filed an official request for the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of the law.

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 aid. 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 recent years, 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