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The breakaway republic of Abkhazia experienced a tumultuous year in 2004, including the murder of a leading opposition figure, Garri Aiba. A drawn out leadership struggle followed on the heels of an intensely contested presidential election in October, the first openly contested presidential vote in the breakaway republic. Meanwhile, a final resolution to the longstanding conflict remained elusive throughout the year.
Annexed by Russia in 1864, Abkhazia became an autonomous republic of Soviet Georgia in 1930. The year after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia, igniting a war that lasted nearly 14 months. In September 1993, Abkhaz forces, with covert assistance from Russia, seized control of the city of Sukhumi, ultimately defeating the Georgian army and winning de facto independence for the territory. As a result of the conflict, more than 200,000 residents, mostly ethnic Georgians, fled Abkhazia, while casualty figures were estimated in the thousands. An internationally brokered ceasefire was signed in Moscow in 1994, although a final decision on the territory's status remains unresolved.
In the October 1999 elections for president of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, the incumbent and the only candidate running for office, was reelected. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and other international organizations refused to recognize the vote as legitimate. In a concurrent referendum on independence, the results of which were not accepted by any state, a reported 98 percent of voters supported independence for Abkhazia. Georgia denounced the polls as illegal and as an attempt to sabotage peace talks.
Tensions in the Kodori Gorge, an area controlled partly by Georgia and partly by Abkhazia, underscored the precariousness of the region's fragile peace. In October 2001, a group reportedly consisting of Chechen rebels and Georgian partisans clashed with Abkhaz troops following a deadly raid on a village in the gorge. The downing of a UN helicopter and the bombing of several Abkhaz villages by aircraft that Georgian authorities alleged had come from Russia intensified the conflict. Tbilisi responded by sending troops to the upper part of the gorge in what it said was an operation to protect ethnic Georgians living there from separatist attacks. Abkhaz officials insisted that despite a UN-brokered protocol calling for the withdrawal of Georgian forces, which was signed by Russia and Georgia in 2002, Georgia had not pulled all its troops out of the Kodori Gorge. Georgian authorities countered that the protocol did not require the withdrawal of other military detachments, including border guards.
Deputies loyal to Ardzinba won a landslide victory in the March 2002 parliamentary elections when the opposition Revival and People's Party withdrew most of its candidates in protest over the conduct of the campaign. Officially backed candidates, who won all 35 seats in the legislature, ran unopposed for 13 of them. Among the problems cited during the elections were that ethnic Georgians displaced by the war were not able to vote, official radio and television promoted pro-government candidates, and the head of the Central Election Commission had disqualified a number of candidates supported by the opposition. As it had for previous elections in Abkhazia, the international community declared the elections to be illegitimate.
On April 8, 2003, after just four months in office, the government of Prime Minister Gennady Gagulia, who had developed a reputation for political weakness and inefficiency, resigned. Gagulia stepped down following pressure from Amtsakhara, an increasingly powerful opposition political movement representing primarily veterans of the 1992-1993 war, which had threatened to organize a mass rally if he remained in office. On April 22, Defense Minister Raul Khajimba was named to succeed Gagulia as prime minister. Subsequently, Amtsakhara also called on Ardzinba to resign as president because of his poor health; Ardzinba, who was undergoing medical treatment in Moscow for an undisclosed illness and who was no longer actively involved in the daily running of the government, insisted that he had no intention of stepping down before the next presidential election, on October 3, 2004.
In advance of the presidential poll, a new political movement, called United Abkhazia (Yedinaya Abkhazia) took shape, with the hope of putting forward a single opposition candidate. However, all three of the new movement's leaders became presidential candidates: Sergei Shamba, the Abkhaz foreign minister; Nodar Khashba, a senior official in Russia's emergencies ministries; and Sergei Bagapsh, a former prime minister. The Central Election Commission barred one of the leading contenders, Alexander Ankvab, for allegedly failing to meet the residency requirement for presidential candidates. The commission also cited his refusal to take a full language test to evaluate his command of the state language of the Abkhaz Republic. Ankvab, who was the breakaway republic's interior minister during the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, has been among the most prominent opponents of President Ardzinba.
The post-election period descended into a volley of charges and counter-charges between Bagapsh, whom elections officials declared to be the winner of the October 3 vote with 50.08 percent of the vote - more than the 50 percent threshold needed to avert a second-round runoff - and Khajimba, who had the backing of the Ardzinba administration, as well as that of Moscow. Meanwhile, outgoing president Ardzinba, who had handpicked Khajimba as his successor, refused to leave office, contesting Bagapsh's apparent victory. As of November 30, a clear solution for the dispute had not been realized.
Residents of Abkhazia can elect government officials, but the more than 200,000 displaced Georgians who fled the region during the war in the early to mid-1990s could not vote in the October 1999 presidential, March 2001 local, or March 2002 parliamentary elections. International organizations, including the OSCE, as well as the Georgian government, criticized the polls as illegitimate. Although the November 1994 constitution established a presidential-parliamentary system of government, the president exercises extensive control of the region.
The ethnic Georgian Abkhazian Supreme Council has been a government in exile in Tbilisi since being expelled from Abkhazia in 1993.
Opposition political parties include Aitara (Revival). Amtsakhara, a political group representing primarily veterans of the 1992 - 1993 war, has become a growing force in the territory's political life.
Several independent newspapers are published in the territory. Electronic media are controlled by the state and generally reflect government positions.
Reliable information on freedom of religion is difficult to obtain. Although a presidential decree bans Jehovah's Witnesses and members have been detained by the authorities in recent years, none were in detention at year's end, according to a representative of the group. Abkhazia's Ministry of Education prohibits instruction in the Georgian language in the territory's schools, the 2003 U.S. State Department's human rights report for Georgia stated. Local residents in the Gali district, whose population is largely ethnic Georgian, were denied access to education in their mother tongue.
Most nongovernmental organizations operating in Abkhazia rely on funding from outside the territory.
Defendants' limited access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and the lengthiness of pretrial detentions are among the systemic problems in the territory's criminal justice system.
The human rights and humanitarian situation in Abkhazia continued to be a serious problem in 2004. A UN Security Council report issued on July 14, 2004, stated, "The precarious human rights situation ... showed no signs of improvement. The rule of law, the administration of justice, as well as law enforcement mechanisms remained weak and did not provide adequate protection of the right to life and physical security."
Travel and choice of residence are limited by the ongoing conflict. Approximately 200,000 ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the early 1990s are living in western Georgia, most in the Zugdidi district bordering Abkhazia. Most of these internally displaced persons are unable or unwilling to return because of fears for their safety.
Equality of opportunity and normal business activities are limited by widespread corruption, the control by criminal organizations of large segments of the economy, and the continuing effects of the war. Abkhazia's economy is heavily reliant on Russia; the territory uses the Russian ruble as its currency.