Freedom in the World

Abkhazia *

Abkhazia *

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5
Ratings Change: 


Abkhazia's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, and its status from Not Free to Partly Free, due to increased political ferment and public engagement in the political process associated with the January 2005 re-run of the presidential election.
 

Overview: 


The year 2005 saw the completion of the presidential election process that had dragged through the winter of 2004. A drawn-out leadership struggle followed on the heels of a presidential election in October 2004, the first openly contested presidential vote in the breakaway republic. Former Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh won the presidency in a rerun of the election held in January 2005, in which Bagapsh and Raul Khajimba, campaigning on a joint ticket, garnered more than 90 percent of the vote. Over the course of 2005, efforts were made through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other intermediaries to advance a dialogue between Tbilisi and Sukhumi that could lead to a settlement on this frozen conflict.

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 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 of its troops out of the Kodori Gorge.

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 progovernment 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 Abkhaz, which is the official 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 postelection period at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005 descended into a volley of charges and countercharges between Bagapsh, whom elections officials declared to be the winner of the October 3 poll 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. When results in October 2004 showed that Bagapsh had defeated Khajimba, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Abkhazia. Under pressure from Moscow, Bagapsh and Khajimba agreed to a deal in which Khajimba and his opposition forces would support Bagapsh in return for a slot for Khajimba on the ticket. Bagapsh won the presidency in a re-run of the election held in January 2005 in which Bagapsh and Khajimba, campaigning on a joint ticket, garnered 91 percent of the vote. Turnout was 58 percent of the electorate, a higher than expected figure.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


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 agreement struck in December 2004 between Sergei Bagapsh and Raul Khajimba in advance of the January 2005 presidential elections rerun was to provide Khajimba's supporters the right to 40 percent of the positions in the future government, in the event that the Bagapsh-Khajimba ticket were successful. 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. Private television and radio stations are restricted in broadcasting news with political content. A good deal of Abkhazia's broadcasting infrastructure is poor, as much of it was destroyed during the civil war more than a decade ago.

Most nongovernmental organizations operating in Abkhazia rely on funding from outside the territory.

Defendants' limited access to qualified legal counsel, the 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 2005. In its resolution issued on July 29, 2005, extending the Georgian observer mission (UNOMIG) through January 31, 2006, the UN Security Council stressed "the urgent need for progress on the question of refugees and internally displaced persons."

The security environment in the Gali district, whose population is largely ethnic Georgian, deteriorated over the course of 2005. Robbery and extortion of money and property have become widespread occurrences. Local residents in the Gali district were denied access to education in their mother tongue, Georgian.

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 they fear 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.