Freedom in the World

Abkhazia *

Abkhazia *

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

5

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4
Overview: 

 

In May 2013, the authorities in Sukhumi suspended issuance of Abkhaz passports to residents of the predominantly ethnic Georgian district of Gali, yielding to fierce opposition criticism that warned of Abkhazia’s “Georgianization.” In June, the former ruling party United Abkhazia moved to the opposition, citing disappointment with President Aleksandr Ankvab’s policies and government spending.

Moscow continued to exert significant military and financial control over Abkhazia, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and budgetary support to the territory. Despite security concerns in the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which borders Abkhazia, no significant disruptions had been reported by year’s end.

At the end of 2013, only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific Island states of Nauru and Tuvalu recognized Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

 

Political Rights: 18 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 7 / 12

Abkhazia’s 1999 constitution established a presidential system, in which the president and vice president are elected for five-year terms. The parliament, or People’s Assembly, consists of 35 members elected for five-year terms from single-seat constituencies. Under the constitution, only ethnic Abkhaz can be elected to the presidency. The more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the region during the 1992–93 war—in which Abkhazia secured de facto independence—cannot vote in Abkhazia’s elections. None of Abkhazia’s elections have been recognized internationally.

In May 2011, Abkhaz president Sergey Bagapsh died unexpectedly after surgery, resulting in a snap August presidential election between Vice President Aleksandr Ankvab, Prime Minister Sergey Shamba, and former defense minister Raul Khadjimba. Amid 70 percent turnout, Ankvab won with 55 percent of the vote, followed by Shamba with 21 percent and Khadjimba with 19.5 percent. The election was considered genuinely competitive. Moscow did not publicly endorse a candidate, but all three promised to maintain strong ties with Russia.

The 2012 parliamentary elections marked a significant shift toward independents, who captured 28 of the 35 seats, compared with 4 for opposition parties and only 3 for the ruling United Abkhazia party. Six of the nine incumbents seeking reelection were defeated, including the outgoing speaker of parliament. Amid a low 44 percent turnout, only 13 candidates won majorities in the first round, requiring runoff votes for the remaining 22 seats.

 

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 7 / 16

Abkhazia’s opposition has grown stronger in recent years. In June 2013, United Abkhazia announced that it was moving into the opposition, citing “growing disappointment” with the policies of Ankvab’s government and concerns about high unemployment and ineffective use of funds from Russia. Khajimba, the opposition leader who orchestrated the move, had also spearheaded protests in Sukhumi in February after the government announced an increase in electricity and bread prices. In response to the relatively large protests, Ankvab agreed to raise prices by a fraction of the original amount.

Following a protracted public debate, the authorities suspended issuance of Abkhaz passports to Gali Georgians in May. The passports carry significant legal benefits, entitling residents to vote, own property, run a business, and obtain Russian citizenship and pensions. The Georgian government elected in 2012 adopted a softer policy toward Abkhazia, no longer discouraging Gali Georgians from seeking Abkhaz passports, and about 25,000 of them had received the documents. The Abkhaz opposition consequently argued that Ankvab’s government was allowing the “Georgianization” of Abkhazia. Meanwhile, Abkhaz authorities have reportedly seized Georgian passports from Gali residents in some cases.

 

C. Functioning of Government: 4 / 12

The ability of elected authorities in Abkhazia to set and implement policies is limited in practice by the influence of Moscow, which continues to exert significant military and economic control over the territory. This is a source of concern among both the Abkhaz leadership and the local population, who complain that a lack of international recognition has led to a growing dependence on Russia and an inability to diversify the economy.

Moscow has spent at least $465 million since 2008 to build or rehabilitate military infrastructure in Abkhazia, including the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus and a strategic naval base close to Tbilisi. According to Russian officials, roughly 5,000 Russian military and other security personnel are currently stationed in Abkhazia.

Moscow also provides direct budgetary support amounting to roughly a fifth of Abkhazia’s state budget, additional funds for aid projects and civilian infrastructure, and some $70 million annually in pension payments, as most Abkhaz residents hold Russian passports.

Corruption is believed to be extensive, and government officials are not required to provide declarations of income. In 2013, Russia’s Audit Chamber reported that only half of the aid funds allocated for 2010–12 had been spent, citing poor planning and oversight as well as noncompetitive contracting practices. In 2011 the Audit Chamber had accused the Abkhaz leadership of misappropriating $12 million in aid funds.

 

Civil Liberties: 22 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 8 / 16

Local broadcast media are largely controlled by the government, which operates the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company (AGTRK). In 2011, the authorities granted permission to Abaza, the sole independent television station, to expand its broadcast range and cover the entire territory. All the major Russian television stations also broadcast into Abkhazia. Facing persistent opposition complaints of progovernment bias at AGTRK, Ankvab in October 2011 fired its director, who had held his post for 15 years and was seen as an impediment to reform.

The print media are considered more influential, consisting of several weekly newspapers. The government publication Respublika Abkhazii competes with two main independent papers, Chegemskaya Pravda and Novaya Gazeta, which are openly critical of government policies.

Internet access has increased since 2008, with over a quarter of the population believed to be online. Some legal restrictions apply to both traditional and online media, including criminal libel statutes.

Religious freedom in Abkhazia is affected by the political situation. In 2011, the Abkhaz Orthodox Church split into two factions; while both officially support autocephaly, or independence, for the Abkhaz church, the newer faction accused the established leadership of acquiescing to de facto control by the Russian Orthodox Church. Outside Abkhazia, the territory is still formally considered to be in the Georgian Orthodox Church’s jurisdiction. Debate over the church’s status continued in 2013, with a poll showing that the majority of Abkhaz support the newer faction.

Abkhazia’s Muslims, who make up about 30 percent of the population, are allowed to practice freely, though a series of murders and assassination attempts have targeted local religious leaders in recent years. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to practice openly, but they were banned by a 1995 decree and have recently reported increased pressure from local authorities. In March 2012, a Witness prayer building was attacked with a grenade, causing property damage but no deaths.

The Abkhaz constitution offers some protection for education in minority languages. Armenian-language schools generally operate without interference, but Gali’s schools are officially allowed to offer instruction only in Russian or Abkhaz. While Georgian is often used in these schools in practice, enforcement by the authorities has reportedly been on the rise. Some ethnic Georgian students regularly travel to Georgian-controlled territory to attend classes. Ethnic Georgian residents without Abkhaz passports are restricted from attending Sukhumi State University.

 

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 5 / 12

Freedom of assembly is somewhat limited, but the opposition and civil society groups mounted regular protests in 2013. Although most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rely on funding from outside the territory, the NGO sector exerts significant influence on government policies.

 

F. Rule of Law: 4 / 16

The judicial code is based on Russia’s, and the criminal justice system suffers from chronic problems including limited defendant access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and lengthy pretrial detentions. Local NGOs have petitioned for significant judicial reform.

Gali’s ethnic Georgian residents continue to suffer from widespread poverty and undefined legal status within Abkhazia, though the security situation in Gali is reported to have improved considerably following an increase in violence over the previous two years, during which eight Abkhaz officials and one Russian soldier were killed, according to Abkhaz sources. In September 2013, a Russian consulate official was shot dead in Sukhumi by an unknown attacker. The new Georgian government has reportedly disbanded covert Georgian paramilitary units stationed in Gali.

 

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 5 / 16

Travel and choice of residence are limited by the ongoing separatist dispute. Most ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the early 1990s live in Tbilisi and western Georgia. As many as 47,000 former Gali residents have returned to Abkhazia since 1994, with an additional 5,000 who commute between Abkhazia and Georgia. The process of obtaining travel permits remains expensive and burdensome, and travel has become more difficult since Russian border guards closed the administrative line between Abkhazia and Georgia and took control of the sole official crossing point in 2012.

About 90 percent of Abkhazia’s residents hold Russian passports, as Abkhaz travel documents are not internationally recognized. However, since the 2008 war, ethnic Abkhaz have had greater difficulty receiving visas to travel abroad, including to the United States and European Union countries.

Equality of opportunity and normal business activities are limited by corruption, criminal organizations, and economic reliance on Russia, which accounts for nearly all foreign investment.

Under a law preventing foreigners from buying Abkhaz property, ethnic Russians have been barred from acquiring residences in the territory, and some have reported that their homes have been confiscated.

A strong NGO sector has contributed to women’s involvement in business and civil society. However, Abkhaz women complain of being underrepresented in government positions, holding only one of the 35 legislative seats.

 

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology