Abkhazia* | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Abkhazia*

Abkhazia*

Partly Free
41/100
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. 

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In January, a parliamentary commission declined to make any legal assessment of President Raul Khajimba’s controversial December 2017 decision to pardon a Georgian guerrilla leader as part of a prisoner exchange involving Georgia and the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Opposition critics of the pardon said it was illegal and called for Khajimba’s resignation. The parliamentary commission referred the matter to the Constitutional Court, which had yet to rule on it at year’s end.
  • In May, the Syrian government recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Damascus.
  • In August, the Bloc of Opposition Forces, the Union of Civic and Political Organizations, and the veterans’ party Amtsakhara joined together to create the National Movement for the Protection of Statehood, accusing Khajimba and his government of jeopardizing Abkhazia’s de facto sovereignty and calling for his resignation.
  • Gennadiy Gagulia, who had been appointed as prime minister in April, was killed in a car crash in September. Valeriy Bganba was appointed to replace him.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 18 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 6 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

Abkhazia’s 1999 constitution established a presidential system, in which the president and vice president are elected for five-year terms. The prime minister and cabinet are appointed by and accountable to the president.

A snap presidential election was held in 2014 after incumbent Aleksandr Ankvab resigned amid protests. While most established election monitors do not assess Abkhazia’s elections, informal observations indicated that the balloting was largely peaceful and transparent. In a field of four candidates, Raul Khajimba won with 51 percent of the vote, followed by former security head Aslan Bzhania with 36 percent.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4

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 some 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 of the 35 lawmakers were considered supporters of the president, as was the new speaker, Valeriy Kvarchia.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

The legal framework does not support fully democratic elections. Eight members of the Central Election Commission are chosen by the parliament, and seven are appointed by the president. Although the 2017 elections were quite competitive, all elections are predicated on the exclusion of ethnic Georgians.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 8 / 16

B1.      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 / 4

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 Georgia 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 elections, 112 of 137 candidates ran as independents.                

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4

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. In addition, despite initial fears that the Central Election Commission would refuse to register his candidacy, ousted president Aleksandr Ankvab returned to politics and gained a seat in the parliament.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4

While the people’s choices influence domestic politics, the functioning of Abkhazia’s political institutions is almost entirely dependent on economic and political support from Moscow.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

Under the constitution, only a person of Abkhaz nationality who is a citizen of Abkhazia can be elected to the presidency. Ethnic Abkhaz dominate the political sphere; of the 35 members of the territory’s parliament, 31 have Abkhaz surnames, three are Armenians, and one is part Georgian. The Armenian and Russian communities traditionally have an informal agreement whereby parties nominate ethnic minority candidates in districts where they predominate. The ethnic Georgian population is routinely excluded from elections and political representation. In 2017, authorities argued that the majority of Gali’s residents were Georgian citizens and therefore not permitted to vote.

A handful of cabinet-level positions are held by women, and there is one female member of the parliament. Societal norms discourage women from running for office.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4

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-Abkhaz treaty, with critics arguing that some of its provisions threaten Abkhazia’s autonomy. In one sign of Russian dominance in the security sector, Vasiliy Lunev, a career Russian military officer and former defense minister of South Ossetia, was appointed as chief of the general staff of the Abkhazian armed forces, succeeding another career Russian officer, Anatoliy Khrulyov.

In addition to foreign influence, Abkhazia’s government is affected by a pattern of political instability. With the September 2018 appointment of Valeriy Bganba as prime minister, the administration had gone through five confirmed premiers in just four years.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4

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 at the large-scale embezzlement of funds provided by Moscow.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Legal amendments from 2015 allow citizens to request information about any government decisions 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. Government officials are not required to provide declarations of income. In July 2018, a local civic anticorruption initiative proposed a bill to the parliament that would require all public officials to prove the legality and origin of their property and that of their close relatives. The parliament had yet to take up the bill at year’s end.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 23 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 8 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Broadcast media are largely controlled by the government, which operates the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company (AGTRK). Abkhaz journalists have criticized AGTRK for failing to air material that could be perceived as unflattering to the government. Two state-owned newspapers compete with privately owned papers. The internet 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 channels. Local outlets have difficulty competing with Russian media.

Some legal restrictions apply to both traditional and online media, including criminal libel statutes. In September 2018, a court sided with lawmaker and former interior minister Raul Lolua in his defamation suit against the editor of Nuzhnaya Gazeta, Izida Chania, after she criticized him in a number of articles, including an entry in her Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) blog. The Supreme Court began considering Chania’s appeal in December, and it rejected an attempt by the plaintiff to prevent a journalist with RFE/RL from covering the trial on the grounds that it was not an accredited news outlet in Abkhazia.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Abkhazia, but the Georgian Orthodox Church faces discrimination and restrictions. Most practicing Christians adhere to one of the branches of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church.

Muslims are allowed to practice freely, though some community leaders have been attacked in the past. There are no widely reported restrictions on the minority who identify with Abkhazia’s traditional pre-Christian religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned by a 1995 decree.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

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.

Universities in the capital have recently become more lenient about the enrollment of Gali Georgians without 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 ethnic minorities.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Social media have become vibrant platforms for discussion on political and other topics. However, there is some self-censorship on sensitive subjects, especially those relating to Georgians in Abkhazia and relations with Tbilisi.

In July 2018, the parliament approved a draft law in the first reading that would prescribe up to 15 years’ imprisonment for vaguely defined “actions against the sovereignty of Abkhazia.” Observers expressed concerns that the bill, if it were to win final passage and be enacted into law, could have negative repercussions for freedom of speech.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4

Freedom of assembly is largely respected, and opposition and civil society groups regularly mount protests. Although violent confrontations between police and protesters have occurred in the past, demonstrations demanding Khajimba’s resignation were held without incident outside government buildings during 2018.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4

Civil society organizations, particularly groups representing Abkhazia’s war veterans, exert influence on government policies. Several hundred nongovernmental organizations (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 governments or entities that do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence face criticism from local journalists and authorities.

In March 2018, the parliament elected Asida Shakryl as Abkhazia’s commissioner for human rights, or ombudsperson. The institution had been created by a 2016 law, but it had lacked funding to operate. The commissioner’s office formally opened in November 2018.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

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 distribution of social insurance funds. In November 2018, trade union leaders threatened to organize mass protests in 2019 if officials did not meet their demands.

F. RULE OF LAW: 4 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

Nepotism and corruption, often based on clan and ethnic ties, reportedly have a significant impact on Abkhazia’s judiciary. Implementation of judicial decisions remains inconsistent.

The president’s December 2017 pardon of Giorgi Lukava, a Georgian guerrilla leader who fought against the separatist authorities and had been 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 Khajimba made the decision unilaterally without the approval of the pardons commission. In January 2018, a parliamentary commission examining the matter declined to make any legal assessment and referred it instead to the Constitutional Court. The court had yet to issue a ruling at year’s end, partly because disputes between the president and the parliamentary opposition had led to vacancies on the tribunal.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

The criminal justice system is undermined by limited defendant access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and lengthy pretrial detentions.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4

Isolated acts of criminal and political violence occur in Abkhazia, and many observers have indicated that crime is increasing. Among other reported incidents, at least two Russian businessmen and the captain of a Turkish ship were kidnapped and later released under unclear circumstances during 2018.

Although there is a long-standing moratorium on use of the death penalty, capital punishment remains a feature of the law. In July 2018, the parliament gave initial approval to legislation that would impose the death penalty for distribution of illegal drugs. It had yet to win final approval at year’s end.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Ethnic Georgian residents of the Gali region 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 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 the residency permits.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people do not enjoy comprehensive legal protections.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 5 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4

Freedom of movement is limited by the ongoing dispute over Abkhazia’s status. Travel permits remain expensive and burdensome to obtain. About 90 percent of Abkhazia’s residents hold Russian passports, as Abkhaz travel documents are not internationally recognized.

In 2017, separatist authorities closed two pedestrian crossing points over the Inguri River into territory controlled by the Georgian government, leaving just two such crossings. The move made it more difficult for residents of border villages to obtain services and engage in economic activity on the other side of the de facto boundary.

The September 2018 death of Prime Minister Gennadiy Gagulia in a car crash drew attention to the territory’s exceptionally poor record on road safety, which stems in part from corruption and impunity for violations.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

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.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

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.

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.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

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.

In 2017, Abkhazia introduced a new labor code that makes employment contracts compulsory and prescribes fines for employers who violate workers’ rights. However, observers reported that not all workers were aware of their new rights, and implementation of the code was incomplete.

NGOs have expressed concern about human trafficking in Abkhazia.

Explanatory Note: 

*Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.