Abkhaz Leaders at Odds over Restoring Travel to Russia
On August 3, Alexander Ankvab, prime minister of Kremlin-backed Abkhazia, called on several Abkhaz health executives, concerned by the region’s instant and unconditional reopening to the Russian Federation, to “resign immediately.”
In a starkly worded message, Ankvab slammed the health ministry and ad hoc coronavirus task force representatives, including deputy ministers Alkhas Konjaria and Alisa Ardzinba for disseminating “provocative” and “panicky” statements.
Ankvab’s anger followed the August 2 emergency meeting of Abkhaz medics and health ministry representatives over the abrupt resumption of travel between Sokhumi and Moscow a day earlier.
Deputy minister Konjaria, who attended the meeting, reportedly said that the reopening with Russia “came as a surprise.”
Konjaria expressed his discontent that restoring travel took place instantly, without coming up with reopening stages. He noted that coronavirus task force earlier considered reopening stage by stage, with those seeking to visit the region having to present medical certificates of being virus-free.
“We had an outbreak among the local population even before the opening of the border and the Gudauta hospital [Abkhazia’s main medical facility treating COVID patients] begins to fill up. Every day we identify about 8-10 new patients; at this stage, we know that it will be extremely difficult to cope with such a flow of patients, and if we add to our population those who arrive [from Russia], we will simply choke up the system and won’t be able to provide assistance to either to our citizens or anyone else [who might require it], ” Konjaria added.
At the controversial meeting, Alkhas Jinjolia, Abkhaz deputy who is also a member of the coronavirus task force, agreed that restrictive measures were needed on Psou crossing point, which links the region to the Russian Federation.
Responding to the emergency meeting participants, Ankvab said coronavirus task force members had long been aware of the Abkhaz leadership’s plea to the Russian authorities to restore travel.
Ankvab then maintained that “objective difficulties” in the Abkhaz healthcare system and its lack of readiness to tackle pandemic challenges was not “sensational news.” “If the existing state of affairs [in healthcare system] was a novelty for some leaders, then the conclusion can be one – they are bad leaders who do not know where they are and who they are working as,” Abkhaz prime minister stressed.
Responding to Ankvab, deputy minister Konjaria said on August 3 the health ministry is not against the reopening. “[During August 2 meeting] we only discussed strict adherence to all epidemiological rules and regulations, strengthening resources in the Gudauta hospital and cooperation with Russian colleagues,” noted Konjaria.
COVID-19 crisis and related closure have had a knock-on effect on Abkhazia’s economy, which largely depends on income from tourism and agriculture. In early June, Aslan Bzhania, Abkhaz leader noted that Russia, region’s chief financial benefactor, has withheld aid for infrastructure projects for six months’ time, resulting in a raft of projects being stalled or delayed.
Both Sokhumi and Moscow unconditionally opened Psou crossing point, the only road connection between occupied Abkhazia and Russia, on August 1, after four months of closure.
In the meantime, since mid-March Abkhaz authorities maintain closure on the Enguri crossing point, connecting the region to Georgia proper.
To date, Abkhazia has confirmed a total of 98 coronavirus cases, of which 37 patients have recovered and three died. The region recently experienced a spike in cases with 60 patients having tested COVID-positive since July 21.
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