Moscow Wins from the New Socio-Economic Deal with Sokhumi

In November 2020, Sokhumi signed a program on the “formation of common social and economic space” with Moscow, envisaging harmonization of the Abkhaz ‘laws’ with the legislation of the Russian Federation. The agreement gave a rare occasion for Sokhumi and Tbilisi-based experts and civil activists to concur – the document further curtails the already minimal self-rule in the occupied region.

What is it all about?

After the publication of the document, many observers in Abkhazia felt that rather than seeking to adjust and harmonize Abkhaz and Russian legislation, the plan was to merely replicate the Russian laws for occupied Abkhazia. The impression was that Moscow simply tries to make its life easier in Abkhazia by transposing its legislation, while gradually seizing all the crucial political and economic levers.

The 45-point document came promptly after the lengthy meeting between the Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in November, where the parties reportedly discussed a number of socio-political issues, including the possible formation of “a certain form of a union” with Russia.

Tbilisi says the new document is “a destructive step” towards “formal annexation” of the Georgian territories. But some in Sokhumi fear losing their “sovereignty”, with key concerns revolving around two issues.

One relates to double citizenship. The second paragraph in the document says that Sokhumi and Moscow should “develop and sign an agreement on the settlement of dual citizenship issue”. While most of the Abkhaz already have Russian citizenship, they fear that allowing Russians to also get Abkhaz “passports” would open the way towards Russian ethnic domination. Not only ethnic Russians may move to their new homeland, depopulated after the 1990s war and the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, but they could also buy property – leaving the Abkhaz dispossessed in their own land.

Another hotly contested topic has to do with energy security. The document says that Sokhumi should pass the legislation to “attract Russian energy companies in development and modernization of the power infrastructure.” This one of the crucial points of the agreement was understood among a substantial part of Abkhaz civil society as Moscow’s attempt to fully capture the energy sector of the region.

As the document is currently being fleshed out, approached Sokhumi-based, Tbilisi-based, and international experts to comment.

Opinions from Sokhumi

Too Much Russia

Izida Chania, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Ekho Kavkaza, asks “why is it necessary to sign the Russian-Abkhaz program to pass the laws essential for Abkhazia?” She says independent lawmaking is a hallmark of the free country, and if Abkhaz people and political elites are ready to give that up, then “let’s stop pretending statehood and announce that we are joining Russia”.

Although somewhat more positive about the document, economist Akhra Aristava also admits it tramples upon the interests of the Abkhaz side, including in the areas of energy, taxation, and customs issues. He thinks many paragraphs of the document need to be clarified to redress these problems. He sats the 2014 treaty between Sokhumi and Moscow, proclaims the principle of non-interference in each other’s affairs, which must be respected in any new agreement.

“We need to have our own development plan – short-term, medium-term, and long-term,” says Aristava,  “and then it will be much easier to negotiate with Russia. If you don’t have a plan of your own, you become part of someone else’s plan”.

Not a ‘Harmonization’

Abkhaz experts mostly agree that the socio-economic agreement is not a “harmonization” of the laws, but a transposition – duplication of the Russian legislation to create a fertile ground for Russian political and business interests. This goes against the formal objective proclaimed by the document to “defend Russo-Abkhaz interests,” the experts argue.

Ex-deputy of the Abkhaz ‘parliament’ Akhra Bzhania has been critical of the document since its publication, stating it amounts to wholesale replacement of the Abkhaz legislation with the Russian one. He told that a significant part of its provisions are not useful for Abkhaz-Russian relations, nor they are realistic to implement. For Bzhania, “a single socio-economic space” would be “thrilling” for Abkhazia if it took shape in the frames of a multilateral, inter-state agreement, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU, a Russian led socio-economic alliance), “but obviously there is still a long way to go” towards that kind of thinking, he notes regretfully.

Energy sector privatization

Yet another controversial element of the new agreement is that it would see Abkhazia revise its policy that prohibits privatization of the large hydropower plants. Local observers note, that ironically, Moscow asks Abkhazia to move towards privatization, while Russia itself is moving towards nationalization of energy assets. Izida Chania calls this “energy robbery”.

The opposition deputy at the legislature, Natalie Smyr tells us that the nation, which is ready to sell everything “is doomed”. Smyr would like to make a provision that would ban selling the energy networks with a capacity of generating and transmitting more than five megawatts. She feels these shall remain state-owned, ensuring its energy independence. Smyr also argues that privatization will lead to electricity price hikes for consumers: “We will be obliged to buy electricity from them [private investors] at the market price. I am saddened that we are leaving ourselves, our future without any hope, without any assets,” she laments.

Dual Citizenship

Moscow has been long trying to allow its citizens to get Abkhaz citizenship, but locals say, holding an Abkhaz passport can only be attractive for Russians if they could buy the property and skew elections. They claim the adoption of this law would let Russian citizens with no ties to the region elect the President of Abkhazia, while the real estate prices will soar, leaving the local, Abkhaz population dispossessed.

Akhra Bzhania is against granting Russians the right to get Abkhaz citizenship, the issue that has been weighing on the Russo-Abkhazian political agenda since 2014. He says the matter can only be revisited when and if “Abkhazia improves its demographic situation.”

“People who believe that Abkhazia should follow its sovereign path should have the majority here, and our legislation on citizenship takes into account these national characteristics of ours,” Bzhania says.

Opinions from Tbilisi

From Occupation to Annexation

Former Georgian Minister for Reconciliation, Paata Zakareishvili tells that the agreement signed between Sokhumi and Moscow is “clearly an annexation document”. In his view, Russia tries to fully control the region by seizing and readjusting the Abkhaz legislation. The expert says that the Abkhaz society reacted to the document very negatively, as its practically every aspect is designed to suit Russian interests – at Abkhazia’s expense.

“This document practically transforms Abkhazia into one of the Russian North Caucasus federal districts, with imaginary ‘independence and sovereignty’,” Zakareishvili asserts.

He does not also exclude the possibility of actual territorial annexation of Abkhazia by Russia. “If Russia annexed Crimea, why would it refrain from annexing Abkhazia?” the scholar asks rhetorically but adds that the Abkhaz people, would oppose such a development. In his mind, there is a security development that draws Russia’s attention closer to Abkhazia, as concerns about the Black Sea Security are becoming one of the pivotal issues for the West and the NATO.

Nino Kalandarishvili of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts, a Georgian think-tank, agrees with Zakareishvili that the socio-economic agreement puts the already minimal provisions of political and economic self-rule under “serious question.” Kalandarishvili considers the actual annexation impossible, however, quoting the deeply seated rejection of such a move by the Abkhaz public. This, however, should not be interpreted in Tbilisi as meaning that Sokhumi’s willingness to cooperate with the Georgian authorities increases, Kalandarishvili warns.

Tbilisi’s Policy

Kalandarishvili tells us that the financial aspects of the document may extinguish the ability of Abkhazia to independently carry out economic activities, and bring the territory more tangibly under Russian control – not only militarily, but in terms of ownership. She believes Tbilisi should take bolder steps: create additional economic ties with Sokhumi, simplify doing business in Georgia proper for people from Abkhazia.

“It would be effective as well if Tbilisi created opportunities for Abkhaz youth to receive education in the West,” Kalandarishvili tells us, adding that she advocates “more Europe” through Tbilisi in Abkhazia.

Zakareishvili agrees that Tbilisi should act “more decisively”. In his view, Tbilisi must propose attractive alternatives to the Russian agreement. Zakareishvili says Georgia should develop an alternative economic cooperation document for the eyes of the Abkhaz society, offering Sokhumi everything that Moscow takes from them.

“There are fears [in Abkhazia] that Russia is taking over the entire customs system, tax system, production, education, copyright, school curricula, and education, and lots of other important and minor issues: geodesy, cartography, pensions, donors, etc,” Zakareishvili explains, adding that these concerns shall ask as a blueprint when Georgia revises its policy towards the occupied regions.

What now?

Olesya Vartanyan, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for the South Caucasus believes that the document is qualitatively different from the past iterations, which mostly dealt with security cooperation. This time, she says, incorporation of Abkhazia will happen “through a more sophisticated process, through the back door”.

Vartanyan believes that even though several points are problematic for Sokhumi, many other paragraphs are very much in their interest. “In fact, they are of urgent importance: in addition to the shortage of electricity, the text provides fixes to the Russian-Abkhaz cooperation in the healthcare system, which was agreed years ago, but never made it really into life. The ongoing pandemic clearly demonstrated the poor shape of the local healthcare system,” Vartanyan underscores.

The dependence of Sokhumi on Russian financial and health assistance has further increased in the times of Corona-related crisis, with the occupied region heavily suffering from the lack of medical resources. The aggravated energy crisis poses yet another risk that Russia might become not just the main political patron of the region, but the only supplier of the basic needs to Abkhaz society.

Through the controversial document, Moscow evidently aims to gradually eliminate all the technical and legal obstacles for further integration of Sokhumi into the Russian space. Meanwhile, the local regime preliminary prepares the ground in the Abkhaz society by bringing up the subject of “a certain form of the union” with Russia. As this topic sinks into the Abkhaz public discourse, the Kremlin prepares its next steps.

The past experience shows, that forcing the hand of the Abkhaz leadership is not sufficient – the Abkhaz society has already resisted direct diktat from Moscow. To win hearts and minds, the Sokhumi authorities now often bring out the “Nagorno-Karabakh card” as a bogeyman to convince the population that Tbilisi’s fresh “aggression” can not be excluded.

While Abkhazia struggles with the devastating consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, visits of the Abkhaz officials to Moscow intensify and the commissions are already working to chart the ways towards implementation of the documents’ various provisions, that clearly serve the Kremlin’s interest.