Freedom in the World 2003 - Abkhazia [Georgia]

Polity: Presidential
Population: 280,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Muslim (majority)
Ethnic Groups: Abkhaz (majority)

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free


A decade after fighting erupted between Georgian governmental troops and separatist forces in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, no substantial progress has been made on finding a lasting settlement to the conflict. Abkhaz officials rejected the latest UN proposal to advance peace talks, while the Kodori Gorge region remained a source of tension during much of the year. In March elections to the territory's parliament, deputies loyal to Abkhazia's president won all of the seats in the legislature.

Annexed by Russia in 1864, Abkhazia became an autonomous republic of Soviet Georgia in 1930. The year following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia declared its independence from Tbilisi, igniting a war between Abkhaz secessionists and Georgian troops 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, the incumbent, Vladislav Ardzinba, was the only candidate running for office; his inauguration ceremony was held in the capital, Sukhumi, in December. 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.

A series of violent incidents in late 2001 underscored the precariousness of the region's fragile peace. In October, a group reportedly consisting of Chechen rebels and Georgian partisans clashed with Abkhaz troops following a deadly raid on a village in the Kodori Gorge, a partly Georgian-controlled area located in Abkhazia. 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.

Tensions in Kodori continued in 2002, despite a UN-brokered protocol signed by Russia and Georgia on April 2 that called for the withdrawal of Georgian forces by April 10, and the resumption of joint patrols by Russian peacekeepers and UN observers. On April 12, Russia dispatched a group of soldiers to Kodori in what it called a peacekeeping operation. After protests from Georgian and UN officials, who had not been notified in advance of the troop deployment, Russia withdrew the soldiers the following day. In August, Georgian and Abkhaz forces engaged in a brief exchange of gunfire, although no casualties were reported. During the year, Abkhaz officials insisted that Georgia had not withdrawn all its troops from Kodori, while Georgian authorities countered that the protocol did not require the withdrawal of other military detachments, including border guards.

In the March 2002 parliamentary elections, deputies loyal to Ardzinba won a landslide victory when the two opposition parties – Revival and the People's Party – withdrew most of their candidates in protest over the conduct of the campaign. Officially backed candidates won all 35 seats in the legislature and 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 pro-government candidates and attacked the opposition, and that the head of the Central Election Commission had disqualified a number of candidates supported by the opposition. As in previous elections in Abkhazia, the international community declared the elections to be illegitimate.

By the end of the year, UN efforts to advance peace negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi remained stalled over the main issue of the region's final political status. In early 2002, the United Nations endorsed a document by then UN special representative for Georgia, Dieter Boden, called "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi." Abkhaz authorities refused during the year to begin discussions on the so-called Boden plan, which is intended to be a starting point for talks between Abkhazia and Georgia, because it calls for substantial autonomy for Abkhazia within the Georgian state. While Tbilisi maintains that Abkhazia must remain a constituent part of Georgia, Sukhumi continues to insist on the territory's independence from Georgia, a status that has not been recognized by the international community. Strained relations between Georgia and Russia, which at times has supported the Boden plan, further hurt the peace process; relations worsened during 2002 over Russian accusations that Georgia allowed Chechen rebels to operate in Georgian territory. Some analysts speculated that the sudden dismissal in December of the region's prime minister, Anri Djergenia, and the reported ill health of President Ardzinba could further complicate efforts for future peace talks.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Residents of Abkhazia can elect government officials, but the more than 200,000 displaced Georgians who fled 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 almost complete control of the region. The ethnic Georgian Abkhazian Supreme Council has been a government in exile in Tbilisi since being expelled from Abkhazia in 1993.

Several independent newspapers are published in the territory. Electronic media are controlled by the state and generally reflect government positions.

Freedom of religion is respected for Muslims, but Christian Georgians and Armenians face discrimination. President Vladislav Ardzinba issued a decree in 1995 banning Jehovah's Witnesses. Abkhazia's Education Ministry announced in September a rule prohibiting instruction in the Georgian language in the territory's schools, the 2002 U.S. State Department's human rights report for Georgia stated. Local residents in the Gali district, whose population is largely ethnic Georgian, were denied access to education in their mother tongue. Most nongovernmental organizations operating in Abkhazia rely on funding from outside the territory.

Systemic problems in the territory's criminal justice system include the failure to conduct impartial investigations and to bring alleged perpetrators to justice, according to the 2002 U.S. State Department report. Other areas of concern include defendants' limited access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and the length of pretrial detentions. In July, an independent legal aid office in the Gali district began providing free legal advice to the public. A report by the UN secretary-general on the situation in Abkhazia noted a number of cases of abuse of power and arbitrary detention by local law enforcement agencies during two search-and-arrest operations in Gali in November and December.

Personal security in the conflict zone continued to be a serious concern in 2002. The 1994 ceasefire has been tenuous, with abductions, bombings, and killings occurring throughout the year. Since the cease-fire, an unarmed, 108-member UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) has been stationed to monitor the cease-fire and attempt to resolve violations, and a 1,800-strong Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping force, dominated by Russian troops, has patrolled the region. Despite denials from Moscow, Georgia has accused Russian peacekeepers of supporting the Abkhaz separatists.

Travel and choice of residence are limited by the ongoing conflict. Close to 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 (IDPs) are unable or unwilling to return because of the continued absence of a political agreement on their repatriation and fears for their safety. Hundreds of IDPs held demonstrations during the year, including a blockade of the main bridge over the Inguri River that separates Abkhazia from Georgia proper. The protestors called for the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force and a return to their homes.

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; the territory uses the Russian ruble as its currency, and many residents earn income by trading citrus fruits across the border in Russia.

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