Freedom in the World 2004 - Abkhazia [Georgia]

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 250,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: Muslim
Ethnic Groups: Abkhaz (majority), Georgian


A decade after separatist forces defeated Georgian government troops for control of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, no significant advance was reached in 2003 on finding a lasting political solution to the conflict. In what appeared to be a small step forward, Russia and Georgia agreed in principle to the repatriation of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia and the restoration of rail communication between the two countries via Abkhazia. In April, the territory's government stepped down after just four months in office, following demands by a group representing the republic's war veterans that it resign.

Annexed by Russia in 1864, Abkhazia became an autonomous republic of Soviet Georgia in 1930. The year after 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 cease-fire 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, Vladislav Ardzinba, the incumbent and the only candidate running for office, was reelected. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (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.

Tensions in the Kodori Gorge, an area controlled partly by Georgia and partly by Abkhazia, underscored the precariousness of the region's fragile peace. In October 2001, a group reportedly consisting of Chechen rebels and Georgian partisans clashed with Abkhaz troops following a deadly raid on a village in the gorge. 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. Despite a UN-brokered protocol calling for the withdrawal of Georgian forces that was signed by Russia and Georgia in 2002, Abkhaz officials insisted that Georgia had not pulled out all its troops from the Kodori Gorge. Georgian authorities countered that the protocol did not require the withdrawal of other military detachments, including border guards.

Deputies loyal to Ardzinba won a landslide victory in the March 2002 parliamentary elections when the opposition Revival and People's Party withdrew most of its candidates in protest over the conduct of the campaign. Officially backed candidates, who won all 35 seats in the legislature, 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 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.

After just four months in office, the government of Prime Minister Gennady Gagulia, who had developed a reputation for political weakness and inefficiency, resigned on April 8, 2003. Gagulia stepped down following pressure from Amtsakhara, an increasingly powerful opposition political movement, representing primarily veterans of the 1992-1993 war, which had threatened to organize a mass rally if he remained in office. On April 22, Defense Minister Raul Khadjimba was named to succeed Gagulia. Subsequently, Amtsakhara also called on Ardzinba to resign as president because of his poor health; Ardzinba, who was undergoing medical treatment in Moscow for an undisclosed illness and who was no longer actively involved in the daily running of the government, insisted that he had no intention of stepping down before the next presidential election in October 2004.

Ongoing efforts to advance the peace process apparently took a small step forward in 2003, even as negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi continued to be stalled over the primary issue of the region's final political status: while Tbilisi holds that Abkhazia must remain a constituent part of Georgia, Sukhumi insists on the territory's independence from Georgia, a status that has not been recognized by the international community. In a March meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin and then-Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze agreed provisionally to allow Georgian internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled the war in Abkhazia to begin returning to their homes, first to the southernmost Gali region. The focus on IDP returns had emerged from discussions held the previous month in Geneva by the Friends of the Secretary-General – a subgroup of the UN Security Council composed of delegates from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia and tasked with helping to mediate a solution to the conflict. In exchange for beginning the repatriation of refugees, Georgia would sanction the resumption of rail links from Sochi to Tbilisi via Abkhazia.

Other agreements reached in March included an extension of the Russian peacekeeping force – deployed under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) following the 1994 cease-fire – until either Georgia or Abkhazia demands its withdrawal and the repair of the Inguri hydroelectric power station to supply power to the region. Just two months earlier, Georgia had insisted that the renewal of the peacekeeping force would be contingent on Russia's suspension of passenger rail service between Sukhumi and Sochi – which had resumed in December 2002 without Georgia's consent, as stipulated by a 1996 CIS resolution – and of a cessation of Moscow's issuing of Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia.

However, as of November 30, questions remained about the effective implementation of these agreements. Despite such plans as deploying a UN civilian police force in Gali to help provide security for the IDPs, most refugees remained skeptical about their prospects of returning in the near future. Meanwhile, domestic political tensions in Georgia that eventually led to Shevardnadze's resignation in November contributed to the lack of progress on reaching a settlement on the territory's status.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Residents of Abkhazia can elect government officials, but the more than 200,000 displaced Georgians who fled the region during 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 extensive 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. Opposition political parties include Aitara (Revival). Amtsakhara, a political group representing primarily veterans of the 1992-1993 war, is becoming a growing force in the territory's political life.

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

Reliable information on freedom of religion is difficult to obtain. Although a presidential decree bans Jehovah's Witnesses and members have been detained by the authorities in recent years, none were in detention at year's end, according to a representative of the group. Abkhazia's Ministry of Education prohibits instruction in the Georgian language in the territory's schools, the 2003 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 a failure to conduct impartial investigations and to bring alleged perpetrators to justice, according to the 2003 U.S. State Department report. Other areas of concern include defendants' limited access to qualified legal counsel, violations of due process, and the lengthiness of pretrial detentions. An independent legal aid office in the southern Gali district has provided free legal advice to the local population since 2002. According to a February 2003 statement adopted by Abkhazia's parliament, which called on the territory's government to address a perceived rise in crime, criminal gangs in the territory are increasingly joining forces with counterparts in Georgia and southern Russia.

Personal security in the conflict zone continued to be a concern in 2003. Since the cease-fire, a small, unarmed UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) has monitored the cease-fire and attempted to resolve violations, while a CIS peacekeeping force of some 1,800 troops, dominated by Russian troops, has patrolled the region. The 1994 cease-fire has at times been tenuous, with incidents of violence and kidnappings, including of members of the UNOMIG and the CIS peacekeeping force, taking place during the year.

Travel and choice of residence are limited by the ongoing conflict. Approximately 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 IDPs are unable or unwilling to return because of fears for their safety.

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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