As the deadline for Abkhazian officials to submit income and property declarations passes, those who have complied with the new anti-corruption law appear to have surprisingly modest livings.
Abkhazia passed a new anti-corruption law in March following a years-long fight by activists culminating in protests and hunger strikes.
Coming into force on 1 July, the law requires all public officials and their ‘close relatives’ to declare their properties and incomes. But critics say the law passed was a gutted version of the one they had proposed.
According to the declarations made public so far, the monthly incomes of most officials sit at around ₽18,000–₽25,000 ($250–$340), almost none of them have savings accounts, and each has an average of one European or Japanese car. Most of them also claim to own a single property of around 50–200 square metres.
MPs fail to submit declarations because ‘they have COVID-19’
Despite the deadline for submitting declarations passing on 1 August, only around half of the 420 state organisations have so far submitted their employees’ declarations.
Not even members of parliament have found the time to disclose their incomes, as the law dictates, and as such none of the MPs’ declarations are publicly available yet. Only 28 of 35 MPs have complied, and according to MP Givi Kvarchia, those who have not done so have a good excuse — being sick with COVID-19.
Liana Agrba, the chief spokesperson for the National Bank of Abkhazia, was one of just 46 employees of the bank to send their declarations.
‘The main challenge is not to miss anything’, Agrba told OC Media. ‘When I was filling out the declaration, it was difficult for me to remember how many square metres my house and plots are, I had to find documents. We almost forgot to indicate mum's pension. This is not a difficult task, but it takes quite a long time. It took me a week to fill out the declaration’.
The law also states that the declarations must be published in the newspapers Apsny and Respublika Abkhazia, but so far, this has not been done.
According to Respublika Abkhazia editor-in-chief Yuri Kuraskua, the paper is still waiting for direct instructions from the government.
‘If they send us the declarations today we will publish them tomorrow, if they send them in a month, and we will publish them in a month’, Kuraskua told OC Media. ‘Our task is to fulfil the law, we will fulfil it, but we ourselves will not go anywhere for the declarations.’
The Ministry of Taxes and Duties is responsible for processing the declarations and uploading them to their website. The ministry’s spokesperson, Georgy Gabunia, confirmed that the process of submitting declarations was proceeding slowly. He said that imposing sanctions for late filing of declarations was not under their jurisdiction.
‘Our task is to collect, verify data and publish them on the website. The State Security Service and the Prosecutor's Office can also exercise control over the accuracy of the data specified in the declaration’, Gabunia told OC Media.
Flaws in implementation
Astamur Kakaliya, an activist who had been campaigning for the adoption of the law since 2012, has remained critical of the version adopted and its implementation.
While the law requires officials to declare the properties and land they own, details such as the addresses are not being made public.
Kakaliya argues that this is an attempt to bury important data in the archives of the tax service.
‘Employees of the State Security Service and the Prosecutor’s Office will not be able to check an official’s declaration on their own initiative. They will have to submit an official request to the tax office, and if the heads of departments are relatives of an official, they can easily block access to this information’, Kakaliya told OC Media.
Kakaliya said that house addresses are not legally considered state secrets, and as such, hiding this data is a violation of the declaration law.
The Prosecutor General’s Office did not specify when asked how law enforcement agencies would monitor the implementation of the law. The text of the law itself states that they have the right to request clarification of the information given in these declarations.
Activists such as Kakaliya have continued to warn that it will be impossible for prosecutors to investigate undeclared properties that officials may be renting out, even to state institutions, without access to these addresses.
‘We do not know how this data might be used’
Many in the political opposition to the authorities have also treated the new law with disdain.
At a press conference on 10 August, Timur Gulia, the chair of the Union of War Veterans, a group associated with former President Raul Khadzhimba, said the law was ‘essentially, about nothing’.
He said officials would simply transfer any ill-begotten property to relatives not included in the law.
According to Gulia, they plan to demand that the law be returned for revision and adopted in the form in which it was conceived — with the siblings and adult children of officials also forced to provide declarations.
Even during the law’s adoption in parliament, many MPs raised concerns that it had not been properly finalised and would not yield the results that activists were counting on. Parliamentarians unanimously voted for the adoption of the law against the backdrop of a hunger strike in Sukhum (Sukhumi).
Many of those required to declare their properties have expressed a different opinion on this matter.
The head of the legal department of the cabinet of ministers, Andrei Gunia, argues that even the data that is already being published could be used by enemies of Abkhazia.
‘Everything that the officials — that is, the state apparatus of Abkhazia — own, is in the public domain, this data can be traced and analysed outside Abkhazia’, Gunia told OC Media.
‘Information is the most important commodity and instrument of influence today. Today we do not know how this data might be used. But a lot can be assumed,’ Gunia warned.
The primary geographic terms used in this article are those of the author’s. For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.