A forum of opposition parties and activist groups in Abkhazia has gathered for the first time, revealing a wide range of shared grievances and a few points of contention.
Opposition and civil society groups from across Abkhazian society gathered on 23 November for the inaugural meeting of the Assembly of Socio-political Forces. Those in attendance included opposition parties Ainar and the Forum of National Unity, veteran organisation Aruaa, public organisations Unity and the Abkhaz National Movement, and the Hara H-Pitsunda (‘Our Pitsunda’) movement. All were fiercely critical of the current state of affairs in Abkhazia and the actions of the authorities.
The new forum, which organisers plan to hold regularly, is an attempt by those opposing government policies to find a new format to connect with the public, and bring together those fighting against the current political regime.
Nine figures spoke at the meeting, mostly young people advocating for independence, democracy, freedom, and diversity of opinions in Abkhazian politics.
On 24 November, the Union of Journalists of Abkhazia criticised the government for instructing state media not to cover the event. In a statement, the union expressed concern over ‘increasing interference by the Abkhazian authorities in the activities of the state media’.
Government critics have suffered a number of setbacks over the past year. These included a failure to oust President Aslan Bzhaniya in protests in November and December 2021, as well as the opposition’s poor performance in parliamentary elections in March.
Out of 35 MPs in the Abkhazian parliament, only four are now aligned with the opposition, while another four are seen as not being pro-government.
The authorities’ dominance in the legislature has allowed them to push through several unpopular decisions, including the conclusion of a fiercely-contested agreement to hand a Soviet-era state dacha in Pitsunda (Bichvinta) to Russia.
The Pitsunda dacha — a sticking point
The agreement over the Pitsunda dacha was the most significant point of contention at the forum.
The emergence of Hara H-Pitsunda, a youth-led group formed this year to oppose the deal, came as a surprise to many. The group has come under fire from many quarters, with much of the opposition approaching criticism of the Pitsunda agreement cautiously in an effort not to sour relations with Moscow.
The authorities have meanwhile both attempted to link Hara H-Pitsunda with Western organisations, even calling them pro-Georgian, a claim they have outright denied, and hint that they are being backed by the opposition.
At the 23 November meeting, the group again refuted all such accusations. Members spoke out against both the authorities and the opposition.
‘We are not demanding the overthrow [of the government] or revolutions. We openly and directly declare that we are against this trend that has lasted for decades in which opposition forces only criticise the government, and then, replacing it, continue on the same path’, said Alisa Agrba, a representative of Hara H-Pitsunda.
‘We believe that our society is able to unite constructively, within the framework of the law, and by extending a helping hand to each other, to solve the problems of our country. We believe that dialogue between the people and the authorities can be established. After all, if this does not happen, much worse times will come’, Agrba said.
These words noticeably angered some oppositionists, and after the meeting was over, members of Hara H-Pitsunda were confronted by representatives of the Aruaa veterans’ movement.
But their message resonated with others, such as Said Gezerdaa, a lawyer and activist who said the Pitsunda issue had become a form of shock therapy for the state.
Gezerdaa said it was wrong that disagreement with the deal was being presented by some as ‘anti-Russian’, explaining that handing over the territory to Russia was in the interests of neither the Abkhazian people nor Abkhazia’s relations with Russia. He added that resolving the issue without violating Abkhazia’s constitution would only strengthen the partnership between the two.
Veteran opposition politician Adgur Ardzinba, who heads the Abkhaz National Movement (ANM), also spoke out against the deal. He argued that in advocating for the ratification of the agreement despite the public backlash and constitutional questions it raised, President Bzhania was showing that Abkhazia was not able to resolve key issues on its own.
‘Part of Georgian propaganda’
Ardzinba also raised several other policies which he said were undermining Abkhazia, such as the privatisation of energy facilities and Sukhumi airport being handed over to investors on unclear terms.
Amendments to Abkhazia’s energy laws were mentioned by almost all of the speakers at the forum. Proposed amendments would remove a ban on the privatisation of large energy facilities, which the speakers warned could lead to the territory of Abkhazia being developed, while its society and people are left behind.
Ardzinba accused the authorities, in failing to make independent decisions, of undermining Abkhazia’s independence, echoing frequent opposition criticism of Bzhania stating the need to ‘share sovereignty’ with Russia.
He quoted an open letter published in the Georgian newspaper Literary Georgia in 1989 from historian Pavle Topuria to Vladislav Ardzinba, who went on to be president of Abkhazia.
‘That’s how he then wrote about us, Abkhazians: “when a people, an ethnic group, who are at a low level of social development, completely unprepared for statehood, are artificially given statehood from above, they will willy-nilly embark on a path unacceptable for their own national development”.’
‘This is part of the Georgian propaganda of that time, which was based on the idea that we were too underdeveloped to have our own state. So, anyone who says that we can’t do anything ourselves is either a weak person or someone who deliberately promotes ideas similar to those of Topuria.’
‘If someone admits that they can’t do something, then let them go home’, Ardzinba declared, in an apparent call on President Bzhania to resign.
Self-isolation and democratic backsliding
Issues of democracy and Abkhazia’s place in the world were also raised.
Adgur Lagvilava, a member of the Ainar party, warned that Abkhazia was currently in the process of further isolating itself from the rest of the world, just as external isolation of Abkhazia intensified.
The young politician said that Abkhazia should not involve itself in the geopolitical struggles of large nations, criticising the government for ‘issuing ultimatums’. He said Abkhazia should instead focus on making its own, independent decisions, guided solely by the interests of Abkhazia.
Lagvilava’s speech was an apparent reference to statements by the Foreign Ministry that since the European Union does not recognise Russian passports issued in Abkhazia, Abkhazia should ‘say goodbye’ to international organisations operating in Abkhazia.
Lagvilava suggested that rather than antagonising the West over the issue of Russian passports, Abkhazia should make efforts to convince countries to allow travel on Abkhazian passports, citing precedents such as Taiwan, Northern Cyprus, and Kosovo. Holders of these passports can enter many countries that do not recognise their independence.
Several young politicians, including Lalgvilava, also spoke out against a proposed law on ‘foreign agents’, which he warned could lead to politically motivated persecution.
A similar law in Russia has been used to smother civic activism and political opposition.
Lagvilava said that crimes of treason and espionage were already covered by the criminal code, meaning that such a law was unnecessary.
Lawyer Said Gezerdaa added that the proposed law was anti-democratic, warning that it would threaten many of Abkhazia’s established political traditions, such as pluralism.
But despite the danger he said the law presented, Gezerdaa struck an optimistic tone.
‘Despite class differences, strong horizontal relations remain in our society and a critical attitude [towards the government] is an integral part of our social and political life.’
‘All these are signs of a democratic society and are prerequisites that will allow us to develop’, Gezerdaa said.