Elena Zavodskaya | Ekho Kavkaza — Representatives of non-governmental organisations in Abkhazia are experiencing pressure from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Security Service, and Abkhazian State Television. They have approached television broadcasters to exercise their legally guaranteed right of reply and are open to meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' leadership, provided that independent journalists are present. To date, their efforts to secure a response have been unsuccessful.
Inal Ardzinba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, has adopted a rigid and uncharacteristically undiplomatic stance in dealing with international organisations in Abkhazia and in suppressing local NGOs. The latter, composed of civil activists, have been vocal in their criticism of governmental actions.
Recently, Abkhazian Telegram channels have been disseminating statements from well-known civil society figures. They are asserting their right to a rebuttal on Abkhazian State Television, as stipulated by the 'On Media' law. This move comes in the wake of allegations made by Zaal Khvartskiya, the Deputy Chairman of the State Security Service of the Republic of Abkhazia, on air, where he accused NGOs of undermining the country's political stability.
Lawyer Said Gezerdaa has shed light on recent communications with the heads of Abkhazian State Television (AGTRK).
Discussing the television segment crafted by the State Security Service, he said:
"On December 22nd, AGTRK broadcasted a report in which Zaal Khvartskiya, the Deputy Chairman of the State Security Service, engaged in propagandist rhetoric. He accused civil society representatives, specifically naming us, of utilising international funding to destabilise Abkhazia’s political climate. The broadcast displayed various homemade documents indicating large sums of money, possibly leading viewers to believe we receive such amounts regularly. Public trust in the State Security Service seems to still exist, and this broadcast exploited that trust. The presentation was designed to suggest illicit or illegal activities. The deception or farcical nature of this portrayal might not be apparent to all. Not everyone will realise that the figures shown represent salaries accumulated over several years, signifying funds received by the organisation for its regular operations, completely unrelated to political endeavours. Furthermore, the State Security Service has no evidence linking any of our activities to politics. There is no explicit legal prohibition against such activities, and the Constitution does not endorse these kinds of limitations."
Said Gezerdaa elaborated on why the remarks made by Zaal Khvartskiya, the Deputy Chairman of the State Security Service, on AGTRK, were seen as distorting reality and being offensive:
"A critical point to note is that all these financial figures are monitored by the State Security Service. I am frankly baffled by their choice to present these documents in such a misleading and distorted manner, especially when they are easily debunked. Another striking aspect of the Deputy Chairman’s address is the portrayal of civil society representatives not as recognised and esteemed contributors to our nation's progress, but rather as vague, undefined figures. This creates a disconnect; when I converse with individuals outside the NGO sector, they find it challenging to match the names targeted in official rhetoric with those they know in the civil society. This raises questions like 'Does this involve you?' Thus, despite efforts by these institutions to name us directly, this disconnect persists."
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Said Gezerdaa expressed his view that the State Security Service of Abkhazia has transformed into an apparatus for amassing compromising material on citizens disfavoured by the authorities:
"It’s worth mentioning that those escalating this issue are individuals facing numerous inquiries themselves. These are relatively new figures in the state sector, originating from the State Security Service, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice. Previously, they were not involved in domestic politics and pursued careers outside Abkhazia. It appears as though it’s their moment to pave their way, potentially at the expense of civil society. In my view, the State Security Service should not be assuming the role it currently does. The Service's primary focus appears to be on civil society alone. The State Security Service has evolved into an instrument for accumulating incriminating evidence and for blackmail, and I believe this extends beyond just civil society."
Gezerdaa believes that the coordinated actions of the television leadership, the State Security Service, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are intended to foster an environment of animosity to facilitate the introduction of a restrictive law on foreign agents:
"On December 25th, I personally handed over our letter to AGTRK, asserting our right to a response, which was not honoured within the designated time frame. An AGTRK representative I spoke to mentioned their policy against broadcasting political statements. I clarified that our request was for a rebuttal, not a political statement. However, they indicated an inability to reject a report prepared by the State Security Service. In other words, this report was handed over to AGTRK fully prepared! We subsequently wrote an open letter to Irina Agrba, the head of AGTRK, insisting on our right to be heard, after receiving no response to our earlier communication. This has led to a paradoxical scenario where the civil sector is subjected to defamation without the chance to offer counter arguments or voice our perspective. To my knowledge, such a situation is unprecedented in Abkhazia. It's clear to us that AGTRK's information strategy aligns with the agenda set by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and the State Security Service. Their objective, it seems, is to cultivate a negative informational climate to pave the way for the enactment of a discriminatory and oppressive law on foreign agents."
"An additional letter, circulated on social media, was addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. This letter highlighted that the department had extended an 'inappropriate' invitation to representatives of civil organisations for a meeting with Minister Inal Ardzinba and his team. These representatives are prepared to meet but insist on audio and video documentation of the dialogue to later provide an objective account to the public.
Kama Argun, chairperson of the 'Panorama' public charity organisation, offered her insights on this letter:
'On 28 December 2023, a collective of civil society representatives responded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' invitation, affirming our willingness to engage with the Minister. We clarified in our letter that independent media representatives would also attend the meeting. However, as of January 29th, our letter has not elicited a response. Regrettably, the Ministry's Telegram channel persistently disseminates material containing disparaging remarks about NGOs, which is a source of significant concern. The rationale behind such actions remains unclear. NGOs are dedicated to addressing social, environmental, cultural, and other crucial issues, playing a vital role in Abkhazia's wellbeing. Consider the situation: an entire group of individuals, unified under a common legal structure, faces persecution. Fundamentally, we have pertinent inquiries to raise, and I believe we are entitled to a candid discussion. Hence, we await a reply.'"
This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.