Governance and democratisation in Abkhazia: Trends and features, by Arda Inal-Ipa
International Alert | Georgia-Abkhazia on the road to 2020
Deputy Director at Center for Humanitarian Programs, Abkhazia
State building is a complex political process that depends on a country’s specific economic, cultural and demographic situation. State building itself can in turn be a crucial mechanism for democratising society as well as reforming government administration and the economy. The purpose of this article is to define the main trends in the process of state building in Abkhazia, identify the most significant external and internal factors that form the context of these changes, and identify the problems standing in the way of positive transformation.
Features of the Abkhaz state’s development
Uniquely, among the entities that made up the Soviet Union, Abkhazia struggled for many years under authoritarian conditions to leave the Georgian SSR and raise its political status from that of an autonomous republic. Protest letters, sit-in strikes, public meetings and rallies were just some of the many methods (unlawful in the Soviet era) used in the struggle for national liberation, which thousands of Abkhaz paid for with their Party tickets, impeded careers and even incarceration. Despite this, unlike their more law-abiding and successful comrades in other parts of the Soviet Union, following the collapse of the USSR Abkhazia was not given the chance to proceed calmly and systematically with state building. When the conflict with Tbilisi could no longer be contained by the central authorities, the 1992–1993 war started by the State Council of Georgia deferred for years the incipient process of forming a democratic state. The transformational transition from a socialist to a democratic state was subordinated to the problem of the nation’s survival. In the aftermath of the war, the priority concern was not what precise type of state should be built. Rather, the chief aim was to preserve the people, to survive, to secede from Georgia and to hold out in the war. The idea of independence was what inspired people. The hope of being free to develop a new state helped those residents of Abkhazia who had not fled their country to cope with the post-war turmoil. Neither the authorities nor the public had a chance to concentrate on what type of state an independent Abkhazia should be, what its ideology should be, or what national project should form the basis for unifying the nation. In general terms, everything seemed clear: a democratic state would be built based on the rule of law, as indeed was enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia. Everyone was sure that the time would soon come for a serious examination of the issues around state building, defining the national interests and the country’s long-term aims. However, the complex political position and critical domestic problems meant that resolving these issues was not seen as a priority.
In terms of the state-building process itself, it should be borne in mind that forming the independent Abkhaz state was even more difficult because it coincided with the transition from a command economy to a democracy and market economy. The whole process was unfolding against the backdrop of post-war survival, economic sanctions and the constant threat of the resumption of hostilities. Unsurprisingly, under such conditions, the impediments to state building were significant, as the following list shows:
- The aftermath of the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war – the effects of the war were many and included the destruction of infrastructure, a rise in criminal armed gangs, unauthorised seizures of the property left behind by Georgian refugees and members of other ethnic groups, unlawful privatisation of state and commercial facilities, a psychologically traumatised population, etc.;
- Political and economic sanctions imposed on Abkhazia by the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS);
- The unsettled conflict with Georgia – the active policy pursued by Georgia sought to undermine Abkhazia’s sovereignty. One result of this was Abkhazia’s virtually complete isolation from direct contact with Western countries and many international organisations, not just in the political but also in the economic and other spheres;
- The actions of Georgian subversive units in the Gal and other districts of Abkhazia;
- The legacy of the Soviet administrative system and the lack of experience of governing a democracy and market economy;
- High political and economic dependence on Russia, which until 2008 recognised Georgia’s territorial integrity;
- The fact that Abkhazia was located in a sphere of competition between Russia and the West for dominance in the geopolitically significant region of the South Caucasus;
- The complex demographic situation – the multi-ethnic nature of the population and the predominance of ethnic identity over national identity;
- The prevailing traditional and informal (unlawful) mechanisms for resolving conflicts and establishing justice – common law practices made it difficult to promulgate the principles of a democratic state based on the rule of law;
- The international community’s refusal to acknowledge Abkhazia’s achievements in relation to democratisation – for example, achieving a multi-party system, securing democratic elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, developing an active civil society and independent media, etc.;
- The Western countries’ disregard of Abkhazia’s requests for assistance to develop democratic institutions and state bodies.
What is the Abkhaz national project?
Unfortunately, progress towards Abkhazia’s statehood is still rather impromptu and reactive in many respects. Much in the plans for state building in Abkhazia is based on overcoming or rejecting the policies to which Abkhazia was subject either under Tsarist Russia or socialist Georgia. The plan to “Georgianise” Abkhazia – which was aimed at diluting Abkhaz ethnic identity and implemented for almost an entire century – has had the most influence here. As a result, present-day politics frequently involve an anti-Georgian stance rather than a pro-Abkhaz national stance. In many respects, the development of an independent Abkhazia is directed by the threat from Georgia and problems of the past rather than its own forward-looking agenda based on careful consideration and analysis of present-day needs and challenges.
It is far from easy to identify the direction in which the state-building process in Abkhazia is currently heading, what model of the state is being implemented or what the current national project is. Overall, certain aspects present a fairly fragmented and at times even contradictory image of the Abkhaz state: for instance, individual documents oriented along a long-term perspective; different development strategies (for example, the Abkhaz socio-economic development concept or proposals for reform of the judicial system prepared by the judicial community and submitted to parliament); and the programmes of political parties. The Abkhaz president’s addresses to parliament are highly significant here, particularly the recent address by President Ankvab in which he disclosed the government’s plans across practically all state functions. Even so, despite the importance of the information contained in the president’s addresses to parliament, these documents cannot compensate for the lack of any agreed national development plan with a precise formulation of the country’s national interests and long-term development priorities. This is mainly because there is no system or continuity across these documents. Some of the policies of the current authorities mark a continuation of the previous team’s lines, while others diverge significantly.
For example, while there is clear continuity with regard to international organisations, a new tone is being adopted in domestic politics: for instance, the wording of the latest address was marked by the conspicuous absence of the phrase “civil society”. The political programmes of the various parties are no substitute for a pan-national project of state building, since they reflect often mutually contradictory notions of various segments of society. In fact, not only is there no single document, there is not even a single notion about what the national Abkhaz project constitutes. Even so, despite these theoretical uncertainties, the real process of state building goes on, laws are approved and amended, and new state and civic institutions are created and expanded. In the process, a number of crucial principles of state building have been developed and adjusted on an ad hoc basis, involving a complex interaction between the authorities and the public that has at times descended into a domestic political crisis.
One example of this is the instituting of Abkhaz citizenship. In 2009, a parliamentary debate on amendments to the Law on Citizenship – aimed at removing restrictions on the ability of residents of the Gal district to obtain Abkhaz citizenship – led to social unrest and the issue was withdrawn. In fact, this conflict revealed that the public held mutually exclusive notions about who should be the carriers of Abkhaz sovereignty. To prevent similar crises arising in the future, consensus must be reached over momentous issues that are of such acute importance for the national project, as the means of securing national security, issues of ethnic and civic equality, and the principles by which the nation should be shaped. It is hard to argue with Engin Psheu, the author of an article published in 2012 entitled ‘Abkhazia’s national idea: Choice in the process of state building’, when he regrets that:
‘... processes of ethnic consolidation and integration are not a component of the grand state plan, but run as it were in parallel with the work of the state … up to now, no single pan-national development concept has been drafted which could fully unite all the ethnic and religious groups living in Abkhazia. The permanent external threat could subside, leaving us in a position where it is not clear why we should all live together.’
We have clearly come to a period where the problem of ethnic self-preservation is less acute and the priority now is to rally society around a new national idea – a national project that sets the basic parameters for the future development of the state. Returning to the example cited earlier – the Gal district – although no one has as yet articulated a clear answer to the question of what the principles of nation building are, the fact that passports are continuing to be issued to the Georgian population of this border district suggests that priority is being given to shaping the nation based on democratic principles.
The Abkhaz Constitution
Despite the lack of clear milestones, therefore, the process of state development, which depends on many objective and subjective circumstances, has not stopped for a minute. Even though there is no document setting out a plan for building а nation state, an assessment can be made regarding a feasible model based on the prevailing laws and development strategies covering various aspects of the life of the state. In this context, the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia assumes great significance, since it lays the foundations of the democratic state, which became the culmination of the Abkhaz national liberation movement when it was declared in the 1990s.
However, while the Constitution sets out the foundations of the democratic state, it inevitably contains some features associated with the recently ended war and the persisting threat of a resumption of hostilities. These include the domination of the executive, the ethnic criterion applied to presidential appointments, the concentration of power in the hands of the president, the dependent position of the judiciary, and the absence of certain important components such as an article instituting a Constitutional Court. The system of government as set out in the Constitution fails to achieve the correct balance between the three branches of government; moreover, the system of checks and balances is inadequate and there are no effective institutions to defend human rights. Even so, the Constitution is still the basic guarantor of the democratic foundations of the state. During the difficult post-war years, there was more than one situation where proposals dictated by urgent problems that would have diverted the country from the path of democratic development were opposed by articles in the Abkhaz Constitution.
The complexities of democratisation in Abkhazia
Despite public consensus that the state should progress along a democratic path (at least, there is no political force in the country that openly declares the contrary), doubts and disillusionment over democracy are increasingly being voiced, raising questions over whether it is the right system for Abkhazia’s present-day needs. Unfortunately, it is often the case that segments of the population, as well as some members of the government with outmoded notions of how the state and society should function and interact, misunderstand the essential nature of democratic institutions and mechanisms. Many were willing, it turns out, to consent to the appearance of democratic change, but actually supported an authoritarian and centralist approach which they thought was more effective.
Regrettably, global processes do not always make it easy to build confidence in the sanctity of democratic principles. All this creates complexities for democratisation in Abkhazia and leads to the questioning of democratic principles.
There are a number of features of the global context which impede the establishment of democracy in Abkhazia, most notably:
- The fact that an increasing number of countries are making a democratic transition, but that democratic processes are more frequently leading to the establishment of undemocratic forces;
- The process of reinforcing the top-down chain of command in many countries;
- The spread of nationalism – a nationalist agenda is being proclaimed more or less openly by many powers, including major ones such as China and nearby ones such as Turkey. To some extent, this is now also a feature in Russia;
- Double standards in major democracies (where conflicts exist between democratic principles and state interests, or where there is political rivalry over spheres of influence, they are more frequently reneging on their democratic principles);
- Departures from democratic standards due to terrorist threats;
- The renaissance of socialist ideas on the distribution of property and social inequality in post-socialist countries.
These special features of the global context damage public opinion of democracy in Abkhazia. Given such unfavourable external factors and the populace’s divided attitude towards democratisation, Abkhazia’s actual achievements in the formation of reasonably effective democratic institutions are even more significant. This is particularly true if we bear in mind the fact that democratisation has occurred despite the absence of the international assistance provided to virtually all post-communist countries. It is further evidence that Abkhazia is developing in a democratic direction.
Trends in state building in Abkhazia
Any summary of current trends in state building in Abkhazia must refer to the following processes and phenomena – both positive and negative.
The positive aspects are as follows:
- A series of laws advancing democracy is now in the pipeline for approval (contained in the parliament’s plans and in the president’s address) – the Law on the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Law on Local Self-government, the Law on the Constitutional Court and a number of others.
- A consensus has been achieved – from opposition journalists to the president – on the need to adopt a state anti-corruption programme.
The negative aspects are as follows:
- There are signs of increasing reliance on Russia, as evidenced by the:
- reliance on Russian economic assistance, which covers most of the country’s annual expenses;
- dual Russian-Abkhaz citizenship held by the overwhelming majority of citizens of Abkhazia;
- guarding of borders jointly with Russia;
- deployment of Russian military bases on Abkhaz territory;
- limits on the implementation of an autonomous foreign policy;
- harmonisation of the Abkhaz legal system with the Russian system;
- minimal economic links with other countries.
- Vertical power is being strengthened and there has been a partial return to old methods of government administration.
- There are some signs of an ethnocratic tendency – representation of ethnic minorities in government bodies has decreased.
- There have been steps leading to self-isolation – for instance, the introduction of internal regulations restricting contacts with international organisations and foreign diplomats.
- There are irreconcilable differences between the various political groupings over the citizenship of the Gal district’s residents, the law on the state language and some other issues – this exposes the lack of consensus over what kind of state is being built.
- The development of a market economy is being held up and there is no system of support for private enterprise.
- Civil society is becoming fragmented – as reflected, for example, by the marginalisation in public discourse of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that cooperate with foreign organisations.
These trends reveal a set of contradictions and paradoxes in the development of the Abkhaz state:
- The current demand for modernisation versus the trend towards re-establishing outmoded frameworks and mechanisms for resolving economic and social issues that are redolent of the Soviet past;
- The increase in funding from Russia versus the simultaneous brake on the development of a market economy;
- The increased demand for a more active role by civil society in resolving urgent problems versus the mistrust of independent NGOs that leads to a reduction in the influence of civil society;
- The declaration of the urgent need for international recognition of Abkhazia versus concrete steps by the government towards self-isolation (e.g. restricting the range of activities of international organisations working in Abkhazia, ignoring a series of constructive initiatives by the EU on the de-isolation of Abkhazia, and restricting foreign diplomats’ access to the country).
The role of civil society
Although Abkhaz society seriously undervalues the role of civil society in the building of a democratic state, civil society appears to be a very important factor affecting real progress in the democratisation process. Unfortunately, much more needs to be done before the existing civil society organisations in Abkhazia can carry out their functions effectively – such as defending human and civil rights and freedoms, shaping standards and values that are then enshrined in state law, securing broad self-government in all areas of public life, and facilitating consensus among all citizens on momentous issues of development. Before civil society can function efficiently, certain conditions must be in place: there must be a sufficiently well-developed economic and political situation and social relations; the state must be based on the rule of law and act with restraint with regard to civil society, but also interact with it.
Clearly, the necessary conditions are not yet in place in Abkhazia. Nevertheless, its history of a national liberation movement under an autocratic state has meant that there is now a critical mass of active citizens who are conscious of their freedom and the need for political participation in shaping government bodies and decision making, as well as monitoring the implementation of these decisions. However, interaction between state and civil society can hardly be called effective or complementary at this stage. All that is needed is for the authorities and civil society to develop a contentious but productive relationship based on partnership. A useful step would be to assign real powers to public councils in local administrations, ministries, educational institutions, state television, etc. More active inclusion of the mechanisms of civic participation and monitoring would in fact enable the state to develop in a stable manner, since prompt feedback means that adjustments can quickly be made to a situation.
Despite the problems that exist, Abkhazia does not have the level of state intervention in the activities of civil society, or the excessive regulation of the activities of civil society organisations, that occurs for example in Russia. The activities of NGOs and other civil society entities are carried out within legal frameworks established by law. Unfortunately, Abkhaz society is now structured in such a way that political parties do not always regard themselves as a part of civil society or do not establish partnerships with other civil society structures. Instead, they concentrate their efforts on securing political influence for one particular group. This significantly impoverishes the life of civil society and reduces the effectiveness of its impact on the authorities and the state as a whole. The development of a multi-party system and the formation of fully-functioning political parties – based less on group interests and more on common, unifying values – should be priorities for ensuring progress in the political system over the next decade.
If the aim of Abkhaz society is to build a modern, effective democracy, much work has to be done on perfecting the legal system. For this to happen, broad-based discussion is needed within all strata of Abkhaz society to ensure consensus-based solutions are found to the following problems:
- Imbalances in the system of checks and balances, along with the predominance of the executive over the legislature;
- The ineffectiveness of the judicial system caused by its lack of sufficient autonomy and the absence of a Constitutional Court or the institution of assured tenure for judges;
- The ineffectiveness of local self-government due to the excessive centralisation of power;
- The lack of sufficient guarantees that the Abkhaz language and culture will be preserved, which is impeding the development of conditions required for a constructive response to other present-day threats and challenges;
- The predominance of ethnic identity over pan-national identity;
- The fragmentation of society on ethnic lines;
- The failure to respect human rights, which is a result of communist ideology, the war and the poor state of the economy, along with the continuing conflict with Georgia; it is also an expression of the nationalism inherent in state building under these conditions.
Several years of intensive work will be required by the whole of society if we are to complete all the tasks associated with these problems. In our view, however, these efforts will only be coordinated and effective if the population of Abkhazia can be integrated by stimulating the formation of one nation while preserving ethnic diversity. This is the only way in which a general consensus can be achieved over the priorities for the development of the state and in order to avoid the risk of new challenges arising, external or internal.
Questions for discussion
In light of the aforementioned observations and conclusions, the following are key questions for consideration regarding Abkhazia’s future progress.
- What model of reform of government institutions (central and local) would enable greater civil and political participation, and increase the effectiveness of governance in Abkhazia as a whole?
- What legislative initiatives will help to overcome the Soviet legacy and the impact of the conflict with Georgia, as well as to strengthen the justice system in a way that protects the rights of all Abkhaz citizens, regardless of social status or ethnic origin?
- How can the preservation and development of Abkhaz culture as well as expansion of the use of the Abkhaz language be guaranteed without resorting to non-democratic methods?
- How can the formation of a single (Abkhaz) nation be achieved, overcoming ethnic fragmentation while maintaining ethnic diversity?
 I. Khintba (2010). ‘State governance in the Republic of Abkhazia: Problems and some solutions’, in Problems of State Governance in the Republic of Abkhazia, Ch. 4. Sukhum.
 S. Gezerdava and A. Shakryl (2008). Judicial protection of individual rights and freedoms in the Republic of Abkhazia. Sukhum.
 Address of the President of Abkhazia, A.Z. Ankvab, to the Parliament on the state of the nation and main priorities for domestic policy in 2013, 25th December 2012. Available in Russian at http://apsnypress.info/news/7980.html.
 E. Psheu (2012). ‘Abkhazia’s national idea: Choice in the process of state building’. Available in Russian at http://abhaz-uzel.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3175:natsionalnaya-ideya-abkhazii-vybor-v-protsesse-stroitelstva-gosudarstva&catid=84&Itemid=487.
 Available in English at http://www.abkhazworld.com/abkhazia/156-constitution-abkhazia.html.
 The Constitution was approved on 26th November 1994, despite opposition from Russian politicians who were concerned that Abkhazia might become too independent and applied pressure at the highest levels of the country’s leadership. Amid such difficult conditions, the Parliament of the Republic of Abkhazia took on full responsibility for adopting the country’s Constitution. This suggests that the legislature had sufficient independence at the time to develop its own political line. Unfortunately, under current conditions such independence is barely conceivable, which demonstrates the tendency to narrow the range of responsibilities of the legislature.
Source: International Alert