Sergey Shamba: 'It is impossible to live in enmity all the time'

Sergey Shamba

Well-known Abkhazian politician, Sergey Shamba, was appointed Secretary of the Security Council on 27 July by decree of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia. The new head of the Security Council, who previously had held the posts of Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and who was a deputy of the People's Assembly before his latest appointment, agreed to answer questions from Ekho Kavkaza radio. The conversation touched upon a wide range of topics - the pandemic and the fight against crime, dialogue with Georgia and the West, attitudes towards Abkhazian NGOs, certification in the Gal District, sale of real-estate and oil-production.

- Sergey Mironovich, in your opinion, what security-threats exist for Abkhazia today, and where do you see them? Which threats are internal and which external?

- Internal threats in our country are connected with the need to focus more attention on protecting the safety of citizens. There is the fight against crime, and the threats that now emanate from this pandemic that has swept over the whole world; there is food-security, and the protection of the rights of individuals. All questions of our domestic policy are to one degree or another related to security-issues.

- Speaking of the pandemic, how did you perceive the opening of the border? For the safety and health of citizens is this a positive decision or a somewhat ambiguous one?

- Ambiguous, of course, because opinion in our society is almost equally divided into those who are for the opening and those who are against it. But, considering nevertheless that a significant part of our population has been waiting for the whole year for the holiday-season, because the well-being of their families depends on this, we decided to open the border, despite the risks that exist in this regard. This was also due to the fact that during this entire period, when the pandemic was at its peak in the world, we were in a more or less favourable situation. Now more cases of the disease are being detected, but so far this is not associated with the opening of the border. What we have now is related to our internal problems. We shall be waiting for vaccines and medicines to appear. I think we cannot isolate ourselves from the whole world, and what all of humanity will go through, probably we shall go through too; we just need to be better prepared for this and to pay more attention to our healthcare. What’s happened was also a warning-sign.

- Sergey Mironovich, we have such a situation that the only doctor who fell ill with a severe form of coronavirus-infection was taken to Georgia for treatment. How do you assess the readiness of our medical services to help those who need help?

- Well, you see, again this is due to the fact that we have not had such difficult cases until now. And what happened is a warning for the future. I think that specialists should learn a lesson from this and look for new ways of treating patients.

- You said that one of the internal threats is the safety of the population. Did you mean the crime-situation? Do you have a vision of what we need to do? Is everything being done enough at this stage, and what should we do to change the situation?

- During his election-campaign, President Aslan Bzhania focused on the need to start fighting crime, because the economy can develop only if there are investments, and investors cannot come in conditions where there is no proper security - all this is interconnected. Therefore, I also believe that the primary task is to put things in order. Over the past few years, there has been such a surge in crime that it has scared off many investors, because there were several cases related to Russian investors, and this not only influenced their refusal to invest in Abkhazia but also began to spoil relations with our strategic ally - the Russian Federation. Now, it seems to me, it is obvious for our society that a decisive struggle is being waged in this direction, and I believe that this work needs to be strengthened. And here we are talking not only about street-crime. One of the main tasks is the fight against corruption — if we do not punish people who steal big money, but focus only on those pickpockets who steal from trolleybuses, this will not be understood by society, and it will be wrong.

- How do you assess the grassroots-initiative of citizens who are trying to achieve the adoption of a law on declaring income and expenses of civil servants and deputies?

- I fully support this initiative, because this is one of the important factors: if we are talking about the need to fight corruption, then we must pass these laws, and people who are in public service must be open and transparent, and their income and the expenses must be known to the public. So here I fully support this initiative, and I hope that it will be adopted in due course. We are determined to start solving all the issues that have accumulated over the years.

- Which of these questions are the most acute?

- There are many issues that have not been resolved, because within our society it is difficult to find a consensus between the political forces — there is almost no consensus, and all internal political activity, from my point of view, is most often irrational: if the government, say, says that it is white, then the opposition is sure to say that it is black. Thus it was before, and thus it is today. This is not at all advantageous for our state, for the development of our society. On the contrary, this is what has hampered our development all these years. Perhaps one of the main tasks - I intend to focus on this activity - is to find ways to overcome this problem of irrational approaches to our domestic- and foreign-policy issues. It is necessary to start a dialogue to bring the parties closer to a consensus. For example, I have always been a supporter of the view that the opposition should prevail in parliament, because I believed that this would enable the executive and legislative branches to find consensus on many issues. This would relieve tension in society and lead to problems being discussed in parliament and not on the streets or in the squares. But, unfortunately, today all political forces in our country are trying to proceed from some personal interests and ambitions of their own, and not from the interests of society.

- As a deputy, you proposed a law on the sale of real-estate to foreign citizens. Today, how do you see the place of this issue on our domestic political agenda?

- Not only in this issue but in many other issues where we have bans I see that where there are bans, some kind of underground, "grey" economy and crime is sure to start up. In our conditions, the law-enforcement system being rather weak, it has been almost impossible to fight this. We know perfectly well what “grey” schemes existed so that people could buy real-estate in Abkhazia: for this, citizenship of Abkhazia was acquired illegally, which, in turn, gave rise to corruption. People came up with different schemes; then it very often developed in such a way that people who had bought a house found they  had been deceived, leading to the start of litigation, and all this is still happening. I have spoken about how it is necessary to find a way out of this situation and thereby derive some benefit.

If we are going to sell real-estate, how to do it is another question — I didn’t talk about it then — but it should be possible here to find ways out. Without granting citizenship, many countries benefit from this process due to the influx of people and their capital. I don't see anything wrong with that. Many issues could be resolved: for example, if we allow the sale of primary housing and set the condition that some part - 23-30 percent - should be allocated to municipalities, city-administrations, so that they can resolve the issues of people who are in line for housing, one could benefit from this. If people who have housing in Abkhazia came here, bought goods, left money here, wouldn't this be beneficial for Abkhazia? I believe that this issue needs to be resolved.

- Speak about those threats that at the moment you see from the world around us.

“For many years our main threat came from Georgia. To this day in Geneva we are trying to agree on the need to sign an agreement on peace, but this has not been achieved over the course of many years, because the Georgian side believes that such would be an interstate-agreement, and thus mean, to some extent, the recognition of Abkhazia as an equal partner in the negotiation-process. But I must say that in 1997, when Vladislav Ardzinba visited Tbilisi on the initiative of (Evgenij) Primakov, I was in that delegation - a memorandum was signed at that time in Tbilisi stating that the parties renounce the use of force and even the threat of the use of force. So such a document, which was signed by two presidents - (Eduard) Shevardnadze and (Vladislav) Ardzinba - exists. This is the first thing.

Secondly, after the events of 2008 and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and the signing of an agreement with the Russian Federation, we have a strategic alliance with Russia today, and this gives us fine security-guarantees; therefore the threat from Georgia has ceased to be as relevant as it was during all those long, post-war years. As for what happened in 1998, the destabilisation of the situation in the Gal Region, the invasion of armed Georgian units there, the acts of the Forest Brothers and the White Legion detachments (terrorist sabotage-groups) on the territory of the Gal Region, etc.., plus what happened in the upper part of the Kodor Valley, all this we overcame. Today we do not see such a threat from Georgia. And so, all the threats associated with the preservation of our statehood, of our sovereignty, lie within the political sphere. The preservation and consolidation of our independence and statehood may be hindered by our internal political relations, by the inability to find consensus and the lack of appreciating that it is nevertheless necessary if one is rationally to approach the solution of issues of a national, state nature. These are issues of a fundamental nature, where it is impossible to talk about compromises – for example the preservation of our state, independent, democratic and sovereign. There can be no compromises here. In all other issues that we discuss internally, we must find a compromise.

- Sergey Mironovich, not so long ago Aslan Georgievich Bzhania, speaking publicly, said that "we need a dialogue with Georgia." From your point of view, what was meant by this? Is it necessary to build some kind of relations with Georgia, and if necessary, how?

- I myself have repeatedly said that a dialogue is needed, because it is quite obvious that there are a number of unresolved problems between Abkhazia and Georgia. And when there are problems, you need to talk in order to solve them. I very often hear those who are against such a dialogue say: “No, let Georgia recognise us”, or “No, let them do this, let them do thar”, but in order to achieve this, you need to talk; negotiations are essential.

I have been a diplomat for many years, so I know that any problem must be solved through dialogue. There are some difficult issues that take decades to be solved, but we have wasted a lot of time. It is clear that we are neighbours with Georgia; we have Russia and Georgia as neighbours — we are predestined by fate to determine our relations.

Yes, there was a war, but in our history there were many cases when there was an intervention by Georgia on the territory of Abkhazia, when there was an intervention on the part of Abkhazia on the territory of Georgia – it’s all part of our history. And this is not only part of the history of relations between Georgia and Abkhazia, but the same can also be said of the whole world. Just look! — the same applies even in Europe. I have already spoken about this and adduced examples — all countries have fought among themselves, and there have been bloody wars, but today they live together and develop wonderfully. Therefore, it is impossible to live in enmity all the time. We cannot forget our history - the war ... we know perfectly well who was to blame for this, how it all happened, but this page has already been turned, and we need to think about the future, about our children. We cannot bring up the young generation in hatred; this must not be done, as it destroys the souls of the young. It's all in the past, and so one has to consider how to build friendly relations.

- If a dialogue is needed, what are the directions you see from which one could make a start?

- I would start with informal diplomacy, with non-governmental organisations. Such contacts, very intense ones, existed even under Vladislav Ardzinba. There was the Schleinigen process together with various other meetings at different levels — public figures met, and sometimes statesmen participated in such informal meetings. You can start with this and gradually identify topics that require discussion, and there are many of them. Those people who say that “No, you don’t need to talk” forget that we are already in dialogue. I am not even talking now about the Geneva Negotiations – take, if you please, the Ingur Hydro-electric Station - this is our common problem, and so there are constant contacts between the parties.

I have said many times that it is necessary to legalise the illegal trade that takes place here across the R. Ingur, but many have opposed it. And recently, there was a meeting in parliament in which all political parties participated — there was a meeting with deputies, and the arguments that I presented were supported by most of those present, including opposition political parties.

- What were these arguments?

- This is happening in reality, but just introducing bans does no good — the whole flow bypasses our budget, and people profit from it. This has been going on for many years, and it was opposed by precisely those influential forces that took advantage of the fact that we have a gap on the border. We remember very well how flows of oil-products and gasoline went from Abkhazia to Georgia, because the price here was cheaper — cigarettes went there, and nuts go there today. Smuggling comes from that — you can see this in shops and in the market. How does this happen? Why not establish custom-controls at the border and legalise it all?

I'm not talking about the need to conclude an agreement with Georgia on trade, an interstate one — that is unrealistic today, as Georgia itself will not agree, but we can take the necessary taxes at the border on those goods that go from there or from here to there. This is what I was talking about.

- In public opinion, we see a negative attitude towards Abkhazian non-governmental organisations — there are even calls to adopt a law "On foreign agents". Unclear is the basis on which they are often accused of surrendering some national interests. I know that you have always had contacts with non-governmental organisations, and so what is your position on the issue of Abkhazian NGOs?

- I believe that this attitude is a mirror-image of what is happening in Russia. Yes, there there are among the many non-governmental organisations those that are beneficial, but there are those that do not work for the interests of the state but rather in the interests of some external forces. To transpose this situation to Abkhazia is a completely unobjective approach, because, firstly, we know very well all the relevant people; they are all patriots of Abkhazia. I know all of them very well and, as a minister, I supported them in this dialogue, because even then I believed it, and now this is what I am talking about: we need a dialogue not only at the government level, but also at an informal level — this is a very useful and important thing. It would be quite another thing if we knew there to be organisations working not in the interests of our country but in the interests of some other countries — in that case, sure. But to be honest, I don’t know any such. If there are any, let them name who they are. There are special services for this who have to make a determination. And so, indiscriminate talking and calling everyone some kind of agent — well, I would not advise doing this at all, as this is also one of the issues that splits our society.

- How do you see contacts with the Western world? Does Abkhazia need them? Should there be this vector in our foreign policy?

- Undoubtedly. We are an independent state and must have a fully-fledged foreign policy. Today Russia has recognised us, and this is very important for us. Russia is a huge country where we can solve, if we are talking about the economy, all our interests. But our task is to build relations with the whole world; we must be recognised by the world-community. In order for us to be recognised by the world-community, we must show that we really deserve it, that we are a democratic state, that we are a developing state, that we want to conform to the values ​​that are accepted in the civilised world.

Therefore, any non-constructive actions on our part cannot create an attractive image for us; they only create a negative image for us, but we are not yet mature, not ripe for such recognition. We say that there is no need for dialogue, that there is no need to talk, that we behave aggressively — I have repeatedly heard from some that our policy should be aggressive. I believe that our policy should be friendly; we must show that we are a peaceful, peace-loving country and want to be friendly towards all our neighbours. When we show that we are unable to talk with our neighbours, then how can we expect that some other countries will understand us if they see that we cannot even negotiate with our neighbours. Our foreign policy should be aimed at ensuring that as many countries as possible recognise Abkhazia. If we want to achieve something, first we need to talk, to establish a dialogue; certain work must be undertaken — this is the task of the Foreign Ministry.

- Passportisation of the inhabitants of the Gal District: they were first given passports, then they were deprived of these passports. How do you assess this whole situation, and how do you think Abkhazia should resolve these issues in the Gal Region today?

- Difficult situation. I understand the attitude to the issuance of Abkhazian citizenship to the residents of the Gal District, because it was based on the fact that these people have Georgian citizenship, and we do not have dual citizenship with Georgia. By the way, we have not yet signed an agreement on dual citizenship with Russia, but there we still have some kind of agreements and there are other mutual relations. But with Georgia this is nothing. I understand, when this issue was raised ... This is such an ambivalent topic.

At the same time, it seems to me that we should not alienate these people, because they are mostly indigenous inhabitants of Abkhazia, of one of the regions of Abkhazia, namely Samurzakan, today’s Gal District, and we still need somehow to resolve the issue of their citizenship in Abkhazia. Today they have the right to a residence-permit, but I think it is insult to them, because their ancestors lived on this land, and many of them were once Abkhazians. I am not a supporter of delving into this, because if we start delving into who their ancestors once were, we will not get anything good from this and will never understand this issue. The racial approach is generally unacceptable in a civilised society, and even more so in our country, where there is such a mixed population; such a conversation, such a topic should not be present at all. It seems to me that we still need to deal with their citizenship in Abkhazia.

- And the way out?

- Now I will tell you: in a democratic world you can have any citizenship. If there is no interstate agreement on dual citizenship, there remain vague questions of military service or voting, and so, you can have the citizenship of any country you want; these issues simply will not be regulated. Therefore, to dwell on the fact that they have Georgian citizenship, I think, is still wrong. We must not alienate these people; we must absorb them into Abkhazian society; we must make them fully-fledged citizens of our country, so that they support the interests of our state, so that they participate in the construction of the state, and feel like citizens of Abkhazia and not outcasts on earth. In that case we shall have only a "fifth column" — why do we need this? I think this is the wrong approach; all the people who live here with us, on our territory, should be citizens of this country. I do not mean guest-workers who come temporarily to earn money and leave. I mean those whose ancestors were born here, who themselves were born here, live and work here - they should be full citizens of the state and should participate alongside us in building this state.

- We also have such a topical issue as oil-production in Abkhazia. You link it here to external threats, but maybe in general it should not be linked to threats at all? What is your position on oil-production?

- A threat can be created out of the blue; a threat can be created everywhere, or these threats can be avoided. It all depends on how we behave. As for oil-production, we are now in a period of exploration to discover whether there is any or not. If there is, then I believe that, of course, this resource should be directed to the welfare of our society. The agreements that I saw today need to be revised. Oil-revenues should go to social projects. I believe that a state-company should be created in which revenues from oil-production will be concentrated, and all these revenues should be directed to social needs. It lies beneath our feet; it is common property, and therefore all people should feel the benefits of the extraction of this oil.

- Today there exists amongst us a clear distrust of the authorities on the part of the population, and this is primarily due to corruption. It is often said that all this will be embezzled. If today or tomorrow, in the state in which we find ourselves, we start producing oil, then all the income will go into the pockets of individuals, and the people will get nothing.

- Such fears are understandable. It cannot be said that they are unfounded. All our previous history shows that this is actually the case. But we are saying that the new government has come to power in order to overcome the negative lessons of the past. If over time we see that this government also repeats the mistakes of the past, well, then, of course, there will be disappointment in society.

The agreement that exists today is an unacceptable agreement. The government needs to be transparent, open and intelligible for society. Any behind-the-scenes, closed forms of government just lead people to seeing perfectly clearly that often many representatives of the authorities act exclusively in their own interests, and not in the interests of society. This is what we must fight againt. Here is the task I see for myself in this place.

This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.

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