On November 12, two weeks after the Russian-backed Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania visited Moscow, meeting high-level officials, President Vladimir Putin personally hosted him in Sochi, where the two discussed political, economic, and COVID-19-related issues. Aslan Bzhania, after being poisoned with heavy metals twice in less than a year, thanked Putin for his support to Abkhazia and declared that Sokhumi plans to implement the agreements signed with Moscow, as they “meet interests of Abkhazia, strengthen its statehood and sovereignty”.
Later, on November 17, during the press conference, Bzhania stated that an agreement on restoring the Sokhumi airport, out of service since the armed conflict in the early 1990s, was reached at the meeting with Putin. Also, making comments on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Bzhania underscored that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has made it clear that Abkhazia needs to strengthen its ties with Russia - “there are some analogies between the relations of Azerbaijan with Karabakh, and of Georgia with us”, Bzhania said, concluding it is good “that in South Caucasus there is such a strong factor as Russia.”
On November 23, Sokhumi disclosed the new program on the “formation of common social and economic space” with Moscow. The program, based on the 2014 Russo-Abkhaz “Treaty of Alliance and Strategic Partnership”, envisages harmonization of the Abkhaz ‘laws’ with the Russian legislation. The document, signed by the separatist region leadership, contains 45 separate paragraphs, obliging the Abkhaz side to adjust its ‘laws’ in the social, economic, health, and political fields, with that of Russian. “The objectives of the program are aimed at creating favorable conditions for the full participation of the Republic of Abkhazia in the integration processes carried out on the initiative and (or) assistance of the Russian Federation”. The program covers a wide range of issues, such as regulation of dual citizenship between occupied Sokhumi and Moscow, allowing Russians to acquire real estate in the region, provisions of energy security of Abkhazia, or simplification of the law procedures for the Russian investors in terms of obtaining a residence permit and registering work activities. The statement published on the so-called official webpage of the de-facto president of Abkhazia sets the time frame for implementing the measures within 2-3 years.
According to the expert community of Georgia, the latest development of further integrating Abkhazia into Russia is alarming, as it might be a step towards or a prelude to annexation. The MFA of Georgia has condemned the new program, stating “the so-called “treaty on alliance and strategic partnership” concluded between the Russian Federation and its occupation regime in Sokhumi in November 2014 as well as all subsequent so-called “agreements”, “memoranda” or “programs” are illegal and cannot have any legal effect”. Nevertheless, it’s now clear that the pressure on the de-facto Abkhazian government has been increasing lately, and the harsh socio-economic conditions fueled by the pandemic and the Russian imposed Sokhumi’s understanding of the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus amid the 2020 Karabakh war, made Abkhazian leadership even more submissive towards the Russian influence.
Abkhazia, the breakaway region of Georgia, once the ‘Soviet Riviera’ and home to roughly half a million, has been under Russian control since 1993. As a result of the armed conflict between Tbilisi and the Russian-backed separatists, more than 250 thousand ethnic Georgians have become internally displaced people (IDPs), plummeting the region’s population by half. Russian Federation obstructs international efforts on finding a peaceful solution to the conflict within the Geneva International Discussions (GID), including on the issue of returning the ethnic Georgian IDPs to their homes after committed acts of ethnic cleansing, recognized as such by the OSCE 1994 Budapest Summit Declaration. Gali district of Abkhazia, adjacent to the occupation line, is the sole district of the region where the ethnic Georgians comprise a majority. The latest report of the Council of Europe (CoE) on the conflict in Georgia describes the dire conditions the ethnic Georgians have to live in, underlining that “the closure of the “crossing points” also drove people to desperate measures”. Georgia’s Western allies express concern “about the continuous deterioration of the human rights and security situation in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia” and “the documentation gap and related restrictions on freedom of movement, residence rights, work and property rights, as well as access to services and education in one’s native language” which is “further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic”.