The March parliamentary elections in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia have not assuaged the profound mistrust and antagonism between the various opposition forces and the leadership of the de facto president, Raul Khajimba.
On the contrary, the signing last week by the interior ministries of Abkhazia and Russia of an agreement to establish on Abkhaz territory an "Information-Coordination Center" to facilitate the struggle against organized crime has triggered a new standoff between the two camps.
On the eve of the signing ceremony, 15 of the 35 recently elected parliament deputies addressed a formal appeal to Khajimba and to Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Aslan Kobakhia to postpone it in order to amend the draft. Specifically, they called for the inclusion of a clause stipulating that the parliament should have access to all information concerning the center's activities, and that the director of the center should report annually to parliament on its work.
The opposition Kyarazaa party and the extraparliamentary Amtsakhara (Keep the Home Fires Burning) union of veterans of the 1992-93 war that culminated in Abkhazia's de facto independence from Georgia issued separate statements the same day highlighting the perceived dangers posed to Abkhaz national interests by the terms of the agreement. Kyarazaa pointed out that the center will be a supranational entity with more extensive powers than either the Abkhaz Interior Ministry or Prosecutor-General's Office, which impinges on the constitutional rights of the region's citizens of which Khajimba as president is the guarantor.
Amtsakhara for its part, while stressing that it supports in principle the idea of cooperation between the two ministries, explained in considerable detail how specific clauses of the draft agreement were mutually contradictory; duplicated already existing bilateral agreements, such as that between the Russian and Abkhaz prosecutors-general; or violated Abkhaz law.
For example, Article 10 of the agreement says Russia and Abkhazia will jointly fund the center, while Article 24 says it will be financed by the Russian Federation.
The party questions the logic and legality of the clause stipulating that the center must submit annually to the Abkhaz Finance Ministry and Russia's North Caucasus Ministry an account of its expenditures. It also argues that the stipulation that the center may not engage in any commercial activity is at odds with its stated exemption from taxes.
Moreover, the agreement says that the center's Russian personnel and their families will enjoy diplomatic immunity. Such immunity is, however, guaranteed under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which the Republic of Abkhazia -- which is not recognized as a state by the UN, and by only a handful of countries worldwide -- is not a party to.
Amtsakhara, which for the past 2 1/2 years has sought without success to force Khajimba to step down, concluded by laying on him in advance the blame for any deterioration of the political situation resulting from the signing of the agreement.
Khajimba's Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) responded with a counterstatement stressing that the primary function of the center will be the exchange of information and the maintenance of a special data bank on organized crime. The FNEA categorically rejected all criticisms of the draft agreement as unwarranted and "not conducive to stability and the strengthening of law and order."
Kobakhia and Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov duly signed the agreement as planned in Sochi on May 18. At a subsequent press conference, Kobakhia said that the initial draft of the agreement had been amended to take into account Abkhaz concerns. He added that the center's first head will be named by Abkhazia, and also that one of its primary functions will be to combat drug trafficking. (Over the past several years the opposition has repeatedly criticized the Abkhaz leadership for its imputed failure to prevent the spread of drug addiction among a younger generation with minimal prospects of either long-term employment or travel abroad.)
Those assurances cut little ice with the opposition, however. The website Civil.ge quoted independent lawmaker Raul Lolua, the first and arguably the most competent of the four men to serve as interior minister since Khajimba's advent to power three years ago and one of the 15 signatories to the appeal to Khajimba and Kobakhia to delay the signing of the agreement, told journalists on May 22 that the planned strength of the center (a total of 20 staff, 10 from Abkhazia and 10 from the Russian Federation) is inadequate to perform the functions it is supposed to perform. That means, Lolua reasoned, that either the authorities did not divulge the center's real purpose, or the officials who drafted the agreement were incompetent.
Despite widespread frustration and resentment at the authorities' perceived shortsightedness (and pig-headedness) in signing an agreement potentially damaging to national interests, the opposition does not plan to take to the streets in protest, according to Kyarazaa Chairman Dmitry Dbar, who like Lolua signed the appeal by the 15 lawmakers. Instead, Dbar said, his party will propose "appropriate amendments."
Amtsakhara Chairman Alkhas Kvitsinia, too, said that "at this stage" his party was not discussing street protests. That reluctance suggests that Amtsakhara may have realized the futility of public protests as a tactic, given its limited public support and the inevitability that Khajimba would simply convene a counterdemonstration by his supporters, as he did when Amtsakhara called for his resignation in December 2016.