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Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba continues to stonewall the opposition. (file photo)

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Herbert Salber, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, reportedly congratulating South Ossetia's de facto leader on the "recent elections" that he won and "the very important post" he now occupies.

Tbilisi condemns any effort to drive a wedge between it and the European Union -- that was the message that emerged from a meeting on May 19 between Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and Ambassador Herbert Salber, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia.

Salber has been the target of outraged criticism from across the Georgian political spectrum for remarks he is reported to have made during a visit on May 16 to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia in his capacity as one of the co-chairmen of the Geneva International Discussions that seek to resolve the humanitarian and security issues resulting from the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Specifically, Salber was quoted by the press service of the region's new de facto president, Anatoly Bibilov, as congratulating Bibilov on the "recent elections" in April that he won and "the very important post" he now occupies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and several Georgian opposition politicians immediately criticized Salber's imputed comments as recognition of Bibilov as South Ossetia's legitimate president, and thus as in direct contradiction of the EU's policy of nonrecognition of either South Ossetia or Abkhazia as legitimate polities. (The EU nonetheless continues to pursue a Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The brainchild of Salber's predecessor as EU special representative, the Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, it is intended, according to British scholar Thomas de Waal, to create a political and legal space within which the EU can "keep channels and options open," and maintain communication with the breakaway regions' leaders without compromising its adherence to Georgia's territorial integrity.)

Georgia's opposition United National Movement went so far as to argue that Salber's visit to Tskhinvali in itself constituted a violation of Georgia's territorial integrity, and to demand that Georgia insist that the EU recall Salber and appoint a replacement. Independent parliament deputy and former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili argued that Salber should be designated "persona non grata."

In video footage made public after his May 19 meeting with Dondua and quoted by the website Civil.ge, Salber stressed that both the EU and he personally continued to support fully the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity. He also said that neither he nor the EU recognized the legitimacy of "the framework in which the elections took place."

At the same time, Salber stressed that the core of his mandate as special representative focuses on his role as co-chairman of the Geneva International Discussions. Those talks, of which 39 rounds have taken place to date, bring together representatives of the EU, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, the United States, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

In a June 2016 address to the OSCE's Annual Security Review Conference, Salber described those talks as "an original set-up built on ambiguities and broad inclusiveness." (One of those ambiguities is to facilitate the participation of representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a purely personal, rather than an official capacity in order to circumvent the question of formal recognition of those polities.) The UN and OSCE co-chairs accompanied Salber on his visits earlier this week to South Ossetia, and then to Abkhazia.

Dondua too alluded to the Geneva International Discussions after his meeting with Salber, affirming that it was "very important to do everything to ensure that no shadow is cast on the bilateral and multilateral formats, processes, and institutions which have crucial importance for Georgia and which are playing a very important role for maintaining peace, democracy, and for Georgia's development in general."

That circumspect formulation implies that Tbilisi may have construed the comments attributed by Bibilov's press service to Salber as an attempt (at Moscow's behest?) either to drive a wedge between Georgia and the EU and/or to sabotage the Geneva International Discussions.

During the most recent round of those talks (in March), "modest progress" was reportedly made toward an agreement between Russia and Georgia on the nonuse of military force, according to the Georgian Foreign Ministry. Tbilisi has been demanding such a document for years, while Moscow dismisses it as unnecessary on the grounds that the conflict is between Georgia on the one hand and South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.

But after the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers issued a statement in early May reiterating its support for Georgia's territorial integrity and condemning the continued presence of Russian military bases on the territory of the two breakaway regions, the Russian Foreign Ministry countered with a statement questioning whether there was any point in "continuing the Geneva meetings in the current format."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to clarify that it was the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers that issued a statement in early May reiterating its support for Georgia's territorial integrity

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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