A new standoff is maturing around the long-standing issue of privatization of real estate in Georgia’s secessionist region of Abkhazia. On November 8, the “president” of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, stated at an official meeting in the city of Tkvarcheli that citizens of Russia should have the opportunity and right to acquire real estate in Abkhazia. Bzhania clarified that obtaining property in Abkhazia by Russian citizens would have only economic implications, without granting the proprietors any political rights or Abkhazian citizenship. He further explained that Abkhazia critically needs foreign specialists and investors for whom local manufacturers could work. Bzhania, however, did not present any figures illustrating to what extent this step will improve the social-economic situation in the ailing region.
Bzhania’s seeming proposal—likely a trial balloon for this highly discordant issue for Abkhazians—encountered sharp criticism from the pro-nationalist part of the local establishment. The initiative has been panned as an encroachment on the “nation’s treasure” with irreversibly harmful effects for the country, including a worsening demographic situation for the ethnic-Abkhaz population. The detractors have demanded the authorities publicly identify those who support Bzhania in his suggestion. Some Abkhazian residents drew parallels with Crimea, where most of the local property on the peninsula has been purchased by Moscow-based Russian elites following the annexation. The newly created public organization of Abkhazian citizens and war-veterans “Aiaaira” (aimed at defending the rights of veterans and ordinary citizens) has also come out strongly against the initiative. According to Temur Gulia, the chair of another war-veterans’ organization, “ARUAA,” it is more expedient to bring this issue up when all three branches of power operate in accordance with the law and after carrying out a full inventory of local real estate and a census of the Abkhazian population (Nuzhnaya Gazeta, November 11; Abh-n.ru, November 12).
Moreover, the leaders of nine opposition parties signed a declaration on the creation of the People-Patriotic Union of Abkhazia, to resist “groundless and anti-popular projects” of the government. “Our nature, land, infrastructure, and other assets must be securely protected and remain in the unconditional possession of the citizens of Abkhazia,” the declaration states (Ekho Kavkaza, November 17). According to some local sources, the opposition also fears that the new initiative could allow ethnic-Georgian internally displaced persons (IDP) with Russian citizenship to obtain property in Abkhazia. (Part of the property and real estate of the Georgians expelled from Abkhazia after the war in 1993 is still awaiting buyers.) That said, opponents of selling any Abkhazian property to Russian citizens are not against foreign private investments.
In this context it is noteworthy that on October 20, the leadership of the pro-governmental “People’s Front of Abkhazia” organization publicly supported Bzhania’s goal of economically stabilizing and extricating Abkhazia from the crisis. The party underlined the importance of strengthening relations with Russia to address the separatist region’s economic problems and stated, “Abkhazia must keep up with the times” (Apsadgil-info, October 20). According to Abkhazian analysts, if the initiative becomes law, some of the first assets to be sold to the Russians could include the recently restored airport in Sukhumi as well as Abkhazia’s natural gas distribution infrastructure. However, Bzhania is not rushing to discuss this highly sensitive issue in the parliament (Ekho Kavkaza, November 12).
As early as 2016, the Abkhazian public proactively demanded that lawmakers impose a moratorium on the selling of real estate to foreigners. The parliament rejected the demand at that time, and it has not taken up the issue on the legislative agenda since then. Bzhania rekindled the matter in accordance with the “roadmap” suggested by Russia after his victory in the 2020 presidential elections. That roadmap was elaborated on the basis of the Russian-Abkhazian program on “The Formation of a Common Socio-Economic Space Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia on the Basis of the Harmonization of Legislations,” which was signed by both sides on November 12, 2020 (see EDM, June 15, 2020 and December 7, 2020).
Bzhania did little to hide the fact that granting Russian citizens the right to buy real estate in Abkhazia falls within the framework of that program (and the ongoing integrationist process with Russia more broadly). However, he emphasized that this will not be done at the cost of Abkhazia’s sovereignty. Bzhania has been hesitant to raise this sensitive issue for a while because of the anticipated protests from vociferous opponents. The change in his attitude more recently is most likely predetermined by the worsening social-economic situation in Abkhazia, which is threatening Bzhania’s domestic popularity, combined with growing political pressure from Russia.
The increased Russian influence on Abkhazian politics can be discerned in two recent key appointments to Bzhania’s government. On November 17, the Abkhazian “president” named 31-year-old Inal Ardzinba Abkhazia’s next “foreign minister.” Ardzinba, a former Kremlin official with close connections to Russian elite circles, will likely assist Bzhania in operationalizing the latter’s controversial land-and-asset-sale-liberalization initiative while simultaneously serving as Moscow’s local watchdog. Indeed, the heavily Russified Ardzinba has already proclaimed that the deepening of cooperation with Russia is a priority for Abkhazia’s foreign policy (see EDM, June 15, 2020; Rezonansi, November 23, 2021; Civil.ge, November 24, 2021). And on December 6, Bzhania appointed Valter Butba to the post of “interior minister” of Abkhazia. Butba graduated from a Russia military academy in Saratov and worked for the Russian Ministry of Interior from 2014 to 2016; he was awarded a medal for “distinction in the protection of the public order” by decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Psnypress, December 6).
The dispute over this sensitive issue of land and property sales to Russians may become a “litmus test” for revealing the Russia-leaning groups within the Abkhazian establishment. Sharp criticism from opponents will probably force Bzhania’s team to find a “happy middle” when it comes to real estate sales to non-citizens. However, Bzhania’s initiative first needs approval in the legislature, where Bzhania’s supporters do not hold a majority. Thus, the fate of the initiative significantly depends on the results of the Abkhazian parliamentary elections in 2022.