Property Rights in Russian-Occupied Abkhazia: Now a Cause for Tension between the Kremlin and Its Tiny Protégé

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 3, the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets, which is close to Russia’s ruling circles, published an article with a rather loud title, “Abkhazia Gains Independence from…the Russian Federation”. The newspaper asserted that “in the new state [Abkhazia], the Russian-speaking population is deprived of basic rights” and “a scandal is brewing between Moscow and Sokhumi related to violations of the rights of the Russian citizens in Abkhazia” (http://www.mk.ru/politics/article/2010/02/03/423511-abhaziya-obrela-nezavisimost-ot-rf.html). According to the information that became available to the newspaper, the violations are so serious and systematic that the foreign ministry of the Russian Federation “was forced to send a note to the Abkhaz leadership, in which it expressed grave concern over numerous instances of expropriation from Russian citizens of their property in Abkhazia.”

In the newspaper’s own conclusion, the issue at question mostly revolves around apartments and houses “being seized from Russians living in Abkhazia,” citing “dozens, if not hundreds, of instances” when property rights of Russians have been grossly violated. One lawyer interviewed by Moskovskij Komsomolets claimed that “the Russian embassy in Abkhazia had told him that in fact they have ‘four thousand statements alleging illegal seizure of realty.’”

Although “Abkhazia has seen its real estate sales [boom] after Russia recognized its independence” in August 2008, the Russian paper argues “only the citizens of Abkhazia are entitled to buy real estate, whereas Russians have to participate in questionable schemes should they want to buy a little house by the sea.” The author of the article Marina Perevozkina also mentioned the fact that “most of the apartments and houses formerly belonged to Georgians,” referring to those who had been expelled from Abkhazia in the early 1990s and who now reside in the rest of Georgia as internally displaced persons (IDPs). But she avoided discussing this “delicate and political issue” in her publication, focusing instead on property rights of the ethnic Russians living in Abkhazia and “the Abkhaz laws” enabling these rights to be infringed upon.

These “laws” provided for the confiscation of property of hundreds of thousands of Georgians who had been subjected to Kremlin-supported ethnic cleansing some 17 years ago, but since the same “laws” remain effective to date, “even one-week-long abandonment” of the house, say, “to be treated in the hospital,” Moskovskij Komsomolets, argues, can become grounds for expropriation through well-exploited schemes and manipulations. This has happened to many Russians who unlike the ethnic Abkhaz “are not protected by their clan ties” (http://www.mk.ru/politics/article/2010/02/03/423511-abhaziya-obrela-nezavisimost-ot-rf.html). The main point the Russian newspaper wants to make boils down to one statement at the very end of the article: “Russia has recognized Abkhazia. Russia gives money to Abkhazia. Russian soldiers die for Abkhazia. And at the same time, Abkhaz officials seize property” from Russians.

Moskovskij Komsomolets’ story was soon picked up by almost the entire Russian media (http://www.topnews24.ru/news/russ/cat-10/24047-v-abkhazii-pritesnjajut-russkojazychnoe.html) and ended up closely discussed on Russian blogs condemning “the facts of discrimination of ethnic Russians” (http://kon-budenogo.livejournal.com/67338.html). Andrei Nesterenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official representative, was asked a question regarding the note of protest, allegedly issued by Russia, and the Russian news agency Regnum quoted an official in the foreign ministry as saying that complaints sent by Russians living in Abkhazia “are being seriously considered” by Russian diplomats and “queries have been dispatched to the Abkhaz leadership” to clarify the situation and take appropriate measures to redress the Russian grievances (http://www.regnum.ru/news/1250315.html). Regnum has also pointed out that the issue of property rights will be soon addressed by Russian President Medvedev in his upcoming meeting with his Abkhaz “counterpart” Sergei Baghapsh.

During his briefing on February 4, Andrei Nesterenko, on the one hand, admitted that “individual cases involving problems with property of citizens of Russia do arise” and “[we] try to solve them in a calm and mutually respectful manner.” On the other hand though, he firmly stated that “no notes on this subject were sent” (http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/EA8AE8DEBA511C1DC32576C000531A35).

APN, the Russian Political News Agency, regularly publishing material of excessively nationalistic nature, recently posted an article addressing “the Russian life” in Abkhazia (http://www.apn.ru/publications/comments22366.htm#comments). Interestingly enough, the discussion section that follows the article contains a link leading to the Russian foreign ministry’s letter unofficially published on the Internet (http://s05.radikal.ru/i178/1002/47/49ad1ae795a2.jpg). It is of even greater interest to learn that the letter contains a clause referring to “an official note to the Abkhaz leadership” “expressing ‘grave concern over numerous instances of alienation from Russian citizens of their property in Abkhazia’” (http://s05.radikal.ru/i178/1002/47/49ad1ae795a2.jpg). The authenticity of the letter, dated December 4, 2008, is difficult to prove, but since Russians’ property rights in Abkhazia have been under scrutiny by the Russian government and public, the note of protest could have indeed been sent “to the Abkhaz leadership” sometime in the past.

Georgia’s one of the most picturesque regions with its subtopic climate and beautiful beaches on the Black Sea. The Georgian government has constantly raised the issues related to their safe return to their homes and the security and inviolability of their property in Abkhazia. As Abkhazia remains largely depopulated because of the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population, Moscow exerts pressure on “the Abkhaz leadership” to further alter the demographics of the region by granting the Russian citizens a right to freely purchase real estate and other property in Abkhazia, which would become yet another step toward annexation of the Georgian territory. The issue is all the more pressing for the Kremlin in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the preparation for which relies so much on construction materials illegally transported to Russia from Georgia’s Abkhazia region.