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Pro-Kremlin Leader In Breakaway Abkhazia Pushes 'Foreign Agents' Bill To Silence Critics

Abkhazia's de facto leader Aslan Bzhania (file photo)
Abkhazia's de facto leader Aslan Bzhania (file photo)

If the de facto pro-Kremlin leader of Abkhazia gets his way, Georgia's breakaway region could face draconian restrictions on any individual or group receiving foreign funding as its rubberstamp parliament debates legislation apparently modeled after Russia's much criticized "foreign agents" law.

The proposal, which includes imprisonment for those found to have violated its terms, has sent a chill through Abkhazia's NGO and activist community amid fears that Aslan Bzhania, the region's de facto leader, is tightening the screws on free speech and dissent in a bid to silence his critics.

Activists in Abkhazia have vowed to fight the proposal. "I will not allow them to register me among the foreign agents," Asida Lomia, head of the Children's Fund of Abkhazia, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"God forbid, but if the deputies take this step anyway and pass [the bill], I will withdraw my projects with the government, and then let them [finance them].... We work for the people," Lomia said. Dating back to Soviet days, her NGO provides family assistance and has cooperated with UN agencies.

Russia's legislation, which dates back to 2012 but has been expanded since, targets NGOs and rights groups, as well as media organizations -- including RFE/RL and VOA -- and individual journalists, YouTubers, and others who receive money outside of Russia and, in the eyes of the Kremlin, voice a political opinion.

Russia's 'Foreign Agent' Law: A Blunt Instrument To Silence Dissent
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The model has been exported elsewhere, including Georgia itself, where it was pushed by the governing Georgian Dream party but met by protests that led to Tbilisi withdrawing the proposal in March 2023.

A version of the legislation is being debated in Kyrgyzstan, sparking tensions between Bishkek and Washington, which has expressed concern over the bill.

In Abkhazia, Bzhania has taken other steps in recent months to restrict what he deems unwanted Western "interference." In December 2023, the de facto Abkhaz government introduced sweeping restrictions on foreign funding, including banning financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

On January 26, Abkhaz authorities denied entry to Toivo Klaar, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, who noted that there have been "increasing restrictions being placed on our work and the work of UN agencies, international NGOs, and local civil society organizations."

Located in the northwestern corner of Georgia, with the Black Sea to the southwest and the Caucasus Mountains and Russia to the northwest, Abkhazia fought a war of secession with Georgia in 1992-93 and formally declared independence in 1999. In 1931, Abkhazia became an autonomous republic within the Soviet republic of Georgia.

After the Georgia-Russia war of 2008 over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow recognized them both as independent states. The West has labeled Moscow's move as effectively annexing the two territories, with thousands of Russian troops stationed in the separatist regions. In addition to Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Syria have recognized Abkhazia as independent.

Debate In Parliament

Introduced to the local parliament by Bzhania on February 7, the "foreign agents" proposal states that any individual or organization may be recognized as "performing the functions of a foreign agent" if they receive funding or "property from foreign sources" and are involved in the "political life of Abkhazia."

If adopted, the bill "On Noncommercial Organizations and Individuals Acting As Foreign Agents" would ban organizations and individuals deemed to be "foreign agents" from participating in politics, organizing protests and rallies, and receiving state funding. Journalists declared foreign agents would be unable to gain state accreditation, and those in violation of the law could also face prison.

Critics say the proposal is sweeping in scope. "It's crucial for everyone to understand that the discussion extends beyond those employed by nongovernmental noncommercial organizations. It encompasses a far wider array of individuals, including political activists, journalists, and diaspora members -- essentially, anyone who has had any interaction with international organizations," said Diana Kerselyan, a board member of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, a local NGO promoting democracy, good governance, and civic activism, in an interview with RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus.

The proposed legislation comes amid other measures by Bzhania that have troubled Western officials.

In November 2023, Bzhania issued a decree obligating international organizations operating there to not only disclose their budgets and expenses but also the names of local partner organizations.

A month later, Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Inal Ardzinba, announced that Abkhazia was taking "new approaches" to cooperation with international organizations and UN agencies.

Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Inal Ardzinba (left), with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the signing of a bilateral consultation plan in Sochi in October.
Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Inal Ardzinba (left), with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the signing of a bilateral consultation plan in Sochi in October.

Among other things, these changes included declaring USAID Regional Director John Pennel persona non grata, refusing to certify projects partially or fully funded by USAID, as well as banning initiatives, according to Ardzinba, with the purported aim of "establishing contact between Abkhaz and Georgian citizens."

In his announcement, Ardzinba said that "Russian and Belarusian colleagues" had informed him that Western NGO activity aimed to change values, discredit "cultures, religions, and civilizations," "falsify" history, and "violate" spiritual and moral ties between "fraternal peoples," according to a report from OC Media, a Tbilisi-based news website.

For Abkhazia's leaders, however, concerns over foreign interference don't appear to extend to Russia. On December 27, 2023, Bzhania signed into law a controversial deal with Moscow, handing over control of a Black Sea resort. The deal to transfer Abkhazia's Bichvinta (aka Pitsunda) complex of holiday homes to Russia was rubberstamped by Abkhazia's de facto parliament during an unusual overnight session, despite protests by hundreds of demonstrators opposed to the deal outside the parliament building in the regional capital, Sukhumi.

Tbilisi condemned the deal, calling it "another illegal act and the continuation of Russia's policy of occupation of the indivisible regions of Georgia, which grossly violates the fundamental principles of international law."

According to the Russian-Abkhaz deal signed in January 2022, the complex will be handed to Russia free of charge, with a symbolic annual payment of 1 ruble for each land parcel. It is unclear what Russia intends to use the complex for.

Besides snatching up key real estate, Moscow also plans to expand its military footprint in Abkhazia. On October 5, 2023, following a meeting the day before in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Bzhania announced that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed an agreement in September to build a Russian naval base in the Abkhaz port of Ochamchira.

Bzhania's announcement came the same day that The Wall Street Journal reported Moscow had withdrawn most of its Black Sea fleet from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014, because of constant attacks by Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to be drawn on Bzhania's statement. "I cannot comment on this. The issues related to our troops' location, our vessels, and our units are the competence of the Defense Ministry," Peskov said at the time.

'Blatant Violation' Of Sovereignty

In 2009, mention of a comparable naval installation was swiftly condemned by NATO, which has three Black Sea littoral states as members: Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. Georgia's Foreign Ministry condemned the announcement, calling it a "blatant violation" of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In January of this year, Sergei Shamba, the head of Abkhazia's Security Council, an advisory body on defense, national security, and foreign policy, told the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that construction of the planned new military facility should begin this year. Shamba did not disclose what type of Russian vessels were expected to use the planned site.

As it cements ties with Russia, Abkhazia appears to be taking the opposite tack with the West. On January 26, Abkhazia blocked Klaar, the EU envoy, from entering the breakaway territory, the second such rebuff for him in the past six months, Civil Georgia reported.

"Abkhazia's openness should not become a casualty of Russia's war against Ukraine," Klaar told the independent regional news outlet Jam-News that same day.

In Abkhazia, rights advocates and government opponents are concerned that measures such as the proposed "foreign agents" law are taking the country back to the Soviet era.

Tengiz Jopua, an Abkhaz activist, politician, and blogger, said the proposal was nothing more than an attempt by the de facto leaders to silence critics and "free opinions.'

"We are used to expressing our opinion freely and speaking freely," Jopua told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "It is unacceptable for the Abkhaz people to return to the Stalin era," adding that no one in the breakaway region will accept any attempt to silence them.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Georgian Service's Lela Kunchilia and RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus

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