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Geneva International Discussions (GID) took place after months-long pause with no sign of diplomatic breakthrough; U.S. sanctioned judges for corruption.
“Tough” conversations occurred during 57th round of Geneva Discussions. After several postponements, Geneva 4-5 April hosted 57th round of GIDs – multilateral forum to address security and humanitarian consequences of 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Co-chairs 5 April reported that participants were unable to reach “common understanding” during talks and that Russian, de facto Abkhaz and de facto South Ossetian participants walked out when Tbilisi raised issue of return of internally displaced people and refugees; Tbilisi refused to compromise on proposals from Moscow and breakaways regarding agreement on non-use of force. EU Special Representative for South Caucasus Toivo Klaar 5 April and Georgia’s deputy foreign minister 6 April admitted dialogue was “tough”. Still, participants reiterated commitment to process; next round planned for “mid-July”. Despite troubled Geneva talks, meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (structure aimed at defusing tensions in South Ossetian conflict zone) 27 April took place; participants notably praised de facto authorities for opening two crossing points along South Ossetian administrative boundary line for Orthodox Easter festivities.
Govt condemned U.S. for sanctioning judges. U.S. 5 April sanctioned four Georgian judges for “significant corruption” that undermined “faith” in judicial system. Chairman of ruling party Georgian Dream Irakli Kobakhidze same day criticised move and accused U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken of seeking to “stigmatise” judiciary; PM Gharibashvili 10 April expressed his “full support” for judiciary. Opposition 6 April called for investigation into “clan rule” within judiciary, ruling coalition 19 April prevented initiative.
Ruling party withdrew controversial “foreign agents” law following days of large-scale protests; de facto authorities in Abkhazia and Russian officials blamed West for fomenting unrest.
Major protests prompted ruling party to drop foreign agents law. Parliament deliberations early March about controversial foreign agent’s bill, backed by ruling Georgian Dream party, triggered unrest in capital Tbilisi. Notably, demonstrators 2, 6 March took to streets to protest bill, which would oblige NGOs and media outlets receiving over 20% of funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”. Despite unrest, ruling party pressed ahead to pass legislation, with parliament 7 March adopting law in first reading. Thousands of Georgians same day spontaneously gathered in front of parliament to protest, leading to violent confrontations with riot police, who used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters. Second, larger protest 8 March also ended in violent dispersal and police detained over 130 people. European Union and U.S. same day urged authorities to respect right to protest and expressed concern about draft law. Ruling party 9 March withdrew bill and police released all those detained during protest.
Breakaway Abkhazia organised drills in response to protests. De facto officials in breakaway Abkhazia and Russian officials 9-10 March accused Western countries of instigating coup in Georgia, aimed at creating “a second front against Russia”. De facto leadership of Abkhazia 12-14 March organised military drills along line of separation, citing need for more training in face of “changing geopolitical situation in the region”. De facto Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania 21 March raised “combat readiness” of de facto armed forces, alleging more protests “are being prepared” in Georgia in April. Abkhazia and Russia 24 March held “defensive” joint military exercise. Meanwhile, EU Special Representative Toivo Klaar 16-17 March travelled to Abkhazia, where de facto leadership declared readiness to participate in Geneva International Dialogue planned for early April.
Russia and breakaway regions responded harshly after co-chairs of Geneva International Discussions postponed talks; foreign agents law proposal sparked controversy.
Russia and de facto authorities continued to deny entry to co-chairs of Geneva talks. After co-chairs of Geneva International Discussions late Jan postponed planned 57th round of talks until April, Abkhazia and South Ossetia de facto authorities, as well as Russia, voiced anger at “unilateral” move and denied co-chairs entry to either breakaway regions or Moscow, despite visits scheduled for 8-9 Feb. Despite this move, co-chairs decided to proceed with their planned trip to capital Tbilisi 6-7 Feb to meet with Georgian govt.
Proposed law on foreign influence provoked harsh criticism. People’s Power movement, closely affiliated with Georgian Dream party and critical of Western policies in Georgia, during month submitted two draft laws that would oblige NGOs and media outlets that receive over 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”; failure to fulfil this requirement, which would apply to individuals as well, would result in variety of penalties from fines to prison term of up to five years. Georgian Dream party 21 Feb announced support for draft, but U.S. 16 Feb criticised law and rejected claim it resembles U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act; Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe same day raised “several concerns”; over 60 media outlets 27 Feb released joint statement “categorically opposing” draft law; and President Salome Zourabichvili 28 Feb pledged to veto it.
In other important developments. Tbilisi City Court 6 Feb ruled against transfer of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili abroad for health reasons.
Authorities debated possible resumption of Russian flights, and protesters took to streets demanding transfer abroad of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Russian plans to resume direct air traffic with Georgia fuelled debate. Russian FM Sergei Lavrov 17 Jan said Moscow was considering resumption of air traffic with Georgia, suspended since 2019 at annual press conference in Moscow; Lavrov praised Georgia’s authorities for having “courage” to resist Western “pressure” on sanctions against Russia and for prioritising “the interests of their own economy”. Lavrov’s statement renewed debate about govt’s susceptibility toward Russia. Ruling party Georgian Dream 19 Jan welcomed “any such decision” on resumption of flights, insisting that Georgia was standing up for its “national interests”. However, President Salome Zourabichvili 20 Jan dismissed govt’s “incomprehensible” position while U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan same day said “most Georgians” would oppose resumption of flights. Meanwhile, after initially refusing requests from Ukraine to supply power generators amid Russian attacks on its energy infrastructure, govt 6 Jan sent 25 big power generators to Ukraine.
In other important developments. Amid mounting concern around health of imprisoned former President Saakashvili, street rallies 4 Jan took place in number of towns and cities, including Tbilisi, and foreign capitals, calling for his transfer abroad for medical treatment. Meanwhile, de facto Abkhaz authorities 31 Jan denied delegation of co-chairs from International Geneva discussions, who were planning visit 8-9 Feb, entry to breakaway region; Abkhazia’s de facto FM Inal Ardzinba cited “unilateral” decision to cancel 57th round of Geneva discussions, slated for 21 Feb, as reason for announcement.
Controversy over fate of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili grew, and Russia and breakaway Abkhazia signed cooperation agreement.
Authorities remained defiant over calls to transfer Saakashvili abroad for medical treatment. Amid mounting concern around health of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili, authorities 14 Dec released footage of Saakashvili inside hospital where he has been receiving treatment as “proof that his life is not in danger”. Move triggered backlash from opposition. Notably, four MPs from United National Movement party 15-16 Dec went on hunger strike and demanded his transfer abroad for treatment, which Saakashvili’s family have long demanded. Meanwhile, U.S. 12 Dec said govt is responsible for ensuring Saakashvili’s “health is respected and human rights are protected”; European Parliament 14 Dec voted for resolution calling for release of Saakashvili on humanitarian grounds; and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy 19 Dec urged authorities to permit Saakashvili’s transfer abroad. Hearing on transfer 22 Dec began but Saakashvili’s lawyer said Saakashvili felt unwell and trial proceeded without him. Next hearing on whether to defer or suspend Saakashvili’s case for health reasons expected 9 Jan.
Govt condemned senior Russian figure’s visit to breakaway Abkhazia. Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin 1 Dec paid “first official” visit to breakaway Abkhazia; Volodin and de facto Abkhazian counterpart Lasha Ashuba 2 Dec signed cooperation agreement; Georgian foreign ministry same day condemned visit.
In other important developments. PM Gharibashvili 7 Dec ruled out military assistance to Ukraine, saying “we will never get involved in this war”; comments followed criticism from acting Ukrainian Ambassador to Georgia Andriy Kasyanov over repeated requests for military assistance.
Authorities took further steps to align with European Union’s (EU) candidacy status demands and expressed concerns over “illegal” arrests in breakaway Abkhazia.
Georgia and Western actors sought closer cooperation. European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi 15-16 Nov visited Tbilisi, underscoring EU’s interest in strengthening energy and security cooperation; leadership viewed visit as new chapter in Georgia-EU relations. Following trip, parliament 28 Nov paused adoption process for law on de-oligarchisation – one of EU’s demands as precondition for candidate status – to hear suggestions from Council of Europe’s Venice Commission amid pressure from EU officials; EU 28 Nov welcomed decision, saying it is “important to consult international standard setters and implement their recommendations”. Meanwhile, NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg 21 Nov called for “more support” from Western defence alliance to Georgia, which he said is “vulnerable” to “Russian coercion and aggression”; NATO Allies 30 Nov agreed to “step up tailored support” to Georgia.
De facto authorities in breakaway Abkhazia detained more Georgian citizens. De facto security service 4 Nov detained Asmat Tavadze in Gali district on charges of illegal drug purchase and storage; de facto authorities also reported seizing Georgian flag and other Georgian state symbols found in her apartment. Georgia 5 Nov condemned de facto Abkhaz security forces for illegal detention and said “work was underway to release” her. Tbilisi 8 Nov announced another arrest of Georgian citizen in same area with similar charges.
After months-long pause, international forum to discuss consequences of 2008 Russo-Georgian war held.
New round of Geneva International Discussions held in Switzerland. After pause of nearly one year due to international tensions over Russian invasion of Ukraine (see Ukraine), 56th round of Geneva International Discussions – multilateral forum to address security and humanitarian consequences of 2008 Russo-Georgian War –held 5 Oct in Switzerland’s Palais des Nations. Deputy FM Lasha Darsalia 5 Oct described negotiation process as “particularly difficult” given “rather complicated security environment around us”. EU Special Representative Toivo Klaar same day commended “very useful” exchange of views, noting everyone was “committed” to continuing work in Geneva format.
In other important developments. EU Council 12 Oct announced plan on non-acceptance of Russian travel documents issued in breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine; said decision was in “response to Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s practice of issuing Russian international passports to residents of the occupied regions”.
Debate over potential military operation in breakaway territories prompted pushback, Belarusian president travelled to Abkhazia to strengthen cooperation, and authorities curtailed political freedoms.Opposition raised idea of “military operation” in breakaway territories, ruling party rejected it. Russian losses in Ukraine during Sept (see Ukraine) raised tensions between ruling Georgian Dream party and several opposition leaders after latter mid Sept said country should capitalise on Russia’s weakened position and launch military operation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia breakaway territories. Ruling party Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze 7 Sept had rejected idea of opening “second front” against Russia (Russia recognises breakaways as independent states and is responsible for providing military support and security to both entities) but floated idea of referendum on issue. In response, Abkhazia’s de facto FM Inal Ardzinba 15 Sept organised public discussion with local representatives to voice concerns about “forces aimed at diverting Russia’s military and economic resources away from Donbas”; also drew attention to Georgia’s military exercises with NATO, saying likelihood of Georgia initiating military operation in Abkhazia was “quite high”, pointing to Kobakhidze’s referendum suggestion; Kobakhidze same day denied plans for war were being considered.Belarusian President Lukashenko visited Abkhazia for first time since taking office. In first visit to breakaway territory as president, Lukashenko 28 Sept met with Abkhazia’s de facto leader Aslan Bzhania and other senior officials in Bichvinta town to discuss bilateral cooperation and international security. Lukashenko said “we must strengthen relations with friends” otherwise “we will not be allowed to live in peace”, but stopped short of explicitly promising recognition.Authorities passed laws restricting freedoms, compromising prospects for EU candidacy status. Amendments to first law, adopted 6 Sept, strengthen security service’s ability to use covert surveillance measures on civilians; President Salome Zourabichvili had vetoed bill in June and 1 Sept reiterated that it was “not in line with securing human rights”. Amendments to second law, adopted 9 Sept, modified selection rules for public defender, reducing opposition’s influence over candidate’s selection. Amendments, which followed EU’s June decision to condition candidate status on fulfilling “outstanding priorities” regarding political polarisation, judicial system, human rights and anti-corruption, appeared to challenge prospects for candidacy status.
Breakaway South Ossetia reopened crossing points with Georgia proper after three years, tensions with U.S. ambassador persisted, and EU published review of govt’s progress on reforms needed for accession. De facto South Ossetia security council 18 Aug decided to resume functioning of key crossings points with Georgia proper from 20-30 of each month using special passes; crossing points had been largely closed for almost three years following tensions over Tbilisi’s decision in 2019 to install police outpost near South Ossetian village of Tsnelisi at line that separates entity from rest of Georgia. Georgian security service and EU monitoring mission 19, 22 Aug respectively praised opening of crossings, which remain vital for ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia. New de facto President of South Ossetia Alan Gagloev continued new govt appointments; notably, 15 Aug named Akhsar Jioev de facto foreign minister; 23 Aug named former Russian military serviceman Marat Pavlov de facto defence minister. Tensions with U.S. persisted as Georgia’s ruling party and its political allies continued verbal exchanges with U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan over former’s accusations that Western countries wanted “to drag” Georgia into war with Russia; also accused Degnan and other U.S., EU diplomats of supporting opposition; notably, in statement published 11 Aug, four MPs allied with ruling party accused Degnan of backing “the radical agenda of the radical opposition”. EU 13 Aug released Association Agreement implementation report, reviewing Georgia’s implementation of reforms needed for EU accession. Report complimented country’s progress toward closer economic integration but criticised its poor handling of 2021 local elections and other issues that “threaten to undermine the country’s democratic foundations”. Ruling party 30 Aug accused opposition of trying “their best to sabotage” implementation of EU conditions for candidate status. Syrian FM Faisal Mekdad visited breakaway Abkhazia 24-25 Aug, met with de facto president Aslan Bzhania, saying Abkhazia “relies on Syria's support to expand contacts with Middle East countries that maintain friendly relations with Syria”; Mekdad promised to work to further develop relations with Abkhazia.
EU accession roadmap sparked fierce political debate, while tensions rose between ruling Georgian Dream party and U.S., EU. Since EU member states conditioned Georgia’s candidate status on fulfilling “outstanding priorities” in June, country’s leadership, opposition and civil society failed to agree on path forward, particularly with regard to electoral reform and “de-oligarchisation”. Ruling Georgian Dream party 1 July presented plan, listing new commissions and existing ministries responsible for reforms, along with timeline; group of civil society organisations 3 July released its own plan. Many opposition politicians and president 11 July voiced concerns about leadership’s readiness to initiate genuine process that might satisfy EU demands. Several leading civil society organisations 12 July declared readiness to support ruling party, while president with support of remaining opposition 15 July signed decree initiating special parliamentary session for debates on fulfilling recommendations; ruling party 18 July promised to boycott session. Several opposition parties 25 July initiated working process on recommendations in parallel to discussions led by ruling party. Tensions with U.S. and EU rose during month. After several parliamentarians late June accused U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan of attempting to involve Georgia in war with Russia, Degnan 8 July dismissed claim as “conspiracy theories”. Head of ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze 9 July accused Degnan of “regrettable, offensive” remarks; U.S. State Dept 20 July condemned attacks on Degnan and embassy. In rare public statement, founder of ruling party and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili 27 July echoed claims that “certain forces” were attempting to “drag Georgia” into war and also confirmed meeting with Degnan late March, which she previously denied; Degnan same day asserted there was “never any talk about Georgia’s involvement” in war. Pushing back on EU demands for “de-oligarchisation”, which ruling party sees as attempt to undermine Ivanishvili, PM Irakli Gharibashvili 18 July published letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen blaming European Parliament for “factual inaccuracies” about Ivanishvili. Adding to criticism, Kobakhidze 20 July said outgoing EU Ambassador Carl Harzell “played only a negative role in EU-Georgia relations”; EU 21 July said govt was “blaming others for own unfulfilled ambitions”.
European leaders recognised country’s European “perspective” and conditioned candidacy status on reforms amid largest pro-EU rallies in decades. Following 3 March EU membership bid in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, EU member states 23 June recognised Georgia’s “European perspective”, conditioned candidate status on fulfilling “outstanding priorities” regarding political polarisation, judicial system, human rights and anti-corruption as per European Commission’s recommendation announced 17 June; PM Gharibashvili same day confirmed readiness “to implement all priorities”. Decision came as disappointment to many in capital Tbilisi, although not surprise; ahead of vote, European Parliament 9 June adopted critical resolution on Georgia, citing concerns about media and political environment. Gharibashvili 11 June said resolution was “full of lies” and “insulting”. Several Georgian NGOs 12 June criticised Gharibashvili in joint statement, saying he was downplaying importance of candidate status, which could feed into “Eurosceptic attitudes” and which echoed “Russian narratives”. President Zourabichvili 16 June tried mobilising public, all political parties and EU ambassadors to pro-Europe rally in Tbilisi; turnout was poor. Yet more than 100,000 people 20 June rallied in Tbilisi in support of candidacy status decision in Belgian capital Brussels, chanting: “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European”; demonstration was one of largest in country’s 31 years of independence.
Political tensions over war in Ukraine remained elevated, notably in breakaway South Ossetia, where de facto govt scheduled and then postponed referendum on accession to Russia. Political situation throughout month remained tense as opposition continued to accuse leadership of not showing sufficient support to Ukraine, including by aligning more with Western allies on key positions related to Russia’s invasion. Tbilisi city court 16 May sentenced head of opposition TV channel Nika Gvaramia to three-and-a-half years imprisonment for abuse of power; Gvaramia rejected all charges as politically motivated. Local NGOs same day said bail or other softer punishment could replace prison term, while international human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch same day voiced concerns about ruling. In breakaway republic South Ossetia, following his defeat in second round of presidential elections 8 May, de facto President Anatoly Bibilov 14 May signed decree to hold referendum on joining Russia on 17 July. Election winner Alan Gagloev, who was inaugurated 24 May, reportedly learned about referendum from media reports; Gagloev can postpone vote for three months, but not recall decree. Gagloev 30 May issued decree that postpones referendum until consultations with Moscow are finalised; some senior Russian officials and important politicians during month publicly opposed referendum due to risks of destabilising Russia’s relations with Georgia. Situation along lines of separation with South Ossetia and breakaway Abkhazia remained calm; no reports during month of detentions or fence construction along lines of separation. Co-chairs of the Geneva International Discussions, UN Representative Cihan Sultanoğlu, Special Representative of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairperson-in-Office Viorel Moșanu, and EU Special Representative Toivo Klaar 30 May began trip to region; visit follows cancelled March talks and accusations from Russian diplomats late April that West was blocking Geneva discussions.
Breakaway South Ossetia’s de facto leader, who has called for accession to Russia, competed in first round of presidential elections. Following late March announcement by de facto leader of breakaway South Ossetia Anatoly Bibilov of intention to join Russia after April de facto presidential elections, Georgian leaders raised concern over possible Russian annexation of breakaway South Ossetia. At first round of de facto presidential election in breakaway territory, opposition leader Alan Gagloyev 10 April came in first with 38%; Bibilov came in second with 34.95%. Run-off vote was supposed to be held on 28 April but de facto central electoral commission rescheduled it for 8 May. Gagloyev 18 April met Kremlin official in Russia’s capital Moscow ahead of run-off election. Meanwhile, Abkhaz authorities and leaders maintained insistence on independence of de facto state in contrast to South Ossetia’s de facto leadership; however, Abkhaz de facto opposition Patriotic Movement and some Russian politicians during month maintained that Abkhaz accession to Russian Federation remained possible. After de facto parliamentary elections in breakaway Abkhazia in March, de facto parliament 11 April elected Lasha Ashuba as speaker. State Security Service 18 April declared release of Georgian citizen Vladimer Kaniashvili, formerly detained in breakaway South Ossetia in Dec 2021. Meanwhile, family of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili late month demanded authorities permit Saakashvili to obtain urgent medical treatment in foreign country; family warned of protests if request not met by 2 May. Over dozen NGOs 28 April called for govt to ensure Saakashvili receives adequate medical treatment.
Georgians mobilised in support of Ukraine, as govt’s cautious stance on war provoked public anger and strained relations with President Zourabichvili. Since outbreak of war in Ukraine in late Feb, almost all segments of society vocalised support for and solidarity with Ukraine, including by collecting humanitarian aid, donating blood, raising funds for Ukrainian troops and providing essential services to refugees. Dozens of former military figures, including former defence minister, reportedly joined Ukrainian troops in defending country. Authorities 7 March reported arrival in country of over 30,000 Russians amid exodus following unprecedented Western sanctions; however, less than half stayed in country possibly due to discrimination and pressure from citizens and businesses. All banks introduced restrictions on transactions with Russia despite govt’s late Feb refusal to join Western sanctions. Govt’s refusal to criticise Russia for Ukraine’s invasion continued to fuel public anger. Statements from ruling Georgian Dream party, including that govt would not join Western sanctions, revived speculation about party’s pro-Russian stance; anti-govt protests, some numbering tens of thousands in front of parliament in capital Tbilisi, which started in late Feb continued throughout March. Govt’s stance also fuelled tensions between ruling party and President Zourabichvili. During 4 March address to parliament, Zourabichvili confirmed recent trips to Europe to meet French and EU presidents, noted it was first time ever she was so bluntly rebuffed by senior leadership in request for support; in response, leaders of Georgian Dream threatened to launch investigation on grounds that president is obliged to act in coordination with govt. FM David Zalkaliani 28 March announced start of European Commission’s consideration of Georgia’s EU membership bid. Meanwhile, International Criminal Court 10 March released arrest warrants for three high-level former de facto South Ossetian officials for crimes during 2008 war. De facto Abkhazia entity 12, 26 March held election for de facto parliament.
Georgians demonstrated in support of Ukraine following Russian invasion, while breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia expressed hope for recognition by Belarus. Parliament 1 Feb adopted resolution in support of Ukraine amid Russia’s military build-up around country (see Ukraine); resolution did not label Russia “aggressor” as demanded by opposition MPs. Following Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 Feb, thousands of Georgians protested in solidarity with Ukraine. Protests increased after 25 Feb remarks of Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili about non-alliance with Western sanctions against Russia. Abkhazia 25 Feb announced its recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Ukraine’s breakaway regions. After Tbilisi City Court in Jan convicted founders of political party Lelo for fraud, parliament 15 Feb terminated mandates of three opposition parliamentarians, leaving Lelo party without leader at legislature. Belarusian President Lukashenko 6 Feb indicated possibility of recognising independence of breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “as soon as I see [the need]”. Abkhazia’s de facto foreign ministry 8 Feb declared interest “in establishing official contacts with the Republic of Belarus”, while South Ossetia’s de facto leader Anatoly Bibilov 12 Feb argued “in moral terms, Belarus can recognize us”. Georgia’s foreign ministry 8 Feb insisted that “Belarus is committed to the fundamental principles of international law” and that such recognition “is not on the agenda”. De facto ruling party One Ossetia in breakaway South Ossetia 8 Feb nominated incumbent Anatoly Bibilov as candidate for April’s de facto presidential elections; Bibilov 26 Feb dismissed Defence Minister Ibragim Gassiyev for supporting opposition candidates in upcoming elections.
Relative calm returned to domestic politics amid criticism over controversial law. After former President Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters agreed to cease hunger strike in Dec, political tensions eased off; hearings of Saakashvili’s corruption case continued during month. Leadership of main opposition party United National Movement (UNM) 10 Jan changed key positions, vacating party chair. Irakli Kobakhidze of ruling party Georgian Dream 17 Jan said ruling party consolidated as ever. UNM 31 Jan ended its boycott of parliament, seeking commission to investigate treatment of Saakashvili and warning of “fierce Spring protests”. President Zourabichvili 13 Jan signed off controversial law amendment that abolished State Inspector’s Office, govt body that had launched investigation into alleged violations of penitentiary office related to imprisonment of Saakashvili; move prompted criticism from UN country team and numerous Georgian NGOs as well as U.S., which 3 Jan said amendment “undermined government accountability” and “damaged Georgia’s aspirations for NATO and European Union membership”. Amid U.S.-Russia negotiations on European security architecture, FM David Zalkaliani 6 Jan spoke to U.S. Deputy Sec State Wendy Sherman, insisting on Georgia’s freedom to “pursue an independent foreign and security policy”; FM 17-18 Jan visited NATO headquarters in Belgian capital Brussels to reiterate Georgian aspiration to join NATO. Meanwhile, head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia and special representative of OSCE chairperson-in-office for South Caucasus 20 Jan jointly facilitated 104th meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism, format bringing together Georgian and Russian officials along with de facto authorities and foreign mediators; participants “focused on ongoing detention cases”, also discussed impact of “protracted closure of crossing points” while co-facilitators “noted with concern the increased number of detentions in recent weeks”. Following Dec violence around opposition rally in breakaway Abkhazia, de facto Prosecutor’s Office 8 Jan detained at least four individuals; opposition People’s and Patriotic Union of Abkhazia, group uniting several key opposition groups that led Dec protests and opposition lawmakers, 8 Jan condemned detentions, which it said are politically motivated.
Tensions between govt and opposition remained high, while breakaway Abkhazia’s political leadership faced new scandal and violent protest. Detained former President Mikheil Saakashvili 2 Dec attended second hearing on corruption case, which he rejected. Prosecutor 10 Dec began investigation into former Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Lordkipanidze for allegedly helping Saakashvili’s illegal border crossing. Large-scale protest 21 Dec gathered in capital Tbilisi, and opposition party United National Movement chairman called for “mass hunger strike” until Saakhashvili’s release. Authorities 30 Dec moved Saakashvili from Gori military hospital to prison in Rustavi town. Opposition members 15 Dec held closed-door talks with ruling Georgian Dream party on constitutional amendments as part of EU-brokered April deal; President Zourabichvili 16 Dec hosted members of Georgian Dream and opposition, and called for political reconciliation. Following Oct scandal in breakaway Abkhazia, where former de facto Interior Minister Dmitry Dbar and police clashed with MPs and veterans over independence celebration, de facto President Aslan Bzhania 3 Dec reappointed Dmitry Dbar to head of de facto state security service. House searches of two alleged hosts of Facebook pages “insulting” officials 2-3 Dec resulted in street brawl, with de facto Deputy Tourism Minister Dato Kajaia reportedly firing gunshots several times, injuring one. De facto authorities 3 Dec detained Kajaia and two alleged social media hosts, and dismissed officials, including Kajaia and de facto interior minister. Bzhania 6 Dec appointed former Russian official Valter Butba as new de facto interior minister. After de facto president 20 Dec warned protesters reportedly rallying against pandemic response and energy crisis, demonstrators 21 Dec violently clashed with security forces. De facto president met twice with representatives of opposition 21 Dec to discuss demands; Prosecutor’s Office 23 Dec opened criminal investigation into protesters. Breakaway South Ossetia 1 Dec ratified agreement with Russia on dual citizenship; 16 Western states, including UK, U.S. and Canada, 3 Dec labelled agreement “step toward de facto annexation”. South Ossetia 1, 9 12, 23 and 27 Dec detained ten Georgian citizens for illegally crossing de facto border, and 3, 19 and 24 Dec released six.
Imprisonment of former President Mikheil Saakashvili continued to fuel political tensions and protests, prompting international concern. Amid growing concerns over Saakashvili’s health, on hunger strike since early Oct, United National Movement (UNM) party 6 Nov organised protests demanding Saakashvili’s release in capital Tbilisi; at least 3,000 people reportedly gathered, authorities arrested dozens. Authorities 8 Nov transferred Saakashvili to prison clinic, which he next day claimed was enforced with physical violence; Saakashvili demanded transfer to civilian hospital. Tbilisi City Court 10 Nov began trial against Saakashvili; former president’s lawyer same day refused participation citing court ban on Saakashvili’s attendance, after which court adjourned trial until 29 Nov. Demonstrators 23 Nov gathered in Tbilisi to express solidarity with Saakashvili. Protesters 29 Nov rallied outside Tbilisi City Court; police used pepper spray to clear crowds and arrested 15 people. Situation prompted international concern. European Court of Human Rights 16 Nov ruled in interim decision that Saakashvili must end hunger strike and ordered authorities to provide “appropriate medical care”; U.S. and EU ambassadors to Georgia 19 Nov called for authorities to take steps to protect Saakashvili’s health. Saakashvili 19 Nov announced end to hunger strike if govt transferred him to civilian hospital; govt 20 Nov agreed to proposed transfer to special hospital. Ten opposition MPs early to mid-Nov started solidarity hunger strike, which 20 Nov ended with former president’s transfer to hospital. Meanwhile, de facto Abkhaz authorities 17 Nov appointed former Kremlin adviser Inal Ardzinba new de facto FM.
Ruling Georgian Dream party won local elections as arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili fuelled tensions between opposition and govt. In local elections held 2 Oct, Georgian Dream won 46.7% of votes, surpassing 43% threshold for snap parliamentary elections set by EU-brokered April deal from which party withdrew in July; largest opposition party United National Movement (UNM) came in second with 30.7% of vote. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission same day concluded elections were “well-administered”, despite “allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and an unlevel playing field”; UNM 3 Oct alleged “election results were falsified”. Run-off round took place 30 Oct to decide winner in number of key towns as well as capital Tbilisi; Central Election Commission 31 Oct announced Georgian Dream won 19 of 20 mayoral polls, including all major cities, prompting head of UNM Nika Melia to reject “rigged results” and call for street rallies in protest. After founder of UNM and former President Mikheil Saakashvili 1 Oct returned to Georgia from Ukraine, authorities same day arrested him on corruption charges which he rejected; Saakashvili immediately announced hunger strike. In its largest street protest ever, UNM 14 Oct gathered 50,000 supporters in capital Tbilisi to demand Saakashvili’s release; dozens of former and current European foreign officials 18 Oct called for Saakashvili’s release. Prosecutor’s Office 21 Oct charged Saakashvili with crossing border illegally. Meanwhile, in breakaway entity Abkhazia, violent altercation ensued after de facto Interior Minister Dmitry Dbar accompanied by police reportedly sought to disarm de facto MP Garri Kokaia who had fired shots in air at late Sept celebrations of 28th anniversary of territory’s declaration of independence. Demonstrators 1 Oct rallied against Dbar outside de facto parliament building while de facto President Aslan Bzhania same day convened emergency parliamentary session. Bzhania 3 Oct suspended Dbar pending investigation into the incident; motion in de facto parliament to dismiss Dbar from his post however failed by one vote. Bzhania visited Russian capital Moscow twice during month for high-level meetings with senior Russian officials, including with Deputy PM Marat Khusnullin.
Acrimony between opposition and ruling Georgian Dream party surfaced ahead of Oct local elections, raising prospect of disputed results. Country prepared for local elections scheduled for 2 Oct, with opposition members throughout month characterising poll as “referendum” to end nine-year-long rule of Georgian Dream party and voicing concerns over possible voting irregularities. Under EU-U.S. brokered agreement signed in April between opposition and govt, local elections should lead to snap parliamentary elections if Georgian Dream fails to obtain 43% of vote share; ruling party withdrew from deal in July. Meanwhile, opposition media 13 Sept leaked thousands of reports and transcripts of conversations allegedly recorded by Georgian security services containing details of personal and professional lives of dozens of Georgian clerics, prompting launch of investigation by Georgian Prosecutor’s Office; Georgian Church claimed leaks are attempt to discredit clerics. Former senior official Megis Kardava, facing charges of torture, rape and murder, 17 Sept arrived for trial in Georgia after his extradition from Ukraine; Kardava is expected to testify against former Georgian leaders, who are now key opposition figures. De facto authorities of breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia facilitated participation of Russian passport holders in Russian parliamentary elections 17-19 Sept by opening polling stations and encouraging voting; Georgia 20 Sept condemned holding of elections in two breakaway regions.
Breakaway territory Abkhazia received Russian support amid new wave of COVID-19 cases, and breakaway South Ossetia signed dual citizenship law with Moscow. In Abkhazia, de facto govt 12 Aug announced ban on mass gatherings as daily COVID-19 cases rose during month, notably reaching 162 on 17 Aug; de facto authorities 27 Aug confirmed total of 372 deaths and 24,952 cases to date among total population of approximately 200,000 people. In show of support, Russian defence ministry 17 Aug constructed field hospital with 100 beds in de facto territory, and following de facto President Aslan Bzhania’s late July visit to Russian capital Moscow, Abkhazia received delivery of some 5,000 Russian-made coronavirus vaccines purchased with diaspora-raised funds. In breakaway territory South Ossetia, Russian President Putin 4 Aug signed new law on dual citizenship with de facto leadership, facilitating access to Russian citizenship for young people in breakaway region; Georgia 5 Aug condemned law as “a continuation of policy of unlawful occupation and de-facto annexation”.
Far-right mob attacks at Pride event in capital Tbilisi undermined political reconciliation deal; engagement between Tbilisi and breakaway territories displayed some positive signs. Pride march 5 July held in capital Tbilisi, but quickly sparked backlash from far-right demonstrators who clashed with pro-LGBTQ+ participants, leaving over 50 journalists injured; organisers same day cancelled march in light of near-absent police protection and far-right attacks. PM Gharibashvili same day claimed “radical opposition” led by former President Saakashvili was behind march to spread unrest; authorities’ failure to prevent violence sparked international criticism, including from Western embassies, along with EU and UN representatives. Political tensions heightened further after confirmation that cameraman Aleksandre Lashkarava had died 11 July from injuries suffered during 5 July disorder; 19 civil society organisations immediately called on Gharibashvili and Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri to resign, while hundreds 11-12 July protested in Tbilisi, and smaller protest took place in Black Sea port city Batumi, demanding PM’s resignation; in Tbilisi, scuffles 12 July broke out between govt and opposition MPs in parliament. Reconciliation deal between govt and opposition faced further strains after govt 12 July appointed six Supreme Court judges in contravention of April agreement, sparking criticism from EU and U.S. officials 14-15 July. Amid growing political turmoil, ruling Georgian Dream party 28 July announced that it considers EU-brokered April deal “annulled”. Meanwhile, following 53rd round of Geneva International Discussions held late June, Inguri crossing between breakaway Abkhazia region and Tbilisi-controlled territory 5 July reopened after 478-day closure due to COVID-19. Georgian and South Ossetia representatives 8 July agreed technical solution to cross-line water supply issues. As part of exchange of detainees, South Ossetian de facto leader Anatoly Bibilov 14 July pardoned Georgian citizen Zaza Gakheladze who was detained in July 2020.
Discord surfaced between govt and opposition, threatening implementation of April agreement, while govt and breakaway territories engaged in meetings to resolve issues. Discord and political rivalry between govt and opposition challenged implementation of EU- and U.S.-brokered April agreement that ended months-long political standoff. Notably, opposition MPs – most of whom rejoined parliament late April – 9 June opposed ruling Georgian Dream party’s draft bill on amnesty, which includes protection for police officers charged with “abuse of power” during June 2019 unrest when thousands protested in capital Tbilisi after Russian MP addressed session in parliament building from seat of Georgian parliament speaker and spoke in Russian. Ruling party MPs in turn 11 June voted down alternative law proposed by opposition parties. Meanwhile, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) co-chairs, EU and UN 6-10 June held discussions on humanitarian and security issues with officials from breakaway territories and govt in capital Tbilisi, South Ossetia’s de facto capital Tskhinvali, Abkhazia’s de facto capital Sukhumi and Russian capital Moscow. Georgian representatives raised imprisonment of four Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while South Ossetian representatives raised continued discontent with police outpost established in 2019 at Ossetian village of Tsnelisi area at line of separation. OSCE Sec Gen Helga Schmid 14-16 June visited Georgia, including Tsitsagiantkari village at line of separation with South Ossetia, and took part in 100th Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meeting. Fifty-third round of Geneva International Discussions 29 June began; Georgian delegation sought to raise issue of Georgian detainees in breakaway territories while South Ossetian and Abkhazian sides concentrated on non-use of force agreement.
Govt and opposition focused on implementing EU and U.S.-brokered April agreement that ended political crisis. In line with EU and U.S.-brokered deal last month that concluded months-long political stalemate following Oct 2020 elections, main opposition parties and civil society representatives throughout May discussed amendments of electoral code – including provisions to consider more opposition representatives in top leadership of Central Election Commission and installation of video cameras at all electoral precincts ahead of local elections. Authorities 10 May released opposition United National Movement (UNM) leader Nika Melia from his pre-trial detention. EU and U.S. lawmakers throughout month continued to call on European Georgia and UNM opposition parties to relinquish their hard-line positions, sign brokered agreement and enter parliament; European Georgia party 18 May said it would continue boycott of parliament, although most party members had already joined parliament in their individual capacity. Ending months-long boycott, UNM 30 May decided to join parliament.
Govt and opposition reached deal to end months-long political crisis following EU- and U.S.-facilitated talks. Ruling Georgia Dream party and most opposition parties 19 April signed EU- and U.S.-brokered agreement to end political deadlock that followed contested parliamentary election in Oct 2020; deal, which formally ends months-long opposition boycott of parliament, includes plans for electoral and judicial reforms, and could lead to release of jailed opposition members. Most opposition MPs 27 April joined parliament; meanwhile, one activist backing opposition movement same day released from prison following presidential pardon. In de facto entity Abkhazia, Georgian State Security Service 7 April found bodies of four Georgian residents of Gali district who had attempted to swim across Inguri river between Abkhazia and Georgia-controlled villages; crossing points have been largely closed since March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. Following public criticism after incident, govt 14 April announced lifting of requirement for people entering Georgia from Abkhazia to enter five-day mandatory quarantine, as of 19 April.
EU-facilitated talks between govt and opposition concluded without deal, while opposition lawmakers in de facto South Ossetia ended six-month boycott of parliament. After court last month sentenced leader of main opposition party United National Movement Nika Melia to pre-trial detention, prompting PM Giorgi Gakharia to resign in protest, European Council President Charles Michel 1 March arrived in capital Tbilisi and, without prior notice, invited both ruling party and opposition to joint meeting; following talks, both sides declared their commitment to continue discussions on contentious issues, including recent parliamentary elections, arrest of opposition members and need to reinforce role of opposition in parliament. Michel 8 March appointed Christian Danielsson as special envoy to continue talks; Danielsson 12-19 March held meetings with both parties and announced that discussions concluded without deal; opposition said ruling party refused to demonstrate flexibility regarding their demands for snap elections and release of those detained, while ruling party said opposition had put forward “anti-state ultimatums”. Michel 23 March announced that Danielsson will return to Tbilisi by 27 March to continue talks; following further talks between govt and opposition on EU proposal for agreement that included provisions of electoral and judicial reform as well as addressing “politicised justice”, Danielsson 31 March said he was “sad to report that none of the political parties could agree to this solution in whole.” In breakaway South Ossetia, opposition parliamentarians 16 March returned to parliament for vote on candidacy for new PM after six-month boycott; de facto President Anatoliy Bibilov’s candidate Gennady Bekoyev was confirmed as PM. De facto leader early 4 March announced constitutional reforms subject to possible referendum.
PM Gakharia resigned following court’s decision to arrest opposition leader. Tbilisi city court 17 Feb sentenced to pre-trial detention leader of main opposition party United National Movement (UNM) Nika Melia for his role in calling on protesters to take over parliament during June 2019 unrest; Melia previously sentenced to home arrest in July 2019; opposition leaders and prominent politicians same day gathered in support of Melia at UNM headquarters. PM Giorgi Gakharia 18 Feb resigned, citing his opposition to court’s decision that was at odds with position of ruling Georgian Dream party, which supported court’s decision. Georgian Dream same day nominated former Defence Minister Irakli Garibashvili as new PM. Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairperson-in-office and Swedish FM Ann Linde 16 Feb visited Georgia for meetings with leadership and to discuss situation in breakaway regions. Restrictions on crossing from Abkhazia to Georgia-controlled territory 11 Feb eased for elders, pensioners and people with special needs; crossings had mostly remained closed, due to COVID-19, for almost a year.
Opposition parties largely continued to boycott parliament, while protests persisted in de facto South Ossetia over death in police custody. Amid opposition boycott of parliament following disputed late Oct election, four members of opposition Alliance of Patriots 5 Jan quit opposition party and took seats in parliament in line with calls from ruling Georgian Dream party; two members of opposition Citizens Party 29 Jan also took seats, while other opposition members continued boycott throughout month. Georgian Dream 11 Jan offered to establish independent commission, which would also include foreign diplomats as well as local and international NGOs, to recount remaining ballots from 2020 elections; main opposition parties 26 Jan called on Georgian Dream to return to talks; according to law, mandates of MPs will be cancelled unless all those elected take seats by end of Jan. Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream founder, 11 Jan announced that he quit party chairmanship and politics “for good”. In breakaway South Ossetia, small-scale protests demanding resignation of de facto Prosecutor General Uruzmag Dzhagayev and justice for local man reportedly beaten to death in police custody in late Aug continued; protests over lack of investigation, which started early Dec, held throughout month in main square of regional capital Tskhinvali in front of governmental headquarters. Many local parliamentarians also continued boycott of parliamentary sessions to protest lack of investigation into death in custody; boycott, which started in Sept, left numerous senior de facto govt positions vacant due to lack of functioning parliament able to conduct approvals of govt nominations. Five former South Ossetia senior officials, including two ex-presidents, 14 Jan proposed mediation between de facto South Ossetia president and protesters. Meanwhile, de facto entity Abkhazia suffered stark increase in COVID-19 deaths throughout month, bringing the total to 11,301 confirmed cases, with 161 deaths 26 Jan. European Court of Human Rights 21 Jan declared Russia in breach of European Convention on Human Rights due to “administrative practice” revealing evidence of civilians being killed and houses looted in South Ossetia and its buffer zones in period after 2008 ceasefire.
Newly-elected parliament held first session, boycotted by opposition parties still demanding snap election. President Zourabichvili 12 Dec inaugurated first session of new parliament, attended only by members of ruling Georgian Dream party amid boycott by opposition parties that demand snap election, release of “political prisoners”, electoral reforms and replacement of electoral administration; five out of eight parties 11 Dec signed symbolic declarations confirming their refusal to enter parliament and cancellation of their party list as talks with Georgian Dream party, facilitated by U.S. and EU ambassadors, had yet to resolve standoff. U.S. embassy and EU delegation 11 Dec issued joint statement expressing “regret that it was not possible to reach a broad-based agreement before the first convocation of the new parliament”. In breakaway South Ossetia, protesters throughout month rallied in front of main governmental headquarters of regional capital Tskhinvali demanding justice for local man reportedly beaten to death in police custody in late Aug, and resignation of de facto Prosecutor General Uruzmag Dzhagayev.
Ruling party won landslide parliamentary election victory, prompting widespread opposition protests. Following first round of parliamentary elections late Oct, results early Nov showed ruling Georgian Dream party won overwhelming majority, gaining 74 seats in new parliament; eight opposition parties collectively won 60 seats, and former ruling United National Movement party received 36 seats. Ahead of official results, all opposition parties 1 Nov declared boycott of parliament, citing issues with ballot count; however, international monitoring mission led by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe same day stated that “fundamental freedoms were respected” in election; several local observers demanded vote recounts, several of which took place, but no results suggested ballot manipulation. As opposition and civil society leaders publicly voiced grave concerns, head of Central Election Commission 3 Nov alleged that most confusion over ballot count came from new regulation allowing COVID-19 patients to vote from places of self-isolation. Opposition 8 Nov held mass protest in Tbilisi’s central avenue, marching toward Election Commission; scuffles between riot police and protesters injured at least 19, mainly police. Amid opposition boycott of second round of parliamentary elections held 21 Nov, ruling Georgian Dream party secured victory in 13 single-seat constituencies, acquiring majority and allowing party to form new govt without alliances with opposition parties. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 18 Nov visited Georgia to meet ruling party officials. In Abkhazia, de facto leader Aslan Bzhania 14 Nov met with Russian President Putin in Sochi, Russia, to discuss plans for economic and pandemic-related cooperation; as of 27 Nov, entity recorded 5,798 cases, at least 79 coronavirus deaths and almost 2,127 active cases.
Amid rising COVID-19 cases, political tensions subsided in lead-up to 31 Oct election. Tensions emerged ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 31 Oct: small-scale scuffles, which started late Sept, 1 Oct continued between ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition United National Movement (UNM) supporters in Kvemo Kartli region, particularly in areas mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis; no reported casualties. Meanwhile, COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread across country, with average of over 1000 new daily reported cases throughout month; govt 16 Oct tightened restrictive measures to fight virus, including prohibition of public gatherings of more than ten people. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights 11 Oct stated that it will limit election observation mission deployment to core teams of experts and long-term observers due to pandemic. Central Elections Commission (CEC) 31 Oct reported preliminary results, which gave significant lead of over 40% to ruling Georgian Dream party, with opposition United National Movement taking over 20% of votes; some opposition parties called elections illegitimate and planned street protests; according to CEC, more than 46%cast vote in elections. In Abkhazia, amid sharp rise of COVID-19 cases, members of opposition early Oct criticised de facto authorities for apparent lack of sufficient measures to combat pandemic. De facto President Aslan Bzhania 13 Oct introduced additional restrictive measures, such as ban on mass gatherings and closure of schools and kindergartens. In South Ossetia, press service of de facto President Anatoly Bibilov 17 Oct confirmed he had fallen ill with COVID-19; 30 Oct reported he had fully recovered. At request of de facto leadership, Russia deployed military and opened field hospitals to treat COVID-19 in Abkhazia 19 Oct and South Ossetia 27 Oct.
Political tensions ran high in de facto South Ossetia as anti-govt protests continued over death in custody. After numerous senior officials, including interior minister, PM and parliamentary speaker, announced their resignation in response to popular outcry against local authorities prompted by late-Aug death in custody of local 28-year-old man, opposition MPs 2 Sept boycotted parliamentary sessions, preventing quorum, and demanded general prosecutor to leave his position. De facto President Anatoly Bibilov meanwhile refused to resign, a key demand of protesters, and offered instead a parliamentary investigation. Supporters of de facto president 4 Sept held rally, while a few days later opposition 11 Sept organised demonstration. De facto leader 4 Sept spoke with members of Russian presidential administration in Russia’s capital Moscow, reportedly requesting opening of border crossing with Russia that was closed since March due to COVID-19; Russia 15 Sept opened border and sent officials to investigate local needs to respond to pandemic and economic consequences.
De facto South Ossetian leader dismissed cabinet while de facto authorities in Abkhazia faced new spike in COVID-19 cases after reopening border crossing with Russia. Following public calls for his resignation, de facto South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov 28 Aug urgently dismissed cabinet of ministers. Hundreds of people 28 and 31 Aug protested in front of main governmental building after news emerged of death in custody of local 28-year-old man detained 27 Aug for alleged involvement in 17 Aug shooting on car of de facto interior minister; photos circulated on social media of body with multiple bruises, strengthening torture accusations of inmates; local medics said man died due to heart problems. Amid increasingly severe financial deficits in de facto entity Abkhazia, crossing with Russia reopened 1 Aug following July talks between de facto and Russian authorities; reopening of border with Russia, which closed in March to contain spread of COVID-19, led to most serious spike in coronavirus cases since start of pandemic, rising from 81 in July to 224 confirmed cases as of 20 Aug. De facto leadership kept southern crossing with Georgia closed, except for regular launch of temporary “humanitarian corridors” for ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians with Abkhaz documents. Several UN Security Council members – Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, U.S., and UK – along with Norway and Ireland, 6 Aug made first-ever joint statement in support of Georgia on occasion of 12th anniversary of Aug 2008 war with Russia, criticising presence of Russian military in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Talks between Georgia, Russia and de facto South Ossetian officials resumed following incident at line of separation in South Ossetian conflict zone, while de facto authorities in Abkhazia initiated steps to address COVID-19 fallout. In Abkhazia, after de facto govt 14 July declared region free of COVID-19, de facto officials early July travelled to Russia to discuss reopening of border to Russian tourists in attempt to address increasing financial pressure and budget shortfall; however, 25 new coronavirus cases confirmed during month. For second time since border closure in Feb due to coronavirus outbreak, de facto Abkhaz govt 13-17 July allowed over 2,000 residents to return to Abkhazia from Georgia-controlled territory, including ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians. Govt 11 July reported Russian border guards inflicted bullet-injury on Georgian citizen at line of separation in South Ossetian conflict zone; U.S. 17 July condemned incident during Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Permanent Council session. Representatives from Georgia and Russia and de facto officials from South Ossetia 30 July held first meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (forum to discuss situation on line of separation) since Aug 2019 to discuss “issues pertaining to stabilisation and normalisation on the ground” and impact of closed boundary crossings; parties agreed to plan subsequent meeting scheduled for Sept. U.S. House Appropriations Committee 9 July approved bill to provide $132mn aid to Georgia, but for first time made aid conditional on govt implementation of new electoral reform, support for independence of judiciary, free media access to information and govt measures to limit “informal rule of oligarchs”.
De facto Abkhazia leadership faced increasing financial pressure and opened humanitarian corridor for return of residents from Georgia. Amid growing speculation that leadership of breakaway republic Abkhazia has insufficient funds to cover basic budget payments, de facto PM Aleksandr Ankvab 11 June commented on financial situation, stating “this is no more just a horror story, this is now our reality.” De facto authorities 12 June officially extended until 1 July some COVID-19 measures, including restrictions on economic exchanges across Russian border; dozens of local residents fearing loss of tourist income previous day protested against restrictions at main border crossing with Russia calling for reopening of border, while pensioners in at least two towns (Gali and Gulrypshi) did not receive pension payments during month. Abkhazia’s State Security Service 19 June announced temporary reopening of Enguri (Ingur) checkpoint with Georgia’s western Samegrelo region to allow local residents to return to Abkhazia 22-24 June. In secessionist territory South Ossetia, International Committee of Red Cross, sole international organisation active in territory since start of COVID-19 pandemic, 19 June delivered over $70,000 of protective equipment to hospitals. Ahead of parliamentary election in Oct, Parliament 29 June adopted constitutional amendments to reform voting system, aimed at more proportional distribution of parliamentary seats; EU and U.S. same day congratulated Parliament, stating “these much-needed reforms will help ensure a free, fair, and transparent election environment.”
Amid efforts to prevent COVID-19 spread in region, newly elected de facto leadership of breakaway Abkhazia took steps to resume initiatives for regular contacts with Georgian govt. During online conference with co-chairs of Geneva International Discussions (GID), Abkhaz de facto govt 13 May voiced readiness to resume work of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism, forum for Georgian, Russian and de facto local security officials to discuss situation on line of separation; forum halted in 2018 due to disagreements over issues including refusal of Abkhaz de facto govt to punish border guard responsible for death of ethnic Georgian in May 2016. At same meeting, representatives of de facto South Ossetian leadership reasserted their refusal to accept international support to prevent COVID-19 spread unless it enters from Russian border. Georgian Security Service 16 May reported new signs of borderisation at village of Saberio near Abkhaz administrative boundary line; EU Monitoring Mission neither confirmed nor denied reports. In domestic politics, President Zourabichvili 16 May pardoned two prominent opposition politicians as step in implementation of 8 March agreement between opposition and ruling party that lays out agreed electoral reforms.
Concerns continued over vulnerability of breakaway regions in face of COVID-19 outbreak. South Ossetia continued to refuse offers of support from international organisations, including World Health Organization (WHO); since mid-March de facto leadership maintained long-standing requirement that WHO specialists enter region from Russia, not Georgia, despite Russian and Georgian border restrictions rendering it near impossible. South Ossetia de facto leadership and Russia mid-April resumed borderisation activity along line of separation with territory controlled by Tbilisi, drawing condemnation from Tbilisi, Co-Chairs of Geneva International Discussions and Georgia’s foreign partners. In breakaway region Abkhazia, local leadership stepped up international engagement, receiving support from Russia and international organisations including UN Development Programme and WHO.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreak, govt 18 March closed borders, prohibiting foreign citizens from entering country. Authorities 23 March declared lockdown in two regions in south west bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, Marneuli and Bolnisi, after Marneuli official diagnosed with COVID-19. Breakaway region Abkhazia 5 March closed crossings with Georgia, joining other secessionist territory South Ossetia which closed crossings late Feb. Both regions declared emergency situation 27 March. Next day Russia closed its borders with both regions. Abkhazia 22 March held de facto presidential election despite early March hospitalisation of leading candidate and opposition leader Aslan Bzhania after brief visit to Moscow, and fears surrounding COVID-19 outbreak; Georgian govt same day criticised elections, saying they “fully contradict the fundamental norms and principles of international law” and violate Georgia’s sovereignty. Abkhaz election commission 23 March declared Bzhania winner with 56.5% of vote (voter turnout reported as 71.6%).
After Raul Khajimba resigned from his position as leader of Abkhazia in Jan, three candidates registered for snap presidential elections scheduled for 22 March, including front runner opposition leader Aslan Bzhania. Food shortages worsened in South Ossetia, caused by Russia’s hike in customs to align them with those of Eurasian Economic Union which considers South Ossetia a “foreign state”. Georgia 20 Feb accused Main Directorate of General Staff of Russia’s armed forces of major cyber-attack 28 Oct that targeted hundreds of govt, NGO, company and individual websites; Russia denied involvement.