Interview with Said Gezerdaa, a lawyer at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, a civil society group based in the Sukhum, Abkhazia.
This interview was published by KAFFED , and is translated from Turkish.
KAFFED - The issue of the transfer of a large territory in Pitsunda to Russia has almost turned into a political and legal crisis in Abkhazia. Before talking about the specifics of this issue, could you please tell us about the legal and political background to it? In this regard, how do you see the development of the modern state in Abkhazia?
Said Gezerdaa: The issue of transferring part of the territory of Pitsunda is not some kind of isolated problem. It has to do with the ongoing discussion about the cost of recognising Abkhazia, and from my point of view, such a formulation of the question is unacceptable, since it undermines Russian-Abkhazian relations. Firstly, for our Motherland, the giving of “gifts” in the form of the best territories is an excessive price to pay for friendly relations, and secondly, Abkhazia consistently fulfils its partnership=obligations to Russia, and this in itself is a significant contribution. In this situation, it seems to me, our officials are trying to take advantage of the benevolent attitude of the Abkhazian people towards Russia as well as of fears of a deterioration therein in order to push through the decision required. We see how President Bzhania directly says that the refusal to ratify the Agreement will lead to a significant deterioration in Abkhaz-Russian relations, although there was practically no public support for such a categorical opinion from Russian officials. Only the new Russian ambassador Shurgalin confirmed the interest of the Russian side in the ratification of the Agreement on the transfer of the Pitsunda state dacha.
Now we see a stubborn forcing through of the issue of ratification of the Agreement contrary to the requirements of our Constitution, which proclaims state-sovereignty by guaranteeing the integrity, inviolability and inalienability of the territory. In the context of the President’s words that Abkhazia should “share part of the sovereignty” with our northern neighbour, as well as the statements of the opposition leader Adgur Ardzinba that “Abkhazia should strive to join the agreement ‘On the Creation of a Union State’ between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus of 1999”, there are doubts whether our political leaders see any red lines that should not be crossed.
Now it is not Abkhazia that is giving impetus to the development of Russian-Abkhazians relations – our relations in the full sense were and remain asymmetric. And the socio-economic assistance of Russia in our case turns into a concession of the sovereign rights of Abkhazia (for example, the payment of pensions and salaries to certain categories of pensioners and employees in the state=sphere is carried out by Russia), and does not contribute to strengthening independent statehood. Of course, in conditions of partial recognition it is difficult to talk about the real sovereignty of Abkhazia, but at least within the framework of bilateral relations we must remain in the positions determined by our Constitution. If we cannot even demonstrate to a partner-state that we have sovereign rights and interests, then how can we count on international recognition? The agreement on Pitsunda is one of the steps towards the erosion of state-sovereignty, which makes the future of an independent Abkhazian state very obscure.
KAFFED: Regarding the Pitsunda-issue, to start with, what is the legal status of the territory in Pitsunda?
Said Gezerdaa: Supporters of the transfer of the territory of Pitsunda are trying to prove that it has long not been under the control of Abkhazia and that the 2022 Agreement is necessary to update the previously existing agreement. The peculiarity of this territory is that it had places of rest [dachas] – state-dachas No. 8, 9, 10 – for the highest Soviet Party nomenclatura of the Administration of the Central Committee of the CPSU. After the collapse of the USSR and even during the Georgian-Abkhazian war, the territory of the dachas did indeed continue to remain under the control of the Main Directorate of Security of the Russian Federation (currently the Federal Protective Service of the Russian Federation). However, legally, by virtue of a number of legal acts of the Republic of Abkhazia, primarily the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Abkhazian ASSR No. 1725-XI of 27 September 1991 "On Ensuring the Economic Basis of the Sovereignty of Abkhazia", all former property of the USSR located on the territory of Abkhazia was nationalised .
The plots of land transferred to the Russian side under the Agreement are part of the Pitsunda-Mjussera State Reserve. This is a unique reserve, the unique characteristics of which are devoted to research; this place was not accidentally chosen by the Soviet bosses for recreation. Now all reserves in Abkhazia are objects exclusively of the property of the State, in accordance with the Republic of Abkhazia’s Law "On Specially Protected Natural Territories". The same Law prohibits any activity that is contrary to the tasks of the nature-reserve and the regime for the special protection of its territory. In addition, the Decree of the Republic of Abkhazia’s People's Assembly (dated 16 December 1999) includes the reserve in the list of especially valuable lands, the removal of which is not allowed. The Ldzaa-nykha sanctuary is located in the immediate vicinity of the Pitsunda site. According to the Law of the Republic of Abkhazia “On Specially Protected Natural Territories”, the places of traditional Abkhazian sanctuaries and the territory adjacent to them belong to specially protected natural territories of republican significance and also cannot be the subject of transfer. The Agreement completely ignores all these legal requirements.
KAFFED: We have seen that the government often refers to an 1995 agreement on this issue. What exactly is the scope of this agreement?
Said Gezerdaa: Referring to the 1995 Agreement, supporters of the transfer of the Pitsunda territory want to show that there is no alternative to this decision and the need to ratify the treaty. According to the 1995 Agreement, only three dachas were transferred to the Main Directorate of Security of the Russian Federation (now its successor, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation), and the issue of the boundaries of the plots of land was not defined at that time and, in fact, was decided arbitrarily. If we compare the old and new agreements, there is a significant difference between them. The 1995 Agreement did not contain provisions on the transfer of ownership of the dachas and residential complex; there were also no rules on the lease of such a vast land- and sea-area and on the exclusion of the transferred territory from the jurisdiction of Abkhazia, etc.
And most importantly, there are reasons to doubt the legal validity of the 1995 Agreement as a binding document for Abkhazia, since it was signed by an official representative of the State, which at that time did not recognise the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia. In addition, I have at my disposal a letter from the Russian Foreign Ministry (signed by the current Russian Ambassador to Abkhazia, and at that time Deputy Director of the Fourth Department of the CIS countries of the Russian Foreign Ministry), which states that the 1995 Agreement is not registered in the Unified State Registration and Accounting System’s International Treaties of the Russian Federation. All agreements that have entered into force for Russia are subject to state-registration. The absence of registration indicates that Russia did not recognise the validity of this treaty.
KAFFED: The territory in Pitsunda is said to have been under the control of Russia since 1993. If that is the case, why has it become an issue now? What has changed?
Said Gezerdaa: There is talk in our society that the issue of transferring the Pitsunda state-dachas would not have arisen without the interest and approval of the Abkhazian authorities. I think that this opinion is not unfounded. The issue of transferring other state-dachas was also raised in 2010 but was frozen for a whole decade due to public protests. Interest in Abkhazian real estate and natural resources has skyrocketed in the past few years. The current government is known for its attitude of greater loyalty to the issue of sale, which is undoubtedly a key-factor influencing the situation. Probably, the change in the geopolitical situation around Russia is also one of the reasons that fuels interest in Abkhazia and its natural resources.
KAFFED: As far as we could follow, there seem to be two main lines of thinking regarding the issue –the supporters suggest that it is just a normal and legitimate inter-state agreement, whilst the opponents suggest that it is an unlawful agreement. As a lawyer, what do you think about any transfer of territory to Russia being lawful and legitimate according to the laws of Abkhazia?
Said Gezerdaa: I took part in the meeting of the special-subject committee of the Parliament dedicated to the Agreement, during which I expressed my opinion on the compliance of this document with the Constitution and the laws of Abkhazia. I found a lot of inconsistencies. Later, I prepared an expert opinion and sent it to the Parliament and the President. The President is the only one who has at any way reacted to my expertise, but he declared that he had not acquainted himself with it.
In my analysis, I came to the following conclusions. The Agreement contains a veiled transfer for indefinite use of a significant area of land and water in violation of the Constitution, which should be interpreted as the transfer of part of the territory of Abkhazia and thus as a violation of the integrity of the State. Due to the fact that real estate located on the transferred territory turns into ownership, the Abkhazian side will be forced to prolong the agreement for the next 15-years.
The agreement excludes objects, land-areas, water-area and all registered persons falling under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Abkhazia, thus creating conditions for the indefinite exercise of the jurisdiction of a foreign state on this territory. There are no provisions in the Agreement to limit the subsequent sale of real-estate. There are no provisions in it that allow coordination with the Abkhazian side on the crossing of the state-border of Abkhazia by aircraft, sea- and land-transport belonging to the Russian side, as well as their movement inside Abkhazia. This makes it possible to violate the constitutional and international principle of the inviolability of borders, since Russian officials, military and civilian personnel can arrive on the territory of Abkhazia without giving any notification. The Agreement allows the Russian side to hold state-events on the Pitsunda territory without the consent and participation of the Abkhazian side, which is also an obvious violation of state-sovereignty
In addition to the Constitution, the Agreement is contrary to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Vienna Convention on the Law of International Treaties, the laws “On International Treaties of the Republic of Abkhazia”, “On Internal Sea Waters, the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the Republic of Abkhazia”, “On Specially Protected Natural Territories” and the Land-code. The Agreement violates precisely those norms of legislation that are aimed at protecting the sovereignty and heritage of the people of Abkhazia. It was not by chance that they appeared in our legislation; they are the result of a purposeful policy, reflecting the position of the founders of Abkhazian statehood, who cared about its preservation. It seems to me that no-one in Abkhazia has the right to oppose this position.
KAFFED: There are also claims suggesting that there are some other areas in Abkhazia just like the lands in Pitsunda the ownership of which is in question. What can you tell us about this? Is there any truth value to these claims?
Said Gezerdaa: Yes, fairly large state-facilities are suddenly being transferred to the private hands of investors with strange wording, for example, "improving the efficiency in the use of state-property". Thus, the republican unitary enterprise "Chernorechensk trout-farm" was recently liquidated, its property-complex transferred on a long-term lease to a local legal entity, but, as far as I know with foreign participation. Also, the former governor of the Krasnodar Territory, Alexander Tkachev, is going to build a Moscow Resort hotel-complex in Pitsunda with an area of 45 hectares and at a cost of 20 billion roubles. There is unverified information on other objects. Now the likes of this have begun to appear very often.
KAFFED: Another major claim that is put forward is that the territorial sovereignty of Abkhazia will also be transferred together with the transfer of the land in Pitsunda to Russia. What is the truth value of this claim?
Said Gezerdaa: For Abkhazia, the territorial issue is one of the most painful, and not only because of the partial recognition. We have not yet delimited and demarcated the borders with Russia, and there are disputes over the territory, and not only concerning the village of Aibga. The territory stipulated in the Agreement is more than 2% of the territory of Abkhazia, and this is Abkhazia’s finest territory. Despite the fact that the Agreement refers to a long-term lease of the land for 49 years, it contains other conditions that lead to the fact that this territory will be indefinitely removed from the jurisdiction of Abkhazia. This is possible due to the fact that the existing and any new buildings there (including in the water-area) become the property of the Russian state – the Russian side has the right to capital-construction. Even the termination of the Agreement will not change the situation, these facilities remaining the property of the Russian side. This is not about simple resort-facilities, but about places of rest for top officials of Russia, making it impossible to imagine how the return of the land to Abkhazia can be carried out minus the property. The Agreement also does not contain a provision prohibiting the subsequent resale of real-estate, which is of particular concern.
KAFFED: Regarding the Pitsunda issue, what is the public opinion in Abkhazia? As far as we could follow, there has occurred some tension between the authorities and the public during the public meetings including the one in Ochamchira. In this regard, how do you view and evaluate the political involvement of the public?
Said Gezerdaa: The President has held a number of meetings, not only in Ochamchira, but also in Gulrypsh, Gagra, Gudauta and Sukhum, during which there were heated discussions about the situation with Pitsunda. But the President continues to ignore the public indignation, which now more than ever has has become massive in nature and has united completely different social and political forces. In a recent interview with the Russian Sputnik media-outlet, Bzhania stated that the Agreement does not pose any threat to sovereignty and that the opponents of the Agreement are forces that are not interested in strengthening Russian-Abkhazian relations. The position of the authorities now is to ignore the protest and its participants. But the tough position of Abkhazian society regarding the transfer of land and the sale of real-estate is by no means new – it has always existed and is very well known to the authorities. Attempts to transfer the former resting places of the Soviet nomenklatura and allow the sale of real-estate to foreigners were made back in 2010, 2016 and 2021, but they all ended in vain precisely because of the principled position of Abkhazian society. The authorities had no choice but to listen to public opinion. Perhaps getting just such a reaction is what the previous authorities were interested in.
KAFFED: How does Russia approach the transfer of this territory? Has the issue acquired any currency in Russia? If so, to what extent?
Said Gezerdaa: We have heard on this issue the opinion of only one representative of Russia – Ambassador Shurgalin, who spoke in support of the ratification of the Agreement. This is the sole public statement, which is strange, since, according to our authorities, the Russian side is expressing a high interest in the transference of the object, while we hear no positions from other representatives of Moscow.
KAFFED: Finally, how do you view and evaluate the diaspora?
Said Gezerdaa: It is very important for us that the Diaspora is very actively involved in the discussion of the issue of Pitsunda. Your appeals have a very serious effect on the discussion within Abkhazia. This participation is especially important for us, because you, like no-one else, understand and remind those who are in Abkhazia the meaning of the loss of the Motherland. I believe that without the participation of the Diaspora it is impossible to formulate any positions on issues of sovereignty and disposal of the property of our people.