Aslan Kobakhia and Igor Zubov in Sochi, May 18, 2017. Photo: Russian Interior Ministry
On May 18, in the city of Sochi, Russia signed with the Sokhumi authorities an agreement on the establishment of the joint Russian-Abkhaz “Information-Coordination Center of Internal Affairs Agencies” to be based in the region’s capital Sokhumi.
The agreement is part of the treaty on “the alliance and strategic partnership” signed between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba on November 24, 2014. Russia signed a similar agreement with Tskhinvali authorities on July 4, 2016.
Speaking to reporters after the signing ceremony, Igor Zubov, Russia’s deputy interior minister, who signed the agreement on behalf of Moscow, said that the document is agreed “in full” and “on all [governmental] levels.” “The agreement is extremely important as it paves the way for full-fledged cooperation in this field, involving all law enforcement institutions of Russia and Abkhazia, and [enables] international [police] cooperation,” Zubov stated.
The Deputy Interior Minister added that the agreement will be carried out in observance of the sovereignty of both – Moscow and Sokhumi - and will not affect their “exclusive competences.”
On his part, Abkhaz internal affairs minister Aslan Kobakhia, who signed the agreement on behalf of Sokhumi, stated that the Center, “in the first place,” is necessary for Abkhazia. “Through this Center, we expect practical assistance to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, in terms of staff training, forensic laboratory and many other things that we lack.”
Aims, Structure, Financing
The purpose of the Center, according to the Sokhumi internal affairs ministry, as well as the text of the agreement, is to coordinate the activities of Russian and Abkhaz agencies in fighting “organized crime and other dangerous types of crimes.” For that, the Center will document, analyze and exchange the crime-related information; as well as assist in carrying out “inter-governmental search and extradition of persons,” and “the necessary agreed activities to combat dangerous types of crimes that pose threats to the security of the Republic.”
Its maximum staff number is to be 20 persons. The Center’s director and deputy director are to be appointed for three years by the joint decision of the Russian and Abkhaz internal affairs ministers.
According to the agreement’s addendum, “financing of the Center’s activities is carried out at the expense of the funds provided by the Russian Federation for its maintenance.” The agreement also says that the property, documents, databases, correspondence of the Center are immune. The Center’s non-Abkhaz employees and their family members will enjoy immunity as well.
During his press briefing on May 18 in Sokhumi, Abkhaz internal affairs minister Aslan Kobakhia, who signed the agreement on behalf of Sokhumi, emphasized his support for the agreement, saying the Center “meets the national interests [of Abkhazia] completely.” According to the Abkhaz official, the purpose of the Center is to fight against organized crime, adding that its priority would be to counter drug-related crimes where Sokhumi most needed Russia’s assistance.
While justifying the agreement, Kobakhia said: “I can tell you openly, and maybe I am the first politician to say this, that the whole law enforcement segment [of Abkhazia] since 2009 is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation.” Kobakhia listed the defense ministry, the internal affairs ministry and the security service among the agencies completely financed by Russia. He then specified that Moscow pays approximately 1.2 billion Russian rubles annually (USD 21 million) to cover the expenses of the Abkhaz law enforcement agencies.
Aslan Kobakhia added that the Russian side “confirmed” on May 18 that the first director of the Center would be appointed by the Abkhaz side. He also noted that maximum staff number is to be 20 persons, ten Abkhaz and ten Russian appointees.
Reactions in Sokhumi
Establishment of the Center has become a controversial issue in Abkhazia. On May 17, fifteen members of the region’s legislature signed a statement, calling to postpone the agreement, since “a considerable part” of the parliament members wanted changes to be made to the agreement’s text.
The advocated changes were aimed at limiting the Center’s powers and giving Sokhumi, and its parliament in particular, more control over the Center’s activities.
Opposition Amtsakhara party also issued a statement on May 17. Among the subjects of the party’s criticism was the stipulation that financial control of the Center’s spending is going to be conducted by the Russian Ministry for the North Caucasus, along with Sokhumi’s finance ministry. Amtsakhara stressed that this formulation is demeaning for Abkhazia, asking “since when is Republic of Abkhazia a region of the North Caucasus?”
The party also criticized the diplomatic immunity envisioned by the treaty for the Center staff and their family members, saying it was “unclear, from what the treaty authors are trying to protect the Russian part of the Center’s employees and their family members.” Another point of contention for Amtsakhara is the fact that the Center’s period of existence is unlimited. According to the party, this means that “internal affairs ministry system of Abkhazia has no chances to become an independent agency.”
Amtsakhara demanded postponement of the agreement’s signing, in order to gain time for “including amendments and taking into account the national interests of Abkhazia.” It also called for support from other public and political organizations, in particular the “veterans organizations” Aruaa.
Another opposition political party - Ainar - called the agreement “impossible and damaging.” Ainar demanded to specify in the agreement’s text that the Center had no rights to “conduct operative-investigative activities” in Abkhazia, to give the region’s parliament rights of oversight over the Center, and limit its staff’s benefits regarding their immunity and privileges in Abkhazia.
“People’s Front of Abkhazia for Justice and Development” said that Sokhumi leadership was trying to “hide from the public all the numerous threats resulting from this agreement,” expressing concerns similar to other opponents of the treaty on establishment of the Center. The party added it would coordinate with other “healthy political forces” against the agreement.
Another statement against the agreement was released by the public organization Kyarazaa, which said it was “categorically against creation of a supra-national agency,” and believed it would “limit the constitutional rights of citizens.” Kyarazaa said the Center would be beyond control of the Abkhaz agencies, and would have more authority compared to them.
“The Veterans and Youth Union of Apsny” addressed Sokhumi interior minister Aslan Kobakhia, saying that situation in Abkhazia was extremely tense and close to crisis, and that in such circumstances the agreement would lead to additional split in the society.
Other political forces supported the agreement. The pro-governmental “Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia” (FNUA)” released a statement criticizing the treaty’s opponents. It said that despite “speculations,” the Center’s main task was “exchange of important operative information between the law enforcement agencies of two friendly states;” it accused the opposition of “neglecting quite obvious facts.”
The party also noted that while at first the number discussed for the Center staff was 400 employees, now the draft envisions just 20 persons, and that the agreement’s current wording did not include the initially-envisioned “operative-investigative functions” for the Center.
Establishment of the Center was also supported by the Apsny party, which expressed surprise that “certain political forces” doubted the necessity of the agreement, and called their concerns “groundless.”
Reactions in Tbilisi
Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning “signing of so-called agreement between the Russian Federation and its occupation regime in Sokhumi.”
“Creation by the Russian Federation of the so called joint group of armed forces in Abkhazia region, now followed by the merger of the law enforcement and investigative bodies … represent a clear proof of factual annexation process of the occupied region,” the ministry stressed.
The Georgian MFA added that the agreement disregarded fundamental principles and norms of international law, including sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognized borders.
“This is an intentional step taken by the Russian Federation to undermine peace policy of the Georgian Government, supported by international community,” the statement also noted.
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, “such kind of actions contribute to destabilization of the situation in the region and harm the Geneva International Discussions.”
Stressing that the “ongoing illegal processes in the occupied territories of Georgia vividly demonstrate the need for firm and consolidated international efforts,” the ministry appealed to the international community “to take effective measures aimed at de-occupation and prevention of annexation of Georgia’s occupied regions.”