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Election season for the civil society in the unrecognised republics of Caucasus

Article by Caucasian Knot

September 26, 2019

Election season for the civil society in the unrecognised republics of Caucasus

This essay aims to shed light on the situation of non-profit and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the ‘unrecognised’ republics of South Caucasus; to present the current problems that civil society is facing; to illuminate the interaction between the non-governmental sector and government structures, in particular the participation of independent observers in local elections using the examples of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Abkhazia[1]: current challenges for civil society

About 300 NGOs are registered by the Ministry of Justice of Abkhazia, about 100 of them are non-profits. Those organisations that have existed and worked for many years already are the most well-known.

The Sukhum Youth House (SYH) focuses on issues related to education and the use of modern approaches to education for children. This is evidenced by the huge number of children who have participated in various programs implemented by the SYH.[2]

The Association Inva-Assistance helps people with disabilities with their challenges. Over recent years, they have been actively promoting the idea of an accessible environment and an inclusive education system for children with disabilities. Today it is not uncommon to see people in wheelchairs, moving around in Sukhum on their own, and children with disabilities studying in regular schools. This was made possible thanks to the Association´s work.

Domestic violence was, for example, a general taboo until a certain time ago. Abkhazia´s inhabitants did not want to discuss the issue, many denied the existence of such a problem. Today we see that the Caucasian Knot[3] is writing about cases of domestic violence and the topic is being discussed on social networks. The Women’s Association of Abkhazia has been raising this problem for many years, but only recently have they managed to attract the attention of the general public.

The Centre for Humanitarian Programs (CHP[4]) is perhaps the most well-known NGO, including outside the region. The Centre works in different fields including civil education, human rights protection, civic сontrol, and participation in peacemaking dialogue at international platforms. In addition to these areas, the CHP employees actively express their civic position on many other issues as well such as political, environmental, social, and issues related to preservation of historical and cultural heritage, etc. They organise events and public campaigns, and they give their opinion in the media.

There are organisations in the municipalities that are better known among the local population and that mainly aim at working with youth: the Ochamchira Youth House and the Tkuarchal Youth Initiative, for example.

The possibilities to draw people’s attention to environmental problems and to the protection of cultural heritage are increasing these days. The population learned, for example, that palm trees in Abkhazia are facing death when civil society began sounding the alarm. As it turned out, public services responsible to deal with environmental issues had been aware of the situation, but did not take any action to save the palm trees. Civil society representatives took the initiative and started the work on saving the palm trees themselves.

It was due to the position of active citizens that it was possible to stop the construction of a restaurant on the Sukhum fortress, which is one of the most important historical and architectural monuments, not only in our capital, but in the whole republic.

NGOs raised the issue concerning the illegitimacy of replacing the process of passport exchange by the procedure of citizenship confirmation in relation to non-Abkhaz ethnic groups. Old passports in Abkhazia are being replaced with new ones, and citizens who are not ethnic Abkhazians are rightly afraid of losing their citizenship as a result of the new rules. The CHP submitted a number of proposals to the Parliament, some of which were adopted, finally allowing certain categories of citizens to exchange their old passports for new ones.

A group of independent civil activists are at present promoting the idea of adopting article 20 of the United Nations (UN) Convention against corruption.[5]

The list of various initiatives undertaken by civil society representatives is long in fact. On the one hand, this is a sign that Abkhaz society is quite conscious and active, on the other hand, this activity indicates a low efficiency of the governance system in the country, which causes concern among the active part of society.

An important element of civic control such as journalistic investigations is practically non-existent in Abkhazia. On the one side, for Abkhazia, this is a risky activity, on the other – even if there were attempts to conduct such investigations they often played into the hands of a certain internal Abkhaz actors. Abkhaz journalism recently became uninteresting. It often suffers from one-sidedness and tendentiousness when covering different events, even though there are exceptions. In general, it lacks analysis, a critical view on the events taking place in and around the country. We must also take into account the growing popularity of social networks, where people get the information they need more quickly than from the media.

Each NGO focuses on a certain group of people which they work with. Some NGOs concentrate on children, others on women in a difficult life situation, others on the disabled, etc.

The CHP runs a network of public human rights reception centers, where lawyers provide free legal assistance to the public. People who sometimes simply do not know how to solve their problems come here every day to receive support in dealing with administrative barriers and problems around the functioning of state bodies.

According to the organisation´s statistics 1,500 requests were received in 2018 alone.[6] The fact that free legal assistance is in great demand nowadays indicates both the imperfection of the governance system and the low level of the population´s legal literacy. Understanding that and taking into account the fact that many people, especially in those areas where the CHP has no stationary reception centers, as well as the inhabitants of remote villages, have difficulties in getting to the CHP offices. Therefore, the organisation also provides mobile consultations.

In many countries, the state supports NGOs’ activities both financially and in other ways. Special programs are developed and implemented, either by topic or by socially oriented issues. In some countries a tax is used specifically to support NGOs. In Abkhazia the state unfortunately does not provide any targeted financial support to the NGOs. There have been different periods of relations between NGOs and state structures in the history of modern Abkhazia. Today we can talk about a certain level of constructive cooperation with the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and parliamentary deputies.

In general however, the attitude of certain government circles towards any groups is negative, in particular towards those NGOs that critically assess the officials. Many officials simply ignore the NGOs and their work. For them, the principles set forth in the Abkhaz Constitution, which entitle civil society to participate in the life of the republic and to ensure civil control, are generally unacceptable.

A Forum of Civil Society Organisations held in Abkhazia in August 2018, summarised the work that had been carried out by NGOs over the last 25 years. The organisers invited all government branches to the forum, but only a few came, perhaps those few who positively evaluate NGOs work and who consider it to be important. None of the high-ranking Abkhazian officials appeared at the event, while the Ambassador of the Russian Federation both attended and even gave a speech at the Forum. Unfortunately, this indicates the fact that many government officials do not understand the importance of the existence of civil society in Abkhazia and the work it is doing.

A special situation arises among NGOs working in the Gali district. They face difficulties as the local authorities are trying to gain control over their work. One can understand the authorities´ wish to be aware of what is happening in the area bordering Georgia. However, this should take place in a constructive manner, based on the citizens’ awareness of the importance of the principle of transparency and the authorities’ understanding of the inviolability of civil liberties.

For clean elections

Presidential elections are being held in Abkhazia at time of writing with the first round taking place on August 25th 2019 and a second round between current de facto President Raul Khadzhimba and opposition candidate Alkhaz Kvitsiniya on 8th September 2019.[7] Parliamentary elections will be held in South Ossetia on 9 June, and mid-term elections to the Georgian parliament on 19 May.

Fifteen years ago, an initiative was launched to clean up the electoral process. Many NGO leaders advocated, and still advocate, for a solely constitutional shift in power. They consider unlawful acts unacceptable, even if there are many reasons to be dissatisfied with the current authorities. In addition, there are people with different political affiliations working in the NGOs, and it must be assumed that each person has the right to have his own opinion and judgment.

On the eve of the first alternative presidential elections in Abkhazia in 2004, the ‘League of Voters for Fair Elections’ was created. The civil society leaders came up with the idea, but in no case can it be qualified as an NGO project, since it represented a coalition that included just proactive citizens working completely pro bono. Everyone worked as volunteers and paid for their own petrol in order to be able to perform direct monitoring on Election Day.

At that time, before the start of the election campaign, the situation was rather tense: many were afraid that it would be impossible to achieve a change of government by peaceful means. Since quite a limited number of foreign observers usually come to the elections in Abkhazia and the election results are not being assessed by the wider international community, it was important to strengthen the internal legitimacy of the elections. This could be done with the help of independent monitoring. There was at that time no article in the Abkhaz election law prescribing public monitoring, however later it became possible to convince the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the necessity of such a provision. This is an example of the positive cooperation between a state institution and civil society. Already after the crisis of the 2004 elections, a law[8] was adopted, allowing those organisations that have included observation to their charters, defining it as one of the organisation’s tasks, to undertake election observation. This law is the main tool against those who may be tempted to interfere with public election monitoring.[9]

The legislation of another unrecognised state, South Ossetia, still does not allow the participation of citizen observers. Observers can be appointed only by a candidate registered in a single-mandate constituency, or by a political party that has registered a republican list of candidates. Elections to the Parliament of South Ossetia of the 7th convocation were held on 9 June 2019. Prior to the election, eight out of nine political parties eligible to participate in the elections, as well as 81 self-nominated candidates, had applied to stand. After decisions by the South Ossetian Central Election Commission seven out of the eight political parties who applied for participation, were admitted to the elections; and 39 of self-nominated candidates were able to stand – less than half of those who applied for registration.[10]

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice of South Ossetia 160 NGOs of various organisational and legal form were registered in the republic at the beginning of 2019. In addition to parties, these are: 108 NGOs strictly speaking; 45 regional branches of political parties; one religious organisation with six parishes; one NGO ‘South Ossetian Cossack Society’. Seven organisations are registered with the status of ‘foreign partner’.

The 2011 presidential race in South Ossetia and the tabulation process led to the ‘Snow Revolution’ and to the political crisis in the republic, similar to the Abkhaz crisis in 2004 requiring interference by the Russian Federation. In 2011 de facto state bodies acted beyond their previously authorised powers and post factum amendments were made to South Ossetia´s legislation, which deprived Alla Dzhioeva, who obtained the highest number of votes, of her victory. For example on the second day after the polls closed the elections were declared invalid, not allowing the Central Election Commission (CEC) to announce the final voting outcomes. The decision was made without the presence of presidential candidates, while neither the media, nor the public were shown the text of the decision and the text of the complaint of Djioeva’s opponent that had supposedly triggered the annulment of the election.

The last elections in 2017 were observed by representatives from Russia, as well as from unrecognised states – the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transnistria. In general, elections in South Ossetia remain less transparent than in Abkhazia, due to the lack of a public observer institution, complicated registration procedures for international observers and negative reactions from a part of the public to NGO activities after the discussion of ‘foreign agents’.[11]

One of the main challenges for the NGOs related to their work is false information and accusations of spreading so-called ‘alien values’. Some consider human rights and other important democratic principles as ‘alien’, which include the right to elect and to be elected and the right to choose one’s own government. As a rule, such information is disseminated by anonymous users in social networks, sometimes similar articles appear in the press and are signed by non-existent names.

This pseudo-revelatory activity is intended to create a negative attitude towards NGOs in the society by attempting to portray NGOs as opponents of independent Abkhazia, proponents of establishing contacts with Georgia or as agents of Western influence. This phenomenon is difficult to fight, because the authors are hiding under fictitious names. The only possibility to fight against attempts to discredit NGOs is to work openly and transparently, constantly informing the public about one´s activities, also during the upcoming voting in the presidential elections in Abkhazia.

Nagorno-Karabakh: two views on NGO activities

According to the State Register under the Nagorno-Karabakh government 266 NGOs and civil initiatives were registered in the republic during the period from 1995 to 2019. The most famous of them are:

  • youth organisations (Hayk Generation, Forward Artsakh, Defender of the Motherland, Armenian Youth Club, Union of Young Scientists and Specialists of Artsakh)
  • religious and ethnic associations (the branch of the Young Men´s Christian Association (YMCA), the Russian community, the Greek community)
  • veteran organisations (Union of Veterans of the Karabakh War, Union of Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, Union of Parents of Dead Soldiers, Union of Parents of Missing Soldiers, Union of Blind Veterans, ‘VITA’)
  • organisations in the field of media and civil society development (Union of Journalists, Union of Writers, Stepanakert Press Club, Center for Civil Initiatives, Helsinki Initiative -92, Institute of popular Diplomacy)
  • women’s organisations (‘Maternity’, a branch of the Yerevan Women’s Resource Center in Shoushi)

The organisation ‘VITA’ was established in 1994. Now it includes 17 veterans of the Karabakh war with spine problems. The organisation is funded by the government. The organisation’s chairman, Arevik Petrosyan, notes that thanks to the cooperation with the authorities, it was possible to provide all wheelchair users with the opportunity to move unhindered in their apartment or house.

Disabled military wheelchair users in Nagorno-Karabakh are socially secured, they have a high military pension, and they receive numerous military benefits. There are several assistance programs for disabled people of the first group. Disabled civil wheelchair users however do not have a NGO. They experience difficult living conditions, they have low pensions and receive almost no benefits.

According to Petrosyan, ‘VITA’ provides social, psychological, whenever possible, material, medical and legal assistance, not only to its members, but also to other disabled people who address to them:

“The work of non-government organisations is precisely this – to identify and take under control the current problems of small groups, to protect the rights of small groups, which, due to their small size, are not covered by the state programs. Here, non-governmental organisations come to the aid of the state.”[12]

The main problem for wheelchair users is that settlements and public transport are not adapted to allow them move freely. The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has to this day not been adopted in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Petrosyan, the obstacle lies in the deputies´ work:

“When Armenia adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, it amended the paragraph specifying that Armenia assumes responsibility for disabled persons in Nagorno-Karabakh. When Azerbaijan was adopting the Convention in the same year, a special paragraph clarified that these provisions do not apply to persons with disabilities living in Nagorno-Karabakh. It turns out that our authorities have nothing left to do than to simply ratify the Convention, ensuring the legal protection of persons with disabilities”

According to the head of the Shoushi branch of the Yerevan Women’s Resource Center, Gayane Ambartsumian, the work of the NGO should consist of identifying problems at the initial level. But there are few organisations in the country that could perform such work and thereby contribute to the development of the state. Most of the structures are pro-governmental, and they operate within the framework of so-called ‘Patriotic education’:

“We do not cooperate with each other, and I can’t say exactly which projects other women’s organisations realise. But, in any case, no public organisation should underestimate the work done by other organisations.”[13]

According to Ambartsumian, their target group is youth and women of all ages. The organisation implements programs on gender equality, domestic violence, reproductive rights, women’s health, and provides psychological and legal assistance to those who need it.

“Women contact our organisation in order to get a consultation, mainly concerning problems of domestic and sexual violence. We provide them with psychological assistance, as well as advice on women’s rights”.

The organisation is not funded by the government of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its leader believes that their activities would otherwise be dependent on the position of the authorities. Given the center´s profile and interests, it is not difficult to believe. The dominant mores impede many women from seeking help from such structures.

Ambartsumian said that“there have also been oppressions from the part of state structures, but the conflicts were settled through dialogue. Representatives of the authorities perceived the word ‘gender’ quite ambiguously, and they considered the trainings on ‘sexual education’ as dissemination of pornography. The state in Nagorno-Karabakh does not speak about gender equality. The Constitution says that ‘women and men have equal rights,’ but our society, again according to its mentality, still does not understand the true meaning of ‘gender equality’.

Elections and civil control

Parliamentary and presidential elections in Nagorno-Karabakh will be held in 2020. Opinion regarding the role of public organisations, was divided.

“During all former elections we went to vote, already knowing who would be in power. We will for the first time go to the polls, not knowing who will be president or what forces will form the parliament. Such a situation arises for the first time in Nagorno-Karabakh, even in the region and in the entire post-Soviet space, except for the Baltic States. I think a good situation has been created to allow the public assume responsibility, to let them go to the polls to vote for their candidate,” said Petrosyan, who was previously a deputy of the 5th parliamentary convocation.

The Armenian ‘velvet revolution’ also influenced the political processes in Nagorno-Karabakh. During a mass brawl in Stepanakert on 1 June, two local residents were beaten up by security forces. The incident incited many people to rally, demanding the heads of the prosecutor’s office, the National Security Service and the police to resign. The protest action that had been launched was suspended only two days after the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan´s call to let the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh fulfill the promises they had made to the protesters. On 6 June, it was made public that the heads of the police and the National Security Service, as well as the State Minister, had resigned.

On 12th December, the media reported on the resignation of Karabakh’s Defense Minister Levon Mnatsakanyan. On 13th December, Mnatsakanyan himself announced that he had not written the letter of resignation. On 14th December, the President of Karabakh introduced the new Minister of Defense. A media source attributed the resignation to the negative reaction of Karabakh officials to the statement made by one of Pashinyan’s associates claiming that the victory of the ‘velvet revolution’ in Armenia is more important than the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. By this they allegedly provoked Pashinyan´s anger.

Gayane Ambartsumiansaid that“I see that many non-government organisations are closely connected with pro-government political forces. These forces use the civil society platform for their own purposes. In addition, I do not think that we will have truly democratic elections. But if the state announces that NGOs have the right to be independent observers at electoral processes, I do not rule out that there will be one or two truly independent Karabakh NGOs that will monitor the process strictly”.

The 2012 presidential election was attended by more than 100 observers[14], among them 80 internationals from countries such as Russia, Armenia, USA, France, Canada, Ireland, Poland, Cyprus, Germany, Belgium, Israel, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and others. 93 journalists were accredited at the elections, 50 were from foreign media.[15]

More than 100 representatives from 30 countries observed the parliamentary elections[16] in 2015.

On the eve of the upcoming elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, a situation unusual for the South Caucasus as a whole arises – among the presidential contenders there is virtually no obvious candidate from the government. A year ago, the current president publicly refused to participate in elections. On 11th June, he announced on the public television station[17] of the unrecognised republic that he would not run for president, because adherence to democratic principles in the country is very important because of the need to build a democratic and civilised state.[18]


Author’s bio: Gregory Shvedov is a Russian human rights activist and journalist, known for his efforts in promoting human rights in Russia, most notably in the Caucasus region. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot, an online news medium established to provide unbiased information regarding political oppression, human rights violations, and the ongoing violent conflict throughout the region. In 2012, he received the Geuzenpenning for his efforts.

Photo by Caucasian Knot.

[1] The essay is based on data from employees of non-government organizations of Abkhazia.

[2] SYH is attended by schoolchildren aged from 6 to 18 years. 13 teachers conduct courses for 13 classes and 4 clubs. The classes are: English, computers, Abkhazian language for beginners, journalism, television journalism, the school of young psychologists, painting, guitar, game therapy, ecological tourism, local history, choir singing, theater and handicraft.

[3] Dmitry Stataynov, Participants in the rally in Sukhum declared incitement of a deputy to “honor killings”, Caucasian Knot, June 2017 https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/304607/

[4] Center for Humanitarian Programs, Homepage, http://chp-apsny.org/

[5] Caucasian Knot, Residents of Abkhazia demanded the publication of income declarations from officials, April 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/334365/

[6] Humanitarian Program Center, HALF-YEARLY REPORT OF THE CHP ON THE WORK OF THE DISTRICT HUMAN RIGHTS RECEPTIONS FOR JANUARY-JUNE 2018, November 2018,  http://chp-apsny.org/reception-room/statistics/polugodovoy-otchyet-tsgp-o-rabote-rayonnykh-priyemnykh-po-pravam-cheloveka-za-yanvar-iyun-2018-g/ and Humanitarian Program Center, SEMI-ANNUAL REPORT OF THE CPT ON THE WORK OF DISTRICT PUBLIC RECEPTIONS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS FOR JULY-DECEMBER 2018, August 2019, http://chp-apsny.org/reception-room/statistics/polugodovoy-otchyet-tsgp-o-rabote-rayonnykh-obshchestvennykh-priyemnykh-po-pravam-cheloveka-za-iyul-/. These are half-year reports on the work of the district level public reception offices; minus the data about the work of the permanent office in Sukhumi.

[7] Gor Aleksanyan, Caucasian historians named favourites of the presidential race in Abkhazia, Caucasian Knot, April 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/334459/

[8] Constitutional Law of the Republic of Abkhazia “On the Election of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia”, Article 12 “Public Observers” (As amended on October 9, 2009 No. 2496-s-IV)

[9] Caucasian Knot, Observers in the elections in Abkhazia found violations, but do not consider them significant, March 2017, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/299074/

[10] Caucasian Knot, South Ossetian CEC registers 185 parliamentary candidate, May 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/335631/ and Caucasian Knot, South Ossetian Central Election Commission denies registration to dozens of self-nominees, May 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/335491/

[11] Magomed Tuaev, The leaders of NGOs in South Ossetia criticized the first-reading bill on non-profit organizations, Caucasian Knot, May 2014, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/242241/

[12] Quotes provided in direct conversation with Caucasian Knot

[13] Quotes provided in direct conversation with Caucasian Knot

[14] Caucasian Knot, At 8.00 in the Nagorno-Karabakh will begin voting in presidential elections, July 2012, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/209941/

[15] International observers were invited by the de facto government, the National Assembly and the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Nagorno-Karabakh. The National Assembly of Armenia and the Russian State Duma sent large delegations. As to non-parliamentary missions, the International Expert Centre for Electoral Systems (ICES) was represented by 10 persons from different countries of the world and  members of the Armenian Diaspora abroad and members of various humanitarian and cultural organization that are friendly to Armenia came to act as observers.

See Caucasian Knot, Representatives of 22 countries to observe presidential elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, July 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/209923/ and Caucasian Knot, International observers did not see violations in the presidential elections of Nagorno-Karabakh, July 2019, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/210041

[16] Caucasian Knot, Voting in elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, May 2015,  https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/261670

[17] Alvard Grigoryan, Bako Sahakyan refused to participate in presidential elections, Caucasian Knot, June 2018, https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/321577/

[18] Artsakh Press, I officially announce that as a presidential candidate I will not run in 2020. elections: Artsakh President: https://artsakhpress.am/arm/news/88020/bako-saakyan-ne-budet-viydvigat-svoyu-kandidaturu-na-sleduyushchikh-prezidentskikh-viyborakh-v-arcakhe.html – (7:50)

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