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Abkhazia Mulls Property Ownership Reform

Critics of an already cautious scheme warn that allowing outsiders to buy homes carries unseen risks.

Abkhazia’s government is considering allowing foreign citizens to buy property in the country for the first time, arguing that this will improve the investment climate and stimulate growth. Opponents of the idea warn that national security could be threatened if it is unclear who is buying up properties.

Earlier this month, President Alexander Ankvab proposed amending the law so foreigners can buy flats in newly-built apartment blocks. The ban – originally designed to protect the local population – would remain in place for agricultural land, detached houses, and flats in older buildings.

The president’s press office said such a law would need to be accompanied by tougher rules to prevent property speculators moving in, and also to exclude anyone who has “previously or currently supported a change to Abkhazia’s sovereign status, or who otherwise poses a threat to our country’s security”

These concerns stem from the recent history of Abkhazia, which broke free of Georgian control in the early 1990s and declared independence. Russia recognised Abkhazia in 2008, but Georgia still claims sovereignty.

The Abkhazian government is keen to prevent Georgians infiltrating the country as a way of bringing it back into Tbilisi’s embrace.
Nevertheless, the authorities are keen to energise the economy, which remains heavily dependent on Russian subsidies.

Economy Minister David Iradyan told Abaza TV that opening up the market would stimulate the construction industry, thus raising extra budget revenues which could then be used for building new houses for the poorest members of society.

Valery Bganba, the speaker of parliament, told IWPR that the proposed legislative amendments had yet to be submitted for debate, but he noted that a similar proposal had been discussed in the past.

“I was opposed to it then, when it was similarly a question of newly-built houses,” he said. “Of course we can’t close off the market completely. If someone has a place in Abkhazia and just comes here for a holiday in summer, that doesn’t bother us. But if they then get a passport and citizenship, and acquire direct influence over the political system, that does worry us. This law isn’t going to be passed quickly. We will all think together about what needs to be done to make sure we are safe.”

Although the wording of the proposed bill has not yet been made public, the idea has already provoked discussion in Abkhazia, specifically among the many opposition politicians who are resolutely opposed to any change to the current law.

Aslan Kobakhia, a member of parliament from the opposition Forum of National Unity, predicted that relaxing the ownership rules would lead to an influx of would-be property owners from outside Abkhazia.

“Who will these new residents be? Are we supposed to believe that our secret services can check them all out?” he said in a post on his Facebook page.

Kobakhia said that the Soviet policy of settling people from elsewhere in Abkhazia had created a situation where the ethnic Abkhaz made up only 17 per cent of the population before 1992, and fought a war to regain control of their homeland.

“We survived, we suffered, we held out at the cost of the lives and health of a huge number of true patriots of our country,” he said. “We are a small country, a small nation. The risks are always high for nations like ours.”

Alkhas Tkhagushev, a member of the president’s Civic Chamber, a body drawn from representatives of civil society, told IWPR that the proposed change needed to be thought through very carefully.

“I don’t see any reason for wholesale opposition to sales of new-build homes. But if this process goes ahead, it needs to be supervised rigorously since it touches on the biggest fears that our society has,” he said. “We believe that everything happens in an un-transparent manner, and that this process, too, might not be transparent.”

Tkhagushev said that anyone should be able to go on the internet and find out whether a given area of land was classified as open for construction, as part of a nature reserve, or as something else.

“Investors need to know and understand where, when and what they can build. It shouldn’t be officials who decide how a building should look. There have to be firm guidelines,” he said.

Tamaz Ketsba, a property lawyer, said that while the proposed liberalisation would certainly stimulate the property market, the government needed to ensure it did not lead to a free-for-all.

“We don’t have a tradition of holding tenders for construction projects, so where are these houses going to be built?” he asked. “Who will do the building work? Who will make the decisions? If we are not prepared for this, then it will offer good opportunities for corruption. We don’t have a general plan for developing the capital or other towns. What we have now is chaotic construction that pays no attention to our architectural environment. This [plan] could make things even more chaotic.”

Bganba said parliament was to set up a working group to look into how the government dealt with land surveys, which could control what buildings get built, where, and who builds them.

“As for tenders, any law can lead to corruption, unfortunately. We need to do everything we can to protect ourselves from it. We need a proper plan and proper tenders. And we mustn’t change the overall appearance of our towns – we’ve changed too much already,” he said.

Anaid Gogoryan works for Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.

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