Karolina Ó Beacháin Stefańczak: Women dominate in the Abkhaz NGO sector

PRAGUE, 30 September, Caucasus Times. Karolina Ó Beacháin Stefańczak is a political consultant and advisor with a strong focus on women’s political participation and gender equality within electoral processes. She has over 15 years of working experience with Polish, British and Georgian parliaments and local governments, a decade-long experience in various politics-related projects in the former USSR republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova and over a dozen years of cooperation with international organizations. She knows the post-Soviet space well, having lived and worked in the region as a Parliamentary Program Manager for National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Georgia; an OSCE/ODIHR expert in an on-going ‘Women in Political Parties’ program, a Parliamentary Program Manager for National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Georgia; an OSCE/ODIHR expert in an on-going ‘Women in Political Parties’ program, a Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) consultant and as an independent election observer in the de facto states of Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Karolina is currently based at Dublin City University in Ireland as an EU-funded fellow conducting research for her PhD on gender and political representation in post-Soviet countries, focusing on the role of political parties in the legislative recruitment of women.
Interview with her was prepared by Sergey Markedonov, Associate Professor of Russian State University for the Humanities and expert of Russian International Affairs Council.


Caucasus Times: Unrecognized and semi-recognized entities are generally studied in the context of geopolitical and ethno-political conflicts as well as a part of the US-Russia rivalry. Usually experts pay less attention to different aspect of everyday life there. However people on the ground create families, attend schools and universities and bring up their children despite of unresolved conflicts. You study the gender topics in the de facto states. Speaking about the Caucasus region journalists, scholars and politicians address to tradition, alleged traditional family. In what extent those traditions are kept in Abkhazia today? What factors do influence on their transformation? How has the Abkhaz family been changed after the conflict with Georgia and consequent blockade?


K.B.S.: The break-up of the USSR had many consequences for the region – emergence of new states, conflicts, renewed nationalism and also the reassertion of the family values that were associated with the pre-Soviet period. Those strong “traditional values” are deeply rooted throughout the Caucasus, irrespective of the international recognition of the state.
In Abkhazia, as a result of the war with Georgia, these conservative family structures were weakened, not in term of people believing in it, but because of the practical issues that undermined the maintenance of traditional gender roles. So although the war, in which men acted as the majority of soldiers, emphasised the conventional division of duties, the aftermath of the conflict brought a change in the responsibilities of men and women in families and society. The economic blockade of Abkhazia by Russia throughout the 1990s, combined with the post-war trauma had a substantial negative impact on families and influenced changing gender roles. Women had to fulfil their “traditional” duties at home, at the same time being often the only breadwinners of their families – during the blockade men could not cross the border and therefore were unable to trade and earn money. Those years resulted in additional burden for women, but also gave them great sense of purpose and social importance while undermining that of men. Today, 15 years after the blockade was lifted and 6 years since the recognition of Abkhazia by Russia the memories of those events have faded, but I believe they are having enduring effect on Abkhazian society.

Caucasus Times: How can you estimate the women’ status (both formal and informal) in current Abkhazia? How are they represented in the government, NGO sector and business?


K.B.S.: The status of women in Abkhazia is similar to the situation of women in other post-Soviet states. As we both remember, the ideology of the Soviet state promoted the principle of gender equality. Despite the high percentage of women in many spheres of life like science, education and even space gender equality wasn’t reflected in the influential circles of political power. Over 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, it is still the case. Women in this part of the world are well educated; they are strong and active in many spheres of life. They are well qualified to do any type of job and to have any formal or informal positions in society. In spite of this, they are still underrepresented in the world of politics. In the current National Assembly of Abkhazia there is only one solitary female Deputy, Emma Gamisonia, in a legislature of 35 MPs – it is less than 3% of the total. It means that if Abkhazia was a recognised state and were included in the Inter-Parliamentary Union database, it would rank 178 out of 186 countries internationally. Does it mean that voters in Abkhazia discriminate against female candidates? Not really. Quite simply, the percentage of candidates who were women was low, although, at nearly 11%, higher than the proportion elected; 16 of the 148 candidates for the 35 seats were female. In most constituencies (22 out of the 35) there was no female candidate, so voters could only chose between male contestants. When I was in Abkhazia before the March 2012 elections, I spoke to several women candidates and observed their campaigns. They were good candidates, running professional, well organised campaigns. Yet out of three female incumbents only one was re-elected and two MPs, Irina Agrba and Rita Lolua, though making it to the second round were unsuccessful in defeating their male rivals.  This disappointing election result returned the smallest number of women to the National Assembly in Abkhazia’s post-Soviet electoral history, but since 1991 the percentage of female MPs was always low. It varied between 5.7% and 11.4% – the number of female MPs ranged from two to four. In the history of post-Soviet Abkhazia there was never a female candidate running for the post of President and only one, Svetlana Jergenia was a Vice Presidential candidate – in the 2011 elections.

The representation of women in the government and among civil servants is much higher though, but again not at the top echelons – there has never been a female Prime Minister in Abkhazia. Does it reflect how politically influential women are? In my view, it does not. In general, Abkhaz women are politically very active; I was observing three recent election campaigns in Abkhazia (in 2011, 2012 and 2014), I attended many public meetings in Sukhum and in other towns and villages and I noticed that there were often more women than men in the audiences. There were also many women in the campaign offices, mainly fulfilling administrative and organisational duties.
The NGO sector in Abkhazia, especially the sphere I am familiar with, is dominated by women. This is the area with little political power. I saw recently the program of an international conference, at which three NGO representatives from Abkhazia were presenting, all of them were women and they all spoke excellent English. Interestingly, most of the male English speakers I met in Abkhazia were active in politics but women were largely confined to the non-governmental sector.


Caucasus Times: What differences can you see between the overall situation of women in Abkhazia and other de facto states in Eurasia? Are there any commonalities?

K.B.S.: The overall situation of women in those states is similar, but their parliamentary representation in the four post-Soviet de facto states varies from less than 3% in Abkhazia to 17.6% in South Ossetia; there is one female deputy in the 35-members Abkhaz legislature and 6 women MPs among 34 South Ossetian parliamentarians. There are three female MPs in the 33 member Nagorno Karabakh legislature and also three among Transnistria’s 43 parliamentarians. However, these legislatures are elected through three different electoral systems. The majoritarian system, used in Abkhazia and Transnistria, produces the lowest female parliamentary representation. The mixed system (half majoritarian, half party list) is used in Nagorno Karabakh which has the second largest percentage of women MPs. The proportional party list system, used in South Ossetia, has produced the highest proportion of female MPs. Internationally, electoral systems are important factors in determining the percentage of women in parliaments, with the proportional – party list systems, like the one used in South Ossetia, associated with higher representation of women in legislatures.

The differences between the unrecognised states are noticeable in terms of women holding prominent posts: Tatiana Turanskaya is Transnistria’s Prime Minister, her deputy and influential Foreign Minister is Nina Shtanski; Nagorno Karabakh’s Central Election Commission is chaired by Srbuhi Arzumanyan; voters in South Ossetia in the 2011 presidential elections gave the greatest number of votes to Alla Dzhioyeva, and though the result was annulled, she now holds the position of deputy Prime Minister.

In conclusion, I might say that while there are variations in the political representation of women in the four de facto states when compared with the fully recognised states of the region, these differences are not substantial.

Caucasus Times: In what extent family ties in Abkhazia do influence on the current politics in the republic? Do they have an impact on the decision-making process and recruiting of officials as well as their promotion?


K.B.S.: The size of the Abkhazian population creates a very personal political environment, which is also reflected in official processes within parties, organizations and state institutions. During dozens of interviews in Sukhum, I heard over and over again that “Abkhazia is a small state, and that everybody knows everybody”. Informal links, including family connections, friendships and relations from the war, matter more than qualifications, ideology and formal political affiliations. This is exacerbated by the institutional weakness of political parties. In fact the electoral system is designed to minimise the impact of parties by limiting the number of contestants that can be nominated by political organizations to a maximum of 11. It results in the returning of a high number of independent candidates to the parliament. These circumstances are more problematic for women given the gender divisions in the family and society are directly replicated in political contests. Men, on average, do better in weak party systems. They also have more resources, which are necessary to be successful in politics. However, the informal connections, including personal ties, shape Abkhazia’s politics; the decisions are often made not during official debates, but at family gatherings and social meetings.


Caucasus Times: Nowadays a lot of NGO activists in Abkhazia take care on such challenges like the problems of drugs and alcohol abuse, as well as criminal growth. In what extent gender issues do influence on those trends? Can they be used as a resource to change the situation?

K.B.S: The problems of drugs and alcohol abuse have been affecting Abkhazian society since the early 1990s. In a post-conflict trauma, after a war in which every family had lost someone close, and during the external isolation that followed, reality was very depressing. I already mention the family situations caused by the economic blockade, when only women could trade, which undermined male roles and led disproportionately to more men than women seeking relief in alcohol and drugs. International organizations and NGOs provided virtually no resources to help manage the distress and build a post-war society. As a consequence many found reintegration into the new reality very difficult. The events changed Abkhazia and now affect the new generation. Despite the ability to travel and work in Russia, young people from Sukhum still have fewer opportunities than their counterparts in Moscow or other capitals of the region. In order to address the issues of drug and alcohol abuse or crime, the broader issues that affect the society as a whole need to be solved.

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