A small, little-known corner of the southern Caucasus resists Georgia, relies on Russia, and is resolute for independence. Andrew Mueller reports from Abkhazia.
23 - 08 - 2005
Sukhum’s international airport must be the quietest such aviation hub on earth. There are only a couple of passenger jets parked on the runway, derelict Aeroflot planes that look like they haven’t been airborne since Leonid Brezhnev was in power. There are no customs formalities, just a bored security guard waving the few arrivals through, and outside there are no taxis, no buses, no uniformed chauffeurs holding up the names of their passengers.
The moribund status of Sukhum’s international airport is a by-product of the fact that nobody outside Sukhum (sometimes rendered as “Sukhumi”) considers it an international airport. Sukhum is the nominal capital of Abkhazia, a region in the north-west of Georgia which has been struggling for more than a decade to be recognised as an independent, sovereign state. The cost, in money and human life, has been incalculable: around 10,000 people are estimated to have died in the little-reported 1992-93 war with Georgia, many of them Abkhazians in a total Abkhaz population of only 90,000.
For most foreigners, coming here is possible only if they can gain the necessary approval to travel on one of the United Nations’s sporadic helicopter flights from the Georgian military airbase near Senaki. The lumbering Russian-built Mi-8s fly straight to the coast and then miles out into the Black Sea before turning back around to Sukhum; the careful arc an acknowledgment that in October 2001, a UN helicopter was shot down over Abkhazia, killing all nine people aboard.
A shadow state
Abkhazia is visibly determined – despite the overt hostility of Georgia, and the indifference of the rest of the planet – to make its own way in the world. The territory’s public buildings, shops and street stalls, fly Abkhazia’s own flag, rich in symbolism: green and white stripes (representing Abkhazia’s mixed Christian and Islamic heritage), a red panel emblazoned with an open palm (denoting friendship), which appears to be juggling seven white stars (representing Abkhazia’s provinces).
The formalities of independent status are everywhere. Abkhazia has its own government, which collects its own taxes, and includes its own foreign ministry (even if, by definition, this seems a bit like Switzerland having a navy minister or the Netherlands a mountain rescue service); its own police, operating according to Abkhazia’s own laws; its own military, in which two years’ service is compulsory for young men; its own postage stamps (though opinion about the chances of postcards sent with them ever being seen again is mixed).
At the same time, the realities of dependency abound. Abhkazia plans to issue its own passports, though an agreement to give all Abkhazians the right of Russian citizenship in 2002 seemed to compromise the goal of statehood. Russian troops guarantee the country’s border with Georgia on the Inguri river to the east, and are present in Sukhum itself – enviably billeted in tree-shrouded dachas next to the beach in one of the old Soviet Union’s premier holiday resorts (which must beat serving in Chechnya).
Abkhazia may shun the Georgian currency (lari), but it uses the Russian rouble rather than any currency of its own. Russian is also the most commonly heard language, though in recent years there has been a revival of interest in the northwest Caucasian language of Abkhazian, another marker of distinction from south Caucasian Georgian (kartvelebi) and Mingrelian (megruli) of Georgia.
Abkhazians are fond of pointing out that the country’s modern difficulties derive from a decree by a son of Georgia, Josef Stalin. After the consolidation of Soviet power in 1921, Abkhazia enjoyed (for want of a better term) the same constitutional status within the Soviet Union as Georgia itself – that of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Stalin’s regular holidays in Abkhazia inspired no fondness for its people (with his chief henchman, Lavrenti Beria – a Mingrelian – he would destroy Nestor Lakoba and the rest of Abkhazia’s political leadership in the 1930s purges). In 1931, he decided to reduce its status by incorporating it into Georgia. Georgian was made Abkhazia’s official language, and thousands of Georgians were encouraged to settle there. By the time the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stopped answering to its own name in 1991, only around 20% of Abkhazia’s population were ethnically Abkhazian.
War descended upon Abkhazia in August 1992. Post-Soviet Georgia had lurched from the crazed misdirection of chauvinist zealot Zviad Gamsakhurdia to the overlordship of ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who – in the face of Abkhazian moves to outright independence – sanctioned a brutal invasion of the rebellious province.
The thirteen-month war was largely ignored by a world then preoccupied with the carnage in disintegrating ex-Yugoslavia. Yet there are deep parallels between the conflicts – in the “ethnic cleansing” of populations, the state- and media-orchestrated nationalist intolerance, and the impulse to cultural annihilation as well as military victory.
Just as the Bosnian Serbs attempted to extinguish proof of Bosnia’s national identity by destroying the national library in Sarajevo, so Georgian bombs razed Abkhazia’s Institute of Language, Literature and History, and used Sukhum’s monuments to local heroes as target practice (the bulletholes are still visible in many cases, while the statue of poet Dmitri Gulia has its head blown off).
It is hard to find a single Abkhazian who didn’t lose friends or family members in the conflict with Georgia. Eventually, Abkhazia’s hastily-convened irregular forces – abetted by various detachments of Russians as well as Chechens and other “north Caucasians” – drove the Georgian military from Abkhazian territory. Around 250,000 ethnically Georgian refugees fled with them, many to a hellish long-term existence in the ruins of Tbilisi’s Hotel Iveria.
Abkhazia declared independence in 1994. It has been painfully attempting to recover ever since. The territory still has no formal transport links with the rest of Georgia, though discussions about restoring the railway line have been held. Ships from Turkey call at Sukhum, though they risk being impounded or fired on by Georgian naval vessels. Increasing numbers of Russian tourists negotiate the only open border crossing near Sochi to enjoy the beaches and hotels of Gagra and Pitsunda, prestigious resorts during Soviet times.
The potential wealth generated by tourism, against the backdrop of one of the most fertile regions in the world, would certainly be enough to sustain a workable Abkhazian economy. Yet in present geopolitical circumstances it is difficult to see how Abkhazia’s dreams can possibly come true.
It is inconceivable that any Georgian government will offer it independence – aside from giving up miles of potentially profitable coastline, recognising Abkhazia could only encourage Georgia’s other restive regions (the Adzharian problem may have been solved, but South Ossetia is beyond Tbilisi’s control and there is growing discontent among the Armenian minority in the south).
Moreover, the United States has no conceivable interest in Abkhazian statehood. It is developing closer military and strategic ties with Georgia, and its interest in Caspian oil supplies is reflected in its support of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline that runs through Georgia’s territory.
The US has consistently made clear its positive view of Georgia since the “rose revolution” that brought its smart young president, Mikhail Saakashvili, to power in late 2003 – even extending the honour of an ecstatically-welcomed visit by George W Bush in May 2005.
Meanwhile, the present uncertainty over Abkhazia’s status and future suits Russia rather well. As Tbilisi strives to move closer to the west, Moscow can loom menacingly in Georgia’s wing-mirrors and preserve its strategic options in the troubled region (fuelling more febrile Georgians’ fears that Abkhazians may one day be used – like Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s – as a pretext for military intervention).
Despite this apparent absence of hope for a diplomatic breakthrough in Abkhazia’s recognition by the international community, there seems no appetite – among Abkhazia’s government or public alike – for any sort of compromise. Indeed, in a government riven with personal rivalries (something that became dangerously apparent during the contested, divisive, and occasionally violent electoral process between October 2004 and January 2005), this may be the only unifying factor. When examples of a middle way are suggested, such as the Basque country’s autonomy inside Spain or Scotland’s and Wales’s within the United Kingdom, they are swiftly dismissed.
“There are”, the foreign minister Sergei Shamba declares, “no models which could bring us together with the Georgian state. Due to history, and due to public opinion, we stand by our right to independence.”
“It’s about us, now”, confirms Vice-President Raul Khadjimba. “We have to create the conditions for the world to hear about us. We have to use television, newspapers, the internet, to tell people more about Abkhazia. Maybe one day these issues will touch someone’s heart, and the world will give us a chance.”