Independent Consultant, Former Political Officer of the United Nations Mission in Georgia
Over the years I have neither published my thoughts on Abkhazia, nor on the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process. After my last trip to Sukhum in April, I thought it was time to put pen to paper.
I first visited Abkhazia in the summer of 1998, accompanying my husband and a delegation of Ambassadors, Friends of the Secretary General. What struck me during that visit was the stunning landscape, the deserted roads in towns and villages and the desperate state of most buildings, very badly damaged during the 1992-93 civil war. Their former beauty and elegance, was still evident, signs of a very different, happier past.
I crossed the Psou border for the second time on a bitterly cold November day in the same year. On that occasion I came face to face with one of the devastating effects of the blockade enforced by Russia. The mountain peaks of the Great Caucasus range were already white. I remember vividly scores of people, mostly women, queuing on the Abkhaz side of the border, carrying very heavy loads of citrus fruits, their bodies lashed by wind and rain, their faces distorted by stress and fatigue. I was told that some of them would walk across to the Russian side several times a day to sell their produce and earn the money to support their families. Watching them, I recall wondering, how, by causing so much hardship, the Georgian government could expect the Abkhaz side to return to the negotiating table. Just the opposite seemed more likely. Once I entered the conflict area and saw the human suffering together with the determination of people to rebuild their lives, their inner freedom and desire for independence, I simply could not just walk away. I decided I wanted to know more.
I started my journey of discovery with regular trips from Tbilisi to all regions of Abkhazia, talking to as many people as possible, listening to their stories and discussing with them what could be done, in practical terms, to improve their lives and ease the resentment. Lower Gal was the worst area. The landmines, the violence, the ongoing provocation were creating a no-go zone, which had to be opened up. Small concrete steps to alleviate painful situations, was the path I intended to follow. I knew that my impact in terms of aid could only be minimal, but I very soon realized that together with other British NGOs, which were working on the ground, we could offer at least some hope and encouragement, while the political negotiations were taking place. At the beginning it was a rather lonely and politically challenging experience, but the response from Abkhaz authorities and people was positive. I felt privileged that they welcomed me as their working partner and was humbled by their trust. Understanding, moral support, respect seemed to be what they needed most. In those days, as very few outsiders visited Abkhazia, the ethno-political roots to the conflict with Georgia and the powerful emotions they unleashed, were little known and very much underestimated. Sadly, I believe they still are.
In spite of the declaration of Abkhazia’s independence after the referendum in 1998, I continued to believe that an agreement between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides could be brokered, if the West managed to convince the Georgians to lift the blockade. Together with other observers, I considered such a move essential to give new impetus to the negotiations and to reopen the difficult process of meaningful reconciliation. In my view, the considerable support and funds that Georgia was receiving from the west to restructure the economy and rebuild its institutions were widening the gap between the two sides in a disturbing manner. While Abkhazia was struggling to survive, Georgia was receiving ongoing help. Moreover, the absence of a truly neutral mediator, complicated the situation further, as all stake holders except Abkhazia, considered the territorial integrity of Georgia as non negotiable. With such a scenario I felt that the IDPs chances to return were very poor.
When my husband’s tour of duty in Georgia came to an end in March 2001, we returned to the UK. By July, I was back in Sukhum as a member of the political team of UNOMIG, where I remained for almost two years, continuing my project work and focusing on the need to integrate Gal region into Abkhazia (a tabu subject in those days). With the Abkhaz authorities there were long discussions about Georgian, as the language of tuition in Gal schools and about equal rights for Georgian returnees. Abkhaz NGOs, on the other hand, had to be persuaded to come to Gal and start working with the local population. Slowly but surely they did.
In May 2003 my contract with the UN ended. After more than five years spent in the Caucasus, I returned home. I left with conflicting emotions and thoughts. The road to peace seemed full of hurdles.
I continued to monitor events, but at a distance. There were various ups and downs. Nevertheless, while the position of Georgia and the West remained almost unchanged, Russia after Yeltsin, begun slowly, but surely to modify its stance. The easing of the border control at Psou, the issue of Russian passports to the Abkhaz population, the renovation works on the Abkhaz railway were clear signs of a policy change, which Georgia was unwilling to match. I began to wonder,” Where was the West?” With Irakli Alasania, as Saakashvili’s envoy to Abkhazia, the scenario, for a while, seemed more promising. Not for long. The 2008 war with South Ossetia, the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence by Russia together with the positioning of Russian troops on Abkhaz territory, began a new era. The Georgian law on occupied territories and the idea (untrue) that there was no conflict to solve between South Ossetia /or Abkhazia and Georgia, but only between Georgia and Russia, I thought were diverting attention away from the real issues. The new worrying trend in the West of giving scant attention to events prior to the 2008 war, and the EU declared policy of Engagement without Recognition, which never really took off, were clearly an indication that the Geneva process was not succeeding. My thoughts were again with the IDPs. Their chances of return were becoming even slimmer. In Abkhazia, however, the situation seemed to be changing. It was time to travel back to see what was happening.
When on 7 April 2012 my car crossed the Ingur river, I saw again the familiar sight of an old man with his cart carrying passengers to the other side of the bridge. The crossing at Psou fourteen years earlier came to mind. Now the border with Russia was open, but the problems at the border with Georgia still remained. The newly built compound for the Russian border guards, very visible from the main road, contrasted sharply with the old Gal UNOMIG HQ. After the first atrocious stretch, the road became smooth and well paved. During the speedy journey to Sukhum, we passed several cars and a few small shops, new signs of activity, against a landscape still desolate and empty. The huge wisterias and the mountains in the background were magnificent, as always.
When I began exploring Sukhum the following day, I discovered an entirely different city from the one I remembered, with beautifully renovated buildings along the main streets, where people were walking, chatting and laughing. Many little cafes, restaurants and shops had sprung up everywhere. Some looked trendy and expensive. The roads were busy with big cars driving too fast. I had already heard about them. Often enough there were women in the driving seat. This was a change! One of the first things I did was to go to the seafront and check if the Abkhaz domino players were still there. They were. If anything, in larger numbers and with the same unchanged concentration on their game. Although the main market remains my favourite, I popped into the new supermarkets. The wines caught my attention. Different kinds with very attractive labels were on offer. I saw later in Pitsunda the new plantation of French vines. They looked healthy and well cared for.
During the three weeks I spent in Abkhazia, I travelled widely. My aim was to ascertain how the Abkhaz were rebuilding their nation. Everybody helped. I was deeply touched by the fact that after so many years people still remembered me. I regret, however, there was not enough time to visit everybody I had wanted. With Emma Gamisonia and her husband I travelled to Okhum and Tkvarchal to see how an MP is tackling problems in her constituency. With great energy and loquacity, I would say in Emma’s case! The poverty of the villages, however, was striking. Easter was spent in Lykhny and Novy Afon, at the very heart of Abkhazia. The Shakryls’ wine was special, the table in the open air with men celebrating the festivity a sign that Abkhaz traditions are still strong. There were also trips to Pitsunda and Gudauta, several meetings with officials, NGOs, ordinary citizens and then a few days in Gal.
What Alexander Ankvab told me is true. The town of Gal has changed. A well equipped music school, a new kindergarten, the refurbishment of the house of culture and of the main road, new small commercial outlets have lightened its atmosphere. Moreover, the Georgian language is taught throughout the region, although in a rather unsystematic manner. NGOs are carrying on their work. Abkhaz passports are issued at a much greater speed than before. Regretfully, the wind of change does not seem to have reached lower Gal. Overall, crime and corruption are still a disturbing reality, in spite of the downward trend. During my conversations with returnees, I noted a new wish, not there before, to integrate with the rest of the country. A clear indication is that they would like their children to learn both the Abkhaz and Russian language. This, of course, does not mean that they are prepared to rescind their ties with Georgia and their original culture. It would be unnatural and unrealistic to expect otherwise. A serious concern is that the majority of the returnees’ children do not have regular school documents, because, under present legislation, the Georgian birth certificates issued by the Abkhaz Government in Exile cannot be re-registered in Abkhazia. The authorities need to resolve this matter with urgency: all children who live on Abkhaz soil are their future.
On a more personal matter, my very deep gratitude goes to the four men who were my companions on a very emotionally charged mission to the place, on the south ridge of the Sakharna Golova, where the UNOMIG helicopter was shot down on 8 October 2001. The location was not easy to find, but our guide knew every inch of the territory and lead us through a maze of mountain-tracks. Among the broken trees, eventually, we found debris from the helicopter. After so many years, I didn’t expect it to be still there. It brought back to us that human tragedy with poignant immediacy. There were tears. The mountains around us kept a respectful silence. My reason to be there was to pay my respect and plant poppy seeds. In Great Britain poppies are the symbol of remembrance for those who died fighting at war. The five of us planted and watered 1000 seeds. I hope they soon will bloom and will keep doing so year after year. No Abkhaz were on board the morning of the shooting-down. The team included a Georgian interpreter, a Russian communication expert, four UNOMIG officers from Hungary, Switzerland, Pakistan and Germany and three Ukrainian pilots. I learnt that, before takeoff, the chief pilot removed his watch and gave it to a friend at the airport saying that he would not be back. Possibly others felt the same, but they went. On the night before the incident, I had spoken to two of them. Both thought their mission was important, as they had to assess the threat that the Georgian and Chechen irregular forces were posing to the Abkhaz people. After the event, there were questions as to whether the mission should have taken place and which route the helicopter should have followed. These discussions are now irrelevant. The fact is that the team showed enormous courage and absolute commitment. I shall never forget them.
The three weeks flew by. The evocative balcony of Nadja Venediktova’s flat is a warm memory, together with her mother’s exquisite borsch and the smiling faces of old and new friends. Over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking a great deal about the Abkhazia I met again and its future. There is very little doubt in my mind that it will be a rewarding one. Taking into account that only since the 2008 August war has Abkhazia been receiving a substantial contribution to its state-budget from Russia, and that for twenty years Georgia has successfully blocked economic restructuring, good governance and institution building programmes to this region, the progress achieved so far is very much to the credit of the Abkhaz. The democratic nature of the society, inbuilt in its culture, is also an asset. The last parliamentary elections, according to the monitoring NGOs, took place without significant infringements. A sign of greater social stability, which will have to be maintained.
Unemployment, economic degradation, organized crime still exist, but they are exacerbated by two decades of isolation and struggle. Georgia has a major responsibility for this state of affairs. Hopefully, its attitude and that of the West will change. Channels of communication should remain open.
The Abkhaz administration has a mammoth task ahead, but having seen at first hand the determination shown by this new government in tackling crime and corruption, I think that the country is on the right track, providing that its people will be active supporters and not mere spectators of this process. The works on the infrastructure are ongoing. The rehabilitation of the economy will be decisive for the future of the country.
Looking at the political scenario today, I believe that a meaningful agreement with Georgia can be reached only if the two sides are sitting at the negotiating table with equal status and if the economic blockade and the travel-restrictions are relegated to past history. New mechanisms and political tools have to be found by the EU, if the Geneva process is to regain significance in the peace-negotiations.
A subject of great interest in diplomatic and political circles in the West is, of course, the role of Russia in the South Caucasus. I am not an expert in such matters, but in the last fourteen years I have followed with keen interest the small but steady steps taken by Moscow, when the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia was labelled as frozen. As far as Russia is concerned, I don’t think it ever was. Over the years, the uncompromising and at times aggressive stance of Georgia gave Moscow ample room to manoeuvre and to get closer to Abkhazia. The Russian troops, which Western powers and Georgia consider occupying forces, are for the Abkhaz population a guarantee of protection and of border-security. The alliance between Russia and Abkhazia today has obvious, albeit different, interests for both sides. The question is, what shape will it take in the future? No doubt, internal developments in Russia, together with its relations with the West, will be fundamental. I would hope, however, that as long as the Abkhaz deeply value their spirit of independence and protect the integrity of their territory with the appropriate legislation, Moscow will think carefully before running the risk of creating a source of instability on the strategically important shores of the Black sea and on its North Caucasian frontier.
Leaving Abkhazia, before the border, I looked one more time at the national flag. The Abkhaz took it from the coat-of-arms of Genoa, my own town. The open hand, symbol of victory, was clearly visible.
Source: "Respublika Abkhazia" Newspaper