The full, translated interview transcript between Sophie Royle and the President of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba.
Sophie Royle: It would only be right to begin our interview discussing some of the serious issues that are faced by your people, yet are unknown to the rest of the world. What are the biggest challenges that the people of Abkhazia face today?
President Khajimba: It needs to be understood that at the present time, Abkhazia is a young country which is making its first steps. It is also important to remember that in 1992-1993, Georgia treacherously invaded us and unleashed a bloody war on our land. We lost many of our people in this war, our infrastructure was destroyed almost completely, and for many years we have lived under a blockade – all of this, of course, has had an impact on the people and on the country as a whole. Today, life in Abkhazia is gradually improving. There are more jobs and a new generation is ready to throw all of its strength and knowledge into building a successful state. Of course, we, for sure, like any other state, have internal problems and internal disagreements, but we are coping with them. I would like to note that our neighbour is an enemy state, which is simply waiting to attack us. We still cannot achieve the signing of the agreement on non-use of force with Georgia and, in fact, find ourselves still in a state of war. But most importantly, we do have friends and partners. First of all, the Russian Federation, which acts as a security guarantor in the Georgian-Abkhaz situation; provides assistance to our state for economic development; and, contrary to popular belief, is deliberately not engaging in anything more. I once again declare that Russia is simply our friend and strategic partner.
Sophie Royle: You touched upon the assistance provided by Russia for economic development. Is Russian aid sufficient enough to support Abkhazia, and if not, what else is needed?
President Khajimba: The Russian Federation supports us as an ally and a major strategic partner, given our difficult economic situation associated with the devastating consequences of military aggression of Georgia. We are very grateful. But, at the same time, we are making every effort to build a self-sufficient economy. For us, we are talking about the most effective use of competitive advantages, of which our country has plenty of.
Sophie Royle: It appears Russia does indeed have a strong involvement in Abkhazia. Perhaps this fuels the argument of many Georgians, who say Russia is colonising Abkhazia. How would you respond to that statement?
President Khajimba: Of course we cannot seriously discuss the term colonisation, and talking about it is absurd. For Abkhazia, this high degree of cooperation with Russia in the field of defence, security, economic aspects and personnel training is very important. At the same time, Abkhazia is a sovereign, independent state - and this is very important. We have long-standing economic and human ties with Russian regions, in particular neighbouring regions - the territory of Krasnodar and the Republics of the North Caucasus. Of course, we intend to not only strengthen but also deepen our cooperation in many spheres, including economical, cultural, education and tourism.
Sophie Royle: The media have circulated the idea of removing the Russian-Abkhaz border, ‘Psou’. What are your thoughts on the possibility of removing this border?
President Khajimba: There is no such possibility of removing the border. We are working with colleagues from Russia on the simplification of the crossing at the Psou check point, since there are close ties between our countries and a large number of people cross the border on a daily basis.
Sophie Royle: Again, it’s clear to me that the relationship between Russia and Abkhazia is strong. I want to go back to the economical side of this relationship - you mentioned building a self-sufficient economy. I would like to know, does your government have any serious plans to attract international investment and business in Abkhazia, beyond Russia?
President Khajimba: The question of investment attractiveness in the face of increasing global competition for investment in fixed assets is indeed relevant for us. We are certainly a country open to investments. Abkhazia is visited by representatives of the business community from a number of foreign countries, including Russia, China, Italy, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Belarus, etc. A number of major investment projects from China, Israel and Italy are also in the stage of negotiations. We also have a personal duty, given the importance of a business climate, therefore in Abkhazia we are today conducting activities to identify the main constraints in terms of investment attractiveness. The Ministry of Economy has conducted the appropriate studies, and a series of drafts is being prepared on the simplification of our business environment. We have also established a specialised investment agency, designed to provide full cooperation and support to investors.
Sophie Royle: I’m somewhat surprised that the states which do not recognise Abkhazia’s independence are currently cooperating with Abkhazia for business. I also noticed that you did not, aside from Russia, mention any of the states which do recognise Abkhazia’s independence, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. How would you describe Abkhazia’s working relationship with states such as Nicaragua and Venezuela?
President Khajimba: There is a friendly and trusting partnership between Abkhazia and Venezuela. This is evident by the exchange of high-level diplomats and ambassadors. The Embassy of Abkhazia in Venezuela is actively working to develop political, economic and cultural relations with Venezuela. In 2015, at the invitation of the Government of Venezuela, an Abkhazian delegation arrived in Caracas to participate in the events dedicated to the international exhibition titled, ‘For Integration and Cooperation with the Peoples of the World’. The Abkhaz exhibition was a great success, meetings were held with representatives of local business structures and plans for cooperation were outlined. Now, an agreement on a visa-free regime is being prepared to be signed, which will bring the peoples of the two countries further together, and, of course, will give impetus to further cooperation.
With regard to relations with Nicaragua, they are also developing very positively. Our countries have already signed an agreement on a visa-free regime. We are planning to open the diplomatic missions of Abkhazia in Nicaragua. During the recent visit of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Nicaragua to Abkhazia, on the occasion of the presentation of credentials, there was a possibility noted for cooperation in the areas of trade and education. In general, the relations between our countries are developing successfully, and we plan to deepen a mutually beneficial cooperation in fields such as agriculture, education, and culture, to name a few.
Sophie Royle: It must be very exciting for you and your government to have these positive, successful relationships with other states, despite the obvious challenges. However, we cannot deny or forget that Abkhazia is still internationally isolated. What are your long term strategies to overcome the international isolation of Abkhazia?
President Khajimba: Yes, Abkhazia is indeed in international isolation, although millions of tourists do visit our Republic. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia has developed a draft concept of foreign policy, which will soon be published. The concept includes all aspects of relations with countries that recognise Abkhazia. In addition, we are actively working on the establishment of new relations with those states which have not yet recognized us.
Sophie Royle: For the majority of us outside Abkhazia, we cannot imagine how life would be if we were internationally isolated and living in an unrecognised state, although the disadvantages are apparent. In your opinion, what is the biggest disadvantage of being an unrecognized state and government?
President Khajimba: Well, Abkhazia is a recognised state - we are recognised by 6 UN member states, including the Russian Federation, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We even share some of the same difficulties that many other modern, democratic and legal states have. Of course, we are disappointed when double standards are used against us. For example, the non-recognition of Abkhaz passports, which violates the rights of the citizens of Abkhazia to freely leave their country and return to it. At the same time, there are precedents in the world where citizens of countries that are not internationally recognized, such as Kosovo, Palestine, Northern Cyprus, are able to use their passports, having been recognized by the international community. The same applies to the frequent refusals to grant visas to our citizens wishing to visit European countries, the denial of visas for our young dance groups and our sports players, the forced closing of our stands at international exhibitions, and much more. This is one of the biggest disadvantages, but they are not ours. Rather, they are the disadvantages of the international community, which is not yet ready to accept a new, but long-established state.
Sophie Royle: I agree - it is incredibly unfortunate that the international community is missing out on discovering the unique culture and people of Abkhazia. Although Abkhazians are being denied visas and unable to explore the world freely, it was great to see a part of the world come to Abkhazia this year, during the CONIFA World Football Cup. How important are international events for Abkhazia, such as CONIFA, and what political advantages do they bring?
President Khajimba: An international football championship of this level was held for the first time in Abkhazia, but it is possible to recall a similar event which was the Domino World Championship. In both cases, Abkhazia has shown itself in the most positive light. I think this is a good way to declare ourselves to the world, as many foreign nationals who know nothing about Abkhazia, will hear something positive about sports and football, and football is loved everywhere.
Regarding political advantages, I think that the establishment of international relations and contacts on the cultural, educational, sports and other levels may contribute to the recognition of our country, although we understand that this is not a simple process. Recognition begins from the moment when people of a foreign country learn about our country, about its history and traditions, about its struggle for independence, and then comes diplomatic recognition. But it is a hard task, requiring both human resources and contacts, and considerable financial costs. And we, in turn, with the available resources, do everything possible for Abkhazia to be heard about around the world. The CONIFA championship is the proof.
Sophie Royle: In order to show your side of the situation, and to promote Abkhazia across the world, has social media been a helpful tool for Abkhazian politics?
President Khajimba: Abkhazia has chosen the path of becoming a democratic state and transparency is one of the main principles of democracy. Social media influences people's opinions and, of course, is an important instrument of the state. But the question is different. Amongst the media, there are biased ones which pursue the selfish goals of individuals, but it is not of a spontaneous nature and is a clear indication that Abkhazia is a democratic state, which does not accept any manifestation of an authoritarian regime.
Sophie Royle: CONIFA has clearly been a valuable experience for Abkhazia. Unfortunately, as much as Abkhazia tries to open up and spread its message across the world, there are opposing forces counteracting this, namely the United States and Georgia. Considering Hillary Clinton's potential election in the United States, and her close relationship with Georgia, what could this mean for the Abkhazian people and for the future of Abkhazia?
President Khajimba: It is difficult to judge what has not yet happened, but the likelihood of Hilary Clinton’s becoming president of the United States is very high. As you know, we have no official relations with the United States. There are some contacts - but they are mostly limited to meetings under the International Geneva Discussions on Stability and Security in Transcaucasia. At the same time, the US policy towards Abkhazia is slightly different from the one that the European Union holds. For example, in matters of issuing visas to citizens of Abkhazia, whose foreign Russian passports were issued by Russian Embassy in Abkhazia, the United States applies a more pragmatic approach, by not denying visas, unlike that of the countries of the Schengen agreement.
With regard to the specific nature of this question, it cannot be excluded that in the case of Clinton’s election, it might have pretty tough consequences not only for Abkhazia, but also for the region as a whole. Hillary Clinton is a former Secretary of State and has experience in the international field. Thus, we can expect extra attention from the US Department of State in our region.
If we talk about the relationship between the United States and Georgia, it is a well-established one, which is unlikely to undergo significant changes at the level of a single individual. One should not expect a change in the US foreign policy vector against Abkhazia in the Georgian context, after Clinton’s potential coming to power. US policy on the non-recognition of Abkhazia will remain the same and Georgia will continue to receive economic and military support. The same applies to Georgia's future in NATO - it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that Georgia will be offered membership in NATO.
Sophie Royle: It will certainly be interesting to see what effect, if any, the US election has in the Caucasus – particularly because of the instabilities in every corner of the region. It was only a few months ago that we saw tensions suddenly rise between Armenia and Azerbaijan. How did the recent violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan affect Abkhazia?
President Khajimba: When there are conflicts or renewed hostilities in the South Caucasus - this automatically plunges the entire region into chaos. For example, Abkhazia is home to a large number of Armenians, who definitely sympathized with what is happening in the Karabakh conflict zone. Thanks to the timely help of international mediators, including Russia, the necessary steps have been taken for an early end to the fighting. Accordingly, the conflict had no negative impact on Abkhazians in any way. However, everything is interconnected in our region.
Sophie Royle: It’s true that Abkhazia is not only home to a large community of Armenians, but to many other non-Abkhazians as well. Your country is also home to many religions peacefully co-existing, which is quite rare nowadays. What would you say to the people of Europe and America, who seem to be rejecting the notion of peaceful co-existence and diversity?
President Khajimba: Europeans and Americans should learn from Abkhazia. Your statement is very true - in Abkhazia there are representatives of many religions peacefully coexisting. This is largely due to the fact that we have very well developed interpersonal relations - we respect each other, and we honour traditions. The people of Abkhazia are very tolerant. I note that in addition to the representatives of different religions, representatives of different nationalities live here too, and we are able to co-exist peacefully. Fortunately in Abkhazia there are no conflicts on the basis of religious and racial discrimination, because again, we appreciate human relationships. It is the ancient mind-set of our people.
Sophie Royle: Another action that really demonstrates the willingness of Abkhazians to build to peaceful human relationships is the repatriation of Syrians of Abkhazian descent. Are there any political advantages to repatriating Syrians, or is this done solely through compassion?
President Khajimba: The action taken by Abkhazia to repatriate the compatriots from Syria should not be considered in the context of a foreign benefit - consider it exclusively as a humanitarian, altruistic gesture. Returnees from Syria are ethnic Abkhazians that, in accordance with the Constitutional Law of the Republic of Abkhazia on Repatriates (November 8, 2005 № 1167-c-XIV Volume 25), it automatically makes them our citizens. When the war began in Syria, we took the decision to facilitate the return of ethnic Abkhazians who have expressed a desire to return to their historical homeland.
Sophie Royle: Perhaps it is easier for Abkhazians to act selflessly and help those who are in war, because it was only 23 years ago that you were engaged in a terrible war yourselves. Following the 23 years since that war, what in your opinion have been Abkhazia’s greatest achievements?
President Khajimba: There have been many achievements, but the most important achievement is the fact that we managed to build a truly democratic and legal state. What has been enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia is being consistently executed. We conducted presidential and parliamentary elections in the presence of international observers; the elections in local governments were absolutely transparent as well. This achievement we consider very important in today's world, where often the word ‘democracy’ remains only on paper, but actually much is solved by military force and financial lobbies.
Sophie Royle: I think the high level of democracy in Abkhazia was also demonstrated recently by the presidential referendum. For what reasons did you decide to hold the referendum, and what would you say to other politicians in other states who do not allow their people to have voices?
President Khajimba: The referendum was not my decision. The initiative came from a group of Abkhazians, who instigated the collection of signatures in order to hold the referendum. I, in accordance with the Constitution of Abkhazia, took the decision to see it through. In Abkhazia, as I said, there is quite a developed democratic society which is actively involved in the political life of the country. The power in the country should exist to serve the people, and if the people have no right to vote, it’s shameful. Another question is whether these political actions, such as referendums, actually have the support of the people. In this case, the referendum was attended by less than one percent of voters.
Sophie Royle: So what exactly did the low voter turn-out suggest to you? Would you be willing to hold future referendums, or do they not have a useful place in Abkhazian society?
President Khajimba: The turn-out showed us that the public did not need this referendum. The question posed on the ballot was not relevant enough for the people. It also became clear that the referendum law requires major improvements. Particularly focusing on the lack of articles about the campaign, observers and other important aspects. It is important to make the necessary changes to ensure that in future, during such initiative actions from the public, the vote must be held more efficiently. But, of course, referendums are an important democratic tool that allows people to directly influence the decision of momentous national issues.
Sophie Royle: Referendums are important, but another essential aspect of politics is to ensure that the young people of the country are engaged in politics. What role can the young people of Abkhazia play in the political life of the country?
President Khajimba: Since the end of the Georgian-Abkhaz war, a new generation has grown up, ready to build a bright future for our state. Many were educated outside of Abkhazia, including in Europe, and have since returned to their homeland as highly qualified professionals. In Abkhazia our young people are very respectable, they are educated and patriotic, and actively engage in the life of the country, not shying away from social, political, cultural and public events. New political parties have been created, which include many young people. The voice of the youth is always heard in Abkhazia, they are trusted, and many young people are representatives in the legislative and executive bodies of the republic.
Sophie Royle: It’s great to hear that your government is encouraging the political involvement of the young people in Abkhazia. However, there are many appealing job opportunities for young people in foreign countries, and many Caucasians are leaving their homeland to seize them. How can you overcome the overall lack of jobs in Abkhazia, and prevent young Abkhazians from leaving?
President Khajimba: For the first time in recent history, we have increased the planning horizon from one year to ten, to adopt a strategy of socio-economic development until 2025. We are working on sectoral policies and roadmaps. All of this will allow for a consistent and progressive state economic policy to make Abkhazia a prosperous country and even more attractive for living, recreation and investment. Also, we are working to create conditions for young professionals. We pay for and send young people abroad for training, and then they come back and work for the good of our country. Of course, there are those who find themselves outside the country, but they are making efforts in order to benefit their homeland, which is also very important.
Sophie Royle: It’s clear that, like any other state, Abkhazia does have domestic issues to deal with, and your government is addressing them. But this poses an important question - is independence still a priority for Abkhazia or are domestic issues becoming more important?
President Khajimba: Recognition of Abkhazia as an independent and sovereign state at an international level was and is one of the foreign policy priorities. We do not divide the importance of internal and external issues, as they are closely linked.
Sophie Royle: You say that internal and external issues are closely linked, does this mean that, in your opinion, international recognition is essential for fixing Abkhazia's domestic issues?
President Khajimba: Foreign policy is linked to the domestic one. Of course, further international recognition will contribute to attracting more international assistance to boost the economy, investment, et al., which will be conducive to solving internal problems. But in general, our main strategic partner and ally - the Russian Federation, assists us in virtually all spheres of activity, helping to solve both domestic and foreign policy issues.
Sophie Royle: The people of Abkhazia have expressed to me their worry of the Abkhaz language dying out, as Russia becomes more and more involved in the country. What are your plans to keep the Abkhazian language in use and a vital part of Abkhazian life?
President Khajimba: The language problem really is an acute one in our society. For the revival of the importance and use of the Abkhaz language in everyday life, as well as in business communication, action is needed. To date, we have many projects aimed at the development of the Abkhazian language. The main work in this area is aimed at children. We plan to create a twenty-four-hour children's TV channel, which will broadcast children's shows and cartoons translated into the Abkhaz language, as well as to create our own multimedia productions in the Abkhaz language. We are also going to translate all humanitarian subjects at schools into the Abkhaz language. Naturally, all this work will be carried out in phases and will take time.
We understand that in today's society it is necessary to translate software into the Abkhaz language as well. This includes fonts, creation of electronic dictionaries and many more. We already carry out this work. But much to our regret, further progress is hindered by financial issues.
Sophie Royle: In regards to language, how do you overcome the correlation between more Russian speaking tourists and the decline of the use of the Abkhaz language?
President Khajimba: The flow of tourists does not affect the use of the Abkhaz language. Abkhaz is the state language, and the flow of tourists has no affect on it. Bilingualism is a natural phenomenon in many countries.
Sophie Royle: It is unfortunate that the Abkhaz language has ended up in this situation to begin with. With many other historical aspects of Abkhazia potentially becoming less central like the language has become, such as the traditions and culture, how can you balance the preservation of history with the development of the state?
President Khajimba: People without a past cannot have a future. Abkhazians are very careful about their history and their traditions. In the world there are many examples where the state is actively developing, while at the same time preserving its identity. I am confident that our traditions and our history will not become an obstacle to development, but rather serve as a good foundation for the perception of Abkhazians in the world, as an independent and unique culture.
Sophie Royle: Finally, I’d like you to give a clear message to the people outside of Abkhazia, who may be wondering what role they can play in the issues and solutions we have discussed. So, how can foreigners across the world improve the situation in Abkhazia?
President Khajimba: Abkhazia is open to the world, we are not trying to close ourselves from anyone, whether it is Europe, the United States or Africa. The problem is that almost all the rest of the world sees us through the prism of Georgia, sees us as part of a bad side, which is completely untrue. And it's not the fault of ordinary citizens of Europe and America; it is a conscious disregard of the political reality by the leaderships of these countries.
Despite the fact that we are still little known in the West, our representatives are doing a great job to promote the image of our country in many European countries, destroying the negative stereotypes erected by Georgia. We are managing to implement various initiatives, including cultural and information work in Europe, and we teach about our culture, we promote our products and much more. We feel that such activities do not go unnoticed, and the interest in our country is increasing. We want the people of Europe and the United States to simply see that we are an independent, peaceful country with friendly people, beautiful nature and considerable economic potential.
Sophie Royle:To summarise our interview, what do you think are the most important facts about Abkhazia that the world needs to know?
President Khajimba: The world must know that the people of Abkhazia are friendly, hospitable and are always waiting for guests. The world has yet to discover Abkhazia.
Sophie Royle is the author of Abkhazia: A Traveller's Guide and Phrasebook