Seventeen years after civil war, Abkhazia is finally recovering under Russian protection. But many inside the country are unhappy, fearing association with their big brother will result in another loss of independence.
Before Vladislav Ardzinba died on March 4, the academic who led Abkhazia to freedom from Georgia surely reflected on his life’s work with great satisfaction.
Russia recognised this little Black Sea statelet as independent in 2008, after it intervened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a second republic considered a rebel province by Georgia. It was a dramatic step – being the first time Russia had recognised one of the Caucasus’ mountain nations as independent since the 18th century – and was rejected in Georgia and the West, where Abkhazia is often seen as little more than a Russian colony. In the face of Western opposition, only three countries have followed Russia’s lead and dealt directly with the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi, leaving Moscow as unrivalled in its influence. This now threatens to undermine the very independence Abkhazia fought for. The Abkhaz beat their Georgian enemies, many locals ask, but can they resist their Russian friends?
Russian tourist numbers have soared. Russian companies have resurfaced the main roads. Visitors sit in new restaurants, with gaudy decorations and surly waitresses in the best Russian style. New high-end hotels gleam in central Sukhumi, and ordinary residents are charging higher prices for their spare rooms. And it is not all tourism. New Russian investment is going into the railway that runs along the coast, a Russian oil company is prospecting in the waters off Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, and the coal-laden trucks are rumbling through Tkuarchal.
In the face of such new prosperity, why are many Abkhaz so unhappy?
“If we’re agreeing to a joint venture, the controlling stake must belong to the republic. I am pro-Russian myself. Russia guarantees our safety, so we can make concessions, but not to this extent”, Gennady Alamia, a tough-looking opposition leader and veteran of the national movement, grumbled to IWPR last week.
Alamia was Ardzinba’s deputy in Abkhazia’s Supreme Soviet. Elected in 1990, he was one of the intimates present in the nationalist leader’s office when he first heard Georgian tanks had crossed the bridge into Abkhazia in 1992. As far as he is concerned, Sergei Bagapsh, who succeeded Ardzinba as president, is handing the country over to the Russians, and sacrificing the very gains that Ardzinba won from the war.
“Vladislav Ardzinba knew that you had to make concessions to resolve something, but he also knew that endless concessions could only lead to destruction, just like making no concessions”.
Alamia, who arranged arms supplies from Chechnya during the war, would not be pleased to hear it but in this viewpoint he has a lot in common with many Georgians, who have long argued that Abkhazia is not independent at all, but has been stolen from Georgia by Russia.
Under Georgian law, Abkhazia is referred to as “occupied territory” and Gia Baramia, chairman of the Georgia-backed Abkhazian government-in-exile, which is housed in an ageing office block in Tbilisi, said Moscow invented the Abkhaz national movement to undermine Georgia’s own desire for independence.
“Georgia was one of the first republics that wanted to move out of the USSR and the head of the KGB openly said that if Georgia moved to independence, they would play the Abkhazian card”, Baramia, a smooth 44-year-old ex-diplomat, said.
“This myth of independence is nothing. It was invented by Russia to serve their interests”.
Such arguments are common among Georgians from Abkhazia. They made up half of the Abkhazian population before the war, but they fled the vengeful Abkhaz when their own forces collapsed, and their share of the Abkhazian population has fallen from quarter of a million to around 100,000. Many of the refugees have never shaken off what happened to them, and still live in old schools or kindergartens.
They are bitter about losing their homes, about losing their savings and, above all, about losing their status and becoming just another refugee.
One floor below Gia Baramia’s office, old men who were elected to the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet alongside Ardzinba, are still called deputies, since Georgia has not been able to hold elections to replace them or supplement their numbers. They seem underemployed and will happily sit for hours to talk to visitors about how Abkhazia is a Russian invention, and how they were tricked out of their homes and lands.
Both sides are armed with facts and figures to make their case. They use different census figures to argue about the extent of Georgian immigration into Abkhazia, and different historical sources to argue over who was there first: the Georgians or the Abkhaz.
Back in Abkhazia, the most persuasive argument for Abkhaz predominance is that of the pagan religious leaders. Zaur Chichba, keeper of the holy grove above Achandara, can point to a network of sacred sites that spans the whole territory of Abkhazia. They are, he says, proof that this land was Abkhaz before it was Georgian. But anyone who tries to visit all seven of the sites is confronted by an eloquent counter-argument in the Georgians’ favour: the mute horrors of scores of empty villages.
For mile after mile in eastern Abkhazia, once-flourishing agricultural settlements which produced tea, mandarins or hazelnuts for the Soviet market, are deserted. The fruit trees are choked with creepers and the houses are rotting away. Often, their concrete staircases are all that survive.
Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili offers sometimes absurd statistics about the number of Georgians forced to flee these homes in Abkhazia, but there is no doubt of the tragedy implicit in the abandoned houses and fields. Tbilisi insists these refugees be allowed home before any deal on Abkhazia’s status can be reached, and their votes are an important consideration in any Georgian election.
There is a danger, however, that the continued importance of the past, and the debates over who does or does not have a right to live in Abkhazia, blinds us to what has happened since the war. Abkhazia, like Georgia and Russia, has changed since Soviet times and has built a political culture of its own.
In 2004, when Bagapsh was elected to succeed Ardzinba, he did so in defiance of Russia. Abkhaz friends of mine like to boast that the elections were the first “Orange Revolution”, since they predated the upheavals in Ukraine.
Despite heavy support from the Kremlin for Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba, Bagapsh won the poll and, eventually, Russia was forced to accept him as leader of the little state. The result was close, but it was a humiliation for Russia, since Putin had been careful to personally sponsor Khadzhimba’s candidacy. It was a strong sign that, whatever the Georgians said, Abkhazia is not Russia, where the Kremlin’s candidate always wins.
Perhaps the self-confidence and independence of the Abkhazian politicians stemmed from their victory in 1993. Ardzinba was not a man likely to take being lectured by a foreigner about how to run his country. He had after all led the out-numbered Abkhaz – just 90,000 of them in 1992, as against Abkhazia’s 250,000 Georgians – to a total victory.
But, under Bagapsh, there are already signs that Abkhazia’s distinct political culture is being chipped away. Before seeking re-election last year, he set up a political party called United Abkhazia which, like Putin’s United Russia, served less as an ideological grouping than as a stairway to power. His election result – victory over Khadzhimba, in the first round, with 61 percent of the vote -- was also distinctly reminiscent (?) to anyone who has lived in Russia.
So far, there has been none of the violence that has marred the political scene in Moscow, but journalists have felt the breeze from the north. Inal Khashig, editor of Abkhazia’s only really independent newspaper, Chegemskaya Pravda, was taken down to a deserted beach and threatened by two of Bagapsh’s relatives after they felt he had been disrespectful.
In the small world of Abkhazian journalism, it made a big splash, but not perhaps as much as the fate of Anton Krivenyuk. Krivenyuk, a passionate and confident young opposition journalist, enraged the government with criticism on a Russian web site of Bagapsh’s policy towards Russia.
His strong hints that the government was corrupt brought first a furious call from Bagapsh’s spokesman, then a summons from the prosecutor, then a criminal case against him, then a conviction for libelling the president.
“I cannot understand why it was necessary. They made this big noise, and now my name is known everywhere. People stop their cars and shake my hand. I only wrote an article on segodnya.ru and a few people read it. Now everyone knows it”, he said as we sat on one of the promenade benches looking over the Black Sea.
“The press is currently free from the government, and you have to say that the mentality is different here to Russia. They are copying the Russian model, but they do not seem to understand we live in a different country, and it will not work here”.
His optimism only ran a little way, however. Abkhazia’s only real friend is Russia since the other countries that have recognised its independence – Venezuela, Nicaragua and tiny Nauru – are all so far away. That means the Russian influence can only grow, and the institutions created since 1993 may struggle to stand up to it.
“Bagapsh works with Soviet methods. And this is a poor society, you can buy someone with a 1998 Mercedes”, he said.
“If no competition appears in Abkhazia to make us more like the West then there will no way to create more open courts, a more open society, and that it is bad. It is not good that only one border is open”.
Many Abkhaz are frustrated that Western countries refuse to take their claim to independence seriously. They all know the historical arguments supporting their claim to statehood – how Abkhazia joined both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as its own unit, not as part of Georgia – and are baffled as to why they are not listened to.
A friend of mine called Dima Palba, with weary humour, unveiled his own plan one evening over drinks.
“We should declare war on Britain, then immediately surrender. Then we would become part of the British Empire”, he said, with a sort of twisted logic. “But of course, you’d probably ignore us even if we did, and we will become more and more like Russia”.
Once Dima started showing me parallels with Russia, his argument became obvious. Abkhazia is not a more-or-less mono-ethnic state like Armenia or, indeed, Georgia. More non-Abkhaz than Abkhaz live in Abkhazia, and that makes it resemble nothing so much as one of Russia’s autonomous republics.
The only ethnic kin of the Abkhaz – the Circassians – are scattered in three autonomous regions in southern Russia. In two of them, Adygea and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, they are a minority, as are the Abkhaz in Abkhazia. It does not take too much imagination to see Bagapsh taking his place alongside these regional leaders at a Kremlin banquet.
The Circassians of the third of those regions – Kabardino-Balkaria – were the last highlander nation that Russia recognised as independent, back in 1739. The Abkhaz might be wise to reflect on those Circassians’ fate, before acquiescing too readily to Bagapsh’s embrace of Putin and his government.
Russia moved troops into Kabarda despite pledging to respect its freedoms, and crushed all opposition. Today, 90 percent of the world’s Circassians live in the Middle East, where their ancestors fled after total defeat, and an independent Kabarda has been swept out of memory. Official histories, banners and television claim Kabarda has been a contented part of Russia for 450 years.
Western powers should wonder if their unachievable demand for a Georgian Abkhazia is not counterproductive. Perhaps an independent Abkhazia might be better than a Russian one.
Oliver Bullough is Caucasus editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. His book Let Our Fame be Great, journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus is published in the UK by Allen Lane, and will be published by Basic Books in the United States.