Fatima Tlisova | Washington | VOA News
Abkhazia's status from the viewpoint of Georgia is that of an occupied Georgian territory, whereas, from the position of Abkhazia, it is an independent state. Georgia's position is supported by most Western countries, Abkhazia’s by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru. This alignment also determines the fact that negotiations on the fate of Abkhazia occur most frequently between the major players, without the participation of the self-declared republic, as, for example, in the negotiations held on 9-10 March in Berne on Russia's accession to the WTO. Editor in chief of Chegemskaja Pravda “Chegem Truth" Inal Khashig related how the residents of Abkhazia perceive the situation themselves in an interview with the Russian service of Voice of America.
Fatima Tlisova: Inal, your home is now again the focus of politicians’ attention in connection with the negotiations between Russia and Georgia on the accession of Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO). What do people say in Abkhazia about these negotiations?
Inal Khashig: In Abkhazia people are following these negotiations, but I cannot say that there are any serious concerns or worries in relation to them. Apart from this, many here believe that the fate of the talks on Abkhazia will not be decided between Georgia and Russia but between the U.S. and Russia. America has some leverage over Georgia, and we think that they will be activated. Although Georgia demands joint customs control on the borders of Abkhazia, this demand is not new. Many here expect that eventually Georgia will be satisfied with the lifting of the embargo on its exports to Russia; it is clear that Russia remains for Georgia its most important market for its products.
FT: Russia has officially recognized Abkhazia's independence, but she has not departed from Abkhazia. How to account for its presence in Abkhazia’s everyday life?
IK: On the territory of Abkhazia Russia has a military base in Gudauta. Russian border-guards stand on the river Ingur. But all this has little effect on us ordinary Abkhazians. I can hardly be called pro-Russian or pro-government, but I personally do not feel like a resident of an occupied territory; I do not feel under pressure from a vast country, despite the fact that in Russia there are quite strong imperial traditions. There is, of course, discomfort at the fact that our borders are guarded by Russian border-guards, but there is also the very pragmatic understanding that, for such a young country as ours, ensuring one’s own safety can sometimes be a rather heavy burden, and the presence of Russian military personnel is a temporary reality through which it is possible to live.
FT: If in Abkhazia the presence of Russian troops is considered as a transitional stage, does this mean that the Russian side feels the same way?
IK: I think the Russian troops understand where they are. They are well aware that this is the Caucasus. They also have so many problems in the North Caucasus that they have no intention of creating new ones in Abkhazia. Therefore, they strictly adhere to the established rules, and the Russian military is very rarely seen outside their military camp.
FT: A lot of blogs talk about "economic expansion" of Russia in Abkhazia -- not of ‘investment’ but of ‘expansion’.
IK: Expansion is, of course, happening. The Abkhazian market is of interest to Russian business -- and not only to Russian. But not all are willing to take risks, given the local political particularities. For Russian business, because of its specificity, risk is the natural environment, and so it quickly acclimatises. The resort-business is very promising because our resorts were popular among Russians during Soviet times and have not lost this appeal to the present day. There are also other areas of interest to foreign investors, such as mineral wealth and agriculture. Despite the obvious prospects, to speak of the emergence of a more or less significant competitor in the face of local business is meaningless, because the war and ensuing blockade crippled our economy and led to the impoverishment of our people. In Abkhazia, money comes from outside.
FT: Money comes in to the economy, but does it remain and work there? Or are businesses, minerals and real estate snapped up, whilst revenues therefrom go to a third country? What exactly is going on in Abkhazia?
IK: Different things are happening. There is a certain percentage of investment in our economy. And there is a process that can be styled a “soft grasp”. I do not think that this is being done according to some special programme. Russian business is quite aggressive and tenacious by nature. And it imports here not only finance but also the conditions in which it feels comfortable. Also imported is corruption, and compliance with it by our officials only facilitates and accelerates the process of expansion, and in Abkhazian society there is growing a tangible dissatisfaction with this situation.
FT: Abkhazia calls itself independent. But an absolute majority of the population have Russian passports, and so they are nominally citizens of Russia. On the territory of Abkhazia there are Russian military bases; the borders of Abkhazia are controlled by Russian border-guards, and the border-guard service is in the hands of Russia’s FSB. The economy of Abkhazia is controlled by Russian companies. What under these conditions gives a sense to the Abkhazians of independence?
IK: We Abkhazians do not believe that independence was granted to us in 2008 by Russia’s recognition. Abkhazia's independence was won by us as a result of a bloody war. The awareness that we are independent came in 1993. A sense of the value of freedom won is still predominant in Abkhazian society, and I think that any attempt to change that status will end in shocks.
We are aware of our problems, but many of them arose as a result of international isolation. People are always talking about most of us having Russian passports. But there are very pragmatic reasons. For a long time we did not have these passports and existed on a virtual reservation. We had old Soviet passports, with which it was even problematic to gain entry to the territory of Russia. Prior to the adoption of Russian passports, our authorities, even during the presidency of Vladislav Ardzinba, appealed to all international organizations, the UN included, and we always met the same response: Take Georgian passports. If we had been offered the passports of Botswana, Zimbabwe, the Congo, or any internationally recognized state, we would have agreed.
But not of Georgia! We had a war with Georgia, and 4% of the Abkhazian people died in that war. This is politically and even just on a purely human level a still unhealed wound. The world denied us understanding, compassion and assistance in addressing basic humanitarian issues. The outside-world fenced itself off from us. We were locked up on our little territory without hospitals, without any conditions for life and recovery, without the possibility of movement. As a result, we took help from where it was offered.
FT: How do the Abkhazians see their ideal future?
IK: We do not regard our independence as a transitional stage leading to subsequent entry into Russia. This is unacceptable for Abkhazia.
We see our country as an independent European state. For us the most important thing is not that our country be recognized the world over. We want to become an effective state, with democratic foundations, comfortable for its citizens and for peace. We want to be a country to be proud of.
This interview was published by VOA News and is translated from Russian.