My conversation with the FSB agent over, I caught a taxi for the hourlong ride north to the capital, which Abkhaz and Russians call Sukhum and Georgians call Sukhumi. One of the first structures you come across leaving the border post is a gleaming new multistory apartment block complex — reportedly complete with a Russian Orthodox church — built to house Russian troops like my FSB friend. Next comes the small town of Gali, where the small population of Abkhazia’s remaining ethnic Georgians live, the standard post-Soviet villagescape of concrete and sleeping dogs occasionally interrupted by signs for international relief organizations. Then for the rest of the drive, the road passes house after house of the roughly 200,000 Georgians who fled after their side lost the war. All are abandoned and looted of anything reusable; many have trees growing inside. This eerie, empty landscape is Abkhazia’s most potent impression.
But the country’s desolation also means that, once again, the ethnic Abkhaz are the masters of their territory. While Abkhaz made up only 18 percent of its population before the breakup of the Soviet Union, they now total closer to half (though figures are contested). Ethnic Abkhaz dominate the government (the International Crisis Group calls Abkhazia an “ethnocracy”) and are encouraging the revival of their language: The ubiquitous patriotic billboards across the country, commemorating last fall’s 20th anniversary of victory over Georgia, are only in Abkhaz despite the fact that few nonethnic Abkhaz understand the language. The government is renovating the state museum in Sukhumi, which tells the story of a bowed but not broken Abkhaz presence here for millennia. At the museum, a stone tomb, believed to be 5,000 to 6,000 years old, is presented as coming from proto-Abkhaz people. The room on the war with Georgia emphasizes the attempt to burn the Abkhazian archives. I’m presented with a book detailing the history of Abkhazia’s flags, and leafing through it, I point out one from centuries ago that closely resembles Georgia’s today. “They stole it from us!” the docent tells me.
To Abkhaz, issues of cultural identity are inseparable from political independence. Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director of a civil society group and a prominent commentator on Abkhazia’s foreign relations, told me about meeting a Georgian at a conference in the U.S. The Georgian told her that Georgia’s independence from Russia was a matter of dignity, even if the country suffered economically as a result. “So I asked him, ‘Why don’t you understand our desire for this dignity and self-realization?’ We understand that Georgia is an immediate threat to that. When you talk about Russia — yes, Russia wants to have its own sphere of influence. But Russia doesn’t question our identity. With Georgia, it was different. They did question our identity, and they questioned our right to the kind of freedoms they have for themselves.”
For now, Georgia’s proposals for “reconciliation” have fallen flat. As sophisticated and subtle as they may be, they stand little chance in a society that has for 20 years defined itself in opposition to Georgia. And while conflicts with Russia exist, they pale in comparison to those with Georgia. “We have a history of oppression of Abkhazians by Georgians, and it’s still a fresh memory,” the foreign minister, Vladislav Chirikba, told me. “In the 19th century there was conflict and war (with Russia), oppression even and colonialism, but now is a different time. Now France and Germany are best friends. There is an Israeli Embassy in Berlin. So everything changes. And the people who live in Russia now aren’t responsible for what their forefathers did 150 years ago. This is a great power, which protects us against the possible aggression by Georgians. Why not have good relations with them? It would be suicidal to be on bad terms with those who want to help you. And it should be emphasized that they are the only country that wants to help us.”
And the rollout of Georgia’s more accommodating policy has not always gone smoothly. In January a Georgian Internet user came across a page on McDonald’s website soliciting new franchisees around the world. The page contained a drop-down menu, Select a Country, and one of the options was Abkhazia. A mild controversy erupted, with calls by Georgian nationalists to boycott the hamburger chain, and the man who held the franchise in Georgia publicly insisted that his domain included all of Georgia, including Abkhazia. McDonald’s complied, changed the drop-down menu and apologized.
Although Zakareishvili’s contribution to the situation was understated (a Facebook post calling the affair a “misunderstanding”), it nevertheless was seen as indication of the same old Georgian chauvinism. Georgia’s reaction, Kvarchelia said, “was very disappointing and plays into the hands of those who say, ‘All the Georgians are the same. Nothing will change with the new government.’ They’re only confirming the worst expectations.”
Abkhazians say that they are able to withstand Russian pressure. They love recounting the story of the 2004 presidential elections, when Russia openly backed one candidate, even going so far as to hint about consequences if he wasn’t elected. But he lost. “There was a lot of pressure, and people still voted for another candidate. So there is a precedent for when the people’s will won out over such pressure,” Kvarchelia said. “The idea of Abkhazian independence is very strong.”
Still, there is resentment of Russia in Abkhazia. One war veteran, who asked not to be named, told me, “Russia controls everything here. We want Americans and Europeans here, but they won’t help us.” The northern border of Abkhazia is just five miles from the Sochi Olympic Park, and when Sochi was named Olympic host in 2007, Abkhazia’s then-President Sergei Bagapsh said that Sochi’s victory was “our own victory” and in a message to Russia said, “Together with you, dear neighbors, we were looking forward to this moment.” Plans were made to expand the railway into Russia, reopen Abkhazia’s airport to help with Sochi overflow and source building materials from Abkhazia for the massive construction project just across the border.
Instead, Abkhazia played no role during the Olympics. The airport remained closed and — aside from some supplies of gravel — Abkhazian businesses got no boost from the games. As it became clear that they weren’t invited to the party, there was a sense of embarrassment in Abkhazia. “Just a few kilometers from us there was huge construction going on, and here people just didn’t talk about it,” Kvarchelia said. During the Olympics the Abkhazian authorities streamlined the bureaucracy needed to obtain a visa, hoping to gain some spillover tourism, but almost no one came.
Russian backing is a mixed blessing for Abkhazia’s hope for wider international recognition. Abkhazians frequently cite the double standard of the U.S. and European countries by recognizing Kosovo and not Abkhazia. And indeed, the most salient difference would seem to be that Kosovo’s main backer is the world’s only superpower, while Abkhazia’s backer is, more and more, a pariah. More than 100 countries now recognize Kosovo, while Abkhazia’s count stands at five and dropping; Vanuatu revoked its recognition in 2013, which Abkhazian officials blame on pressure from the U.S.
I asked Kvarchelia if she trusted Russia any more than Georgia to safeguard Abkhazia’s independence. “I’m not always comfortable when I’m asked this question,” she said. “People ask as if we have a lot of choices. We are put in a situation where (Russia is) the only country that protected us against Georgia in 2008, which helped us financially — a huge assistance. In such a situation, when everyone else says, ‘No, we can’t accept you being independent,’ it’s a very specific situation.”
However, she concluded, “independence from Georgia is something that outweighs all other considerations.”