Joshua Kucera

Dispatch from Abkhazia

As tension mounts in Ukraine and Crimea, a special report from another breakaway territory struggling to maintain its independence in the region

The bridge crossing the border from Georgia proper into Abkhazia.
Joshua Kucera

Visiting Abkhazia includes some quirks. As a largely unrecognized country, Abkhazia has consulates only in Russia and Venezuela, so for visitors from any other country, it issues visas by email. To enter Abkhazia, you first check in at a Georgian police post. This is not an official border post, because to Georgians, you are not crossing an international border but are entering a part of their country over which they have temporarily lost control. You then trundle the half-mile across the narrow Inguri River, either walking over the heavily potholed bridge or — for a little over 50 cents — climbing in the back of a horse-drawn cart and riding across.

About the size of Delaware, Abkhazia was once a beloved beach destination for the Moscow elite, part of the Soviet Union’s tiny subtropical zone, lush with palm trees and mandarin groves. Politically, it held autonomous status within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. As the Soviet Union fell apart, Abkhazians resisted becoming part of an independent Georgia, which was then being swept by a wave of nationalism. After a bloody two-year civil war, with horrible atrocities on both sides, Abkhazia gained a sort of independence. Today its population is officially just 240,000 (and in reality probably much less), and it is recognized by only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Tuvalu.

Nominally, the de facto border is controlled by Abkhazia’s national forces, but during the Winter Olympics — just a few miles up the road — Russia beefed up security all around Sochi, including here. So I was greeted on the other side not by an Abkhazian border guard but a Russian one, with a Russian FSB patch displayed on his uniform. (The FSB, the Russian acronym for the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, is in charge of Russia’s border guards.) While the formal entry procedures went smoothly enough, when they were finished, I was asked by a polite Russian officer to follow him to his office. He questioned me for nearly a half hour: What had I been doing in Georgia? With whom did I meet? What did they say? What did I think about the Georgian government, the situation in Abkhazia? I was happy for a chance to talk to a member of the Russian security forces and asked if he believed those in the new Georgian government were sincere when they said they wanted better relations with Russia and Abkhazia. “Some of them are,” he told me, “but there are also still people in the old government who take money from abroad to create problems with Russia.” But then he stopped himself. “This is just between us.”

Joshua Kucera
"Moscow House," a new facility built for Russians in Sukhumi

These days, Abkhazia is facing a two-pronged assault on its hard-won independence. On one side is Russia, which has been steadily increasing its presence in the tiny territory and, many believe, will attempt to tighten the screws now that the Olympics are over and the world’s eyes are off the area. And on the other side is Georgia, whose new government has rolled out a new strategy to win back its erstwhile territory (along with another territory in a similar situation, South Ossetia). While that strategy is to use charm rather than force, to the Abkhaz, it looks like imperialism with a smiley face.

The Georgian government led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 on the wave of the Rose Revolution, took an aggressive approach to the breakaway territories, treating them as Russian puppets and making one of his top priorities getting them back under Georgian control. His approach was symbolized by the renaming of the ministry dealing with the territories from the State Ministry of Conflict Resolution Issues to the State Ministry of Reintegration. But his party lost control of the government in 2012, and when he stepped down in 2013, the new authorities in Tbilisi — led by Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition — vowed to repair relations with Russia and to try to restore trust among Abkhazians and South Ossetians. The new Cabinet minister in charge of relations with the breakaway territories, Paata Zakareishvili, is a veteran civil society activist with a long history of working with Abkhazians and Ossetians. Zakareishvili changed the name of the ministry again, this time to the State Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality.

In essence, the new Georgian policy is to not make any more mistakes and to appear to be the better option when — as Tbilisi believes — Russia inevitably becomes too overbearing a force in Abkhazia, Zakareishvili told me in an interview. “They really don’t have anything against our government right now,” he said, citing an example of a news report in Abkhazia expressing outrage about schoolchildren in the Georgian-majority Gali district of Abkhazia singing the Georgian national anthem. The video used in the report was purported to be recent but was in fact from 2009, he said. “It should be so obvious that Georgia has changed so much that the arguments they have against Georgia will only be from the past.”

Meanwhile, Georgia will simply wait for Russian pressure to alienate the Abkhaz. The upcoming year is a critical one, Zakareishvili told me. One key issue is that of land ownership: Currently, Abkhazian law forbids purchase of property by foreigners, but Russia is trying to get the government to change it. That possibility has raised concerns in Abkhazia that it could get bought up by Russian billionaires and return, in essence, to its prior identity as a vacation resort. “They are much more unhappy about Russia than they admit, and that is something we should build our policy on,” he said.

And as Georgia achieves — it hopes — closer integration with the European Union and NATO, Abkhazians will begin to see Georgia as a more attractive partner, he said. “(The Abkhazians) are completely hostage to Russian politics. There is Russian money there, Russian law, Russian language, culture, military. We need to offer them different perspectives from Georgia, a democratic Georgia that’s heading toward Europe,” Zakareishvili said.

Joshua Kucera
The sign says "Sport Base." The outdoor gym at the Russian military sanatorium in Sukhumi.
Joshua Kucera

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.”