Abkhazia pursues independence dream in Georgia’s lost paradise
Since breaking away from Georgia in the early 1990s, the Abkhaz people feel poor and isolated
The waterfront in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
The bombed-out parliament building in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
“We have to warn you about the situation over there,” the man in the little cabin said slowly, waving my passport towards the bend in the road. “It’s not necessarily safe for visitors. You have to be extremely cautious,” he continued in a weary monotone that drained his warning of any urgency.
“We just have to warn you, you understand?” he added a little apologetically. “It’s not easy for us if we have to get you back from Abkhazia.” The other plainclothes Georgian security officers in the cabin handed around the passport to relieve what looked like extreme boredom.
“I was born over there. It’s beautiful. My Abkhaz grandmother still lives there,” one said suddenly, dispelling the shadow of his colleague’s desultory warning. “Twenty years I lived there, all my youth. And then the war started and we had to leave.”
He looked down the road towards Abkhazia, as if sorry to be stuck on this side of the river. “It seems they really hate us now,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Good luck over there.”
Around the bend, the bridge reaches out for almost a kilometre across the Inguri, on the final, lazy leg of its journey from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea. The bridge links the lush green banks of the river and territory controlled on one side by the Georgian government 350km to the east in Tbilisi, and on the other by Abkhaz authorities 90km northwest in Sukhumi.
Since the Abkhaz – with some help from Russia and mercenaries from the North Caucasus – beat the Georgians in a 1992-1993 war, they have run their own affairs from their capital beside the Black Sea. But their subsequent independence declaration received no international recognition until 2008, when Russia, after its brief war with Tbilisi over South Ossetia – another breakaway Georgian region – formally acknowledged Abkhazia’s sovereignty; only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Tuvalu have since followed Moscow’s lead.
Having earlier given Russian passports to most of Abkhazia’s 240,000 or so residents, Moscow then signed a defence pact with Sukhumi and stationed some 5,000 soldiers and border guards in the region; about the same number are based in South Ossetia, a much smaller region in the foothills of the Caucasus less than 100km north of Tbilisi.
On the Abkhaz side of the bridge, ethnic Georgians wait in line to show their documents to Russian and Abkhaz guards. They cross the river to see relatives and sell fruit and vegetables in towns on Tbilisi-controlled territory.
A Russian guard asked why I entered Abkhazia here and not from the north, from Russia. It is a much busier crossing, handling the 1.5 million or more Russian tourists that local officials say visit sun-drenched Abkhazia each year.
“My pension’s 7,000 roubles [€165] and I drive to make a bit extra,” said my driver Zurab, pointing his old Mercedes away from the de-facto border and towards Sukhumi.
The road winds through the Gali area, home to 50,000 Georgians who returned after fleeing the war. It is also home to a large Russian army base. “It’s tough to make decent money here, but we could have everything,” Zurab said, nodding at the lush landscape all around and steering between cows asleep on the warm tarmac. “We have the best fruit and vegetables, the tastiest mandarins in the world, tea and tobacco plantations that went to ruin with the war. Sea, mountains – everything you could want is here.”
In a land of white-knuckle car rides, Zurab was one of the most sensible drivers I met. He smiled at this and quickly rapped his knuckles on his right knee. It made a strange, hollow sound. “I’ve only got the one,” he said. “The other got blown off in the war.” He rapped again on his prosthetic leg and laughed at the look on my face. “It took a couple of years to learn to drive again, but I’m fine with an automatic gearbox. I need a new one though . . . new leg, I mean.”
Deaths of 8,000
The 1992-1993 war killed about 8,000 people and forced more than 200,000 Georgians – almost half Abkhazia’s pre-war population – to flee their homes. Both sides tell of hideous atrocities, neighbour turning on neighbour, ethnically mixed families torn apart.
Most Abkhaz say the war was the result of generations of Georgian oppression of the Abkhaz in their own lands and the nationalism of Tbilisi’s post-Soviet rulers; Georgia insists on its right to control all its official territory and sees Moscow as occupier and manipulator of little Abkhazia.
The Georgian position prevails in international diplomacy, and the European Union and United States will deal with unrecognised Abkhazia only through Tbilisi. Abkhaz officials and ordinary residents say they will never return to Georgian rule, and value Russia as a neighbour that offers them security, funding, trade and a gateway to the outside world.
Under the palm trees on Sukhumi’s waterfront, old men play draughts while Russians lie on a rocky beach and swim in the Black Sea.
Locals offer snacks, drinks and excursions from little stalls, but the tourists don’t buy much – they are here for a cheap holiday.
Reminders of the war are never far away, whether in the bombed-out parliament building in the centre of town or the pride of the Abkhaz in their self-rule. People here complain about poverty and isolation, but say they feel safer since Russia promised to protect them.
Sliver of land
In a seafront cafe, Irina served sweet Turkish coffee and mused that there must be worse places to live than this subtropical sliver of land squeezed between the mountains and sea, and pulled between Russia and the rest of Georgia.
“My son lives with his Lithuanian wife in Mullingar,” Irina said with a crushing roll of her eyes. “I visited for a couple of months and couldn’t stand it. The weather was terrible. I keep telling him to come back home.”
Abkhazia: A brief history
Abkhazia was part of ancient Colchis where, according to Greek legend, Jason and his Argonauts seized the Golden Fleece with the help of local princess Medea. Later, Abkhazia was part of the Byzantine Empire, and then fought over by Persians, Ottomans, Georgians and Russians.
Russia annexed Abkhazia in 1864 and many Abkhaz were deported or fled with other Caucasian peoples to the Ottoman Empire. Abkhazia had special status within the Soviet Republic of Georgia from 1921-1931, until Josef Stalin, a Georgian, downgraded its powers.
Under Stalin and Abkhaz native Lavrentiy Beria, the region’s language and culture were repressed and many ethnic Georgians, Russians and Armenians were moved there. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Abkhazia wanted to break from an increasingly nationalist independent Georgia.
With some help from Russia, Abkhaz forces beat Georgia in a 1992-1993 war that claimed about 8,000 lives and drove more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes. Abkhazia declared independence in 1999, and Russia recognised its sovereignty in 2008 and stationed troops there. Georgia, the EU, the US and almost all other states reject its independence.