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.”