Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

ABKHAZIA: Why This Is the Breakaway Republic

Apostolis Fotiadis

SOKHUMI, Abkhazia, Nov 10 2008 (IPS) - The Russian city of Adler, at the southern edge of the country on the Black sea coast, is the only gateway that has kept Abkhazia connected to the rest of the world during 16 years of isolation since the Abkhazian-Georgian war of 1992.

A destroyed house in Gali on the front line between Georgia and Abkhazia. Credit: Dimitris Michalakis

A destroyed house in Gali on the front line between Georgia and Abkhazia. Credit: Dimitris Michalakis

Security is tight at the Psou checkpoint just outside Adler. Border police often question travellers at length, and vehicles are searched. Abkhazians cross in and out of Russia through this point using their old Soviet or Russian passports given to them after the war.

Troubled Abkhazia lies on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, with Russia to the north and Georgia to the east. The 8,432 square kilometre territory looks like a small islet next to its giant rival, Georgia, which spans 69,700 square kilometres. That official figure includes Abkhazia. The official Georgian population figure of 4.5 million also includes Abkhazians.

Back in 1992 Abkhazia demanded independence from the Georgian republic, which was implementing a harsh ethnic policy. Then Georgian president and former Soviet minister for foreign affairs Eduard Shevardnadze responded with a military crackdown. Abkhazians resisted with the support of Russian paramilitaries and fighters of other Caucasian ethnic origin, mostly Ossetians and Chechens.

The majority in the Caucasus region backed Abkhazia's struggle for independence because it reflected similar hopes of their own. And Russia defended Abkhazia against what were seen as enemy political interests in its traditional sphere of influence.

Gross violations of human rights were reported on both sides during the conflict. Georgian forces withdrew in September 1993, followed by a mass exodus of more than 200,000 Georgians.

Abkhazia became a breakaway region but never received international recognition. Post-war poverty and lawlessness caused by isolation and the absence of state structures reduced living standards further. Many left.

The last Soviet census of 1989 estimated Abkhazia's population at 560,000. A 2003 census put the number at 215,972. Capital Sokhumi had about 125,000 inhabitants before the war; today it has about 60,000 officially, but locals say there are no more than 40,000.

The deeper you travel into Abkhazia, the more the scars of isolation become visible everywhere.

Along the 90 kilometres of recently renovated road from the checkpoint to Sokhumi between the Black Sea coast and the Caucasus cliffs, what were once extravagant resorts and glamorous dachas stand deserted, in the midst of amazing natural diversity and beauty. These are remnants of Abkhazia's past as a leisure destination of the Tsars, 19th century nobles, and then of senior party members during the communist era. With such visitors came prosperity and a cosmopolitan plurality of ethnic Russians, Armenians and Greeks-Pontiacs.

"What you are looking at will not help you understand what the place looked like before. Stalin himself maintained 36 dachas around the region," says Giorgi Hachev, one of the few ethnic Greeks left in Abkhazia, driving on the road to Sokhumi.

Hachev believes that the summer war in South Ossetia has brought a new era. Georgia has now lost all influence after its military withdrew completely from the region. Only a small minority of Georgians are left.

The European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, a pan-European security organisation) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) recognise Abkhazia as only an integral part of the territory of Georgia. But Russia's recognition on Aug. 26 of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway regions from Georgia proper, followed by Nicaragua, has altered the status of the region.

Maxim Gundjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, says this has not just encouraged the domestic population, but has invited new interest from foreign business interests.

"Developing economic relationships with other partners when you are an unrecognised country is very problematic, but soon we anticipate recognition from more South Asian and Latin American countries, and I am positive that things will gradually improve," he told IPS. "We are also in close contact with Singapore, which is interested in undertaking a huge property development project here."

Gundjia does not downplay the challenges ahead. "We estimate the number of unemployed to be around 40,000 but many of them are involved in the informal market. Tax claim remains low, but it is important that 49 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and to a great extent uses its land and cattle to cover subsistence needs."

One problem that has arisen is restoration of property to returning Russians, Armenians and Greeks who have found their houses taken by Abkhazians. This is emerging as a significant challenge to the frail judicial system, besides causing distress to the minorities.

Gundjia says many believe that Georgia is preparing for another war. But this seems unlikely as long as Russian forces remain deployed in Abkhazia.

That is not necessarily reassuring to all Abkhazians. "Russians did not protect us because they are in love with Abkhazia and Ossetia," Leon Adzhindzhel, member of the local Foundation for Independent Expertise, and an expert on regional issues told IPS. "Their rapid and massive involvement in Southern Caucasus has been very costly; 74 billion dollars of capital flew from Russia during the war last summer, but it was necessary in order to avoid an explosion in the Northern Caucasus."

Northern Caucasus, where many autonomous republics of the Russian Federation such as Northern Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan are situated, remains a highly volatile region. Paused conflicts and quasi-civil wars between pro-Russian elites and separatists loom in many of them.

Adzhindzhel believes Georgia launched the aggression in order to provoke the dormant ethnic conflicts in the Northern Caucasus. "If fighting had carried on too long, the Caucasus would explode. Imagine that the day after Georgia's attack, Ossetian newspapers went out saying that Russia betrayed Ossetia."

For now Russia has responded and has tamed its geopolitical opponents. But the challenge of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment without selling off the beauty of the region and the fortune of locals to big business interests is going to be a difficult one.

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