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Abkhazia And The Perils Of 'Independence'

Russian and Abkhaz flags flying in front of Abkhazia's government headquarters in Sukhumi.
Russian and Abkhaz flags flying in front of Abkhazia's government headquarters in Sukhumi.
By Brian Whitmore
SUKHUMI -- A row of Russian and Abkhaz flags flutter in the Black Sea breeze in front of the stately government headquarters in the Abkhaz capital. Along the winding beachfront promenade, locals point out the properties rumored to be earmarked for Russian investors.

It's a poignant vista for this separatist territory that has long been trying to convince the world -- and itself -- that it is an independent country.

There was euphoria here 10 months ago when Moscow recognized Abkhazia's independence from Tbilisi following the five-day Russia-Georgia war. But as Russian troops, cash, and influence pour into this tiny and picturesque Black Sea region, many Abkhaz worry that rather than winning their coveted autonomy last August they may have simply traded one overlord for another.

Sipping iced tea in an outdoor cafe overlooking Sukhumi's beaches and ramshackle piers, local journalist Inal Khashig, founder and editor of the opposition newspaper "Chegemskaya pravda," says Sukhumi's independence bid was supposed to "mean independence not only from Georgia but from any other country as well."

But that dream, he says, appears to be quickly slipping away.

Russian flags are common in Sukhumi, even at gas stations.
"We had a poor understanding of what was going on that day, August 26, when Russia recognized us," Khashig says. 

"It was an emotional wave. Only later did we figure out that we were not getting what we wanted. Earlier, even though nobody recognized us, we were truly independent. Now, after recognizing Abkhazia, Russia is swallowing us. This is happening economically, politically, militarily, and socially. Every day we are becoming more and more dependent."

This dependence is visible in the most basic ways. Most Abkhaz residents carry Russian passports. The Russian ruble is their official currency. They communicate predominantly in the Russian language. And at least 3,800 Russian troops are based on their territory, including many on their frontiers. 

Even some gas stations in Sukhumi fly Russian flags. Russian television dominates the airwaves and Russian newspapers are ubiquitous.

Resisting Assimilation

Russia's presence extends far beyond flags and border guards. Moscow has pledged $68 million in aid for Abkhazia since the war; hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment are flowing in as well. Russia's state-run oil giant Rosneft has already signed an agreement with Abkhazia to explore and develop the territory's maritime oil fields.

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June 19, 2009
A helicopter view of the breakaway territory of Abkhazia. The video was filmed by RFE/RL on June 8 from aboard one of the last United Nations flights into Abkhazia.


A aerial view of Abkhazia. The video was filmed by RFE/RL on June 8 from aboard one of the last United Nations flights into the breakaway territory.

The boom could have benefits in a region seems mired in a post-Soviet economic funk. But some here fear it could also provoke a backlash.

"We are worried that the expansion of Russian capital, which our authorities are actively assisting, could lead to society thinking that property here is not something for Abkhaz citizens," says Beslan Bartelia, an opposition member of Abkhazia's de facto parliament.

"This could lead to the growth of anti-Russian sentiments and we don't want that."

Mindful of such concerns, Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh has said his territory will defend its statehood and resist assimilation. But he has nevertheless agreed to grant Russia control over Abkhazia's borders, airport, and railway system.

Russian investors are eyeing Sukhumi's prime beachfront real estate.
Moscow has plans to house a naval base in the port of Ochamchire, close to the cease-fire line separating Abkhazia from Georgia proper. A controversial provision will give Russian soldiers serving in Abkhazia the right to purchase property, which many here fear could lead to a further Russification of the province.

Some of the agreements with Russia have sparked howls of protest from opposition Abkhaz lawmakers, who have vowed to review and amend them during the ratification process.

"We are turning over to Russia all our responsibilities for building this state. This is very bad," Kashig says.

"When half the budget is financed by Russian subsidies, when Russians need to guard our borders, when we can't run our own railways and airport and turn them over to the Russians, this says we are losing hope. If we can't do this ourselves, it means we have doubts over whether we chose the right path in setting up our own state."

To be sure, growing pains are in evidence. Abkhaz officials frequently betray inexperience with basic international norms. UN officials -- whose 16-year observer mission in Abkhazia was shuttered this week after Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution to extend its mandate -- say Abkhaz border guards have attempted to examine the contents of their diplomatic pouch, a violation of international confidentiality laws.

Isolation Anxiety

Still, fears of Russian domination are far from unanimous. And even when they do exist, they are tempered by an even deeper animosity toward Georgia, which considers Abkhazia and a second breakaway region, South Ossetia, part of its sovereign territory.

"The situation is normal. It's better than normal. I'm not afraid we'll be assimilated by Russia. Over the past 200 years we've had experience with the Russians and we've had experience with the Georgians. We know where the danger comes from," says Batal Kobakhia, who chairs the human rights committee in the de facto parliament.

Batal Kobakhia, chairman of the Human Rights Committee in Abkhazia's de facto parliament, isn't worried about Russian influence.
A powerful anti-Georgian current, fed by Russian media, runs through Abkhazia, where bitter memories still remain of the 1992-93 post-Soviet war for independence with Tbilisi. More than 15,000 people died in the 13-month campaign, and 250,000 ethnic Georgians, who made up the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia, were expelled.

The displaced Georgians, Kobakhia says unapologetically, "will never be able to return."

Similar declarations can be heard from virtually every Abkhaz, regardless of political stripe. The West doesn't fare much better, with many Abkhaz complaining the international community has failed to engage the territory.

Nicaragua is the only country, besides Russia, to recognize Abkhazia's independence. International aid organizations and Western investors have kept their distance. Even commercial ventures, like the clothing giant Benetton, cancelled plans for a store in Abkhazia amid protests from Georgia. 

Liana Kvarchelia, the codirector of the Center for Humanitarian Programs think-tank in Sukhumi, says if this is a sign of how the West will behave in the future, then Abkhazia is doomed to remain locked in Russia's embrace.

"I understand that it would be difficult for the international community to change its firm position about not recognizing Abkhazia. But the international community needs to understand that isolating Abkhazia it is not good for anybody, especially for us," Kvarchelia says.

A History Of Resistance


Abkhaz visibly bristle with indignation at the suggestion that they are becoming Russian vassals. They point out that their ancestors fought a series of bloody rebellions against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. The largest of these, in 1866 and 1877, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Abkhaz being deported.

Khashig argues that many Abkhaz view rebelling against foreign domination as something of a birthright.

"Even in the Stalin period we gathered, protested, and demanded our rights," he says. "This in our genetic code. We value what happens here. We can't do much but we have to do something."

The Abkhaz independent streak extends to local politics. Many in Abkhazia proudly remind visitors that Moscow's preferred candidate in the territory's 2004 presidential election, former KGB officer Raul Khajimba, was soundly defeated by Bagapsh.

Despite political tensions, life in Sukhumi is laid back. A group of men enjoy a game of backgammon near the beach.
During that campaign, posters and billboards of Kajimba together with then Russian President Vladimir Putin were plastered all over Sukhumi. Prominent Russian politicians came to Sukhumi to campaign for Khajimba as did the popular singer Iosif Kobzon. Russian State Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky even threatened that Russia would close its Abkhaz border if Khajimba wasn't elected.

Many Abkhaz say their choice in that election should dispel any doubts that Abkhaz take their independence seriously and will resist any foreign domination:

"Russia supported one candidate and we made our choice. This is the attitude of the Abkhaz when there is pressure to do something that does not fit with their interests or security," Kobakhia says. "Abkhaz never allow anyone to talk to them like this or to force them to live in a way that is different from their style and their traditional values."

Whether the Abkhaz will be able to maintain this stance on Moscow will be tested in December, when they hold their first presidential elections since securing Russian recognition of their independence.
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by: Zoltan from: Hungary
June 19, 2009 14:43
The Abkhaz could live much more freely inside Georgia than inside Russia. Georgia in exchange for their return would give them the greatest freedom and autonomy one can imagine. While Russia is only colonializing Abkhazia.<br /><br />In the future the status of Abkhazia and the leverage of Russia will not be different from what is existing now in Chechnia for example. <br /><br />Abkhazia the 22th republic of the Russian Federation.<br /><br />Is this what you really want?

by: Anna
June 19, 2009 19:20
Understandably, memories of the 1992 conflict are fresher than 19 century mass deportation of Abkhazians by imperial Russia. However, Abkhazians are ignoring the fact that they were not the sole victims of the 1992 conflict. 20 000 Georgians, mostly civilians were killed during that conflict, thousands more brutalized, raped and tortured by Abkhaz separatists and North Caucasian mercenaries. Almost the entire 300 000 strong Georgian population of Abkhazia were expelled and are now being cruelly denied the right of return to their ancestral homes. Instead, millions of Russian military and their families are on their way of colonizing Abkhazia.<br /><br />The supposed “fear” of some Abkhazians of being swallowed up by Russia seems rather insincere and unconvincing, anyone who has a good knowledge of Abkhazia’s recent history, would know that they campaigned for being absorbed by Russia for decades! Throughout 1970s and 1980s, while enjoying quite a wide autonomy within Georgia, Abkhazians repeatedly voiced their desire to be absorbed into Russian region of Krasnodar, believing they were better off there than with Georgia. Having discovered later that demand for annexation by Russia was politically inexpedient they toned it down to a request for Abkhazia to be made the associate member of Russian Federation, rejecting the post conflict calls by Georgian leadership to consider a very generous federal agreement with Georgia with international guarantees.<br /><br />Now it looks like Abkhazians finally got what they wanted, so tough luck. Even if they come to understanding that they were just pawns in the strategic political game played by Russia, they will not be able to do anything about it.

by: Abrek from: Istanbul
June 19, 2009 19:52
Keep your advises to yourself Zoltan.<br />There is not freedom under authority of any other nation. Abkhaz has made her choice, declared in dependency, fought for it and got it. Now it is time to make rest of the world recognize it. <br />We do not need discouragement...<br />

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
June 19, 2009 20:29
One most important point is missing. <br />All of genuin Abkhazians were always few of ethnic groups of Georgians, since many thousands of years ago Ibero-Caucasian setlments appeared in the area.<br />Than it was part of united Hetia alliance with Colhis Georgian kingdoms, since 6-7 Milleniums ago, than part of united Kingdoms of Georgian Lasica, and finally, since 5-th Century A.D., one of United Kingdoms lead by Kartli. <br />About one fifth of each Abkhazian etnographic group and of &quot;Abkhazia's&quot; territory, by each region, is:<br /><br />1. Gali R. - part of old Mengrelia-Lasica;<br />2. Ochamchiri R. - part of old Lasica-Mengrelia;<br />3. Upper East R. - part of Svanetia;<br />4. Gudauta R. - Apsilia;<br />5. Suhumi and Suhumi Region - all of the above mixed, plus Sinigians, less Apsilians, and Georgians from other provinces - mostly creators and specialists in agriculture, constructions and industries since 1930-th. <br /><br />Gudauta Russian occupiers, in name of Adygeya and Pechenegies that they call true &quot;Psu&quot; Adygeya-Abkazians and the rest of Russian occupiers declared the genuin population &quot;genetic enemies of Psu-Adygei&quot; and started war and genocide against the rest of population, even against real Abkhazians in Gudauta region, calling them converted Mengrelians, Lasicans and other Georgians. <br />Russian military and intelligence command, lead by &quot;Union of Russian People&quot;, would be pogromers again, not unlike general Boldyrev and alike, since 1953-54 were ploting destruction of CIS nations, starting with Georgian Abkhazia and South Osetia.<br /><br />Gudauta Region with 20% of population and territory of Abkhazia, Apsilia, was subdued by Russian military and intelligence, including some pseudo-multinationals from Northern Caucasus and International Brigades, a few of each, specialy from Chechen children of WW2 War Criminals, and some from Adygeya-Pechenegia - slaves-agents (used before that also to guard as hostiges non-Russian intellectuals, plagiarised by Russians on closed projects there), the last two were also used to lie to the World that they are &quot;True Abkhazians&quot; from scattered by Russia Adygeya-Pechenegia from South Russia.<br /><br />PS:<br />I personally new, and heard in Georgia about Russians creating armies of children of rape, by Russians, women from Osetia, for instance three Osetin woman.<br />One girl was in the same class with me in Medium-High scool - Russians ordered her be my enemy and forced her family to marry her to a Russian.<br />Another was also a beutiful girl, doughter of an Osetin Officer in our City, she was set-up and raped by Russian Millitary command, like general Boldyrev, and made their own property.<br />The third one was a dating Osetin woomen, abot 20-30 of age, desecrated dirty by a Russian undercover officer of Russian secret or military police.<br />Some of their half breed children, if not all, must be brainwashed or taken to Russian special schools, and ended up killing Georgians and other non-Russians in places like Tchinvali and Abkhazia...<br /><br />So much for &quot;Separatists&quot;!<br /><br />Konstantin. <br />

by: Igor from: Tbilisi
June 19, 2009 21:30
I think today Abkhazians are in prison. Russia is controlling every thing in Abkhazia. Abkhazia became the money- laundry for Russian government. Fortunately EU and USA will never recognize the independence of Abkhazia and they support Georgian territorial integrity. Germany was also divided. Whole east Europe was occupied by USSR but everything had changed. Georgia will be united. Soon or later.

by: sephia karta from: Padua, Italy
June 19, 2009 21:43
To Brian Whitmore: an interesting article, and you spoke to exactly the right people. Kashig and Kobakhia are two of the most respecable, independent figures in Abkhazia. Kashig is not an opposition journalist as you say, he is an independent journalist, he was critical of the current opposition when they were still in government five years ago.<br /><br />To Zoltan: if Abkhazia will be swallowed by Russia, this will have been our responsibility. Like the article states, no, the Abkhazians don't want that, but if we don't help them that is what may happen. Your advise that they should join Georgia is naive. The war in 92-93 was devastating and there is no way back after that. It would be like asking Hungary to join Austria, or Georgia to join Russia for that matter. It is really that unthinkable for Abkhazians. The west is in denial.

by: sephia karta from: Padua, Italy
June 19, 2009 22:07
Konstantin: that chronology is not supported by a majority of historians, and don't take my word for it, Ghia Nodia said so.<br /><br />That Georgians only immigrated into the region after the Russians expulsed the Muslim Abkhaz is rather well illustrated by the Georgian writer who at the time argued that Mingrelians should colonise the now empty lands as they were best suited to the climate.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
June 20, 2009 11:05
sephia karta, <br /><br />&quot;It would be like asking Hungary to join Austria&quot;<br /><br />Exactly almost this is what we have done recently when Hungary have joined the great European family the European Union.<br /><br />We live in almost the same &quot;state&quot; with Austria, without borders to separate us, and within a few years we will use the same currency. So Hungarians have made peace with all of our neighbours.<br /><br />You probably know then that Hungary have lost 2/3 of its former territory to the Romanians sand Slovakians. And now we all are in the same &quot;club&quot; we all are inside the European Union. We have put aside our former hatresss and anger to start a new era of friendship and progress.<br /><br />The sad fact is that Abkhazia woulds be much more free inside Georgia than as it is now a vassal entity of Russia. <br /><br />And while current Russia is far from being democratic I only feel sorry for those misguided Abkhaz who will loose in the end...<br /><br />Look at the Cyprus example: in the end the Turkish side have voted for reunification to make a better living inside the EU. <br /><br />Progress can be made only after reconciliation. <br /><br />(Like Germany and France after the WWII)

by: Alessandro from: Italia.
June 20, 2009 11:08
Sephia Karta: You are writting about the last two centuries of Abhazian history. Colquida included Abhazia, and existed B.C. <br /> If you love history, writte about history, not about that you like or support your point of view.<br /> 20th century ethnic cleansing is also part of last history of Abhazia, and if you deal on it, I have nothing else for add.<br /> God luck been russian province...and take a lot of care. <br /> <br />

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
June 20, 2009 11:11
Abrek, if the current miserable status of Abkhazia fits for you and for other Abkhaz then it is yours live with it.<br /><br />If this is the &quot;independence&quot; you or they have fought for then they got what they want. The only problem is that Abkhazia was one of the most developed region of the former Soviet Union. Stadard of living was over the average. <br />But know Abkhazia is a poor region with no hope to become better... Once a center of life is on the periphery of the world.<br /><br />One last question: if life and &quot;independence&quot; is so great in Abkhazia then why do you live in Istanbul instead???
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