Abkhazia: wedded to independence

About the author
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist who has covered Russia and other post Soviet republics for European media since 1989. He is joint editor of openDemocracy/Russia.

The Abkhaz capital Sukhumi never was just a Black Sea holiday resort, unlike the towns of Pitsunda and Gagra. It was always an administrative centre, capital of the region.

The Parliament, National Security Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs occupy a block of buildings looking out over the sea. Once, a statue of Lenin adorned the square. While Lenin has gone, this part of Sukhumi still looks like a Soviet theme park, separated from the outside world as it has been for years.

My room in Sukhumi's Hotel Ritsa has a history dating back to those years. It was from the balcony of Room 307 that Leo Trotsky, Stalin's main rival, addressed a crowd at the ceremony marking Lenin's funeral on January 26, 1922. Local Abkhazian officials delayed his return in Moscow so that he could not attend the funeral and compete with Stalin for the party's top job.

Today, Abkhazia has its own national flag and anthem, though it is recognised by no country other than Russia. Foreigners have to apply for visas, though these are not stamped into their passports, as Abkhazians know passports with an Abkhazian visa would be unacceptable to the Georgians.

For currency, Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble. With a sizeable income from Russian tourists it is not short of cash. The country has its own army based on the Swiss model; that is to say, every adult male is obliged to keep his personal arms at home. But it trains its own police, army and security officers.

Meeting President

The Georgian war was only a week away when we went to meet the Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh. We arrived in Sukhumi to find the government buildings almost deserted and the head of state due to leave for Moscow the next morning. It looked as if we had missed him. But we were lucky. The parliament's Speaker Nugzar Ashoba was still in his office, and agreed to call the President on our behalf.

For years no foreign media or diplomats visited Sukhumi. But the situation has been changing. This spring, the Abkhazian conflict, frozen for years, became a good deal more tense when Georgia started encouraging western journalists to come. So Speaker Ashoba is keen not to miss this opportunity to present Abkhazia's view to the international press: it took him 30 seconds to negotiate a morning appointment for us, just before the president leaves for the airport.

Like Presidents Saakishvili of Georgia and Yushchenko of Ukraine, President Sergei Bagapsh won power against the will of the Kremlin in the Abkhazian election in 2004. Moscow supported Bagapsh's opponent, Prime Minister (and ex- Russian special services officer) Raul Khajimba.

For weeks the Kremlin refused to endorse the verdict of the Abkhazian Election Commission regarding Bagapsh's victory. Neither his early career in the Georgian section of the youth Komsomol organisation, nor his three years as prime minister of Abkhazia, were enough to gain him credibility in Moscow's eyes. He is not our man, Russia's emissaries kept telling high-ranking Abkhazian officials involved in the negotiations. In retrospect, it is clear that Bagapsh's main crimes were that his wife was Georgian, and that he refused to accept the Moscow's initial verdict against him.

He and his supporters did not give up, though. In the end Moscow agreed to a new round of elections with Bagapsh as the presidential candidate and his former rival Khajimba as his running mate. For the people of Abkhazia this turned out to be a dream ticket: in January 2005 they won 90% of the votes.

Bagapsh speaks Russian with no trace of a Caucasian accent. After three years in power he has won enough support to consider running for re-election in 2009. Moscow, despite its scepticism about him, has taken no overt steps to back a rival candidate. And from his perspective, the importance of Moscow's support for Abkhazia can not be over-emphasised.

He recalled that Abkhazia lived under conditions of economic and political blockade for years, not just from Georgia but also from the Russia-dominated Community of Independent States. This coalition of former Soviet republics imposed sanctions on Abkhazia in 1996. Russia lifted them unilaterally only a few months ago.

Bagapsh feels very bitter about the attitude of other countries toward Abkhazia. ‘Nobody cares about our need to import medicines,' he said. ‘For years nobody wanted to invest money in our economy. Only Russia was willing to help.'

In 1998 he met the Georgian president Edouard Shevardnadze in Tbilisi, in his capacity as Abkhazia's prime minister. During their negotiations he asked him to help resolve Abkhazia's passport problem. For years Bagapsh's fellow countrymen were unable to travel abroad, as no country was willing to issue passports to Abkhazians. According to Bagapsh, Shevardnadze angrily refused to issue them with Georgian passport and suggested that Abkhazians should make do with UN travel documents. To Bagapsh this was unacceptable: ‘We will ask Russia to help - and in five years most of our citizens will have Russians passports,' he remembers telling Georgia's leader a decade ago. And that is precisely what happened, albeit a little more slowly than Bagapsh predicted.

By comparison with other Abkhaz politicians, Bagapsh comes over as less militant, though perhaps this is because he speaks in a soft voice and avoids the aggressive rhetoric of war. But there is one issue on which he would be never willing to make concessions. Abkhazia will remain an independent state, he insists, one that will be recognised by the international community.

A week before the outbreak of war he expressed his concern that Georgia is getting so many armaments from the US, Israel and Europe. The very sight of all these armaments being delivered, he said, obliges you to be prepared for war. ‘I wonder whom Georgia is preparing to fight?' he asked. ‘We also have friends who help us to arm our troops, and we hold those troops in readiness. The Georgians would do well to remember that they do not have a lot of friends in the Caucasus. If we are attacked there are a lot of ethnic groups round here that will rush to our defence. And that would be the end of Georgia as an independent nation'.

Abkhazians would never agree to return to becoming part of Georgia, he said, however much autonomy they were given within the Georgian state. ‘The blood spilled in war in the early 90's war has separated us for ever,' he says, referring to the civil war after the break up of the Soviet Union that led the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to sever their ties with Tbilisi.

A week before the war Bagapsh appeared concerned about the growing tensions, but not seriously alarmed by the prospect of air strikes, or tanks and artillery full-scale operations. The US, he believed, would make sure that the Georgian government stopped short of war.

How about Russia? Was the Kremlin dictating to Sergei Bagaphsh what should be said and done? ‘Russia has legitimate interests in the Southern Caucasus,' he replied. ‘Its presence here is no less justified than the American presence in the Central Asia republic of Kyrgyzstan'. The Kremlin's major concern was peace and stability, he insisted: Moscow officials often asked him how they should react to Georgia's hostile actions. He was not afraid of Russians, Bagapsh said; for years they had been -- and would remain -- Abkhazia's best friends.

Russian puppets?

Now Bagapsh had run out of time. One of his bodyguards loaded his bags into the boot of his Toyota Lexus limousine and he was off for his Moscow flight. Left behind with his officials, I quizzed them further about Abkhazia's relationship with Russia.

Was it like the good old Soviet times, when all decisions had to be approved in Moscow, including appointments to the most important administrative jobs? Georgians referred to the present Abkhazian government as marionietki, puppets. Were they right?

Russia doesn't have just one centre of power, I heard from a high-ranking Abkhazian parliament deputy who doesn't want to be named. At the end of 2003 he was involved in the negotiations with Russia when a majority of Abkhaz citizens voted for Sergei Bagapsh as president, rather than the candidate supported by the Kremlin. The official said they tried to explain to the Russians that they need not worry - that any politician elected as president of Abkhazia was bound to support Russia. So why would they mind if Bagapsh got in, or somebody else?

I tried to find out who the Russian partner in those negotiations was: the Foreign Ministry? The Kremlin representatives? Parliament's deputies? The special Russian envoy? Who played the role of Russian puppet master, controlling the Abkhazian puppets? At this, my source got angry. For a start, he did not regard Abkhaz politicians as mere puppets. He well remembered how the high-ranking guy from the Federal Security Service yelled at him, demanding that they withdraw their support for Bagapsh and switch to the Kremlin's candidate.

‘We are not puppets, so we did not agree,' he said. ‘I told him I was not afraid of his threats. At the same time we talked to other Moscow emissaries. They trusted us. They were high enough to have access to Putin. We convinced them; they convinced him. In the end the Kremlin approved Bagapsh and gave up on their own candidate.

Abkhazians try to play several Russian instruments. They are friends with the heads of the local administration in the Russia's southern regions. They have their contacts with Russia's ruling party United Russia. They talk to the Russian business magnates, and they look after their Kremlin contacts. Above all they do their best to keep in touch with their northern Caucasus brothers -- the Chechens, Ossetians, Gabardino-Balkarians. They would be their natural allies in any war with the Georgians or any other enemy.

What about Europe? Abkhazia parliament speaker Nugzar Ashoba, told me about the recent pre-war visit to Abkhazia by European Union foreign policy representative Xavier Solana. He told Solana that Europeans should have come here a long time ago, he said. As an independent state we would be EU's neighbours -- Romania and Bulgaria are just across the Black Sea. According to Ashoba, Solana listened to the Abkhaz officials with great interest. In the end, he told them he believed they were Europeans too and that he saw no chance of a solution to their conflict with Georgia without Russia.

Knowing they have no other ally than Russia, Abkhaz officials can hardly risk an open confrontation with the Kremlin. But they are certainly interested in opening up communication channels with the outside world.

A week later, I find myself reflecting that Sergei Bagapsh must be relieved that the Georgia-Russia war touched Abkhazia so lightly. Abkhaz troops took advantage of the situation to push the Georgians out of the upper part of the Kodori valley. With Russian units still present in the border Georgian town of Zugdidi it is easier for the Abkhazians to control the situation in the explosive Gali district, where the majority population is still ethnic Georgian.

Perhaps now the international community that has ignored Sergei Bagapsh and other Abkhaz leaders for so long will listen to them with more attention. My guess is they will stick with the message they have delivered consistently for years: that there is no solution to this conflict that does not include Abkhazia's complete independence.