Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Abkhazia's dream of freedom

About the author
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). His earlier books include Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (NYU Press, 1999) - with Carlotta Gall; and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (NYU Press, 2003)

A mile from the Black Sea in central Abkhazia you can see the crimson-and-mustard striped domes of New Athos, a grand 19th-century monastery built at the height of the czarist empire. Nearby is a green-roofed wooden building camouflaged by the bedraggled palm trees into the hillside, a house that you would only spot if you knew it was there. It is Joseph Stalin's dacha – or rather one of them, because this small strip of enchanted coastline was his favoured holiday destination.

When I visited in February 2006, the dacha was shut up, but you could peer through the crystal-paned windows to see a long oblong table and sixteen chairs in a meeting room, a cinema booth with the reels of film still stacked there and a billiard table with dusty white balls. The rest of the grounds had gone to ruin as surely as Stalin's Soviet Union and we clambered through broken walls and decades of matted leaves to an eyrie, where the generalissimo would have taken his evening stroll and looked out across the Black Sea.

As I wandered round this forlorn estate, I wondered what the ghost of Stalin would make of it. Not only has his superpower fallen apart, but even tiny Abkhazia, his favourite holiday spot, is a destitute territory detached from Georgia and outside international jurisdiction.

Yet his affection was one of the reasons for the disaster that has befallen Abkhazia. It was fated to be perhaps both the most privileged and most cursed part of the Soviet Union. Privileged, because everyone from Leon Trotsky to Mikhail Gorbachev, but especially Stalin, came and rested here; cursed, because although the Soviet elite loved Abkhazia it did not necessarily care about its inhabitants.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in London. He is co-author (with Carlotta Gall) of Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York University Press, 1998) and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (New York University Press, 2003)

Also by Thomas de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The north Caucasus: politics or war" (September 2004)

"Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political odyssey"
(October 2005)

Thomas de Waal also writes on the connection between Kosovo and Abkhazia in "The Kosovo talks are about much more than just Kosovo" (Financial Times, 10 May 2006)

A twilight country

Abkhazia was one of those once-cosmopolitan Soviet territories all too vulnerable to the jealousies and rivalries produced by what Terry Martin has called "the affirmative-action empire". In the 1920s it was a thoroughly multi-ethnic land with trading links across the Black Sea, a thriving tobacco industry and Turkish the lingua franca. The Abkhaz, who are ethnic kin of the Circassians of the north Caucasus, were the largest ethnic group but not the majority.

By 1991 the Abkhaz comprised less than one fifth of the population, thanks in large part to mass settlement by ethnic Georgians in the mid-Soviet period, encouraged by Stalin and his chief Georgian henchman, Lavrenti Beria. The Abkhaz resented the Georgianification brought by the incomers, while the Georgians resented the way the small "titular" minority dominated all major positions in the republic.

That is all a distant memory. The Georgians are gone, driven out at the end of the bitter war of 1992-93. Abkhazia's population, once half a million, is now less than half that. Sukhumi, once a city of Greek tobacco-merchants, then of Georgian workers, is still half-ruined, grass growing in the streets.

Abkhazia has become one of those twilight territories that exist on the map and have a functioning government, parliament and press, but are international pariahs, unrecognised, told by visiting dignitaries that they are actually part of Georgia.

Yet virtually nothing is left to remind you of Georgia and the younger generation does not even understand the Georgian language. Instead the Russians have adopted Abkhazia and are gently annexing it. The currency is the rouble, Moscow pays Russian pensions and gives out Russian passports, the Russian tourists have started coming back and Russian companies and ministries are renting out guest houses and sanatoria. Above the resort town of Gagra stands the elegant Armenia Sanatorium, an illustration of Abkhazia's bizarre history. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev got married here in 1992 – he was part of the broad anti-Georgian alliance of Cossacks, north Caucasians and Russian special forces that helped the Abkhaz – and now the sanatorium is leased out to the Russian defence ministry.

Yet it would be a mistake, one most distant observers make, to regard Abkhazia merely as some kind of rogue Russian puppet-state. In terms of democracy and civil society, it is no more criminal or corrupt than any other part of the Caucasus. Its black economy is more developed because all transactions are done in cash, but it is also a lot poorer so there is less to steal than in Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan.

As for the Russians, the Abkhaz are Caucasians after all and know their history, in which Russia has been the imperial overlord as much as Georgia has. Most people are grateful that someone is restoring their economy. But Abkhaz intellectuals are nagged by anxiety, worrying that they have broken away from what the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov called the "little empire" of Georgia only to be swallowed up by a resurgent nationalist Russia that seeks to use Abkhazia for its own ends in its efforts to humiliate pro-western Georgia.

In a small but brave act of protest in October-December 2004, the Abkhaz made it clear they were not Russian poodles. Moscow decided that it wanted former prime minister Raul Khajimba to be the next president and sent PR-experts, pop stars and Kremlin advisers to Abkhazia to make sure he was safely elected. But the opposition candidate, former energy boss Sergei Bagapsh, was declared the winner of the election and fought a desperate battle to have the result recognised. In the end, after weeks of failed intimidation and bullying of the Abkhaz opposition, Moscow climbed down and Bagapsh became president with Khajimba his vice-president.

Bagapsh was in genial form when I visited him. I believed him when he said he bore no grudge against the Russian officials who had tried to destroy him but now greeted him amiably as though nothing had happened. Bigger things are on his mind. He wanted to talk about Kosovo and its status talks, which are expected to lead to full independence.

President Vladimir Putin had deftly stirred things up on 31 January 2006 when he said at a Kremlin press conference: "If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians?"

Bagapsh argued fiercely that where Kosovo should lead, Abkhazia should follow. Bagapsh said: "If the issue of Kosovo is settled (in favour of independence) let's say, and not the issue of Abkhazia, that is a policy purely of double standards."

It is an argument to which I am quite sympathetic. The Abkhaz are entitled to look around and see double standards: that the west wants to "reward" Kosovo for its loyalty after the Nato intervention against Slobodan Milosevic, while retaining a soft spot for Georgia by insisting that its territorial integrity is inviolable. Yet if you were on the receiving end of Georgian armed thugs threatening your existence rather than Serbian armed thugs, that distinction seems rather arbitrary. The two cases are certainly not so far apart to be judged by entirely different standards.

That applies too to the counter-argument that Serbs or Georgians might wish to make. There is also the matter of those refugees. The Serbs comprised a far smaller proportion of the population of pre-war Kosovo. Thousands of them have left. They are the ones who have the right to set the Kosovo government an exam on whether it is fit to become a proper sovereign state that looks after its minorities.

Also on Abkhazia and Georgia in openDemocracy from our "Caucasus: regional fractures" debate:

George Hewitt, "Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil"
(November 2003)

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (November 2005)

Andrew Mueller, "Abkhazian futures" (August 2005)

Susan Richards, "Georgia's Byzantine politics"
(November 2005)

Sukhumi waits

In Abkhazia that exam would be even harder. True, some 40,000 Georgians have returned to the southern district of Gali inside Abkhazia. But they live a precarious existence there, preyed on by militias and gangsters – Georgian as well as Abkhaz – and vulnerable to immediate expulsion should the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process break down.

What about the remaining Georgians, I asked Bagapsh, estimated to be up to a quarter of a million and comprising half Abkhazia's pre-war population? If you followed the Kosovo model to its logical conclusion, then they should be allowed full right of return.

Naturally, the president replied that Abkhazia should get its independence first, then invite the Georgians back. But he did at least concede that "there are more obligations sometimes than privileges" in being a sovereign state and that it was a tricky process.

One thing is certain: there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the intellectual framework around the "frozen conflicts" of the Caucasus – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The unrecognised separatist territories are told that the Soviet borders are inviolable and that in effect any moves they may make to democratise themselves are irrelevant. The Kosovo process is useful because it challenges those assumptions. Surely, now that the precedent has been set, the debate has to be about democracy and minority rights more than about territorial integrity.

I remembered what a Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian had said to me, a question I found unanswerable at the time. "So we were inside Azerbaijan for seventy years. How many years do we have to spend outside Azerbaijan for the world to recognise that we have left them behind for good – twenty, thirty, seventy?"

If the Abkhaz can put together a democratic case for greater recognition by the outside world, I for one will be glad. And if Stalin spins a little more in his grave on Red Square, so much the better.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.