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Arda’s flags: a postcard from Abkhazia

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The strategic significance and territorial claims on the region of Abkhazia have meant its citizens have become used to a life lived in geopolitical limbo. Following the 2008 South Ossetia war, however, a small number of small countries began to recognise Abkhazian independence. A tailor thought of a novel way to mark the development, reports Oliver Bullough.

Oliver Bullough
27 January 2012

Arda Arshaniya-Ardzinba knew nothing about flags when she was asked to sew one. But that was 1992, the days of Abkhazia’s birth, when everyone had to turn their hands to anything. A historian became president. A land manager became military commander. And a tailor sewed a flag to replace the Soviet banner.

“The artist Valery Gamgiya designed the flag, that was before the war with the Georgians. He drew it and I made it, 150 by 75 centimetres,” she said, gesturing as if she were even now pulling the cloth through her old peddle sewing machine.

Copies of that flag -- green and white stripes with a red block in the corner -- flap today all over Abkhazia, a little republic between the Caucasus range and the Black Sea. It has become the emblem of Abkhazia’s insistence it is independent and not, as western states say, part of Georgia.

'Abkhazians also know that, when it comes to international recognition, justice does not come into it. Persuading other states that you have a right to exist is a matter of their self-interest and, often, your cash. That is why Abkhazia and Russia looked first to countries that like to needle the Americans.'

Arda does not know what happened to the first one, however. It went with Vladislav Ardzinba, the historian who became president, when he fled the capital in the wake of a Georgian advance in 1992. It was lost during his desperate defence, when the Chechen land manager Shamil Basayev came over the mountains to stiffen Abkhazia’s resistance, or perhaps in the madcap advance a year later that drove most of the republic’s ethnic Georgians out of Abkhazia altogether.

But she did not forget it when, after 15 years of isolation for Abkhazia, Russia recognised its claim to be an independent state following the short Russo-Georgian war. She knew what she had to do.

“I promised then that I would sew the flag of everyone who recognised us,” she said.

The flags she has made since leaned against the wall behind her sewing machine, and she reached for the first -- Russia’s white-blue-red tricolour.

“Look at it, isn’t it beautiful, the dear thing? I love them all more than life,” she said as she swayed the pole, allowing the flag’s folds to slide over each other.

The 2008 war coincided with the US presidential campaign and, for a while, became an electoral issue. The headlines cast the war over South Ossetia as a battle between tyranny and freedom: the Prague Spring brought back to life and moved to Tbilisi.

“We are all Georgians,” wrote John McCain in a column for the Wall Street Journal. “For anyone who thought that stark international aggression was a thing of the past, the last week must have come as a startling wake-up call.”

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Arda Arshaniya-Ardzinba has promised to make a flag for every nation prepared to recognise Abkhazia. In picture: preparing the Abkhazian flag. Photo (c) Oliver Bullough. 

Officials in Moscow rejected that, saying Georgia had launched a genocidal assault on the Ossetians and would have done the same against the Abkhaz. They said they had no choice but to recognise Abkhazia, that anything else would have left it vulnerable, although they were probably more motivated by the desire for a secure southern border, and a buffer between themselves and the pro-NATO Georgians.

Arda’s flags document, in bright cloth, the diplomatic tussle between Washington and Moscow that followed. Each one of them represents a country that has been cajoled or bribed into supporting Russia.

US officials, no doubt encouraged by oil companies that rely on Georgia as a transit route, have held their anti-Russian line. They have supported Georgia’s insistence that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian-occupied and must be returned to Georgian control.

“Russia’s invasion of Georgian land in 2008 was an act of aggression not only to Georgia, but to all new democracies,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, joint sponsor of a bipartisan motion affirming Georgia’s territorial integrity that passed unanimously in July. 

Russians, who have not unreasonably tried to compare their recognition of Abkhazia with America’s recognition of Kosovo, have been left exasperated. After a recent week in Abkhazia, I found myself sympathising with them. I saw not a single Russian serviceman, which hardly points towards heavy-handed occupation, nor did I meet an Abkhazian who opposes his country’s independence.

The Georgians deny Abkhazia has any right to independence, pointing out that in Soviet times its largest community was ethnic Georgian until 200,000 of them fled, and that independence should not be built on ethnic cleansing. Abkhazians reply that those Georgians were settled there by Stalin, a Georgian, who had subordinated Abkhazia to Tbilisi against the will of its people.

Both sides are partly right, but the Abkhazians also know that, when it comes to international recognition, justice does not come into it. Persuading other states that you have a right to exist is a matter of their self-interest and, often, your cash. That is why Abkhazia and Russia looked first to countries that like to needle the Americans. A couple of weeks after Moscow’s decision to recognise, Nicaragua followed its lead.

The glossy blue and white Nicaraguan flag that Arda created looked impressive to me, but she was not happy.  The words and triangular crest in its centre were barely legible and that spoiled the effect.

“I asked an artist to do it for me, but he did a bad job,” she said.

Next came Venezuela. Hugo Chavez delights in irritating Washington but waited until September 2009 to do so by recognising Abkhazia. He got trade and arms deals from Russia in return, and Arda’s version of his country’s tricolour came out very well.

Three months later was Nauru – a Pacific atoll that reportedly signed up in exchange for $50 million in Russian aid. This is a game Nauru is familiar with, since it has previously played Taiwan and China off against each other, but I did not tell Arda that I doubted its motives. Nor did I mention that she had hung its flag the wrong way up.

'Hugo Chavez delights in irritating Washington but waited until September 2009 to do so by recognising Abkhazia. He got trade and arms deals from Russia in return, and Arda’s version of his country’s tricolour came out very well.'

And that, for a while, was that. Washington deployed considerable resources to stop other countries from following Russia’s lead. Analysts began to think that Russia had given up on its attempt to win support for its little ally down by the Black Sea.

“Russia’s effort spectacularly failed. It could not even convince its allies to follow suit,” crowed a February 2011 report from the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. That was an unfortunately-timed assertion, since three months later Vanuatu recognised too. Arda enjoyed making this flag, which has a golden swirl picked out against a black triangle. And then came Tuvalu. She has not sewed that one yet.

Arda showed me a small picture of Tuvalu’s flag -- light blue with Britain’s Union Jack in the corner – and grimaced.

“Look at it. How do I do that? I need a bigger version to measure the width of all those white and blue and red ribbons. And where will I find one of those?” she asked.

Nonetheless, although her 73-year-old fingers are not as nimble as they were, she hopes more recognitions will follow to keep them busy. Are there any flags that she would not sew?

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