Crammed into a beat-up van driving up the Black Sea coast to Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, we passengers listen over and over to a CD compilation of Caucasian pop hits. One of the songs, a bouncy Russian tune called "Sukhumi," has lyrics that open a window on the past:
Sukhumi, the city of sun and palms And top quality citrus There's Turkish coffee at the beach all day And all night, it's full of sunburns and wine
But along the road are constant reminders of the less carefree days Abkhazia has experienced. Most buildings are destroyed, and from the road we can see only occasional signs of human habitation. In the fourteen years since the war, the lush vegetation that thrives in the subtropical climate here is taking over the ruins; many of the houses have trees growing inside that are now taller than the former roofline.
There is a torpor everywhere I go. In Sukhumi, dogs sleep on the sidewalks, and the loudest noise in the city is the croaking of the frogs. The streets are wide and flat and almost empty Abkhazia's population is now roughly estimated at 200,000, compared to 525,000 before the fighting between Abkhazian separatists and the Georgian military in 1992-3.
Abkhazia won a de facto independence thanks to its victory in that war, and my first stop after arriving in Sukhumi is the de facto Foreign Ministry. I ask for directions from people on the street, expecting the ministry to have its own building. It turns out to be just a part of a smallish government building, sharing a floor with the de facto Finance Ministry. Inside, I find several ministry officials, all of whom are guys in their 20s, chatting about music. One is says he's a rap music producer in his spare time; another is making plans to go to Moscow this summer to catch his favorite band, Metallica, in concert. "Do you want to talk to the deputy foreign minister? He's not very busy," one of them says.
One of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's top political priorities is bringing Abkhazia back into Tbilisi's fold. The Georgian government accordingly has attempted to tighten the screws on Sukhumi. Last July, Georgian security forces beefed up their presence in a remote, Georgian populated region of Abkhazia, the Kodori Gorge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Abkhaz officials contend that the action violated the UN-brokered peace deal that ended the war and that it was carried out with Washington's blessing.
I meet with Sergei Shamba, the de facto foreign minister and a former historian and archeologist, who has been active in the Abkhaz national movement since he was 24. He says the United States is making a mistake by supporting Georgia against Abkhazia. He strives to equate his territory to Kosovo, an analogy that Georgian and American policy-makers dismiss. "Self-determination is an American value. America supports Kosovo, but they don't support us," he says.
Many folks that I talk to in Abkhazia believe that Georgia is organizing a series of provocations designed to reignite the conflict with Abkhazia. The Georgian government is setting up two "patriotic youth camps" on the Georgian-Abkhaz border, which this summer will be full of men of military age during the season when an offensive is most likely. One of the youth camps opened in late May in Ganmukhuri, a Georgian-controlled village, within Abkhazia. Saakashvili has promised to open the other in the Upper Kodori Gorge. "Peace in this region is on a dangerous edge," Shamba says. Georgian officials deny any hostile intent.
Abkhazians fear that this summer, Georgia will reinforce its military bridgehead there. Tensions rose again this spring when the Georgian government building in Kodori came under fire from a helicopter; Georgian officials maintain that the only helicopters in the area that are capable of carrying out such an attack are Russian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Col. Garri Kupalba, a top Abkhaz defense representative, disputes the allegation of a Russian helicopter attack. He instead claims, without producing any evidence, that the projectiles launched in the attack came from Georgian-controlled territory, and that Georgian officials are engaged in a cover-up. At his office in a Soviet-era sanatorium converted to the territory's defense headquarters, the only book on his desk is a coffee table tome about the Russian armed forces.
In Washington and Tbilisi, the conflict in Abkhazia is seen as one between Georgia and Russia. Moscow, under this interpretation, has exploited local grievances to prop up a puppet government taking orders from Moscow, sustaining the tension and weakening Georgia. Georgian officials have also pushed for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with an international security force, alleging that the Russian troops are not neutral and act to help prop up the Abkhaz separatist leadership. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It certainly feels a little more Russian here few people speak the Abkhaz language, and almost all signs and all but one newspaper are in Russian. Most of the goods in shops are imported from Russia, and rubles are the currency. Russian peacekeepers are also present, but Col. Kupalba maintains that the Russian peacekeepers are impartial. "I haven't noticed any pro-Abkhaz sentiment among Russian soldiers," he says without blinking.
Recently, the Georgian parliamentary commission for restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity accused Russian of trying to establish a military base in the Gali District of Abkhazia. Abkhaz leaders and Russians officials deny it.
A large number of Abkhazians have Russian citizenship, and all are dependent on Russian assistance. Yet, many harbor mixed feelings about Russian influence in Abkhazia, fearing that it could trample their own distinctive culture. Several efforts are underway to preserve and promote Abkhaz culture and language. I go to a talent show put on by the Sukhumi Youth House, which holds Abkhaz classes for young people (regular schools are in Russian). Several of the acts feature children or teenagers demonstrating their Abkhaz language ability, including a pair of young rappers whose Abkhaz rhymes received a rapturous reception from the audience.
Abkhazians take offense at the notion that they are puppets of Russia. People complain about how Russia treats them badly: Moscow blocks Abkhaz trade with Turkey, which would be a natural trading partner, and discourages members of the large Abkhaz diaspora from resettling in Abkhazia. In the last presidential elections, the candidate that Russian officials publicly supported lost popularity as a result, and his opponent won. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"That [presidential election] was a serious demonstration that we are not in Russia's pocket," says Arda Inal-ipa, one of the leaders of Abkhazia's small non-governmental organization (NGO) community. "When we see that Russia will help us, we'll be with them. When it doesn't, we won't. We're very grateful to the Russians; they've helped us to survive. I used to not be able to travel, but I was able to get a Russian passport and I'm very grateful for that.
"But I'm very sorry that we've become a tool for their policy in the south Caucasus," she says. "Russia is not interested in solving this conflict. Abkhazia is a way for them to try to control Georgia. But Georgia is very far away from them now, and I don't know why they don't accept this."
The soft-spoken Inal-ipa is from one of Abkhazia's most respected families; her father was a historian who was persecuted for his Abkhaz nationalism. "For us independence isn't just a whim," she says. "This is a struggle that's been going on all my life.
"There was a chance we could have accepted some kind of federalization before, but not after this bloody war," she says. "Now we can never return to Georgia."
Josh is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. From April through September 2007 he is traveling through the Caucasus and Central Asia to write a serial travelogue.