The Ghosts of Abkhazia

As its tense relations with Russia and Georgia illustrate, one can't talk about Abkhazia's future without recalling the ghosts of its past.

I slept badly in the Hotel Ritsa in Abkhazia. I had an unsettling dream in which I walked through an old house with an elderly Stalin, muttering malevolently to himself. In the morning, wondering who had disturbed my sleep, I had a long list of suspects from the other world.

Many of Abkhazia’s numerous ghosts must live within the walls of this whitewashed hotel. A convalescent Trotsky lived here in 1924 and gave a valedictory speech for Lenin from the first-floor balcony on the day of his old comrade’s funeral. Or I could have slept in the room of another of Stalin’s victims, the poet Osip Mandelstam. In 1993 the hotel produced more ghosts when it was burned to the ground in Abkhaz-Georgian fighting. It has only recently been rebuilt.

Pretty much everything about the past, present and future of Abkhazia is disputed. That includes the name of its capital city which the Georgians and most of the world still calls by the Georgian name Sukhumi and the Abkhaz call Sukhum. This is a city of absences. In the mid-nineteenth century, Abkhaz were deported to the Ottoman Empire for rebelling against the Imperial Russian Army. From 1877 to 1907 those who remained were banned from living in the city or along the Black Sea coast. Georgians, Greeks and Russians settled in their stead, shifting the demographic balance against the indigenous Abkhaz. In 1949 the Greeks were expelled en masse to Kazakhstan in one of the crazy Stalinist deportations. In 1992 most of the Abkhaz fled the city when the Georgian armed forces captured it, and the following year almost all the Georgians fled when the Abkhaz recaptured it. Seventeen years on, despite an influx of Russian money and a new crop of cafes and shops and reopening hotels, the streets of Sukhum(i) are still disfigured with ruins.

So anyone who talks about the history of Abkhazia should tread carefully. But that didn’t deter Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Zatulin from striding in here in boots and spurs. Zatulin, the mustachioed first deputy chairman of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Committee in the State Duma, looks and sounds like a czarist officer and subtlety is not his strong point. He is one of those who actively promoted Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and hailed the August 2008 war as a victory over the West. But he failed to notice the small detail that Abkhaz are pro-Russian much more by necessity than by natural enthusiasm. And when he criticized the textbook written by Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba being taught in local schools, he hit a nerve.

Zatulin publicly castigated Lakoba for his textbook and insisted that Abkhaz had entered into “voluntary union” with the Russian empire in 1810 and always lived in harmony with Russians. After months of criticism, Lakoba responded with a magisterial article entitled “Zatulinism” in which he declared of the Russian parliamentarian, “Abkhazia can be congratulated. She now has a political censor.” In his article Lakoba firmly states that Russia is now Abkhazia’s main ally and should remain so, but he fires a warning shot against those Russians who, in his judgment, are repeating the Georgians’ error of assuming that the Abkhaz want to be part of their project and not have a project of their own: “Someone thought the Abkhaz people were too free and evidently decided to weaken and curb them, by depriving them of the main thing they have, their history.”

It is a mistake to criticize Lakoba here, because he bears the totemic name of his relative Nestor Lakoba, the popular Bolshevik leader who won Abkhazia a high level of autonomy and spared it from collectivization, before being poisoned by Stalin’s chief henchman, Lavrenty Beria. Nothing so dramatic will happen with the younger Lakoba, but drinking coffee with him in front of the Hotel Ritsa, I found a man who worries about what the Russians want from his homeland.

For most ordinary residents of Abkhazia this is a small matter. Disagreements with Russia over history textbooks or property rights are secondary to the opportunities that Russia gives them to receive pensions or passports. For them, put bluntly, Russia is the power which defeated Georgia and will stop the Georgians coming back. As the de facto prime minister, Sergei Shamba, put it to me, “We fought a war with Russia one hundred fifty years ago, we fought a war with Georgia eighteen years ago and Russia helped us in that war. That’s where the difference is.”

But the Lakoba-Zatulin row does remind us that you can’t usefully talk about the future of Abkhazia without recalling the ghosts of its past, distant as well as more recent.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.