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Black Sea Blues

Black Sea Blues

Mini Teaser: The Abkhaz seem to have built themselves a state. Now all they need is someone to recognize it.

by Author(s): Charles King

Maxim Gunjia sits down in an armchair opposite a plush couch. His spacious office is filled with abstract art. He recalls his time in Washington, which he visited while studying in the United States. "I like Georgetown", he says in unaccented English. "And Adams Morgan--that Cuban place, what is it? The Habana Village!" Like many young clubbers, he prefers New York's scene to Washington's. "The city doesn't really have much of a soul."

Gunjia is hip, 28 and into restaurants, art and jazz. He is also the deputy foreign minister of a country that no legitimate government recognizes and that some people have called a haven for drug traffickers and arms dealers.

It is easy to think of his homeland--the Republic of Abkhazia, a small triangle of land wedged between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea--as a Ruritanian fantasy. From the perspective of Georgia, which claims Abkhazia as its own territory, it is simply a puppet of Russia, a pretend state that Moscow manipulates in order to keep Georgia's central government weak, scare away foreign investors and block the further expansion of Western influence in the Caucasus. More ominously, Georgian politicians contend that Abkhazia has become a hotbed of black-marketeers, trading in everything from guns to people. Abkhazia's leaders "have profited from illegal smuggling and contraband [and] now threaten to draw us all into conflict", said Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in a speech in Washington last August. "In the post-September 11 world, illegality and pockets of separatists can no longer be ignored or tolerated."

But there is more to the story than this. Abkhazia is not simply a renegade statelet. It is in fact a remarkable example of how individuals can get on with the task of living their lives even without the imprimatur of international legitimacy. If left to their own devices, most people will figure out pretty quickly how to make a living, support their families and provide for their own security, even after a devastating war. But that resourcefulness can also be a vice. Once people have come up with workable ways of governing themselves--putting food on the table, keeping the peace, even selecting their own leaders--they are usually loath to accept someone else's version of how these things ought to be done. The Abkhaz should know. They have spent the last 14 years constructing something that looks like a real country, and they do not appear to be interested in giving it up.

Abkhazia lies along the northeastern coast of the Black Sea. It is lush, almost jungle-like in places. Fertile river valleys have hosted farmsteads for thousands of years. Hazelnut groves and cornfields blanket the countryside. Forested hills press right down to the seashore, and beyond them rise the granite face of the main chain of the Caucasus mountains and the snow-covered peaks that mark off the boundary between Abkhazia and the Russian republics of the north Caucasus.

The Abkhaz are ethnically related to people on the north side of the main mountain range, a linguistic and cultural group known to 19th-century travelers as "Circassians" but today called the Adiga, Cherkess and Kabardin. Their language, a glorious riot of explosive consonants and few vowels, was once poetically described by a French visitor as "the language of pebbles." To an English speaker, it really does sound like the whoosh and click of a wave retreating across a pebble beach.

Like their Circassian neighbors, the Abkhaz were deported en masse in the 1860s, when the czar finally conquered the last of the Caucasus uplands, ending an imperial war that lasted for the better part of a century. Many were resettled in the Ottoman empire, which is why Abkhaz historians now claim that hundreds of thousands of Turks and Arabs are really Abkhaz in disguise (and why the king of Jordan has a palace guard composed of men who still call themselves Circassians). This severe depopulation, along with the influx of Georgians and other settlers during the Soviet period, led to a precipitous decline in the proportion of ethnic Abkhaz in their traditional homeland. By the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, Abkhaz made up no more than 18 percent of the local population.

During most of the Soviet period, Abkhazia enjoyed autonomous status within Georgia, but as the Soviet Union began to weaken, local leaders called for an even looser relationship with Tbilisi. Eventually, Georgian troops intervened to keep the republic inside a united Georgian state. Full-scale war was the result, and the fighting on all sides was vicious. The capital, Sukhum (Sukhumi, in Georgian), was bombarded, and many Abkhaz were forced to flee. The republican government, with the assistance of Russian soldiers and freelance fighters from the north Caucasus, exacted revenge. In late 1992 and 1993, some 250,000 ethnic Georgians and Mingrelians (an ethnic group closely related to Georgians) were driven into Georgia proper. Most of them--and now their children--have remained there ever since.

Memories of the war are still fresh. At the Institute for Humanitarian Research, Abkhazia's main academic center, a group of historians showed me a photograph that captures the Abkhaz version of what happened a decade ago. In the picture, a group of men stands inside the ruins of the regional archive. In the middle of the burnt-out building is a tall, perfectly shaped cone of ashes. A cone like that, the historians pointed out to me, can only be made when people stand around a fire and carefully pile on document after document, systematically erasing a nation's memory. In the wake of the war, most Abkhaz believe having an independent state--and one cleansed of the former Georgian and Mingrelian majority--is essential to the continued existence of their nation.

Life in Abkhazia is not easy. The central administrative building, the largest structure in Sukhum, looks like a multi-story training facility for a fire brigade, its fa‡ade scarred with bullet holes and completely gutted, its expansive gardens now untended. But the Abkhaz have nevertheless moved on with the job of making their own country. They have a parliament, a prime minister and a president. They have a flag, a national anthem and--crucially--an educational system that teaches young people that their proper homeland is Abkhazia, not Georgia. They send diplomatic delegations to Russia, as well as to several other unrecognized states with which they have made common cause: the republics of Transnistria (in Moldova), Nagorno-Karabakh (in Azerbaijan) and South Ossetia (also in Georgia). All of this is overseen by more than a thousand Russian peacekeeping troops, who are in turn watched over by a local United Nations mission.

Compared with any other provincial city in Georgia, Sukhum is not doing too badly. A plethora of NGOs works on everything from supporting small-business development to looking after the rights of invalids. Several NGOs have now banded together to put pressure on the government to clean up corruption and hold genuinely free elections. There is food in the shops, a large and active bazaar and even a fashionable restaurant or two, where trendy twenty-somethings, just back from Moscow or Amsterdam, can catch up with family members and enjoy the magnificent local cuisine. Ask people what they do for a living and you will get exactly the same answer that you hear in any other peripheral bit of the former Soviet Union: "Torguem" ("we sell stuff")--Chinese-made clothes, fuel, animals, soap, linens, alcohol, cigarettes. Of course, smugglers and black-marketeers abound, and they are usually in league with one or another political faction. But that hardly sets the Abkhaz apart from their neighbors in Russia or Georgia.

Journalists have sometimes portrayed the Abkhaz as a "Muslim" nation at odds with Christian Georgians. There are certainly some Abkhaz who would identify themselves that way, but many more are nominally Christian. In any case, the religion of the Abkhaz is, if anything, something they call apsuara--the code of behavior associated with, well, just being Abkhaz. Asked what precisely apsuara means, Abkhaz usually point to rather minor things, like standing up when someone comes into a room. But there is now a deeper meaning, too: a sense that they defeated the Georgians, that they have managed to remain functionally independent for more than a decade, and that this is how things should remain.

Billboards all over Sukhum feature the same image: a picture of the uniformed warrior and former president Vladislav Ardzinba along with the word "Aiaaira" ("victory"). Most Abkhaz are firmly committed to consolidating what was won on the battlefield a decade ago. There are real political factions, however, and they do not always see eye to eye. Earlier this year, Ardzinba, suffering from a mysterious but debilitating illness, retired from public life. New presidential elections were held in October. The conduct of the elections was widely criticized by local observers, and a struggle for power ensued between Ardzinba's designated successor, the pro-Russian Prime Minister Raul Khajimba, and the more nationalist politician Sergie Bagapsh. In the end, Bagapsh, the underdog, was declared the winner by the electoral commission, a result Khajimba's faction disputed in court. Despite this wrangling, both camps agree on the most important point of all: that Abkhazia has no business inside a country called Georgia. Moreover, as many people in Sukhum are now at pains to point out, Abkhazia has at least managed to change its head of state through an election. Georgia never has.

Essay Types: Essay