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.

Essay Types: Essay