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

Average Georgians are convinced that Abkhazia must one day return to the fold. How could this tiny place, with probably fewer than 300,000 inhabitants, survive without Georgia? But Abkhazia is not starving, and with a gorgeous coastline and several decent hotels, the republic has been raking in a minor fortune in the Russian tourist trade. For foreigners, the only way in is on a UN helicopter, but Russian citizens can travel freely across the land border to the north.

That fact alone, the Georgian government says, shows that the pretence of Abkhaz statehood is no more than a ruse to perpetuate Russian influence in the south Caucasus. The Abkhaz depend for their existence on financial hand-outs from Russia. Moscow pays local pensions, and tens of thousands of Abkhaz--most of the population, by some estimates--have taken Russian citizenship. When Russia claims that it has a direct interest in what happens to this strip of Black Sea coastline, there is now a legitimate legal point to back up the claim. Russia, after all, is now simply looking after the affairs of its own passport-carrying citizens.

So, what is to be done? At the moment, it is hard to see a way out. The international community still recognizes Abkhazia as part of Georgia, but no country has put real pressure on Russia to halt its support for the Abkhaz cause. As the Russians and Abkhaz argue, the strong relationship between Moscow and Sukhum is simply a guarantee that the Georgians will not try to retake the area by force, as happened in 1992. Saakashvili has underscored his desire to reintegrate the Georgian state, and he has even made serious gestures to do so, such as interdicting seaborne trade with Abkhaz ports. But Georgians understand that time is not on their side. As Abkhaz institutions achieve even greater popular legitimacy and as children grow up with little connection to Georgia, the chances of actually reintegrating this sliver of territory look slimmer and slimmer.

Two things could change the status quo. One would be a decision by the Georgian government that upping the ante--threatening or even using violence--might be a way of breaking the deadlock. Saakashvili has repeatedly promised to seek only a peaceful resolution. In any event, the Georgian military (despite a multi-million-dollar training program sponsored by the U.S. government) is in no position to fight a war. But analysts in Tbilisi have started to talk about other ways of doing things. A single suitcase bomb placed in an Abkhaz hotel during the beach season would keep away Russian tourists and cut off one of the republic's main sources of cash. If Georgians become frustrated enough with the dithering of Washington and Brussels, some may be inclined to do just that.

A second change could come through Russia. In the wake of the school siege in Beslan, the potential for unrest in the northwestern Caucasus looks greater than ever. That region has so far remained relatively peaceful, despite two wars in Chechnya and periodic outbreaks of violence in the northeast Caucasus. But things need not stay that way. The world is only now learning about this part of Russia--places such as Adigea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, all of which have their own interethnic problems and grievances against Moscow. If violence erupts on the other side of the mountains, Abkhaz loyalties will be put to the test. Do they turn to the Russians who have protected them against the Georgians, or come to the aid of the old Circassians, with whom they have a shared culture and transnational identity as Caucasus highlanders? Political factions in Abkhazia may already be gearing up for such a choice. Indeed, the Bagapsh faction in Sukhum has criticized Khajimba for being overly tied to Russia and personally too close to Vladimir Putin. The question is whether the new leadership will fail to look out for Abkhaz interests if they ever diverge from those of their erstwhile protector.

One day, the people of Sukhum may find themselves having to make the same wrenching decision that their great-grandfathers faced during the Caucasus wars of the 19th century: throw in their lot with the Russians, or band together with their ethnic kin. In a place that has put so much store in building an independent identity, it is not obvious which way they would go.

Essay Types: Essay