A curious word comes to my mind, entering a conflict zone: tidy. Abkhazia looks tidy. The journey from the River Inguri to Sukhumi (as most of the world still calls the city, the Abkhaz insist on their traditional name Sukhum) follows a newly repaired road and takes little more than an hour. Construction is going on all over town. Shops are open and there are advertising hoardings on the street. Russian tourists stroll along the embankment enjoying the bright spring weather.
The neatness is relative, of course. The streets are still much too quiet. The major landmark in the center of the city remains the ruined hulk of the Soviet-era parliament building, destroyed in the final round of fighting between Georgians and Abkhaz in the war of 1992-3.
But the clean look reflects a political reality. People in Abkhazia feel comfortable with their current situation.
In August 2008, following the five-day war with Georgia over South Ossetia, Moscow recognized as independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had broken away from Tbilisi’s rule in 1992-93. Russian recognition launched Abkhazia on a new trajectory, solving one set of problems while generating new ones. Chiefly, it relieved at a stroke the greatest anxiety of the Abkhaz—their feeling of insecurity about re-conquest by Tbilisi. As a result, the issue of what Georgia thinks or wants has perceptibly receded into the background, and the Abkhaz political scene is more parochial, focused on internal issues.
This more inward-looking Abkhazia, especially since the 2011 election of President Alexander Ankvab, also pushes back against Western countries that have traditionally supported Tbilisi. The Abkhaz government has threatened to stop access to foreign diplomats accredited in Tbilisi, on the ground that this implies recognition of Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia. Some diplomats from home capitals are still allowed in—but diplomatic traffic into Abkhazia has slowed to a trickle. Some Europeans have proposed projects in Abkhazia under the EU’s strategy of “engagement without recognition,” but their proposals were rejected on the ground that they were offering merely a fraction of what Abkhazia gets from Russia.
One European diplomat described this approach as “self-isolation.” But as we sat on the Sukhum sea-front drinking coffee, Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister, Vyacheslav Chirikba, robustly rejected the tag.
“How can you call a country which had more than seven million visitors last year isolated?” asked Chirikba. He said a steady stream of Russians and others were crossing Abkhazia’s northern border all the time to take advantage of Black Sea tourist resorts.
“And we are not ‘occupied’ either,” he added. “Where are the occupiers? I don’t see any,” he added, jokingly looking under the café table. In fact, the only Russian soldiers I saw in three days in Abkhazia were at the border crossing. Whatever Russian control there is over Abkhazia is administered with a light hand.
But no one can dispute Russia’s economic dominance. The International Crisis Group reported recently that a quarter of the budget comes from direct Russian transfers, and that’s separate from a massive Russian-funded infrastructure program for roads, schools, government buildings and agriculture. Also, Russia pays the pensions of Abkhazia’s retired.
The economy remains unhealthy, thanks in part to the government’s big Ottoman-style bureaucracy, much larger than a political entity of around 250,000 people can afford. “It’s hard being ‘on the needle,’” said Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of the national security council in Abkhazia, referring to the republic’s almost total dependence on Russian economic subsidies.
Lakoba, a widely respected historian, has had several run-ins with Russian parliamentarians determined to whitewash Russia’s nineteenth century oppression of the Abkhaz. Still, Lakoba is not keen on engaging with Europe via Georgia, although he says he would have welcomed it a few years ago. “That train has left,” he says.
Since Abkhazia is cut off from mainstream international politics, its internal discourse centers on issues the outside world barely recognizes. There is a fierce debate about whether Abkhaz passports should be extended to ethnic Georgian residents in Gali region in southeast Abkhazia. And I heard discussions about whether it would be beneficial for Georgia to recognize Abkhaz independence, or whether the emphasis should be on third countries doing so.
Moderates want to extend Abkhaz passports and seek Georgian recognition of their independence. They see the twenty thousand Georgians who have taken Abkhaz passports as a sign of the success of the Abkhaz state-building project—a pursuit of the “standards before status” strategy adopted with Kosovo. Conservatives would deny citizenship to ethnic Georgians and reject all engagement with Tbilisi. Lakoba argues, for example, that giving Abkhaz passports to Gali Georgians who may also secretly be holding Georgian passports “explodes” Abkhazia.
Such controversies get no hearing in Georgia. Tbilisi does not recognize Abkhaz passports as legitimate (although it does sometimes accept them as identification for everyday transactions across the border). And recognition for Abkhazia is not on the agenda: the very small number of Georgians who have raised the issue say it is theoretically feasible only with the return of more than two hundred thousand internally displaced persons.
In Tbilisi, Georgia’s sovereignty over Abkhazia and the right of return of Georgian IDPs are taken as given. The big issue is whether to amend (not even annul) the Law on Occupied Territories, whether to allow the Abkhaz more access to the outside world in the name of engagement. Georgia now has its most progressive government team dealing with the two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A minister named Paata Zakareishvili, who has two decades of experience in working with Abkhaz and Ossetians in the nongovernmental sector, holds this portfolio.
The previous government, led by Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, had re-cast the conflicts as purely Georgian-Russian disputes, downplaying the local origins of them in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the role extreme Georgian nationalism had played in triggering them.
Despite an “engagement strategy” that read well on the page, the focus continued to be on calling the two territories “occupied” and keeping them isolated from the world. Saakashvili personally vetoed a proposal to allow three Abkhaz students to study in Brussels.
Since taking office last October, the new government has worked to reverse such practices. “Saakashvili was always looking for an opportunity to say no to Abkhaz and South Ossetians,” said Zakareishvili. “We are looking for reasons to say yes—while always taking into account of course the state interest of Georgia.”
The results have been small but significant. Covert Georgian military units operating on Abkhaz soil have been disbanded. There is more commercial traffic across the Inguri, and two new crossing points were opened last week (although there is a fear that the border will be tightened ahead of next year’s Sochi Olympics). The two sides are finally working together properly on the important issue of the missing, both the dead from the war and the living who are detained. Yet, all new initiatives taken by the new government on the conflicts are criticized by the opposition United National Movement as a capitulation to Russian interests.
Everyone understands that Abkhazia is a protracted conflict: the irresistible force of Russian protection collides with the immovable object of widespread international recognition that Georgia holds sovereignty over the republic.
Zakareishvili acknowledges he is in a long-term game. “Sooner or later they will understand that they need alternatives in Georgia and Europe,” he told me.
Given this, a game-changing move is needed. The only possibility I can see is to rebuild the broken railway line around the Black Sea connecting Sochi, Abkhazia, western Georgia and Armenia. If the railway were to be rebuilt, the benefits would be massive to the whole region. The new Tbilisi government floated the idea last fall, but it met resistance from Azerbaijan and the Georgian opposition and received only lukewarm support in Russia and Abkhazia.
It is striking how many people are either resisting or failing to support a big regional project that could reconnect broken parts of the region. It illustrates how everyone has grown comfortable with a status quo that is still producing long-term discomfort to Abkhaz, Georgians and others.
Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.