HOW TO TREAT SUKHUMI
13 January, 2011
HOW TO TREAT SUKHUMI

Abkhazia is a place “under Russian occupation,” according to a formula supported in July by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The West is strongly condemning this occupation.

 

An analytical report from Abkhazia by Thomas de Vaal, a senior assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington in the influential Foreign Report magazine, shares this condemnation but also raises questions concerning the attitude to Sukhumi. With the border closed since the August 2008 war, the only way to cross

from western Georgia into the de facto Republic of Abkhazia, a territory of 3,250 square miles by the Black Sea, is by foot, de Vaal reports. He left behind the Georgian military checkpoint and walked across the bridge, meeting a group of unfortunate Georgian women, some of the many thousands, who go back and forth between Zugdidi and Gali every day. Their lives had been divided by the checkpoints, and they have to regularly make this long walk rain or shine. “When will this ever end?” the author asks. 200,000 of its prewar Georgian inhabitants are still prevented from returning home. They say they have left Georgia behind, but have not, so far, arrived anywhere else.  De Vaal in Sukhumi found the central square dominated by the burned-out hulk of the 13-story old Communist Party headquarters, ravaged in the final bout of fighting in 1993. He strolled along the promenade by the Black Sea and ended up in the seafront cafe Akop’s Place (after its late Armenian owner.) Here men in flat caps play dominoes, backgammon, or chess and smoke incessantly while sipping Turkish coffee and catching up on political news. (The author entitled his report “The Coffee Republic.”)  My first observation from my conversations here, writes de Vaal, was that the Abkhazs do not want to talk about Georgia. From their perspective, the conflict has been resolved - in their favor - and it is just a matter of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Abkhaz officials, he notes, reject the Georgian government’s recent strategy on engagement, which aspires to restore people-to-people contacts, as a hapless PR stunt. Of course, the Abkhazs cannot pretend forever that Georgia and its displaced people do not exist. But by insisting that Abkhazia is a place “under Russian occupation” Tbilisi suggests the Abkhazs are mere tools of Russia without any agency of their own, and that diminishes any incentive they might have had for dialogue with the Georgians. So the question is how the West should treat Sukhumi. My second impression, writes de Vaal, was that the brief honeymoon with Russia that began in 2008 is now over. Moscow and Sukhumi are currently locked in a quarrel over the property rights of ethnic Russians, many of whom abandoned their houses before the war of 1992. There is an unhappy situation that the Abkhaz government has leased large pieces of real estate to the Russian military. And there was a recent public dispute between Abkhazia’s foremost historian, Stanislav Lakoba, and Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Zatulin over the way a history textbook recounts Abkhazia’s conflicts with Russia in the 19th century. None of that means, however, that Russia and Abkhazia will give up on each other. The Abkhaz need Russia as their outlet to the outer world, giver of subsidies and pensions, and most importantly, provider of security. The Russians may mutter that the Abkhaz are showing “ingratitude” with words of criticism, in contrast to the “grateful” South Ossetians who profess absolute loyalty to Moscow for having apparently saved them from destruction in 2008. But Moscow has invested heavily in Abkhazia and its strategic assets and needs its airport and hotels to ease overcrowding in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Abkhazia’s professional class still yearns for contacts with the outside world beyond Russia. But in the past two years, it has gotten harder for them to get visas to visit Europe and the United States. Fewer consulates accept Abkhazs traveling on Russian travel documents. One result is that most students of English in Abkhazia cannot travel to an English-speaking country. Prime Minister Sergei Shamba complains that despite the European Union’s stated policy of “non-recognition and engagement,” the Abkhazs have seen only the former and not the latter. “If we don’t get visas, it becomes engagement with Georgia, not with Europe,” he told me. Abkhazia’s multiethnic intelligentsia is good talkers. There were lively questions and comments when I addressed a round table of civil society activists and journalists on the topic of U.S. foreign policy and the Caucasus. But the political space for these people is narrowing, as Russia tightens its grip on the media and the West recedes into the background.  Abkhazia’s “ministries” are still paper-thin bodies with a handful of employees operating off a minuscule government budget of 4.4 billion rubles ($140 million). Moreover, the ethnic politics of Abkhazia makes for an unhealthy retro-Ottoman society where one of the two largest ethnic communities, the Abkhaz, dominate politics and the public sector, while the other, the Armenians, do most of the business. The European Union’s strategy toward Abkhazia was the main topic of a seminar I attended recently in Brussels. There was a consensus that, while respecting Georgia’s sovereignty claim over Abkhazia, the European Union had its own interest in Abkhazia’s not becoming a “blank spot on the map” that overlapped with but was distinct from the interests of Georgia. In discussing what projects Europe should support there, some argued that Brussels should back “good governance” but not “state-building.” Others argued that this was a false distinction. Whatever the future holds in terms of long-term status and a deal with Georgia, there is a much more immediate question. Does Abkhazia’s fledgling government in fact have the capacity to govern what it currently has? If the Abkhaz continue to run a coffee republic and to talk and watch the world go by, they risk letting others be masters of their future, de Vaal concludes. I expressed my attitude to his considerations in the following response to his article which appeared today in Foreign Report’s e-version under my name. Dealing with Sukhumi is absolutely useless. The most urgent, immediate and absolutely necessary step is to return 200,000 Georgian refugees back home to Abkhazia. They are homeless and mostly unemployed, and their life will remain horrible unless they return home. Their return will create a new political climate in Abkhazia, establishing a new power balance: After they get voting rights, their voice will be heard. There is no sense in dealing - directly or indirectly - with the Sukhumi regime because it is only fulfilling Moscow’s orders. The only solution of the problem is the strongest pressure on Moscow by using all available means, including the threat to cut off trade, cultural, economic and political relations, and to boycott the Sochi Olympics. “Moscow does not believe in tears.” Sukhumi believes in nothing except what their masters say.

 

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