A Chance to Join the World

Neal Ascherson

On the way to the frontier, we stopped the car for a last look at Abkhazia. A new monument stood by the road, the effigy of a scowling, whiskered Abkhaz chieftain with sword and shield. The statue commemorates the war of 1992-93 which routed the Georgian army, cost ten thousand dead on both sides, and established an ‘independent’ Abkhazian state.

All we could hear was the sound of cowbells. Cattle graze on the verges of the highway to Russia or – folding their long legs – snooze comfortably in the middle of the road. Below us, glimpsed through pine woods, was the Black Sea. In front, miles of grassland led up to the coastal sierra of the Caucasus, a wall of rock whose vast ribs glowed in the misty autumn sunlight. There had been a ceremony here recently. Bunches and wreaths of flowers were beginning to wilt around the warrior’s feet, and cartridge cases from a fusillade glittered in the grass. I picked one up. The Armenian driver – a knowing young man whose family came from the Kodori Gorge region, recaptured from the Georgians a few months earlier – fingered it with interest. ‘An M4 round – not one of ours. American. It must have come from the stuff we captured at the Gorge.’

It was ten weeks since the August night when the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, launched his onslaught on South Ossetia, precipitating the punitive Russian invasion which surged through western Georgia and advanced to within a few miles of Tbilisi itself. On 26 August, Russia startled the world – including the Abkhazian government, apparently – by recognising the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far, no other nation has followed Russia’s lead except, for obscure reasons, Nicaragua.

For Western governments, led by the United States and including the European Union, this recognition was a unilateral outrage against ‘the territorial integrity of Georgia’. Our media continue to refer to the two territories as ‘Georgian breakaway regions’. For others, it was a crude proclamation of reality. South Ossetia and Abkhazia effectively ceased to be ‘part of Georgia’ at least fifteen years ago, claiming indeed that they never really were part of it. Since the August war, Georgian chances of reasserting control in either place in the foreseeable future, by conquest or diplomacy, have shrunk to zero.

The South Ossetians may well end up joining their North Ossetian compatriots in the Russian Federation. That seems to be what most of them – having hounded out their Georgian minority – would prefer. But Abkhazia is a different matter altogether. If the outside world were to consent, it could become a prosperous, credible Black Sea micro-state. The Abkhazians have no intention of falling under Georgian control again, but neither do they want to be an appendage of Russia. They know that now, since the August war, there is at least a chance of joining the world and making a reality of their independence. But will either the West or the Russians allow them to do so?

For most people, the where, what and who of Abkhazia are a blank. Physically, it is a 120-mile strip along the Black Sea’s eastern coastline. But for the past fifteen years, the place has been an international oubliette, isolated and gagged by sanctions. Air and rail communications were blocked, ships approaching the coast were fired on or boarded, trade almost ceased and the Abkhazians survived on what they could grow, fish or smuggle for themselves. More recently, though, the dungeon door has started to open. There is now a direct-dial telephone system, internet access and television. Russian holidaymakers arrive in summer, while exports of Abkhazian citrus fruit, vegetables and hazelnuts have revived. Foreign investors – mostly Russian or Turkish – are helping to rebuild the war-shattered towns and beach resorts. But there is still no postal service, internal or external. Nobody has seen a stamp stuck on an envelope since the early 1990s.

For scenery, the Black Sea has nothing as handsome as Abkhazia – not even Crimea. Inland, aboriginal forests reach up to the foothills of the high Caucasus. On the coast, especially in the north where the hills plunge steeply to the sea, you can imagine yourself in the subtropical parts of the French Riviera in the 1880s, before Europe’s plutocracy moved in. After the Russian conquest of the northern Caucasus in the 1860s, a few resorts like Gagra and Novy Afon were laid out by retired tsarist generals with a taste for white Palladian architecture and exotic botanical gardens. Much later, Soviet leaders (Stalin, Brezhnev, and even Gorbachev) occupied grand beach villas at Pitsunda or Sukhum, where they entertained Warsaw Pact satraps and Western statesmen.

The ‘who’ definition is more tangled and contentious. The Abkhaz people, speaking a pre-Indo-European language that is part of the North Caucasian family, have been in the region for millennia. The fertile coastal strip was colonised by the Greeks, and by the 19th century its population was a cosmopolitan mixture of indigenous Abkhazians and Ubykhs with Pontic Greeks, Georgians, Mingrelians, Jews and Armenians.[*]

In the 1860s, imperial Russia invaded and annexed the region. Many Abkhaz people fled, migrating round the Black Sea to settle in Ottoman Turkey (there are still more of them in the Turkish diaspora than in Abkhazia itself). Russian entrepreneurs began to develop the coast, while Mingrelians from western Georgia settled in the south of Abkhazia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Abkhazia became for a while an autonomous Soviet republic. But after 1931 Stalin – a Georgian – integrated it with the Georgian Soviet Republic. Many Abkhazian intellectuals were shot or sent to Siberia, and in the 1940s Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria – a Mingrelian – launched a policy of wholesale resettlement of Mingrelians and Georgians on Abkhaz land.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Georgians/Mingrelians formed a narrow majority of the population (which was then around half a million). Georgians from ‘Georgia proper’, accustomed to spending their holidays on Abkhazia’s subtropical shores, had come to regard the place as a slightly farouche but much loved province of their own country. In turn, the Abkhaz people felt reduced to a ‘backward’ anthropological curiosity in a land they still firmly regarded as ‘theirs’.

Passions came to a head as the Soviet Union fell apart and Georgia prepared to declare independence. This was a classic post-imperial crisis. As in India and much of Africa, smaller peoples lumped together with bigger peoples by an imperial administration rebelled when the bigger partner declared independence and proposed to rule them directly. The Abkhazians had survived their association with Georgia by relying on the Soviet Union’s divide-and-rule policies to protect their autonomy. Now, it seemed, they were to become a mere minority in a Georgia intent on imposing cultural and political uniformity. Shortly before his fall in 1991, Gorbachev organised a futile referendum on the ‘restructuring’ of the Soviet Union. The Georgians in ‘Georgia proper’, very understandably, refused to take part. But a majority of the Abkhazian electorate, uneasy about the prospect of Georgian independence, voted to stay in the Soviet Union rather than join Georgia. They were ignored.

Demonstrations and riots broke out, and talk about ‘federation’ came to nothing. But in 1992, suddenly and disastrously, Georgia hurled its forces into Sukhum, the Abkhazian capital (the same mistake that Saakashvili would make with South Ossetia in 2008). Open war followed. Supported by volunteers from the northern Caucasus, by other ethnic groups in the territory (especially the Armenians) and by Russian weaponry, the Abkhazians routed the Georgians in 1993. It was a murderous conflict, with atrocities on both sides. Most of Sukhum, along with many other towns, was shelled and burned to ruins. Georgian militia even set fire to Abkhazia’s national archives.

But the Abkhazian victory had another, even more piteous consequence. Most of the Mingrelian and Georgian inhabitants fled before the advancing Abkhazians, some ‘ethnically cleansed’ but more choosing to take flight before the armed men reached them. More than 200,000 people crossed the border into western Georgia, refugees condemned to years of embittered squalor in camps and abandoned buildings.

Abkhazia had lost almost half its population. The Abkhazians were now masters in their own house, but the house was a blackened shell. And all prospects for a reconciliation with Georgia were deadlocked – as they still are – by the question of the refugees and their sheer number. Georgia insists on their right to return to Abkhazia. Yet if they did, would they return peacefully and accept loyalty to the new Abkhazian regime? Or would they come back as avengers, using their numerical strength to overwhelm the ethnic Abkhazians and their allies and reimpose Georgian domination?

One day I went south to the town of Ochamchira, in a region where few Abkhazians had lived before the war. The road ran between fields abandoned to tall yellow weeds, which had once been ploughed by Mingrelian farmers and then sown with mines. Young trees were growing through the roofs of empty farmhouses. Ochamchira itself, once a bright little seaside town with 20,000 inhabitants, now holds only about four thousand people. The pitted streets are lined with small, ghostly houses where persimmons still glow on the garden trees, but the windows and doorways are rents of darkness. The white classical railway station is derelict, its booking hall a pool of rainwater.

After the victory, some Abkhaz families moved into the homes left by Georgians, but many have drifted away again, returning to their villages or seeking work in Sukhum. Since I was last in Abkhazia four years ago, towns in the north and centre of the country have revived sharply, with new private shops and cafés lining the main streets. But here in the south, the desolation left by the great exodus has not been made good.

Off Ochamchira, a grey warship floated: a Russian missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Abkhazians watch this presence with mixed feelings. But, at present, relief is still stronger than suspicion. Almost everybody I met had spent the whole night of 8 August staring at the screen, as Russian television carried live the fire and thunder of the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. One woman said to me: ‘We were all thinking: we are next. So you have to understand the passionate relief we felt when the Russians intervened. To see Russian warships appearing off Sukhum and hear Russian aircraft arriving with troops – that was irresistible. Sure, we all know very well that Russia cares nothing for small countries and was acting only in its own interest. But at that moment we were so grateful.’

The official Georgian line, sold successfully to American and European governments, is that Abkhazia is a Russian puppet enclave run by servile Kremlin nominees. This is disastrously wrong: disastrous, because it walls off paths to new policies which could save the security and the freedom of both Abkhazia and Georgia itself.

It is true that Russia has gone a long way to make itself indispensable: for the defence of Abkhazia, for the rouble-based economy and – by distributing Russian passports – for letting Abkhazians travel, if only to Russia. But a Kremlin puppet? Only four years ago, the Russian-backed candidate in the presidential elections, Raul Khajimba, was defeated by the calm, evasive Sergei Bagapsh. There was an instant attempt to upset the result by force, with a ‘Khajimbist’ mob storming the Supreme Court. But Abkhazia’s tiny democratic elite kept its nerve and stood by the voters. The Russians eventually backed off, and Bagapsh remains the president.

The Abkhazians cannot shake off their dependence on Russia, and as far as defence against Georgia goes, they do not want to. But they want, desperately, to dilute it. Above all, as I found in many conversations with their leaders in Sukhum, they want to knock a hole in their international isolation and make contact with the European Union and with Turkey. Now that Russia has suddenly recognised their independence, can that status be exploited to reach the outside world? Will it be possible for ships to leave Sukhum or Ochamchira and take passengers directly across the Black Sea to shop and trade in Trabzon or Istanbul? When the airport is reopened, could there be flights not only to Russian destinations but also to Turkey or even Europe? One junior minister speculated that direct links with Turkey could persuade thousands of Turkish Abkhaz to return to the land of their fathers and repopulate the empty countryside.

There are many obstacles. Nobody recognises an Abkhazian passport, and even if its passengers carried Russian documents, a ship might have to go first to Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast to disguise its starting point in Abkhazia. International air regulations do not accept flights from ‘occupied territories’, which is Georgia’s definition of Abkhazia. And what Russia will say to all these ambitious schemes remains to be seen. So does the Abkhazian response if Russia says no. But the timidity of the EU, which fears Georgian and American outrage over any serious contact with Abkhazia, is already plain.

Earlier this year, before the Russian-Georgian war, several peace missions from Brussels visited Sukhum. As one senior Abkhaz official told me, they got down to discussing in detail the kinds of low-level relation that Abkhazia might develop with the EU.

I said: we could play a role in the EU’s Black Sea Neighbourhood Programme. You can’t recognise us at this point, but why not establish direct contacts at the level of education, sport, youth policy, the environment? We spoke for hours, and it seemed hopeful, but nothing happened. Back in Brussels, they were inflexible. All we got was a proposal to set up an EU information centre here – but only as a branch of the Tbilisi centre in Georgia. Why not a Sukhum centre answering directly to Brussels? The EU could so easily take a small step towards us – for instance, helping us to replace and restore our national archives.

Russian recognition in August seems to have been an impulsive step, prompted by rage over Poland’s decision on 14 August to accept the stationing of American missiles. In theory, it offers Abkhazia a tool to prise open some access to the world, and make its independence more of a reality. But using that tool requires ambition, ingenuity and a readiness to take risks with the Russian relationship. Many Abkhazians are impatient for change. At the top level, however, the Bagapsh regime seems over-cautious, almost lethargic.

It’s the wrong moment to do nothing. In Sukhum, a friend pointed to a balcony in the newly repaired Ritsa Hotel. Here, in a sunny room overlooking the palms and oleanders of the esplanade, Leon Trotsky loitered during the crucial days following Lenin’s death in 1924. If he had rushed back to Moscow, he might have rallied his followers, prevented Stalin consolidating his power, and changed history. But Abkhazia’s indolent charm overcame even that most hyperactive of revolutionaries. Trotsky went on with his Black Sea holiday. The chance was missed.

Abkhazians are self-critical about their own habit of missing chances. The ethnic Abkhaz, now numbering about eighty thousand, have lived as a well-fed village people, and the stresses of urban hard graft have never attracted them. In Sukhum, the young prefer to drink coffee and gossip endlessly on their mobiles; most of the reconstruction work is done by Gastarbeiter labourers from Armenia or Uzbekistan. Unlike their fierce neighbours in the north Caucasus, the Abkhazians have never been fanatical. Religion is supposedly divided between Orthodox Christianity, Islam and ‘traditional’ (pagan) belief. The first two are almost imperceptible, but an easy-going respect for the indwelling spirits of certain trees and mountains is pretty general. More immediately, fifteen years of being bottled up in isolation have left people passive, conditioned to make the best of what they have. Nothing like the exciting but patchy capitalist breakthough which Saakashvili launched in Georgia has reached Abkhazia. But the chance is real, the possibility of an escape into security and lasting prosperity which exists not only for Abkhazia but above all for Georgia. For Georgia is also in a trap, artfully set by Russia and the United States – the ‘great powers’ – as they struggle for influence in the southern Caucasus.

The fangs of this trap are Georgia’s claims to ‘sovereign territorial integrity’, the flat refusal to accept the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia which is so eagerly endorsed by European governments and by the United States. But after the disaster of last August (the latest of at least three Georgian efforts to reassert this ‘integrity’ by armed force), three things should have become obvious. The first is that ‘reunification’ cannot possibly succeed in mere military terms. The second is that such attempts achieve precisely what they are supposed to prevent: they actually reduce the independence of Georgia, by increasing Russia’s capacity to threaten and blackmail the Georgian government. The third is that by encouraging Georgia to stick to impossible frontier claims, the West – America, above all – is ensuring that Georgia will remain its helpless client, unable to defuse its own confrontation with Russia and thus ever more reliant on American military, economic and diplomatic patronage.

We have seen this trap before. Well … any European journalist of my advanced age has seen it. It was called the Oder-Neisse Problem. It consumed hours of soporific briefings and blackened kilometres of dead paper. It kept West Germany safely hobbled to the Western Allies for just over twenty years.

There are differences of scale and detail, but the similarities are sickening. The Oder-Neisse Problem went like this. After the Second World War, Poland annexed the German provinces of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, and expelled their populations – some eight million people. Most of them ended up in West Germany. Egged on by the Americans, the new West German state refused to recognise the new eastern border on the Oder and Neisse rivers, proclaimed that the ‘frontiers of 1937’ were still in force, and demanded that the rest of the world accept the duty to restore Germany’s ‘territorial integrity’. The enormous expellee leagues gained a stranglehold on politics. For decades, it was assumed that anyone who suggested recognising the Oder-Neisse Line was committing political suicide. West German TV daily predicted the weather, cloudy or sunny, in Silesia as well as in Bavaria.

In public, the Western Allies stoutly supported this position. In private, any French or British diplomat would agree that it was odious and unreal. But that was why they valued it. A West Germany firmly shackled to this impossibilist dogma would never be able to do a deal with the Soviet Union, such as leaving Nato in return for reunification. It was only in 1970 that Willy Brandt decided to lead his country out of the trap by recognising the territorial results of the war and the new boundaries. The expellees threatened to destroy him, but nothing happened. The Allies, who had grown fed up with their own hypocrisy, let Brandt have his way.

When will there be a Georgian Willy Brandt? The notion raises hollow laughter in Sukhum. Georgian politicians still insist that Abkhazia is Georgian, use extreme rhetoric about ‘overcoming separatism’ and walk out of meetings to which Abkhazians are admitted. But as with West Germany, the effect of this ‘impossibilism’ is to make Georgia less independent, not more.

The Russians are happy to be offered one provocation after another, each a pretext to squeeze Georgia and to tighten their grip on other small Caucasus nationalities. And as long as Georgia’s leaders are locked into hopeless territorial claims, the Americans can rely on Georgia’s impotence to maintain their own ‘distant saviour’ ascendancy in Tbilisi. What the European Union gets out of it is harder to say. At the October conference on aid for war-damaged Georgia, the EU contributed $1.1 billion, a third of the huge total of $4.50 billion. But by underwriting the ‘territorial integrity’ claim, they are doing Georgia no favours in the long run.

And yet it isn’t too late to solve the crisis in the Caucasus. The August conflict has opened more gates than it closed, and four actors should nerve themselves to push through them. First, and most difficult, the Georgians should quietly accept realities. South Ossetia is not worth courting. But a ‘small steps’ policy of rapprochement towards Abkhazia – renouncing the use of force, restoring economic and transport links, ending the diplomatic boycott, acceptance of Abkhazian de facto independence as the necessary condition for tackling the problem of refugee return – would help Abkhazia to ease its way out of Russia’s grasp. Second, the European Union should encourage that process, and immediately open its own direct low-level contacts with Abkhazia under its Black Sea Neighbourhood Programme. Third, the Abkhaz government, whose policies have been entirely defensive and reactive for fifteen years, must show more determination to wriggle out of its international cage. And, fourth, the coming Obama presidency must identify the southern Caucasus as a site for creative policy change, and extricate America from its habit of endorsing extreme Georgian nationalism.

Behind the Sukhum government’s stiff hostility, leading Abkhazians are genuinely worried about Georgia’s future. They dread the possibility that the country really might disintegrate, under the pressure of its own internal minority problems and Russian subversion. In spite of the recent past, they still long for a close relationship with a stable, pacific, prosperous Georgia: two small Caucasian neighbours linked by a common interest in Europe, Turkey and the wider world.

They have a lot in common and – given a chance – can feel a special intimacy in matters like culture, food and humour which neighbours outside the south-western Caucasus will never share. An Abkhaz member of parliament told me that he had been forced to travel to Baku in Azerbaijan in order to meet an old Georgian friend. The hotel receptionist, studying their passports, was puzzled. ‘Why are you both here?’ she asked. The Abkhazian wondered how to explain. In the end, he said: ‘Because we are lovers, forbidden to meet in our own country.’

[*] Ethnic-linguistic definitions here are inflamed but important. The Kartvelian language family includes Georgian, but also Svan, spoken in mountain Svanetia, and Mingrelian. The Mingrelians inhabit western Georgia, bordering on Abkhazia. They use a distinct dialect, but mostly consider themselves as Georgians. Kartvelian and North Caucasian languages – such as Abkhazian – are quite separate and not mutually comprehensible.