The policemen waved back

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky · In Abkhazia

Most countries in the world consider the breakaway republic of Abkhazia still to be part of Georgia. It has been recognised only by Russia (in 2008), Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and – since May 2018 – Syria.

According to the Abkhazian authorities, on 8 September, at around 11 p.m., Gennady Gagulia, the 70-year-old de facto prime minister, died in a car accident on the road between Psou, on the Russia border, and the capital, Sukhumi. He was returning from a meeting with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where they had signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) announced that a 22-year-old man had crashed into Gagulia’s car. He was arrested; drugs were at first said to have been detected in his blood, but the prosecutor has since contradicted those reports.

According to an article in the US-funded Caucasus Echo, using figures published by the MVD, there were 40 deaths per 100,000 people in Abkhazia in 2016, compared with 5 or 6 per 100,000 people in the UK, and 14 per 100,000 in Georgia and Russia. This would make Abkhazia one of the deadliest places in the world when it comes to car crashes, surpassed only by the Dominican Republic and Niue.

The Abkhazian journalist Stella Adleyba has written about the road death toll (‘deadlier than a warzone’):

I’ve seen accidents where pregnant women and children were killed. Every time people take to social media to say something needs to change, but nothing ever does. Roads are damaged, traffic lights don’t work, people drive as fast as they please and the authorities don’t care.

I went to Abkhazia this summer. Arriving in Sukhumi late at night, we were dropped by the marshrutka from Gagra at the side of the road. The owner of the hotel we were staying at picked us up in a 4x4. His brother was with him. They decided to show us the city centre at night. They drove very fast. No one was wearing a seat belt. When we went past the police station I thought the men would slow down, or get in trouble for not wearing seat belts, but they just waved and the policemen waved back.

Akhra Smyr used to work as a journalist and now occasionally blogs about politics. The lack of road safety, he told me, is a symptom of a society plagued by corruption:

Everybody in Abkhazia knows everybody, and everybody uses that. If you failed to get your driving licence you’ll go and see a relative at the MVD and you’ll get it. Fines for drunk driving have gone up but the police will only stop ordinary-looking cars, not fancy ones.

He has his doubts about the official account of Gagulia’s death.

Adleyba knew and liked the prime minister, who used to head Abkhazia’s Chamber of Commerce. She had been pleased when Assad’s government recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia. ‘Little by little we are heading towards being recognised by more countries. And maybe one day a Western country will recognise us,’ she said. Not everyone shares her enthusiasm. ‘Abkhazia has welcomed Syrian refugees who fled Assad’s regime,’ Smyr told me, ‘and they can’t believe this is happening.’

The journalist Inal Khashig pointed out in May that Syria’s recognition of Abkhazia was ‘a sign of its gratitude to Russia’. ‘International recognition is all very well,’ he told me, ‘but I wonder, if rather than chasing it, we wouldn’t be better off concentrating on the problems we are facing internally: first of all, corruption, as well as severe problems with our health and education system and pensions.’

‘Abkhazia does a fairly good impersonation of statehood,’ Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, told me. ‘It’s a fairly well functioning place. It has a government, schools … but it’s all very underfunded and not integrated in an international system.’ Abkhazia’s isolation, instead of diminishing after Russia recognised it in 2008, only increased. Peace talks with Georgia stalled. ‘Recognition by Syria, an internationally vilified regime, does more harm than good,’ de Waal says.

‘The way I see it, Georgia and Russia both contribute to our isolation,’ Smyr told me. ‘Russia knows that if we ever started having relationships with the West we’d say arrivederci.’