Return to Abkhazia: Day 3 – to the Future via the Past
Anyone who has traveled through the former Soviet Union knows that 50 or more years as a part of the socialist empire had profound effects on the countries involved. Today, twenty years since the Soviet Union’s fall, cities from Berlin to the Pacific coast of Asia bear the legacy of Lenin in their skylines, popular culture, and mentalities at both the administrative and family level.
This is particularly true in countries that were barely industrialized or urbanized before the arrival of the Soviets. Traveling east away from Europe, you will find ancient cities where 90 percent of their present-day structures were built during the Soviet times. This is not the case with Sokhumi, however, which was once a thriving port and playground for the Tsars and nobility of pre-revolution Russia. After the Bolshevik invasion, the grand palaces that dot the Abkhazian coastline became dachas for the Soviet elite. Many of the breezy houses with gated gardens full of flowers, palms and tangerine trees that make up most of Sokhumi’s structures have been taking in the salty sea wind since long before the red revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace and the Avrora fired the opening shots of Soviet century.
But, in many ways Sokhumi feels more Soviet than the austere industrial towns of Russia or the extravagant capitals of the ex-SSR’s. This is because, while even the poorest nations of Central Asia have upgraded infrastructure here and there and allowed foreign food and clothing chains to open franchises across their territory — Abkhazia has remained closed zone.
Since beating back Georgian forces in 1993, it has been cut off from the rest of the world. In 1996, the Commonwealth of Independent States – a loose community of former Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Georgia – imposed an embargo on Abkhazia over the ethnic cleansing of approximately 200,000 Georgians from their homes once the pro-independence forces took control. This made all trade with Abkhazia and economic activity therein illegal according to the sanctions signed by the majority of the post-Soviet states. Because Abkhazian territory borders only Russia, a Georgian naval blockade essentially formed a wall between the Abkhaz and everything else.
Slowly but surely, low-level black market commerce in raw materials developed between Abkhazia’s remaining residents and Russians through the border (along with the occasional Turkish ship that slipped the blockade lines). I traveled to Sochi in 2008, Russia’s proudest ski/surf resort and the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which is just a stone’s throw from the Abkhazian – officially Georgian – border. There, Abkhazian honey and chacha were easy to find in the markets. Beyond basic bartering and trade, half-empty Abkhazia chugged along by repairing the aging Soviet transit and tourism infrastructure, with rickety 1970’s trams still rumbling through the streets, and a steady flow of Russians tourists (officially illegally) making the trip from Sochi into the old Soviet beach resorts that made up what was once called the “Red Riviera.”
Coming back from Sochi in May 2008, I had just finished an academic paper on NATO-Russian relations and future flashpoints that could cause conflict. In the paper, I wrote that if the West recognized Kosovo as independent, one could expect violence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in six to 12 months. It seemed at the time to be a bit of a stretch, but it generated discussion. I gave a jar of Abkhazian eucalyptus honey to a friend of mine back in the States saying, “Aside from being pretty good, you might see this place, ‘Abkhazia,’ on the news in six months as a war zone.” Four months later the Georgian-Russian war broke out in South Ossetia, and, in assisting its forces there, Russia landed special forces and tanks in Abkhazia to push into Georgia to form a second front.
I had time to take a bit of a walk around the city before my noon appointment at the offices of the Economic Development Party, and things seemed to be changing. Since recognizing the Abkhazia’s independence, Russia has given Abkhazia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, and Russian companies have officially been allowed to invest there. The beachfront in Sokhumi, after being littered with the rusted wrecks of ships and bombed out buildings during my first visit in 2009, is now fairly clean, with a number of new furniture shops, clothing stores and coffee houses occupying previously empty buildings downtown.
But much of the detritus of the siege remains, however, as the burned out and gutted skeleton of the former Communist Party headquarters still looms as the most prominent structure in the center of the city. There’s hardly a single city block in Sokhumi that doesn’t include at least one shell of a building, now filled with vegetation, trash and human excrement – a stroll through the first few floors of the old Communist HQ required constant attention to my footwork.
I arrived at the offices of the Economic Development Party (ERA) a bit early, and was buzzed through a heavy wooden door that lead to a long corridor of closed doors with no labels on them. I wandered around looking lost for a while before doubling back and knocking on the first door in the hallway, thinking it was most likely to be reception. Behind the door were two people drinking coffee and filling out a crossword puzzle. Another woman appeared to be working behind a desk. I introduced myself and said I had a 12:00 meeting with Beslan Butba. She looked confused, asked me to sit and made a few calls.
Eventually some guy in jeans came in and asked who I had talked to when arranging the interview. It occurred to me that I never got a name; I just exchanged emails with a nameless person answering from their main contact email address, had a quick conversation with him after calling the number he sent me, and was told to show up somewhere around noon. Hearing this, the guy in jeans and the woman behind the desk launched into several phone calls tracking this all down. Everyone else continued their crossword puzzles. Eventually, I was brought up to a boardroom where I met the press officer who said, “This would have been much easier if you would have called in advance.”
Apparently Butba was in a meeting. In the meantime the press person requested I tell her what I was going to ask him. I explained that I would be asking general questions about the party’s platform, long-term plans and expectations for the local elections that would take place in few days. Then she left, and I sat and waited as a series of people – mostly friends and relatives of the workers it seemed – came and went from the large room. Eventually it was explained to me that it would not be possible to speak with Mr. Butba as he was still in a busy meeting, but someone else would be available eventually. I said I could always come back another, but they seemed to want to sort it sooner rather than later.
Around 1 p.m. a man in his mid-thirties in a sharp suit entered and gestured towards the large boardroom table. I took this to be the “someone else.” He introduced himself as the deputy head of the party and made clear through his body language that I was already wasting his time. After 30 minutes, I had gotten very little from him other than generalities about how his party would use the aid money better than current government by spending it on health care services and the regions rather than the tourist infrastructure. I was actually quite surprised at how little he criticized the government directly – in 2009, the ERA and other opposition groups released statements condemning the Abkhazian government for giving away Abkhazia’s sovereignty in concessions to Russia in exchange for aid money.
But, now the official seemed quite neutral, “in principle” most of the investment projects the government had undertaken were good. He said the party was in lockstep with the government on the issue of relations with Georgia, and brushed off accusations of large-scale corruption causing aid money to disappear into the Abkhazian government and the Russian military. He also downplayed a controversial commission that would oversee property disputes involving Russian citizens who fled their homes during the war. This issue had led to major protests by the opposition just months earlier, but now he said that the government “just needs to follow its own laws, and settle its own disputes lawfully.”
That evening, I met with Akhra Smyr, an Abkhaz political analyst who put it a bit more into perspective. Meeting over tea in an upscale café near the boardwalk, he said that the Abkhazian opposition is now in a strange state where they are “on one hand very strong, on the other hand incredibly weak.” He said they have increased their following in the last few years as the public has grown increasingly uncomfortable Russia’s increasing leverage there. Russia now operates Abkhazia’s rail and airport systems, officially patrols its borders and has bought up large chunks of prime resort space in coastal cities. But while opposition leaders can use nationalistic rhetoric — bordering on anti-Russian — to rile up voters, they will never publicly denounce Russia to a Western reporter for fear the Russians might view them as a threat. But, he said, even their occasional fiery statements about the concessions were intellectually dishonest.
“In the end, we all know where the money is coming from – Russia – and the more of it the better. Even if it were the opposition in power, they would have the same set of options in front of them, and would probably be doing the same things,” Smyr said.
Many of the opposition leaders were part of the local old Soviet intelligentsia, and many had served in the government since the war. Their only real complaint against the sitting government, Smyr said, is that they aren’t running it – a situation that squarely reminded me of Georgia.
But Smyr said he has genuine hope for the opposition’s growing strength and influence. Outside Sokhumi, he said, the younger generation is beginning to get involved. Soon, they would be injecting some new ideas and possibly be able to push things in a new direction.
Furthermore, an incident earlier this year seemed to show the government is wary of the opposition’s potential. On Jan. 21, leader of the opposition People’s Party, Iakob Lakoba was arrested on charges of libel for publishing an article on his party’s website accusing Sergei Stepashin, the head of Russia’s state audit chamber, of corruption and ignoring missing funds from aid packages to Abkhazia. Stepashin’s wife, Tamara, is currently the senior vice president of the Russian VTB bank, through which all aid money to the Abkhazian government is transferred.
Immediately after his arrest, Abkhaz opposition leaders denounced the government’s actions leading to public outcries for his release. Lakoba was released within 24 hours and the charges against him were dropped Feb. 18. Smyr said that the Lakoba case was a huge victory for the Abkhazian opposition – one that showed that opposition leaders could not only speak openly about corruption, but that government would bend to political and public pressure on the issue.
But, to a large extent, most Abkhaz that I talked to say they want things to go back to the way they were before the war, before the fall of the Soviet Union. All that Abkhazia has known since then was conflict and poverty, so it’s a natural thought process. Many still carry their Soviet passports and use them as their primary ID. It seems that the prevailing view among the Abkhaz is that its future lies somewhere in its past – back in the days when Abkhazia was a glittering paradise with the finest resorts in all of the Soviet empire, where security and a steady flow of pale Russian tourists were all they needed to stay afloat.
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