Return to Abkhazia: Day 4 – Turks, trade and terrorists
On my second full day in Sokhumi, I wanted to focus less on the political opposition, which dominated my first day in the de facto capital, and more on the increasing Turkish trade and investment in Abkhazia.
So, I wandered down to Sokhumi’s main pier past the crowded tables of old men smoking, drinking Turkish coffee and feverishly playing Backgammon and dominos to the docks. The one fully functional pier in Sokhumi is a microcosm of the city itself. Parts of it have rotted and rusted away, left as is. A few fishermen sat alone drinking beer and casting their lines on the sturdier sections, and some workers were trying to weld together a makeshift set of stairs at one of the loading areas – I guess the previous jury-rigged steps had broken. At the end of the 200 ft pier sat a swanky two-story open air sushi bar and lounge called “Apra.”
In the summer, Apra is definitely the place to be if you don’t mind shelling out executive prices. In the warmer months they open the windows and let the sea breeze blow through the billowy white curtains that envelop the main eating area. What’s more, the sushi is actually the best I’ve ever had in this part of the world. This time, however, sushi and scotch were not in the cards. I had come to write for a couple of Georgian magazines, so I didn’t have the budget to treat myself.
Standing around, I furtively snapped some photos of the ships that had come into harbor – all of them Turkish. In between photos of their crews and masts bearing the Abkhazian and Turkish flags, I took some shots of the sea, of the restaurant, of my shoes – whatever to make myself look less like a spy.
Over the two days I had seen four ships in Sokhumi – three fishing boats and one container ship that had been unloading something all day. This was far more than I had seen in previous visits, and Akhra Smyr, the political analyst I had talked to the night before, said that their presence had boomed since late 2009. That fact was quite interesting, because that meant that this sudden increase followed two key international incidents, which likely encouraged the Georgian Coast Guard to halt the enforcement of their blockade on all trade and economic activity with Abkhazia.
Although the Georgian government has never publicly acknowledged ceasing to enforce the embargo (they specifically refused to comment to me on this issue), every sign pointed to the conclusion that they had. After Georgia seized a tanker ship in August 2009 with 2,800 tons of fuel and 17 Turkish crewmembers, Turkey’s previously neutral official position on the blockade-running activities of its citizens began to harden. When the ship’s captain was sentenced to 24 years in prison for violating the blockade, Ankara sprung into action to defend its own. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promptly flew to Tbilisi, and five days after the conviction, the captain was released. Simultaneously, Russia declared that its coast guard vessels would be patrolling de facto Abkhaz waters and would fire on any Georgian ship attempting to interfere with Abkhazia’s maritime commerce.
Thus, by late 2009, the blockade had failed on the two most important fronts. First, Georgia had not only failed to convince Turkey to participate in the embargo, but by overreaching in its punishment of the tanker crew it had provoked Turkey to actively push for protecting Turkish ships that chose to take the risks of illicit trade. Secondly, with Russia involved, Georgia simply could not afford to continue chasing trade ships in de facto Abkhazian waters – Georgia’s two largest naval vessels were destroyed in the 2008 war, and thus the Georgian Coast Guard’s remaining patrol boats would be extremely exposed, risking firefights with ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And, in the end, hampering Abkhazia’s economic development was simply not worth the chance of igniting another conflict with Russia.
Apparently the ports of Ochamchire and Gagra get a bit more sea traffic than Sokhumi, so all and all it seems that Abkhazia, population approximately 150,000, is getting a fair amount of foreign sea merchants.
Later in the day, I met with Raul Khajimba, who heads the Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia and is widely considered to be primary leader of the Abkhaz political opposition. I went to his new office, which was tucked into a courtyard off of the main shopping strip. It took a few confused phone calls to find the right alleyway, and he sent his assistant to come find me. Eventually, a tall, friendly looking guy emerged and beckoned me in. We chatted a bit as we winded through the courtyard and I was struck by how he appeared to be a carbon copy of the awkward young policy wonks from my university in Washington that scurried between Capitol Hill internships.
Khajimba himself was shorter than I expected and during the interview was both modest and engaging. He actually is exactly the type of official that I always enjoy interviewing in the ex-USSR. A former KGB agent with Soviet training in dialogue tactics, they will always turn around your question to point out Western hypocrisy and try to draw you into a debate rather than make it a pure question and answer session. Sure, it was a lot of evasion and deflection, but while some interview subjects get irritated as journalists try to pin them down on specifics, the old KGB guard seem to revel in the game.
Khajimba is an interesting political figure. In 2004, he was openly backed by the Kremlin to win the presidency. After all, in many ways his background mirrored that of Vladimir Putin, and he seemed a like-minded sort of ruler. His opponent, businessman Sergei Bagapsh, was a bit too enigmatic for Russia’s liking. Nonetheless, Bagapsh won the election, but after a dispute over results, the two ended up ruling together with Khajimba taking the office of vice president in a power-sharing deal. After Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia as independent, Khajimba sensed increasing discomfort among the population with the concessions and quid-pro-quos the Abkhazian government had agreed to in return for Russian aid, and resigned in 2009. Now, he routinely criticizes the government for failing to “create the conditions for Abkhazia to be truly independent.”
When pressed him to be a bit more specific with that statement, Khajimba made clear that he was not necessarily saying that Abkhazia needed to be more independent from Russia, but from everyone, the U.S. and the West included.
“But what other political, military and economic partners does Abkhazia have?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, at the moment, there are none, other than Russia.”
“Buy-sell is what we call that relationship. We cut down our forests and sell it to the Turks. They build other things out of it and sell it elsewhere. But, if we were building products with our own people and the help of Turkish investment then that would be an equal relationship, but right now they are just getting things from us, just taking,” he said.
Immediately after the interview I was to meet up with my humanitarian friend near his office. Apparently, we had been invited to a supra with a couple of the drivers from his work. A supra, which apparently comes from the Persian/Arabic word “sufra,” is an important tradition in Caucasus social culture. Basically it’s a combination of a feast and a bender, and is initiated for all occasions – weddings, divorces, birthdays, the buying of a new car, the selling of an old car, a meeting of old friends, and making the acquaintance of new ones. While I had survived (sometimes barely) many a supra in my time in Georgia, this would be my first supra held by Abkhaz hosts.
The supra was held in the house of one of the two middle-aged drivers, who we’ll call Ibragim and Sasha. By the time we arrived, the table was already heaping with food, two bottles of vodka and a five-liter jug of homemade wine. It was a nice house in a crumbling district, and from the bit of it that we could see, it was well furnished as well. My friend and I sank into the leather couch with the table up to our chests. On the insistence of Ibragim’s wife, we each sat atop a couple of pillows to reach the food better.
Overall, the spread was exactly what you would expect from a Georgian supra: khachapuri, tomato and cucumber salad, eggplant slices in nut a paste with pomegranate seeds – the one thing I hadn’t seen before was a type of fried fatty meat, the name of which I forgot. And, the drinking got going right out of the gate. As per supra tradition, one person at the table is appointed the tamada and it is this person’s duty to lead all of the many toasts for the rest of the evening.
Sasha, the tamada du jour, kept everyone’s shot glass full with a very pricey-looking vodka that had flakes of gold swimming around in the bottom of it. We drank to our families, to our colleagues, to our countries and to peace. Eventually, Ibragim’s teenage son came into the room, but sat silently aside and mostly played games on his cell phone. Every now and then Ibragim or Sasha would toast to him, in which case he would stand with his hands behind his back like a cadet at attention.
The conversation eventually veered towards the war and Abkhazia’s future. Ibragim and Sasha both recounted how, in the early 90’s they hoped Abkhazia would become independent, but never thought that this aspiration would lead to war. Then, one day, they said, they heard people screaming “The Georgians have come, there are tanks in the city!” As the ragtag Georgian army began petty pillaging and pushing what armed Abkhaz militia’s there were towards the north, Abkhaz residents gathered up primitive weapons – old hunting rifles and bows and arrows. Ibragim said Abkhaz fighters would shoot stragglers in the back of Georgian units and take their weapons.
Eventually, the Chechens and other mountain people’s of the Russian North Caucasus arrived, armed to the teeth and with a particular propensity for seemingly suicidal offensives. Both Ibragim and Sasha recounted how they met and fought along side one of the most iconic figures of the Chechen secessionist movement – Shamil Basayev. Basayev and his guerrilla fighters engaged in a variety of struggles throughout the Caucasus in the 1990’s and 2000’s. He fought for Azerbaijan against an Armenian insurrection in Nagorno-Karabakh, and also against Georgia in Abkhazia, although he is most well known for his role in the Chechen insurgency and terrorist attacks against Russia.
Both Ibragim and Sasha told stories with wide eyes about how the two of them – both untrained in combat – would often times be pinned down by enemy fire. Basayev on the other hand, would walk straight into it.
“He was crazy,” Sasha said. “There would be fire coming from everywhere, rooftops, cars, everything, and he would just walk out in the middle of the street firing like mad at them.”
Basayev would later go on to be one of the chief commanders in both the First and Second Chechen Wars. He represented the most radical element of the Chechen insurgency, eagerly targeting Russian civilians to bring about a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Moscow linked him to a series of terrorist attacks killing hundreds of civilians, the most dramatic of which was the hostage taking attack on a school in Beslan, which resulted in over 350 deaths, nearly all of them children. In 2006, he died in an explosion, and it remains unclear whether he was killed at the hands of Russian special forces, a rival Chechen faction, or simply in an accident.
After the four of us had burned through more than a bottle and a half of vodka, my friend and I started looking at one another with fear and intrigue. Ibragim had been talking about his homemade wine all night. “Are we really going to have to finish all of this vodka and all that wine? No way.” – our looks told each other.
Eventually, Ibragim started pouring the wine, and as more toasts ensued, we chugged it glass by glass – “Caucasus-style.” At some point a 20-something guy in a military uniform showed up, and sat politely at the end of the table. Sasha said proudly that this was his nephew, who had just completed officer’s training in Novgorod, Russia. He refused several pushy offers by Ibragim to drink with us, and, as we drank ourselves deeper and deeper into oblivion, I realized this guy was our ride home.
Towards the end of the night, my friend and I were asked to give toasts, a responsibility we sheepishly tried to avoid. Neither of us is at our most eloquent in Russian, but we gave it our best shot. Drunk, a guest and feeling the need to be a crowd-pleaser I raised a toast to “a free, peaceful, developed, and independent Abkhazia.” This produced wide smiles from everyone in the room, and Ibragim and Sasha seemed genuinely touched. I could tell they were suspicious of both of us from the beginning, given that we both live in Tbilisi most of the time. But, a toast of that sort coming from two Americans seemed truly remarkable to them.
Finally, with most of us nearly sleeping around the table close to 4 a.m., all of us guests were loaded into the officer’s car, who drove us home to blaring house remixes of Lady Gaga and the Russian pop star, Zemfira.
The next day, around 9 a.m., I somehow made it to the SUV that was to drive my friend and I back to Tbilisi. Ibragim and Sasha were there, looking bright eyed and bushy tailed, and bid us bon voyage. It would be a long ride back to Tbilisi.
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