“We have to say we are Abkhazians, so we do”

Photo by Max Avdeev

Photo by Max Avdeev

Two-and-a-half years after declaring independence from Georgia, Abkhazia still exists in a state of limbo.

It is 2:00 pm in the Abkhaz city of Gali, and a dozen men are eating in a small bar next to the old theater. “Now we have to say that we are Abkhazians, and so we do,” said the men, but ethnically they are Mingrelians, refugees of the successive armed conflicts between Abkhazia and Georgia. Mingrelians make up the majority of the more than 50,000 people who have returned to Gali in the past few years.

According to a report by the Danish Refugee Council: “They are exploited for political purposes, both in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, They are the biggest losers because in their hearts they don’t care about either of the governments.”

“The saddest thing is their feeling of abandonment,” said Sabina Salikhova, head of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Gali. “The women have it worst of all. For them, it is difficult to find work or a place to stay. It is also difficult for the elderly, who cannot flee or have to stay alone. The men have problems with unemployment and alcoholism.”

Those with passports may work, but only around 5,000 Mingrelians have one. Before the latest elections, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh proposed amending the law to provide passports to Georgians from Gali, but Bagapsh changed his mind after he was faced with accusations of treason and the possibility of losing to the nationalist candidate in the vote.

Recently, the Abkhaz statistics office published new census results. According to the government, 242,826 people live in the self-proclaimed independent region, meaning that the population has increased by nearly 30,000 people in the past seven years. In contrast, the International Crisis Group, a think tank, estimates the population to be under 200,000.

“The difference in numbers is because many inhabitants of Gali do not have an Abkhaz passport and are not even registered. Many of them travel back and forth between Gali and the neighboring region of Zugdidi, while others don’t even have the ‘document #9,’ which in practice serves as a residency card,” said an expert from an international agency in the region, who asked to remain anonymous.

Barely 30,000 people are officially registered in the border region of Gali, although the government recognizes the presence of 65,000 refugees, while international organizations put it at 45,000. “We do not deny people from Gali go to neighboring Zugdidi, but a system needs to be put in place to regulate border crossing,” President Bagapsh said.

“Many people have not wanted to leave and many return because they consider it [Zugdidi] to be their home. The majority returned immediately after the war, resulting in very few conflicts over property, although many upon returning found their homes to have been burned down,” said Salikhova.

Segrevan Kobalia is rebuilding his house with the help of the Danish Refugee Council. While his house is being completed, he lives in a five square-meter (50 square foot) cabin with his wife, who acknowledged, “We found the house burned down, but we can’t blame anyone. The war burned it down.”

“We fled before the first conflict and two years later we returned to Gali,” said Kobalia. “In 1998 we escaped to Zugdidi again, but this time when we returned, our house had been burned down.”

Kobalia’s daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren live in a similar cabin next to his. “Where will I go? My home and my family are here. What will I do in Georgia? I have no property, I wouldn’t be able to survive,” Kobalia said.

Gia, a half Abkhaz-half Georgian chauffer, lost his entire family during the Tkvarcheli siege: “We would eat only once a week, but still had to fight every morning. In the end, it seemed normal,” he said. “So much politics and in the end, it’s the regular people who suffer. After the war it was very difficult, both for the Abkhaz and for the Mingrelians. People are tired of politics now; they only want peace.”

“The possibility of giving up Gali in exchange for recognizing Tbilisi is out of the question. We are not talking about an occupied territory that can be used as compensation; we’re talking about our land. What’s more, Gali is very important to the Abkhaz economy,” said Abkhaz Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxim Gundjia. “It has enormous potential, but if it hasn’t developed, it is because of the embargo imposed by Tbilisi.”

“The standard of living is improving in Abkhazia, but money is still not available to the people,” said an international analyst who did not want to use his name. “Generally, the standard of living in Georgia is higher, although there is a big difference between people who live in the city and those who live in the country. It is crucial that people from Abkhazia be allowed to travel so they are more exposed to outside influences and as a result become less isolated. The international community should have a more pragmatic attitude toward this problem.”

Up to this point, only four countries have recognized Abkhazia’s independence: Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. “Even though we are not recognized, it is important for us to establish economic ties,” said Gundjia, who is expecting an official visit from Hugo Chavez this year. “For Abkhazia, economic recognition has the same validity as political does.”

The Inguri River valley forms the “administrative border” between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Russian troops are on one side of the bridge and Georgian troops on the other. On the Georgian side, a poster of Mikhail Saakashvili shows the Georgian president with a map of the country; across the valley, a billboard shows President Bagapsh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shaking hands.

Currently, Russia supplies Abkhazia with more than 80 percent of its foreign investment and 90 percent of its imports. Russian rubles are accepted there and phone numbers begin with the +7 international country code assigned to Russia. Abkhaz Minister of Economics Kristina Özgan says that Moscow provides 57 percent of the government’s entire annual budget. For 2011, Moscow has awarded a 2 billion ruble loan ($67 million) to the Abkhaz government for the purpose of rebuilding its railways. The aid is part of Moscow’s strategy to pacify the region by developing tourism. The 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi are not far off, and the first measures for fostering the tourist industry have already been implemented in Vladikavkaz.

Russia has allocated 10 billion rubles (250 million euros) to improve communications in Abkhazia; regular flights between Sukhumi and Moscow have already been established; and Abkhaz citizens may obtain a Russian passport to travel abroad. In addition, the Abkhaz government has come to an agreement with Russian oil major Rosneft to begin oil exploration in the region’s territorial waters. Gazprom and Lukoil have also expressed interest in the project, which hopes to strike oil, manage its extraction and construct refineries over a 10-year period.

The first disputes between Abkhazia and its patron have arisen, however, with the request that Sukhumi limit Russian investment in the real estate sector and in establishing borders, because Moscow is insisting on absorbing the town of Aibga—population 127, located in the mountains next to the Psou River—as a condition for recognizing the border.

“The honeymoon between Moscow and Sukhumi is over. The Abkhaz people and authorities still very highly value Russian support, but the Kremlin’s support, of course, is neither free nor a charitable act. There are tensions that show that relations between Moscow and Sukhum are complicated and Abkhazia is not a simple Russian puppet,” said one international analyst.

He describes the political situation: “There is virtually no dialogue at all. Many Georgians follow the government’s line, which means that the problem is not between Abkhazia and Georgia, but between Russia and Georgia. While Georgia vehemently disputes Abkhazia’s claim to independence, many others consider the former to be somewhat redundant: Abkhazia has already had its independence recognized, so the problem is solved.”

“The war was a disaster, war never brings any good; even Russia didn’t get anything good from it,” said Irakli Alasania, aid to the Saakashvili administration in the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiations. “The conflict still continues and the process of recognizing Abkhazia’s independence has stagnated.”

“Neither Georgia nor Russia has the will to resolve their disputes, and now the people are paying the price,” agreed Alexander Cherkasov, a board member at Russian human rights organization Memorial. “Yes, the people got their freedom with weapons, but what have they achieved with it? What has improved?”

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