Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital, has remained a vibrant resort town full of Russian tourists, despite the unrecognized country's isolation.
When I went to Abkhazia, although I was primarily chasing a story for the Times about the Russian military presence, what I really wanted to do was just talk to some Abkhaz people and see what they think about their current situation.
The issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been primarily viewed from the perspectives of Washington and Moscow, and has largely been framed — particularly in the last year — as a conflict between Georgia and Russia. This is intentional on the Georgian side.
Georgian Minister for Reintegration (of the break-away republics) Temuri Yakobashvili, who I quote in the article, was very forthcoming about Georgia’s strategy. If Abkhazia and South Ossetia were merely provinces attempting to secede, then it was primarily up to the Georgian government to talk it out with both sides. But if Georgia was fighting a conflict against an external enemy that was now occupying its territory, then Georgia can bring in international help to its side.
But there is a huge disconnect between the way the conflict is viewed inside and outside Abkhazia. In Abkhazia, most people hold the point of view that they fought a war for independence in 1992-1993, and won. Indeed, they were able to push out the Georgian army and have had control over their little republic for 16 years. However, because government was not recognized by any other state they were officially sanctioned and cut off from the world during that time.
A goat wanders through an abandoned house in Agubedia.
Georgia offered several development packages over the years, but all potential agreements included Abkhazia’s eventual return to Georgian rule, which they refused.
Last year, after Russia and Georgia’s brief war following an attempt by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force, Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and drew worldwide international criticism. Russia then began pumping money and troops into both provinces, lining the their borders with military installations, and handing out money to government for rebuilding and development projects.
A Russian military outpost near Gali.
And so, what interested me most was simply what that Abkhaz thought. Are we independent? Or have we traded Georgian domination for Russian domination? Most seemed genuinely hopeful. Their current president was elected although Russia gave clear backing to his opponent in the previous elections, and the finance minister declares adamantly that on budget decisions the buck stops at his desk.
More than anything else, Abkhazia needed change. For 16 years they had been isolated with a destroyed infrastructure and no industry left standing. They were unable to trade with other nations or import reconstruction materials. Their successful war for independence from Georgia had been their greatest triumph and their greatest burden.
After 16 years, they seemed to care little who was recognizing their government and trading with them. This meant progress. And in a sense — because the Abkhaz memory goes back only to the years of isolation, the war before that, and the Soviet Union before that — this was just going back to the way things were, which in their minds was very positive.
Time will tell with Abkhazia. Many already said to me that they view themselves as becoming essentially a “Russian Puerto Rico,” we’ll so how that works out for them.
This is my story that ran on Monday in the Times.
TBILISI, Georgia – Despite signs that Russia plans to economically and militarily dominate Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, Abkhaz officials are hopeful Russian assistance will bring much-needed development.
In August, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia for control of Abkhazia and another seceding province, South Ossetia. Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations three weeks later.
Georgia claims that its territories are now occupied by Russian troops and pro-Russian puppet governments. Temuri Yakobashvili, minister for reintegration and chief negotiator on the conflicts, says Russia seeks nothing more than territory.
“Let’s be honest. Russia has no interest in developing Abkhazia. Russia never had any interest in developing the occupied territories,” he said.
Since August, a flurry of treaties pledging humanitarian and military assistance have been signed between the Russian and Abkhaz governments, including an agreement signed in March that would allow Russia to maintain a force of 3,800 soldiers in Abkhazia for the next 49 years.
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