Abkhazia is a small, almost quarter million territory located on the crossroads of Europe and Asia between the Russian Federation and Georgia. On the one side the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains on the other. Abkhazia since 2008 by Venezuela Nicaragua, the island Naruru and the Russian Federation is recognized as an independent state, while the rest of the world considers them part of the Georgian state. Despite their internal problems and lack of recognition on the international scene for several years in Abkhazia there has been a relative peace. Commonly unrecognized republic is trying to function normally, chooses its own president, parliament, has a constitution, flag, army, newspapers and television, the country has its own license plates, stamps and even democratic opposition. All that after a few hundred years of very difficult struggle for independence.
In ancient times the territory of Abkhazia was under the authority of Rome, then it was ruled by the Byzantine Empire which has brought christianity to those lands. In the 10th century Kingdom of Abkhazia existing here became the dominant political player in the region. As a result of its expansive activity they managed to unite many neighbouring lands. The newly established state for the first time used the name Sakartwelo, which means Georgia. After the period of separate disctricts in the region, in the fifteenth century the Ottoman Empire began to dominate in the Caucasus. Despite the partial Islamization in this period Abkhazians repeatedly took up arms against the occupier.
When in the early nineteenth century, the lands were released from the hands of the Ottoman Empire by the Russians their struggle against the occupier continued. Further uprisings ended in a mass escape of the Islamic population on the territory of present Syria and Turkey. Twentieth century means the dominance of Russia over that territory. Despite the changing power in the Kremlin, Abkhazia still kept some kind of autonomy, first as the Principality of Abkhazia within the Russian Empire, then as the result of Bolshevik revolution and transformations in the Caucasus as an autonomous Soviet socialist republic, a part of the Georgian SSR.
The time of the USSR meant for Abhkazia a period of intense georgianisation. These areas, being formally autonomous, were heavily controlled by Tbilisi, restrictions on resettlement were introduced, they fought with Abkhazian language, Abkhazian schools were closed, traditional names were banned from use. At the same time massive colonization of Abkhazian lands by Georgians and Armenians were carried. It was next time when the Abkhaz had to fight for their identity. Several large protests, of which only the last one in 1979, brought a real improvement in the status of the country, took place. It restored national schools and allowed the operation of the Abkhazian press and television.
In such situation, when the conflict between Tbilisi and Sukhum was rising, Abkhazia lasted until the dissolution of the USSR. In 1989 an ineffective armed rebellion broke out. It was the reaction on the new law introducing mandatory Georgian language in all schools and mandatory tests in Georgian language and Georgian literature. Noticing increasing aversion authorities of Abkhazia took the advantage of the dissolution of the USSR and on the 25 August 1990 proclaimed the separation from the Georgian SSR and established the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became the beginning of the currently existing Republic of Abkhazia.
25 years after the proclamation of the Abkhazian republic we stood at the border of Abkhazia and Georgia. Just like when crossing the border of Transnistria, from the side of the country within which territory the republic is officialy located, in this case Georgia, we found only a small checkpoint, behind which no man’s land extends. Next part we covered on foot – an almost kilometer-long bridge stretching over the River Inguri is the gate to the territory of Abkhazia. Although the bridge looks like after the bombing, it is not where the main fights in the greatest Abkhazian – Georgian war took place.
When in 1992 Georgia on the pretext of bring peace to Abkhazia sent there their troops, amphibious warfare attacked territories of west Abkhazia with Gagra and ground offensive – Sukhum. Resistance forces and the remnants of the Abkhazian statehood sought shelter in Gudauta. While the territories on the border with Russian Federation have been released in a few weeks, the ground offensive lasted over a year. Front reached the river Gumista and that is where the heaviest fighting took place.
When a few days later we came to this place on the road we found a great memorial dedicated to those who died during the war. In front of symbolic graves depicting fallen warriors stands vodka, beer, cigarettes, sometimes flowers. Despite the late hour, passing cars stop very often. During the war every twenty Abkhaz was killed, so many people today have somebody close to commemorate.
In 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed a mediation with President of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba and the Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze but negotiated cease-fire was not favorable for Abkhazians because it didn’t free them from dependence on Georgia. Abkhaz gave up the negotiations and attacked. The offensive allowed to rescue from Georgian hands located on the territory of Abkhazian ASSR, but ethnically Georgian cities of Oczamchira and Tkvarcheli. The last bastion was former capital of Sukhum, which fell after a few days of siege. In the war and taking the city, not only Abkhaz forces took part but they were supported by Chechens, Ingush, Kabardians under the command of Shamil Basayev gathered around the Confederation of Free Caucasus. They were probably the best trained soldiers and decided about Abkhaz victory. Russian participation in the seige is not to be forgotten too. Until the end of 1993 the majority of the Georgian population was driven out from the territory of Abkhazia, the Inguri river became a natural border.
We are still at the boarder saying good bye to Georgian and European Union flags and heading towards the Abkhazian border posts. Bridge, in fact what is left of it, reminds us of the colorful one located in Tbilisi, the Peace bridge. Maybe instead of building the new it would be worth to fix old one? We arrive to the post, signs are in Abkhazian, Russian and English. Around the post we find little crowd waiting to pass the border. On the other side everything goes according to Moscow time although Abkhaz joke that it’s Kremlin which works according to Sukhum time. We go through the checkpoint, pass passport control, customs and at the end get to the political officer. A young boy from Moscow, as it turns out, asks us in details were we are going. Short conversation seems to introduce him some names he has never heard of and he has to consult it with somebody else. In the end with no major problems we are entering the territory of Abkhazia. On the other side of the border crowd looks much bigger, in the morning more people obviously head towards Georgia, some pushing huge carts loaded with sacks of nuts or sugar. They also reportedly smuggle some amounts of Abkhaz cigarettes to Georgia but it seems not to be something that really bothers the officers. Another thing is with tourists from Poland, an officer from Moscow had to interview us himself.
Several kilometers behind the border cities looks like the war has just ended, what partially is the truth. Roads still have bomb craters and most of buildings stays ruined and unoccupied. In nearby located Kodori Gorge only in 2008 Georgian – Abkhazian battles took place in their result part of the population that managed to come back after the 1992 war was forced to escape to Georgia again. It is estimated that 200 000 Georgians had to emigrate because of war in Abkhazia. Most of them were Megrelians, one of the largest in this area ethnic group. Unfortunately migrations have inscribed in the history of the whole Caucasus for centuries. In the nineteenth century, during the wars of the Ottoman Empire and Russia there has been a mass exodus of Abkhazian Muslims on the territory of present-day Turkey and Syria. Half of Abkhaz have left their territory. Interesting is that today when Syrian refugees need help Abkhazia has already started accepting them in the country. It has been few thousands of repatriots already.
Finally we are reaching the capital – Sukhum. Today it seems to be a regular provincial seaside town. Only few quarters are renovated together with the pride of the city – seaside promenade. The rest of it are ruins with dominating all, burned building – the former seat of Prime Minister. During the day it is hard to find any signs of life on the street, only few men play chees and dominoes in the shade of palm trees, few coffee bars are open.
Another thing is in the evening when streets gets crowded and restaurants open their doors. Walking the streets we are getting an impression that the history has come full circle – it’s difficult to find Abkhazian language here again, all the signs are in Russian and single newspapers in Abkhazian. In the stores we find Russian goods and on the streets Russian tourists. Exactly as it was in the time of USSR.
The first president of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba was well aware of the risks of an alliance with Russia, the loss of their own cultural identity and hanging over the country the possibility of putting it into the arms of Georgia. Abkhazians realize that any agreement between Russia and Georgia will make them immediately go under the rule of Tbilisi, despite that since 2008 Abkhazia gets closer to Russia. Situation in Georgia is very similar. After gettig nothing from the West and loosing the chance to join UE or NATO after 2008 Georgians start considering a closeup with the Federation. Russia offers advantages from strengthening mutual diplomatic relations and it is not a surprise that after years of Saakashvili policy the acceptance for pro-Russian politicians is rising and maintaing current pro-Western course is not so sure.
Despite the fact that Abkhazia and the Russian Federation have strengthened their collaboration, in 2014 many-thousands-protests against the government broke out in Sukhum. They demanded even closer cooperation with Russia, accused the government of corruption and bringing the country to economic collapse. The protests have proven to be effective and president Ankwaba was overthrown and the election was won by the leader of opposition Raul Chadżimba. The new government signed an alliance of strategic partnership with the Russian Federation. Russia, among others, pledged to finance the wage increases in Abkhazia, establishing a free trade zone and a common protection of borders. The Western world and Georgia saw it as an informal annexation of Abkhazia.
The way to independence of Abkhazia already has several hundred years and still remains unfinished. Recently it is difficult to find another way for the region and it seems that Abkhazia’s only way is to stick to Russia and fight for being a sovereign territory within the Eurasian Union.