Saturday 24th of July 2021, 16:09 CET
Paradise lost (in Abkhazia)
July 6, 2003

Written by Michael Emerson
Posted by HW on July 23, 2021

Imagine the most beautiful conceivable region of Europe. A coastline bathed by a warm sea, a luxuriant sub-tropical micro-climate yielding every species of exotic fruits, flowers and trees, at the foothills of a majestic mountain range that rises up to 5000 metres. In short, earthly paradise.

Imagine a region that suffered a devastating war ten years ago, in which half of the housing and infrastructure was destroyed, 5,000 people were killed and more than half the population fled for their lives. The remaining population - the victors in the war - are stateless persons, unable to travel, blockaded, unable to finance the post-war reconstruction. In the capital city, noble 19th century buildings remain overgrown ruins, next door to the institutions of the non-recognised entity. In the countryside there are ghost towns and villages, largely destroyed and emptied of people. The once productive farms have reverted to jungle. In the foothills of the mountains criminalised anarchy prevails. The suicide rate among young people is terribly high.

Such is Abkhazia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, which de facto seceded from Georgia after the 1992-93 war. A CEPS mission goes there to examine the prospects for a civilised European future for this paradise lost. The members wanted to see what had happened over the three years since they were last there selling a Stability Pact for the Caucasus. Our colleagues from Brussels University were keen to see whether some of the magic potion of the Belgian federal compromise can bring peace again to this blighted territory.

Russian army
For the time being the peace is kept by a contingent of the Russian army, supported in the southern frontier Gali district and the Kodori valley by unarmed UN monitors. But seven of the UN peacekeepers lost their lives in the Kodori valley in 2001 when their helicopter was shot down by unidentified bandits (Georgians or Chechens or Abkhazians, or a diabolic team of all three together - nobody knows). Three more of them were taken hostage the week after our visit. The great powers have been discussing how to resolve this conflict for years. The UN Secretary General sponsors the 'Geneva process', at which senior diplomats of the so-called 'Friends of Georgia' (France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US) gather to try to find solutions. The UN Special Representative proposed in 2002 the outline of a federal Georgia in which Abkhazia would have a high degree of autonomy. Abkhazia, however, refuses to negotiate on this basis. Its aim is to keep its de facto independence, protected by Russia.

We drive in from Georgia in a convoy of UN jeeps to make up our own minds. Crossing the bridge over the river into the Gali district, we are waved through a checkpoint guarded by young Russian soldiers. The Georgian refugees who fled this fertile district move to and fro across the frontier to harvest some of their oranges, but there is total insecurity. Nobody is really in charge, not the Russians, nor the UN, nor the Abkhazians, nor the Georgians. Pure anarchy.

Inguri valley
At this point three years ago we made an interesting side-trip up the Inguri valley, the only access by road to the Svaneti mountain district, which has 10 Caucasian peaks of over 4,000 metres and is surely one of the most isolated and magnificent places in Europe. Nowadays, however, I would recommend going up there by helicopter. Hostages were taken on the road to Svaneti the day before we went there. We were re-assured by the Georgian logic of our guide and bodyguard: "Since the hostages were taken yesterday, today is OK, since the militia will have woken up". Now we reach capital town Sukhumi, preparing for a serious session with the Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who takes us hostage in the nicest possible way. You must pay $20 for a visa down the corridor, or you won't be able to leave. Is this the critical move towards recognition of the secessionist regime? We leave that for the diplomats to worry about, and settle quietly for the $20 exit visa.

Sukhumi dinner
We have an epic 12-hour session with the minister and his advisers, two long sessions punctuated by a splendid lunch and later a dinner at one of Sukhumi's four restaurants. True Caucasian style, the table is groaning with food and drink covering every inch of the table.

"Mr Minister, what are your objectives for Abkhazia?"
His reply is very clear-headed and remarkably erudite, which is more than can be said of his chaotic and confused counterparts in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

"Our model in the short run is Taiwan, and in the long run the Marshall Islands. Russia shall protect us from Georgia like the United States protects Taiwan from China. Later we achieve legal recognition, like the Marshall Islands". For the uninitiated, the Marshall Islands are in the Pacific Ocean, about half way between Hawaii and Australia, enjoying international recognition of their partial sovereignty, with their defence looked after by the United States.

"We are Europeans"
The Minister continues, aware of our Europeanising missionary zeal for the Belgian/Northern Ireland/Aland Island models for resolving these dyadic ethno-secessionist conflicts. "But we are of course Europeans, and look to a European future. However this has to come with the Europeanisation of Russia, which is happening quite fast. We will need longer. But we will join Europe with Russia."

Soviet sanitorium
After a tough day we retire to the UN compound, which is a former Soviet sanitorium, whose décor and service is a living museum to a bygone age, with some cosmopolitan UN garnishes. The bathrooms have bright blue ceramics, matched with red and green plastic accessories. The canteen for breakfast is presided over by one of those formidable Soviet ladies with whom one does not fool around. She serves us unspeakable meatballs for breakfast and has a heart of gold.

UN Special Representative
We are picked up by Hailu, the Ethiopian soldier who is running the place and who escorts us to the dacha up the hill, where we have a rendez-vous with the UN Special Representative, Roza Atunbaeva, former Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan (the best of careers have their ups and downs). We reminisce over when we last met in 1992, when I accompanied the EU Commissioner to the newly independent states of Central Asia. We kept on crossing over then with President Demiral of Turkey who was opening up the new Pan-Turkic vision much more impressively than we were the European thing. We travelled in the smallest executive jet. Demirel arrived with two large planeloads of businessmen and consumer goods. Back to Roza, she is now working hard with two advisers, from Bulgaria and Poland, on possible solutions for the refugees and security guarantees.

Pitsunda and Gudauta
Then we have to inspect Abkhazia from top to bottom. We negotiate a car for the day at Sukhumi railway station, which remains a total wreck, but nonetheless now runs one train a day to Sochi over the border in Russia. We head north to check out Pitsunda, the pearl of Black Sea resorts, and Gudauta, the remaining Russian military base. Pitsunda in now receiving a trickle of Russian tourists. The military base should have been dismantled already, but has become now a rest and recreation centre for the Russian peacekeepers.

Status quo
What next for this paradise lost? Will the status quo now be changed in the wake of the Iraq war? Might Russia and the US make an agreement together on how to stabilise and clean up the Caucasus, as part of the drive for a new order in the whole of the wider Middle East? Should the EU be more active there? Might Russia, the EU and the US now come together to push seriously for a civilised solution?

For sure the miserable status quo in Abkhazia is going to change. This is already beginning. However the outcome is not yet clear as between two alternatives.

Integration with Russia
The first alternative is for Abkhazia to drift more deeply into increasing integration with Russia, with little or no re-integration with Georgia. The partition of Georgia is confirmed in all but diplomatic form. Already the majority of the population has applied for Russian citizenship, which is likely to be granted with the issue of Russian passports by the end of 2003. The territory is open for Russian tourists and the currency of the region is the Russian rouble. In March 2003, Presidents Putin and Shevarnadze agreed to work cooperatively over Abkhazia, on topics such as re-opening the railway line south into Georgia, helping the return of refugees to the southern Gali district and sharing the hydroelectric complex on the Inguri river. The Sochi agreement means therefore improving the quality of the status quo, without touching the fundamental political issues.

Geneva process
The second alternative is that the Geneva process springs to life, addressing not only technicalities but also the final status issues. This would only happen if there emerged a new understanding between Russia and the US over common security interests in the region in the new geo-political context. But can Abkhazia get onto the threat perception radar screens of the Washington planners of the NSC, CIA and State Department? The continuing de facto secession of Abkhazia might be viewed as impeding the stabilisation and better ordering of the whole of the Caucasus region. If Russia and the US reached this judgement together, which is conceivable but not yet evident, the formula for resolution of the Abkhazia question could be straightforward. There could be a thin common state structure with a Union of Georgia and Abkhazia as a single state in international law, held together in the first instance by hard security guarantees, from Russia for Abkhazia and from the US for Georgia. An explicit security guarantee from Russia is sine qua non for Abkhazia. If this core guarantee agreement were made, the system could be translated into a mandate for the UN or OSCE to keep the peace and monitor the re-opening of borders and a controlled return of refugees.

Ideally an agreement over Abkhazia would be accompanied by a resolution also of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno Karabakh conflict may actually be unfreezing now, since Turkey has initiated talks with Armenia over possibly re-opening their presently blockaded frontier for trade. I have to confess that this connects with one of my dreams, which came to me three years ago standing on the walls of the monastery of Knor Virap, gazing at the twin peaks of Mount Ararat opposite. Separating the monastery from the mountain is the ugly Berlin Wall-type fence between Armenia and Turkey. Knor Virap is where Grigory the Illuminator spent 13 years in the dungeon, before being let out by the king in the year 800 to save his wife the queen from mortal illness, and so go on to found the Armenian Grigorian Apostolic Church. My dream was of the good citizens of Yerevan, escaping from the sweltering summer heat, driving across to the Mount Ararat Park of Reconciliation to have picnics on the weekend high up on the cool slopes of the sacred mountain. Of course, if both Abkhazia and Nagorno Karabakh could be solved at more or less the same time, this would open up new prospects for the region as a whole, and would become an interesting piece of the jigsaw puzzle for the architects of the new wider Middle East order. While the Washington architects may be already at the drawing board, what is the EU doing, if anything? The EU is in the course of nominating a new special representative for the Caucasus. He has a job to do.
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