Abkhazia: Paradise Lost

[The beach at Gagra, Abkhazia. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME]

Maybe at first I didn’t appreciate the taxi driver, because of the way he careened down the coastline? Although, really, what a way it would have been to die. Such beauty. He would have reached over to light his cigarette, or change the tape in the tape deck, his hand would slip on the wheel, and the green forests of Abkhazia would rush at me at 70 miles an hour as the Lada jumped the guardrail. The car would take flight and in the distance I would see the jagged snow-covered peaks, home of mountain monasteries, spiral upside-down as the Lada began to flip. The car would level for a weightless instant, and then plunge, over the slate cliff and toward the lapis lazuli waters of the Black Sea below.

All of Abkhazia’s natural gifts—mountain, forest, coastline—would make a gorgeous backdrop for the death that I and the driver all have coming anyway. As it is, I’ll probably die in Hackensack for some reason and wish like hell in that moment behind the CVS that I had gone out in glory with a reckless taxi driver along Abkhazia’s coastal highway.

But I didn’t die, and truth be told, I didn’t even get very close in his taxi, so maybe something else bugged me. Was it the music he played? It came through that tinny tape deck and was incessant and mournful and patriotic about the war the Abkhaz call the Patriotic War—the lyrics something like, Those who were with us were with us, and those where against us were against us.

Music was a sore subject after a week in Abkhazia, after one too many times trying to sit down at otherwise empty restaurants and wanting to talk—there are so few Abkhaz on this earth that I just want to ask ask ask. But the music was loud as an air raid siren and the owner looked at me stiffly when we asked if it could be turned down just a little bit because no one else was even in the restaurant and then the owner said no, and it was suddenly clear that holy shit, this is what the war did. He had probably fought and lost loved ones and won and the Abkhaz were now free and even though the war ended 20 years ago he still remembers every nauseous moment and the lesson for him is that the Abkhaz won the war and that means that he can play his shitty ballads in his empty restaurant and crank it so loud that his only customers have to leave, and that was okay, because Abkhazia is free.

Maybe I didn’t like the driver so much because of the way that sometimes his son would show up at the appointed time instead of the driver, the son with a slender build and the mind of a brute, talking rough about women or Georgians or Georgian women and then laughing without smiling, all gold teeth and bad intentions. Of all the troubling trends in this beautiful land—the continued belligerence of the Georgians who outnumber them on their southern haunch, the lack of jobs, the heavily armed populace—the most troubling may be that the younger generation in Abkhazia is more hardline, as one local journalist told me, than their parents who had actually lived and fought in this horrible war. “This is a generation that, if anything, is more nationalist, more patriotic,” he said. “They never knew anything else.”

The young people: some were decent and open-faced and interested and others were just full of menace. It got to the point where even the war photographer, my friend and colleague who had come to this assignment straight from Libya and Yemen, eyed one group of teenagers loitering in the shadow of a massive, rusting Turkish trawler that was beached and listing in the capital city and decided to stay well away. The photographer had been there the year before and taken amazing photos of that stinking, rusting ship left to die in the middle of an urban beach. But this time it was not worth getting close if it meant testing the intentions of these hard youths of Abkhazia.

Maybe I didn’t appreciate the driver because I had come to do a story on the Abkhaz and the driver, who I end up spending hours with each day, isn’t even Abkhaz, but instead an Armenian. There are many Armenians in Abkhazia, the one other group that seemed to have stayed in large numbers after the war. But the driver tells me, and his son tells me (and this might explain the beady eyes of the son a bit more) that Armenians don’t have the same access, to jobs (everything is government jobs there) or to politics or to the bureaucracy that people need. Because this republic is for the Abkhaz, by the Abkhaz.

But neither is the driver neutral on the question of Georgians versus Abkhaz. Sure, in the beginning he might have been on the fence. At first, the Abkhaz were alone in agitating for their independence from Georgia. Twenty years ago today—July 23, 1992—the Abkhaz stood up in Supreme Council, a session boycotted by the Georgians, and cast their vote for freedom and self-determination in their own little crescent of land along the Black Sea. And nobody paid any attention at all. No outside country recognized it, and nobody inside could have imagined what seriousness was about to follow, because imagine: the Abkhaz were a minority in their own lands, around 17% of the population. There were nearly three times as many ethnic Georgians, and they controlled the big cities, especially in the capital Sukhum.

It didn’t seem like this thing they would end up calling the Patriotic War could happen. Not like that. But war wouldn’t be denied. The Georgians made a show of military force to intimidate the Abkhaz into submission. This got the Abkhaz even more riled, and after a few rounds of attack and reprisal, after drinking and shouting and weeping, finally the entire republic got fever for the blood of the other, and everything and everyone burned, men fired mortars from the roofs of resort hotels, commercial planes fell from the sky, the Abkhaz descended from the hills to take revenge on the Georgians in the palm-lined city. In his book Eight Pieces of Empire, Lawrence Scott Sheets gave it a very succinct name: Malibu-at-war.

Armenians, the driver says, weren’t going to fight until the Georgians attacked Armenian villages. He told the whole story of one Armenian who seemed to represent the fullness of that war, who watched his family raped and killed and then made himself a fierce guerrilla fighter who ambushed a Georgian tank, killed everyone inside and then turned the tank on the Georgian troops, and was so good with blood that he lived through the war as a hero and a symbol. And then, in the years after the war, he became a drug addict. He overdosed on heroin. He died. “What’s left after that kind of war?” asks the driver. “After the war, people plundered empty apartments. Trophy homes, they called it. They drove drunk, carried weapons in the streets.”

The photographer is smoking with me in the backseat. “Yeah, it was dangerous,” he says, his eyes widening with the memory. “Really dangerous.”

If there is a place on earth that inspires more melancholy, reminiscence and regret than Abkhazia, I have yet to find it. A republic of sighs, home to 250,000 people who still mourn their dead as much as they plan their future.

“Do you remember how it used to be?” they say. “It was like a little Soviet Union.” This is a sweet memory, because the Soviet Union, to Abkhazia, was above all a place where dozens, even hundreds, of races lived under one roof in peace. The brutal ethnic war of ’92-’93 erased many things, but not the memory of a time before bloodshed.

This is equally bittersweet for photographer Yuri Kozyrev, who summered in nearby Sochi as a boy, and who remembers, like all children of the Soviet Union, the paradise that was Abkhazia. Imagine: high mountains dive toward a warm sea. Beaches against verdant forests, long promenades lined with ice cream vendors under palm trees.

Kozyrev is with me on this trip to Abkhazia. Late 2011, traveling south along that fabled coastline, up into the mountains, down to the tense Georgian border in Gali. Kozyrev had been in Abkhazia during the war; it’s my first visit. We’re both, however, equally struck by how time just seems to stand still there. A rusting trawler, an empty restaurant, a half-deserted coast. Even the national pastime is sleepy: the Abkhaz are famous for their skill at dominoes.

Part of this torpor is forced upon them. Georgia and its allies, including the U.S., have been effective in isolating the republic, which it sees as perpetrators of ethnic cleansing against Georgians during and after the war. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vanuatu and a couple of equally small states have recognized its independence. Georgia has blockaded all southern routes by sea and land, and so Abkhazia has to rely on the kindness of its neighbor and patron Russia, with whom it shares a land border.

Yet, they still have their natural gifts. The war did not erase the beaches or the mountains. Russians, particularly poorer ones who can’t afford the neon Shangri-la that Sochi is becoming, still flock to the shore.

The Abkhaz also have something they won at a heavy, heavy price: freedom. The question remains, twenty years later: what will they do with it?

Abkhazia has so few friends, yet it doesn’t seem to be in the market for many more.

The first thing they see fit to do with their freedom is not take any crap from anyone else. In the cloying, suckup world of international diplomacy, where small countries constantly curry favor with larger patrons, Abkhazia seems to stand out. It has so few friends, yet it doesn’t seem to be in the market for many more.

Case in point: their biggest patron, Russia. Putin’s army humiliated the Georgians in 2008 and allowed Abkhazia to snatch the Kodori Gorge in the south during the same week. Russia remains the main deterrent against future war with Georgia, and if you head south and the republic gets stiller and poorer, the only economic activity seems to be the construction of more, and more permanent, Russian bases. And it’s also true that the Abkhaz estimate that somewhere between 40%-70% of the Abkhaz GDP comes from Russian money, whether in direct aid or pensions.
But contrary to what I have been told before coming to Abkhazia, the Abkhaz bristle at the Russians, reject the idea of being anyone’s vassal.

The Abkhaz by and large only speak Russian—only now is the Abkhaz language even starting to be taught in the schools. That made it easy enough to get around: my Russian is not stellar, but it’s a lot better than me trying to dig into an ancient and inscrutable language like Abkhazian.

But Mother Russia, as the Abkhaz are fond of pointing out, has rarely acted out of true solidarity with Abkhazia. It blockaded them after the war, just as the Georgians did, because the Russians were afraid of a wider uprising in the North Caucasus (and it is true that the Kabarday and the Chechens and the other fierce tribes had come and fought by Abkhazia’s side in the war).

There are still signs of that blockade. Approaching the Abkhaz border from the Russian side, you pass a quarter-mile-long bazaar, stores selling hardware, cigarettes, produce, and all the other things that Abkhazia, penned in by enemies and unable to fix its supply chain, does not have. When Russia was blockading the country, they specific would not allow Abkhaz men across, so it was the women who used to come up here after the war to smuggle themselves and goods over the walls and across the river. This created a certain lifestyle for the men, an economist tells you. “It was upsetting when the men could start to cross again,” says Beslan Baratelia. “They had gotten used to a certain lifestyle, staying home, drinking coffee, smoking. After the war, we had a whole generation who didn’t have passports, who didn’t want to go anywhere.”

The biggest news leading up to this 20th anniversary is that the current president Aleksandr Ankvab ruled out construction of a second highway into Abkhazia from Russia, through the mountains into the North Caucasus. It’s the kind of development project that most leaders would salivate over. Ankvab cited some environmental reasons for bowing out, but I can easily imagine a more typical Abkhaz reasoning: why build another road when those who want to live in Abkhazia are already there?

The most costly thing was victory. —Beslan Baratelia

“The most costly thing was victory,” says Beslan Baratelia, Dean of the Economics Department in Sukhumi’s Abkhaz State University. “The next ten years were lost. The biggest state strategy was independence, all kind of independence, so they didn’t want international aid. Abkhaz identity was everything.” They call it the era of romance, this time of mourning and writing poems about the motherland and reveling in the sweet sorrow of being free and Abkhazian. It slowed the emotional and economic life of the republic to a crawl.

Baratelia is a patriot and a scholar with a wry sense of humor about the state of finances in Abkhazia. “The Abkhaz is not homo economus,” he says. “They care more about culture, about tradition.” He says an Abkhaz looks at his house, even if it’s in ruins, and says, ‘it’s mine. I’m the full owner. Why would I beg or borrow money from another to fix it up?’ Baratelia feels this way himself, says his own home is a shambles, but he is proud of it in a deeply Abkhaz way, proud that it is his rubble, with debts to no man.

At the time we were in Abkhazia, there were 15 banks operating there, but not a single ATM. The banks won’t allow it. And they’ve teamed up to make sure that no outside banks can come in and change the status quo. Any borrowed money carries from 36% to 40% annual interest, he says. There is virtually no private sector. The government has most of the jobs, and its budget is largely propped up by Russia.

Tourism is about $100 million a year business, says Baratelia, growing some years and contracting others. Most of the visitors are low-income Russians looking for a cheaper slice of Black Sea, now that Sochi in Russia proper has become so expensive. Other than that? Abkhazia sells between $30-$50 million of mandarins, oranges, and nuts. And lots of cell phone contracts. That’s about it.

And yet, there is one ever-present sign of wealth in Abkhazia: automobiles. Sharing the road with potholes and haywagons pulled by emaciated horses are a disproportionate number of BMWs and Ford Explorers. The taxi driver says the cars all come from people who are selling off their trophy homes that they took over in the war. Baratelia says there’s a cultural reason for all the fine cars: “The Abkhaz people are mountain people,” he says. “Up there, you used to need a good horse. Luxury cars are just the good horses of today.”

He grabs my notebook, says something about spies, asks what I’m writing.

“We have a lot of these unwelcome journalists who don’t know what the fuck they are talking about,” he says. He’s drunk, mid-50’s, in military fatigues but not an officer. He grabs my notebook, says something about spies, asks what I’m writing. Kozyrev gives me a rather urgent look, and our visit to the mountain mining town of Tkvarchal, famous for having suffered under siege during the war, comes to end. I grab my notebook and walk briskly back to the driver and we all drive off as quickly as possible, me thinking about all those M16s that are now in circulation.

There used to be anywhere from 30,000 to 55,000 people living in Tkvarchal. Now there are less than 6,000. The Turks took over a gold mine up in the hills, but in the city itself, there is no life. Even before the angry man came, the three men sitting by a roadside kiosk did not really want to talk. “Where is everybody?” one repeats when I ask this. ““What should I say? They went to Sukhum, where everything is better.” The oldest of the group, in sandals and a tracksuit, did talk about the war in Tkvarchal. “They bombed, yes. They blockaded us,” he said. “We lived without food. Only the mountain water saved us.”

Later that afternoon, I met Marina: skinny, smoker, hair in a bun, lives in Soviet bloc apartments in Ochemchyra, a bruised concrete town close to the ocean. She leans over the balcony as her children play in the courtyard. “The Georgians,” she says, nearly spitting, “wanted more. We lived together before the war, but that wasn’t enough for them.” So she fought in the war, she says, and she is not afraid to do it again. “Why would I be afraid of war? If they want to come, let them come. We’ll welcome them, and they’ll leave the way they came in” she says. Her kid, a preschooler, is pushed to the ground by one of the bigger kids and begins to wail. “What are you crying about?” Marina yells down, as she lights another cigarette.

We head down to the water, where a man is fishing off the jetty. But he doesn’t want to talk. He’s Russian, he said, wanted by the police back home. Just trying to fish and mind his own business in Abkhazia.

The next day, it’s off to the southern border district of Gal, where murders of Abkhaz policemen are causing tension and accusations of all kinds. 10,000 of the mostly ethnic Georgians who live there have Abkhaz citizenship; 50,000 have Georgian citizenship. It’s muddy and tense, filled with people who feel caught on the wrong side of a border. Kozyrev and I visit a school where I speak German with the teachers because it’s easier for me than Russian and because the school is supported by Germans, has maps of Germany on the walls, teaches German to these Georgian children stuck in Abkhazia.

My cell phone works for the first time in a week because it picks up a signal from across the border. I’ve been there twice on different trips, on the Georgian side of the border. Twice the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, showed me how he was going to build a resort right up to the border, something with hotels and pools and cafes and the Abkhaz would know that the Georgians are peaceful and fun-loving people. Which is also madness, because the Abkhaz don’t give a shit if the Georgians love fun.

Kozyrev and I ride down from the school in the village of Dikhazaurga and then meet a man getting of the bus. His name is Ramas Beraia, and he lost his left leg to a land mine when he was 17 years old and walking by the river than separates Georgia from Abkhazia. We had heard about him—a one-legged man whom the UN had retrained as a cobbler, someone who fixes shoes. His neighbor Khatuna Eteria invites us all into her home, and makes tea. We sit and talk. Turns out the Georgians in Abkhazia like to talk about the war as well. “I don’t know how many of us Georgians died here,” she says. “They killed a 45-year-old man right here, and a woman down the road. If they didn’t like your face, they killed you.”

If war comes back to Abkhazia, it’s likely to start right here in a village like Dikhazaurga, because although all sides value what peace there is in the south, they still can’t stand each other. They can’t stand each other’s version of history. And most of all, they can’t stand this impasse.

Abkhaz journalist Akhra Smyr puts it this way: “My father died in the war, and at the same time I say I don’t care about Georgia any more than I care about China. But this neighbor makes my life so goddamned difficult.”

The main problem for Smyr, who is whipsmart and young enough that he should at least be able to see beyond the walls of Abkhazia, is that he cannot travel with an Abkhazian passport. The European Union won’t allow. So Russia has offered passports, and this too is unsatisfactory to the Abkhaz. “I do not need a Russian passport,” he says. “I am not Russian. But I need a legal document.”

Abkhazia reminds me of America. It’s a democracy of heavily armed people. —journalist Akhra Smyr

“Abkhaz democracy reminds me a lot of America,” Smyr tells me over coffee. “It’s a democracy of heavily armed people.”

The democracy part is quite true: when the last president Bagapsh died of natural causes while in office last year, the Abkhaz system did not collapse, or even teeter. An election was held. A reasonable man won.

And yet, oh, the guns in Abkhazia. “Everyone has a right to guns here, like a hunting rifle, a pistol, a Kalashnikov,” Smyr says. He, the journalist, has a pistol and an AK-47 at home. When the Georgian troops, so exquisitely armed by the Americans, fled from the Kodori Gorge in 2008, says Smyr, they left 20,000 M16s which largely went to the populace. “So now we have those in our homes too.”

Abkhazia, a small country with a small army, actually comes close to realizing the Second Amendment fantasy of some Americans, in which a well-armed populace keeps the government in line. “It’s a democracy here,” says Smyr. “And also everyone understands: it’s a huge risk if you try to grab power.”

The interview with the Minister of Defense does not start well. General Mirab Kishmaria is built like a boxer and he is punching me with his eyes. “I am sick and tired of talking about Georgia,” he chides right at the beginning. “I am the minister of defense, not the minister of attack.” This doesn’t really make sense, but it does the trick of letting me know that he thinks I am an idiot.

He explains that his mother is Georgian. The former president of Abkhazia had once mentioned that Kishmaria’s wife, who bore him 11 children, was also Georgian, and that seven of those children fought agains the Georgians in the war, and that two of those were killed.

Kishmaria says that divorce is legal, and that’s what Abkhazia wants from Georgia. A divorce, he says again, getting louder. He knows the U.S. is arming Georgia, and he doesn’t care, he says. He doesn’t care that Georgia wants to get into NATO Just don’t expect Abkhazia to wait for Americans to love them. They partnered with their neighbor Russia instead, because they are right next door and they offered to be their “security guarantee.” “We have no plans with Russia,” he says. “But we think that Georgia has a plan to assault Abkhazia” with U.S. weapons.

He says he had told the first president of Abkhazia, right at the end of the war, that they should go 15km inside of Georgia and force them to agree to independence before pulling back. But the president didn’t want to do that, and here we are. No agreement, no official resolution.

He wants to talk about Afghanistan, to say that he fought there with the Soviet army, and that the U.S. are fools for fighting there, and in Iraq. He will later say that the next time he meets me he wants it to be over bread and wine and cheese, but even when he says this he is still, it seems to me, punching me with his eyes.

We’re there at the headquarters 19 years after the founding of the professional Abkhaz army. The minister of defense says that it is a reserve army, like the National Guard in the U.S. But there are just 2500 professional soldiers and that because Abkhazia is a paradise, it is not good for training. “Here is for relaxing on the beach.”

Later on, we see a little bit of this as the army runs exercises for us: marching, close-quarters combat drills inside the main army base, in the rain. The soldiers are strong, and eager. But not very well organized.

Not that this should be taken as weakness. “My land is here, my parents, my children. My grandparents are buried here,” says the minister, his voice rising again. “I’d rather die than lose this land.”

Kishmaria says Georgians have left too many in mourning here. “You see how the women wear black in this country,” he says. “More than in the middle east. You never forget when you lose a son.”

I heard many versions of why the Abkhaz won the war. Georgians were unorganized, perhaps. Or: the higher up the slopes of the Caucasus you get, the fiercer the fighters are. “The Georgians are more valley people,” says the economist Baratelia. “The Abkhaz are mountain people.”

But the most common refrain, from the economist to the general, was to say that the Georgians always had somewhere else they could go, and so they gave up. “It’s not about the number of troops,” he continues. “For Georgians, it’s a job: loot, murder, go home.”

What does that mean to a Georgian who grew up there, whose parents and grandparents are also buried there?

I should say here that Abkhazia is difficult for me to write about. I know Georgia and Georgians and I consider many of them friends. Not the Georgians in government, but the ones who sit late at cafes overlooking the river in Tbilisi singing songs and smoking cigarettes and talking about our friends and the world around them. Absolutely charming people, and absolutely convinced that Abkhazia was stolen from them.

I was not there. I cannot judge the history of these two. Yes, there were many more Georgians in Abkhazia than Abkhaz at the start of the war, but that was the result of Stalin’s earlier ethnic gameplay.

But I do know that no Georgian would ever see leaving Abkhazia as just “going home.” The many thousands that fled Abkhazia during and after the war entered into a limbo that in many cases still hasn’t ended. For years they stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel in a squalid refugee camp, drying their clothes off of 12th floor balconies. They don’t have the same status as Georgians who were not refugees, or internally displaced persons (depending on your politics). The life of a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia is, in most cases, a ruined life. The Abkhaz are the ancestral inhabitants of that land (only after having displaced some other group in the far, far past), but what does that mean to a Georgian who grew up there, whose parents and grandparents are also buried there?

But there is one thing that many Georgians do not seem to understand that seems incredibly clear after a week in Abkhazia. All this talk about its status and whether its de facto independence should be tolerated by the world community is moot. Abkhazia is independent already. There is no going back, not after twenty years, not even if that seems unjust to the Georgians. So all the vigorous diplomatic efforts to corral the world into shunning Abkhazia just seems moot as well. Abkhazia is immoveable, not sexy or successful or particularly happy, but it is there.

Which brings me back to the taxi driver. I decide toward the end of the week, as Kozyrev and I move from one time-stuck corner of Abkhazia to the other, that I like him. Careening around in a taxi is actually one of the more enjoyable things you can do in Abkhazia, the perfect antidote to the sclerosis of the rest of the country. Speed past the old soldiers; the grieving mothers; the sad Russian pensioners on vacation; and all those good, smart people just trapped by fate. Just keep driving. Maybe something new will happen.

Nathan Thornburgh
Nathan Thornburgh is the co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms and is a former editor and foreign correspondent at TIME Magazine.
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