The ABC Republic: Abkhazia Attempts to Invent Itself

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Part 3: 'The Russians Want to Eat Us Up'

Nowhere in the world do people live longer than in the Caucasus -- that is unless they kill each other first.

The taxi is a Volga that smells of gasoline and castor oil. Boxing gloves dangle from the rear-view mirror, and the entire vehicle is vibrating to the beat of Armenian dance music. "Druzhba," the driver shouts. He says that he prefers to drive tourists from Leipzig than Russians.

But it is not the Germans who are coming to Abkhazia now. Without a ferry connection from Turkey or direct flights from Europe, Abkhazia is dependent on the tour busses from Sochi. Since the Russians relaxed their economic sanctions, and since Russian tourists have returned to the sandy beaches of Sukhumi and Picunda, the economy is awakening from a coma-like state. Abkhazian expatriates are returning from Moscow, Istanbul and Damascus, investing their money in health resorts and restaurants.

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Photo Gallery: The ABC Republic
In May, the Abkhazian economics minister signed a framework agreement with the Russian oil conglomerate Rosneft on the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea. When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Sukhumi on Aug. 12, he promised the Abkhazians €354 million ($504 million) in aid to modernize its border and military facilities. The Georgians simply could not be trusted, the Russian premier said.

And when Abkhazia's President Sergei Bagapsh announced that Russian companies would manage the country's destroyed railway network and expand the airport, the opposition protested that he was selling out the national heritage. In the 12 months since recognition by Moscow, Russophilia has indeed subsided considerably. The common view today is that "they want to eat us up." There are Russian newspapers everywhere, and some gas stations only display the Russian flag nowadays.

Real estate prices have already doubled. Uzbek migrant workers are hammering away on roof trusses, while the sons of war heroes drive up and down the coastal road at high speeds in their BMWs.

The Abkhazian mobile phone service provider Aquafon has 100,000 customers, and there is also another provider. Electricity comes from the Inguri reservoir in the mountains, where Georgians and Abkhazians operate the hydroelectric power station jointly. Even during the war, no one hit upon the idea of modifying the arrangement.

One Rocket Launcher, 120 Tanks and 5,000 Troops

The taxi, with its odor of castor oil, stops in front of the former sanatorium of the Soviet Association of Composers, which the Abkhazian army is currently using to train its soldiers in house-to-house combat. The recruits are trying to keep a straight face while dashing between flowerbeds and taking cover behind palm trees.

"We are working on a military cooperation treaty. In the future, anyone who attacks Abkhazia will be attacking Russia," says Garri Kupalba. He is a mathematics teacher, major general and Abkhazia's deputy defense minister. The Russian "peace troops" withdrew to their barracks in October 2008. Several thousand Russian soldiers are still stationed in Abkhazia today.

The Abkhazian armed forces, says Kupalba, consist primarily of 120 Czech tanks, a captured Israeli-made LAR-160 rocket launcher and 5,000 troops. Abkhazian exiles have donated a few high-speed inflatable boats with machine-gun attachments to help develop Abkhazia's Black Sea fleet.

"This is how it is: The Georgians want to kill us with violence, and the Russians with sweets. Our choice should be obvious, right?" says Hibla, a student at the University of Sukhumi. "Sukhum. No 'i,'" she says. She is looking out at the Black Sea, as immobile as a cold pond.

"We know that we live in a globalized world. We don't want Soviet-era people in our parliament anymore, but young, educated people who know something about international relations. Why don't you take us seriously?"

Behind her, old people sit in front of the Riva Hotel, their cigarettes waving in the hazy light. Behind the hotel are the peaks of the Caucasus, where Europe eventually gives way to Asia. German troops reached the Caucasus -- but stopped short of crossing the mountains -- in 1942.

More Baden-Baden than Baghdad

Hibla is still part of Europe. She is only 20, but she already has a degree in political science, spent six months living in the United States, has a second job with an NGO for young female entrepreneurs and wants to become a diplomat. "And then foreign minister," she says. She's serious.

Here on the Black Sea shore, Sukhumi resembles the German spa and resort town of Baden-Baden far more than it resembles Baghdad.

There are stalls selling sushi on the demolished pier, and a Russian couple is strolling along the promenade -- too tall, too fat and too garishly dressed. Perhaps the Russians will be Abkhazia's ugly Americans one day.

Hibla watches as they walk away and says: "By the way, Russians don't understand a word of what we're saying. There are seven different sounds for the letter k in our language," says Hibla, the future foreign minister. She demonstrates the complexities of the language by embarking on a series of complicated exercises at the back of her throat.

For experts in international law, the Republic of Abkhazia may be a conceit, or a delusion. It is so well-executed that it is hard to distinguish between reality and fiction. But nothing here seems as unreal as Abkhazia's status as a Georgian province.

And nothing is as real as the seriousness of a 20-year-old woman, as she stands on the shore of the Black Sea, doing verbal gymnastics with her soft palate. "Can you hear it?" she asks.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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