The ABC Republic: Abkhazia Attempts to Invent Itself
Russia may have officially recognized Abkhazia, but the separatist Georgian province is still illegitimate in the eyes of the rest of the world. The tiny state's politically strategic location makes it a potential source of conflict between East and West. What happens when a nation tries to invent itself?
"You can write what you wish. But," says the prime minister, "please don't laugh at us." Alexander Ankvab fills the cognac glasses. "To freedom!" he says, raising his glass.
A few weeks earlier, a bazooka was fired at the Abkhazian leader's official car. He had probably stepped on someone's toes, says Ankvab. "It was the fourth attack, but I'm still alive. And Abkhazia is still alive, right?"
The only international organization in which this country is represented is the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), a global association of idealized republics and liberated zones, ethnic minorities and phantom states.
Ankvab's staff members refer to him as "Anthony Hopkins," because he bears a resemblance to the British actor. But he isn't acting when it comes to running Abkhazia. He is serious when he says: "Abkhazia could become a sort of Monaco in 10 years. No investor is worried about our status. Singapore recently wanted to buy up everything, hotels, the airport, the beaches. That was a little too fast for us."
A Country's Attempt to Invent Itself
Abkhazia is in the Caucasus region, where Europe gradually gives way to Asia. The country was part of Georgia until 1993. Since it declared independence, "Abkhazia" has become a country's attempt to invent itself. As a nation, it reminds some proponents of realpolitik of the kinds of people who suddenly decide to live in a cave in a downtown park and speak their own language.
On Aug. 26, 2008, Abkhazia's prime minister and its citizens had something of a Robinson Crusoe experience. Suddenly they were no longer alone. Russia had recognized Abkhazia. Ankvab learned of it on television. Russia had just occupied (or liberated) the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia, and the European Union was trying to mediate between Russia and Georgia. That was when the Russian president appeared before the media to announce that, to be on the safe side, his government had recognized another separatist Georgian province (or nation), Abkhazia.
This makes Abkhazia one of the youngest members of the international community, even if it is still an illegitimate state. In diplomatic communications, it is abbreviated as ABC (the abbreviation for South Ossetia is SOS).
This ABC republic has no currency, and it cannot print currency or borrow money in the financial markets, because, under international law, it doesn't exist. For the rest of the world, Abkhazia is merely a Georgian province with delusions of grandeur, with as many inhabitants as a mid-sized European city.
Abkhazia wouldn't be of any great interest if it weren't in the Caucasus, that hot spot of geopolitical tectonics. When the Caucasus war between Russia and Georgia came to a head there a year ago, an alarmed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital, but it was not to drink cognac with Prime Minister Ankvab. Abkhazia is a diplomatic Sudoku of the most difficult degree, that can be used as a casus belli between the old East and the new West at any time. There are experts who say that the next European war could erupt somewhere between the Crimea and the Caucasus Mountains.
But for now there is peace. "To your chancellor! To the German-Abkhazian friendship!" With these words, Ankvab presents gifts to his guests: expensive-looking brochures, a brass pennant with an angry Amazon, the national coat of arms, a clock with the Abkhazian national flag, which depicts a hand on a red field, set against a background of green-and-white stripes. The gifts are meant to serve as evidence of the existence of a state that doesn't exist, and that Germans should, in fact, not be entering.
The security information for travelers provided by the Foreign Ministry in Berlin states: "Abkhazia is categorically closed to international travel. The country cannot be entered or exited legally across either the Georgian-Russian border or the ceasefire line along the Inguri River. We expressly caution against travel to Abkhazia."
Despite such warnings, Russian tour busses enter the breakaway province at the Psou border crossing at Abkhazia's northern border, a pathetic, rundown cement portal. For Russians, Abkhazia's beaches are like the Italian beach resort of Rimini, only better: Prices are low, everyone understands the language, and there is no need to exchange rubles for a local currency.
Among the cars waiting at the Psou border crossing are a Lada loaded with eggs, another Lada with an axle protruding from its trunk, and two Porsche Cayennes with new ABH license plates. The drivers have disappeared into the duty-free shop, where Bounty rum and Scotch whiskey can be had for euros.
Because the southern border with Georgia is closed, the only access to Abkhazia is through the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. In addition to an Abkhazian visa, non-Russians must obtain a Russian transit visa -- and hope the Georgians never find out about it.
In theory, one could also bribe a Turkish boat owner in the port of Trabzon to break through Georgia's naval blockade. It is a risky and illegal method, and yet this is the way Abkhazia conducts all of its foreign trade.
When Benetton announced in May that it wanted to open a branch in Abkhazia, the Georgia foreign minister called the plan "criminal" and threatened to retaliate. Benetton cancelled its plans.
Beaches and Palm Trees
It has been more than 3,000 years since Jason and the Argonauts came here in search of the Golden Fleece. The region was still known as Colchis at the time, a place where the mythical Prometheus was chained to a Caucasus peak while an eagle ate his liver, in punishment for his having upset the order of the gods.
Today the capital is called Sukhumi or is referred to by the politically correct Abkhazian name Sukhum, without the letter "i". To ensure that 3,500 Abkhazians did not die in vain in the 1992/93 war of independence, the name was changed as one of the first administrative acts after liberation, and the letter "i" was also blacked out on all names of towns on maps of the territory.
Abkhazia was once known as the "Côte d'Azur of the Soviet Union," a subtropical tip of the Soviet realm, and many a former East German citizen has fond memories of its beaches, palms and tangerine trees.
Abkhazia supplied potted plants to offices throughout the Soviet Union. There was a breeding facility for baboons, where a memorial stands today -- a statue of a hamadryas baboon, with a message engraved into the granite plaque expressing the gratitude of the Soviet people for all the sacrificial experiments in the fight against typhus and polio.
Only 10 years ago, Sukhumi was a liberated but completely destroyed city. At night, the streets were filled with the sound of gunshots fired by smuggler bands and cars being driven at high speeds, with no license plates and only German Automobile Club stickers attached to their trunks.
Nowadays there are electric busses in the streets, banks are open and adolescents in school uniforms congregate in front of the Pushkin High School. A Louis de Funès film with Abkhazian subtitles is playing at a local cinema. There are traffic lights, a children's library and speed limits, and a women is walking her dachshund with a German-made retractable Flexi leash. These things alone are not evidence of a functioning civil society, but they do, to a certain extent, contradict the German Foreign Ministry's travel warning.
'We Hope to Be at the 2012 Olympics'
Abkhazia even has a national Olympic Committee, at least according to the sign posted next to a door on the lower level of an otherwise derelict-looking former Soviet building on Sukhumi's main Freedom Square.
The minister of athletics lights a Parliament cigarette, exhales and says: "We participated in the World Championship Domino Tournament. We were quite successful." He is a gaunt, 45-year-old former tank commander. Fortunately his wife earns quite a good salary, says the minister, or else he couldn't afford to serve in his position.
- Part 1: Abkhazia Attempts to Invent Itself
- Part 2: The Political Elite Fits Into a Single Building
- Part 3: 'The Russians Want to Eat Us Up'
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Map: Abkhazia and the surrounding region