"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?"
Ankvab is the prime minister of a country where the cities have names like Pzyb, Gwylrypzh and Gyazhrypzh, and that -- "so far!" as he notes -- only has diplomatic relations with Russia and Nicaragua. And the Gaza Strip, although that doesn't count at the moment.
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.
The Political Elite Fits Into a Single Building
"We hope we will be at the Olympic Games in London in 2012," he says, adding that unfortunately the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn't permit teams from unrecognized states to take part in the event. "Actually, Abkhazia's national football team was supposed to be playing in Georgian jerseys." The athletics minister looks at the other people in the room, as if he had just told a joke.
"Our football league is 100 years old. Why does FIFA constantly reject our petitions to join the organization? But negotiations with the International Sambo Federation are going well," he says. Sambo? "Yes, a sort of Soviet-Russian judo."
The XXII Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, near the Abkhazian border, in 2014. A rival group calling itself the "Olympic Committee of Abkhazia," operating in Georgian exile, tried in vain to prevent the games from happening. Now Abkhazia is expected to supply 14 million tons of sand, gravel and concrete for the construction of buildings for the event. Each ton will only cement the status quo even further. Perhaps "Sochi 2014" was one of the reasons Russia recognized Abkhazia, hoping to avert the risk of partisan gunfire at every biathlon cross-country ski trail.
Abkhazia's political elite fits into a single building, a sandblasted Stalinist structure on the lakeside promenade, where the air is filled with bittersweet smell of sour orange trees and eucalyptus. The parliament is around the corner from the president's office, and the entrance to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet is opposite. Today the building is almost deserted, because the president's mother has died and almost everyone is attending the funeral.
An Outlaw Republic
The Abkhazians are assembling a state with the same level of seriousness and the same irritating attention to detail with which amateur craftsmen build matchstick replicas of the Eiffel tower. There are 12 political parties -- from the Aidgilara Sociopolitical Movement to the Party of Abkhazian Unity --, the most important of which are represented in the parliament, which meets in an assembly room that resembles the lobby of a small-town bank.
But for official Europe, Abkhazia is a sort of outlaw republic, where profiteers and overwrought historians can play out their separatism to their hearts content. This explains why Maxim Gvindzhia has trouble gaining entry to the right offices. The sign on his desk reads: Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Abkhazia. "If I want to talk to someone in the Baltic Republics, for example," says the senior diplomat, "they give me appointments with third-class officials."
Gvindzhia is 33, earns $200 (€140) a month and lives with his family in a prefabricated building on the city's outskirts. His wife runs the first Abkhazian fashion model agency and organizes the Miss Abkhazia contest, which is unrecognized by the international community.
"We don't want to be a front-line state against the West," says Gvindzhia. "Many politicians in old Europe understand that. But the new Europeans base their attitudes on anti-Russian prejudices." This is ironic, he says, because Abkhazia is perhaps the only functioning democracy in the Caucasus.
"Your NGOs paid for us to attend courses on human rights, peacekeeping and conflict training. We attended all of them," he says. "But Russia paid for our retirement pensions: $20 million a year."
Russia, the deputy minister adds, buys all of Abkhazia's exports, particularly tangerines and construction material for the Winter Olympics. His mobile phone rings. "Excuse me " It is the Abkhazian envoy in Tiraspol, the capital of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, which is also unrecognized.
'We Need the EU'
The world in which diplomat Gvindzhia operates is one that is completely unknown to the Western public. It is that of the UNPO, a sort of parallel United Nations, complete with its own general assembly, secretary-general and security council, which meets regularly. Gvindzhia knows the foreign minister of the Buffalo River Dene Nation, and Abkhazia is loosely affiliated with the governments of Balochistan, Buryatia and the Crimean Tatars. This is all positive and informative, he says, "but we need the EU."
The UN and the Europeans have been trying to mediate between Georgia and Abkhazia for more than a decade. The bones of contention between the two have always been the return of 250,000 refugees, most of them Georgians, and Georgia's territorial integrity. In their efforts, EU diplomats have emphasized two basic principles: the inviolability of national borders and democracy, two things that are at odds in the case of Abkhazia.
German diplomat Dieter Boden is the former head of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). He devised a plan that called for Abkhazia to return to the Georgian fold as an autonomous republic. Georgia agreed, but Abkhazia, fearing retribution, rejected the plan. "They'd kill us," says the deputy foreign minister.
The United States wants to see Georgia become a NATO member as soon as possible. Officially, this should also be Germany's position. But since the war in South Ossetia in August 2008, German enthusiasm for the Georgian cause has become more muted.
The Beginning of a Cultural Genocide
In 1931, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin declared that the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia was to become an autonomous territory of his native Georgia. For some, this was territorial reform, but for others it marked the beginning of cultural genocide.
Since 1957, the Abkhazians have staged protests about once every 10 years.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians wanted Georgia to give them what Georgia was demanding from the Soviet Union: independence. But after forced displacement (officially emigration) and various resettlement programs (officially ground reforms), the Abkhazians had become a minority in their own land.
"Abkhazia is the only country in the world where Stalin's policies are to be restored. We tell Western diplomats, over lunch, that our independence is a fact. But when things get serious, they keep quiet," says Batal Kobakhia, a human rights activist with the gaunt face of an actor.
He commanded a women's battalion in the war, and today he represents the core of opposition in his country, a man willing to commit any political heresy -- or almost any. "Abkhazia and Georgia are as different as France and Germany," he says. "Whenever the two countries were united, there was genocide."
'The Oldest Culture in the Former Soviet Union'
Kobakhia is an archeologist by trade. Historians are often involved in politics in the Caucasus. They have provided the words and arguments for the dispute between Abkhazia and Georgia. They have astutely paid attention to cultural nuances, have uncovered differences in the traditional dress of farmers in the mountainous region and have drawn attention to ancient injustices. The debate over the thesis by Georgian historian Pavle Ingorokva, which holds that the Abkhazians were never an independent ethnic group, has probably led to more bloodshed than any other dispute among scholars of language and literature.
"The Abkhazian culture is the oldest in the territory of the former Soviet Union," says a frosty woman in a pleated skirt as she begins her tour of the Abkhazian National Museum, formerly the Abkhazian Museum. She points to a model of a Bronze Age settlement, and says: "In those days, it wasn't yet possible to distinguish Abkhazia from Georgia."
During the 1992 war of independence, she says, Georgian militias stormed the museum, roughed up the director and made off with all the carpets. According to the guide, the Abkhazian national archive was one of the Georgians' first targets in the civil war.
Because of their role in promoting the nation, historians are more respected in Abkhazia than many generals -- unless they happen to be both historians and generals.
A Government Dominated by Scholars
Abkhazia's first president, Vladislav Ardzinba, was an expert on cuneiform and the dead languages of the Orient. To this day, the old-guard leadership consists primarily of highly well-educated men who have spent their lives studying the origins of the Abkhazian language in the fourth century B.C., or the contours of the first Abkhazian-Kartvelian kingdom.
The war destroyed their libraries, ceramic finds and postdoctoral notes. After everything they had worked to build had been taken away from them, they turned to politics and became historians running the government of a territory they had spent much of their careers studying -- or at least what was left of it.
A painting of a white-bearded farmer smoking a pipe hangs in room IX of the museum. "Nikolai Shapkovsky," says the guide, with no further explanation. In 1929, the French poet Henri Barbusse wrote about his encounter with Shapkovsky, who was allegedly 140 at the time -- and was said to have lived another 10 years after the meeting. The painting next to it is called "Choir of the Centenarians," says the woman.
'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.
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.