For more information on planning a trip to Abkhazia and making it across the border, check out this article.
Abkhazia is fiercely independent. It may seem an obvious and rather simplistic characterization, but the notion of independence in Abkhazia is fundamental to understanding day-to-day life in the breakaway region/republic.
Weapons were fundamental to Abkhazia’s independence. They were the first thing I noticed on that tepid May morn when I arrived at the breakaway republic’s doorstep. Guns, big and small, in the holsters of border guards patrolling the only land border with its nemesis neighbor, Georgia. The early 90s war devolved into a stalemate, whereby Tbilisi lost effective control of the region and Abkhazia fortified its outer perimeter. Almost 20 years passed before Russia recognized the barb wired territory,
leading a string of 3 other countries to allegedly follow Moscow’s orders (or wallet). Aside from the armory, the outermost border guard’s post also housed a tired fishing rod and rusty knife. It takes significant manpower to maintain an unrecognized border – human manpower that gets bored with the banality of a frozen conflict. Far away from Moscow’s corridors of geopolitical power, fresh-faced Abkhaz recruits sneak out to drop a line into the river running through no-man’s-land.
It comes as little surprise that some of the guards at the border were Russian. They wore Russian uniforms, drove Russian vehicles and spoke
with Muscovite accents. Although Russia bankrolls Abkhazia through aid, trade and tourism, bilateral relations are at times tense. Moscow’s patronage affords it significant control over the Abkhaz economy – in effect a cost to the Abkhaz independence. Many of the local people I met were eager to welcome Russian tourists and their business, but expressed concern over Moscow’s tightening grip on their homeland. Faced with a trade-off between further poverty or Putin’s grasp, the nation is stuck between Russia and a hard place.
Abkhaz independence has come at an economic cost. The initial cost of the war was crippling – both in a financial and infrastructural sense. Almost 20 years off the map equate to stalled investment, stagnant growth and sluggish reconstruction. Organized crime is a significant challenge for the local authorities, and there are occasional reports of Wild-West style
shootouts. A walk through the proclaimed-capital, Sukhumi, reveals street after street of crumbling uninhabited buildings. In many instances I struggled to tell whether the disintegrating edifices were half-built but abandoned, war damaged or both. The temperate climate of the region carries the lush green forests from the rolling mountains into the city’s decaying structures. Mother nature slowly brings life back to the bullet-lined concrete walls. For other parts of the city that survived the war, life today is a silhouette of the past’s luster. The primate research centre served as a training ground for monkeys to be used in the Soviet space program, but also the site of gruesome cross breeding experiments. Although scientists who worked at the park admit to cross-fertilizing female monkeys, they deny ever trying the reverse.
Finally, Abkhazia’s independence has come at the cost of others’. Undocumented immigrants from the former Soviet Union (particularly Central Asia) have been lured into Abkhazia on the promise of higher wages. With memories of the Black Sea lapping the Soviet shores of Abkhazia they cross into the region, only to discover that they can’t reenter Russia due to having overstayed their visa and can’t enter Georgia due to having crossed what Tbilisi considers an illegal entry point. With no functioning international airport, the undocumented migrants are the latest victims of the victor-less political stalemate.
I’m aware that this article has taken a somber, and some may argue pessimistic, mood. In a state with a shortage of so much, delusion is a scarce luxury. Life in Abkhazia is tough. It is a beautiful region with a rich history and vibrant culture, but one only needs a glimpse of life in the break away republic to see that the harsh reality.