Georgia’s options at the Abkhaz border
From the Baltics to the Adriatic, from Syria down to Egypt, new spheres of actual or potential Russian influence are cropping up with shocking rapidity. As President Donald Trump takes office and builds his foreign policy team around him, every corner of the world is watching. What will his first moves towards Russia be? And potentially more importantly, how will the incoming administration support our traditional allies like the Baltic countries or Georgia in the Caucasus? In these places, where Russia has dominated for the better part of the last two centuries, fear and uncertainty are at a boiling point.
When we traveled in Georgia in September 2016, few things were more obvious than the sense of ever-present Russian dominance. From the Russian sun-seekers at Batumi’s beaches to disgruntled waiters in Tbilisi, who unwillingly spoke Russian with souvenir-shopping tourists, the leftover animosity from the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict still lingered heavily. Georgian solidarity with Ukraine – over its conflict with Russia, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing violence in the Donbass region – seemed to have instigated a revived distaste for the bygone Soviet era.
Georgians are now at a crossroads as they contemplate the potential effects of a Trump-Putin détente for their country. The United States has long supported Georgia, as Russian influence creeped further and further into Georgian territory via the so-called “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, President Trump’s friendly approach to President Putin could mean less access to Washington for officials in Tbilisi.
In this neo-Cold War era, Georgians need to rethink their strategy of non-recognition regarding the lost territories before these entrenched faultlines erupt into complete chaos, or worse yet, war.
On February 2, 2017, European Union Parliament voted in favor of extending visa-free entry to Georgian citizens. The same day, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze offered residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia the same travel privileges, but with one requirement – they would need to prove their Georgian citizenship with a valid Georgian passport. In an official statement, Abkhaz officials immediately denounced Tbilisi’s offer as political manipulation.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago, the Republic of Georgia declared its independence. Meanwhile, separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia – two historically autonomous regions of Georgia – also wanted to break away from within the new Georgian state. From 1992-1993, Abkhaz separatists waged war against government forces because they feared their cultural and national identity was threatened. They expelled up to 250,000 Georgians from Abkhaz territory with the help of armed volunteer forces from the North Caucasus before a ceasefire was signed and over 12,000 people were killed. Meanwhile, relations between Russia and Georgia continued to deteriorate throughout the ‘90s. This culminated in an eight-day war in 2008 and Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions. The Russians stationed military bases in the newly-created states and tensions continue to this day, with constant violent flare-ups.
Seeking an adventurous travel itinerary to experience the dynamics of Georgia’s frozen conflict personally, we were advised by colleagues to explore Abkhazia’s natural beauty and administrative dysfunctionality. Situated on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, the separatist Georgian polity is not recognised by the international community, but only by Russia and three other countries. A major tourist destination in Soviet times, the breakaway region was known for its pristine pebble beaches, grandiose Soviet architecture untouched by subsequent development, and Lenin statues. The healing effects of the Black Sea made Abkhazia a prime location for sanatoriums in the 1960s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had a dacha on the coast. Today, Abkhazia attracts new kinds of tourists seeking Soviet chic and a place frozen in time.
Its unique geography and history tempted us to cross the new Iron Curtain. We had our visas squared away weeks ahead of time and took the advice of top Western journalists counselling us to enter the autonomous region via the Zugdidi border crossing in Georgia.
When we arrived at the Demilitarised Zone, we encountered a place where globalization and the international community were inoperative. The UN had men dressed in yellow traffic cop suits supposedly fixing the dilapidated Inguri Bridge, but they were merely shooting sparks into the air. On the Georgian side, horse-drawn buggies offered to take us and our suitcases across the mile-long bridge to the Abkhazian border post. We opted to walk. Once we reached the other side, we were made to wait in the balmy air. As the hours rolled by we decided, like so many before us, to sit on a curb by a trash bin.
Our visas were not enough. The guard couldn’t locate our names on a list of permitted foreign tourists. Any other day, we might have been able to contact the ministry of foreign affairs, located in the capital city of Sukhum and ask them to consult the parties involved with issuing our visas. But on September 12, we had no such luck. It was Eid al-Adha. All government facilities were closed. Although most inhabitants of Abkhazia are Orthodox Christians, there is a substantial minority adhering to Islam.
Meanwhile, business at the border continued as usual with scores of laborers and housewives trekking back having done their shopping in Zugdidi, where items like laundry powder, sponges, and cookies were likely more readily available. They carted back large plastic bags of these luxuries. While about five of these locals were processed every ten minutes, we were stopped in our tracks for hours.
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, Georgia’s long-standing policy of international isolation of Abkhazia, was now affecting us, as Western tourists in the region.
Tbilisi’s “law on occupied territories” insists that the only legitimate outcome was “de-occupation” by Russia and re-integration into Georgia proper. They limit Abkhaz trade with other countries, particularly with Turkey, and heavily restrict Abkhaz movement abroad. But this perspective has only strengthened Russia’s dominance in the region, as Abkhazians rely more on the Kremlin’s patronage. Abkhazians also prefer to keep engagement with Georgia to a minimum. Recently, de-facto officials closed two of the four official border crossings with Georgia, which mainly limited the movement of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia’s Gali district from crossing into Zugdidi.
Georgia’s attempt to extend an olive branch to Abkhazia, by including them in a visa free travel arrangement with Europe, further solidified the partnership between the de-facto republic and Russia. It provided Russia an opportunity to step up as the true champion of Abkhazia’s sovereignty goals. Russia is now promising to convince the EU to start accepting Abkhazia’s own passports for travel into the region. Even though the empty promise holds little chance of coming to fruition, Russia’s no-strings attached approach provides a sense of unfettered backing.
Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, has pointed out that the last time Abkhazia and Tbilisi were one country, they were not part of independent Georgia but of the Soviet Union. What would serve Georgia’s best interests is to let go of the pipe-dream of restoring dominance and instead focus on helping Abkhazia achieve greater sovereignty. This would keep Abkhazia from becoming fully absorbed by Russia and open the door to its seeking increased cooperation with Georgia.
Back to our travelogue: After hours of trying to convince the Russian-speaking Abkhazian border patrol officers that our visas should be enough for entrance, the once scorching sun began to set. We knew Georgia’s side of the border would soon close. The threat of getting stuck in no-man’s land, between here and there, between east and west like a modern day Checkpoint Charlie, forced us to reluctantly turn back to spend the night in Zugdidi.
The very next day, we hitched a ride back to Tbilisi. Unsurprisingly, our driver was a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia. After the Abkhaz-Georgia conflict in 1992-1993 immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Georgians living in Abkhazia were expelled or fled. A large number settled in Zugdidi, which caused Zugdidi’s population to swell with internally displaced Georgians. He told us how the Georgian government helped him and his family resettle, after they lost their home in Abkhazia in 1993. He had no love left for Abkhazia and wondered why we, as Western tourists, would ever want to set foot there. Everything is decrepit and falling apart, he explained. “The Russians don’t care about that place and the Abkhazians let it fall to ruin. I had many Abkhaz friends; we had no problems with each other. It’s the Russians who caused the violence. Putin is scared of a strong and independent Georgia.” His sense of loss was palpable, but his Georgian patriotism was even more apparent.
The boundary between Georgia and Abkhazia is more than just a border between the West and Russia. The fractured discourse between Abkhazians and Georgians is as great as that between Greek and Turkish Cypriots or between Israelis and Palestinians. As with the latter conflict, the narrative gap is simply getting worse and worse as the world becomes more fractured.
Back in Tbilisi, Ukrainian flags are sold alongside Georgian ones in the souvenir shops. The gourmet food scene and well-curated museums give a first-world gloss sitting perilous a top a dramatically unequal society. While tourism has recently surged in Tbilisi, particularly among Russians, Israelis, Gulf Arabs, and Iranians, the country’s GDP growth has fallen sharply in the past two years and unemployment remains high. Besides its production of wine, Georgia has little to offer international markets. But it has shown a strong willingness to adopt European and Western values, but not their commercial practices.
The saying “where there is conflict there is opportunity” rings true in the South Caucasus. Here, conflict with Russia provides Georgia an opportunity for continued American and European patronage. The perpetuation of conflict helps their allies on the ground. It can be argued that Georgians don’t want to resolve the conflict because continuing it ensures Western defense aid and makes the small country more important in international affairs. But at what point does conflict become too costly?
While Trump’s first moves as president hangs perilously over Georgia, Tbilisi would be better off to keep Abkhazia open to the outside world before Georgia loses more than it bargained for. Like in varied theaters of conflict from Syria to Libya, from the Baltics to Belgrade, the future of Georgia and Abkhazia hang in the balances between Trump and Putin.
Lolita Brayman is an immigration attorney specialising in refugee and asylum law. She holds an MA in conflict resolution & mediation and has written extensively about post-Soviet countries.
Jason Pack is a researcher of World History at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Anaylsis®