Abkhazia: The disputed land of the soul

Government House, Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Government House, Sukhumi, Abkhazia (© Flickr/Tony)

Five years ago, on August 14, 1992, war broke out on the shores of the Black Sea in Abkhazia, a lush and picturesque province of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Georgian troops marched into the province to quash Abkhazia’s demands for autonomy within the newly independent Georgia. By the time the Abkhazians expelled the Georgians a year later, 10-thousand people had been killed and more than a quarter of a million had fled. Today, Abkhazians proudly proclaim their independence, but not a single country recognises “Aapswa”, which in Abkhazian means “The Land of the Soul”.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: August 20, 1997


The Black Sea used to be the favorite holiday destination of Soviet leaders and millions of Soviet workers. They particularly enjoyed coming to Abkhazia, a lush and picturesque province of Georgia. All that ended abruptly five years ago, on August 14th 1992, when Georgian troops marched into Abkhazia to quash its demands for autonomy within the newly independent Georgia. By the time the Abkhazians expelled the Georgians a year later, 10-thousand people had been killed and more than a quarter of a million had fled. Today, Abkhazians proudly proclaim their independence, but not a single country recognizes “Aapswa”, which in Abkhazian means “The Land of the Soul”.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Disputed Land of the Soul: Abkhazia”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

For hundreds of years, the destinies of Abkhazia and Georgia have been closely intertwined. Just how closely is at the heart of the present dispute over Abkhazia’s status. For the Georgians, Abkhazia has been an integral part of their country for nearly a thousand years. But the Abkhazians say that their nation became independent in the 8th century, a status they maintained for long periods until the 19th century when Abkhazia came under the protection of the Russian Empire. It remained a separate state until 1864, when Russia annexed it. The Russians expelled half the population of Abkhazia to Turkey, and in their place came a myriad of different nationalities including Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Estonians, and Georgians. Abkhazia completely lost its independence in 1925 when the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin incorporated Abkhazia into Georgia as an autonomous republic. It was a bitter blow to the Abkhaz, but some of Stalin’s other policies had an even more profound impact on the destiny of Abkhazia, according to Martin van Harten, who’s the program coordinator of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the Caucasus.

The people in Abkhazia, they remember Stalin as the big Georgian who started this policy of the friendship between the Soviet peoples. And more than that, they remember Beiria, who was not only one of the… the architect of the KGB but also who set up the whole population policy in Georgia which just aimed at creating a Georgian nation state and getting rid of the minorities. There was a huge population policy scheme in the Soviet Union which was Stalin’s policy to eliminate the populations either by mass deportations, like with the Chechens and the Crimea Tatars or with a ruthless assimilation policy.

Stalin’s policies completely changed the ethnic make-up of Abkhazia. In the late 19th century, over 85% of Abkhazia’s population was of Abkhaz origin, and only 6% were Georgians. A century later, the demographic composition had been radically altered: Georgians made up nearly half the population, while the Abkhaz had become a small minority in their own country. Even though the two languages are completely unrelated, Georgian replaced Abkhaz in schools and the Abkhaz script was converted to a Georgian base. After Stalin’s death, some of these measures were rescinded, but subsequent Georgian policies to preserve and strengthen their control over the province did nothing to alleviate the Abkhazians’ fear of Georgian nationalism.

Tensions between the two ethnic groups surfaced in the late 1970’s, when the Abkhaz asked to secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. Moscow turned them down, but the Abkhaz request incensed Georgians and fueled growing sentiments amongst the Georgians in Abkhazia that it was they who were being discriminated, not the Abkhaz. By 1990, with the Soviet Union beginning to crumble, the Georgian and Abkhaz Supreme Soviets were engaged in a furious legal tug-of-war over Abkhazia’s status. Martin van Harten again.

When the war broke out in 1992, Abkhazians had some reason to be afraid that Georgian nationalists would resume Beiria’s policy. Maybe they were too much living in the past but it was not just nonsense. It was not rhetoric. It was a real fear and to talk about that fear is a bit of a taboo in Georgia where Stalin is still the great Georgian and where you still have big Stalin commemorations.

Destroyed building in the capital SukhumiDestroyed building in the capital Sukhumi (© Eric Beauchemin)

On August 14, 1992, Georgian troops marched into Abkhazia to reassert Georgia’s control over the territory. They opened fire on the parliament building, and among the first targets were many of Abkhazia’s cultural and historical monuments. Many members of Abkhazia’s ethnic and religious minorities – like the Jews, Greeks and Armenians – left the country. But the Abkhaz rallied to fight for their nation’s independence, reportedly with the support of the Russian military. What exactly happened during the year-long Georgian military occupation remains unclear: both the Georgians and the Abkhaz have since published books detailing the atrocities, ethnic cleansing and destruction carried out by the other side. But neither party disputes the fact that by the time the Georgians were expelled in late September 1993, 10.000 people had been killed, and a quarter of a million forced to flee.
A group of young men takes a break at a café in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, their car stereo blasting in the background. Nowadays, few people can afford to go have a drink or eat out: the average salary in Abkhazia, for the few who have a job, is about 20 dollars a month. According to Daour Barganje, chairman of the country’s central bank, Abkhazia’s economy and infrastructure have been almost completely wiped out.

Almost the whole territory of Abkhazia was affected by the fighting. It is almost 90% of economic decline in the first post-war year. In war time, we are trying to conduct some type of economic reforms to create the new industry, to create the new private sector, to privatize the state-controlled enterprises. All these things make things very difficult.

Make-shift bathMake-shift bath (© Eric Beauchemin)

As always, it’s the weakest in society who are suffering most: children, disabled people and the elderly. There are several international relief organisations active in Abkhazia to assist the most vulnerable. The French branch of MSF, Doctors without Borders, has been working primarily with the tens of thousands of elderly people in the country. MSF provides them with medical care and assists those who are housebound.

This is Lopatina Olgana Tolivna (sp?). She’s about 80. She’s one of the most vulnerable persons in our town. Before, she was a doctor, gynecologist. But she has no children, no relative in Sukhumi, in Abkhazia too. And she’s blind, disabled.

EB: What was it like for you during the war? She said her house was burnt down and she was left without any things, any clothes. Then they found one place. They lived there, but it was very also bad. And then they found this house and began to live here. You see, she’s speaking about her sister. Two years ago, her sister, she died. And she was the only person who took care of her. Now, do you know that the woman who is coming here and bringing her food from the canteen, she sleeps here. EB: Your apartment is also much cleaner now. She said it was very much…she used the Russian word, which I can’t even translate. It was so dirty, like in a toilet, you see, and now it is much better. She said three times the rat bite her and even she…even it was sleeping with her in the bed. You see…

Elderly pensionerElderly pensioner (© Eric Beauchemin)

I’ve come here to the center of Sukhumi with Chantal Girard, who works for MSF France. They have opened a clinic here in the center of town for vulnerable people. It’s located behind what used to be the psychiatric hospital here in the Abkhaz capital. The building, as with many other buildings in the center of Sukhumi, was badly damaged in the war. Most of the windows have been blown out. There’s been a lot of looting. The roof is leaking. And what MSF France has done is it has restored one part of the building in the back actually, and this is where the clinic is located. Chantal, to whom are you providing medical assistance.

Most of the people who are coming here is old woman. The region is most of the time Russia. By day, about 40 people are coming to receive medicine because they receive medicine free of charge. All the treatment is given by MSF.

EB: What type of medical problems do the people face? Most of the problems is about pulmonary, cardiac and rheumatism. EB: It his clinic were not here, would these people be able to receive treatment? No, if the dispensary is not there, people have to buy. And how to buy medicine when they do not have any money, when they do not have anything to eat. I mean, it’s a necessity in Abkhazia.

Women taking food homeWomen taking food home (© Eric Beauchemin)

Abkhazia’s old age pensioners receive 15-hundred roubles a month, that’s a little over 25 US cents…the price of a loaf of bread. But they’re not the only ones in desperate need of relief aid. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, is providing emergency supplies to people in need throughout Abkhazia. The Red Cross has also opened 20 soup kitchens for over 6.000 elderly and disabled people as well as families with many children, like this communal kitchen I visited in Sukhumi.

This is the manager of this canteen. Her name is Angela. EB: And how many people do they provide food to? 300 beneficiaries every day. The canteen is their only sources of living. EB: So these people eat only once a day then? Normally, yes, once a day. EB: What about people who have difficulty walking? If it’s difficult for them to attend the canteen every day, their neighbors help them or the representatives from the local Red Cross.

Macaroni with corned beef for the second dish. So, it’ll be pea soup but isn’t ready. Here it is soup. And you… EB: And there’s meat in the soup, meat and potatoes. Yes, meat, potatoes, beans and sometimes green during the summer period. EB: Do they also get fruit? No, normally they got no fruits. Sometimes vegetables. Our sovkhoz, normally our sovkhoz provide them with vegetables during the summer period. Would you like to taste… EB: No, that’s fine.

Pedrinho is one of the people who every day makes his way past the burnt out buildings and rubble that still line the streets of the Abkhaz capital on his way to one of the communal kitchens. He’s a 75-year-old former engineer and he’s a bit deaf.

I have no work you know. I’m too old and my pension is 1.5, so no money at all. EB: You don’t have any family either? As to my relatives, some of them are living in Moscow. Sometimes they help me but it’s not enough.

Deserted street in Sukhumi
Deserted street in Sukhumi (© Eric Beauchemin)

Even though Pedrinho is struggling to survive, in some ways he’s fortunate. He’s able to keep in touch with his relatives in Russia. Many of the people in Abkhazia have no contact with their relatives outside. Since it’s virtually impossible to send mail or make phone calls from Abkhazia to the outside world, people are almost completely dependent on the ICRC’s message service to contact their relatives. The Red Cross office in Sukhumi receives about 2000 messages a month and sends 400. Valenkyena has come to send a message to her daughter who fled to Georgia after the war.

For nearly 2 months, I have heard nothing from my daughter. I sent her five letters and no answer at all. EB: Do you know why? No, I do not know the reason. She’s in a worry about what’s happened. So she sent her for several times some letters and no replies. What’s happening? Can you answer me what’s the reason? I must my neighbor every day to come here and to find if there’s a reply or not. EB: Without this message service, would you be able to contact your daughter? Only due to our organization, she can communicate with her daughter.

Sometimes, I can visit her when I have an opportunity to cross the border. But I haven’t been there since 8 months. EB: Is it difficult for you to cross the border? I have to take a special permission from our government. If I can take it, I can go. If not, I have to stay here.

The pain of separation is felt perhaps even more keenly on the other side of the border in Georgia. Most of the quarter of a million ethnic Georgians and Mingrelians who fled or were forced to leave after the war have been unable to return to Abkhazia. For the past four years, they’ve been living in overcrowded and often miserable conditions in factories, schools and hotels throughout Georgia.

Iveria Hotel in the Georgian capital Tbilisi
Iveria Hotel in the Georgian capital Tbilisi (© Eric Beauchemin)

Most live in the districts near the border, but tens of thousands have taken refuge in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Over a thousand are staying in the Iveria Hotel, which towers over one of the city’s main squares. The hotel’s balconies are draped with drying clothes, sheets, and household items. It’s an eye-sore but also a constant reminder to Georgians that the Abkhazia issue remains unsolved. Lia Pjalaba and her two teenage children took refuge there four years ago.

When my home town of Gagra fell to the Abkhazian forces in October 1992, my children and I came here. My mother stayed behind in Gagra. She thought it would be safe but she was murdered by the Abkhaz. I have family in Tbilisi, but I didn’t want to impose on them, so I decided to come to this hotel. EB: Are you working or doing anything? I don’t have a job and I haven’t got involved in trading at the market like some of the other people here because I have nothing to trade. My family and I are totally dependent on international relief aid for survival. I can’t even think of building a new life for myself and my family here. EB: Do you think you will be able to return to Abkhazia soon? I don’t know what to think any more. I’m beginning to lose hope. The Georgian government says we’ll be able to return soon, but I have lost faith in the authorities. They’re not doing anything. Maybe I’ll be able to go back in 5 years from now, maybe 10. But sometimes I think I’ll never be able to return. That’s all we talk about here: going back home. It’s nerve-wracking. I just want one thing: to go back to home in Abkhazia.

Displaced refugees in TbilisiDisplaced refugees in Tbilisi (© Eric Beauchemin)

The border is in theory open for Lia Pjalaba and the other quarter of a million displaced people in Georgia to return to their homes. But most are unwilling to go back until a political settlement is reached. They fear the lawlessness which reigns in many parts of Abkhazia, and all the displaced people are aware of the reports of attacks and discrimination against non-Abkhazians. They also say that they’re unwilling to return because the Abkhaz authorities demand that they sign a declaration of loyalty. Nonetheless, large numbers of displaced people have gone back to farm their land on the other side of the Inguri river, which separates Abkhazia from Georgia. According to Ekber Menemencioglu, the representative of the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tbilisi, they’re returning to very difficult conditions.

There is over 50,000 people who have returned, and the current rate of return is at some 1500 per month. But, that being said, the level of destruction is such that we don’t know how many people will remain after the agricultural season. Last year, the people who went through the winter was between 35 and 40.000 people. This year, we expect more people to remain, but a lot of them will return to the other side of the river when it gets a bit difficult if their houses are not complete. And the race now is: how many housing units we can provide before the winter begins. We would like to create some conditions of a municipal society to live there. There are mundane problems, like somebody has to fix the water system, a system of collecting garbage. All the normal needs of a civilian population plus these people have decided to move into a minefield.

The mines and the lack of normal facilities – like schools, health centers and any type of work – make the return of people to other areas in Abkhazia impossible. But the main stumbling block continues to be the lack of a political agreement. Over three years ago, the Georgians and Abkhaz reached a ceasefire agreement in Moscow under United Nations auspices. The accord also provided for the stationing of UN military observers as well as 15-hundred Russian troops – under a mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States – who patrol the southern border region between Abkhazia and Georgia. The soldiers and UN observers have succeeded in maintaining the peace, but the political negotiations are not making much progress, says the Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba.

Since the signing the agreement in 1994, several meetings have taken place between Abkhaz and Georgian officials, but the Georgians are continuing to block a final settlement of the conflict. They are training terrorists and sending them to Abkhazia to carry out attacks here. In the beginning, it was only in the south, but now they are regularly carrying out terrorist attacks throughout our country. None of this helps to build on the 1994 agreement.

Buildings in Sukhumi destroyed during the conflictBuildings in Sukhumi destroyed during the conflict (© Eric Beauchemin)

Nevertheless, there continue to be contacts and meetings between the two sides, most recently in mid-August when the Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba (1945-2010) traveled to Tbilisi for the first time since the outbreak of the war to hold talks with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. The Abkhaz have been calling for full and unconditional independence from Georgia, a demand which is completely unacceptable to the Georgians. As a compromise, they’ve suggested a confederation with Georgia, but the Georgians argue that it they were to accept this formula, the Abkhaz could then turn around, withdraw from the confederation and create their own independent state. The Georgians for their part are willing to grant far-reaching autonomy to Abkhazia, but the Abkhaz say that past experience has taught them that sooner or later, the Georgians will try to stamp out their culture and identity. Nonetheless, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba is confident that the two sides will be able to bridge their differences.

It’s often said that the negotiating process is deadlocked, but this isn’t true. We have made serious progress. We agreed on a basic document and recently we have reached a compromise on the last outstanding issues. I can’t reveal the details because we’ve agreed on a news blackout until the document is signed. I’ve said that I am willing to sign this agreement, but President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia is stalling. He’s demanding more concessions from us, but we cannot and will not make any more concessions. As it is, it will be very difficult for me and my government to explain and sell this agreement to my people. But I am rather optimistic that we will soon reach a settlement.

The Abkhaz realize that this compromise probably means abandoning their long cherished dream of reestablishing an independent nation. A settlement would also entail the return of the quarter of a million people who fled. If they come back, the Abkhaz will again find themselves in a small minority in their own country. They’ve been arguing that a return of the displaced people should be accompanied by the return of the half a million descendents of the Abkhaz who were expelled to Turkey a century ago. They say this would ensure that the Abkhaz remain a majority in their own country. Many Georgians dismiss the idea, saying it’s unlikely that the Abkhaz in Turkey would want to return anyway. Nonetheless, the Georgian government is trying to address some of the Abkhaz fears. Non-governmental organizations are also trying to find solutions to end the impasse. One of the main reasons that there’s been so little progress, says Marten van Harten of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, is Abkhazia’s almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Contact with Georgia is almost non-existent and for the past three years, Abkhazia’s only other border with Russia has also been sealed because of an economic blockade imposed by Moscow.

What we are trying to do is to break the isolation of the country and to bring intellectuals, but also the civic activists and also the moderate politicians on common platforms. For instance, two months ago we had the first conference in Abkhazia including local Abkhazians and Georgians, and that really helped. It was a breakthrough. It was a breakthrough in breaking stereotypes and also in coming to talks on real issues, like the refugee issue.

The United Nations Volunteer program is also trying to encourage contacts between the various sides in the Abkhaz conflict. It recently organized a conference in Brussels which brought together politicians and other prominent figures to discuss possible solutions. One of the options that’s gaining growing support, says Stanislav Lakoba of the Abkhazian Research Institute for Humanities Studies, is the idea of a confederation, bringing together the plethora of peoples who inhabit the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions in the former Soviet Union.

The borders in the Caucasus are not recognized by the peoples who live in this region. They were a creation of the Soviet system and are undemocratic. Since the collapse of the USSR, these borders have been increasingly questioned. We suggested launching this confederation by concluding a treaty between Abkhazia, Georgia and Chechnya. The advantages for the Abkhaz and the Chechens are obvious. But a confederation would also be beneficial for the Georgians: Georgia would not lose Abkhazia because while we would be separate, we would still be within the same union.

Abandoned building on the Sukhumi coast Abandoned building on the Sukhumi coast (© Eric Beauchemin)

The idea came a step closer to fruition in mid-August when the former Chechen president announced the establishment of a political party whose primary objective was the creation of independent confederation of the Caucasus. Whether the Georgians would welcome such a confederation is uncertain, but during their talks in Tbilisi, the Abkhaz and Georgian presidents pledged that they would not to resort to violence to resolve their conflict. They also agreed on the need to maintain permanent contacts to resolve the dispute. Both leaders realize that the longer the impasse drags on, the greater the appeal of extremist Georgian nationalists who are only too willing to exploit the frustrations of the displaced people whose lives have been on hold for over five years now. Frustration is also mounting among the Abkhaz who are unable to restart their lives or their economy because of the country’s isolation. The road to a final settlement will not be easy, admits Gocha Lordkipanidze of the Georgian Foreign Ministry, but there’s no other way.

I think it will take time. It will take time to restore the confidence. As you know, there was bloodshed on both sides. There are many families killed in action. So from the human point of view, I see your point, but you can’t live with hatred forever.

“The Disputed Land of the Soul” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Robert Giesselbach. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.