‘Abkhazia: Suspended in Time and History’ by Thomas de Waal

Abkhazia is an almost magical land on the shores of the Black Sea, a little slice of paradise with high mountains, stony rivers running down to a shore full of palm trees, sandy beaches and white-washed houses. It is named after the Abkhaz, a small ethnic group of less than 100,000 people.

In 1992 this paradise was devastated by war, when Abkhaz and Georgians fought a terrible conflict for ownership of this place. Thirty years on, the ruins of that war are still everywhere to be seen. Today, the Abkhaz say they live in an independent country. Western governments tell them they are still part of Georgia. Everything is disputed, even the place-names. The Georgians call Abkhazia’s main city Sokhumi, the Abkhaz call it Sukhum or Aqwa.

In Soviet times everyone loved Abkhazia. In the 1920s they called it “Soviet Florida” to celebrate its golden beaches, new sanatoriums and orchards of tangerines. For Communist Party officials it was their Riviera. They came on holiday here every summer. Important guests like Fidel Castro came to visit too, danced and drank wine from a big cattle horn trimmed with silver in the tradition of the Caucasus. Joseph Stalin, born in Georgia, loved Abkhazia more than his own homeland. In his final years he spent months at a time here at a secluded mansion in the hills named Cold River. Stalin was less fond of the Abkhaz themselves. His cruellest Georgian henchman Lavrentiy Beria was born in Abkhazia and in the 1930s launched a campaign to kill and torture the Abkhaz leadership and crush their language and culture.  After Stalin’s death, restrictions were mostly lifted. Everyone lived together here again, mostly peacefully: the Abkhaz, the Georgians, the Armenians, the Russians, Greeks and Turks and others. People went back and forth to each other’s houses, for each other’s christenings and weddings and funerals. Often they married someone from another ethnic group.

Tensions ran below the surface. By the 1980s ethnic Georgians heavily outnumbered Abkhaz. Each considered they were the true custodians of the place.

In 1984 in the Abkhaz town of Pitsunda by the Black Sea a young member of the Soviet Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, walked along the beach with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Communist Party leader of Georgia. A year later Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union and Shevardnadze was his foreign minister. Gorbachev initiated democratic change, and then disintegration. Glasnost meant that people were allowed to speak their minds—and they disagreed, first peacefully, then violently. The Georgians started to say that they did not want to be ruled by Moscow. The Abkhaz said that they no longer wanted to be part of Georgia. Neighbours fell out with neighbours. Multi-ethnic marriages broke up.

In 1992, when the USSR no longer existed, war broke out. Eduard Shevardnadze had returned to be the leader of Georgia. Georgia’s ministry of defence sent an armed group into Abkhazia to overthrow the local government. Volunteers rushed in to fight on each side. Increasingly, the Russian army supported the Abkhaz against the Georgians.

Fourteen months later, in October 1993, Abkhazia was devastated. The Abkhaz won a military victory but their homeland was in ruins. Fifteen thousand people had been killed. Almost the entire ethnic Georgian population—more than two hundred thousand people—fled or were driven out. For years many of them lived in old Soviet hotels or sanatoriums. Most of them are still unable to return.

For many years there were international negotiations, which went nowhere. Then in 2008, Georgia went to war with Russia over another disputed province, South Ossetia. Five days after it was over, Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent state and also recognized Abkhazia. Now Abkhazia has a Russian embassy and Abkhaz have Russian passports. The Abkhaz flag flies outside the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow. Russia puts its troops and border guards on the border line with western Georgia. Moscow supplies more than half the budget. Russian tourists come to the beaches every summer. But Russia’s support makes Abkhazia even more isolated from the rest of the world than it was before 2008.

Abkhazia mostly feels like a normal country to visit. You can sit on the embankment by the Black Sea, next to the Russian tourists drink good black coffee and watch old men play dominoes. You can visit the modern art space named SKLAD and watch excellent plays in the theatre. But this peace is still an illusion. People still keep weapons at home, just in case. Even getting to Abkhazia is difficult. Europeans must visit by crossing the bridge across the River Inguri from Georgian-controlled territory. Abkhaz face difficulties traveling or studying in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians are unable to return home. Abkhazia is suspended in time and history, until the world can work out how to resolve its conflict with Georgia.

March 8, 2021

Photo credit: AMRA Pier, Sukhum/i, Abkhazia. One of the film’s locations. 35mm black & white photograph, buried in soil, hand processed and treated with the AI Deep Dream Generator. © 2016-2021 Kamila Kuc