SUKHUMI, ABKHAZIA — The fate of Abkhazia has worried me ever since I first paid a visit here five years ago. A subtropical, citrus-scented paradise with snow-capped mountains, picturesque canyons and warm sea that can compete with the French Riviera, Abkhazia is also — politically speaking — an illegitimate child whose independence is not recognized by anyone except Russia.
Who in the world knows anything about Abkhazia? It can be compared to Kosovo, though perhaps more as an anti-Kosovo. Just as Russia is unwilling to recognize an independent Kosovo, the West won’t recognize Abkhazia. The 200,000 or so Abkhazians are caught between a rock and a hard place — Russia and Georgia.
Abkhazia is an ancient kingdom that became part of the Russian Empire in the beginning of the 19th century. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it found itself part of an independent Georgia. After fighting a war with Georgia in the early 1990s, Abkhazia declared independence. After the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state and gave it military protection from Georgia. But not even the former Soviet republics, including Belarus, recognized Abkhazia.
Now, visiting again, I have come to understand that this is a country with a human face, not a bandit’s squint. Abkhazia’s problem is that it cannot get the international community to listen to the reasons why it declared independence, or to appreciate the democratic principles of its "illegal” governance.
All Abkhazia’s politicians reject any notion of reuniting with Georgia. They remember the violent "Georgiafication” of the country under Stalin, the arrogance of Tbilisi, the ban on their language. The war with Georgia created thousands of Georgian refugees, a problem that is not resolved and is not likely to be resolved. Abkhazia will not return to Georgian rule under any conditions. So what can be done? Force Abkhazia back into the Georgian fold, or continue the nonrecognition and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist?
Despite the ambiguity of the Kremlin’s role in the Abkhazian-Georgian war, when President Boris Yeltsin hesitated in choosing sides and the former Soviet states ordered a blockade of Abkhazia, Russia eventually took custody of the country, to a certain extent to spite Georgia. The Russian military presence here is highly visible. Walk to the beach and you see Russian naval ships. All international connections are only through Russia.
So what is today’s Abkhazia? A coveted piece of land, that will be gradually swallowed up by Russia, or an independent state that accepted a close alliance with Russia as an emergency measure? In my opinion, it is neither. The people value their independence too highly to be ruled by Russia; nevertheless, they are truly grateful for this guarantee of their independence.
Abkhazia is facing another critical moment. Its president, Sergei Bagapsh, died unexpectedly in Moscow in May. Conspiracy theories abound, and the fact is that it was hard to call Bagapsh a puppet. Relations with Moscow are always complex, and not only for Abkhazia. Chechnya and other north Caucasus hot spots are part of Russia. Shamil Basayev, the infamous Chechen terrorist, did a lot for Abkhazia’s liberation from Georgia — a fact remembered both in Moscow and in Tbilisi.
Presidential elections will be held in Abkhazia on Aug. 26. They promise to be free and fair. I spoke about the prospects for the development of Abkhazia with the acting president, Alexander Ankvab, who might emerge as the next president.
Ankvab does not hide his pro-Russian stance. After the Russia-Georgia war, he finally stopped sleeping with a Kalashnikov under his pillow. Other politicians, like the current prime minister, Sergei Shamba, are also close to Moscow. But pro-Russian sentiments can vary. I believe that Moscow wants a reliable Abkhazian president, not a loose tooth. But the signals from Moscow are very unclear. Abkhazia needs political wisdom and virtuosity to orchestrate policies that keep Russia as an ally, not a threat. Ankvab says it is critical to develop relations with the West and strongly objects to the notion of "cooperation without recognition.” I don’t understand why Europe limits access for Abkhazian students to European universities, where they can absorb Western values. If Abkhazia will never return to Georgia, is it really wise to put brakes on its democratic development, forcing it further into the Russian fold?
Everything should be done to ensure that the Abkhaz people — still in shock from their huge losses in the Georgian war and slowly restoring the country’s vital agricultural base — will not feel like outcasts in the world.
Abkhazia cannot be erased. Its people, with their vitality, humor and religious depth — know that if geopolitics turns against them, it will not be their fault.
Although Georgia has not yet become reconciled to Abkhazia’s independence, the Georgians themselves know all too well how their decision to follow a Western path to development provoked the resistance of their giant northern neighbor. It is a truism of nature and of politics that big fish seek to devour smaller fish, which in turn prey on even smaller fish. Can we not move away from this primitive political Darwinism? Only the gradual movement of Abkhazia toward Europe can facilitate its future rapprochement with Georgia.
Victor Erofeyev is a Russian writer and television host. Translated from the Russian by the International Herald Tribune.