Georgian Returnees in Abkhazia Fear War and Renewed Flight

Amid the phone calls from customers ordering bread, pizza and the cheese-filled pie "khachapuri," Nanka Lashkarava reflected on her life in her 10-square-meter bakery in Gali, south Abkhazia.

She holds an Abkhaz ID from a republic nobody recognizes, a Soviet passport from an entity that no longer exists and a Georgian ID card from a country that lies on the other side of a non-recognized border.

Still, her current legal limbo seems an improvement on her previous existence as a refugee in Moscow.

But if war breaks out between Russia and Georgia over Abkhazia, as it did over South Ossetia, another separatist region between Russia and Georgia, she knows she will have to pack up her life and flee. Again.

The baker, whose name has been changed for this story, is one of an estimated 45,000 ethnic Georgians to have returned to Abkhazia out of roughly 200,000 who fled the conflict between Georgia and its breakaway region in 1993.

The return of the pre-war population has been a key issue in the dispute between the Georgian government and the secessionist Abkhaz authorities based in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi. The Gali district is the only area where ethnic Georgians have been allowed to go back since the end of the conflict.

The brief but nasty war over South Ossetia further casts a shadow over the fate of these people, as Abkhazia's government this week asked Russia to recognize the region's independence.

Currently, the border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper is sealed, stranding people used to traveling freely between the two regions.

The violence in the Kodori gorge, another hot spot in Abkhazia, has added to the tension. Georgian troops regained control of the small pocket of land two years ago. With Georgia focused on the Russian troops entering its territory from South Ossetia, the Sukhumi faction in Abkhazia managed to regain the gorge.

The de facto independent Abkhaz authorities tolerate the returnees to the Gali district, which was and remains an almost exclusively ethnic Georgian area -- the population is almost totally Mingrelian, regarded as a Georgian subgroup -- but so far, for security reasons, greater numbers have not returned elsewhere and the ethnic Abkhaz maintain an almost exclusive control over the local administration.

Meanwhile, the Georgian government in Tbilisi is committed to the full-scale return of the displaced to Abkhazia.

But as the request for Russian recognition suggests, the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia has strengthened the resolve of the authorities in Sukhumi to seek independence.

"We paid a high price for our independence over the last 15 years," said the young deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gunjia, over the phone from Sukhumi. "We won't be part of Russia or Georgia."

So will Abkhazia get the independence green light from Moscow?

"If any country will recognize it as an independent state," George Hewitt, a professor at the SOAS University in London, told ABC News over the phone from Sukhumi, "Russia should not be the first, as it'll convince the Georgians and the West that Moscow has been maneuvering the tension in the Caucasus."

Hewitt thinks the solution must come through negotiations. Currently, that seems not to be an option, so the deadlock remains for Abkhaz and Georgians alike.

Troubled Past

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