Russian Leadership's Backyard Troubles

Since Lakoba's boss, Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh, announced his support for a plan to allow foreigners to buy local real estate, the threat of a fire sale to Russians has been the main topic of conversation in the city's caf├ęs. "We could soon end up like the Indians, who sold Manhattan for cheap necklaces," warns the editor-in-chief of a local daily newspaper.

In his book "The History of Abkhazia," Lakoba describes how his homeland was afflicted by forced displacement, punitive expeditions and bloody ethnic cleansing, sometimes initiated by Moscow and sometimes by Tbilisi. One of the victims was Lakoba's great-uncle Nestor. He was the leader of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic when Georgian Communist leader Lavrentiy Beria poisoned him in Tbilisi in 1936, simultaneously poisoning the relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians.

Lakoba sums up the policies of the Bolsheviks' predecessors when he writes: "Czarism needed Abkhazia without Abkhazians." But which Abkhazia needs Putinism today? Russia's strongman, who wants to prevent NATO barracks on Georgian soil from encroaching on his summer home in Sochi, treats Abkhazia and South Ossetia as his pawn against foreign influence. Lakoba, on the other hand, envisions Abkhazia as a "small, neutral and cosmopolitan state."

Vestiges of a Civil War

The road to the impoverished provincial city of Gali, 70 kilometers south of Sukhumi, is lined with burned-out houses, vestiges of the 1990s civil war. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian national guard and paramilitary units attacked Abkhazia, which was seeking independence and was supported in its effort by Moscow. The conflict claimed the lives of 8,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides and forced 240,000 people to flee Abkhazia.

Because of that civil war, not even the smallest political faction can imagine reintegration into Georgia today. The "territorial integrity of Georgia" demanded by Americans and Europeans is currently nothing but an empty phrase.

A road dotted with deep potholes, with more oxen on it than people, leads from Gali to the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. At the border checkpoint, uniformed Abkhazians serve in rusty metal huts, reinforced by Russian FSB border guards living in gray tents surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.

German prisoners of war built the bridge spanning the Inguri River into Georgia proper after World War II. The murky water flows between the warring Caucasus republics. Georgian villages on the opposite bank shimmer, mirage-like, in the sweltering early afternoon heat.

A hunched-over, 80-year-old woman wearing oversized rubber boots is trudging toward the bridge. She lives in a village on the Abkhazian side and is returning from a hospital stay in the nearby Georgian city of Zugdidi. The woman is too poor to pay the fare of one Lari, or about 42 cents, to cross the bridge on a horse-drawn cart. But then help arrives, as a convoy of four white, armor-clad jeeps flying the blue flag of the European Union slowly approaches the bridge. An officer from Lithuania gets out of one of the jeeps, speaks to the woman and gives her the Lari.

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