Abkhazia's tourism fights to regain fabled legacy
Russians are flocking back to the Black Sea beaches, although a string of recent bombings exposes the breakaway republic's ongoing tensions with Georgia.
(Page 2 of 2)
Adding to the intrigue, the Moscow daily Kommersant published details last week about what it called a secret agreement between Russia and Georgia to divide Abkhazia into "spheres of influence," in which Russia would get the tourist region of the north – a report all sides denied.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The clashing narratives of the Abkhazians and the Georgians are almost impossible to sort out. The Abkhaz, the indigenous ethnic group, claim a long history separate from Georgia and allege that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) redrew the map to make Abkhazia part of Georgia and ordered thousands of Georgian settlers into the region. When Abkhazia tried to declare independence following the USSR's collapse, they say, the Georgian army was sent in to suppress them. With help from thousands of volunteers, including Russian Cossacks and Chechen fighters, the Abkhazians defeated Tbilisi's forces in 1993.
"When Abkhazia was freed from Georgian occupation, the Georgian population left because they were afraid of retaliation for what they had done against us," says Staninslav Lakova, head of Abkhazia's Security Council, a top state body. He says Israel and Kosovo have generated refugees but have not been denied independence.
Still, most of the world continues to recognize Abkhazia as an integral part of Georgia. Even Russia has so far stopped short of recognizing Abkhazia's independence.
"Moscow knows that undermining the principle of territorial integrity would create serious problems," in multi-ethnic Russia, says Tina Gogeliani, an analyst with the Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi.
The present-day population of Abkhazia, about 200,000, is barely a third of the prewar numbers. "The majority of Abkhazia's legitimate population are internally displaced persons, and they would have to be consulted" in any independence referendum, Ms. Gogeliani says.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has pinned his country's long-term hopes for reintegration on joining NATO and drawing closer to the European Union. He also raised the military budget by 30 percent to $600 million last year, an action Abkhazians say they fear is aimed at them.
Despite their bleak position, some Abkhazian leaders argue that time is on their side. "We are very much in contact with other countries that are as yet unrecognized, such as Taiwan, Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, and dozens of others that are on the verge of statehood," says Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister.
After Kosovo won its independence, he says, the wave of aspiring microstates is going to become unstoppable. "We have noticed an uptick in Western interest in Abkhazia lately, and we think at least some people in Washington and European capitals are starting to reassess our situation. We've been widely misrepresented as a separatist movement that wants to join Russia but we just want what other peoples have, to be free and take our place in the world community."