By C. J. CHIVERS
Published: August 20, 2006
EVERY summer the Russian tourists arrive by the thousands at a Black Sea resort area they regard as their own. They come with urges shared by tourists the world over, for sun and drink and days lounging on the shore. Their destination is officially Georgia. But in their minds it is not Georgia at all.
It is Abkhazia, one of the thorniest issues dividing Russia and Western-supported Georgia in the volatile Caucasus. And it is one of four small regions in the southwestern reaches of the former Soviet Union whose status, 15 years on, remains unresolved. The others — South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria — are in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, respectively.
These four are the breakaways, regions that do not recognize the governments of the nations they find themselves in. All have declared independence. These frozen conflicts, as the disputes are called, have undermined the stability and development of a large swath of former Soviet space.
All were the scenes of short, vicious wars that ended in the 1990’s in cease-fires that so far have mostly held. The status quo in all four has assumed an enduring form: centralized local rule with intensive foreign support (from Russia, in all but Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia is the principal patron), indigenous security forces and carefully cultivated identities.
Each has had multiple forms of conflict: not just wars fought for territory and ethnic solidarity, but trade wars and wars of perception and for outside support.
What exactly are these places? The answers, always passionate, depend on who is asked. Nations? States? Ethnic statelets? Offshore investment regions, away from the eyes and reach of regulators? Lawless zones for black marketeers, fugitives and terrorists?
In the case of Abkhazia, where tourists blithely treat the beaches of another nation as if they were their own, the answers show how peculiar these enclaves are, and how elusive solutions will be.
For a Russian tourist, Abkhazia is a semi-tropical paradise, a lush territory where the sky-high Caucasus ridge falls swiftly to the sea. Many Russians regard Moscow’s interests in the region as irrefutable. The Abkhaz shore, after all, was developed by czars and later by Lenin himself. Stalin and Beria, his sinister chief of the secret police, spent their holidays at state dachas in Abkhazia, lending the Abkhaz coast its distinction as the Soviet Union’s most desired retreat.
The local crops, which include tangerines and tea, draw an implicit contrast with other Soviet climes. Think of a semi-developed Soviet Florida, the Red Riviera, albeit now with bombed-out hulks.
To the Abkhaz, who welcome Russian tourists and their cash, their land is more than a playground. Abkhazia regards itself as a nation. It issues visas, has an elected president, operates ministries and fields a military it claims can be augmented with a reserve force modeled after the Swiss, with thousands of armed and trained citizens ready to muster at tactically important locations on short notice.
But a nation it is not. It is an ethnic enclave, held by those who occupied the ground when the cease-fire was reached in 1993. No other country recognizes it. The cease-fire remains monitored by United Nations observers.
To the Kremlin, Abkhazia is a protectorate. In recent years, as Georgia has drifted Westward and its military abilities have improved, in part with Pentagon aid, Russia has granted citizenship to most of Abkhazia’s inhabitants. It is a policy akin to annexation. The Abkhaz have become, at least in terms of the documents they carry, “Russians” living abroad.
This support leaves the Kremlin open to charges of hypocrisy, given that Russia regards its own territorial integrity as inviolable and not open to discussion, even with a people, the Chechens, who wanted to secede.
Russia has leveled much of Chechnya and killed at least tens of thousands of people to make this point at home. The Kremlin has also stood firm on other territorial disputes. Just last week in the Kuril islands, off Russia’s eastern coast, its border guard fired on a Japanese fishing vessel harvesting crabs in a contested border area. A Japanese fisherman was killed. Russia blamed Japan.
With Russia becoming more emboldened on the world stage, the summer frolicking on the Abkhaz shore belies the tension that surrounds the place.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the Columbia-educated president of Georgia who came to power in 2004, has made national reunification a central aim. He is armed with the world’s map, which shows Abkhazia as Georgian land.
Abkhaz leaders, feeling secure under the protection of Moscow, treat talk of restoring Georgian authority as a call to war. And not just Abkhazia simmers. This year has brought fresh troubles in all four enclaves.
Ukraine and its West-leaning president have supported Moldova and cracked down on illegal exports from Transnistria, a manufacturing zone controlled in part by shadowy Russian interests. Russia, angry at Georgia and Moldova, has banned imports of both countries’ wines and spirits.
The Azeri and Armenian leaders, even after years of prodding from France, Russia and the United States, failed to find a settlement for Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled enclave within Azerbaijan where a long and mountainous frontline bristles with Armenian and Azeri troops. Their occasional shelling and sniping at each other has claimed lives on both sides. Azerbaijan plans to modernize its military, using surging oil revenues.
South Ossetia, a land-locked region in Georgia on the Russian border that Georgia regards as a smugglers’ haven, has had mysterious explosions. And Abkhazia has said that a recent Georgian special operation to clear a defiant paramilitary group from a gorge near its demarcation line signals preparation for war.
Georgia denies that, but last week Mr. Saakashvili ordered a doubling of Georgia’s military reserves, to 100,000 soldiers, a move Abkhazia characterized as militarization. And on and on.
But now is summer, still. The tourists come to the beaches. While fewer than last year, they suggest how firmly the enclaves remain in the grips of those who control them. Each arriving train also reflects how the enclaves’ complicated histories and entrenched interests make solutions unlikely any time soon.