View a slide show of postwar Abkhazia.
ABKHAZIA — Post-conflict zones are eerily quiet places. Nowadays, with the border closed since the August 2008 war, the only way to cross from western Georgia into the de facto Republic of Abkhazia, a territory of 3,250 square miles by the Black Sea, is by foot. When I left behind the Georgian military checkpoint and walked across the bridge over the Inguri River last month, it was a gloriously sunny day; the white peaks of the Caucasus Mountains sketched out hazily on the horizon to the north. But the silence was deathly.
Frogs are the main inhabitants of this no-man's land. Apart from the sound of my suitcase wheels skidding over the bumpy road, all I could hear was frogs croaking in the riverbed. I kept pace with a friendly group of Georgian women, some of the many thousands who go back and forth between Zugdidi, a town in western Georgia, and Gali, the southern region of Abkhazia. These Gali Georgians eke out a precarious existence with family and property on both sides of the border.
A few years ago, I might have enjoyed the spy-novel quality of this walk across a bridge in an international twilight zone. But this time my feelings were more in tune with those of the unfortunate Georgian women, whose lives had been divided by the checkpoints between western Georgia and would-be independent Abkhazia, and who have to regularly make this long walk rain or shine. "When will this ever end?" I wondered as I approached the uniformed guards on the other side of the bridge, manning the cement-and-steel gateway to Fortress Abkhazia.
Scenes of life in
The Republic of Abkhazia, geographically speaking, occupies a much-coveted slice of subtropical Black Sea coastline. But since 1993, it has not had a proper place on any political map. Having won a bitter civil conflict with the Georgian government in Tbilisi in the early 1990s, the indigenous Abkhaz and their allies, mainly Armenians and Russians, have built a de facto state with a functioning government, institutions, and media.
The Abkhaz state-building project received a boost following the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the other breakaway territory of South Ossetia. When the conflict ended, Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent state and dramatically increased its military presence there. But to most of the world, the Republic of Abkhazia is still part of sovereign Georgia and therefore an illegitimate entity, particularly as 200,000 of its prewar Georgian inhabitants are still prevented from returning home. Quasi-state, de facto entity, partially recognized territory -- take your pick of the terms on offer -- it is a land whose inhabitants say they have left Georgia behind, but who have not, so far, arrived anywhere else.
I had not been back to Abkhazia since 2008. On my trip last month I found Sukhumi, the capital city (which the Abkhaz call Sukhum), to be tidier and more prosperous than it was two years ago. Shops and cafes were open and doing business; there were periodic traffic jams on the central streets. The crime rate was down. But I would hardly call the city "bustling." The central square is still dominated by the burned-out hulk of the 13-story old Communist Party headquarters, which was ravaged in the final bout of fighting before the Abkhaz and their allies recaptured the city in 1993.
My mood improved as I strolled along the promenade by the Black Sea, past whitewashed hotels, shops, and rows of palm trees and dwarf pines. In lovely mid-70s temperatures, I ended up doing most of my business in the seafront cafe known either as Akop's Place (after its late Armenian owner) or by the Russian slang term brekhalovka, loosely translating to "gossipery." Here, in a pleasant throwback to Abkhazia's Ottoman past, men in flat caps play dominoes, backgammon, or chess and smoke incessantly while sipping Turkish coffee and catching up on the political news. If you sit here long enough, most people you want to talk to will come by. Even the president, Sergei Bagapsh, stops by from time to time.
My first observation from my conversations here was that the Abkhaz do not want to talk about Georgia. From their perspective, the conflict has been resolved -- in their favor -- and it is just a matter of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
Abkhaz officials reject the Georgian government's recent strategy on engagement, which aspires to restore people-to-people contacts, as a hapless PR stunt. Of course, the Abkhaz cannot pretend forever that Georgia and the claims of its displaced people do not exist. But another initiative of the Georgian government has arguably made their life easier in this regard. By insisting that Abkhazia is a place "under Russian occupation" -- a formula supported in July by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- Tbilisi suggests the Abkhaz are mere tools of Russia without any agency of their own, and that diminishes any incentive they might have had for dialogue with the Georgians.