The Coffee Republic

A dangerous drift in postwar Abkhazia.

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.

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.

My second impression was that the brief honeymoon with Russia that began in 2008 is now over. Moscow and Sukhumi are currently locked in a quarrel over the property rights of ethnic Russians, many of whom abandoned their houses before the war of 1992, when Georgian forces marched into Abkhazia to crush its autonomous government. There is unhappiness that the Abkhaz government has leased large pieces of real estate to the Russian military. And there was a recent public dispute between Abkhazia's foremost historian, Stanislav Lakoba, and Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Zatulin over the way a history textbook recounts Abkhazia's conflicts with Russia in the 19th century.

None of that means, however, that Russia and Abkhazia will give up on each other. The Abkhaz need Russia as their outlet to the world, giver of subsidies and pensions, and most importantly, provider of security. The Russians may mutter that the Abkhaz are showing "ingratitude" with words of criticism, in contrast to the "grateful" South Ossetians who profess absolutely loyalty to Moscow for having apparently saved them from destruction in 2008. But Moscow has invested heavily in Abkhazia and its strategic assets and needs its airport and hotels to ease overcrowding in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Abkhazia's professional class still yearns for contacts with the outside world beyond Russia. But in the past two years, it has gotten harder for them to get visas to visit Europe and the United States. Fewer consulates accept Abkhaz traveling on Russian travel documents, and little progress has been made on finding compromise arrangements. One result is that most students of English in Abkhazia cannot travel to an English-speaking country. Prime Minister Sergei Shamba complains that despite the European Union's stated policy of "non-recognition and engagement," the Abkhaz have seen only the former and not the latter. "If we don't get visas, it becomes engagement with Georgia, not with Europe," he told me.

Abkhazia's multiethnic intelligentsia are good talkers. There were lively questions and comments when I addressed a round table of civil society activists and journalists on the topic of U.S. foreign policy and the Caucasus. But the political space for these people is narrowing, as Russia tightens its grip on the media and the West recedes into the background.

This year an enlightened Georgian film that examines Georgians' own reactions to the conflicts of the early 1990s, Absence of Will, was shown to both Georgian and Abkhaz audiences. In Tbilisi, the film was slammed by Georgian officials for portraying their own actions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia in too negative a light. But in Abkhazia, the mere fact of the documentary being shown on television provoked a hysterical reaction and cries of "traitor" against the NGO activists who had arranged the screening of a "Georgian film." Angry mothers of men killed in the 1992-1993 war were mobilized in what looked suspiciously like staged protests. The whole episode suggested that some shadowy players in the republic's internecine political struggles are ever ready to play the "Georgian card" to embarrass their opponents.

Meanwhile, Abkhazia's "ministries" are still paper-thin bodies with a handful of employees operating off a minuscule government budget of 4.4 billion rubles ($140 million). Moreover, the ethnic politics of Abkhazia makes for an unhealthy retro-Ottoman society where one of the two largest ethnic communities, the Abkhaz, dominate politics and the public sector, while the other, the Armenians, do most of the business.

The European Union's strategy toward Abkhazia was the main topic of a seminar I attended recently in Brussels. There was a consensus that, while respecting Georgia's sovereignty claim over Abkhazia, the European Union had its own interest in Abkhazia's not becoming a "blank spot on the map" that overlapped with but was distinct from the interests of Georgia. In discussing what projects Europe should support there, some argued that Brussels should back "good governance" but not "state-building." Others argued that this was a false distinction.

Whatever the future holds in terms of long-term status and a deal with Georgia, there is a much more immediate question. Does Abkhazia's fledgling government in fact have the capacity to govern what it currently has? If the Abkhaz continue to run a coffee republic and to talk and watch the world go by, they risk letting others be masters of their future.


Obama's Other War

Can Barack Obama really defeat Central Africa's worst guerrilla warlord?

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo—When Baudouine Kinalinjenga was just 12 years old, Joseph Kony's soldiers came for her. Six men from his Lord's Resistance Army emerged from the forest with machetes and Kalashnikovs and entered her remote hut in the night. She was held for five months of daily beatings and regular rape at the hands of a rebel commander nearly four times her age. At one point, she was led into the darkness, given a club and a flashlight, and told to crush the skull of a man unfortunate enough to have stumbled across the rebels in the bush. "They said to do whatever I was told or the same would be done to me," the Congo native recalls now.

For the last two decades, Kony, a former altar boy who claims he follows the commands of spirits he alone can hear, has led a campaign of unfathomable brutality, massacring civilians and slicing the lips and ears off of women in a twisted effort to show the Ugandan government's inability to protect its people. His forces kidnapped and forced into sexual and military slavery an estimated 60,000 children like Kinalinjenga and drove 2 million of Uganda's ethnic Acholi people from their homes. Kony's vague goal is to overthrow Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and impose the Ten Commandments as the law of the land. Mostly, however, he just continues to drift from place to place like a toxic smoke, vanishing every time the international community or Ugandan troops get too close. In August, he's believed to have slipped into south Darfur, Sudan, an area controlled by his former benefactor, Khartoum. Now, he may be heading back to Congo, where peacekeepers are bracing for what they fear may be a third consecutive year of Christmas massacres by the LRA.

But in recent weeks in Washington, unexpected momentum has been building against Africa's longest-running rebellion: President Barack Obama sent Congress a new strategy last month outlining how America will finally stop the LRA after 20 years of failed efforts. The strategy vows to "apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders" and to promote the defection of his remaining fighters, bolster civilian protection, and increase humanitarian support. America's new tough stance is commendable -- but it follows years of catastrophic neglect. At this point, Obama may be too late to make up for past presidents' repeated failure to break free of encumbering alliances and bring Kony and his men to justice.

In its early years, the LRA was just one of several rebellions in Uganda's north, and Kony was more mystical crusader than maniacal warlord. But he soon joined his cause to regional power games, signing onto Khartoum's payroll in the mid-1990s to fight against Sudan's southern rebels in the decades-running north-south civil war, and gained a deserved reputation for extreme brutality. 

During those years, the United States fell into mutual back-scratching with the Ugandan government. In President Yoweri Museveni, Washington found a frontline ally against Islamic expansionism and a willing conduit of aid for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the southern rebel group that the United States was backing and against which Kony was fighting. U.S. support for Museveni succeeded in boosting south Sudan. But it did more harm than good in Uganda itself.

Museveni learned very quickly that more was to be gained from fighting the LRA than from defeating them. Using Kony as a bogeyman and Washington's political cover as a guise, he began to channel more and more of his largely donor-funded budget toward the ultimate guarantor of his power -- the army. Over the objections of the International Monetary Fund, Uganda's defense spending has ballooned from nearly $82 million in 1992 to around $340 million in 2009. These days, Museveni's ostensibly democratic government is looking less and less so. Though a multiparty system was restored in 2005 after a 19-year ban, the constitution was changed the same year to remove presidential term limits and allow Museveni to seek reelection indefinitely. Opposition members accused him of intimidation and vote-rigging in an election in 2006.  And rights groups say he strong arms the press to stifle criticism.  

The LRA bonanza corrupted the military, funding kickbacks and corrupt arms deals. Museveni's top commanders skimmed money from the pot by purchasing obsolete equipment at exorbitant prices and inflating budgets with the salaries of non-existent soldiers. In February 2002, for example, as Ugandan troops prepared to invade Sudan to go after Kony, the military registers listed 7,200 soldiers when in fact the army's northern-based 4th Division had only 2,400. During the ensuing offensive, as the LRA once again slinked away, the army chopped down southern Sudanese teak forests, shipping the valuable timber back to Uganda.

Throughout the years, the United States willfully turned a blind eye to the kind of corrupt double-dealing and genuine incompetence that allowed Kony and his band to slip the noose time and time again. In exchange, America got a valuable proxy force in Africa. Ugandan peacekeepers make up more than half of the AU Mission in Somalia, where Washington sees the growing influence of Islamist extremist group al Shabab as a real threat to its own security.

In December 2008, President George W. Bush backed a daring Ugandan military strike on LRA bases in Congo's remote Garamba National Park just weeks before he left office. When the day came, however, the Ugandan military -- working under U.S. supervision -- used loud attack helicopters to perform what was meant to be a secret ambush and never delivered a promised batch of ground troops. LRA defectors said in recent interviews that Kony had been tipped off and fled before the attack even started.

The Garamba strike was a disaster of epic proportions. Dispersed but unscathed, the LRA spread even farther from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moving into the lawless frontiers of the Central African Republic (CAR) and back into Sudan, and bringing their vicious tactics with them. "The last two years have been among the bloodiest in their history," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Since 2008, Kony's men have massacred some 2,300 civilians and abducted over 3,000 more in a remote area straddling the borders of the Congo, southern Sudan, and CAR. More than 400,000 villagers have fled their homes there. In 2010 alone, Kony's fighters have so far led more than 240 deadly attacks.

Still, the Ugandan army declared the Garamba operation a success, and it is no wonder why. So long as the conflict is outside Uganda's borders, Museveni can count it as a win. He's expected to win reelection in February, extending his hold on power to a full three decades. In the north, where just 16 percent  voted for him in 2006, he's finally able to campaign as the people's protector, a tactic that always won him votes in the south.

Back in Washington, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold raised concern about what had happened. "Thus far, this operation has resulted in the worst-case scenario: It has failed to stop the LRA, while spurring the rebels to intensify their attacks against civilians," he said in a statement to the Senate in March 2009. Feingold helped draft a bill that required the United States to work toward the end of the LRA and mandated that the White House come up with an anti-LRA strategy. The bill found 65 co-sponsors in the Senate and cleared both houses with ease.

But now that the strategy has been written and the United States is supposedly about to defeat Kony for good, the outlook is bleaker than ever. The strategy promises "enhanced integrated logistical, operational, and intelligence assistance in support of regional and multilateral partners." A quick look at those potential partners doesn't inspire optimism: They include an astoundingly dysfunctional Congolese army, a Central African military of just a few thousand troops already deployed against its own domestic rebellions, and a southern Sudanese force that was not long ago a rebel army. None of these forces is up to the task of hunting the LRA. Nor are the U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Congo and the CAR any better positioned for the task. The strategy suggests improving the blue helmets' ability to protect civilians, which may help a bit. Still, both missions are already in over their heads just trying to protect civilians. One U.N. official in Congo called Obama's plan for annihilating the LRA "mission impossible."

Back on Capitol Hill, matters don't look promising either. Any real action would need to be funded by Congress, and the law's two primary backers, Feingold and Republican Sen. Samuel Brownback, are leaving the Senate -- Brownback to become governor of Kansas and Feingold as a victim of the Tea Party revolution. In any case, with Republicans controlling the House and keeping a firm boot on the neck of Senate Democrats, it's unlikely that discretionary spending for any such humanitarian campaign will be available soon.

In the end, America's rare and noble commitment to erase the LRA from the earth will likely be no better than the years of half-measures that preceded it. Most of the military assistance under the new strategy will go to the Ugandan army. In  two years of operations, the $23 million in U.S. support has paid for the killing and capturing of a mere 23 LRA officers, according to interviews with U.N. officials. Continuing that level of support, or even increasing it, would allow for the Ugandan operations to carry on, keeping the LRA threat away from Uganda's own borders but falling far short of what's needed to finish Kony off.

During a recent campaign stop in the Acholi town of Aworo, Museveni told the unenthusiastic crowd, "In the end we defeated the terrorist Kony.... He thought Garamba was heaven. We went to Garamba, we fought him there. He went to Central African Republic, so we shall fight him there. That's how we got peace here." One of the scores of party activists being bused around the country to support the president held aloft a yellow sign: "We Don't Want Change."