A Blue Dispatch From the Red Riviera

While Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea and is choreographing a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, Georgia’s break away region of Abkhazia finds itself struggling to maintain its independence both from Georgia and its patron Russia.

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*Originally published in Sept 2014 on Beacon Reader

I’m sharing a funky little toilet/shower arrangement and a makeshift kitchen at a guest house in Sukhum with three Russian “golden girls.” Valentina, still blond and with a thick clown-like circle of blue eyeliner around her eyes, offers me her personal blend of wild herbal tea she picked back home and warns me not to pet the cat that comes to beg the wheat wafers the girls eat for breakfast because it might have toxoplasma, which is dangerous, she insists.

It’s the end of September and the trio are among the straggling vacationers in lush, subtropic Sukhum, catching the last of the Black Sea surf and turf before heading to their less forgiving climates up north. The girls, employees of the Volga automobile plant in Nizhny Novgorod, used to holiday in Crimea but instability there prompted them to try the other budget vacationland for lower-income Russians. Only one of the women was in Abkhazia before, in the 1980s, in the good old days of communism – they say – before there were “narkomen” and criminals around every corner, when the parks were safe at night and apartments were rent-free.

The golden girls don’t have to look far in the capital of Sukhum to see nostalgic remains of that not so long gone era. The problem is that many of the monuments to Abkhazia’s “Red Riveria” past are either bullet ridden, bombed out or decaying. But they try not to notice the vulgar scars of history that make up Abkhazia’s urban (and rural) landscape. It’s the high prices of produce that gets the girls’ attention, for although the countryside is fertile, very little agriculture is cultivated. Even tomatoes at the bazaar come from Russia. This, people will tell you – the war-torn buildings and crippled economy – is all Georgia’s fault.

Georgia was already a basket case when war broke out in Abkhazia in 1992. Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in March 1991 was followed by a coup d’état eight months later and civil war in Tbilisi. All of a sudden, Georgia was a country ruled by thugs with guns who decided to settle scores with the Abkhaz, whose issues with Georgia had become increasingly intense since perestroika. When hostilities ended in 1993, some 250,000 Georgians were forced to flee – about half of Abkhazia’s population.

Sukhum is a half empty glass of disarticulate memories. Those old enough to remember the USSR fondly remember a time of peace and cohabitation, but those reminiscences stop abruptly at 1992, when Georgian National Guard leader, Tenghiz Kitovani led a column of tanks to ostensibly protect the railroad from “terrorists.” For the Abkhaz, that was nothing short of an invasion. “Suddenly our own neighbors started killing us. How could they do that?” they say.

The collective Abkhaz memory is one of victimization that goes back to Josef Stalin  and his “Georgianization” of Abkhazia, when he stripped Abkhazia of its Socialist Soviet Republic status in 1931 and made it an autonomous republic within Georgia (The history of the makhadjir – the Russian Empire’s  ethnic cleansing of North Caucasians and Abkhaz is selectively brushed over; after all, Russia is Abkhazia’s official protector from Georgian aggression). There is no room in this narrative for Abkhazia’s role as victimizers. To the perpetrators, Georgians were not ethnically cleansed – they were the casualties of cause and effect. They brought it on themselves.

It’s been twenty years and the war is still an open wound as if the enemy image must be nurtured to legitimize Abkhazia’s right to exist as a state. The war is the core of Abkhazia’s national identity. Turn on Abkhaz TV any given day or open up the newspaper and there’s the war. Walk into any school and in the foyer there are portraits of the fallen hero alumni on the walls. “These men sacrificed their lives so you could live free – of Georgia.” That’s the message and it has been ingrained to every Abkhaz for the past 25 years. A generation has been weened on this violent history, many of whom have never met a Georgian.

“How could I be friends with a Georgian? They killed my father,” a young musician named Gela once said. I’ve heard the same line countless times. On a bus from Gagra to Sukhum a woman shouted a man off the bus for being a fake war veteran.

“I know where you were during the war, you liar!” she shouted.

I’m at a new seaside cafe, owned by an Abkaz from the diaspora in Turkey who is trying his luck in investing in his ancient homeland. With BB King singing from his speakers and a fast wifi connection, I almost forget I’m in Abkhazia. The waitress is also a decedent from the 19th century makhadjir, only her ancestors settled in Syria. Two years ago, Abkhazia opened its doors to Syrian refugees of Abkhaz decent. About 500 came to forge new lives in a foreign land that offers very little prospects in terms of work, but it beats a refugee camp and is safer, even if it still is technically at war with Georgia. A few dozen people, however, found integration impossible and have returned to their war-torn communities in Syria.

I recall reading in a major American newspaper that the war in Abkhazia was fought between ethnic Georgians and Muslim Abkhaz separatists, yet there is only one mosque in Sukhum, attended by Abkhaz, Cherkess and other North Caucasians. There is also a Catholic Church, an Orthodox church and evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses. Abkhazia is a multi-national, multi-denominational, religiously tolerant country. Discrimination is reserved only for Georgians.

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