Welcome to the Hotel Galifornia

Welcome to Gali, where Georgians live in a state of apartheid. But at least the Russians fixed the road.

The grumbling drone of a bus’s diesel engine or the squeaky jerks of an old Lada cannot mask the strained, mournful disquiet south of Sukhumi towards the border, past the ruined shells of Georgian houses, occupied now by only a dense canopy of wild verdure. It’s an overpowering tenseness you find only in war zones. It’s been like this since 1993.

Sixty klicks down the road is Ochamchira, once the region’s fourth largest city with a 1991 population of 20,600. Ochamchira was a major front in the Abkhaz war for independence and the scene of many war crimes committed by both sides. Today it’s a virtual ghost village with around 75% of its homes empty. The only Georgians there are the few who fought against other Georgians to protect their homes.

In May 2008, I met Ruslan, an Abkhaz, at a nearby war monument for Abkhaz heroes. The tall, muscular, forty-something took us to his home and opened up his closet to reveal a Kalashnikov and RPG launcher leaning behind a dusty gray suit. Later, another man showed us a similar closet cache in a nearby village.

“But what if Georgia recognized your independence, I asked. “Would you allow them to return home then?”

“I’d kill them,” he spat. “We’d all kill them.”

Up and down the coast of Abkhazia, it’s been the same answer, always.

Twenty-five  kilometers south of Ochamchira is Gali, Abkhazia’s southernmost district. Around 40,000 Georgians are allowed to live here. Technically, they’re Megrelian, a Georgian sub-ethos with their own language who have inhabited the region long before borders were drawn on maps. They are tolerated here because they did not fight. They fled in 1993 and in 1998, when Georgia attempted a preposterous, ill-conceived incursion that unconditionally snuffed any chance of synching a federalized state agreement that was supposedly on the table. Many Gali homes were burned twice in that period, yet the Megrelians returned. Of course, the Abkhaz need them here. Gali is Abkhazia’s agricultural heartland providing the hazelnuts, mandarines and other produce that are the country’s chief export commodity. Without the Megrelians, who make up 98.7 percent of the population, the the crops would rot.

On a sunny day, Gali is bearable, almost pretty. On a rainy days it is mud, potholes and tears. People say there used to be city life here. Cows pasture in the central park surrounded by a few kiosk cafes offering Turkish coffee, candy bars, chewing gum and beer. Development has come in the form of a shiny new beef stew and vodka restaurant full of Russian soldiers.

“Nobody gets married in Gali,” my friend Beso said the first time I arrived in 2003. “We just go to funerals.” And he brought me to one – his grandfather’s. I was scrunched in the back seat of an old Volga between several young men on the way to the cemetery and one of them offered me a hit of heroin. “No thanks,” I smirked.

Little has changed in that regard, except junkies now shoot cheap cocktails of codeine, iodine, gasoline and drain cleaner. Others take a more mainlined route to paradise, like my friend Malkhaz. He hung himself from a tree in his front yard.

“Many people kill themselves here?” I asked Zaza, who has a little Malkhaz shrine in his office.

“I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon.”

Not all is death and gloom in Gali, however. After Georgia’s disastrous war with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008 and the Kremlin’s official recognition of the two breakaways, Abkhazia signed a pact with Russia to protect its borders from Georgian aggression. For the Abkhaz, it was a massive burden lifted, for they had been waiting for the saber-rattling Georgians to return at any moment over the past dozen years. For Gali, it meant the repair of the Inguri-Sukhumi highway – a two lane ribbon of chuckholes – and a few thousand Russian troops to boost the local economy.

Several schools have been renovated, although children are taught in Russian and Abkhaz, not their native Megrelian or Georgian. It’s a contentious topic that brings to mind the Abkhaz assertion that Stalin had forced Abkhaz schools to adopt a Georgian curriculum in an effort to wipe out their language entirely. The issue was a major factor in the Abkhaz drive towards self-determination. Although the Abkhaz say they aren’t trying to eradicate Georgian, the fact remains The Abkhaz are restricting the Georgian’s rights to be educated in their mother tongue.

Gali’s Megrelians should be admired for their perseverance to hammer out lives in the perdition that is home, but they are often railed at by Georgians who call them traitors and by the Abkhaz, who see them as a 5th column, even though they refused to take up arms – twice. Rather than try to integrate the Megrelians into society, Sukhumi has imposed an apartheid-like regime in Gali where they only hold marginal positions in the local administration and police force – forget about the judiciary. Administration heads are all Abkhaz.

“Of course we’d like to be united with Georgia – we’re Georgian, but we understand the political reality. We live in Abkhazia, ” My friend Mamuka said recently over a cup of coffee. “But they (Abkhaz) won’t even let us vote.”

The constitution of Abkhazia forbids double citizenship with Georgia. Abkhaz passports are only recognized in a few countries, otherwise, citizenship permits people to own property and to vote; that’s it. Before, Sukhumi issued Gali residents with passports and turned a blind eye to their double Georgian citizenship, which allowed them to enter Georgia to collect pensions and receive various modern services not available in Abkhazia. But Abkhaz opposition, led by ex-KGB man Raul Khadjimba, used the ethnic card as a rallying point against president Alexander Ankvab, who had supported the prevailing status quo until he was toppled in May 2014.

The new interim Abkhaz government immediately stripped Gali’s Megrelian population of the right to vote two months before its presidential elections. With 20 percent of the electorate unable to vote, Raul Khadjimba, who had blamed his 3 previous presidential loses on the Georgians, squeaked by to win the election in September with 51.52 percent.

Failing to see the irony, Khadjimba declared that “these people must continue building the Abkhazian state with us,” and in an effort to make the Megrelians feel more at home, he proposed restricting their freedom of movement across the border by closing four of the five crossings.

I am at the lone crossing called the Inguri. Thanks to the Russians, we covered what had been a 20 minute ride from Gali in five, over smooth blacktop. The Abkhaz have a perfunctory role checking passports at the border, but it’s the FSB who are in control. Georgia has always charged that Russia was behind Abkhazian separatism, it’s pretty clear where it is now. One month after Khadjimba’s inauguration, the Kremlin introduced an “alliance and integration” treaty that makes Abkhazia’s independence as hollow as the Abkhaz border guards’ presence is cosmetic.

Walking across the bridge to Georgia, the edginess of the countryside silence diminishes, but not its woefulness. Behind me on a knoll flies the flag of Abkhazia. The Abkhaz don’t have to worry about the Georgians coming to take it down anymore, but the tension’s still there because they know it’s a Russian breeze that keeps it flapping.

* Originally published at Beacon Reader Oct. 2014

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