Donnacha Ó Beacháin

Snapshots from Abkhazia: 2001-2012

First Visit: 2001

I first visited Abkhazia in May 2001. I had a visiting fellowship with the Civic Education Project (CEP) and was attached to the Faculty of International Relations at Tbilisi State University and to the Department of Conflict Resolution at the Georgian Technical University. At the time the only way for someone like me to travel to Abkhazia was with the United Nations, which at the time ran a large base in Sukhum/i.

If one could persuade the UN that visiting Abkhazia could in some very general sense contribute to conflict resolution and/or normalisation they would offer a ride in their helicopter. In my case I spoke with a field officer, Rajen Parekh, and submitted a formal application to deliver guest lectures at the Abkhazian State University. My first visit (17-21 May) was to be exploratory in nature, to make contacts and evaluate the possibilities for CEP activity in the region. I would like to have gone earlier but my trip had been postponed when two UN personnel were kidnapped two days prior to my departure. It was partly to avoid kidnappers that I left Tbilisi with the UN at 3 a.m. in the morning and drove to Zugdidi. From there we were given an escort to Gali on the other side of the border and shepherded through first a Russian Army and then an Abkhaz army checkpoint. On meeting representatives of the Abkhazian State University I donated the books I had brought with me, which included 30 publications relating to the EU and 20 books of English literature.The trip back to Tbilisi by UN helicopter provided an opportunity to witness the scale of destruction at first hand. Every second house was unroofed, destroyed by fire, or simply abandoned.

Second Visit: 2002

This first visit had been undertaken with a view to making contact with the university in Sukhum/i. My planned return during the autumn of 2001 had to be postponed due to a deterioration in the security situation. Irregular forces in the Kodori Valley continued to pose a threat and on 9 October, the UN helicopter I had travelled in the previous May was shot down about 20kms from Sukhum/i as it approached the Kodori region. All nine people on board were killed and flight missions were temporarily suspended. My second visit, which eventually took place in March 2002, was to be a more substantial affair during which I made a number of presentations at the university, conducted interviews with local political figures and took field notes. This time the journey to Abkhazia was mercifully short. The night before travelling I went to bed in Tbilisi almost immediately after the electricity was cut off. At the time electricity was rationed to about four hours a day, usually those hours in the late evening/early night. My notes tell me that at 4 a.m. I took the helicopter to Senaki, where we took a break, and then onwards to Sukhum/i.

When I landed I had to stay in a small building as we awaited security clearance. I switched on my phone, at which point the Abkhaz security official, with some degree of pride, told me that my Georgian sim card would be of no use here as no signal could be received. As I idly looked around I noticed four flags were visible – Abkhaz, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish. I was offered coffee and the local variant of Ravioli and then, as the time passed, vodka was suggested. Eventually, with clearance secured, I was given a lift into Sukhum/i. We stopped for fuel at what was the functional equivalent of a petrol station where I was given three glasses of wine. I had already identified a pattern whereby unless one kept ones wits it would, in the cause of politely accepting offers of hospitality, be difficult to remain sober.

 I was brought to UN compound, signed in, and assigned a room. The compound was a real melting pot. The security guards were from Trinidad, the electrician, Gortmunder, from Iceland, and so on. It was a stroke of luck that the head of logistics was an Irishman who gave me a tour of the base and provided me with a tab at the bar. The life of the UN employee based in Abkhazia was not an exciting one so far as I could see. Though generously paid (not least for working in a “conflict zone”) they had little to do in the evenings and were not allowed to leave base after 7 p.m. Most went to Sochi at weekends for entertainment.

St. Patrick’s Day in Sukhum/i

My visit coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, which was celebrated with green ribbons, and much wine and chocolates as a computer banged out Enya, Sinead O’Connor, and Clannad. This informal gathering for Ireland’s national day took place in the building of AIS (Association Inva-Sodeistvie/Association of Invalid Support)an NGO established for the welfare of war veterans. Most of our party had lost limbs in the war and to this day it remains the most memorable of ways that I have spent St. Patrick’s Day. It would have been surprising had the occasion not been also a forum for political discussion. As it early in my acquaintance with Abkhazia, I asked the basic questions. Why did Abkhazia seek to link itself with Russia? “Protection from Georgia”, came the response. Abkhazia was too weak to protect itself alone and too poor. They had heard about US troops training Georgians to patrol the Pankisi Gorge and they worried that these trained Georgians might turn their attention to Abkhazia once the work in Pankisi had concluded.

Shevardnadze Remembers

The day after the St. Patrick’s Day festivities I travelled to the university where I was told there were about 1,800 students studying full and an additional 1,200 part time. I met with the university rector, an affable man with shock-white hair who gave me three books on Abkhazia in English. I was introduced to a politics lecturer whom I was told was the only woman elected to the new Abkhazian national assembly, and only then, after a second ballot. Coffee, wine and nuts followed. In the corner of the room a young woman was engrossed reading an English language edition of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Another politics lecturer, loquacious and animated, strolled in and spoke of his father, then 106 years old, prompting us to discuss the mystery of Abkhaz longevity before he inevitably turned to politics. What did I think of Ardzinba? ‘Be careful’, my translator cautioned helpfully. I confined my remarks to the biographical details which were well-known and added that I’d heard that he was ill, and currently in Moscow receiving treatment.

The lecturer responded by saying that Shevardnadze was a terrible man and yet received great support and acceptance in the west. Some years later I had the opportunity to meet with Eduard Shevardnadze in his Tbilisi home (the old presidential residence – the Georgian authorities had not the heart to kick him out) for an interview during which we covered the highs and lows of his political career. When I asked him whether he was aware that in Abkhazia his tenure as Georgian Communist Party General Secretary was not remembered with affection, he was unrepentant and reeled off what he felt were a number of noteworthy “concessions” given to the Abkhaz. In particular he cited the opening of an Abkhazian television station and the university in Sukhum/i. ‘When you meet with the Abkhaz and discuss this period, don’t they mention this to you?’, he inquired in a tone that seemed to combine both hurt and surprise. As our time together neared a close I asked him of his regrets. As he looked back on his life, what would he have done differently? The biggest mistake, he said, ‘was when Georgian troops were taken into Abkhazia’. He continued:

... The initial reasoning for this was to protect trains passing through Abkhazia and I had talked with the leadership of Abkhazia before taking that action and I had even offered them that they could use their own troops in addition to Georgian troops to protect the trains. I was not the President then; I was Head of the State Council, I was not head of the military, the head of the military was the person who was head of the troops. And one of my mistakes was when I had the negotiations with the head of Abkhazia I should have flown to Sukhumi then to sit down and talk with him [Ardzinba].  I should have flown there because on the second or third day after they entered Abkhazia the Georgian troops went on to Sukhumi. And back then Yeltsin was on holiday in Sochi and he called me and said ‘it’s going to be a mistake; they are trying to trap you. If there are going to be troops in Sukhumi, then its going to be the start of war between Georgia and Russia’ Had I been in Sukhumi then, I would not have allowed Georgian troops to invade Sukhumi. That was my mistake... 

All that is now water under the bridge. During those early trips to Abkhazia both Shevardnadze and Ardzinba held their respective presidencies but both their reigns were also nearing an end.  In November 2003, Shevardnadze was overthrown in what his ousters dubbed the “Rose Revolution”. Ardzinba’s second term was hampered by his poor ill-health and infrequent public appearances. The national assembly elections, postponed from October 2001 to March 2002 due to “invasions” of Chechens and Georgians into the Kodori Valley, had sparked opposition protests resulting in a boycott of 16 leading candidates mainly drawn from Aitaira and the Peoples Party. Though it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, tensions were rising within Abkhazia between those surrounding the ailing Ardzinba and an emerging political opposition seeking a new departure. The showdown would come two years later when Ardzinba stepped down and his anointed successor Raul Khadjimba was challenged by a popular coalition supporting the candidacy Sergei Bagapsh. 

Lectures at the Abkhazian State University

My lectures at the university in March 2002, which took place over a three day period, focussed on a range of topics that included Ireland, the EU, US foreign policy, and politics in the Caucasus. About a dozen professors attended and the presentations were translated by a young man called Maxim Gvindzhia, who would go on to attain high office himself in the years to come. The students – approximately 150 and drawn mainly from the law and history departments – bombarded me with questions. On Ireland they wanted to know more about the IRA, about the roots of the conflict, and the fate of the Irish language. On matters pertaining to international affairs questions that arose included the ways in which Ireland could help Abkhazia. How could international recognition be achieved? How could US foreign policy in the world be understood? Why was Abkhazia’s place in international law as it was?

I was brought to the Department of Abkhaz language and literature. Champagne was offered and I found myself in a sea of Abkhaz speakers. Several toasts followed with stories of Abkhaz history and culture. The staff of the department explained the complexity of the 56 letter Abkhaz alphabet and the language, along with an exposition of Abkhazia’s literary giants and how the language absorbed loan words from other tongues. The head of department gave me a signed copy of a book he’d written on pirate stories from ancient history. My field notes of the time described the sound of Abkhaz to my ears as akin to “difficult Welsh”. Even this does not quite capture my feelings of incomprehension at being confronted with this unique and melodious language that seemed bereft of vowels and consisted of making unrepeatable sounds punctuated by whistles.

At the conclusion of my final lecture and after I had finished addressing the follow-up questions by those who loitered after the presentation, I was approached by one student who presented me with a wonderful large Soviet-era book entitled “Abkhazia” that was full of excellent photographs. Signed “from Alice” it is one of my prized possessions in my extensive library in Ireland. The gift of the book, quite possibly the solitary copy in the family, epitomises the kindness afforded to me during my stay. The generosity of people surprises me even more now than it did then. Still scarred by the effects of war and only now emerging from a crippling embargo, people in Abkhazia did not have much.And yet no hour of the day was too early or too busy to pause for a toast, a meal, a glass of wine or something stronger.My time there witnessed a continual clash between the Irish conception of the good guest- politely declining all attempts until at least the third offer - with the Abkhaz notion of the good host who would not take no for an answer.

Political Encounters

I never had to travel far for political discussion. On one occasion, while travelling on one of those rare buses that traversed Sukhum/i at the time I was exposed to twenty lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy by a demonstrative man who was introduced to me as Iakub Lakoba, then leader of the Peoples Party of Abkhazia who two years later would mount an unsuccessful bid for the presidency. The highlight though was a meeting with Sergei Shamba who even at this stage had held the foreign affairs portfolio for several years and was a chief negotiator in the conflict resolution processes. As with Ardzinba, Shamba was a historian by profession and had a beguiling ability to answer every question, irrespective of how contemporary, by going back a few centuries and then bringing his answer to the present day. I ended the interview by asking Shamba where he saw Abkhazia in ten years time. He replied that in terms of recognition ‘I don’t know what is going to happen in ten years and I am not sure about it. What I am sure about is that one day it will happen, that we will be recognized’. As Abkhazia emerged from the post-war isolation and embargo Shamba foresaw increased economic growth. In ten years time, he said, Abkhazia would be a progressive state, socially and economically. Trade barriers would be lifted, investments would increase and, in time, the United States and Russia would reach common ground, facilitating Abkhazia’s development.

The situation today

The last point is moot but other aspects of Shamba’s prediction seem to have been largely borne out. Whereas in 2002, there was a fragile hope that things would improve, today there is a rather more assertive optimism that the worst moments have been banished to the past.

Contemporary Abkhazia is a multi-ethnic society where Russian is a lingua franca connecting nations. It is a delicate balancing act to guarantee the rights of all those now living in Abkhazia with a mission to preserve and, indeed, expand the Abkhaz language and culture. The precarious position of the Abkhaz language was emphasised when it was added by UNESCO last year to its list of endangered languages. In the late 19th century, cultural nationalists in Ireland feared that the extinction of the Irish language would produce Sasana eile darb ainm Éire (another England called Ireland). I note that Dr Viacheslav Chirikba has recently expressed similar sentiments, arguing that Abkhazia without the Abkhaz would render the country no different from Sochi or Adler. In a book on the state and fate of the Abkhaz language Dr Chirikba has outlined that Abkhaz can either be revived as Hebrew was in Israel or go the way of the Irish language, which, despite generous state support and official status, has suffered from what appears to be terminal decline. While it is tempting to hope for the former, there are grounds to fear the latter.

Finally, the metaphor that always springs to my mind when thinking of the relationship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz is that of a failed marriage. As with many break-ups both sides have differing interpretations as to what went wrong. For the Abkhaz the marriage was an arranged one in which they were not appreciated sufficiently and, as the relationship reached its nadir, was marked by domestic violence. They succeeded in separating and are now waiting for the divorce to be recognised. Georgians tend to have a comparatively nostalgic view of the relationship and stress the duration and warmth of the contact shared over the years. For them, the relationship would never have come unstuck were not the Abkhaz wooed by an interloper who forcibly expelled the Georgians and ensured that any offers of reunion were unattractive. For the Abkhaz the relationship is over; reconciliation can only follow recognition of this fact. Georgians pin their hope on the Russians being removed from the equation so that the Abkhaz see that their interests lie with reintegration. The narratives do not meet - nor can they, for they are mutually exclusive – and so the Abkhaz and the Georgians usually address themselves not to each other but to third parties, hoping that the message will be communicated indirectly to the other or, more likely, that support will be gained for their position to force the other to accept the inevitable.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin
Lecturer in International Relations at Dublin City University. Author of “The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics: Successes and Failures” (with Abel Polese), Routledge, 2010. IRELAND


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