Kai Juvakka

Ruined Abkhaz Parliament Building

Abkhazia was cut off the rest of the world two decades ago, when Georgian troops marched on Sukhumi on 14th August 1992. After the war, an all-embracing blockade was imposed on Abkhazia as a punishment for ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population and to put pressure for Abkhazia to reunite with Georgia. During the first years of the blockade, only Abkhazian women, young boys and elderly men could cross the border even to Russia. The goods and products that they could bring home were restricted to a few. Russia participated in this blockade until Vladimir Putin’s election as president of Russia in 2000.

According to international law, Abkhazians are Georgian citizens. Abkhazian passports are valid only in a few countries which have recognized Abkhazia. In order to travel elsewhere, Abkhazians have to obtain another passport. According to international law, they should acquire Georgian passports, but the fact is that only a few of them are willing to do so. Instead, more than 80 per cent have taken Russian citizenship, which entitles them to a Russian pension, as well.

According to Georgian law, it is illegal for foreigners to run a business or to buy property in Abkhazia. Even though Georgia has not controlled the borders of Abkhazia for two decades, it considers it illegal for foreigners to enter Abkhazia from Russia. Those who do so may be fined heavily when they visit Georgia proper.

The blockade has been counter productive and only broadened the gap between Georgia and Abkhazia. It only evokes bitterness and helps to underscore who Abkhazia’s enemy is. While reunion with Georgia is out of the question for Abkhazians, they have had too few options to choose from.

Although Abkhazia has unilaterally proclaimed its independence, the region has become totally dependent on Russia, both economically and politically. Nineteen years after the war ended, the country is like an open air war museum. When you walk on the streets of Sukhumi, you could think that the war just ended. It is hard to imagine that once this town was one of the welthiest places in former Soviet Union.

Whilst autonomy within Georgia is an option that the Abkhazians exclude, there are no signs on the horizon that Georgia would some day recognize the independence of Abkhazia. To break the ice in this frozen conflict, it is time for the Georgian leadership to acknowledge the fact that isolating Abkhazia from the rest of the world has been a crucial mistake and only pushed Abkhazia into Russia's arms. If Georgia wishes to stop Russia subsuming Abkhazia completely, the first thing it should do  is to give the Abkhazians  freedom to establish ties with the rest of the world. This would reduce Russian influence in Abkhazia, which would not run counter to Georgian interests.

There are other non-recognized territories which do have economic and cultural ties with rest of the world. Although China considers Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, it has not restricted foreign investment in Taiwan or blocked Taiwan's foreign trade. Taiwanese can freely travel with their own passports to the European Union and the US, although none of these countries have recognized Taiwan.

As for whether ethnic cleansing justifies a blockade, we should compare it to other cases, e.g. the fate of Sudeten Germans or the Palestinians. If we isolate Abkhazians, shouldn't we also isolate the Czechs and Israelis, who carried out ethnic cleansing on an even larger scale?

Isolating Abkhazia has not brought anything positive for Georgia. On the contrary, the present situation – Abkhazia in the hands of the Russians - is the worst scenario come true for Georgia. A new approach is needed. The sooner the Georgian government admits that fact, the better it will be for the country. The government in Tbilisi should lift the sanctions not only for the sake of Abkhazia, but for the sake of Georgia, too.

Kai Juvakka
Independent journalist and documentarian. Author of film “Ei-toivottu valtio” (An unwanted state). FINLAND

The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953