Thomas de Waal

Sukhum, Abkhazia

The history of Abkhazia over the last century has been like an old cinema-reel with abruptly changing images, a kaleidoscope in black and white. It is hard to think of a place that has undergone so many sudden changes and reverses in the modern era.

There have been many traumas: the terror unleashed by Lavrenti Beria in the 1930s, the deportations of Greeks and Turks in the 1940s, the first violence of the late 1980s. In that respect, the conflict of 1992-93 was tragic but sadly not unique.

Apart from the sad and repeated story of human suffering, what has distinguished the story of Abkhazia since 1992? I would point out two things that are unusual in Abkhazia’s history: isolation and uncertainty. It is unusual for any place in the modern globalized world to be so shut off and so uncertain of its place in the international order, let alone a place with such a cosmopolitan past as Abkhazia.

I first visited Abkhazia in May 1992. It was in retrospect a “pre-war situation,” a time of curfews and seething tensions as well as persistent hopes that conflict could be avoided. I did not return for ten years, until 2002, and of course I found an utterly different place, much of it abandoned or destroyed, still visibly recovering from war. I then made regular visits until my most recent one at the end of 2010. On a physical level, the slow but impressive recovery was all but complete—but of course the psychological scars remain and much of the pre-war population, the Georgians in particular, is still missing.

It was unnatural that this piece of Black Sea coastline, with its rich and varied history, should have been so closed off and that its people should find it hard to travel.

Abkhazia has had isolation before. In 1922, Konstantin Paustovsky lived in what he called a “small paradise” which had made the decision “to cut itself off from the rest of the world and do everything so that not a single mouse crossed the frontier.” But that was a deliberate act to isolate Abkhazia from typhus and hunger. The recent isolation has been something different, the decision by Abkhazia’s neighbours to isolate it.

“Who is to blame?” (“Kto vinovat?” as Russian intellectuals are fond of asking). Everyone, to some degree. To a significant degree the isolation comes from the persistent policy from Tbilisi of offering either isolation or engagement on unilateral terms. It is also due to an international approach which has continuously neglected this conflict and the people at the center of it or seen it only through the prism of other issues, chiefly bilateral relations with Georgia and Russia. And Abkhaz inflexibility has also led to some self-isolation: the authorities have sometimes given the impression that they want to build an “ethnocracy” in which Georgians will have fewer or no rights.

I wish Abkhazia and all its people a much better and more peaceful two decades than the last 20 years have been—and many more connections to the outside world.

Thomas de Waal
Senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington. He is the author of The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010). USA

The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953