“Take as much sovereignty as you can stomach!” was Boris Yeltsin’s message to the regions of Russia in the summer of 1990, as the Soviet Union was collapsing around him.
Many areas did just this, and managed a peaceful transition to independence, with fifteen sovereign republics emerging from the ashes of the USSR. But even today, there are a few regions that didn’t quite make it. Most of these can be found between the Black Sea and the Caspian.
Everyone has heard of Chechnya, a small republic in the Caucasus region. They made headlines in 1994 after going to war with Russia, driving them out of their homeland and establishing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Unfortunately for them, one of Putin’s first moves upon coming to power was to launch the Second Chechen War, thus brutally re-establishing control of the area for Moscow.
When the Republic of Georgia was newly formed it also had problems with separatist regions. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both formerly autonomous areas under the USSR, declared their independence and went to war to preserve it. Both of these wars were characterised by atrocities, ethnic cleansing and a general disregard for civilian life, on both the Georgian and separatist sides. Today, these two regions maintain de facto independence from Georgia following cease fires, but the situation remains tense.
The Abkhazians, like the South Ossetians, have benefitted greatly from Russian help in their quest for independence. Support for these breakaway regions seems odd from Russia, the same country that fought fiercely to retain Chechnya, and said that Kosovan independence: “threatens the destruction of world order and international stability”. However, a quick look at historic relations between Russia and Georgia shows that Moscow’s seeming duplicity is not at all surprising.
The problems between Russia and Georgia date back hundreds of years. The Georgians found themselves unfortunately sandwiched between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the Persians. This meant lots of invasions, and eventual absorption into Russia. They tried to declare independence in 1918, but were once again invaded in 1921 and brought back into the Russian fold. These days things are not much better, with Russia positioning troops on Georgian territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and threatening all-out war should Georgia attempt to retake these two areas. As a further provocation, Russia has also given out passports to residents of both areas, meaning any action taken against Georgia can now be represented as ‘in defence of Russian citizens’.
My trip to Abkhazia came as part of an 8000km road trip from the UK to Russia and back. On a map, heading through Turkey and then swinging round the Black Sea seemed like the most obvious route, however, I initially thought that driving between Georgia and Russia was not possible. In a way, I was right.
Ever since the 2008 South Ossetia War, Georgia has broken diplomatic relations with Russia and closed the border. Travelling from Georgia into Russia is illegal. Fortunately for me, Abkhazia is positioned between Georgia and Russia, and travelling from Abkhazia into Russia is a very simple process. All I had to do was convince the Georgians that this was not my intention.
Entry into Georgia with a Russian visa in your passport causes a few hassles, but nothing unmanageable. I cruised through the Turkish side at Hopa with no issues, and only had to deal with a few raised eyebrows from customs upon entering Georgia.
“You are going to Russia?”
“Yes, we’re heading to Baku (Azerbaijan), and then getting a boat.”
This explanation was not unusual; as people often bring in cars from Europe and go on to sell them in Central Asia. Where our story fell down was the fact that we were driving a battered, right hand drive, twenty one year old Volkswagen camper van with a custom paint job (yellow smiley face on the side) and an inflatable mattress in the back. Despite this, we were eventually let through.
Things did not go so smoothly once we reached the de facto border with Abkhazia by the River Ingur. Two uniformed Georgian guards sat in a sweaty shed, laughing heartily while watching Brazil get knocked out of the World Cup by Holland. They were friendly and approachable, but also quite insistent.
“Why do you want to go to Abkhazia anyway? It’s full of bandits! If you’re heading to Azerbaijan then it’s out of your way….”
After about an hour of trying to talk them round, they summoned their superior, who was less friendly and just as insistent.
“You cannot enter. It is not safe. You need to turn back.”
Turning back was not a good option. We were on a strict schedule, and not getting access here would mean tracking back to Turkey then getting a ferry to Russia.
I tried everything. I showed them my letter of invitation to Abkhazia (which I had arranged beforehand online). I showed them my Georgian visa. We told them we already had a hotel booking in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. We were only going on a day trip, we would be back by nightfall, we would be very careful, we knew people there. Nothing was going to shake these men. Eventually, I lost my patience.
“Do I or do I not have a visa for travel around Georgia?”
“Yes, it is right here in your passport.”
“And is Abkhazia not part of Georgia? Or are you telling me it is another country?”
“No, of course not, it is part of Georgia!”
“Well then, I have every right to enter.”
They scratched their heads, muttered to each other, and eventually pulled a dusty ledger off the shelf. Things were looking up.
“OK, you can enter, but only on foot. You need to leave your vehicle on this side.”
We both knew what was going on here. They wanted a guarantee that we would not cross into Russia. I could see their frustration as they tried to enforce the government’s policy of no access to Russia when there was a completely porous border only a few hundred kilometres away. But leaving the vehicle was not an option.
Eventually, two EU monitors, who were presumably there to make sure the Georgians and Abkhazians didn’t start shooting at each other again, grew bored of sitting in their shiny new Land Cruiser and wandered over. As soon as they approached the Georgian guards lost a lot of their bravado, acting as if they knew they had done something wrong. After explaining the problem to the monitors, and sharing a few jokes about the World Cup (one was French, the other German) we were reassured it was simply a misunderstanding, and allowed to go on our way.
Entering Abkhazia was a surreal experience. We were still surrounded by the same lush green almost tropical vegetation. There were still cows everywhere, who still seemed to think the road was a warm sleeping area first and a driving surface second. But the signs of war were everywhere. The Abkhazia customs post looked like a military barracks. There were soldiers and heavy equipment everywhere. Just around the corner was a contingent of Russian troops, and you could hear combat helicopters patrolling. What really stood out was that everything had been shot. Everything. The Russians must have dished out a lot of bullets in this conflict, because people seemed to have unloaded whole magazines onto walls, down the road, into drainage areas. Even the trees looked like they’d taken a hit or two.
The Abkhazian soldiers were very surprised to see us, but also extremely welcoming. Soon we had a crowd of five or six heavily armed grizzled looking veterans peering into the van, asking to see photos of where we had been and maps of where we were going. They found my brother’s tongue piercing hilarious. One of them spoke a little English, which was still better than our Russian, and so as we sat waiting for the paperwork to be processed, we discovered that everyone there liked Italian music, one of them used to be on the Soviet Olympic swimming team and we were only the second set of tourists to successfully pass through that border that year.
After getting back our passports and saying farewell to our new friends, we started on the long, pot holed road to Sukhumi. Thin buffalo stood grazing among the abandoned houses. There were cemeteries every few kilometres, all carefully tended to, with an open soft drink left out for the deceased, who would also be pictured on the memorial. It soon became obvious that most of the dead were young men. Russian military insignia were painted onto many of the shattered houses. We were worried about mines, so the only places we stopped were at checkpoints, most of whom were too busy celebrating the Dutch victory to pay much attention to us.
After a few hours of driving through this beautiful but post apocalyptic landscape, the sun set, and we found ourselves entering Sukhumi at night time. I was worried about driving a vehicle that was so obviously foreign around at night in a new city, but once we actually got in our fears vanished. Sukhumi is a brightly lit, newly built seaside resort for Russia’s wealthy. There were Russian number plates everywhere. Prices were all in Roubles. Majestic government buildings towered over the waterfront bars. Well heeled Russians walked the wide boulevards dressed in designer evening wear, speaking loudly into their iphones.
We pulled up at the first hotel I saw, which was a bad move. At seventy five dollars for a double room, this was the most expensive place we stayed at on our entire journey, but what luxury! We had Russian satellite TV, two double beds, a mini bar and a sit down shower with eight adjustable nozzles for that full-body massage effect. After changing out of our filthy travelling clothes, we were informed by the friendly but non-English speaking staff that the restaurant was closed, so we headed out to find some food. It was around 11:30pm.
My brother and I felt a little like castaways, dying from lack of water. All around us there were restaurants serving up fresh seafood and delicious looking meat dishes; however, we had no Roubles. We needed to find a cash point, and fast. Perhaps it was the dehydration from a day of sweating in the van. Perhaps it was the lack of food, or the euphoria of having crossed our most difficult border yet. Whatever the reasons, it did not occur to us that wandering around late at night in a former conflict zone looking foreign was not a good idea.
Sure enough, less than half an hour into our quest, and only a couple of hundred metres from our hotel, a rather large gentleman and his smaller henchman approached us, barked something in Russian, and in no uncertain terms explained what would happen to us if we did not hand over some cash. With negotiations failing due to my lack of Russian (or weaponry) I handed over the twenty Euros worth of useless Goergian Lari I had in my back pocket, and the larger gentleman seemed happy. So happy in fact that he bid us welcome to his country and started to head off. Unfortunately, his smaller, drunker friend wanted to swap shirts. He took off his shirt and motioned for me to do the same. I had been calm up until this point, but there was no way he was taking the shirt off my back. I refused, and he started shouting, getting more and more aggressive. As my brother and I prepared ourselves for the inevitable fight that was about to break out, the larger man actually held his friend back and motioned for us to leave, laughing all the while. He was the most polite mugger I have ever met. Back in our hotel room, we capped the bizarre night off by eating cans of cold baked beans from our emergency rations, while sitting on extremely expensive imported bed sheets and watching Russian reality TV.
Heading out of Abkhazia over the River Psou into Russia was a boring but hassle free process. The queue to get out was huge, and consisted mainly of large SUV’s full of Russian families returning from their seaside holiday. The Russian border guards kept asking when we had first entered Russia, as everyone else they were dealing with drove into Abkhazia via Russia and went back the same way. It took a long time to persuade them that we had genuinely driven in from Georgia. After four or five hours of waiting, we were allowed through. We had made it into Russia, and had hit the half way point of our journey.
Abkhazia is going to great lengths to persuade the world that they are independent. It used to be just Russia and a few other non-countries that recognised them (South Ossetia and Transnistria). Recently they have added Nicragua, Venezuela and the mighty Pacific island of Nauru, but they still have a long way to go. Most UN member states are wary of granting recognition following bloody civil wars featuring ethnic cleansing. They would much rather see a referendum, which the Georgian government is rather unhelpfully refusing to organise. In the mean time, what we have is a tense standoff, aggravated by the growing presence of Russian troops, and now even the Russian navy is getting involved, with increased patrols to help Abkhazia guard its maritime border on the Black Sea.
Abkhazia is full of Russian troops. The banks are full of Russian money. The hotels are full of Russian tourists. All the businesses are dependent on Russian imports. The Abkhazians themselves are all citizens of Russia, watch Russian TV and speak Russian as a second language. Abkhazia like to think they are de facto independent. What I saw was a de facto colony of Russia.