May 24, 2011
DRIVE into Abkhazia from Georgian-controlled territory, and the full meaning of the phrase “frozen conflict” soon becomes clear. To begin with, there is the terminology. Have you crossed an international border, as the Abkhaz claim? Or are you still in Georgia, as the Georgian government, like most others, insists? Then there is the decay. Lush vegetation has crept over buildings destroyed by war. Lampposts are red with rust, and rarely work; the road is a procession of potholes. Welcome to Gali, where car-sickness and crumbling infrastructure are facts of life.
For years, little has happened here. Despite the obvious fertility of the soil, agriculture provides the barest of necessities. Small shops sell basic provisions; a handful of restaurants and cafés supply the town’s social life. The real economic promise of Abkhazia lies in coastline to the west, where Russian money has reinvigorated the tourist trade and given Sukhumi, the capital, a facelift. But that has done little to alleviate the widespread poverty in Gali. A bitter night some months ago, one poor family’s baby froze to death.
Yet even here, there are signs of change, of a sort. Russia had troops in Abkhazia under a 1994 agreement. Following the brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 their numbers doubled, but the legal basis for their presence dissolved. Moscow now claims they are guarding the borders of independent Abkhazia; Tbilisi says they are illegally occupying sovereign Georgian territory. Either way, they are settling in. Russian contractors are building new bases and blocks of flats for the troops around Gali, and repairing the road to Sukhumi.
Is this good news? Not for the Georgian government. An entrenched military presence frustrates Tbilisi’s desire to reintegrate the region. De jure, Abkhazia is still part of Georgia; de facto, Tbilisi’s writ has not run here for almost two decades.
It’s a mixed blessing for the Abkhazians, too. Russia is their principal protector, benefactor and patron. But it is a suffocating embrace, less concerned with fostering Abkhazian independence than with ensuring Russia’s own prominence. Better homes and military bases will provide more security. But they also reinforce the sense of Abkhazia as a Russian military colony.
But paradoxically, it may be good news for the 40,000 or so Mingrelians (ethnic Georgians) who came back to Gali after fleeing war in the early 1990s. Like much else here, their status is contested. Are they seasonal workers who travel back and forth from west Georgia to till their land, as Tbilisi asserts? Or permanent returnees, proof of the Abkhazian authorities’ claims to be a responsible government?
Those claims ring hollow. The authorities in Sukhumi block the return of 200,000 or so more people who fled from the rest of Abkhazia. Lax law enforcement shows the limits of their tolerance in Gali. Following the death of an Abkhazian border guard near the boundary line last spring, thugs attacked a Mingrelian village and burnt down several houses. The police did little to intervene or investigate.
Tbilisi continues to provide Mingrelians in Gali with the same welfare benefits that all displaced people in Georgia receive. It pays additional salaries to Mingrelian teachers and doctors, on top of what they receive from the Abkhazians. But people can only access these payments by traveling back to west Georgia.
Foreign aid brings some respite. Following the 2008 war, donor governments flooded Georgia with cash, a tiny fraction of which found its way into Abkhazia. But political constraints make aid-givers cautious. In many conflict zones, international agencies deal with local authorities no matter what their formal legitimacy, as long as it helps those in need. Yet fear of antagonising Tbilisi leads western donors to avoid anything that appears to legitimise the Abkhazian authorities.
All this leaves a gap. The UN Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) went some way to filling it until a Russia veto ended its mandate in June 2009. For want of an alternative, some people in Gali now place their faith in Russian troops. So far, signs are positive. Soldiers have begun handing out charity to the poorest families. Lawlessness has declined.
In a report released earlier this year, two American scholars, Cory Welt and Samuel Charap, suggested that all sides to the conflict should focus on improving the humanitarian situation in Gali. Possible measures include improving freedom of movement between Abkhazia and Georgia, easing the import of agricultural goods, and allowing the European Union Monitoring Mission to operate in Abkhazia (it currently only patrols the Georgian side).
Such ideas are popular with foreign diplomats. But they have made little headway in Tbilisi, Moscow or Sukhumi, where grandstanding over principles is easier than pursuing co-operation on the ground. In Tbilisi this week, all the attention has been on clashes between the police and demonstrators calling for President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign. Meanwhile, people in Gali get by however they can.