Abkhazian journalist: It’s complicated to build a country based on the rule of law.
For Abkhazia, independence still basically means separation from Georgia since it is very difficult to establish a state based on law due to the clan society, as Dmitri Belyi, the 37-year-old head of private radio station Soma in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi told Diplomaatia. Belyi, who was born in Sukhumi and has lived there almost his entire life (except for four years in Poland), is one of Abkhazia’s most reliable independent political observers.
Diplomaatia: When I visited Abkhazia for the first time in 2007, I sensed people were anxious: Georgian units had moved to positions in the Upper Kodori Valley and there were frequent armed incidents along the Inguri River. The situation was the same in the spring of 2008, and the Russo–Georgian War would begin a couple of months later. In 2010 the mood was completely different. People were euphoric about Russia recognising Abkhazia and the economy was growing since Russia was contributing substantial financial support. Last year I sensed there was a lot of pessimism and disappointment in Abkhazia, which has worsened since. How would you describe people’s sentiments in Abkhazia today?
Belyi: They’re tired. Society started to lose faith in 2014. 2009–11 and part of 2012 was a golden period for Abkhazia; there was a lot of construction. Money came pouring in, no one monitored how it was used, no one asked anything. Some budgets worth millions [of roubles—JP] were approved on a handwritten A4 document. The construction boom modernised Abkhazia to some extent. It was good in the psychological sense because people thought that if Russia was so generous with its money, it wouldn’t leave Abkhazia alone when it was in danger—otherwise it wouldn’t have made such an investment.
Why is society tired now and what has exhausted them?
On the one hand, Russia has been providing less aid. The funding is considerably smaller, yet better targeted, and the procedures for getting it have become more complicated. It is frustrating for many in Abkhazia, since they have got used to much simpler relations (in respect of Russian aid). It is very clear for Russia: since 2014, the Crimea and Syria have needed a lot of money. In addition, a substantial amount of Russian funds were tied up with buildings for the Olympics in Sochi and provided with the intention of guaranteeing stability in Abkhazia before and during the Games. The Olympics are over and, to put it mildly, Russia doesn’t consider the satisfaction levels of the Abkhazian people to be important. Besides, after acquiring the Crimea, Abkhazia is no longer a strategically important location for Russia. The Crimea is the gate to the Black Sea, which allows it to control the whole sea and also has the infrastructure to do so.
People are also tired of unstable internal politics. There was basically a coup in May 2014. People have different opinions about whether or not the coup actually happened, but the president was forced to leave office. [Opponents of the then president, Aleksandr Ankvab, took over the presidential palace and government institutions in Sukhumi, after which he fled to a Russian military base in Gudauta, where he announced he was leaving office.—JP] The new president [Raul Hadzhimba, formerly of the Soviet security agency, KGB] and politicians had nothing new to offer. They haven’t managed to implement any of the reforms they promised. The prime minister and government have changed several times. The new power hoped that Russia would continue funding the state and they’d just direct the money somewhere that they could benefit from it. However, the money taps were tightened instead. [In 2008–14, when Sergei Bagapsh and Aleksandr Ankvab were successive presidents, Russia gave 32 billion roubles to Abkhazia, but in the four years since Raul Hajimba became president, aid has amounted to five billion roubles.—JP] Many of those who supported Hajimba’s presidency during the 2014 campaign are openly against him today. At the same time, I don’t understand what the opposition is doing either, because they have no new ideas for developing Abkhazia. Half the members of the opposition have already been in power and they didn’t do anything even then. People can no longer get hold of Russian funds and use them for their own benefit, since there simply are none.
Abkhazia’s political life thus resembles Krylov’s famous saying about the orchestra: sit where you like, the music won’t be any better.
That’s quite right. What is more, Abkhazia has become visibly poorer. It can be seen on the Sukhumi waterfront, the main artery of the city. During the tourist season of 2012, 2013 and 2014, the street was full of parties, but this summer was considerably quieter. There are fewer tourists as well. It is evident that people no longer have money. I know dozens of cases of people who can’t travel to Russia any longer because they haven’t repaid their debts to Russian banks. Everyone is a Russian citizen here and many are also registered as permanent residents there, which is not difficult to do at all. There are many companies in Sochi and Adler that offer temporary or permanent address registration for money. [Prices start from 50,000 roubles, i.e. 660 euros.—JP] You can already get a loan from a bank if you have a temporary address registration—not from a large, respectable Russian bank like Sberbank or Alfabank, which require documents and a certificate from your employer, but there are no problems with slightly dodgy ones like Investment Bank of Kuban. People have been taking out loans from Russia but now they aren’t able to repay them, which is why they can’t leave Abkhazia.
During the 2010–13 construction boom, when Russian money was pouring in, many buildings were constructed in Sukhumi that are still empty. Embezzling funds from the budget and handing out bribes started when the construction projects were launched, and the money earned from that was sufficient; people earned enough during the construction and there is no pressing need to sell the completed buildings. In Russia, buildings like these are still marketable, since there is great demand for living space. There is no such demand here. There is a new five-storey building in central Sukhumi where only a couple of the apartments are occupied—by the owners’ relatives. No one here has the money to buy an apartment in that kind of building. No one did their market research. Money was to be had and people started construction to embezzle funds. There are dozens of buildings like this in Sukhumi; some are even 14 storeys high. That’s complete nonsense. Many hoped during the construction that Russian citizens would be allowed to buy property here and they could be potential buyers. This hasn’t been permitted thus far and I don’t believe it will be in the future. Circles far more nationalist than the current incumbent are striving to gain power.
In a word, life in Abkhazia depends on the state of affairs in Russia?
Yes, but how can it be any different? According to census data, only 240,000 people live in Abkhazia and I think there are actually even fewer. There are at most 180,000 people here. I usually don’t believe official statistics that much. I simply know very well how the census was conducted. Many Abkhazians who live permanently in Russia were registered as living here. Many people living in the cities are registered in the villages where they were born. They were counted twice. At the same time, we have no other data besides the census. It makes no difference, since even 240,000 is a very small number. Add the fundamental differences between the nations into the equation, even though they’re not visible on the surface.
You mean the differences between Abkhaz and Armenians due to the fact that many think Armenians have almost become a majority in Abkhazia?
Yes, of course. Relations are not so tense that a knife-fight could break out at any moment. The thing is that very few Armenians work in state institutions. There are only three Armenians in parliament right now. There are no Russians. Ten to fifteen per cent of the residents of Abkhazia are Russian. [According to the 2011 census, 51% are ethnic Abkhaz, 19% are ethnic Georgian-Megrelian (who live in a region nearest to Georgia), 18% are ethnic Armenian and 10% are ethnic Russian.—JP]
What should be done in Abkhazia for developments to take a positive turn?
It’s hard to say. I don’t think anyone knows. Every day I think to myself that things won’t change here for another 20 years. Change will come when an entirely different generation emerges that is not involved with what is happening now.
We must understand that, even though the war was won in 1993, Abkhazia didn’t become independent until the end of the 1990s. People were occupied with mundane day-to-day survival; they suffered because of the blockade and depended on humanitarian aid. [At Georgia’s request, Boris Yeltsin ordered a blockade of Abkhazia, which prevented local people from travelling out of the state and virtually stopped the import and export of goods. The official reason was the Chechen War. The blockade was ended in September 1999 by the then Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, which is one reason he is extremely popular in Abkhazia today.—JP]
For a long time, our independence meant being autonomous from someone else. This didn’t include the independence to think, act and decide freely—it signified separating from Georgia. Because the generation who fought and won the war is still in power, the doctrine is, in fact, going strong. Independence still means not being dependent on Georgia. For that generation, sovereignty is the sole justification for all the wartime sacrifices. The situation will change in 20 years with the generation for whom the war is just part of our history and not something to do with the current governance of the state. Right now, people rationalise the existing problems simply by saying at least we’re independent.
In 20 years’ time, a new generation who only remembers the war from others’ recollections will also gain power in Georgia. Will the two new generations who have no personal memories of the war be able to reach a compromise—perhaps not about recognising Abkhazia but at least about coexisting peacefully?
I think they will. But political regulation must be preceded by economic and social relationships. According to the official rhetoric, the parties should first reach a political understanding and then everything else will follow. Not really! Life will set things in their correct order. At first, we’ll start trading and realise it’s beneficial for both parties; then we’ll acknowledge that we must come up with the political content and justification for the new reality. We can conclude all kinds of political agreements with Vanuatu and Syria, but it won’t work because we won’t get any economic or other kind of gain from it. [Only Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Nauru and Nicaragua have recognised Abkhazia as an independent state. Vanuatu initially also recognised it, but then withdrew its decision.—JP]
Have there been any recent events that have had a special impact on the society of Abkhazia due to the widespread pessimism and fatigue?
There are a lot of examples to ponder. Like the recent death of the prime minister in a car crash. [Abkhazia’s prime minister, Gennadi Gagulia, who had returned from a visit to Syria, died on 8 September 2018, while on his way back from Sochi airport. A Zhiguli car driven by an Abkhaz man rammed his official car on the slippery highway when the driver lost control.—JP] Gagulia’s driver had received special training but even he could not save his boss’s life. Other road users in Abkhazia are even more vulnerable in this situation. You probably saw how people drive here. [The traffic in Abkhazia is terrible, even compared to other republics in the Caucasus.—JP]
Another recent case: two guests at a wedding were shot. Someone started shooting in the air, as is our tradition. They accidentally also shot other guests, allegedly because someone had unexpectedly grabbed their hand. They hit two people. A woman was seriously wounded and a 60-year-old man who had gone through the entire war died two days later. The shooter’s father is Abkhazia’s deputy minister of internal affairs. The case will probably get nowhere.
Last year the author of Abkhazia’s national anthem, Valeri Chkadua, was arrested and charged with paedophilia. It turned out everyone had known about it for years but, since his victims were not locals, nothing had been done about it—until the family of one of his victims had connections with a powerful Abkhazian family and an investigation was launched. It is still unclear whether he’ll be convicted and for how long he will be detained. No one knows for certain! There seems to have been a court hearing and he seems to have been convicted; they say he was sent for treatment.
In a small society, stories like these have a devastating effect on people. They exacerbate the sense of fatigue. Especially when everyone knows that we basically don’t have prisons—convicts go home for the weekend and conditions in the prisons are so good that some people don’t even live that well at home. They have saunas and billiard halls there, and so on.
A year ago I noticed that Abkhazian historians in particular are starting to resent Russia because of the activities of the Russian empire in the mid-19th century. [The empire deported or executed half and even up to three-quarters of the ethnic Abkhaz population. No one knows the exact figures, but it is estimated that 120,000–200,000 Abkhaz were forced to flee to Turkey in the period 1860–70—that is more than the current Abkhaz population of Abkhazia today.—JP] People doubted whether Russia could be the true friend of the Abkhaz nation without apologising for its actions. Is this still relevant? Before the Victory Day parade this year there were protests about Cossacks participating in the festivities since they were said to have taken part in killing the Abkhaz in the 19th century.
People may say such things, of course. It is a time of hyperpluralism in Abkhazia in general. I wouldn’t say that such sentiments are a trend. A certain caution is exercised in attitudes towards Russia’s policy in the whole Caucasus region. Recently someone hacked into the mailbox of a Kremlin official who had dealt with Abkhazia’s affairs in 2014. The correspondence was leaked to the public. [Ukrainian hackers broke into the mailboxes of Vladislav Surikov and his employee Mikhail Mamonov. Among other things it became evident how the Kremlin had directed and controlled the presidential elections in Abkhazia in the autumn of 2014. Additional information is available at ru.krymr.com/a/oleg-panfilov-upravlenie-abkhaziey-….—JP] The names of many Abkhazian politicians were featured in the e-mails: it was clear who lobbied for which initiatives, who was responsible for what, etc. Abkhazia wants the world to see us as equals but the case underlined that there are those who control us. Abkhazia does understand we depend on Russia, but we don’t want Russia to act like it because we will take offence, being a proud mountain nation. It is all a game. Everyone understands that Abkhazia is barely capable of maintaining a functioning state, starting from the payment of pensions and including all kinds of other fields. [Most residents of Abkhazia are Russian citizens and receive pensions from Russia; Abkhazia’s old age pension amounts to 500 roubles, i.e. 6.50 euros a month, and disability pension amounts to 500 roubles, i.e. 5.20 euros.—JP] We are able to organise our lives only with the help of an external power. Abkhazia has had three chances to get local life working, but it has blown them all.
What were the chances?
First, right after winning the war in the autumn of 1993, when we had a great surge of patriotism and emotions and people wanted to build their own country. It should have been done right away and based on strict principles: we should have specified a clear set of rules for life in peacetime, which does differ somewhat from the rules that apply in wartime. People should have been appointed to office according to their qualifications and knowledge, not their special merit during the war. We shouldn’t have gifted property to people left and right just because they went to war and supposedly had the right to get something out of it. Someone occupied a house, someone killed a guy, so let’s not punish them, they went to war, after all—that was the attitude back then. After the war, the authorities were too humane and magnanimous—our people have suffered enough, they don’t deserve swift and strict order.
The problem is that people quickly get used to the disorder and complete freedom to do what they want. Complete freedom turned into full legal nihilism; everyone laughed at laws and lived according to unwritten rules. A state can’t exist like that. This has largely continued to this day. Society is at a stalemate also because no one wants the laws to be applied to them or their family members first. I have been at many meetings where a punishment is discussed and people always say the same thing: why do you want to punish me—punish him or her first and then I’ll agree to it. It always ends the same way: OK, let’s not punish anyone.
The opposition always talks about corruption and impunity. When the same people obtain power, they do exactly the same things—only then they want to become untouchable themselves. As a wise and good friend of mine said: There is no opposition or coalition in Abkhazia; there are only politicians waiting for their turn. An old saying has it that those who speak of justice really want privilege. I don’t know how we can resolve this situation in such a small country where absolutely everyone knows everyone. How can we apply unavoidable punishments when everyone who is to be punished is a relative of powerful people?
When was the second chance?
When the blockade ended [autumn 1999]. And the third was when Russia recognised our independence [autumn 2008]. We could have made better use of it. When money comes pouring in, it should always make a difference in a country, but it was used to line someone’s pockets instead. Strict monitoring should have been established. There was a chance. It wasn’t taken.
You said that your hopes lie with the new generation. The current situation is that all Abkhazians with even half a brain go to Russia to study after graduating from school here. Very few return. Will the new generation you place your hopes on even be here in 20 years’ time? [Russia has allocated free university education quotas for students from Abkhazia.—JP]
Yes, few return. Those who do don’t always find use for their knowledge as they are bound by local customs and traditions for doing things as they have always been done. Their education is wasted if they are immediately told that things are not done in a certain way in Abkhazia. Only a long evolutionary journey might save Abkhazia.
I really want the country to develop but I see we’re at a stalemate and I don’t know how to change it. I remember how I tried to prove to a Georgian journalist ten years ago that the new people of Abkhazia no longer judge people based on their nationality, etc. I sincerely believed it. He said we’d see. Now I have to admit he was right: differentiating between people based on their nationality and class is getting worse. In that sense, life here was better after the war because everyone was equally poor and thus much friendlier towards one another and prepared to help when the need arose.
How often do you go to Georgia?
I don’t, though I was invited to a few conferences, years ago.
But you basically could go, as you didn’t fight in the war?
That’s not the reason, because even those who did fight travel to Georgia freely. They go and get treatment without any problems. [Georgia offers free medical aid for residents of Abkhazia; this has been the most successful “soft occupation” project thus far.—JP] Even then [in Tbilisi] we happened to see people [from Abkhazia] who we wouldn’t have even dreamt of meeting there. I was even more shocked when I saw one of them again in Sukhumi presiding over the congress of the Amtsakhara party [a powerful party in Abkhazia uniting veterans of the 1992–3 war].
How is that possible?
Well, it is. This is the Caucasus. Everyone is connected here, despite the wars.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.