I have a collection of Abkhaz visas: tiny colored pieces of paper that are not glued into my passport. These are my tangible proof that I visited a state which doesn’t exist on most of the world’s official maps. As soon as I crossed the border, my phone stopped working. It was impossible to pay anything by card. Was this an utopian land? A rogue state? Or the de facto consequence of centuries of brutal ethnic cleansing and imperial strategies in the Caucasus?
Abkhazia separated from Georgia at the end of the 1992-1993 war. In 2008, after briefly invading Georgia, Russia recognized Abkhazia. It was followed – shortly after – by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and the Vanuatu islands. Since 1993, Abkhazia has been struggling to rebuild itself as a nation state. It has a parliament, a president, free elections, and a democratic life peppered with mass demonstrations once in a while. It holds numerous celebrations, rituals that mark the establishment of this recent state. On these occasions, one can see countless types of uniforms, medals and flags that belong to the countless services in the army, police, customs and border units.
These are more than formal festivities. People really take to the streets and party in their own ways. I remember one of my first evenings in a hotel in Sukhum. Some guys in the neighboring buildings were firing their AK’s from their balconies, opposite my window. It was during Independence Day and I didn’t know if I should spend the night on the floor.
Building a nation state is not a simple task. Half of Abkhazia’s population fled during the war or right after the 1993 Georgian defeat. This trauma is visible everywhere around the country. Every second house is abandoned. In the apartment blocks, one in two flats exhibits its burnt windows and bombed balconies, while the next one looks inhabited. From the actual population of around 240.000, only half is ethnic Abkhaz. And only a quarter speaks the Abkhaz language, one of the most difficult languages on earth. It has 58 consonants… For decades before 1993, school education was in Georgian. Today, young Abkhazians try to revive the language and take their children to Abkhaz kindergartens, learn Abkhaz dances and cherish their local traditions. But Russian is the lingua franca and that’s what everybody speaks.
In a globalized world, what are the prospects of this tiny nation state? Heavily dependent on Russian protection and funding – on one side – and totally rejected by Georgia, a NATO ally, who claims it still owns it – on the other side. Squeezed between two irreconcilable political mammoths, the unrecognized republic has a hard life. Tourism is reduced to Russian visitors, nothing can be exported outside the Russian sphere; there are no direct banking or communication links with the outer world. However, life goes on over there, for men and monkeys alike. The landscape is superb, people are warm and nature pours its bloom all over this territory caught in the absurd game of geopolitics. Abkhazia is a microcosm in limbo, that could be paradise, but has gone through hell.