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Citizens of Abkhazia Strive to Shape Sovereign Nation

August 21, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the political tensions within Georgia's breakaway province Abkhazia. This report was produced in partnership with The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Bureau for International Reporting, and is a co-production with HDNet.
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JIM LEHRER: Our second report is from the breakaway province of Abkhazia. Recently, special correspondent Kira Kay traveled there. Here is her report from a place the rest of the world has rarely seen.

KIRA KAY, NewsHour Special Correspondent: The only way into Abkhazia is by United Nations airlift. We were entering a country that does not officially exist. Permission first had to come from the Abkhaz, who are in de facto control. They even issued us visas.

We were granted rare access here just days before the war between Georgia and Russia broke out. Everything seemed peaceful, but beneath the surface the political tensions here are just as strong as in Georgia’s other breakaway territory, South Ossetia.

That is because the people of Abkhazia also want their independence. But Georgia, a strong U.S. ally, insists Abkhazia stay within its borders.

SERGEI BAGAPSH, President, Abkhazia (through translator): We are ready to live next to one another, to build normal relations as two independent governments. But we will never be part of Georgia again.

KIRA KAY: Sergei Bagapsh is Abkhazia’s leader. He calls himself president, since he believes he is running a sovereign nation. Bagapsh explained to me the historical context behind his territory’s claim to independence.

SERGEI BAGAPSH (through translator): In the Soviet times, as you probably already know, during the time of Stalin and the Soviet Union, our republic was transferred to become part of Georgia. And during that Soviet period, for some 50 years, we continued to fight for our independence.

Abkhazia's conflict with Georgia

Maxim Gunjia
Vice Foreign Minister, Abkhazia
It's a very strange situation when you start to understand human reality, human identity. And humans could be very cruel, very rough.

KIRA KAY: Abkhazia suffered when Stalin made it a part of Georgia in 1931, according to Liana Kvarchelia, who runs a nonprofit focused on reconciliation with Georgian counterparts.

LIANA KVARCHELIA, Director, Centre for Humanitarian Programmes: This square where we're sitting now, it has witnessed, every 10 years in the Soviet Union, there were mass protests here against being part of Georgia and against attempts to assimilate Abkhazia, against the attempts to ban the language -- our language was banned for some time. Our intellectuals were persecuted. And a lot of Georgians were re-settled in Abkhazia to create this demographic disbalance.

KIRA KAY: When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, Georgia gained independence, just like many of the other Soviet republics. But Abkhazia and another region within Georgia, South Ossetia, remained part of Georgia.

Amidst the turbulence and national awakenings of the early '90s, both decided to push for independence, too. Although most people on both sides are orthodox Christians, the Abkhaz consider themselves ethnically different from Georgians.

Georgia moved militarily against the breakaway regions in a war that lasted two years. There is a war memorial in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, but you don't need to visit it to remember what happened here.

On every block, on every corner, empty shells stand where beautiful villas once hosted generals and leaders. Billboards all over town remind citizens of the heavy price they paid.

Both sides have made harsh accusations. The Abkhaz say deliberate attempts were made to erase them from history. The Georgians claim they were ethnically cleansed. And, indeed, even today, 15 years later, more than 200,000 people driven from Abkhazia during the war now live as refugees in Georgia, many in squalid settlements near the border, unable to return.

Maxim Gunjia is only 32, but he has already spent a decade in the Abkhaz government, and he remembers the 1992 war very well.

What are your memories of those days?

MAXIM GUNJIA, Vice Foreign Minister, Abkhazia: Very bad memories. It's a very strange situation when you start to understand human reality, human identity. And humans could be very cruel, very rough. It's very strange to see how people change in a second.

KIRA KAY: And there was a lot of violence against ethnic Georgians, too?

MAXIM GUNJIA: You're right. This is war. There was a lot -- a lot of crimes, I would say. When the fighting starts, you already can hardly say who is right and who is wrong. It is a very sad situation.

Abkhazia turns to Russia

Liana Kvarchelia
Centre for Humanitarian Programmes
Georgia wanted to isolate us from the rest of the world, including Russia. But the result was that we were isolated from the rest of the world, except Russia. So Russia was the only route for us.

KIRA KAY: Isolated from the outside world and punished by international sanctions, the Abkhaz say they had to turn to their neighbor to the north, Russia, to survive.

LIANA KVARCHELIA: There are a lot of players who are interested in restoring Georgia's territorial integrity. It's very few ones are interested in developing Abkhazia internally.

KIRA KAY: Liana Kvarchelia met us outside the hulking remains of the former Soviet administration building, destroyed during the war and left in ruins as a reminder.

LIANA KVARCHELIA: The only open window or open door was with Russia. So the effect of the -- Georgia wanted to isolate us from the rest of the world, including Russia. But the result was that we were isolated from the rest of the world, except Russia. So Russia was the only route for us.

So when Georgia's now complaining that we're too dependent on Russia or there is too much Russian influence, I think this is the consequence of the policy of isolation that Georgia initiated.

KIRA KAY: Eighty percent of Abkhazia's estimated 200,000 residents now hold Russian citizenship and Russian passports. It's the only way they can travel to the outside world. And many elderly here receive monthly pensions from Moscow.

Russia is Abkhazia's only official trading partner. And Russian tourists, like these, who come to enjoy the Black Sea beaches, don't seem to mind lounging next to rusty relics of cargo ships or strolling the streets past bullet-scarred buildings.

And this Russian tourism has helped shore up the economy. Vegetables, bread, cheese, and other life staples, like vodka, are now easily bought in the market. But you must pay in rubles, as the Russian currency is the only one accepted here.

Gunjia is proud of what Abkhazia has built.

MAXIM GUNJIA: Some friends of mine from, from other countries, they ask me how Abkhazia managed to start building democracy after war? Why didn't you become some military regime or whatever? I don't know why, but I think that democracy values, democratic values are in the culture of this nation.

Optimism among the youth

Khibla Vozba
Student
[Y]ou might have noticed yourself that people are just walking here and living ordinary lives. What do I do? I'm a student at the university. I study. I work part time. I enjoy my work. I have plans for the future.

KIRA KAY: Though Abkhazia remains unrecognized, its citizens have plowed ahead to shape what they consider a sovereign, democratic nation. Although opposition parties struggle here and ethnic Georgians aren't represented in the government, Abkhazia does have a 35-member parliament and a president and holds regular elections for both.

In fact, Sergei Bagapsh won his election as a member of the opposition, a party not favored by Moscow.

MAXIM GUNJIA: What I like about Abkhazia is that it is like a small boat. If you want to maneuver, you can do a lot of good projects here. You can do reform; you can build this country the way you want.

KIRA KAY: It would be a jump, however, to say this is a fully open society. Our camera was often viewed with suspicion here. We were frequently questioned, and once authorities even confiscated our equipment.

Still, daily life does go on. And while the rest of the world might see a country in turmoil, these young people were looking ahead with optimism.

KHIBLA VOZBA: I think that the main problem of the outside world is that they do think that Abkhazia is a separatist country, that there is war going on, on the streets, that there are shootings and everywhere.

But you might have noticed yourself that people are just walking here and living ordinary lives. What do I do? I'm a student at the university. I study. I work part time. I enjoy my work. I have plans for the future.

DENIS SOLOMKO (through translator): It's a time of discovery, where we young people have the opportunity to leave our trace on the history of our country. We have the opportunity to build a country, to develop it economically, in terms of education or in any other field. It's a good time.

KIRA KAY: But Maxim Gunjia says all the positive developments he sees here would end if Abkhazia went back to being part of Georgia.

MAXIM GUNJIA: The independence issue is not just to have a flag or passport or a country. For us, it is a matter of self- preservation.

We clearly remember the time when we were part of Georgia and what would happen afterwards. And we don't want to risk anymore. And if there is a choice between living for generations in an unrecognized country or to be part of Georgia, we all would rather choose to be unrecognized for many other years, instead of putting life of our families and children into risk. I'm very much afraid.

KIRA KAY: But Georgians, like this man in the border town of Gali whose home was burned during the fighting with the Abkhaz in the 1990s, also were fearful before this latest violence broke out.

GEORGIAN MAN (through translator): I am afraid a little bit all the time.

KIRA KAY: And, indeed, this week, the Abkhaz seized territory in this Georgian-populated border area, and President Bagapsh declared that a negotiated settlement no longer is possible.

For additional reports visit the Pulitzer Center's Caucasus Conflicts project page and its Untold Stories blog, along with the Bureau for International Reporting.