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Zurab Shengelia –Abkhaz Society and de-facto Authority of Abkhazia Have Dramatically Different Opinions about Current Situation
Koba Bendeliani, Interpresnews

The Interpresnews interviewed the director of the research institute of Georgian-Abkhaz relationships at the Tbilisi Ivane Javakhishvili State University Zurab Shengelia about his visit in Abkhazia. He was invited to Sokhumi by his Abkhaz partners and has recently returned to Tbilisi.

-Mr. Zurab, what are your impressions about Abkhazia?

-My current impressions are radically different from my old ones. I had not met Abkhaz society since the war in August of 2008. Their feelings have greatly changed since then and now they see lack of perspectives. I think, the Abkhaz society is more fed up with reality and sometimes they are even desperate.

I think, Abkhaz society has three problems for similar feeling. The first problem is related with the Russian policy about private properties of Russian citizens in Abkhazia. Russia follows the logic – Abkhaz and Russian people are citizens of Russia. If ethnic Abkhaz citizens have right to purchase property and run business in any part of Russia, ethnic Russian citizens should also enjoy the same rights in Abkhazia. This problem causes serious concern of the Abkhaz society. As far as I know, Russian side had one more proposal to Sokhumi –to regulate this problematic issue without breaching the rights of Russian citizens in Abkhazia and to guarantee equal rights of Russian citizens both in Russia and Abkhazia. I was told in Sokhumi that the government of Abkhazia declined the proposal. This is what I was told in Abkhazia; so I cannot claim whether it is true or not.

The second problem is ineffective tourist season in Abkhazia. There are no tourists in Ochamchire district. There are fewer visitors in Gagra than the city could receive. Gagra received only 60-70 % of tourists they could host. Most part of tourists visited Gagra and New Athon from Sochi and Adleri for one-day outing to see Lake Ritsa, Gagra and New Athon. Nothing has been built in Ochamchire district to develop tourist infrastructure. Nothing has been recently built in Sokhumi except 2-3 restaurants which are very expensive. Only very rich tourists can visit them so they do not work actively. As for private houses in Gagra, families have covered their yards by tents and have started sort of public inns under them. There are several tables in the garages and they also work as inns too. No new restaurants or hotels have been built in Gagra for the last two years. The development of tourist infrastructure is oriented on Russian tourists with meager financial possibilities. Abkhaz people can dream about rich Russian tourists only in future. There are only Russian soldiers with their family members on the beaches in Sokhumi. There were no tourists this year; consequently, they cannot expect huge incomes from tourism.

Abkhaz society is seriously concerned by the situation. In addition to that, they are worried about poor economical situation. They also complain that Russia blocked its border and does not allow them to import Abkhaz products to Russia. The border is currently blocked before September 15 and supposedly the deadline will be postponed before October 15; the process will continue endlessly. The locals even discuss the possibility to bring their products across Enguri River if anybody will buy them on Georgian side. They have tea and nuts to sell; the citrus are not mature yet but Abkhaz people might face problems in the import of citrus too.

The third issue is the following – Abkhaz society thinks that celebration of Abkhaz independence was strange this year – the authority was preparing for the event very seriously and had planned serious activities but nobody arrived in Sokhumi from Moscow on that day. The “ambassador” of Russia to Sokhumi congratulated Abkhaz people with the day; the regional governor of Krasnodari oblast Tkachov did not visit Sokhumi either. His representative presented the Abkhaz authority with 6 new cars. The Abkhaz authority had planned youth disco in the so-called Brikhalovka in Sokhumi but the electricity supply was cut several times and everything finished in less celebrating mood.

-What do the people you met think about the future Georgian-Abkhaz relationship? Does their opinion reflect the general feeling of Abkhaz society and how different is it from the attitude of the Sokhumi government?

-Unlike previous years, people openly speak about politics; they often have critical opinion about Baghabsh and blame the authority in the current bad situation. There are “political clubs” in several cafes in Sokhumi. Once I even noticed the opponent of the government and former vice-president of Abkhazia Khajimba in the cafe. The government is actively criticized there. On the one hand they associate Baghabsh with Ardzinba but they add that during Ardzinba’s governance there was less Russian influence in Russia and Russians could not dare the same in Abkhazia what they do now. It is evident that political pluralism is more evident in Abkhazia now than it was before the war of August in 2008.

The relationship with Georgian side is one of the most urgent topics in these cafes. Abkhaz people compare the incidents with Russian soldiers – raping of an Abkhaz woman, beating and wounding of Abkhaz children which resulted into the death of an Abkhaz adult – with the old relationship with Georgian people. During similar discussions they say: -“We lived together with Georgian people so many years and similar incidents never happened; they have not ever abused an Abkhaz child not to speak about raping a woman.” Georgian-Abkhaz relationship is kind of criteria for the Abkhaz society in their relation with Russian people. I heard much critic about Bagabsh in similar discussions; but the most interesting for me was their accusation in his unbalanced policy towards Georgia. “Could not Bagabsh make the similar proposal to Tbilisi as Ardzinba did in 1997 who offered Shevardnadze confederation between Abkhazia and Georgia?” asked the opponents of the government. These are those new notes in the Abkhaz society which are mostly urgent now and are actively discussed among people. I cannot say that their attitudes towards Georgian people are radically changed but Abkhaz society has started to think that the current situation cannot last for a long time and they should settle relations with Georgian side.

I heard many questions about the feeling of Georgian people in regard with Abkhazia? They wonder whether we are ready to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and whether Georgia intends to regulate the relationship with Abkhazia at all. Abkhaz society wonders whether Georgia realizes the current problems of Abkhazia and what they could expect after the relations are settled with Georgian people. I had a chance to speak about those tendencies and conception which was worked out regarding occupied territories by the Georgian government. Although they found the conception utopia but were interested in it; they would appreciate if the conception is realized in reality.

I should also mention that Abkhaz society actively speak about ongoing constructions in Tbilisi. They speak even more about Batumi. It is clear that they exaggerate the real situation in Batumi. They are surprised that famous brands like “Marriot”, “Holiday” and others invest money in Georgia; that Swiss company “Campinsk” is building hotels here; they are surprised that there is a five-star hotel in Anaklia. They observe the ongoing process in Georgia in great interest and actively discuss these issues.

-As far as I understand, Abkhaz society does not feel independent. However, they stubbornly request the Georgian side to recognize their independence, do not they?

-No, they are not stubborn in their request but they think about this possibility. They think Abkhaz people will survive only if Georgia will recognize their independence.

-Do the people you met think it will be their achievement?

-No they do not think so but one of the possible ways for their survival is the recognition of their independence by Georgian side.

-De-facto prime-minister of Sokhumi regime Sergei Shamba stated in his interview with the Interpresnews that “the relation establishing between Abkhazia and Russia is completely acceptable for the Abkhazian side.” He claims that “Abkhazia received more profit” from the recognition of independence by Russia “than threat; Abkhazia received strong guarantees of security and economical development.” Do you think the Abkhaz society also thinks so? and how the vision of the de-facto government coincide with the general opinion of the society?

-During my visit in Abkhazia I did not meet any governmental official at all; but I can state that opinion of the Abkhaz society about the ongoing situation in Abkhazia is dramatically different from the opinion of the government. They might still think that Russia is guarantee of security in Abkhazia but as for the perspective of economical development, they cannot see any guarantees. Just the opposite, people think that if the current situation continues like than for the next 20-30 years in Abkhazia, Abkhaz nation will disappear. Many people even complained that if the situation continues like that, Abkhaz people will have to leave Abkhazia. “We cannot endure it,” it is the feeling of one part of Abkhaz society. Thus, I cannot agree with the statement of Shamba. People can also have the same opinion regarding the security issues but they cannot think the same about economical development and they often ask the question – “is the current situation worth of our security?”

-Journalist of the magazine “NewsWeek” Ana Nemtsova, who visited Abkhazia short time ago, called Abkhazia the “Republic of Spies”. There are many facts mentioned in the article to prove that high-ranking officials of Russian Special Forces purchase estates in Abkhazia. Did you also have feeling that those people purchase properties in Abkhazia?

-I had an impression that the claiming of the Russian journalist is correct. At least, there are kind of cafeterias on every beach of Sokhumi where cold water, ice-cream and pasties are sold. Their owners are local people. But as I was explained, local owners had assigned those cafeterias to strangers – Chechens, people from Kabardo, etc. They spend all days on the beaches. The Sokhumi dwellers call those people “FSB” members. I do not know how the FSB controls other business in Abkhazia but those people, who I was told about, were indeed strangers and did not look like Russians either.

-Shamba said in his interview with the Interpresnews that citizens of EU also have settled in Abkhazia. Did you notice those people in Abkhazia and if yes, what do they do there?

-I have not met people from EU states there. I saw two black people in Gagra. By the way, my Abkhaz hosts were also surprised to see them there. There are no conditions for foreigners to live in Abkhazia.

-What kind of cooperation did you agree with Abkhaz partners? Did the Abkhaz University express readiness to cooperate with you? Do not they also intend to establish the research center of Georgian-Abkhaz relationship in Sokhumi too?

-In 2000 the civil organization “Institute of Caucasus Peoples” was established in Sokhumi. In the same year, “Department of Georgian-Abkhaz Relations” was established within this institute as a separate legal entity. I did not meet anybody from the state university during my last visit; at least they did not get in touch with me though they knew I was there.

As for further cooperation with Abkhaz partners, we again plan photo-exhibition –“Abkhazia – 2010” in Tbilisi like we did last year. We exhibit literature which is sold in Abkhazia about politics and Georgian-Abkhaz relations. Besides that, we will discuss projects on the cooperation with Abkhaz partners. Soon, our partners will arrive from Sokhumi and we will continue discussion on those projects which I introduced them in Sokhumi. They had to agree several issues with local organizations and we hope they will arrive here with concrete proposals. They are coming here in two weeks and cooperation perspectives will be clarified only then.

-I see you returned from Abkhazia with good feeling and hope, did not you?

-During my last visit I heard more common sense in Sokhumi than during my previous visits. I cannot say that everything was nice but it is fact that the society has started to think. Abkhaz society has realized what the coexistence with Georgia meant for them and they valued it only now. I did not have possibility to observe it for the last 20 years. So, I am really satisfied with the visit. If we take reasonable steps towards the survival of Abkhaz nation and if we create real conditions for it – I mean survival of Abkhaz ethno-cultural space – our cooperation will be more real and effective.

7 Sep. '10