As promissed, more impressions from my recent trip to Sukhumi. In Abkhazia, the economic imperative of rebuilding the region and attracting investments (predominantly Russian) clashes with its political project of staying more or less independent. Abkhazia might face the following paradox: until August 2008 Abkhazia was de facto independent but unrecognised; now it is recognised (by Russia and Nicaragua only), but not de facto independent anymore. The closure of the UNOMIG mission (anounced today) will also leave Abkhazia more internationally isolated than ever before.
Compared to my previous visit there in March 2006, now Sukhumi was livelier. There are more renovated buildings, more expensive cars, more people on the promenade by the sea, and the cafés are fuller. This is both a sign of some economic progress, but also the fact that summer is always livelier than the rest of the year (because of the tourists).
In the hotel I stayed (Ritsa) – very central and right by the sea – there were three wi-fi networks in the range of my laptop. The local GSM operator “Aquaphone” boasts with its 3G network. On one of the formerly abandoned piers in Sukhumi – a café was opened that serves sushi (and where the local authorities took Solana and Lavrov on their recent visits to Abkhazia). I even saw a yellow Hummer (!) (I also saw another one in Tbilisi –apparently that is trendy). A recent spat between the Georgian government and Benetton is also telling. Benetton Turkey wanted to open a shop in Sukhumi, but the Georgian government protested since such an investment was not coordinated with the Georgian government whose sovereignty over Abkhazia is recognised by all but two UN member states. Benetton Tbilisi even closed down its shop for two days in protest against the actions of its Turkish sister company. Still, I saw in Sukhumi one improvised (in Russian one would say “kustarnyi”) Zara, one improvised Mango and 3 improvised Ikea mini-shops (these are not official representations, but just local shuttle-businessmen buying stuff in Russia or Turkey and importing it into Abkhazia).
There still are plenty of destroyed buildings (in the centre of Sukhumi, and especially in the “Novyi raion”– not far from Gumista river where the frontline between Georgian and Abkhaz troops was in 1992-1993). Many Abkhaz speak of a local construction boom. It is true that some buildings are being rebuilt or renovated, but I would not call that a construction boom in the way “constructions booms” happened in Moscow, Tbilisi, Kiev or Baku. And certainly economical development in Sukhumi is nowehere near the economic development Tbilisi has seen in recent years. Despite the fact that Abkhazia is a paradise for fruits and vegetables (and tourists), almost all the fruits on the market are imported (from Turkey I guess), and the cherries cost 8-10 USD (250-300 roubles).
But overall the economic mood is very optimistic. From an Abkhaz perspective, the security problem is solved by Russia guaranteeing and defending Abkhazia’s mostly unrecognised border with Georgia. This should boost investor confidence and lead to higher economic growth.
But Abkhazia’s economic optimism is clouded by a certain anxiety on Abkhazia’s political and demographic future. There is a deep sense of fear that Abkhazia will dissolve itself economically and politically in the “greater Russia” (see the newspaper article below). The fear is that Russia will take over most of the Abkhaz tourist infrastructure (attractive land by the sea and hotels); the construction works for the Sochi Olympics will draw on Abkhaz construction materials, such a gravel, destroying Abkhaz beaches and riverbeds; and the Russian soldiers serving in Abkhazia might stay on with their families changing the demographic balance in a way that is even less favourable to the ethnic Abkhaz (who anyway constitute slightly over a third of the population now). However this does not mean the Abkhaz will suddenly want to become part of Georgia again.
As an Abkhaz told me: “Abkhazia faces competing pressures: we need more Russian troops to have our security guaranteed, but we also fear having too many Russian troops for fear of losing control of Abkhazia”. The need to find a balance between integration with Russia and maintaining a certain distance from Russia runs through almost every single economic, social, political, demographic or environmental issue in the region. Such a balance is impossible perhaps.
PS: Andrew Wilson and I just published a new ECFR report on the Eastern neighbourhood: European and Russian Power in the Troubled Neighbourhood .
PPS: Russia vetoed the extension of the UNOMIG (UN Observer Mission in Georgia). From what I know the Abkhaz definitely wanted the mission to stay (under a modified name), since this was virtually their only opening to the broader world.