Former Soviet Union: Sun and Surf, but Also Lines in the Russian Sand

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Aug 21 16:33:46 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, August 20, 2006

Sun and Surf, but Also Lines in the Russian Sand

EVERY summer the Russian tourists arrive by the thousands at a Black Sea
resort area they regard as their own. They come with urges shared by
tourists the world over, for sun and drink and days lounging on the shore.
Their destination is officially Georgia. But in their minds it is not
Georgia at all. It is Abkhazia, one of the thorniest issues dividing
Russia and Western-supported Georgia in the volatile Caucasus. And it is
one of four small regions in the southwestern reaches of the former Soviet
Union whose status, 15 years on, remains unresolved. The others South
Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria are in Georgia, Azerbaijan and
Moldova, respectively.

These four are the breakaways, regions that do not recognize the
governments of the nations they find themselves in. All have declared
independence. These frozen conflicts, as the disputes are called, have
undermined the stability and development of a large swath of former Soviet
space. All were the scenes of short, vicious wars that ended in the 1990s
in cease-fires that so far have mostly held. The status quo in all four
has assumed an enduring form: centralized local rule with intensive
foreign support (from Russia, in all but Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia
is the principal patron), indigenous security forces and carefully
cultivated identities.

Each has had multiple forms of conflict: not just wars fought for
territory and ethnic solidarity, but trade wars and wars of perception and
for outside support. What exactly are these places? The answers, always
passionate, depend on who is asked. Nations? States? Ethnic statelets?
Offshore investment regions, away from the eyes and reach of regulators?
Lawless zones for black marketeers, fugitives and terrorists? In the case
of Abkhazia, where tourists blithely treat the beaches of another nation
as if they were their own, the answers show how peculiar these enclaves
are, and how elusive solutions will be.

For a Russian tourist, Abkhazia is a semi-tropical paradise, a lush
territory where the sky-high Caucasus ridge falls swiftly to the sea. Many
Russians regard Moscows interests in the region as irrefutable. The Abkhaz
shore, after all, was developed by czars and later by Lenin himself.
Stalin and Beria, his sinister chief of the secret police, spent their
holidays at state dachas in Abkhazia, lending the Abkhaz coast its
distinction as the Soviet Unions most desired retreat. The local crops,
which include tangerines and tea, draw an implicit contrast with other
Soviet climes. Think of a semi-developed Soviet Florida, the Red Riviera,
albeit now with bombed-out hulks.

To the Abkhaz, who welcome Russian tourists and their cash, their land is
more than a playground. Abkhazia regards itself as a nation. It issues
visas, has an elected president, operates ministries and fields a military
it claims can be augmented with a reserve force modeled after the Swiss,
with thousands of armed and trained citizens ready to muster at tactically
important locations on short notice. But a nation it is not. It is an
ethnic enclave, held by those who occupied the ground when the cease-fire
was reached in 1993. No other country recognizes it. The cease-fire
remains monitored by United Nations observers.

To the Kremlin, Abkhazia is a protectorate. In recent years, as Georgia
has drifted Westward and its military abilities have improved, in part
with Pentagon aid, Russia has granted citizenship to most of Abkhazias
inhabitants. It is a policy akin to annexation. The Abkhaz have become, at
least in terms of the documents they carry, Russians living abroad. This
support leaves the Kremlin open to charges of hypocrisy, given that Russia
regards its own territorial integrity as inviolable and not open to
discussion, even with a people, the Chechens, who wanted to secede.

Russia has leveled much of Chechnya and killed at least tens of thousands
of people to make this point at home. The Kremlin has also stood firm on
other territorial disputes. Just last week in the Kuril islands, off
Russias eastern coast, its border guard fired on a Japanese fishing vessel
harvesting crabs in a contested border area. A Japanese fisherman was
killed. Russia blamed Japan. With Russia becoming more emboldened on the
world stage, the summer frolicking on the Abkhaz shore belies the tension
that surrounds the place.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the Columbia-educated president of Georgia who came
to power in 2004, has made national reunification a central aim. He is
armed with the worlds map, which shows Abkhazia as Georgian land. Abkhaz
leaders, feeling secure under the protection of Moscow, treat talk of
restoring Georgian authority as a call to war. And not just Abkhazia
simmers. This year has brought fresh troubles in all four enclaves.
Ukraine and its West-leaning president have supported Moldova and cracked
down on illegal exports from Transnistria, a manufacturing zone controlled
in part by shadowy Russian interests. Russia, angry at Georgia and
Moldova, has banned imports of both countries wines and spirits.

The Azeri and Armenian leaders, even after years of prodding from France,
Russia and the United States, failed to find a settlement for
Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled enclave within Azerbaijan where
a long and mountainous frontline bristles with Armenian and Azeri troops.
Their occasional shelling and sniping at each other has claimed lives on
both sides. Azerbaijan plans to modernize its military, using surging oil
revenues. South Ossetia, a land-locked region in Georgia on the Russian
border that Georgia regards as a smugglers haven, has had mysterious
explosions. And Abkhazia has said that a recent Georgian special operation
to clear a defiant paramilitary group from a gorge near its demarcation
line signals preparation for war.

Georgia denies that, but last week Mr. Saakashvili ordered a doubling of
Georgias military reserves, to 100,000 soldiers, a move Abkhazia
characterized as militarization. And on and on. But now is summer, still.
The tourists come to the beaches. While fewer than last year, they suggest
how firmly the enclaves remain in the grips of those who control them.
Each arriving train also reflects how the enclaves complicated histories
and entrenched interests make solutions unlikely any time soon.


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