Letter from Abkhazia — From the March 2014 issue

Sochi’s Troubled Neighbor

A journey through a Russian client state on the Black Sea

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When the world tunes in to figure skating during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, we’ll all learn that the Iceberg Skating Palace is built atop what was once a protected coastal marshland frequented by migrating birds. We’ll hear about Vladimir Putin’s vicious antigay laws, and about how Russia spent $51 billion to turn Sochi, a temperate beach town, and the mountains nearby into the site of what may be the most corrupt Olympics in history.

But the TV crews will likely miss a complex sideshow — a place with its own history of Russian heedlessness and malfeasance. Five or so miles from the gleaming, blue-windowed Iceberg, the silky-smooth pavement of Sochi ends and the potholes begin. This is the border with the Republic of Abkhazia. Among the drug-sniffing dogs used to check cars coming and going, there’s a German shepherd who hops around on three legs. Russian guards stand nearby, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and aimlessly pacing in their stiff gray woolen overcoats.

A memorial gathering at the site of the Battle of Gumista, and a gravestone of a fallen Abkhazian soldier (inset). All photographs © mirzOyan Photographs by mirzOyan

A memorial gathering at the site of the Battle of Gumista, and a gravestone of a fallen Abkhazian soldier (inset). All photographs © mirzOyan

The United States does not recognize the Republic of Abkhazia, and in fact, only Russia and four of its other client states do: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Tuvalu and Nauru, two tiny South Pacific nations with about 10,000 citizens apiece. The official U.S. position is that Abkhazia, which was once part of the Soviet Union, is now a rogue, breakaway region of Georgia.

Abkhazia is about the size of Puerto Rico and has a population of 240,000. It seceded from Georgia in 1992, and then, with military assistance from the Russians, it battled Georgia in a thirteen-month war of independence that killed 4,000 people on each side. The nation’s population was cut almost in half as 200,000 ethnic Georgians fled the country. Russia now sends Abkhazia around $100 million in aid each year, mostly for road building (despite appearances at the border) and schools.

When Abkhazia and Georgia threatened to go to war again in 2008, John McCain made the U.S. position clear. “We are all Georgians,” he said. “The thoughts and the prayers and support of the American people are with that brave little nation.” In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton protested the heavy Russian presence in Abkhazia, which now hosts five Russian military bases and 5,000 Russian soldiers, calling it “occupied ground” during a visit to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

Today, Abkhazia’s economy depends largely on Russian tourism. And while Russia has allowed Abkhazia to keep Georgia at bay, it has also kept the country in a state of arrested development — an independent nation in name only, reliant on its powerful patron to claim its disputed part of the world map.

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