Identity crisis

Guardian Unlimited; May 25, 2006

The creation of a new country in Europe this week - tiny Montenegro in
the Balkans - has inspired a posse of disputed territories in the
former Soviet Union in their bids for independence.

They believe Montenegro's vote to secede from Yugoslavia and the
ongoing talks in Vienna over the future of Kosovo, the majority
Albanian province of Serbia under a UN protectorate, could set a vital
benchmark.

European diplomats indicate that Kosovo has a chance to gain a form of
independence and recognition by the international community later this
year.

That suggestion has prompted a wave of hope in self-declared
territories like Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, both disputed regions of
Georgia, the republic of Trans-Dniester in Moldova and the disputed
district of Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

These scattered shards of the former Soviet Union have all been in
limbo since its break up in the early 1990s, crying out to be released
from "frozen conflicts" and integrated into the world community.

"Such a civilised road of self-determination can be only welcomed,"
Sergei Bagapsh, the de facto president of breakaway Abkhazia, said
this week of Montenegro's independence vote last Sunday.

"Now that the process of self-determination of nations has resumed,
Abkhazia and South Ossetia should get independence."

At first glance, the tiny self-declared republic of Abkhazia on the
eastern coast of the Black Sea is an earthly paradise.

For decades its palm trees, warm scented air and sweeping beaches drew
thousands of holidaymakers from across the USSR, including Joseph
Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, both of whom relaxed on its shores.

Even today, it is famed for its gentle climate, its mandarin oranges
and its sweeping boughs of yellow mimosa blossom.

But look more closely and there are signs of an uglier past.

Sidestreets in the seaside capital, Sukhum, are dominated by the
gutted remains of smoke-blackened houses, choked with weeds.

In the countryside not far away, whole settlements stand in silent
desolation, abandoned in a furious war that raged here in the Caucasus
more than a decade ago.

The conflict flared up in August 1992 when the armed forces of Georgia
attacked Abkhazia, after it declared its intent to break away from the
country after the Soviet collapse.

After a year of savage fighting, and atrocities on both sides, the
Abkhazians drove out the Georgians - including hundreds of thousands
of civilians - with the help of their Russian neighbours to the north,
and declared independence.

Since then, this scrap of land which is home to about 200,000 people,
has led its own lonely existence, cut off by an embargo and
unrecognised by any country in the world.

"In the last 13 years, Abkhazia has formed a state with its own
institutions, authorities, army and democratic development," Mr
Bagapsh told Guardian Unlimited at his offices in downtown Sukhum.

"But the world ignores us when we have every right to gain
international recognition."

He predicts Abkhazia's independence will be recognised "within three
days" if Kosovo is granted status as a country.

Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, threw his weight behind Abkhazia's
cause at the end of January, when he said that if Kosovo was granted
independence, "why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South
Ossetia?".

"We need universal principles to find a fair solution to these
problems," Mr Putin added.

Abkhazia's victory in the 1992 to 1993 war came at a bitter price,
Georgia accused it of ethnic cleansing and severed all trade. Many
buildings were destroyed and the republic is desperately poor.

Sukhum has no functioning airport, receives little direct bilateral
aid and its coast is cut off by Georgian ships while its critics claim
it is a haven for organised crime.

And its only link is with Russia, which buys its oranges and sends a
trickle of tourists to the republic's crumbling resorts.

UN-led talks between Tbilisi and Sukhum have borne little fruit since
the end of the armed conflict, but Abkhaz foreign minister Sergei
Shamba has renewed hope.

"The international community needs to face up to the fact that
obstacles put in front of people and their aspirations to
self-determination only lead to bloodshed," he said, in a meeting at
his three-room ministry.

"In that sense, Kosovo could become a kind of marker that determines a
new world attitude towards these issues."

The issue of Georgian refugees is likely to remain the largest
stumbling block. About 250,000 Georgians fled Abkhazia during the war,
and only 60,000 have been able to return to the south of the region.

"I had to rebuild my life from scratch after they forced us out,"
Zviad Mirgatia, 38, a Georgian from Sukhum who now lives in Tbilisi,
said.

"Now I can't go back. But I could never accept my home, my soil, being
taken away from Georgia."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress