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Friday
Nov202009

Sukhum

It is cool and rainy today in Sukhum, Abkhazia. I am on my way to the Interior Ministry to take care of some visa-related business. Then I am going to do an interview, which will be posted later.

My plan is to cross the border with Russia later this afternoon.

Sukhum has been very, very quiet in the evenings.

Of course, there are not many tourists here since it is past the season. But, despite considerable economic growth in the last several years, most people just don't have a lot of money to be spending in cafes, bars and restaurants. That is going to change very soon in my estimation because there should be a huge increase in tourism.

Sukhum has a number of attractive buildings in the center and there has been some reconstruction from war damage and disuse. Unfortunately, for many years this place has been in abject poverty because of the lack of international recognition. You can see that things are changing, though. There are many Russians coming and looking at opportunities. The Mayor of Moscow was here a week ago and the Moscow City Government is erecting a building in central Sukhom near the waterfront. It will house shops and offices.

The increase in tourism in 2009 over 2008 has been estimated at 100%. I think that trend should continue for some time. If the airport reopens, that will provide a real boost.

I have photos posted at Flickr.

Thursday
Nov192009

Belarus

Here in Sukhom, officials from Belarus are meeting today with their counterparts from the Republic of Abkhazia and discussing issues related to the recognition of Abkhazia. The outcome is not certain at this moment, but Abkhazia is clearly hopeful.

Although there are credibility issues related to Belarus, it would be an important step for Abkhazia. Belarus has a military alliance with Russia. I am unsure as to whether that alliance would then be extended to Abkhazia. Of course, recognition by Belarus would move Abkhazia a step closer to CIS recognition (The CIS is composed of the post Soviet nations minus Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia).

Belarus has been pressured by Georgia in the other direction, but it is hard to see how the Georgians have much leverage. On the other hand, Belarus may not want to make any moves that the European Union does not approve of.

Thursday
Nov192009

Secretary Clinton

I have many areas of agreement with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Abkhazia is not one of them. Recently, she stated that the U.S. would never recognize Abkhazia. Never is a pretty long time.

Part of the rationale seems to be that Abkhazia will be pulled into Russia's orbit. After spending quite a bit of time in Abkhazia, I don't see Russia making decisions for Abkhazia. They have their own elections and do not bow to any master, Russian or otherwise.

On the other hand, Abkhazia has accepted Russian military aid and money for infrastructure because of the threat from Georgia. Georgia protests wildly at any opportunity about Abkhazia. United Colors of Benetton pulled out because Georgia threatened to close all their stores in Georgia because they opened one in Abkhazia. The Republic of Abkhazia does not have working ATM machines, although there are banks, because Georgia protested to the companies that process the electronic services. Abkhazia does not have a movie theatre, despite a population of around 200,000. Predictably the reason is that Abkhazia does not have official recognition, so it is not possible to get licensed to show films here. Although the airport in Sukhum has one of the best runways of anyplace in the former Soviet Union, there are no commercial flights to Abkhazia because it is not widely recognized. This is because Georgia has undue and unfair influence on the United States. Georgia receives a large share of its budget from the U.S., without this, it may resemble a failed state very quickly. In return, Georgia lavishes money in Washington to lobby our elected officials.

There is no Abkhazian lobby or presence to counter the propaganda that Georgia is a victim of Russian aggression. No one writes about this in the press. There is no mention of the poverty in Abkhazia, despite the fact that the country is spectacularly beautiful and has tremendous potential as a tourist destination.

Because of the situation, Abkhazia must rely on Russian military support to defend itself from Georgian aggression (partly funded with American tax dollars). Abkhazia must also use a Russian telephone code so its citizens can communicate. Hopefully, flights will start to Sukhum from Russia next year. But that will only be from Russia because of the lack of international recognition. So far the only money for redevelopment of the country has come from Russia. So while Abkhazia makes its own decisions, Russia is the only nation that provides protection, a border crossing and economic aid. It seems that the U.S. policy only pushes Abkhazia closer to Russia.

I am sure that the Russian Federation does not seek to dominate Abkhazia. The proof is their recognition of Abkhazia as an independent nation. Russia has also been active in lobbying other nations for Abkhazia's and South Ossetia;s recognition. Russia would much prefer that Abkhazia be recognized for what it is: free and independent.

With widespread recognition, Abkhazia would more quickly and efficiently develop. This would be in almost everyone's interest, including the United States. Georgia will certainly disagree, but they have no presence in the country and likely never will.

Most Abkhazians view America in a positive light despite the support for Georgia. They think this is due to political intrigue and money rather then the blame of the American people.

Wednesday
Nov182009

Border crossing into Abkhazia, November 16

I came across the border late in the afternoon after arriving by flight from Krasnodar. Usually, I take the train to Sochi and then spend some time there before traveling south to the border at Adler. However, I flew and since the airport is actually in Adler, it is a short trip from there to the border.

I had an interesting experience crossing the border. The Russian border agents pulled me aside and very cordially asked me my business. They wanted to know if I was CIA. It seems funny until you consider their position. Very few Westerners cross into Abkhazia and almost no Americans. Since the U.S. has been a strong supporter of Georgia's position, it is natural to question an American entering a place that his country does not officially recognize. I carefully explained to them my business and property ownership in the Krasnodar Region of Russia and of my interest in Abkhazia and its future. They were satisfied and I went on my way.

Wednesday
Nov182009

Return to Russia and the Obama missile shield announcement 

Several days before I left, I heard the announcement that the Obama Administration is abandoning the plans that were developed previously for a missile shield over Poland and the Czech Republic. This shield was very threatening to the Russians because they felt it was directed towards them and their offensive capability. If their offensive capacity is reduced, then they feel much more vulnerable to attack. In recent years as relations with the U.S. have deteriorated, this has been an especially sticky issue.


I stayed in a small hotel near the beach in central Gagra. While I was there, the Sochi Economic Forum was being held just a few miles north in Sochi, Russia. This is a very important event and draws business and governmental leaders from Russia and abroad. Both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev attended. While I passed the outdoor cafe at my hotel, I could see Putin being asked about the announcement and his response. For a guy who does not exactly wear his heart on his sleeve, his pleasure was obvious. I don't think the U.S. should base its foreign policy decisions on pleasing Mr. Putin alone. However, the idea was a bad one to begin with. Now it appears that the Russian government will be more helpful in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. And the big question in the first place was not protecting Warsaw from Tehran, but preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons to attack anyone. I always felt the Bush Administration's policy was completely wrong-headed on the issue. Much better to work with Russia to resolve issues like this than to antagonize them on issues that are very sensitive to their national security. After all, Russia has been invaded several times and they have long memories about this. Virtually every city, town and village has a memorial to the victims and heroes of the Great Patriotic War ( World War Two).

When I crossed the border about 2 days later, it was raining and I could not find the migration card to fill out to present with my passport at the kiosk next to passport control. I somehow worked my way to the front of the scrum of people hauling fruit across and made my needs known. The agent at the border gave me the paperwork and told me to come back to the front when it was complete. I quickly filled it out and returned. The officer quickly looked at my documents, stamped them and with a smile returned them. This was the easiest and friendliest crossing into Russia I have ever experienced. It is a small sample and not necessarily representative, but it sure caught my attention. As opposed to ordinary Russians, I feel the chills and thaws between the U.S. and Russian governments very quickly when I am dealing with border guards and agents. I suppose this is understandable. But if this is any indication of improvement in American-Russian relations, I am glad.