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Abkhazia September 2009

I travelled to Gagra my first evening in Abkhazia. The road follows the coast for about 15 miles and Gagra is between the mountains and the sea, with some residences on the lower slopes.

My second day in Abkhazia, I met the President, Sergei Bagapsh in the capital, Sukhom. We spoke about Abkhazia's development and future. The hope is that there will be international flights to Abkhazia from Russia next year. They are hampered by the lack of international recognition. Without this the airport codes can not be given. But there is a sense that by next year there will at least be flights from Moscow. I could see the President was very busy and that there are a lot of changes happening in the country.

Sukhom is a pleasant city and although it suffered more damage during the war, there are a lot of signs of its emergence. The area around the waterfront looks very promising.

I noticed that things have changed quite a bit since my last visit in 2008. There are more Soviet era buildings being reconstructed, there is now a bank in Gagra and a new supermarket. Also, many homes near the beach have added guest rooms and a cafeteria for guests in their yards. The accommodations are modest and construction methods and quality are not very high. But there is much of this going on. The reason: tourism is up about 100% from 2008. Russian tourists feel safe now that the Russian government has pledged $500 million towards infrastructure and security for Abkhazia. They are constructing a base in Abkhazia and it is possible to see Russian naval vessels and the coast guard in Abkhazian waters.

I spent a day touring the mountains east of Gagra and saw Lake Ritsa. Abkhazia has very dramatic scenery, with the mountains rising to over 16,000 feet within a few miles of the coast. Ritsa was the site of one of Stalin's dachas (country home).

I also looked at the resort at Pitsunda again. Pitsunda is a few miles south of Gagra. During Soviet times, foreign leaders and dignitaries would often stay there. Now there are several hotels, including one modern mid-range hotel. The resort itself consists of 7 residential buildings, resembling hotel structures. However, the construction is typical of mid-60's Soviet design. Most of the rooms are in use, but there is a lack of amenities and the rooms are of aged Soviet vintage. The location is fantastic, though. The resort is about 70 acres and includes nearly a kilometer of beach. The views to the north and east are of the mountains. I stood on the beach on an 85 degree day and saw snow-capped mountains about 3 miles away. It is a magical setting. Abkhazia and especially Pitsunda have a very, very strong reputation for tourists from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

I stayed in Abkhazia the 3rd week of September. Sadly, I got food poisoning and was laid up a whole day when there was perfect weather. There was some rain, but most of the time it was between about 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. There were several cloudless days and several with mixed sunshine and rain.



The EU Report: Georgia started the conflict

The European Union's report of September 30, 2009 on the conflict in South Ossetia lays the blame for the attack on Georgia.  It states that Georgia broke international law and attacked South Ossetia's population center, Tskhinvali without the provocation from Russia that they claimed.  The report states that Russia's initial response in protecting Russian and South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers was justified, but criticized Russia for crossing the South Ossetian frontier into Georgia.  

The report very clearly contradicts Georgia's assertions and the narrative in the Western press and from some American politicians that Georgia was the victim of a Russian attack.


Georgia, the GOP and the South Ossetia Conflict

Few people in the United States have any idea of how our policy in the Caucasus has been determined.   Of course, many probably are not really aware of the region or its significance.  Last year in the midst of the conflict in South Ossetia, Senator John McCain announced that we "are all Georgians."  It is interesting how he came to that conclusion.  One of McCain's chief advisors during last year's Presidential campaign, Randy Scheunemann, is a specialist in foreign affairs.  He is also a registered foreign agent for the Republic of Georgia.  During the period 2004- 2008 alone, his firms were paid over $2,000,000 to advise and lobby the U.S. Government by and on behalf of Georgia.  He was also paid a reported $70,000 per month by the McCain for President campaign.  Nice work if you can find it.  Mr. Scheunemann is of the neo-conservative  school of thought.  His ideological brethren include Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith.  They tend to see the world in terms of good and evil, have a low tolerance for diplomacy, emphasize unilateral U.S. action and a readiness to use military force. They are some of the same individuals who argued forcefully for the American invasion in Iraq.

Georgia has been one of our government's most reliable military partners in Iraq. While many of our traditional allies refused to participate, Georgia's military contribution has been out of proportion to the size of their nation and their military.  In the meantime, the U.S. has lavished billions of dollars in aid. In the aftermath of the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia, an additional $1 billion package was announced. Much of the money was spent on an increase in the military budget.  In the last decade alone, their military expenditures increased by more than 30 times according to some calculations.  At the same time that Western governments were encouraging South Ossetia and Abkhazia to disarm, they were providing the finances for Georgia to build up its military.  In 2007, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Georgia's rate of growth of military expenditures was the highest in the world.  It is pretty clear where the money came from, but what was the purpose?  Did they need it to defend themselves against impoverished Armenia?  Azerbaijan or Turkey with whom they have good relations?  Or was the point to reintegrate SouthOssetia and Abkhazia through forceful means?  The appearance is that the U.S. gained a partner in a war (Iraq) that most Western governments thought was unnecessary and irrelevant to the terrorist threat.  In return, the U.S. armed Georgia.  Georgia then used their rebuilt military for the attack in South Ossetia.

 I have spoken to many people from all walks of life in Russia and the near universal sentiment is that the U.S. was behind the attack.  It is known that there were US military advisors in Georgia shortly before the invasion. This can not help our image.

The Bush Administration wanted another partner for their ill-advised war in Iraq and got it.  The Georgians were then given money and used it to attack a near defenseless region that wants no part in being reintegrated into the Republic of Georgia.  If Russia gets a black eye in the process, so much the better by neocon reckoning.  It feels to an observer, like me, that the Bush Administration was playing a zero-sum game by proxy.  If it is good for Georgia, it must be bad for Russia.  If it is bad for Russia it must be good for the U.S.  I really dislike this.  I think a powerful, wealthy and stable Russia is in the best interests of the world.  I want to be clear that I bear no hostility towards the Georgian people and hope that they will enjoy stability and prosperity, too.

 We don't know exactly how much was spent on the Georgian military.  There is corruption in Georgia, money disappears and also there have been military expenditures that were disguised as other budgetary items.  So the true figure is probably greater than the 8% of GDP estimated in 2007.  This is in a country that has much poverty, decaying infrastructure and underfunded social and educational programs.  

 The Republic of Georgia has been represented in the Western press as a small, democratic nation victimized by Russia.  But it is not the beacon of democracy that it has been portrayed as.  There are reports of opposition figures marginalized, abused and imprisoned.  The US State Department's 2007 report found serious problems with Georgia's human rights record. And Freedom House has actually downgraded Georgia's human rights record since Mikhail Saakashvili became President.  The "Rose Revolution" in 2003 was supposed to change the corrupt and abusive practices of the government under Edvard Shevardnadze, but it has gotten worse! 

 I always thought that Georgia's President Saakashvili made a really stupid move attacking South Ossetia.  What did he think would happen when South Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers started dying?  Surely he had to know the Russians would respond forcefully to an attack.  However, a friend with ties in South Ossetia explained to me that if Saakashvili  had been able to get the Georgian Army to the Roki Tunnel  (this is the only land route into SouthOssetia from Russia) and cut off access for Russian ground forces, it would have only been possible to dislodge the Georgians with a very lengthy and casualty-heavy bombing campaign.  Given the narrative at the time that Russia was invading Georgia, it may have been difficult for the Russian government to stomach the backlash.

The reintegration of South Ossetia would have been a domestic political triumph for Saakashvili and then he could have turned his attention on Abkhazia.  So he bet it all and lost.  Now South Ossetia is gone and Russia has announced they are spending $500 million for the security of Abkhazia. Even an ethnic Georgian has told me that everyone but the most diehard Georgian nationalists recognizes Abkhazia is gone forever.

 I find it personally distasteful that neocon ideologues like Scheunemann are being paid large sums of money by the Republic of Georgia to  lobby Congress to keep the money spigot turned on for the Saakashvili regime.  Then Georgia turns around and uses the money to attack South Ossetia.  Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers die as a result.  In the meantime, Georgia's President appears in American media and represents his country as the victim of Russian aggression.  This is dishonest and immoral.  I would think a neocon lobbyist with close ties to Georgia would have a hard time sleeping. The conflict caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of refugees have been left homeless.  Even if the Bush Administration was not directly involved in the planning of the attack, who can doubt that Georgia would have done this without significant American aid?




Border Crossing from Russia

I arrived in a driving rain storm at the border on Monday, September 14 at about 7:00 p.m.  The border has two crossings, one for vehicles and one for pedestrians.  I was tempted to hire a car to drive me across in the rain, but since I did not have an Abkhazian visa, I felt it was better to use the pedestrian route (as I always have done before).   The drop point for a taxi is about 1,000 meters from the actual crossing and it entails a walk through an open air market.   It was raining very hard and there was nearly a foot of water on the street.  Fortunately,  I was able to hire a local with a cart to haul my bag, while I kept my laptop under my raincoat.

I crossed the Russian side without incident, although I was soaked.

When I walked across the bridge to the Abkhazian side and stopped at the checkpoint, the first question was about my visa.  I said that I was meeting an advisor in the government and that he would explain the situation.  In the past, I have explained that I have been without a visa ( impossible to get in the U.S. since there is no Abkhazian embassy and I have not figured out how to arrange one in Sochi) and then been given 2 days to get one at the capital in Sukhom.  So,  I called my contact in Abkhazia, handed the telephone to the officer and he explained the situation to the agent in charge. While this was happening, I spoke to the agents waiting in the small office at the end of the bridge.  One was clearly Russian and the other an Armenian.

I should explain that  Abkhazia's population is about 20 - 25% Russian and there is a similar percentage of Armenians in the country.  There are about 40 -45% ethnic Abkhazians and a smattering of Greeks, Turks, Jews,Roma and probably some Mingrelians and Georgians.

The border guards were interested in an American passing into Abkhazia.  I am not sure they had seen an American passport before.  They asked me skeptically if I thought that I was going to Georgia.  I explained that I knew I was not and that I was happy to be visiting their country.  At this, their faces brightened.  The next question was about recognition of Abkhazia as an independent nation.  I explained that my opinion did not matter to the previous administration in the U.S. but that I supported recognition and hoped it would happen.  I told them that I disagreed with Mr. Bush on many things, not least was the policy in the Caucasus.  I also told them he was about as articulate in English as I am in Russian and as always that drew laughs.  A few minutes later, the agent in charge reappeared and guided me through customs and down to the area where I could find a taxi.  I was able to do this on my own, but I appreciated the very friendly gesture.

I picked a cab out and we drove down to Gagra in the dark and rain.  It was too bad because it is a beautiful drive on a sunny day.  The road hugs the coastline at the foot of the mountains.   It is a little bit similar to the road through Big Sur, although the road is much closer to sea level and the flora is more subtropical.  Gagra is the first city of size and sits about 15 miles south of the border.  It is a small city of about 10- 15,000 sitting on the beach and at the base of a large mountain.  It is also attracts a lot of Russian and Ukrainian tourists who wish to sit on its beaches and swim in the warm and clear waters.  

I directed the driver to the hotel I stayed at in 2008 and checked in.  In mid- September, the city was still full of tourists, but I was able to negotiate a 1,500 ruble price for one of the better hotels in town.  Since the war with Georgia, there is a shortage of infrastructure, despite the tremendous beauty and appeal for tourists.  After getting soaked at the border, I was pretty happy to have a strong and hot shower.