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Entries in Abkhazia (30)

Sunday
Jun102012

Mandarin Cafe and Nanuli Bigvava

 

 

 

Recently, I was invited by Nanuli Bigvava, the owner of the Mandarin Cafe in Sochi for a visit.  Her place is in on busy, central Vinogradnaya Street.  Despite its very good local reputation, I had never eaten there.   Nanuli, who is originally from Sukhum, Abkhazia, sets the gold standard for charming hostesses in Sochi.  Her warm and inviting presence alone makes Mandarin Cafe worth a visit.  

 

 

Nanuli invited me and several friends to sample the menu on her dime. That is pretty unusual here, anyway. Then we tried the food and I was surprised by the diversity and sophistication.  We had several salads, including one of fresh greens, avocado, tomato, shrimp and strawberry and, also, a seafood salad that really stood out.  I also tried the rib eye, which exceeded my expectations, with a surprisingly dry Russian red wine, Grand Vostok, from Krasnodar Region's wine producing district.  My companion had a simple, but very good warm spinach soup and enjoyed trying several of Nanuli's kitchen's deserts.  Given her heritage, I expected Nanuli's menu to be dominated by food of the Caucasus.  When I asked her about this, she quickly pointed out that in addition to her regular menu, her kitchen was ready to prepare the distinctive fare of Abkhazia.   

 

 

Nanuli has always been interested in food; she loved preparing dishes for her family growing up in her native Abkhazia. So there was no question in  her mind about the direction her life should take after she finished high school.  She came to Sochi to study at a culinary school.  (At that time, Abkhazia and Russia were both parts of the Soviet Union, so there was no border.  Now, the border between the two sits just past the Olympic Park.) Nanuli got married, had a son and opened a cafe in Sochi.  However, with conflict in Abkhazia in 1992, she sold her holdings to help out family displaced there.  

Eventually in 2010, Nanuli reopened in Sochi, this time the fashionable Mandarin Cafe.  Her menu is eclectic for Sochi, but she clearly is imaginative and likes to challenge herself and her staff to show something to diners that they don't regularly see in Sochi.  Nanuli eventually divorced, but wanted her son,  Slava,  to have an American education, so at the age of 19, he went to the United States and studied, later receiving his university degree there. He now works as an auditor for an oil company in Houston, Texas.  Slava, who is her biggest cheerleader and advisor, helps her with ideas that he sees in restaurants in the United States.  Indeed, it was Slava who reached out to me across 9 time zones and suggested that I meet with his mother.  

Nanuli is already thinking about the thousands of international diners who will come to Sochi.  There are plans for new international dishes on the menu and she openly solicited ideas from me about what American and western travelers might like to experience in the Mandarin Cafe.  This is not a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it restaurant owner.  She has also begun the planning to get involved in catering for the Olympic period.  

 

Monday
Jan092012

Ruzanna Malkhasyan and Hotel Alex Raising Standards in Abkhazia

 

The road from Russia into Abkhazia makes a turn a few kilometers after the border and follows the mountains in a southeast direction towards Gagra.  The. views from the road are spectacular.  On the left are the steep mountainsides of the Caucasus and to the right the traveler can see many kilometers to sea and down the coastline to Gagra.  After about 20 minutes, the road descends into "Old Gagra" where the town fills the narrow gap between the mountains and the sea. Gagra has many rustic guest homes, several modest hotels and a few outdated Soviet-era resorts. Last year, the Hotel Alex opened; It is the best property in northwest Abkhazia and perhaps the entire country.  It also sets the standards for service and amenities for all of Abkhazia.  No other hotel can boast a seaside pool, a spa, up-to-date designer rooms, a restaurant and bowling alley, not to mention western-level service.

 In December, I spent time with Ruzanna Malkhasyan, who is a manager at the Hotel.  I was impressed that day because the staff called her as soon as I entered the hotel and within minutes she arrived, despite the fact it was an off day for her. When I asked Ruzanna about this, she laughed and told me that while working to build the hotel's reputation and its expanding list of services, there is little free time, so whenever the chance to promote the hotel appears she wants to capitalize.

Ruzanna told me about the development of the hotel, which is owned by Russian investor Alexander Lebedev. She said that the hotel opened in April of 2010 and that the building process took less than a year.  This is quite rapid by local standards, but the quality has apparently not suffered.  The structure sits just off the beach and has 80 rooms, a spa and a bar/ restaurant in 5 stories.  Most rooms have unobstructed views of both the spectacular mountains and glassy seas.  The modern design, colors and brightly lit reception area, with its service-oriented and English speaking staff, are a contrast to other properties in the area, but a sure sign of much more hotel development on the way to Abkhazia.  The hotel also has a beautiful pool area, a bowling alley and, on its extensive beach front, another restaurant and snack bar are being opened.  Weddings, parties and conferences are held here because of the level of service and the attractive, comfortable rooms.  The spa is often busy, with a sauna and beauty and skin treatments that are not available in other hotels in Abkhazia.

I have visited the Alex a number of times and it is always busy. During the summer peak season, occupancy runs very close to 100% and even during the winter months, the hotel is usually about 50% occupied. Abkhazia and the Hotel Alex offer a beautiful and less expensive alternative to Russians for corporate outings, especially when most of Russia is blanketed in cold and snow.  For example, on a visit last fall, I saw a conference of executives from Renault auto dealerships in Russia.

 

Ruzanna was recruited to work for the Alex because of her unique background.  She was born in Gagra, but her family left because of the conflict caused by Georgia's invasion in 1992.  They moved to Saint Petersburg,where Ruzanna eventually studied at the Saint Petersburg Technical College of Management  and Commerce and received a degree in international economics and tourism, specializing in hotel management.  Ruzanna worked during her University days and after graduating, took a position with Limak Group in Turkey, where she started out as a waitress at the Cornelia Resort Golf and Spa, but quickly rose to Assistant Guest Relations Manager. When her present employers heard of her desire to return to Abkhazia for family reasons, they quickly found a role for her in the Alex.  Ruzanna is Reception Manager at the Alex and she also works in the sales department and is very involved in the planning process with Hotel Manager Vyacheslav Chernyshev as the property has developed its bowling alley, bars and restaurants.  Her multi-disciplinary education and work experience have come in handy with all of the hats she wears at the Alex.

 

Ruzanna and I walked to the new Hemingway Bar during my visit in December and she showed me the Hotel's plans for expanding to fill the service gap in Abkhazia.  I have been telling investors for several years that Abkhazia is ripe for hotel development because of its unique climate, spectacular coastline and proximity both to an Olympic city (Sochi) and to the large Russian market.  The Hotel Alex is proof positive that the model of providing high quality rooms and service will attract guests to Abkhazia. The Hotel is already establishing a reputation as a "cool" weekend getaway for Sochisiders and a destination for those from colder climes who wish to fly to Sochi, take a quick trip across the border and relax in subtropical comfort.

Ruzanna is emblematic of a new generation of energetic Abkhaz professionals who have acquired an education and linguistic skills.  They see those tools as a springboard for personal opportunity and to help their country rise from impoverishment to the Black Sea's most unique and beautiful destination.

Ruzanna Malkhasyan (right) and Hotel Alex employee

The Hotel Alex sits at 1 Zvanba Ulitsa in Gagra.  Winter rates start at 2,200 rubles for a standard room, 4,800 rubles for a suite, with a deluxe suite priced at 5,800.  Summer rates are higher.  Readers may contact me for further information.

Friday
Sep232011

Tuvalu Recognizes Abkhazia

Today, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Abkhazia, Maxim Gvinjia, announced that the Pacific nation of Tuvalu recognized the Republic of Abkhazia.  This is the 6th nation to announce diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and the second from the Pacific region this year.  The agreement was signed in Sukhum between Tuvalu's Prime Minister Vili Telavi and the Prime Minister of Abkhazia, Sergey Shamba, on September 18.  Tuvalu also recognized South Ossetia this week. 

Congratulations to Abkhazia!  

Monday
Sep052011

Reply to Bruce George's Article in The Commentator on Abkhazia Elections

 

Mr. George has written an article for the Commentator full of misinformation and falsehoods about Abkhazia.  I don't know if he has ever been to Abkhazia, but I have.  I am an American businessman and have been spending time there for the last 5 years.  

Mr. George would have a reader believe that Abkhazia is occupied by Russia.  An occupational power should have troops patrolling the cities and its officials running the organs of government. However, in 5 years, I have seen Russian soldiers less than 5 times and I can not recall ever seeing them in Abkhazia's beautiful capital, Sukhum. I have been to Abkhaz government offices many times and not once have I seen a Russian official. Never.  The Abkhaz make their own policy.  

Russia is not occupying Abkhazia.

That Abkhazia is occupied is a myth fostered by Georgian President Saakashvili and those who fail to hold his feet to the fire for his own failings on human rights issues.  The Russian Army does have a presence in Abkhazia for defensive purposes and to protect the border.  That is it.  If Russia is occupying Abkhazia, then the American government is occupying South Korea.  

Unfortunately, Mr. George has allied himself with the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, on the issue of Georgia's borders.  In 1931, Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, dissolved Abkhazia's separate status within the Soviet Union and incorporated it into the Georgian S.S.R.  If that had not been done, Abkhazia likely would have been internationally recognized, along with the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union when it collapsed, in 1991.

In addition to the myth of occupation, Mr. George repeats other falsehoods about Abkhazia.

Falsehood:  Mr. George says that Abkhazia was ethnically cleansed in a "coordinated campaign by Moscow."  

Russia did not "ethnically cleanse" Abkhazia.  There is zero evidence this happened.  The Russian Government was not a party to the conflict.  Many Georgian soldiers fled across the border to Russia when the Abkhaz gained control.  The Russian government actually supported Georgia's position on Abkhazia for many years, enforcing a blockade against Abkhazia that was not lifted until 1999.  Why then? Georgia's constant bellicosity, threats and attacks.

Falsehood:  The homes of Georgians who left in the conflict have been turned over to thousands of Russians moving into the country.

Wrong.  Estimates put the Russian population at a lower level than in the prewar era.  Mr. George talks about the number of Georgians who lived in Abkhazia prior to the events of the 1990's, but he fails to mention that the majority of Georgians were moved into Abkhazia in the 1930's on the orders of Josef Stalin.  This was done to ethnically dilute Abkhazia.   Later, Georgian officials tried to suppress the Abkhaz language and Abkhaz culture. Most of the homes that were abandoned at the end of the war remain empty.

I deplore the loss of any life or home in conflict.  Georgia started the war when the autonomy that Abkhazia sought was rejected.  The Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, then ordered troops to attack (now Shevardnadze says this was a mistake and advocates Georgia's recognition of Abkhazia's sovereignty)..  During the conflict, Georgians committed atrocities against the Abkhaz and many Abkhaz, Russians and Armenians sought refuge in Russia.  A Georgian general threatened the Abkhaz with genocide (video can be seen on youtube). The Georgian military also burnt the Abkhaz National Library and Archives.  I know this first hand, having seen it many times.

Falsehood:  Mr. George says that few nations have recognized Russia's annexation of Abkhazia. 

Nonsensical.   If Russia had annexed it , the Russian  government would hardly be encouraging other nations to recognize Abkhazia's sovereignty. Russia has not annexed Abkhazia.  There is a border with border agents and customs agents on both sides.  Abkhazia has its own government.

Falsehood:  Mr. George states that Georgians are prohibited from voting in the election.  

Another fabrication.  Georgians may vote and do.  They must get Abkhaz citizenship, which thousands have done. In fact, deceased President Bagapsh's wife is an ethnic Georgian.  But if they seek Abkhaz citizenship, Georgians are denounced as traitors by the Georgian government.

Falsehood:  The Russians have responsibility for the elections.  

Wrong again.  The Abkhaz conduct their elections.  I was there on August 26 for the Presidential election. There were no officials from Russia at any of the polling stations I visited or that any that election observers from 28 nations (including Mr. George's, the United Kingdom) went to.  In fact, I was told by observers and observed myself that the process was free and fair and democratic. One Italian observer told me that Abkhazia has more democratic elections than many of the nations that refuse to recognize it.  Abkhazia has again had a peaceful transfer of power, something Georgia has never done. 

Falsehood: Russia is causing poverty in Abkhazia.

Actually, Russia has a program of rebuilding Abkhaz infrastructure.  Many Russian tourists visit Abkhazia, and Russia buys the majority of Abkhazia's exports.  The reason for poverty in Abkhazia, which, I am told, is similar to that in provincial Georgia (I cannot go to find out.  I have been threatened with imprisonment and death), is that Georgia is using its allies to enforce an economic blockade on Abkhazia.

What is the result of Georgia's economic blockade?  Abkhaz products can be sold in very few places and they can not buy products directly from most nations. Their passports are not recognized, making travel more difficult. There are no bank card machines or movie theaters in Abkhazia because of the pressure on the clearing and licensing firms by Georgia.

So Mr. George decries poverty in Abkhazia and then supports the policies that cause it.

Abkhazia will never revert to Georgian control.  If Russia were to leave its base in Abkhazia,  the Georgian government would likely attack, as they have done in the past.   So Russia is not an occupier, but the guarantor of peace.  Why?  They have seen a Georgian Government, armed by American money, attack small, and nearly defenseless, South Ossetia without provocation in 2008 . If any doubt the point, look at the EU Commission report on the genesis of the war.

The title of Mr. George's article states that "Sham elections in Abkhazia should not distract us from finding peace in the Caucasus".  The election was not a sham and true peace can not be achieved by "us", but only by Georgia giving up its aggressive intent and territorial claims against Abkhazia and South Ossetia- two nations that want no part of living under its control. Remember every conflict in the Caucasus involving the Republic of Georgia, has been started by the Republic of Georgia.  I hope that the U.S. and the E.U. and their allies will not continue to support Georgia's claims and to arm it.  It is destabilizing and dangerous.

 

Tuesday
Aug302011

Alahadze, Abkhazia


This morning, I returned to Sochi from Abkhazia.  I spent Sunday night and Monday in Alahadze, which is about a 10 minute drive south of Gagra.  Alahadze has a number of inexpensive, rustic guesthouses that cater to Russian tourists.  The beach is beautiful and uncrowded and the sea was cool and refreshing.  I walked to the beach past a cemetery and cows grazing under the trees.  But with the Caucasus Mountains as a backdrop, the setting was spectacular.  It seems to me the perfect location to develop quality hotels and restaurants supported by redeveloped infrastructure.  I thought how opportunity is being denied to Abkhazia's people and property owners because of the absence of affordable capital caused by the lack of recognition and the economic blockade. This is the fundamental problem facing Abkhazia's new President and the one that President Bagapsh worked diligently on until his death.  In fact, he had just returned from a trip to Turkey and was scheduled to speak in the United Kingdom on this issue when he died.  The policy is unfair and will not last forever because Abkhazia has too much to offer in the way of opportunity.  International election observers that I spoke to told me the same thing.  

Sitting in Sukhum with a group of from Italy on Sunday, I mentioned that it was not hard to imagine the city as a Caucasus version of La Jolla or Santa Barbara- if only the U.S. had a better policy.  One said "Yes, America has a bad policy in Abkhazia.  It does not reflect reality".

George Hewitt, scholar on the Caucasus and Abkhazia, makes an excellent point when he states that Georgia, the aggressor in both 1992 in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia in 2008, has received tremendous inflows of western capital, but that Abkhazia has not been offered this or paid reparations by Georgia.  I hope that soon the United States will begin to take a serious and objective look at what its policy is achieving in the Caucasus.  It does not promote peace, development or prosperity by supporting Georgia's claim against Abkhazia's territory.