SUKHUMI, Abkhazia -- The land between Georgia and this breakaway region represents a tense coda to a short war and a tenuous peace, a tribute to the fragile nature of such territories. Here, the frontier post is considered an international border by the Abkhaz and is patrolled by Abkhaz troops. Russian forces are camped nearby. After Russia and Georgia's brief war in 2008, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia's declarations of independence. Since then, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have, with the Kremlin's support, lobbied for others' recognition but have, for the most part, failed. The territories are internationally isolated and increasingly dependent on Russia for security, hence the Russian troops. A steady stream of tired residents from Gall, an ethnic region on the Abkhaz side of the checkpoint, cross this frontier with shopping bags filled with goods for trade. By an unfortunate confluence of geography and politics, they are caught in between.
This new, postwar reality has been particularly damaging to Georgia. For years it claimed it was on the brink of solving internal conflicts that have fragmented its territories since the early 1990s, when South Ossetia and Abkhazia were first brought under Georgian leadership. In the years before the August 2008 war, the Georgian government offered Abkhazia "limitless autonomy" within the framework of a national federation, but Abkhaz leaders refused to accept control from politicians in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been part of Georgia for most of the Soviet era, and many Georgians consider both territories their own. Still, Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought for their independence in the early 1990s, and again in August 2008. Since then, leadership in Sukhumi--Abkhazia's capital--find any arrangement that might cede sovereignty to Georgia unacceptable. Few governments acknowledge that the war has changed the political realities in Abkhazia and Georgia. The United States and Europe continue to support Georgia's territorial integrity, but after spending time in Abkhazia it is clear that this approach is a non-starter. By continuing to isolate Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia and the rest of the world is implicitly allowing Russia to get away with a de facto annexation of these territories, all but guaranteeing ongoing tension and potential military conflict along these political fault lines.
While Georgia and Abkhazia both cling to a vision of classical sovereignty and statehood, each lacks an essential element of the necessary combination of de facto control and de jure international recognition. For Georgia, despite international support for its cause, any real influence over Abkhazia remains little more than a distant vision--it's been almost 18 years since it had effective control of the breakaway territory. For Abkhazia, broader international recognition of its independence appears unlikely. New ties with Russia threaten to curtail whatever autonomy the region enjoyed before the war, when it did not claim to be an independent state but was, ironically, less under Moscow's sway than it is today. Now the territory has been turned into a Russian province in every way but its name. Georgia needs to engage with Abkhazia without resorting to the language of exclusive sovereignty-that will only deepen Abkhazia's isolation and possible Russian annexation.
Georgian and Abkhaz leadership face domestic difficulties of their own, further complicating matters. In Tbilisi, discussing anything but total sovereignty over Abkhazia is unacceptable. And the same is true in Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital. Throughout his time in office, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has regularly promised his constituents that an Abkhaz return was imminent; but for many in Abkhazia, Georgian rule is a distant memory. These domestic constraints render any creative compromise over Abkhazia's legal status politically impossible. Meanwhile, both Tbilisi and Sukhumi continue to press for their peculiar and improbable sovereign aspirations. Tbilisi seeks international support for Georgia's non-existent territorial integrity, while Sukhumi builds a new state that has little chance of being recognized by the countries it needs to make Abkhazia's statehood feasible.
Checkpoints and Boundaries
Abkhazia lies in the northwest corner of Georgia, sandwiched between the Black Sea and the foothills of the Caucasus. The beautiful setting fails to conceal the ugliness of the place--in the last two decades Abkhazia has seen a succession of wars, ethnic cleansing, international neglect and isolation. Most estimates put the population at about 180,000; during the 1989 census, when ethnic Abkhaz constituted a plurality (but not a majority) of the population, it was 525,000. The Abkhaz share their tiny territory with a potpourri of ethnic Armenians, Russians and Georgians living primarily in the Gall district. More than 200,000 other ethnic Georgians were forced from their homes and driven across the frontier at the end of 1993, during the wars between Georgia and Abkhazia.
From Tbilisi, the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi is a seven-hour drive. After four hours it is interrupted by a checkpoint along a ceasefire line, established after the 2008 war. This is now Abkhazia's administrative boundary. Compared to the rest of the South Caucasus, the first part of the trip is smooth sailing. President Saakashvili has substantially improved Georgia's infrastructure during his six years in office, so traffic moves quickly along the newly renovated highways.
Things change at the checkpoint. Gocha, our dependable and...