Nation or Not?

Abkhaz Flag
GAL, Abkhazia
GALI, Georgia
April 29, 2011

When is a country not a country?

When it's Abkhazia.

This territory is either an independent nation or a renegade province, depending on whose perspective you take. Even though the entire region of Abkhazia has been out of control of the Georgian government for decades, there are only four other countries worldwide that recognize its status as an autonomous state.

At the time the Soviet Union fell apart Abkhazia was drawn into the Georgian SSR. Based on those boundary lines, it should have fallen under Georgian sovereignty upon the breakup of the USSR. But, ethnic conflict within the region has kept Abkhazia functionally independent from the rest of Georgia since those days. This self-proclaimed nation has rejected most everything related to Georgia. Abkhazia has its own government. Signs are written not in the Georgian script, but in Cyrillic--to express both Russian and Abkhaz. The currency is not the Georgian lari, but the Russian ruble. I had to apply to the "Consular Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia" for a visa before entering the country.

Even with my papers in order, I needed help to make it in here. I applied in advance and had been granted an entry permit by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Still, I was turned away at the border on my first attempt entering the country. Fortunately for me, Dion, who I first met on another visit to Georgia four years ago, has connections. She's recently moved north to Abkhazia to run the local office of an NGO. One of her colleagues frequently deals with such bureaucratic paperwork for employees. The right people were called; the right questions were asked. Somebody important somewhere told the border guards I should be allowed to pass. I don't think I'd have been allowed in without that help.

I've spent my last few days here in the small town of Gali, where Dion's NGO is based. There's not much in Gali, itself. Though there is a population of a few thousand sustaining the town, every other home has been abandoned since the war. Like many other places throughout Abkhazia, Gali also plays host to a Russian military base. But, the most dominant feature I've noticed yet far in Gali would have to be the thousands of frogs that croak and leap about the streams which run through town.

Billboard in Russian and Abkhaz
I don't speak any of the regional languages--Georgian, Mingrelian, Abkhaz, or Russian--so it's been great to have Dion to host and guide me around. (Her Georgian has gotten really good in the years since we met; after moving here her Russian has been ramping up quickly, too.) We took a short trip up to the small capital, Sokhumi, yesterday. It was a business trip for both of us: for her to sign off on papers and requests; for me to get my visa issued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (With no recognition in other countries, Abkhaz visas have to be issued and paid for after arrival in the capital. An "entry permit" is sent by e-mail to allow a visitor in.)

We'll be heading back up to Sokhumi, tomorrow. Monday marks another holiday which will make for a second consecutive three-day weekend. It will be nice to be somewhere with more going on than Gali. Sokhumi is on the far eastern end of the Black Sea. It used to be a popular tourist resort back before days of war and conflict. Further on north are hills and mountains that should make for some pleasant hikes. And Dion knows all sorts of card games that I've never played. This should be a fun getaway in a unique place.

Trivia: I realized that if Abkhazia is ever internationally recognized as a nation, its name will appear first on drop-down menus and other alphabetically sorted lists.