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Abkhazia Is Yet Another Country that Doesn't Exist

Almost completely cut off from the outside world, Abkhazia is still suffering from a war that’s very much alive in people's minds.
May 3, 2014, 1:08pm
Photo by Guillaume Poli

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In the fall of 2013, I traveled to the Republic of Abkhazia to experience first-hand the festivities surrounding the 20th anniversary of their victory against the Georgian army — the event that gave birth to the country in its current form. Abkhazia is a ghost nation; it is not recognized by the international community and it still officially belongs to the country of Georgia.

To get there, I had to travel through Georgia and three different border crossings. Needless to say, the two places are not on the best terms.

Almost completely cut off from the outside world, Abkhazia is still suffering from a war that’s very much alive in people's minds. Located in the backyard of the Sochi Olympics to the Northwest, the Caucasus republic is wedged between southern Russia, Georgia, and the Black Sea. Its economy is sluggish but that doesn't defeat the people's spirits.

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I stayed in Abkhazia for two weeks and what I enjoyed the most was the constant mix of modernity and traditions: ancient religious devotions and flat screen computers, young girls jumping around carelessly during a memorial for soldiers who died for independence — that kind of thing.

A few weeks after its self-proclaimed independence at the end of the Soviet rule, on August 14, 1992 Abkhazia was invaded by Georgian tanks. A year later, on September 30, 1993, Tbilisi’s troops were defeated by the Abkhazian armed forces with the help of volunteers from North Caucasus. Several thousand were killed and nearly the entire Georgian-speaking population fled the republic.

But that military victory over Georgia was only the beginning of a long ordeal. Despite formally declaring its independence in 1999, Abkhazia has been under an economic embargo by the international community for nearly 15 years.

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It was only after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, that a weak light was seen at the end of the tunnel for Abkhazians, when the republic's legitimacy was recognized by Russia. Almost everybody won; Abkhazians got their houses gradually rebuilt (most were destroyed during the Patriotic War of 1992 and 1993), and Russia moved one step further into Georgia proper. Today, the security of the self-proclaimed republic is manned by the Abkhazian military and a Russian military base.

Abkhazia is gradually emerging from its autarky, but it still has a long way to go. Other than the diplomatic support of Vladimir Putin, the only places they have secured recognition from are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Nauru. Cargos from Turkey are detained by the Georgian navy, and only one able to keep the country afloat is their Russian big brother.

I discovered Caucasus in 2012, while reporting on the Chechen minority in the Pankisi valley, in northeastern Georgia. I did a little reseach but back then, the only feedback I got about Abkhazia was negative. People would tell me it would be impossible and dangerous to go there. But everyone I spoke to was Georgian, so I decided to see for myself.

My goal was to show the state of Abkhazia today, beyond clichés. It's been 20 years since the war of independence and five years since the Russian-Georgian war.

I had the amazing opportunity to attend the independence commemoration festivities of September 2013. Not wanting to stick to the official program however, I relied heavily on my local contacts and explored the country from within. I visited their businesses, art galleries, monasteries, schools, and ministries.

I was struck by how easily people gave me access to their institutions — including the Ministry of the Interior. It was obvious that this was a country in expectation, eagerly looking for a nod of approval by the outside world, and was therefore trying to show itself in the best light.

As for what the future holds, the normalization of relations between Georgia and Abkhazia seems to still be a challenge. As my photographs show, the memory of the 1992 to 93 war is still alive in the minds of Abkhazians and Georgians. In fact, Abkhazians consider any reunification with Georgia as a potential threat to their national identity.

Yet, the future of their relations with Russia is even more difficult to predict. Abkhazia is becoming more and more dependent on Putin, both in terms of security but also financially: Its currency is based on the Russian ruble (RUB) and its economy depends on Russian subsidies by 70 percent. Abkhazia wants to preserve its independence at any price, but I'm not that sure it can afford it.

As I had nothing special planned, I went to this school in the city center, as the children were preparing a concert. At the entrance, I presented my certification and was allowed to enter. Once inside, I renewed the operation and started taking pictures. An angry-looking man asked me what I was doing. When I showed him my certification, he didn’t pay attention to it and asked me to follow him. After several phone calls (perhaps to the ministry), he finally allowed me to photograph the school celebrations.

We are in the room where Father David and his disciples eat after the late afternoon mass. A liturgical reading closed the meal that I shared with them in a calm and caring atmosphere. The faithful do not live in the monastery; Father David has built a community of faithful disciples who come every day.

This Orthodox monastery was built by Russian monks in the 19th century on the supposed site where martyr Saint Andrew lived. Each year, the monastery attracts nearly a million tourists and pilgrims who pass through Sochi to visit Abkhazia.

Guillaume Poli is a French photojournalist. He worked for Paris Match_,_ Le Parisien,Télérama_et_ L’Humanité. His full report on Abkhazia is available on Epic Stories here and here.