Rick Fawn
Professor of International Relations. University of St Andrews. United Kingdom.

I had the privilege as a young academic to travel to Abkhazia first in 1999, through the tremendous initiative of the UK-based NGO Conciliation Resources.

Doing so at any time is momentous; but that initial visit in 1999 was just after NATO had bombed Serbia-Kosovo/a for 78 days, and that in the name of human rights and of preventing genocide.  To very fresh war-related feelings in Abkhazia were added new and necessarily contradictory ones that came from applying parallels to Abkhazia of NATO’s intervention: on one hand, intense hope that international force could be remobilised for a small group’s needs and interests, and, on the other, dread at the same, and its seemingly arbitrary application. And the many implications from 1999 and the NATO actions continue to reverberate widely ever since, including in official Russian military-security thinking.

So in this highly-charged context in Abkhazia we ran classes over two intensive weeks on International Relations, including on topics like (forcible) humanitarian intervention, international organisations, European integration, and nationalism. What amusement and surprise from outsiders that those who engaged in the practice of nationalism would partake in academic sessions on the myriad theories of the same! On that, and much more, we worked and reflected.

And from that time at least six observations remain.

A first, really a vignette, emerged even before entering Abkhazia. As a student in the late 1980s during what became the very end of the Cold War, our thinking and exposure was to an image of an omnipotent, global-reaching Soviet armed forces. The West, we felt then, cowered in fear. So I remember still the astonishment of this first interaction with a Soviet military successor when the lead soldier of an armed, Russian peacekeeping force stopped our UN-marked vehicle outside Zugdidi, as we headed towards the Inguri River. Rather than fearsome, the bedraggled and at that point also rain-drenched young solider asked nothing of our route or purpose (perhaps UN designations obviated that), but regardless, asked for cigarettes. 

Once inside Abkhazia, the second reflection, alongside the many hours of our study-sessions, came the readily-familiar observation to veteran visitors: the warm hospitality that is offered, but which was made ever more meaningful in the situation of obvious privations from the conflict and also Abkhazia’s beleaguered isolation. After all, in the 1990s Russia and allied post-Soviet states had imposed an embargo on Abkhazia: remarkably-sounding now, because those actions were ostensibly in support of Georgia and its territorial integrity.

In those circumstances, the lavish working lunches would impress anyone. I was told that all of their fruit and vegetables, luscious as they were, were organic, and that at a time when “organic” had not yet acquired its caché. This ‘organic’ was virtue-out-of-necessity because of the lack of chemical fertiliser and pesticides.

The hospitality extended also to efforts, made at the briefest mention, to satisfy a visitor’s own interests. That included scuba diving. Efforts to source equipment immediately began, but we had more than enough otherwise to work on and to see. And, alas, some warned too that the very many mines which had been laid and which had continued to maim and kill both people and prized livestock, might also have washed into the inviting coastal waters of the Black Sea.  Scuba waited.

But alongside the daily interactions with the Abkhazians were those also with UN personnel, making for a third reflection. That included some contradistinctions of living and eating in the first and last parts of each day with the personnel of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).  All students of IR wonder at the UN’s workings, and of its myriad agencies and missions. Here was the opportunity to glimpse operations at one site – or rather three, of UNOMIG’s bases in Sukhum/i, Gal/i and Zugdidi.

These first images of the UN from 1999 remained in my mind once the UN was effectively forced out after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, when Russia vetoed UNOMIG’s “technical role-over” because it was “built on old realities”, – Abkhazia no longer after 26 August 2008 being recognised by itself and Russia as being ‘in Georgia’ [Ed.] – as Russia’s UN Ambassador framed the this next postwar situation. Nevertheless, in later trips, the distinctive UN blue painted on the perimeter walls of UNOMIG’s Gal/i UN base remained unadultered. Such was a reminder of that international initiative, even as the grounds within were converted into and remained a Russian FSB facility.

The third reflection on the UN extended also to residing in the UN compound in Sukhum/i and to engaging with it, for these in themselves were enlightening experiences for a young researcher of matters international. UN peacekeeping is always a major part of that, albeit abstractly, but also possibly in idealised ways to the outsider. And the UN had greater attention then for its non-performances in the face of mass-murders under its watch in Rwanda and Bosnia, just five and four years before.

UNOMIG’s presence was as per its name – strictly observation and not intervention, and with a cohort small (not exceeding 150 across its three bases) and all the while unarmed. Some of the UN personnel were clearly fearful; others indifferent to, or dismissive of, risks (and that despite an explosion at the perimeter of their headquarters days before my arrival). It seemed like antithetical worlds when I would see some of the same UN staff, always in at least tandems of vehicles, driving through the same streets through which we casually walked.

Perhaps that was very understandable, considering that the Russian, but nominally multilateral from the Commonwealth of Independent States, peacekeeping forces outnumbered the UN probably twenty to one, and benefited from not only what seemed to be body armour and plenty of personal weapons, but even large assets including artillery, in clear evidence in their urban base in Sukhum/i. However, relations, between the Russian/CIS forces and UNOMIG, were, I was frequently told, good.

The various UN personnel, drawn from dozens of countries, had engaging personalities and many shared views over daily meals with them. Those probably fit into three sets. One was, perhaps calculatedly, of indifference to the conflict and to the parties. That perspective could translate into “it’s a job”, and with a necessary element of maintaining detachment from the conflict-parties. A second was clear scorn towards the Abkhazians, sometimes with vivid derogatory statements. A third, including by older reservists, was of genuine concern for human frailties in the conflict-scenario.

A fourth observation concerns the essential and often-unsung work of international NGOs. True, I declare a personal and professional bias. On this, so be it. This is work of the most tremendous individual and integral kind, creating essential links across dividing lines that we all need. As much as I had, and still do, read about INGOs and utilise their reports , to see and experience some of their painstaking, long-term work make real the importance of this under-stated group.

A fifth observation, one enduring across all of Abkhazia’s political events since the early 1990s as much as the hospitality, was the Abkhazian determination to construct and run their own affairs, and to have a plurality of views in those processes. Probably every national group has far-reaching aspirations, as far-reaching as they are challenging to achieve. But the Abkhazians whom I met, including some of mixed parentage and multiple identities, were committed then and continue to be to that nation- and state-building project. That project was accompanied in discussions with multiplicities of views and ideas.

A sixth observation, bearing in mind that this first working visit was primarily to Sukhum/i and with those who were either part of, or working closely with, the Abkhazians, was that so many others who had lived there were now absent. One can read of accounts and contemplate the vast numbers, but these remain arid statistics that cannot reflect adequately the personal experiences and losses of displaced Georgians and Mingrelians. But to travel, and always through the Inguri crossing, to see now many times the expanse of abandoned homes is a reminder, if inanimate, of the vast and enduring societal costs deriving from what took place decades ago. Those countless forsaken structures are a ghostly testament to the high standard of living that this region achieved and enjoyed in Soviet times, where families could have a two-storey private family dwelling, and their own land, in contradistinction to the Khrushchev-era mass-apartment buildings that uniformly stretched from East Berlin to Vladivostok, housing millions in duplicate, cramped accommodation.

Later engagements, albeit in modest ways alongside the deeply impressive efforts of others, have been with the Georgian and Mingrelian communities in Gal/i and their immensely committed and capable members, working with Abkhazian authorities to improve local conditions. A multi-ethnic region is one to be cherished.

No frivolity is meant by this closing comment: rather, it is said with the deep hope that the routine, the ‘everyday’ that others take for granted in peaceable places may be re-shared in this potential land of paradise and plenty. And that is that the wonderful feasting and offerings, organic or not, and scuba diving along these Black Sea coasts can be shared in future with an undivided, internationalised, community.