Uwe Klussmann
Former editor at 'Der Spiegel' -from 1990 to 2021, and from 1999 to 2009- as a correspondent in Moscow. He has been a freelance author since January 2022.

In August 1992 I was on vacation in Yalta, Crimea. I had only visited Abkhazia once before, for one day, in September 1984. At that time the region was still an autonomous republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the resort town of Gagra, locals and tourists crowded the streets and beaches.

Eight years later, in August 1992, the picture was completely different. The Russian television which was on in the hotel in Yalta showed fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and civilians fleeing the war. In 1992, my knowledge of Russian wasn't good enough to understand the news. What's more, I didn't understand the conflict either. Hadn't Georgians, Abkhazians, and many members of other nationalities lived together peacefully when I visited just a few years earlier?

The armed conflict in Abkhazia initially remained a mystery to me, even after I had learned Russian and started working in the Moscow office of Der Spiegel at the beginning of January 1999. Some Moscow newspapers gave me the impression that it was a region of Georgia there, a part of the Georgian population, which had a problem with their central government.

In the summer of 2003, I decided to visit Abkhazia. I wanted to talk to residents of the country, but also to members of the Abkhazian political leadership. This was possible with the help of the Abkhazian diaspora in Moscow. They put me in touch with an Abkhazian, the Deputy Prime Minister, who met me in Sochi and took me across the Russian border to Abkhazia.

Almost nothing was the same as it had been in 1984. In the once overcrowded Gagra, there were only a few walkers and holidaymakers to be seen. The power went out again and again for hours, with the result that there was no hot lunch to be had in the restaurant. The people also lived without mobile means of communications and petrol-stations; rusty zhigulis [the standard family-car from Soviet times] ruled the streets.

Gagra showed hardly any traces of the war, unlike in Gudauta or Sukhum. There the consequences of the war could not be overlooked in entire districts. Blocks of houses with facades riddled with bullet-holes, entire blocks of flats burned out. The mental wounds inflicted by the war of 1992/93 were also noticeable. I saw in deep mourning women who, ten years after the war, still wore black and regularly laid flowers at the memorial for their husbands and sons who had died in the war. As to how unforgiving the view of Georgia was, this I learned from the response given by a female market-trader in Sukhum in answer to my questions as to whether she could imagine Abkhazia as again being an autonomous region within Georgia: "Not even our dogs would survive that!"

I learned about not only the chasms but also the nuances and subtleties of life in this war from a copy of a book by the Abkhazian writer Vitali Sharia entitled ‘The tank is no more terrible than the dagger’. I bought it, slightly wrinkled by the sun at a kiosk in the centre of Sukhum. After reading this, a collection of documentary-based short stories, I understood why, after the 1993 war, Abkhazia is no longer seen as being a part of Georgia by the majority of its remaining residents.

I experienced the other side of that ‘huge human tragedy’, as Vitaly Sharia calls the exodus of the majority of Georgian residents of Abkhazia, in Moscow. In 2005, at a memorial service for a long-time resident of Abkhazia, I met a Georgian from the Abkhazian town of Ochamchira. As a result of the war he had lost his house there together with the homeland he felt Abkhazia to be. He recalled the peaceful coexistence of Georgians and Abkhazians, without resentment. But this world had been irrevocably destroyed by the war.

The Abkhazians accepted poverty rather than submit to the superior power of Georgia. The fact that Russia finally recognised it as an independent state in August 2008 was the result of the beginning of a new division of the world, which overarched the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict. As a result, the plans of some Western diplomats for an Abkhazian statehood within the state of Georgia finally came to nothing.

The first years after recognition by Moscow brought an upswing that was hardly imaginable in 2003. Roads and schools, hospitals and barracks had been renovated, ambulances and fire engines, police-cars and the cars of the country's political élite have been replaced with new models. However, there could only be rudimentary talk of any comprehensive upswing in the economy, in manufacturing industry and modern agriculture. And after the events in Crimea in 2014, the sanctions against Russia are also leaving their mark in Abkhazia.

Economic stagnation was felt in the years 2017 to 2018; construction-projects, even for small hotels, were frozen. Not all of the problems turned out to be the result of Moscow's cuts in funds for Abkhazia's budget, which is largely subsidised by its northern neighbour. Corruption was a frequent topic in the outspoken Abkhazian press and civil society. Unforgotten is the statement by the then President of Abkhazia Raul Khadzhimba, published by an Abkhazian weekly newspaper, to officials at the Ministry of the Interior, explaining how cars stolen in Russia were able to find Abkhazian licence-plates so quickly.

Other problems in the small country are less material than mental. The number of traffic-fatalities, according to Khadzhimba in a speech in 2017, is now a ‘demographic threat’. At least the dramatic problems were not concealed. Young girls organising flash-mobs against young speedsters showed that civil society is alive in Abkhazia.

In September 2018 I visited Abkhazia for the last time. The country celebrated the 25th anniversary of the end of the war. The military parade could not hide the script of the Moscow masters. "Who else could we have learned it from?" asked an Abkhazian politician whom I know to have an independent view of the world. More interesting than the parade were the folk-festivals and concerts in the Abkhazian capital, which gave an impression of the country's inhabitants’ attitude to life. The Abkhazian flag, perceived by many in Georgia only as the banner of a handful of ‘separatists’, was held in many hands. Pupils slung them over their shoulders, young and old adults carried them as a matter of course when strolling through the city, without any orders being issued to do so. In many conversations, I was also able to convince myself that most Abkhazians, regardless of their often critical attitude towards the government, see themselves as part of a small nation.

The opportunity for the Abkhazians to get their views and social attitudes heard in the West is even smaller today than it was before 24 February 2022. In the new, bitter East-West conflict, Abkhazia in all its historical, cultural, linguistic and political particularities is hardly being noticed in Europe. It is worth listening to the nuances of this small country, which is more than just an appendage to a northern neighbour without which it cannot exist.

What is little known in the West is that the will for Abkhazian self-determination is also expressed in conscious dissent with regard to Russian imperial thinking. The border between Abkhazia and Russia is still not contractually determined; the Abkhazians insist on the village of Aibga that the Russians consider part of their territory as belonging to them. Abkhazian civil society continues to hold discussions more freely and with fewer restrictions than Russia's. And the nostalgia for Stalin that has become fashionable in parts of Russian society is met with a cool rejection in Abkhazia. The Stalin memorabilia-trade is not forbidden in Abkhazia – it simply doesn't take place, not even at the Stalin dachas [country-residences] that have been turned into museums. The reaction of Abkhazian society to the suggestion of the eloquent Great-Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin that Abkhazia should join the Russian Federation fits the pattern – protest against this presumption ranged from the social networks to the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry, which issued a sharply-worded statement.

It is often through nuances that a visitor to Abkhazia comes to appreciate that a very special people is attempting to work out a way of its own there.