Two days before the parliamentary elections in Abkhazia and the Georgian border officials at the Enguri bridge didn't even make a crack about the Abkhaz. They let me proceed across without so much as a mini-interrogation, perhaps because the truth didn't bother them much. Unlike the Kodori Gorge incident, which went military last year and again last week, pitting Georgians against Abkhaz and Russians, this time the entire world was on Georgia's side, journalists included. The Abkhaz elections wouldn't be officially recognized by anybody.
There had been lots of reports by Georgian media that the Gali region, populated by some 30 to 40,000 Georgians (ethnic Mengrelians to be exact), was restless, with locals being forced by the Abkhaz to vote, while some fringe group calling themselves "Georgian Patriots" based in Gali were terrorizing Mengrelian "traitors" who were openly participating in the elections. But because the Georgian media is for the most part barred from entering Abkhazia, these claims could not be confirmed. Which was why they were fabricated.
After the grueling taxi ride in the back seat of a decrepit Volga with five babushkas along something called a road, I made it to the hub of anti-activity, downtown Gali. With the election two days away, there was a noticeable absence of campaign posters, but plenty of domesticated pigs scuttling along the streets.
Abkhazia. We dare you to find it.
"Heard there was some shooting last night," I asked our taxi driver, now on his official break.
"Yeah, some drunken kids came from Zugdidi to yell at the Abkhaz. The Abkhaz shot their guns in the air just to scare them," he said of the incident so diligently reported by that vanguard of mendacious journalism, Georgia's TV Rustavi-2. Three Georgian youngsters, 19 or 20 years old, belonging to a newly formed youth group in Zugdidi, the New Generation for United Georgia, got themselves hooked up by the enemy on March 1st for illegal entry and plotting to sabotage the elections. They allegedly accepted 600 GEL ($275) from Rustavi-2 to enter Gali and return, then say that they had been forced by gunpoint to vote by the Abkhaz.
"So who are these Georgian Patriots?" I asked.
"I don't know."
Later, I moseyed on over to an NGO whose head I shouldn't name out of courtesy and bumped into an old friend who has become an assistant director or something. "What's all this stuff about the Georgian Patriots?" I asked him and his posse.
Nobody knew. They said they first heard about them on television and maybe the group burned some houses in some distant village but if they had done it in Gali, everyone would have known about it.
"You guys getting pressured to vote by anybody?"
"No," they harmonized. Although a week earlier trucks came from Sukhum(i) and offered flour and oil to anybody who might want to vote.
"You guys going to vote?"
They laughed. "For who?"
Scars of war in Gali.
Mengrelians in Gali have the worst of two worlds. Many Georgians consider them traitors because they didn't participate in the war against the Abkhaz separatists, and after the Abkhaz won (with Russian intervention), the Mengrelians moved back to their homes. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz don't trust them because they are Georgian.
"We just want to get along with everybody and live our lives in our homes," my assistant director friend said.
Stroll through downtown Gali and it is impossible to imagine that it was once an active, bustling city. Past the Dada-like statue of lion's feet (the rest of it has been obliterated), empty kiosks, menacing pot holes and burned-out buildings, you can't help notice what a quite place it is now. The bazaar is open twice a week.
The two and a half cafes in town are depressing enough without grey skies, so I opted for a kiosk with some plastic chairs in front and had a couple Baltika 9s, which don't taste any better than any of the other Baltika beer numbers, but do pack a punch. Few tourists ever stumble into Gali, even those purporting to be foreign correspondents. My presence was duly recognized by two town loons, one of whom informed me of Satan's instigation of the war while the other recited the biography of Winston Churchill.
The next morning I waltzed into the office of Ruslan Kishmaria, Bagaph's representative to Gali, and asked him what's up with the election. He fed me the government line about the road to democracy, and how this would be the year of independence. He dismissed the presence of Georgian Patriots in Gali and claimed to have taken a team of Georgian journalists from Imedi TV to investigate the cases of the 12 homes allegedly burned down, but the only burnt homes they could find were war relics.
"They (Georgians) also say I sell narcotics and chopped the heads off Georgians and played football with them," Ruslan Rashdenevich reminded me.
Across the border, the New Generation for United Georgia was hosting nightly protest rallies against the Abkhazian elections and for their comrades who went and got themselves busted. A reported 2,000 demonstrators attended on election day, March 3. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili praised the group, calling them "a generation that will never again let anyone oppress them." The president added that the country is ready for peaceful reconciliation only from a strong position, whatever that's supposed to mean.
I couldn't be bothered with the teenage bonfire parties at the Georgian border; there was an election to get to in Sukhum(i). The Georgian media warned of a potential confrontation between the Abkhaz opposition and pro-Bagapsh supporters, but to my disappointment, all I found on the eve to elections was apathy, even amongst ministry employees.
"You mean you're not voting? Why not?" I asked, dumfounded that such a patriotic act was being so discounted by otherwise devoted people. Yet what could any politician promise a voter in Abkhazia? Independence? Employment? A chicken in every pot?
An international press center had been organized by the same wall-eyed guy who did the South Ossetia election gig, only the international language was Russian. Besides the BBC correspondent, the only other westerner was a German I never saw again after his tactless confrontation with a security guard at a governmental building.
It seemed nobody from outside the CIS was expected to come except for the much touted international election observers, the least noteworthy (but most welcomed) of which were TransEuropean Dialogue, a group of demented flunkies from the fringes of left-wing Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Belgium, Antarctica and the moon. The only thing worse than a bunch of liberal radicals are a bunch of liberal radicals who cannot hold their booze.
About 16 or so entered the restaurant I was in and became inebriated before my host could finish his toast. Their toasts started out moderately banal ("that our international presence at this table symbolizes peace for Abkhazia") and became utterly ridiculous ("Free the Basques! Free Northern Ireland and Corsica!"). We handed a Ukrainian freedom fighter a glass of wine he couldn't hold without spilling all over himself.
"Oh, you're American," he slurred. "I hate America but I love Americans."
The next day, these people would declare Abkhazia's elections free and fair. Unfortunately for Abkhazia, there isn't much of a choice but to take what it can get.
The elections were about as quiet as they get in the Caucasus; there were no reports of irregularities or intimidation. With an official turnout at about 50%, the Abkhaz declared the elections a success, even though only 18 of the 35 seats were elected. Georgia in turn not only called them illegal but immoral, but called for the return of refugees. And here, ladies and gentleman, is where the buck stops and why the conflict remains in a state of deep-freeze with no sign of thawing for at least a century.
Abkhazia cannot let the refugees return - being a minority in what they consider their country is no way to assure independence. Moreover, there isn't a person north of Gali who would ever consider being a part of any federative Georgia - it would betray everything they fought for and endured for the past 15 years. But Georgia won't talk about its peace proposal until all the refugees return, and any concessions to Abkhazia on its status would be political suicide. Neither side can afford to budge.
Georgia can conduct the biggest media circus it wants and feed the public a mountain of disinformation, but it is not going to bring Abkhazia any closer, no matter how much it insists the real conflict is "between us and Russia." For its part, Abkhazia will maintain its course of independence with the patience of Job. Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia sums it up: "We've been de-facto for the past fourteen years and if it takes another fourteen years before the world recognizes our independence, fine. We've shown we can be de-facto as long as it takes."