Friday 22 August 2008

Citizens of Abkhazia Strive to Shape Sovereign Nation

Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the political tensions within Georgia's breakaway province Abkhazia. This report was produced in partnership with The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The Bureau for International Reporting, and is a co-production with HDNet.

JIM LEHRER: Our second report is from the breakaway province of Abkhazia. Recently, special correspondent Kira Kay traveled there. Here is her report from a place the rest of the world has rarely seen.

KIRA KAY, NewsHour Special Correspondent: The only way into Abkhazia is by United Nations airlift. We were entering a country that does not officially exist. Permission first had to come from the Abkhaz, who are in de facto control. They even issued us visas.

We were granted rare access here just days before the war between Georgia and Russia broke out. Everything seemed peaceful, but beneath the surface the political tensions here are just as strong as in Georgia's other breakaway territory, South Ossetia.

That is because the people of Abkhazia also want their independence. But Georgia, a strong U.S. ally, insists Abkhazia stay within its borders.

SERGEI BAGAPSH, President, Abkhazia (through translator): We are ready to live next to one another, to build normal relations as two independent governments. But we will never be part of Georgia again.

KIRA KAY: Sergei Bagapsh is Abkhazia's leader. He calls himself president, since he believes he is running a sovereign nation. Bagapsh explained to me the historical context behind his territory's claim to independence.

SERGEI BAGAPSH (through translator): In the Soviet times, as you probably already know, during the time of Stalin and the Soviet Union, our republic was transferred to become part of Georgia. And during that Soviet period, for some 50 years, we continued to fight for our independence.
Abkhazia's conflict with GeorgiaKIRA KAY: Abkhazia suffered when Stalin made it a part of Georgia in 1931, according to Liana Kvarchelia, who runs a nonprofit focused on reconciliation with Georgian counterparts.

LIANA KVARCHELIA, Director, Centre for Humanitarian Programmes: This square where we're sitting now, it has witnessed, every 10 years in the Soviet Union, there were mass protests here against being part of Georgia and against attempts to assimilate Abkhazia, against the attempts to ban the language -- our language was banned for some time. Our intellectuals were persecuted. And a lot of Georgians were re-settled in Abkhazia to create this demographic disbalance.

KIRA KAY: When the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, Georgia gained independence, just like many of the other Soviet republics. But Abkhazia and another region within Georgia, South Ossetia, remained part of Georgia.

Amidst the turbulence and national awakenings of the early '90s, both decided to push for independence, too. Although most people on both sides are orthodox Christians, the Abkhaz consider themselves ethnically different from Georgians.

Georgia moved militarily against the breakaway regions in a war that lasted two years. There is a war memorial in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, but you don't need to visit it to remember what happened here.

On every block, on every corner, empty shells stand where beautiful villas once hosted generals and leaders. Billboards all over town remind citizens of the heavy price they paid.

Both sides have made harsh accusations. The Abkhaz say deliberate attempts were made to erase them from history. The Georgians claim they were ethnically cleansed. And, indeed, even today, 15 years later, more than 200,000 people driven from Abkhazia during the war now live as refugees in Georgia, many in squalid settlements near the border, unable to return.

Maxim Gunjia is only 32, but he has already spent a decade in the Abkhaz government, and he remembers the 1992 war very well.

What are your memories of those days?

MAXIM GUNJIA, Vice Foreign Minister, Abkhazia: Very bad memories. It's a very strange situation when you start to understand human reality, human identity. And humans could be very cruel, very rough. It's very strange to see how people change in a second.

KIRA KAY: And there was a lot of violence against ethnic Georgians, too?

MAXIM GUNJIA: You're right. This is war. There was a lot -- a lot of crimes, I would say. When the fighting starts, you already can hardly say who is right and who is wrong. It is a very sad situation. Read more...

No comments:

Post a Comment