Erecting a Wall inside Georgia

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On August 14 the head of the legitimate government of Abkhazia, Gia Baramia, addressed the Abkhaz people from a bridge on the Enguri River, which now separates Russian-occupied Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. He made his appeal to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the beginning of hostilities in 1992 between the authorities in Tbilisi and Moscow-backed anti-government forces in Abkhazia.

Born and reared in Sokhumi, Mr. Baramia invoked a long tradition of “brotherhood between the Georgians and the Abkhaz who throughout the centuries lived on the same land in peace and harmony – united by identical traditions and customs and by bonds of friendship and intermarriage.” Recently appointed to this post, Baramia, the head of the Abkhaz government in exile, who is not even allowed to travel to Sokhumi and whose house in Abkhazia is currently occupied by strangers, tried to avoid mentioning political issues and concentrated mainly on humanitarian aspects of the unsettled conflict. Nonetheless, he did say bitter words about the “ignominious third force that had intruded into our lives… and had separate relatives, friends, neighbors, and classmates.” At the end of his speech the leader of more than 300,000 Georgian citizens, victims of ethnic cleansing who are not permitted to return to their homes in Abkhazia, called on “the Abkhaz compatriots to engage in bilateral dialogue that will restore confidence and renew old ties.”

On the same day the very same bridge on the administrative border was crossed by a man who said he lives in Gudauta, a town near Sokhumi, and “asked for Georgian citizenship.” In his interview to the Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2, Tengiz Lakerbaia, an ethnic Abkhaz, explained the motivation to make such a move: “It is very hard to live in Abkhazia…people have no jobs…and our president [Sergei Bagapsh] sells everything to the Russians. Many people want to leave Abkhazia but they are afraid…We will have unrest in December.”

There are signs that the situation in Abkhazia is indeed deteriorating. Opposition factions constantly accuse the de facto regime of increasingly heavy reliance on Russia and abandoning the cause of independence. Following the interview to the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy on July 15 in which Sergei Bagapsh did not exclude the possibility that Abkhazia, in the future, might become part of Russia through a “referendum of the people” the de facto leader’s critics came out with a statement condemning “the incompetent authorities whose actions pose a real threat to the statehood and the people of Abkhazia.”

On August 12 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin traveled to Abkhazia to give new impetus to already heavy Russian presence there. During his visit two bombs were detonated in Sokhumi and Gagra, killing two people and injuring seven. Shortly afterwards, the Russian occupational forces intensified their efforts to strengthen the “border” between Abkhazia and Georgia proper. According to Rustavi 2, “the bridges on the Enguri river are being mined” and the Russians “are putting in place fortifications and barbwire fences along the 85-kilometer border.” Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister David Jalagania said on August 17 that “this is a continuation of the Russian policy of aggression and occupation.” President Saakashvili of Georgia repeatedly called the Moscow-drawn lines separating Abkhazia and Tskhinvali from other parts of Georgia “a new Berlin Wall in Europe.”

While Georgian officials are trying to reach out to the populations on the other side of the “wall,” Moscow is doubling its efforts to militarize the two occupied regions and fortify the “borders” in order to minimize contact between ordinary Georgians, Abkhaz and Ossetians.