On June 1, the head of Abkhazia’s state committee on tourism, Tengiz Lakerbaya, lashed out at Sochi Mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, for publicly diminishing Abkhazia’ touristic value. The criticism followed comments made by Pakhomov on May 28, when he said that Abkhazia had once been popular with tourists because of low prices there but that because its beaches were not kept clean and the Abkhaz side did not want to simplify travel from Russia into its territory, which was creating long lines on the border, Abkhazia was no longer competitive. Lakerbaya responded to the Sochi administration by saying that Pakhomov’s remarks would hardly increase the number of tourists coming to Sochi. He pointed out that it was not Abkhazia but in fact the Russian side that made it harder for tourists to cross from Russia into Abkhazia (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, June 1).
Exchanges like this signal growing discontent on the Russian side and Abkhaz annoyance with its richer and better positioned neighbor. Abkhazia had hoped to benefit from the Sochi Winter Olympics scheduled for 2014, but if the Sochi administration is hostile and Russia does not keep the border sufficiently open, then Abkhazia’s grand hopes may be in vain.
Tourism is vital for the economic well-being of both Sochi and Abkhazia. An estimated one-third of the Abkhaz government’s revenues come directly from tourism, but most tourists come to Abkhazia privately and so the population of the territory benefits from the tourism-generated income. The vast majority of the tourists in Abkhazia come from the Russian cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Rostov-on-Don. In 2009, an estimated one million tourists visited Abkhazia, and 15 percent growth is expected in 2010. That is a very significant number in comparison with the population of Abkhazia, which is estimated at a mere 250,000. The Abkhaz government is so eager to spare the tourists waiting in lengthy queues at the Russian-Abkhaz border that its leadership announced plans to build another bridge on the Psou River and open the governmental corridor passage on the border to tourists (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, June 1).
One of the most outspoken Abkhaz opposition leaders, Raul Khadzhimba, has criticized the government for over-dependence on Russia. “That the population has started to live better is not the result of better economic policies,” he said, adding, “The country is living on external aid [from Russia]” (www.iwpr.net, May 28). In 2010, Abkhazia’s budget is expected to receive an estimated $62.4 million of its own revenues and the same amount as foreign aid from Russia (www.abkhaziagov.org, December 29, 2009).
On May 21, the Circassians who live in the North Caucasus and abroad marked the 146 years since the end of Russian-Circassian war. That brutal military action ended in the mass expulsion of the Circassians, which fundamentally altered the ethnic picture of the North Caucasus. The Circassians are now demanding that Russia recognize the genocide of their people and step up efforts to alleviate its effects. Otherwise, the Circassian activists are threatening to block the 2014 Sochi Olympics, since Sochi and its surroundings are believed to have belonged to the contemporary Circassians’ expelled and murdered ancestors.
The Abkhaz are ethnic cousins of the Circassians, speaking a language that is related to Circassian. Moreover, the Circassians responded with wholehearted support for Abkhazia’s quest for independence from Georgia at the beginning of 1990’s, providing manpower in the form of volunteers to fight in the war and exerting pressure on the government in Moscow.
It is ironic that now, when Georgia has started to consider recognizing the genocide of the Circassian people, the Abkhaz government has practically banned commemorating even the anniversary of the end of the war between Russia and the Circassians. The government hinted that some forces in Russia would not like it if Abkhazia celebrated the 146th anniversary of what some people say was the Circassian genocide. The Abkhaz opposition criticized the government, saying that the Abkhaz government should not pretend there were no tragic and controversial sides to Russian-Abkhaz and Russian-Circassian relations, as this position only would fuel more anti-Russian sentiment (www.era-abkhazia.org, June 1).
It is a historical fact that most of the ethnic Abkhaz were also displaced by the Russian invasion in the nineteenth century and eventually sent into exile in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, Russia has recently helped the Abkhaz break away from Georgia and formally recognized Abkhazia as an independent country in August 2008. Abkhazia heavily relies on Russian political, financial and military support to keep in check Georgia’s aspirations to regain its former province. Consequently, Abkhazia is facing some tough choices concerning what to do about its history and the legacy of its ethnic cousins the Circassians, who in their turn also helped Abkhazia, sometimes opposing Moscow’s will, in its struggle against Tbilisi. With Georgia now trying to work out more inclusive regional policies in the North Caucasus that take into consideration the needs and aspirations of the Circassian people, Abkhaz officialdom is increasingly finding itself in a very awkward position.