Foreign Minister of breakaway Abkhazia, Viacheslav Chirikba, said in an interview on January 28 that he sees no major shift in Tbilisi’s policy apart from a change in rhetoric, which, as he puts it, is no longer “belligerent”. He criticized the policy of “total isolation” of Abkhazia and said that the Geneva talks are in “deadlock” on key issues as Georgian negotiators have become “even more no-ish.”
Q.: The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are held in Sochi, just few kilometers away from Sukhumi. What are the effects of such a global event on Abkhazia?
A.: Our main involvement has been to support Moscow in constructing the needed facilities, mainly with gravel. We also cooperate with Russia on the security sphere because of course we don’t want any security threat to the Olympics coming from our territory, which means that our security forces in collaboration with Russian security forces are watching very closely, they are very vigilant, that no terrorist will come through our territory. It is very important. This is the biggest thing.
There is not much impact on the Abkhazian economy, not much, apart from our contribution to the construction side. Of course during the Olympics we expect some influx of tourists, guests of the Olympics, some sportsmen who would like to visit Abkhazia.
Q.: On January 20 the Russian authorities pushed the border down 11 km into Abkhazia, pointing to security reasons…
A.: Not the border, it is a security zone, the border stays where it should be on the river Psou. Normally the security zone on both sides of the border is 2 kilometers, now it has been extended [from] the Psou river to 11 kilometers on the Abkhazian side. So it is our security zone, not Russia’s. It was broadened from 2 to 11 kilometers. It is like an extended buffer zone, because we are so close to the Olympic events, it gives us more space to control people… It is a temporary measure, after the Olympics it will go back to normal.
Q.: Over the last 20 years the relationship with Moscow has always been key for Abkhazia, but the ties got stronger since 2008. How important is Russia for you?
A.: Well, Moscow is of primary importance for us because of course Russia is the chief guarantor of the peace in the region. We have a military agreement with Russia that in case Abkhazia is threatened then Russia will intervene and support us militarily. Then we have a combined, joint border control on the Ingur river with Russian and Abkhaz border guards, and this is very important to prevent militias to enter our territory and organize subversive activities as they used to do in the past.
Russia also provides us with a lot of economic assistance without which the Abkhazian economy could not revive itself. It was flourishing during Soviet times because of the tourism industry which was destroyed because of the war and the blockade. So now Russia is providing Abkhazian pensioners with pensions…to those who have Russian passports of course, who are also Russian citizens.
The economic assistance is essential because without it, nobody else is ready to provide the assistance to revive our economy, nobody is helping us except Russia. So Russia’s support is paramount for Abkhazia, and we are keeping this mutual and friendly relationship with Russia. But of course it is not only a one way relationship, because we provide security for Russia’s southern border, 240 km of coast, coastal area, and the mountain areas so Abkhazia is the friend on [Russia’s] southern border, which is important for any country.
Q.: This relationship is well developed. Ninety percent of the population has a Russian passport, Russia supports your elders, you also have adopted Russia’s international phone code. Plus there are an estimated 5,000 Russian soldiers in Abkhazia…
A.: No, certainly not 5,000. There are about 3,500 Russian soldiers. There are two military bases, 1,500 soldiers in one, 1,500 on another one. There are about 3,500, not more. If you compare the American military base in Kosovo, with 7,000 troops, it is a small number compared to other standards… So, 3,500, approximately. Because you know, the personnel changes, and I think they decided to lower that number, I don’t know the exact figure, but not more than 3,500…
Q.: In any case Russia is heavily present in Abkhazia’s daily life. Don’t you think that limits your independence?
A.: No, in which way? Russia assists us, it assists us to be independent, to be free, to be protected, to feel safe, to develop business, to make plans for our families, to raise children. It is a very important plus, it is not a minus, the assistance of Russia. So some people look at this from the perspective of the Cold War, where Russia was threatening… No, this is different, Russia is not Soviet Union at all and our interest is mutual. They see our resorts, and see us as a nice place to have vacations here, but also the security which we provide to our southern border. And we look at the economic assistance they provide to us. It is a good symbiosis based on mutual interest, so I don’t see it as a threat.
Russia is not going to occupy us or annex us, there is no way Abkhazia will become part of Russia. We are an independent state, still we have a very good relation with Russia, very friendly, and I think that the level of understanding is really good, there are no disagreements… We have about 80 agreements at different levels, which help to revive the economy… and help us to stand on our feet. That’s important. After five years of such help Abkhazia is much more independent, much more free, the relationship with Russia has enhanced our independence and freedom rather than making us weaker. It is my conviction and that of the majority of the people in the country.
Q.: Russian language is spoken everywhere, you hardly hear any Abkhaz spoken in the street, in cafes, in shops. As a linguist and a politician, do you think your national language is threatened?
A.: If you go to the villages they speak Abkhaz. Abkhazians are mostly village dwellers, not city dwellers mostly, at home they use only Abkhaz; if you go to the village it is almost 100 percent Abkhaz usage. Here in Sukhum people is mixed, people have to use different languages, you need one lingua franca which is in this case Russian. At home people use their own language, but in the street Russian is widely used…
There is a potential threat to the language, yes, it is not dying out at all, but still there is a narrow number of places where it is used. On the other hand Abkhazian is a state language, it is in our constitution, Russian language is an official language as well. We have a special law which will be fully enforced in 2015, which [has] a provision that all the establishment, state, education, and others will shift to the Abkhazian language. So we started by issuing decrees in Abkhaz, different papers, correspondence between me and the president, the cabinet, all the letters are in Abkhaz. And this is actually new because Abkhaz was not that much used in official communication, now it is starting to be more used…
We have to use it more, to a very high degree like in universities. But of course time will show us whether we are ready for this, because to my mind, in my opinion, as a linguist, as a specialist, the state didn’t use all the necessary measures to enforce this law. I think people found the law a bit too radical, and they thought ‘oh no, it is too radical, we should not do much’. I think it is the wrong idea because they should have done better for the law. But there is a special fund for Abkhazian language, there are programs…but I think it is not enough, the government certainly has to do more. More people are sending their children to Abkhaz kindergarten, Abkhaz school, so people can be more exposed to their own language. There are Armenian schools, we have Georgian teaching in Gali region, we have Russian schools, and they are all state-financed, they are not private schools.
Q.: Russia is hence your essential ally. Georgia, on the other hand, is looking to the West and has made clear its vision within NATO.
A.: We don’t care about Georgia’s vision, it is a foreign country and we look at it as through the TV set, as much as we look at Ukraine, or Italy, the U.S. or Greenland. We are detached from Georgia, we are a different country, we don’t care what they want – to be part of whether it is Russia, China or South Korea or the U.S. It is their decision, we don’t care about it.
But if they want to use NATO as a tool against us of course we do care. That’s why we don’t want Georgia to become strong, invariably aggressive, even now, the rhetoric may be different but the aims are the same – to re-occupy us.
So if they want NATO as a tool against Abkhazia of course we do care so we are against it. Of course people in NATO are not crazy to risk to go against Russia in order to help Georgia to get Abkhazia back. We are risking the third world war here. It is a nightmare for everyone, it means it will not happen probably, but why does Georgia want to become part of NATO? Because it wants a tool against Abkhazia, our citizens, to get Abkhazia back and a tool against Russia. It is not what they say, ‘we share common values’ etc. Excuse me, this is for children to consume. It is very pragmatic, and the EU the same, it is their choice. If they want to be close to the EU, well, why not…
Q.: Abkhazia falls into the geographical sphere of the EU Eastern Partnership, the wider Europe. Do you see Abkhazia establishing relationship with Brussels in the near future now that Georgia has initialled the Association Agreement with the EU?
A.: Why not? But not via Georgia. We are open to any relation with any country and the EU is one of the most interesting partners, because we are part of Europe, we want to join the European family nations, we regard ourselves as Europeans so it is natural that we want to establish good relations with the EU. If you look at our history, Abkhazia has always been part of the European families, in Greek times, in Roman times, even now. We are fully European. If you read our Constitution [it] is a European constitution. Our state system is a democracy. If you look at Freedom House’s reports, we are on the same level as Georgia, we are not less democratic than Georgia. Last time, Georgia was regarded as a non electoral democracy, now they have established it, but we always had two, three times, very competitive elections parliamentary, presidential. We are a small country, but we are a democracy, it is one of the few democracies of the post soviet States.
Q.: In October 2012, Georgia experienced its first power transfer through elections, the political scene and its rhetoric has changed. How do you see the developments in Tbilisi?
A.: Again, it is a foreign country. If it is better for them, it is better for them. They are not speaking in belligerent terms as [ex-President Mikheil] Saakashvili did; we see the change in rhetoric, but no change in aims. The aims are the same.
Everything we do we see that Georgia is following us, looking at our contacts, isolate us as much as they can, on every level. If our children’s folk group goes to Turkey they try to tell the Turks, ‘throw them out’; if they go to Poland they try with the Polish government to throw them out, they push EU governments not to issue visas to Abkhaz with Russian passports.
It is a policy of total isolation of Abkhazia; they think it will help them. I don’t [know] how it can help them, it just makes us more angry with them; it pushes us in a direction opposite to them. I understand their aim, but this tool just works against this aim, bringing Georgia and Abkhazia together [at] table, it pushes [Abkhazia] away from them.
Q.: So you don’t see a drastic change…
A.: Only in the rhetoric, nothing more. We see it in the Geneva discussions, it is the same. They have become even more no-ish than before; they don’t want to speak with us. Because of course we are regarded [by Tbilisi] as paws in Russian hands, but it is Abkhazians who fought them when they invaded Abkhazia in 1992, not Russians, Abkhazians. If you look at how many people died during the war, I mean soldiers, 90 percent were ethnic Abkhazians. Of course we used Russian weapons, they and we, together, because there was not another option for weapons. But we fought for our country not somebody else.
Q.: What is the future of the Geneva talks?
A.: So far they are [in] deadlock because of Georgia’s refusal to accept the non-use of force agreement. They want the non-use of force agreement with Russia but not with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the major aim of the talks, as decided between Medvedev and Sarkozy was to create security. So we are discussing this but they don’t want to sign anything that [that will make] Abkhazians and South Ossetians feel more secure at least on the level of the declaration. [That’s] the main topic of our discussions and it is in deadlock; it is not very optimistic.
But still, I think, we’ll continue to take part in the talks because we find it is a very important forum for communication between Abkhazians and Georgians, if they want to talk, but also between Abkhazia and the European Union, Abkhazia and OSCE, Abkhazia and the UN, and the U.S. is there, the important delegation from the U.S. So we use, we try to use this forum to make a wider understanding with all world actors.
Q.: The return of displaced people from the conflict is one of the most pressing unresolved issues. There are still over 200,000 displaced Georgians from the conflict. Is their return possible?
A.: We have a program for return, you know, those who returned to Gal region and the problem is that the West and UNHCR, and Georgia refuse to register their return. There are at least 40,000 returnees who went back to their homes [in the Gali district] and live there for 10 years and no one recognizes their presence there. They still call them internally displaced persons, as if they still are in Georgia, but they are in Abkhazia already, their children have grown up, but they still are refused the status of returnees. They are still IDPs, in UNHCR and Georgian accounts.
So Georgia does not wish to solve this problem, if they wanted they’d record their progress and go further, but they don’t want. Why? Because of political reasons, for them it is a political argument against Abkhazia, well, understandable…40,000 plus people returned back and no mention of this, by anybody. Another thing is that they get international assistance for refugees, they want them to register in Georgia, not in Abkhazia…We insist that those who return back to be only on our economic assistance, nobody else’s, apart from the small assistance of UN-supported agencies, very small. Most are still on our budget, schools, hospitals, everything, roads everything…
Of course Georgia wants all the people to return back, but it is not possible. If we get it once, we’ll get a major destabilization, we’ll get another war, because of feelings, people were killing each other 20 years ago, neighbors, friends, they were killing each other, you know there was a sea of blood between them, if they return back it will be a nightmare here…
So it cannot be solved without the solution of political status of Abkhazia, I mean, acceptance of Abkhazia’s political status because when Abkhazia is independent, free, recognized by Georgia, then we can discuss many things, including the return of refugees.
Q.: Some collaboration between Abkhazia and Georgia is happening though, namely with regards to the missing persons file. Under the auspices of ICRC, the two parts are working together to find the whereabouts of the missing from the war. Do you think further cooperation on the issue that is purely humanitarian, mothers and fathers looking for their sons and daughters, is still possible?
A.: Yes, of course for the exact reason that you said. It is purely humanitarian, it is giving justice to the victims of the war, and we are ready to collaborate fully on this program.
Q.: On the issue of recognition, are you engaged in talks and negotiations?
A.: We discuss with many countries, in Latin America, in Africa, in South East Asia, and in Europe. The problem is [that] Georgia is still hostile to this idea, they try their best to prevent this from happening, as much as they can. And of course the U.S. The U.S. made it very clear, it is one of the objectives of their foreign policy to prevent Abkhazia to be a fully recognised country, whereas the U.S. is pushing other countries to recognize Kosovo, pushes them, or pays them or whatever, it doesn’t matter, but they are against the recognition of Abkhazia.
Why? Because of the double standard policy… Kosovo was never a state, Kosovo Albanians never had a state. We always had a state, always, kingdom, principality, republic, whatever, it was a statehood, of some kind. And we still have a state, it is functioning, it is democratic…We are regarded as Russia’s ally, and they still think through this Cold War mentality –‘why should we help Abkhazians to get independence if they are on the Russian side’. I mean, it is very simple, it is a black and white picture, you are with us or against us.
Q.: Where do you see Abkhazia in ten years?
A.: In 10 years? In 5 years it will be a flourishing economy, a different country, you will not recognize it…Tourists will come, giving more to the budget of the country, and it will be peaceful thanks to the relationship with Russia, which is long-term. I think Abkhazia will be recognized by more countries, I don’t know how many, but still we are working on this, and it will be a very pleasant place to live. Even now it is very comfortable to live. I lived for 17 years in Holland and I moved here in 2007, and I feel very comfortable here… I have my family here, I can make plans for the future, it is a very secure place, if you go out at night there are very few chances you will have any problem.
Q.: You see the economy flourishing. What is your economic strategy? What are you working on?
A.: Of course we don’t want to build big factories, big industries here, we want to have our tourism industry upgraded, because it has indeed lots of potential. If you were on the French Cote d’Azur you could see that the landscape really looks like here, of course it is dilapidated, but still the nature is similar, even more beautiful. So there are lots of possibilities to make it like what they have there…So it is the tourism industry which is lucrative of course. Then subtropical agriculture, it is mandarins, kiwis, avocados… Fishery, forestry. We have very good quality coal, we have mineral water, we have huge reserves of clean, sweet water. Plus, hydroelectric power stations. We had 26 stations before the war, now only one remains, but when restored they will provide enough electricity for Abkhazia and yet 40 percent of surplus that can be sold… We had contacts with Chinese businessmen who are interested in helping us to revive the tea industry. Also we have big plans for the wine industry. We sell about 15-20 million bottles of wine a year to Russia, good quality wine and we want to produce more.
Q.: There have been discussions about a revision of the property law that will allow non-Abkhaz to purchase properties in Abkhazia, where does the discussion stand?
A.: We are still discussing. There is nothing to comment on this because nothing has been decided
Q.: So nothing on the agenda.
A.: No. I cannot comment on this because at this stage nothing has been decided.