Abkhazia: Olympics Can Be Seen, But Not Experienced

From the shores of the Black-Sea resort town of Gagra, situated in the separatist territory of Abkhazia, you can see the glow of the Olympic flame in Sochi, just under 60 kilometers away. For many locals, the light in the night serves mainly as a reminder of unmet expectations.

When Russia won the bid to host the Winter Olympics, many presumed Abkhazia would see some economic spillover given that Sochi is just across the border. But instead of getting a piece of the action, Abkhazia has been shut out.

Diplomatic expediency is one reason for Abkhazia’s woes. The territory broke free from Georgia in 1994. Following Tbilisi’s war with Russia in 2008, the Kremlin recognized Abkhazia’s independence, along with that of another separatist entity, South Ossetia. The problem is few other states have followed Russia’s lead, meaning that Abkhazia remains in international diplomatic limbo. In addition, security concerns have prompted Russia to keep Abkhazia at arm’s length.

Since 2009, Russia has provided the territory with roughly $67 million a year in direct budgetary support, according to a 2013 study by the International Crisis Group. In 2012, assistance from Moscow amounted to 70 percent of Abkhazia’s de-facto state budget.

The heavy subsidization prompted talk that Abkahzia might provide building materials for Sochi, construct housing near the border for laborers and host Olympic guests in its hotels and Soviet-era sanatoria. In reality, though, the only business that picked up was the export of gravel.

Hopes that the territory’s many unemployed residents could find construction work amid the Sochi building boom never panned out. Russian organizers preferred to bring in labor migrants from other areas. “At first we were glad” about the Winter Games, said Aliona Kuvichko, the director of a Sokhumi-based non-governmental organization called the Association Inva-Sodeystvie (AIS). “There were discussions of opening the airport and seaport. But, in the end, nothing. No economic effect.”

Kuvichko attributed the missed opportunity to Abkhazia’s political inability to forge a vision for its economic future. Critics charge that, rather than developing Abkhazia’s economy, Russia’s cash infusions have created a dependency syndrome. Foreigners cannot own property in Abkhazia, which prevents any substantial direct foreign investment from other sources.

While Abkhazia’s economic policy, or lack thereof, might partially explain why the territory isn’t benefitting from the Sochi Games, Liana Kvarchelia, co-director of Sokhumi’s Center for Humanitarian Programs, believes other reasons exist. Over the past several years, an estimated two tons of gravel were taken from Abkhazia and exported to Russia, she noted. Kvarchelia believes that Abkhaz prices were lower (figures were not available) and that more could have been taken, but maintains that Russian companies had their own reasons for wanting to keep Olympics preparations within their own borders, reasons likely rooted in corruption. “How else can you explain why they would spend more for Russian material?” Kvarchelia asked.

Kvarchelia acknowledges that security concerns are probably the main reason why Russia did not make greater use of Abkhazia for the Olympics. In September 2013, a Russian diplomat was murdered in Sokhumi, the territory’s capital; a crime that has been linked to alleged Islamic extremists. In the spring of 2012, an arms cache allegedly belonging to members of a radical Islamist group was also discovered.

On January 20, Russia extended a security zone for the Olympics 11 kilometers into Abkhazia, a move that irked Georgia and provoked an expression of concern by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Abkhaz locals turned out to be less upset by the intrusion of Russian border guards. “They search the cars and frisk us,” recounted Vakho Pachuliya, a guest-house owner in Gagra. “It’s a pain, but it’s understandable.” Crossings at Psou, the de-facto northern border with Russia, are allowed only on foot.

With thousands of tourists from around the world just across the border in Sochi, local Abkhaz had thought some would come visit them. But very few have trickled across the border.

Any thought of reopening Sokhumi’s commercial airport, closed since the 1992-1993 war with Tbilisi, has fallen by the wayside. Unlike in the past, the Abkhaz, with a nod to Russian troops now stationed in Abkhazia, have not named the Georgian government as a potential security threat during the Games.

In a last ditch effort to attract visitors, the de-facto foreign ministry lifted entry requirements three days after the Olympics’ February 7 opening day ceremony for those wishing to enter Abkhazia via the Russian border. It also has distributed a YouTube video of young Abkhaz, speaking a variety of languages, showing off the beauty of the territory’s mountain spots. In response to the de-facto ministry’s announcement, Tbilisi warned potential visitors that entering what it still considers to be its sovereign territory from Russia is considered a crime under Georgian law punishable by up to a four-year prison-term.

De-facto Foreign Minister Viacheslav Chirikba admits Sokhumi had big expectations as the Olympics approached, but says it’s completely natural Abkhazia did not benefit. “It’s the winter season. We have no tourism and we have increased security. I’m not disappointed.”

Economist and independent analyst, Andrei Bgazhba, finds it odd that anybody would have expected Abkhazia to benefit from the Games. Given the lack of planning, those who expected it were “fantasizing,” he said. “Really, what could we offer Russia? Gravel? Sand?” he asked.

Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Abkhazia: Olympics Can Be Seen, But Not Experienced

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