Georgia: Abkhazia's Monkey Business Returns to Health

A monkey, tattooed with an identification number, stares out from its cage at the Scientific Research Institute for Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Sukhumi in July 2008.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state may have fired speculation about military bases and trade ties, but one interesting question has been generally overlooked so far: what it means for Sukhumi’s monkeys.

Set on a mountaintop overlooking the Black Sea, Sukhumi’s Scientific Research Institute for Experimental Pathology and Therapy -- commonly known as "the monkey station" [pitomnik obezyan] -- was legendary in Soviet times. In bygone times, it was one of the world’s leading primate research centers, with a guest list ranging from North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to Soviet World War II hero Marshal Giorgi Zhukov.

That legend fell on hard times after the 1992-1994 Georgian-Abkhaz war, which caused the loss of monkeys, staff and money. Now, with fresh research pursuits and a recent monkey baby boom, institute scientists hope that official recognition of Abkhazia will let their 81-year-old center make a comeback.

"I won’t say that as of tomorrow everything will be different, but the tempo [of work] will become faster," said Institute Director Tamaz Kubrava in a recent interview with EurasiaNet.

"We’ll have direct contact with all establishments in Russia, without middlemen or anything else. That’s what recognition gave us," Kubrava continued.

Until Russia opted out of the Commonwealth of Independent States blockade on Abkhazia earlier this year, gaining access to food and equipment was largely a matter of "so-called contraband," recollected Professor Vladimir Barkaya, the institute’s deputy director and head of its Experimental Hematology Laboratory.

Now, it is just a matter of "transferring money," Barkaya continued. And finding the right opportunity for collaboration. Conversations and memoranda of intent with Russian institutes have reportedly picked up pace since Russia’s August recognition of Abkhazia. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]

"They’re interested in the condition of the monkeys, what equipment we have, what they should bring that we don’t have," commented Barkaya.

A monkey baby boom has recently begun: the institute’s monkey population now tops "over 300" for the first time since the war in the early 1990s. The number pales with the 7,000 monkeys which once were housed here, and at a branch institute in Adler, outside of Sochi, but staff see the pick-up as a sign of positive change.

"Monkeys, like people, react to cold, to food, to psychological conditions," said Barkaya. "[After the war] a lot of dead monkeys were born or the monkeys couldn’t give birth because they were weak. That’s already over now. That’s finished. They’re in good condition."

And the monkeys’ mood has changed to one of self-confidence, staff scientists note. As Russian tourists crowded around one day not so long ago, one primate took the hand of an institute biologist through the cage while coquettishly batting his eyelashes at her for a treat. "He’s obliged to marry you now," laughed a co-worker.

Financial matters are less of a lighthearted matter. The institute, which operates as part of Abkhazia’s Academy of Sciences, has a 15 million ruble (just under $551,000) budget for 2009. While Kubrava affirms that the sum is "adequate at this stage," the costs for attending overseas conferences or buying up-to-date equipment can prove prohibitive.

"The variety of our work has been preserved, but, of course, not on the same scale," added Barkaya, who has worked at the monkey institute for 47 years. Some 170 employees now work in Sokhumi, down from a Soviet-era peak of 1,000.

Nanotechnology -- the study of how molecules can be broken down to the nanoscale -- heads up the list of today’s research interests. "In particular, we’re looking at how magnetite acts on monkeys, on what systems it works," elaborated Barkaya. "For a long time, in Soviet times, we were busy with nanotechnology, but we didn’t suspect that it was nanotechnology," he added with a laugh.

The study of longevity -- set in context against Abkhazia’s reputation for residents living past the age of 100 -- is another focus. The potential use of Sukhumi monkeys for research for a Russian space expedition to Mars is also under discussion.

But the past still often seems to merge seamlessly with the present.

Inside the institute’s museum, a statue of Lenin still stands proud; a Soviet-era wall placard displays a quote from Friedrich Engels to instruct visitors that Darwin delivered "the strongest blow" by proving that "the entire organic world" is "a product of development."

Discussing the past -- trips by two Sukhumi monkeys into space (Dryoma and Yerosha), or visits by American scientists under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- is "pleasant," conceded Barkaya, "but the important thing is the present, that we have survived."

One aspect of the present, though, that largely eludes discussion is the intricacies of Abkhazia’s strained ties with Georgia. Amid the palm trees and testing centers, geopolitical tug-of-wars are irrelevant. It is just the monkeys that count. Commented Institute Director Kubrava: "Our business is purely science. It’s quite different."

Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photographer also based in Tbilisi.

Georgia: Abkhazia's Monkey Business Returns to Health

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