Many feel bitter in the republic of Abkhazia, also known as Apsny, which translates as the Land of the Soul. Five years after the Russian-Georgian war gave the Abkhazians their independence, only Russia, Venezuela, and a few small countries recognize the tiny war-ravaged republic on the Black Sea.
And, insult of insults, even its main sponsor, Russia, has shut out the Abkhazians from the party of the decade that is taking place on their doorstep – the Winter Olympics. They have become a Cinderella nation. While the rest of the world celebrates peace and understanding through sports, Abkhazians are left with their noses pressed against the glass, uninvited, uninvolved, and unwanted.
There is more. The Abkhazians have been prevented by Russia from working on any of the lucrative construction projects building the stadiums, the entertainment facilities, and the athletes’ Olympic Village ahead of the games. The Olympics authorities have forbidden Abkhazian athletes from competing under their own colors. And the Russians have closed the border so Abkhazians cannot even watch the events from the bleachers.
On a recent afternoon, a group of Abkhaz officials and sport coaches discussed whether they would ever live to see the Abkhaz flag fly above the Olympic Games. “Definitely not,” said the republic’s chief judo coach, Andrei Pogosov. “I cannot find the right words to explain to that boy why he cannot compete under his own country’s national flag!” he said, pointing at a young athlete performing on a mat.
He said his judo team had even been “shamefully denied” the right to represent Abkhazia at an international tournament in a Russian region of Krasnodar. The best Abkhaz athletes could do was to forget their true nationality and perform as a part of a Russian regional team from Rostov.
Sports is not the only activity that is shunning Abkhazia, nor are the Russians the only country making it difficult. Shazina Avidzba, the new nation’s minister of sports and youth affairs, recalled a number of similarly frustrating episodes. For instance, in June the Polish consulate denied the children’s dance collective visas to travel to Poland.
Sportsmen and sports officials have also been denied Schengen visas that would allow them to travel freely to the democratic countries of Europe. “But the most painful moments for us is when Russian regions reject our flag,” the minister said.
Most of the time Abkhazia has enjoyed good relations with the Kremlin. More than 5,000 Russian soldiers and units of the Federal Security Service protected the republic’s borders after the 2008 war with Georgia.
And for the past five years, Russia has bolstered Abkhazia’s fragile state institutions and infrastructure with donations of more than $100 million, adding about 50 percent to what the republic could afford from its own resources.
The majority of the republic’s 240,000 citizens have obtained Russian passports and thousands regularly visit their rich neighbor, while about 30,000 Abkhazians still receive Russian pensions.
But the imminence of the Olympics has completely changed the relationship between Abkhazia and Russia. And not only in Sukhumi, the nation’s capital. The Kremlin’s Olympics mega-project just on the other side of the border has totally transformed the Russian city of Sochi.
The once elegant and peaceful Black Sea Riviera is gone. With more than $50 billion spent by private and state investors on building the Olympic projects, the city has been turned inside out.
What was once a marshy stopover for migrating birds has been transformed by glass and concrete Olympic venues that glow with red, white and blue neon lights in the colors of the Russian flag. Sky lifts bring tourists to the peaks of the surrounding snowy mountains. A high-speed train connects the Olympic villages and downtown Sochi, and there is a modern, international airport as well as railway stations.
The city, beloved since the 1960s by millions of international and Soviet tourists for its botanic gardens, organic milk products, and beautiful historic spa hotels, is now dotted with vast multistory apartment blocks and mammoth hotels, making it look from afar like an enormous hedgehog with gigantic needles.
“There is nothing of the old Sochi left. We lost our favorite historic byways to enormous construction sites, along with some landmark architectural monuments and spa hotels,” said Irina Nikolayevna, manager of Sochi’s archives.
A few dozen historians, architects, and museum experts struggle to preserve what is left of the prerevolutionary mansions and the historically important if intimidating Stalinist monuments. But pre-Olympic entrepreneurial and construction fever has completely taken over.
The Moscow press has speculated on how deep the new 30-mile-long Olympic highway would have to be if it were paved in caviar, fur coats, or Louis Vuitton to account for the staggering $7.2 billion it cost to build. It is little surprise that some older residents call the new Sochi the “Kingdom of Greed.”
But while Russia has invited the world to the party, not everyone is welcome at the upcoming Olympics, which, according to the founding principles of the games, are intended to promote peace through international understanding.
Russians do not just have the Abkhazians on their mind. The authorities organizing the Olympics face a number of internal challenges, too: the threat of attack by Islamist terrorists from the North Caucasus, widespread lawlessness, and extensive corruption.
But Abkhazia has been shut out in the cold. With an average salary of about $80 a month, all hopes of making money by helping build the Olympic facilities have been dashed. In 2010, the republic’s president, Sergey Bagapsh, told me about the sand and gravel pits less than 100 miles away from the Olympic sites that offered a chance for thousands of Abkhazians to get jobs.
But Bagapsh’s dreams did not come true. “The business feast passed us by,” he said. “We made nothing from the Olympic projects,” said presidential spokesman Christian Bzhania, clearly expressing the offense taken by Abkhazians at their harsh treatment at the hands of the Russians.
They struggle to understand why Russia did not invite them to share the Olympic pie. Did the murder of first secretary of Russian Embassy, Dmitry Vishernev, and his wife, cause the chill in relations?
“No, the murders of the diplomats had nothing to do with it,” said Sergei Markov, a member of Public Chamber. “Our Western partners asked us to keep quiet about the plight of Abkhazia and not protest at our treatment at the hands of the Russians, as a boycott of the Sochi Olympics [on the grounds of Russia’s attitude towards homosexuals] is still on the agenda in some countries.”
Markov thinks that after the games are over, everything will change for Abkhazia. “Russia will remove controls on the border with Abkhazia – so long, of course, that there is no trouble in the rest of the Caucasus.”
But, although many buildings in Sukhumi have been in ruins for more than 20 years, many Abkhazians are not looking forward to an influx of rich Russian investors with bulging wallets streaming across the border in search of development opportunities. Strict local laws protect historic monuments and real estate from being snapped up by foreign buyers.
“You have to be careful with Russians,” one Abkhazian explained. “If you put your finger in their mouth, they’ll bite off your arm right up to the shoulder.” It is a common refrain.
Faced with a bear hug from Russia, Abkhazia – beloved by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Soviet Russians and the Georgians – would prefer to keep both its independence and its soul.