Updated: Nov 24, 2019
By: Lucija Karlovic
Located between the tideless Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains lies the unrecognized country of Abkhazia. Once a highly sought after paradise, it was here during the Soviet era that Stalin and Soviet elites such as Krushchev and Chekhov chose to have their summer dachas (a country house or cottage) (G. Derluguian, n.d.).
During the 1930s to 1950s, exotic palm trees and citrus orchards where planted by Soviet botanists making man made landscapes similar to that found in California. Its subtropical climate means it played host to the growth of all kinds of crops such as kiwis, tangerines and hazelnuts.
The 20th century saw its transformation into one of the best vacation spots in the region, and later on, one of the most disputed areas too.
Language, religious and cultural distinction meant that although it technically fell under Georgian rule for much of its history, it has always aimed for independence and recognition from the international community.
Former Vacation Spot of the Soviet Elite
The period of 1917-1921 was marked as the beginning of its existence as a contemporary administrative state - largely due to Russia’s involvement.
Russia’s interest in the area in 1918 saw the international Bolsheviks, a faction founded by Vladimir Lenin, playing a major role in assisting in Abkhazia’s struggle against the Georgian Social Democratic power.
Two early policies stood out as culprits in increasing tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia. One, Moscow allowed Abkhazia to exist as an autonomous republic of Georgia and two, the policies implemented by Russia regarding preferential treatment to peasants living in Abkhazia.
Essentially, this was an attempt to strengthen the presence of Bolshevik control as well as to ensure a continued alliance between the elites of Moscow and the elites of Abkhazia (G. M. Derluguian, 1991).
The USSR’s own agenda in Abkhazia as an area of interest allowed for political and social stability during the communist era, but would ultimately result in violent conflicts and the spark of an ethnic war just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Stalin and other members of the Soviet elite had an invested interest in the seaside paradise that Abkhazia was and ended in a large increase in tourism for the small region.
Spas, resorts and tourist agencies were built, with infrastructure and the modernisation of the area becoming their top priority, all in an effort to make the Soviet elites more comfortable in the area (Sideri & Sideri, 2012).
Its production of luxury products such as; wine, tobacco and teas added to its appeal and saw the beginning of its network of trade with other city ports. The capital, Sukhum, was soon established as a cosmopolitan city and played host to restaurants where only the elite could dine - becoming a display of wealth.
Luxurious dachas isolated in the cliffs near the sea a place in Garga and Guduata were reserved especially for the privileged, such as Stalin.
The purpose of increasing tourism into the area was not only to enjoy the mountains and beautiful scenery, but also to display an image of successful Socialist progress and change (Sideri & Sideri, 2012). An image, the leadership at the time was eager to establish.
Stalin wasn’t supportive of the independence sought by the Abkhazian population and in 1931, it lost its special status and became part of the Soviet Republic of Georgia as an autonomous republic (Sideri & Sideri, 2012).
This decision was made in an attempt to centralize power, as well as drive out nationalities that Stalin felt had ties to capitalist countries outside of the USSR region, namely the Greeks that owned businesses and resided there.
It was the first attempt at an ethnic cleansing with the replacement of certain Greek institutions and replace them with Soviet ones. In 1949, the Soviet Union began a deportation of the Greek populations to Central Asia (Sideri & Sideri, 2012). It was Stalin’s attempt at solidifying the real socialism movement he had intended to pursue at the start of his power.
The area remained of interest in terms of tourism even in the post-Stalin era and continued to be popular and visited by the wealthiest few in the USSR. Private mansions and automobiles all flocked the coastline and the emergence of criminal syndicates began.
In the 1960s, Abkhazia was flourishing and saw an increase in political and economic stability. The Abkhazian elites however feared the increasing population of Georgians present and used their advantageous connections with decision-makers in Moscow to begin the transition of separatism.
As a result of these direct connections, it allowed ethnic Abkhazians to control the most lucrative of industries seen in that area - agriculture and crops. The transition was minor but was felt by the Georgian population and seen as discriminatory.
They began to change the alphabet as well as establish control in key political positions (G. M. Derluguian, 1991). This all added to already present tensions between the Georgian and Abkhazian population. Tensions escalated in 1978 when a mass demonstration was held by Georgian protestors to demonstrate their resentment to the Abkhazian attempts at separatism.
These demonstrators turned violent and the situation became out of hand - which required the intervention of Moscow. The situation was resolved by once again favouring the interests of the Abkhazians.
The solution to the clashes was to place Abkhazian and Russian elites in key political positions and in the police force, worsening the divide between the Georgian and Abkhazian populations.
Towards the end of the Soviet era and the beginning of its collapse, violence and clashes escalated throughout the region. Abkhazians, who were extremely pro-Soviet, had up until then received preferential treatment from Moscow, which began to lose its control on power.
Georgian anti-Soviet radicals came into power in 1990 and the beginning of 1992 saw the storming of Georgian tanks into the area. Tensions in the area were ever increasing with both groups aiming to establish their political power and gain control of the area.
In 1993, war broke out. Abkhazia, who had built up a powerful alliance with Russia in the years prior, received aid from the Russian military (G. M. Derluguian, 1991). Ethnic Abkhazians emerged victorious and allowed for de facto control over much of their claimed territory.
What remained was damaged buildings, signifying the utopian past that had come to an abrupt end.
Today, Abkhazia still remains an area of interest, both from a political and tourism perspective. This can be seen through the one million Russian tourists who visit the region annually and also through the large sums of aid given to the region by the Russian government.
Following the war and declaration of its independence it has now become reliant on Russia in terms of economic, trade and investments and is known as a post-Soviet 'frozen conflict zone' (Gerrits & Bader, 2016).
Russia has chosen to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state and had in 2014 invested billions of dollars to build up the Russian town of Sochi, a town which borders Abkhazia in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
This move caused a surge in real estate prices and an international and national interest in the beaches of Abkhazia. Although, Abkhazia still remains a sore subject in Georgian politics. Georgia’s own personal ambition is to reunify the territory which it considers and integral part of its own.
The European Union cannot ignore the security threat the conflict in Abkhazia possess. The Georgian and Russian interests in the area also mean that EU relations with those nationss are tested.
Its own multilateral and bilateral agreements with the two regions means the union is constrained in its depth of involvement as well as its ability to intervene should anything escalate.
The European Union itself already already has a tense relationship with Russia and its position as a hegemonic power. In addition, Georgia's ambitions of joining NATO have been made difficult because of the situations in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Today, the status of Abkhazia as an unrecognized country has made it almost exclusively a destination for Russian-speaking tourists, with very few coming from English-speaking or Western countries.
Although its affluent past as the prime holiday destination for the Soviet elite is now over, Abkhazia's rich history, beautiful landscape and interesting political situation still offer tourists who wish to visit this little-known region a very unique experience.
Derluguian, G. (n.d.). Abkhazia : A Broken Paradise. 65–82.
Derluguian, G. M. (1991). THE TALE OF TWO RESORTS : ABKHAZIA AND AJARIA BEFORE AND SINCE THE SOVIET COLLAPSE. 261–292.
Eu, T. H. E., Abkhazia, I. N., & Ossetia, S. (n.d.). PUBLIC DIPLOMACY AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION : RUSSIA , GEORGIA AND THE EU IN ABKHAZIA Iskra Kirova.
Gerrits, A. W. M., & Bader, M. (2016). Russian patronage over Abkhazia and South Ossetia : implications for conflict resolution Russian patronage over Abkhazia and South Ossetia : implications for con fl ict resolution. East European Politics, 32(3), 297–313. https://doi.org/10.1080/21599165.2016.1166104
Sideri, E., & Sideri, E. (2012). ‘ The Land of the Golden Fleece ’: Conflict and Heritage in Abkhazia ‘ The Land of the Golden Fleece ’: Conflict and Heritage in Abkhazia. 8953(May). https://doi.org/10.1080/19448953.2012.681936