Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Transnistria are three states longing for independence, and all are still suffering from destructive wars. They’re all in Russia’s direct political sphere of influence; sometimes as a friend, and sometimes as their worst enemy. There are many similarities between these states, but probably even more differences. I visited Abkhazia and Chechnya in the summer of 2015 and Transnistria in January of 2018.
Abkhazia is a de facto state that has been in serious conflict with Georgia over the past years, resulting in deadly wars and even in ethnic cleansing. While Georgia regards the land as “occupied”, Russia (and a few other mainly unrecognized states except for Nicaragua, Venezuela and the small island of Nauru) regards Abkhazia to be an independent state. I visited the area seven years after the last big violent conflict in 2008.
To enter Abkhazia, one needs to apply for a visa. The process is rather amateurish but straightforward. After sending an e-mail to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a standard form needs to be filled out. This form is then reviewed by the Ministry, and when it is accepted, you will receive an e-mail confirming your entry into the ‘country.’ Within three days of arrival, you will need to register at the MFA’s office in person, where a co-worker will visibly edit a Microsoft Word-document and print the ‘visa’ for you. The visa, although almost identical to a real one, is actually just a slip of paper that is not even attached to your passport. They usually take it back once you exit the country.
In 2008, Abkhazia had a role in the Russo-Georgian War, after the fighting spread to the area on the fourth day of the war. It was in the aftermath of this conflict when Russia recognized Abkhazia and nearby South-Ossetia, as independent states. The area is of huge strategic importance to Russia, since the Southern part of the Caucasus functions as a “buffer zone” between the Russian Federation and the Middle-Eastern countries. Control of this area would enable Russia to control Western influence in the geopolitically important region of Central Asia. The Abkhaz have no other choice, as they can only enjoy a certain level of independence with economic and military help from Russia. That’s why they happily chose Russia to be their ally.
I decided to enter Abkhazia from the Georgian side. The next stop on my trip at that time was going to be Russia, but since one must exit Abkhazia from the same point as the point of entry, I had to go all the way back to Tbilisi and cross the border to Vladikavkaz in North-Ossetia. My elderly taxi driver warned me for the last time, “in Georgia good people, Abkhazia dangerous place”, as we drove towards the border, a mere ten kilometres from the town of Zugdidi.
Passing through Georgian customs was pretty easy. I met a very friendly border guard who didn’t ask too many questions. After that, it started to get interesting. I walked over a mile-long bridge which was very badly maintained to say the least. The bridge was full of holes and the vegetation underneath looked like a forgotten swamp in the middle of a no man’s land. This bridge, simply named after the Enguri River, connects Abkhazia to Georgia. The Abkhaz side of the border was much more chaotic. The atmosphere was hectic as there were many people standing in the small lane secluded by barbed wire fences. One of the older men was a bit clumsy with his cart and one apple after another rolled through the crowd, followed by a jostling man trying to pick his capital back up.
The whole line looked curiously at me when it was my turn to see the guard. He took my passport and printed-out letter and I had to step aside and wait as he dealt with the other people. After he made some surprisingly long calls with my letter in his hand, he asked me some questions and finally let me through. I was in Gali, an extremely dull and boring looking town where I had to wait three hours for my marshrutka (minivan) to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.
In 1992 and 1993 the bloodiest war between Georgia and Abkhazia was fought. It was one of many conflicts precipitated by the fall of the USSR. It caused thousands of casualties and led to the displacement of around 250,000 people. The most direct reason for the war was Abkhazia declaring itself independent from Georgia and demanding to have their own Soviet Socialist Republic, during the last years of the Soviet Union, which was already being on the verge of collapse. It is a conflict largely forgotten by the West.
I was able to see many destroyed buildings along the route. All showed signs of heavy bombing. Later, when I walked through the city with two girls I met in the capital, I was aggressively forced to delete the photos I had taken of these buildings. A man abruptly stopped his car in the middle of the road and started to shout as he walked up on me in an intimidating way. He didn’t want me to show the people back home the ugly sides of his country. It worked, somehow, since I unfortunately don’t have the photos anymore.
Abkhazia practically functions as its own state: they’ve got their own license plates, their own law, and their own telecom providers (none of which had a roaming contract with my own phone provider by the way). The currency is the Russian ruble, which of course is in the interest of Russia. One can say that the nation is a bit underdeveloped, although there is definitely no lack of basic needs. In my opinion there is great potential, especially because of its proximity to Russia’s south, which is a holiday destination for millions every year. The region has some beautiful sights such as lakes and caves, and people can get in touch with authentic Caucasian culture (which is very different from Russian culture but comparable to Georgia’s).
Chechnya is another region in the Caucasus, which is in contrast to Abkhazia also officially under Russian rule. Though, the cultural differences between ethnic Russians and Chechens are comprehensive. The greatest difference of all, of course, is that Chechnya is a severely orthodox Muslim state. The citizens of the Chechen Republic, while mostly bilingual, predominantly speak their own language. And, as explained, while Russia’s interests in this region are huge, Russia will go as far as it takes to keep Chechnya effectively under the Kremlin’s control.
Just as the Soviet Union started to collapse, nationalism among the Chechens grew. The Chechens enjoyed an autonomous republic during the Soviet era, and wanted to keep their sovereignty afterwards as well. This led to bloody conflicts with extreme consequences, until the entirety of Chechnya was in ruins. Not a single street or building escaped the violent fighting.
Today, although it has one of the highest unemployment rates, Chechnya is amongst Russia’s richest and cleanest areas. One could even compare the first impression in cities like Argun to a “little Las Vegas”. A lot of Russian money flows into Chechnya, and most are convinced there is one main reason behind it: “To keep the Chechens calm.” Russia has been suffering from many terroristic attacks in the 21th century, some of them with an extremely high death toll. Many of those attacks are directly related to the unrest in the 90s.
I hitchhiked to Vladikavkaz and took a marshrutka from there to Nazran in Ingueshetia, another Russian Muslim republic. In Nazran I found a marshrutka directly bound for Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. As expected, the unusual presence of a foreigner on the bus attracted a lot of attention from my fellow passengers. An older Chechen lady even shook hands with me upon leaving the bus, which is a very uncommon occasion, as men in Chechnya often are not even allowed to stand within one meter of a woman. When a young boy and girl go on a date with each other, for example, they sit on either end of a bench and speak to one another with about a meter of space in between.
Before arriving, I had arranged with a guy my age to stay with his family during my visit, and he came to pick me up from the bus stop. It’s definitely an understatement if I say I had never experienced such outstanding hospitality in my whole life. And how lucky I was: it turned out I was staying at one of the richest families in Chechnya; they were millionaires. Even while they were fasting for Ramadan, they made sure I had a table full of gold gilded dishes with heaps of the most delicious food. Their houses were huge, containing numerous rooms with the most expensive and beautiful hand-crafted furniture. Since it’s common in Chechnya for men to marry multiple women, many different ladies served me everything I would ask for. They even managed to get me on a train to Volgograd for free (one of the men immediately called his police-contact to “solve the problem”), and handed me a few thousand rubles as “spending money” upon my departure.
Chechnya is home to one of the largest mosques in Europe, and during this special time of Ramadan, at night the big and beautiful mosques were filled with people ready to eat together after sunset. It made for a very lively atmosphere in Grozny and Argun, even later at night. Huge portraits of Putin and Kadyrov are hung on almost every building, visible on every street corner. Ramzan Kadyrov is the president of Chechnya, but he could easily be called a dictator. His regime is infamous for the prosecution and killing of many Chechens suspected to be homosexual, or those who have criticized the government. Even I know one Chechen political prisoner personally.