Letter from Abkhazia / Georgia
To russia with love
Following this summer’s Georgian war, breakaway territory Abkhazia has been recognised as independent by Russia and Nicaragua. Limited diplomatic credibility hasn’t stopped it wanting the trappings of statehood: it hopes to open embassies soon and to start spreading the Abkhaz brand with a state airline.
Vyacheslav Eshba is in the market for planes. Abkhazia’s defence minister and head of its airline, which currently has a fleet consisting of two helicopters and two 12-seater Antonov An-2 planes, has exciting plans for Sukhumi Airport, which was once the busiest in the Caucasus, but has lain idle for over 15 years since the Georgia-Abkhaz war in 1992.
Now, following Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia in late August, plans are afoot to regenerate the airport, and flights to Moscow could start within months. The airport’s 4km runway is still in good condition, as proven by the dozens of Russian military cargo planes that landed at the airport during the conflict between Russia and Georgia in August. The first civilian international flight in over a decade touched down when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov came to town with dozens of journalists in tow in mid-September.
“We used to handle about 4,000 passengers a day in the 1980s,” says Eshba. “Now, we think it will be more like 350. To start with, we are open to offers from Russian companies who want to fly here; in time we will buy our own planes. I think it will all be done within a year.” He doesn’t elaborate on where Abkhazian Airlines will seek to buy its passenger planes, but says he wants Boeings, not Russian-made aircraft.For now, the terminal is being renovated and immigration points are being set up. Abkhazian air traffic controllers and other specialists, many of whom emigrated to Russia, are returning to help the effort.
The day Monocle visits, Eshba is also receiving a smartly suited Turkish delegation, looking into the possibility of opening an air route across the Black Sea. Already, locals in Sukhumi drink contraband Efes beer in the bars and buy Turkish clothes in the market, and while it’s extremely unlikely that Nato member Turkey would recognise Abkhazia, a system could be put in place to legalise trade and transport. A high-level Abkhazian delegation visited Ankara in mid-September and had “constructive” meetings on establishing trade and cargo sea routes.
As Monocle went to press, the only country to have followed Russia’s lead and recognised Abkhazia was Nicaragua. Even Abkhazian foreign minister Sergei Shamba admits that this was a “symbolic” move that is unlikely to lead to trade links or major diplomatic contacts. The Abkhazians hope to gain recognition from Belarus, which was surprisingly equivocal in its support for Russia over the conflict, and possibly Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan. Further potential sources of recognition are countries keen to antagonise the US, such as Venezuela and Syria, and other unrecognised entities. Hamas and the Government in Exile of the Serbian Krajina have already expressed their support, while a “positive” diplomatic note has been received from Western Sahara.
Shamba says that the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry is still working out the best ways to pursue the country’s diplomatic interests. Several options for the location of the Russian Embassy in Sukhumi were shown to Lavrov when he visited, and now a Russian diplomatic commission will choose which one they want. The Abkhazians plan to send around 12 diplomats to man a small-scale embassy in Moscow. Elsewhere, they will function by setting up an Abkhazian Interests section in key Russian embassies, such as Turkey and Brussels.