Monday, May 14, 2018

Ruins in the Transcaucasus Unofficial States

Red flakes of paint peel off a fence in a field
Of changing thrones and shifting boundary stones that yield
The right to steer but not to interfere.________
__________________________It's evident
That the weapons they thought were heaven-sent
Were from the neighbor trying to stay relevant.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the revival of national ambitions for many of its former republics, but it also meant the revival of many age-old ethnic tensions. This was especially true in Transcaucasia, the sliver of lands south of the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, which today hosts more unofficial sovereign states than any other part of the world. The series of wars that erupted in this region following the collapse of the Soviet Union was as vicious as it was predictable.

In the early 90s, Georgia lost control of two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it maintains as parts of its territory to this day. For many Abkhazians and Ossetians, distinct ethnic groups with their own languages and cultural identities, the fall of the USSR was a golden opportunity to shrug off foreign claims and reassert their independence. Abkhazia, in particular, enjoyed the status of an independent Soviet republic until it was downgraded to an autonomous region within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia in 1931, a decision which would lead to decades of resentment and protests. In July 1992, following the outbreak of war in South Ossetia and the subsequent freezing of the conflict, the Abkhazian government declared its independence from Georgia. The Georgian National Guard was immediately dispatched to restore control over Abkhazia, resulting in a bloody one-year conflict. The Abkhazian separatists received support from Chechen, Cossack and other North Caucasus and Russian militants. High levels of corruption in the Russian army led to arms being provided to both sides, but the bulk of Russian support went to the Abkhazians. Russia continued to see the post-Soviet space as under its dominion, and having a foothold in Georgian territory would enable Russia to apply pressure to the Georgian government at will and maintain its authority in the region. And so another frozen conflict zone was not the concession but the goal.

The capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, was heavily bombarded by Russian fighter jets toward the end of the war, and today it still bears the scars of the bloody conflict that took place here. The hollow remains of bombed-out structures bear testament on every street. Schools display the pockmarks left by sprays of angry bullets, and family homes are nothing more than derelict skeletons entwined with weeds. Visions of the war dominate conversation as much as they do the architecture of the city. Every conversation tends to reminisce about life "before the war," and resentment toward Georgia for its part in the war would seem to preclude the possibility of there ever being a peaceful reunification. "You see this school?" one teacher asked me. "This bombed-out school? It's not normal. Georgia bombed everything during the war." "Why are you photographing this or that?" a suspicious police officer continued. "Are you planning to take the photos back to Georgia for some nefarious purpose?"

The tallest building in the country, the former Abkhazian parliamentary building, was completely burned out during the war, and today it remains as a silent reminder of the conflict. In the interlude, an entire ecosystem has developed within its decaying wings. Not far away in the center of the city, the large Glory Park, the city's principle sight for national celebrations, displays plaques that list the names of those who fell during the war. While national tragedies should never be forgotten, it might not be healthy to dwell upon them on a daily basis.


What's clear is that this small, unofficial state is still struggling to pick up the pieces of what it once was 25 years after the conflict and redefine itself as something more than a breakaway state. At the end of each September, Abkhazians celebrate their Victory Day over Georgia, but it's hard to see what exactly they won in their war for independence. Abkhazians have traded autonomous status within Georgia for complete economic dependence upon Russia. They are also unable to obtain visas to travel to Europe, the UK, the US or Canada on account of their disputed status. Only four UN member states recognize Abkhazia, while the rest support Georgia's claim of sovereignty over the territory. Abkhazia is a country forgotten by the world and where the societal mindset is fixated on living in the past, and short of a shift in attitude that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

500 miles to the southeast lies the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This unofficial state and frozen conflict zone can trace its origin through a similar sequence of events to those that created Abkhazia. The region has long been disputed by Armenia to the west and Azerbaijan to the east, and a seemingly arbitrary last-minute decision by Joseph Stalin to append the territory to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1921, when the population of the region was over 94% Armenian, has been a thorn in the side of the Armenians ever since. Just as in the case of the Soviet decision to append Abkhazia to Soviet Georgia, Stalin understood that border lines that enflame regional ethnic tensions serve to reinforce Russia's hegemonic influence by making Moscow the sole neutral mediator in the ensuing conflicts. When the USSR collapsed and the influence of Moscow was diminished in the resulting power vacuum, war was inevitable. Again Russian arms found their way to both the Armenians and the Azeri, and again mercenaries were heavily used by both sides to wreck widespread destruction. After years of fighting, Armenia forces secured control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Azerbaijani territories. Today the region is an independent state with almost complete reliance on Armenia, with whom the population shares an ethnic and cultural identity. Azerbaijan and the bulk of the international community, however, maintain that the region is sovereign Azerbaijani territory. The status of the region has led to the spoiling of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Armenia and Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.

As with Abkhazia, the war disrupted a lot of lives and has had an enduring effect on the people still living in the area. Ruined homes and mosques fill old Azeri cities, and the ghost town of Agdam, once home to bustling population of 40,000 Azeris, looks as though it were the victim of intense aerial bombing. One small town has taken grudge-holding to a new level by constructing a long wall of Azeri license plates removed from cars that had been captured or abandoned during the war. Outside of the capital, roads are regularly shut down so that Artsakh soldiers can train with live ammunition, and brief bouts of fighting have been known to break out between Artsakh and Azerbaijani soldiers along the border.


And yet Artsakh seems to offer a brighter hope for the future than Abkhazia. The capital of Stepanakert, which suffered immeasurably during the war but remained in Armenian hands, today shows few signs of disrepair. The most vivid reminders of the war have been isolated in less populated regions, and this has enabled people to live their lives without constant reminders of past suffering. The largest and most iconic monument in the country, a large stone carving of two heads, is not a war-time relic but rather a statement on the region's shared cultural heritage, and every holiday is an opportunity to exhibit that culture. The locals, furthermore, tend not to frame the war as a conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but rather as just another episode of an ancient clash between Islam and Christianity. They seem to have lost a lot of the targeted malice that the war generated, and I think this is in no small part due to the architectural reconstruction following the war. When the buildings are healed and the most visceral and evocative testaments to the conflict are removed, then the people can begin to move on with their lives. It's a lesson that Abkhazia would do well to heed.

September 17, 2017
October 7, 2017