Abkhazia – First Round

Ștefan Cândea
We left the service snickering. Our car was ready in the afternoon. In Ganja we also wound up with a brand new rear view mirror, cut out from glass. Using a bit of scotch, we replaced the one which had fallen out when one of the mechanics put a little too much force into slamming the door.

As hard as our entry into Azerbaijan was, our exit proved to be far easier and faster. It was as if a vacuum cleaner had drawn us into Georgia. The red tape we had to wade through at the entry in Azerbaijan was quickly overcome by two sticky-fingered customs officers. One by one, they chose – as in a game of cards – several Azeri bills, the equivalent of 20 Euros. No explanation whatsoever. Just a big fat grin on their faces. The soldier who was this close to letting me through the metal gates separating Azerbaijan from Georgia was briefly distracted by a less ordinary conversation: a woman had entered the check-point area, shaking a black hen in one hand and rubbing a long dagger against the wall with the other. The woman was demanding the soldiers let her decapitate the fowl between the cars waiting at the check-point.

We entered Georgia for the third time. Between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea there is no crossing point towards Russia for other citizens than those of the CIS. Caucasus has been transformed into an insurmountable wall. We were denied access to the international crossing point with Dagestan by the Russian officers who invoked the conflict in the region. An Azeri journalist pointed to me an article outlining the difficulties which even the locals incur when trying to cross the Russian-Azeri border.

In Tbilisi we pick up Vlad Lavrov, a Ukrainian journalist who liked the idea of taking a tour around the Black Sea and has thus decided to join us for the next two weeks. No more gesturing in Russian. Together we cover the Georgian sea of greenery towards Zugdidi.

The only possibility of driving further towards Russia is via Abkhazia, another separatist republic from the region. Abkhazia has been officially recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other separatist states in the wake of the armed conflict with Georgia in August 2008. In order to enter Abkhazia, one needs to apply online and receive an official invitation which serves as an entrance permit. The visa itself is issued after entering the country. Travelling through Abkhazia towards or from Russia is considered illegal by the Georgian state. If your passport bears the stamp from the Russian-Abkhazian crossing point in Psou, you will be deported.

The only crossing point is the bridge over the Inguri River, a few kilometres from Zugdidi. As the border with Abkhazia hasn’t officially been recognized, the Georgian state has not instituted a troop of border officers. It has, however, set up a police and an army check-point. The police question us relative to our intentions. A civilian, a gun on his belt, tells us we’re taking great risks if we cross the border as the territory is seething with corruption, ruffianism and lacks any Georgian control whatsoever. He even ventures to say that it’s very likely we’ll be denied access. He writes down our names and asks Vlad to write on behalf of us all that we willingly take the risk to travel in the separatist region. We finally cross the bridge getting round water-filled holes and local coming from Georgia. A huge revolver, hooked on a pole, aims at Abkhazia. Its barrel is twisted. The only cars allowed to pass are those of the U.N. or of international charity organizations. The scenery looks rather sinister – everything is dilapidated and inhabited by Abkhazi and Russian militaries.

Our enthusiasm is suddenly cut short. A military solemnly announces we can cross the border only on foot as the official paper doesn’t specify the details of the car. Despite the fact that our application listed all those details. Moreover, Vlad doesn’t have an entry permit. Although the official site of the Abkhazi Ministry of Foreign states that Ukrainians do not need an entry permit to cross the border, the rules change during the game. We turn back, to the joy of the Georgian policeman who kindly advises us to sunbathe in Batumi.

We regroup at a restaurant on the side of the road. As consequence of the frozen conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, we cannot get through to any of the Abkhazia numbers we dial – mobile or otherwise –. Abkhazia has received new codes which Georgian networks do not officially recognize. At the central post office there is a special telephone (operators and everything) and we finally manage to talk to the consul in Abkhazia. Although this mess is entirely their fault, we are told we have to wait five more days to receive the necessary papers. However, we consider ourselves lucky to have been able to get in touch with anyone at all – the following day, the post office telephone is out of order.

All we can do is have a nice, relaxing time in Zugdidi, a town with a unique, archaic charm. Only 30 km away, we discover a beach in the full swing of development, between Ganmukhuri and Anaklia. A mixture of military posts, folksy relaxation and modern infrastructure. The beach is glued to Abkhazia and was occupied two years ago by Russian and Abkhazi forces. To the south, right on the edge of the sea, we come across a modern and flamboyant construction imitating a fortress. Apparently, it is a pioneer camp and is currently accommodating children from Georgia and Belarus. Around noon, two helicopters overfly the beach and land in the camp yard. Two military officers armed to the teeth spring out of nowhere. The locals proudly inform us they are honoured to have an eminent guest: Mikheil Saak'ashvili, the Georgian president.