Abkhazia, on the edge of the Black Sea, northeast of Georgia, has palm trees, subtropical summers and a stunning coastline. The hot sun once tanned Josef Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev. For their vacationing descendants, this is also a place of bombed-out ruins and landmines.
The 250,000 tourists making the trip south toward Turkey each year are braving talk of renewed hostilities in the breakaway republic, which doesn’t have international recognition.
I traveled to Abkhazia to report on the threat of conflict. It looks like a war zone, not an ideal holiday location – its buildings and roads were torn apart in 1990s clashes. Six explosions in recent weeks killed four people and injured about 20 more. Just below the surface are fears of greater unrest, and the mines which since 1999 are being removed by the U.K-based Halo Trust. It hopes to remove nearly all of the devices left in remote areas by the end of the year.
“We’ve come here to have a rest,” said 30-year-old Pavel Galushkin, from Moscow. “All this talk of war is nonsense.”
Galushkin was in Abkhazia for the first time because he and his girlfriend didn’t submit their passport applications in time to fly to Turkey.
His hotel in the resort of Pitsunda was a slightly crumbling 12-story concrete structure whose rooms have 1980s-era furniture. It fared better in the conflict than the landmark Hotel Abkhazia in the capital Sukhumi. It’s a ghostly shell on the seafront reminiscent of Chechnya’s capital Grozny after its destruction by Russian bombing in two recent wars.
Strolling through Sukhumi, where the 150-strong United Nations military observer mission is based, I saw the aftermath of war: apartment blocks pockmarked with holes from artillery shells.
Older men and women whiled away the hours playing backgammon and drinking sweet, Turkish-style coffee while families strolled along the beachfront past a ruined restaurant and the rusting hulk of an abandoned ship. Nearby, young people gathered at a cafe with tables in the long-disused and windowless ferry terminal.
Abkhazia has been cut off from the outside world for more than a decade, with Georgia until recently enforcing a sea and air blockade. Abkhazia on July 1 closed links with the rest of Georgia and blamed Georgian “terrorists” for the most recent attacks. The Georgian government denied any involvement.
Tensions escalated this year as Russia bolstered its military presence in Abkhazia, undermining U.S. ally Georgia’s bid to join NATO. Only the border with neighboring Russia functions normally, giving it an economic lifeline. (Tourists can expect to be stuck in traffic for many hours in the sweltering heat.) The Abkhaz annual budget is $60 million.
Abkhazia is a short drive from the southern Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. It’s another world altogether. A Russian company has just started a ferry service from Sochi to the Abkhaz resort of Gagra for the first time in 15 years. Gagra and Pitsunda used to attract millions of Soviet citizens a year before the war.
Half of the prewar population of more than half a million has fled, amid a mass exodus of ethnic Georgians.
“During Soviet times, we were one of the most attractive resorts and Abkhazia was overflowing with tourists,” said Vyacheslav Bartsits, deputy head of the tourism committee. “Since the war, we’ve been rebuilding from ruins.”
For tourists today, the danger you usually face is getting into a car accident. The Abkhaz drivers swerve crazily to avoid the potholes on the roads and the cows that stand on the hot tarmac to avoid the flies.
You can’t wear a seatbelt, unlike in Russia where belting up in a car is now a strictly enforced rule, since “the police will stop you because they’ll know you’re a foreigner,” explained my driver, Levon Minasyan.
In fact, the Abkhaz are legendary for their hospitality. A popular saying is: “A guest is a gift from above.”
When we stopped in a village to ask for some water, a group of men having lunch in a garden after a morning of harvesting corn cobs invited us to sit down. Plied with homemade wine poured from a kettle, freshly baked bread and salty, white cheese, I was asked to lift my glass in honor of the late U.K. Queen Mother once they learned I was English.
Most of the visitors are Russians. There are also some Ukrainians and other former Soviet citizens as well as a smattering of adventurous Westerners.
As well as the beautiful coastline fringed by mountains, attractions include one of the world’s largest caves, with its own underground railway, and a 19th-century monastery.
If you have the means, you can stay at the six-story villa that the last Soviet leader Gorbachev built for himself on the seafront. With its marble staircase, indoor swimming pool, private jetty and beach, regular guests include high-level Russian officials.
Soviet dictator Stalin had five residences in Abkhazia, more modest than the Gorbachev compound and most even more secluded. You can stay in one of them, which is now a hotel, and visit some of the others. His favorite place was Kholodnaya Rechka, or Cold Stream, which lies on a height with sweeping panoramic views of the sea and has been preserved with the original interior.
Paranoid about possible attempts on his life, Stalin never revealed in which of the four bedrooms he would sleep, said Edik Ayvazyan, head of security at the house. The Soviet leader was guarded by 1,200 soldiers.
“Abkhazia was Stalin’s favorite place to rest, and all the Communist leaders from other countries, Poland, Germany, Hungary loved it too,” said the tourist official Bartsits.
“If Abkhazia was open to the outside world, I’m sure all the world leaders would come here.”