zondag 19 oktober 2014

one day in the life of a small crossing.

As a contrast to the big Enguri crossing, we visited one of the five smaller ones that provide an entry point into Abkhazia as well. Here you see some pictures of the Khurcha crossing, near the village of Orsantia. The five 'small' crossings are mainly used for trade and family visits. It is the time of the hazelnut harvest, and since Nutella and Ferrero Rocher discovered the riches of the Black Sea shores recently, business is booming. Nuts are brought from Abkhazia, and sold to the Georgian traders who are in contact with international buyers. It is said that annually twenty tons hazelnuts are crossing the ABL (the administrative boundary line, yes).

Apart from the all the nutty business, the crossing seemed a quiet place.  

It turned out the Russian border guards, probably conscripts, were as curious for us, as we were for them. 

There was something of a Wild West atmosphere, with lots of cigarettes, motor bikes and wodka. 

Talking about cigarettes: you probably find this type of claw machines only in Georgia. Imagine, and this particular one was placed at a remote border crossing! 

Georgians who cross are usually able because they got hold of certain documents. If you don't have the right documents, no crossing. As simple as that, even when you live there your whole life and even if everybody knows your mum lives in the next village. 

There's different 'right' documents. One type is an old Soviet passport. It turned out they are still useful, at least at the Georgian-Abkhaz ABL. During Soviet times, a passport was valid for life, and with pictures taken only during your childhood, twenties and fourties, some old people still manage to use them to cross with. 

Another way is an Abkhaz passport. With the 'international' version, you're able to travel to Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, the only countries recognizing the Abkhaz state obviously. If you, as an ethnic Georgian, happen to carry a Georgian passport as well, there won't be any trouble crossing back-and-forth (although the Georgians officially say you're crossing nothing - you just move around in Georgia). Carrying an Abkhaz passport is a sensitive topic for ethnic Georgians though, which makes it a tricky strategy.

There's also an Abkhaz 'internal' passport. There's no big difference with the international one though, but with this one you can't travel to South America or the Pacific. Note that most Abkhaz inhabitants also carry a Russian passport, which they use for the biggest chunk of the usual passport stuff.

woensdag 15 oktober 2014

How I managed to get broke in Abkhazia and why this might be interesting for you.

During the last two weeks, I strolled around in the part of Georgia where the provinces of Samegrelo and Abkhazia meet. Both have stunning scenery and fastastic people, among other things. However, what makes this place most intesting is that Abkhazia isn't ruled by Tbilisi any more since 1993. Abkhazia is a so-called 'de facto state', and the Georgian-Abkhaz war is a 'frozen conflict'. From 1992 to 1993 Abkhazia fought a separatist war, and with help of a broad variety of foreign fighters, including Russian soldiers (but also Chechens and other North Caucasians), Abkhazia has been de facto independent onwards. As a result of the August War of 2008, in which Russia and Georgia fought five days over one of this other unruly regions of Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazian independence was recognized by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Hamas. 

However, the boundary between the Abkhaz and Mingrelian provinces can't be called a border. Borders deliniate states, and most countries in the world don't see Abkhazia as a state. The EU therefore calls the dividing line the 'ABL' - Administrative Boundary Line. To make things more complicated, there's ethnic Georgians living on both side of it. In fact, the villages you enter directly after crossing the ABL into Abkhazia are basically hundred percent Georgian populated. Naturally, the people on both sides have strong bonds, whether personal, economic, or else. But at times, there's many obstacles. The Russian Army, which is manning the border posts (the Abkhaz aren't able), doesn't always let everybody cross. Their power to let people cross or not, is a very strong tool in the power politics of the Caucasus. 

To get an idea what was happening in reality, during the day-to-day life of an average gray zone inhabitant, we visited many places and spoke to quite a few people. There's five 'small' crossings of the ABL, mainly used for trade and family visits. The main crossing is Enguri bridge. As the Georgian consider Abkhazia part of their state, obviously, their checkpoint pretends to be a 'normal police' one, with no real checks, apart from an occasional chat if they beckon you. 


It seems as if there's considerable price differences between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides of the border, as everybody around was carrying big bags as after a day of shopping. When you cross the Georgian checkpoint, you enter the 'border' area. The Enguri bridge itself is badly maintained, and not used by much more than pony carts used to carry the heavy bags. 

For most of the ABL, the Enguri river forms the boundary between Samegrelo (Georgia) and Abkhazia. 

The Abkhaz tried hard to make the entry to their side look like a real state border, and did so with some help of the Russian Army border guards. We had to show our passport twice, hand in an official clearance, go trough the customs with our rucksacks, and answer some questions. The Russian conscripts didn't know Latin script though, so, as our clearances were in Cyrillic, and our passports in Latin, this took some time. The guards were friendly though, and were willing to compare the size and number of inhabitants of Abkhazia and the Netherlands, for example. Thereafter, we entered Abkhazia properly, and we were welcomed by some billboards commemorating Victory Day last week, an enormous Abkhaz flag, and some empty marshrutkas. It turned out most of the border crossers were picked up by relatives or friends, and public transport became a problem. 

We had to take a taxi, and for 300 rouble (about $10) we were brought to Gali, the main town in the Georgian populated part of Abkhazia. This was six times more than budgetted, but, worse, soon we discovered that travelling from Gali to Sokhumi wasn't easy either. There was only one, lonely marshrutka, staying suspiciously empty for one-hour-and-a-half. The marshrutka was twice as expensive as the internet had informed us before: 200 rouble (or $7). A taxi would have been $50.

This is NGO street, by the way. UNHCR, Danish Refugee Council and World Vision manage to keep field offices in Gali. Gali was a lot bigger than I expected, more livelier also, but it wasn't a happy place. Obviously, this was were most of the war was fought in the nineties, and this place probably isn't high on the reconstruction priority list of the government in Sokhumi, the Abkhaz capital hundred kilometres away. On the way to Sokhumi, most buildings were abandoned and few maintained. Fields weren't kept either. Abkhazia lost half it's population during the war, and this was still obvious.

After an hour drive we arrived in Sokhumi. We needed to get there, because without a visum, we couldn't leave the territory. In the 48 hours after entering Abkhazia you need to travel to the capital to take and pay for your visum. We managed to find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 21 Ulitsa Lakoba, but we were directly send to the Consular Office, at 33 Ulitsa Sakharova. 

At the Consular Office, we had to show our clearances again (happy we printed double), and we got our visum, on a separte paper. Probably this is not to accomodate the Georgian authorities, but to enable foreign visitors to keep their passport. As most states don't recognize Abkhazia, they don't recognize it's visa either. A visum was $10 (to be payed in US dollar), but they didn't have change. Going to a bank, split our $50 note, pay the fee (twice $2), and get a receipt (welcome in the Post Soviet sphere) was the least we could do. 

In comparison with the rest of Abkhazia, Sokhumi was an oasis. There were green palm trees everywhere, along the broad lanes for example, and every square meant in fact a small park. The buildings were painted and the Black Sea was never far away. It doesn't surprise my that half the Soviet Union travelled here to celebrate holidays, although - for a Dutchman - the type of beaches here continue to be a wee meagre. This is the boulevard.

Some things doesn't seem to have changed since the Battle of Sokhumi in 1993, and the abandoned harbour right in front of the boulevard was one of them, the gigantic Abkhaz flag on top notwithstanding. 

The Psou river crossing to the Russian Federation and the Enguri river crossing into Georgia proper are both about 120 kilometres from Sokhumi. Abkhaz generally don't understand why Westerners tend to enter via Georgia, but when I explained, all was clear. Taking a marshrutka  back and arrive in time (before the ABL closes at seven) wasn't that easy, however. Whilst Tbilisi is always, everywhere, boiling over with taxis, marshrutkas and other possible ways of transport, Sokhumi wasn't. We found exactly three taxi drivers in an hour. Moreover, we had only 1800 rouble ($60) left, and yes, there weren't ATMs. It turned out the trip back would be 2000 rouble (that's a small, but significant difference, it turned out). One of the taxi drivers didn't want to do it for the money we had left, the second one was piss drunk, and the third one was amazing, the best driver I met around here since now. It was a pity his eye sight was so bad, and he was kinda deaf (the music was nice, but just very much too loud). Himself an ethnic Abkhaz, his wife was Georgian, so he told about his mother-in-law in Georgia, his brothers-in-law in Gali, and his dacha in Ochamchire. Time flew, and here we're already crossing the Olori.

If you take a taxi or marshrutka from Sokhumi to the ABL, it takes at least one-hour-and-half. To Gali, it's an hour, and then it's still about fifteen kilometres. Since there's so few marshrutkas leaving Gali, and since Gali is the last place you want to be stuck after five o'clock, make sure you have transport to the Enguri bridge. In contrast to Georgia, there's high levels of criminality here, and you can't cross into Georgia proper after seven. Waiting in Gali until it's the next morning is not advised. 

Since we found a broad variety of stories, tales and myths online and on print, I share our own experience. I hope it helps you, one day, any time. 
  • Don't go in the weekend, because the Consular Office will be closed. It's a pity, since this unables you to travel to Abkhazia if you're working during the week in Georgia. If so, only Friday afternoon or Monday morning are options. 
  • From the centre of Zugdidi, you can take a marshrutka to the Enguri bridge for 1 lari ($0,50). A taxi is 10 lari ($5). 
  • You can't assume that there's marshrutkas at either the Abkhaz side of Enguri bridge, or in Gali, so take enough roubles with you. A taxi to Gali is 300 rouble, and from Gali to Sokhumi it's 1500. A marshrutka from Gali to Sokhumi leaves about every hour (but maybe two), and costs 200 rouble, not 100. It takes an hour. At the moment $1 is about 30 rouble.
  • There's no need to look for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Go directly to the Consular Office, 33 Ulitsa Sakharova. 
  • Visa are $10. They don't have change, but that doesn't matter, since it's half as cheap as we thought. 
  • There's only one ATM in Abkhazia where you can use your Western Maestro or Visa cards. It's at the Sber Bank, 1 Plochad Konstitutsiy. 
  • Go back in time. The drive from Sokhumi to Enguri takes at least one-hour-and-a-half, if you're lucky and if you take a taxi. If you take a marshrutka to Gali and a taxi to the ABL, it will take at least two hours. And the ABL closes at night. After seven, you're stuck in a place you don't want to. 
 I do have to admit though, that the Enguri is price-less at that time of the day.