Hope in a small nation which dares to ask the dangerous questions

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The Independent Online
HERE, said the young Abkhazian official, is the state flag of the Republic of Abkhazia. Notice the white hand, symbol of our ancient Abkhazian kingdom; the Star of our Apsilian ancestors; the green- white stripes signifying the religious tolerance of the North Caucasian peoples . . .

For those who think that small- state nationalism is the root of all evil, this sort of talk is guaranteed to bring on convulsions. Here we go again (they wail), inventing nonsense histories for non-viable little places in order to claim a non-existent 'right to self-determination'. Abkhazia, an independent state with a population of about 250,000 of whom fewer than half are Abkhazians? This is the New World Disorder indeed.

I don't agree. I went to Abkhazia this month - it lies on the north-east coast of the Black Sea, once part of the Soviet Union - to see if independence was a fraud. I found that it was not.

The background is the relationship between two small peoples, Georgians and Akbhazians, who have lived in the Caucasus for 3,000 years. Abkhazia became a Soviet Republic after the Bolshevik Revolution, but in 1931 it was demoted to an 'autonomous republic' within Georgia. The trouble started when the Soviet Union began to fall apart and Georgia became independent. The Abkhazians felt threatened, sought support from other small peoples in the northern Caucasus who feared the Georgians, and eventually declared independence. The Georgians were convinced that 'Abkhazian separatism' was a Russian plot to undermine Georgia's own freedom.

War broke out in August 1992, when Georgian troops seized the Abkhazian capital, Sukhum. It ended in September 1993, when the Abkhazians recaptured Sukhum and expelled the Georgians. Since then, Abkhazia has been de facto independent. It is broke: its towns and many villages ruined, much of its arable land sown with mines. About 150,000 people have left, most of them Mingrelians who came originally from Georgia, some fleeing with the retreating Georgians and others 'cleansed' out of their homes. A Russian peace-keeping force now keeps the two sides apart.

Sukhum today is a pathetic place. Its climate is sub-tropical, but behind the avenues of palms and eucalyptus, banana and oleander, the buildings are black and gutted. It is deathly quiet, for two- thirds of the population have bolted. In offices whose doors do not shut, because Georgian troops tore the locks off, sit Abkhazian ministers who receive no salary because there is no money. They get one free meal a day, a loaf and about pounds 10 a month for expenses.

Everyone lives off food from village relations. The 'ethnic' Abkhazians, or those who speak the language, are mostly country people. They are superb, patriarchal, hospitable. But before 1992, they numbered less than 20 per cent of the population. The biggest single group, especially in the towns, was the Mingrelian-Georgians, 45 per cent of Abkhazia's inhabitants, who had moved in over the previous hundred years.

So whose country is it? I expected to find rampant Pol-Pottery, the sort of blood-and-soil nationalism which insists that true Abkhazian identity is nurtured in villages, while towns are sinks of cosmopolitan vice. I thought that the new government would be forcing the Abkhaz language on everyone, as a condition of citizenship. After all, small, endangered cultures often behave like that, from de Valera in Ireland to Latvia's treatment of its Russians.

But in Sukhum they don't want to go that way. 'Never Abkhazia for the Abkhazians]' said the Minister of Culture. 'We have to create a new culture for Abkhazians but also for all the friendly nations living here.' The old Minister of Education, who keeps his door jammed shut with a wedge of paper, said: 'They will study Abkhaz in non-Abkhazian schools, but no more than before. Russian will stay our second official language, in which all our peoples can talk to one another.'

I wandered through the shambles of the National Museum, looted by Georgian troops. Worse was the National Archives. Here, the entire documentary record of the Abkhaz past, and of the centuries-old Greek community of Sukhum, had been deliberately torched.

This tiny country has come to independence amputated. Its prosperity, based on seaside tourism and selling fruit and vegetables to Russia, has collapsed. Its claim to authenticity, to descent from the medieval Abazgian kingdom, has literally gone up in smoke. Worst of all, most of the other peoples with whom the Abkhazians shared this beautiful country have left.

That is an intimate injury - and in some ways a self-inflicted one. Like many old multi-ethnic communities, Abkhazia let surface tolerance conceal ancestral suspicion. The Abkhazians always suspected their Mingrelian immigrant neighbours were up to no good. In 1992, when many of them joined the Georgian invaders, all suspicions seemed confirmed. So the victorious Abkhazians chased them out. Georgians and Mingrelians had committed atrocities; now atrocities were done against them.

And yet, curiously, they are badly missed. Life is flavourless without the Mingrelians, or without the Greeks and Jews who were evacuated during the fighting. Negotiations drag on, under UN auspices, about conditions for bringing back refugees. The Abkhazians are masters in their own house at last. But the house is roofless, and they wander lonely through its desolate rooms.

Up in the hills, a peasant family took me to the orchard where their tombs were. Here was Grandfather, brought back from a Siberian convict's grave. And here, with his portrait, was Cousin Zurab, a young teacher killed fighting against the Georgians.

The Abkhazian war was a needless tragedy, which induced two loveable and gifted peoples to slaughter each other. One result is that Abkhazians, who started off wanting no more than federal status within Georgia, will now never feel safe with anything less than guaranteed independence. Another is to pose the most dangerous question of nationalism: who truly belongs here?

To their credit, the Abkhazians are trying to give a liberal answer. All peoples, all languages can be at home here - if they are loyal to this new republic. Their leaders value polyglot city as much as Abkhaz- speaking village: 'We must never become a conservative, rural community,' said one minister.

I went to Sukhum prepared to find a sour, exclusive view of who belonged to the nation. But I was reminded not so much of Latvia or Cambodia as of Wales. Professor Gwyn Williams, when they asked him to define who was Welsh, replied: 'Anyone who lives in Wales and is committed to Wales.' That is the Abkhazian spirit, too. It gives me hope.