Bridging the Divide With Abkhazia
The Enguri River divides the part of Georgia ruled indisputably by Tbilisi from the breakaway territory of Abkhazia. (SEYRAN BAROIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
About 330 kilometers (roughly 200 miles) west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi lies the city of Zugdidi, the administrative center of the country's Samegrelo region. Another 10 kilometers or so west of Zugdidi, Georgian government control ends and the breakaway territory of Abkhazia begins. This region declared its independence in the early 1990s, and following a short-lived war with Georgia, Russia recognized its sovereignty in 2008. The Enguri River delineates about one-third of the line of demarcation between Georgia and Abkhazia, leaving only a handful of bridges to provide a tangible connection between the two. One bridge leads to the village of Khurcha — the only settlement beyond the line of demarcation that remains under Tbilisi's control. I set out into Khurcha to see what life is like on the far side of the Enguri.
Though the village is still under Georgia's purview, crossing the river into Khurcha requires special permission. First, I had to pass a Georgian checkpoint, a relatively quick procedure once you provide your passport or other official identification and a reason for your visit, typically an official government event. (Tbilisi often hosts public events in Khurcha, home to mostly ethnic Georgians, to draw ethnic Abkhazians to the strategically important town.) Crossing the river into Khurcha, I was suddenly struck by how advantageous Abkhazia's geographic position is compared with that of South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian territory. South Ossetia lacks natural barriers to defend it. Abkhazia, by contrast, is buffered by the Enguri River as well as the Kodori Gorge — a narrow passage in the territory's northeast that Abkhaz forces can close off to keep out Georgian troops.
Once I reached the village, I found myself facing a row of tiny two-story buildings along a wide road. The first Russo-Abkhaz military outpost is adorned with signs warning visitors to stop and stands at the end of this road. Speaking with Khurcha's residents, I gathered that these military outposts — and the guards who man them — are a source of even greater concern for locals than the prospect of losing territory. In May 2016, an Abkhaz outpost guard killed a Georgian national in Khurcha; many witnesses claim the guard crossed into the village from Abkhazia.
Just as I was able to transit the Enguri River across the line of demarcation, Abkhazians are also allowed to cross into Georgian territory over the bridges. Many Abkhazians travel to Samegrelo for business or to seek medical treatment in Tbilisi, since it is a more convenient and affordable option than traveling to Russia. In fact, the Georgian government built a hospital in Zugdidi in 2015 to accommodate Abkhazians in need of medical services. Getting into Abkhazia from Khurcha is a different story, though. I spoke with a visitor from Abkhazia's Gali district who told me that he had gone to Zugdidi the week before with no problem. On his way back into the breakaway region, a guard asked him to pay 50 lari (about $20) to enter. The amount demanded varies depending on which guard is on duty, and some charge as much as 100 lari for entrance into Abkhazia — a hefty sum for local residents. Recently, the line of demarcation has been under especially tight control because of political instability in Abkhazia, whose government has accused the opposition of receiving foreign funding. I even heard rumors that the government is considering instating an official entrance fee to be paid at the border.
The Gali resident, who did not want his name published, also told me that though Moscow had been distributing Russian passports to ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, it recently stopped, perhaps because of its own financial constraints. Russia's economic problems could also explain why Abkhazia has been receiving limited funding from Moscow lately, much to the detriment of its finances. In other ways, however, Moscow's influence in Abkhazia is as strong as ever. A Khurcha resident said, for instance, that the administration in the breakaway territory's capital of Sukhumi had begun appointing ethnic Abkhazians to many government positions that ethnic Georgians had traditionally filled. The visitor from Gali told me that the Georgian language has been almost entirely replaced by Russian in the classroom, even in areas with large Georgian populations. Many Abkhaz schools teach only an hour of Georgian language and literature per week, causing parents in the area to consider relocating to Samegrelo.
Several Khurcha residents told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity, that when passage over the bridges is restricted, Abkhazians use unofficial routes to enter Georgia in search of better financial and health care opportunities. Fearing a mass exodus, Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba announced in an official statement that Sukhumi would crack down on movement from Abkhazia. As it is, Sukhumi has made it onerous for travelers to get the necessary documents to leave the breakaway territory.