Text by Monica Ellena
Photos by Jacob Borden
The coffee was disappointing; the black liquid was too watery and weak to appeal to my spoilt Italian taste. Never mind, I thought. I never really like French coffee anyway. My 26-year-old Abkhaz friend smiled, amused.
Reconciling expectations with reality is a daily practice for the young in Abkhazia, a place with landscapes – pebbled beaches with palm trees, mountains plunging down into the Black Sea -- which can evoke the charm of a Mediterranean resort, yet which offers few of the same opportunities.
Abkhazia’s youth, both millennials and post-millennials, have grown up surrounded by the legacy of the 1992-1993 conflict with Tbilisi over independence -- shattered buildings, power cuts, food shortages, a trade embargo, isolation from the outside world. But they also have experienced changes that, to many, suggested a more promising future.
Recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Russia and a few Russian allies came in 2008, after Moscow’s war with Georgia. The cash and Russian tourists started to stream in shortly thereafter. Hotels mushroomed in Sokhumi and other seaside spots, roads were repaired, new schools were built.
Yet beyond a few bohemian cafés and burger joints along the Sokhumi promenade, places for young Abkhaz to relax or party with friends are still hard to come by. Large, youth-focused events are rare, though Abkhazia does have its own rock bands.
Instead, for entertainment, young Abkhaz look to their own resources.
A few creative minds make the best of the ruins around them. The derelict parliament building, looking like an empty, concrete Advent calendar, is a regular hang-out site. Graffiti artists have unleashed paint and creativity on the second floor and sprayed the walls with drawings and slogans. “Independence” is a constant refrain.
The contemporary art collective Sklad, run by young artists and cultural managers, has set up a residency program that, this year, invited artists from around the world to come to Abkhazia to explore a topic related to that 1992-1993 quest for independence – the destruction of the Abkhaz archives.
The point, they note, is not “a tragic commemoration,” but to fill the “void” left by the loss of such cultural institutions with “memories and new works.”
Abkhazia’s young generations only remembers the conflict with Tbilisi through the stories their parents tell or through what hazy memories they themselves might have from their early childhood. Even while honoring their history, they strongly want to show that Apsny (Abkhazia), or Land of the Soul, is about more than the past. Like Sklad, they feel it is up to them to find their nation’s path and define its soul.
While many leave to seek opportunities abroad, still others return to help construct Abkhazia’s future -- like 30-year Kan Taniya, who became the de-facto Abkhaz deputy foreign affairs minister when he was 26.
Opinions about that future may vary and disappointments have come. Only a handful of countries followed Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, leaving the Abkhaz in geopolitical limbo.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, 60 kilometers to the north, for instance, conveyed none of its glitz and glory on neighboring Abkhazia. But these factors have not dented young people’s belief that they hold a unique identity.
In June 2016, when Abkhazia hosted a soccer world cup for minority groups and unrecognized states, the euphoria was palpable. For a week, Abkhaz flags seemed to outnumber the declared population of 240,705.
Yet patriotism cannot obscure the problems. Unemployment is rampant and limited resources exist for fighting a reportedly growing problem with youth drug addiction.
Juvenile delinquency apparently poses another concern. The Abkhaz General Prosecutor’s Office recently proposed a curfew on minors which is now under consideration by Abkhazia’s de facto 35-member legislature.
Still, for young Abkhaz like my friend, focusing only on Abkhazia’s challenges or disappointments is not the answer.
“[Over] 20 years have passed and what the world still calls a frozen conflict does not mean that Abkhazia is frozen,” she said. “For better or worse, my country now is not what it was in 1993. We have moved on.
This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the material belong to the author and not Chai Khana.