Abkhazia’s Youth: Building Their Own World
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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. 

A young man pauses in a moment of reflection on the ruins of a 13th-century Genoese port, once a key port on the Black Sea, in Sokhumi.
Life persists in the bullet riddled room of an abandoned cafe in the center of Sokhumi.
A rusting set of stairs spiral up the center of an abandoned Soviet lighthouse that serves as a stop on a Sokhumi scavenger hunt for young people.
Residents spend a summer evening in Abkhazia catching up and fishing. The tranquil Black Sea contrasts with the rusting ruins that line the Abkhaz coast.

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.”

Two young men peer through the window of a Sokhumi coffee shop as they search for clues in a scavenger hunt on Abkhaz history. Without many options for nightlife, such coffee shops offer young Abkhaz a place to socialize away from home.
A team of students takes a break on an historical scavenger hunt in Sokhumi. With few options for entertainment, Abkhaz teenagers are forced to get creative on their own for a good time.
A large crowd gathers in Sokhumi to watch a young girl perform during a Russian singing competition displayed on a large screen in the city center. Most young adults get their cellphones, clothing and other consumer goods from Russia.

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.  

 

A group of students waits to lay flowers on the grave of Vladislav Ardzinba, whom they recognize as modern Abkhazia’s first president (1993-2005) and founding father. His May 14 birthday is commemorated as a national holiday in Abkhazia.
A group of men bow their heads in respect at the tomb of Abkhaz independence movement leader Vladislav Ardzinba. The 1992-1993 war fought for independence from Tbilisi led to the deaths of thousands and the flight of some 250,000 ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia.
Students congregate in the desolate halls of Abkhazia’s bombed-out parliament building as they wait for a bus to a ceremony to mark the birthday of independence leader Vladislav Ardzinba.

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.

 

Photo by Monica Ellena
Football fans packed Sokhumi’s 4,300-set Dinamo Stadium in 2016 to cheer Abkhazia’s soccer team in the Conifa world cup, a yearly international tournament for soccer associations outside of the official FIFA system.
Photo by Monica Ellena
Photo by Monica Ellena
Photo by Monica Ellena
"Our President" reads the sign a woman holds with an image of Vladislav Ardzinba . Ardzinba spearheaded Abkhazia's push for independence from Georgia, led the Abkhazians during the conflict in the early 1990s and was the region's first de-facto president. He died in 2010.

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.

 

Two Syrian young men sit in a cafe in downtown Sokhumi. Abkhazia has welcomed hundreds of people fleeing the civil war in Syria since 2012. Many of them, like these two men say their ancestors did, left Abkhazia for the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century to escape Tsarist rule.
Syrians Anzor (middlet) and his younger brother (right), a wrestler, enrolled at Sokhumi State University after coming to Abkhazia from Syria in 2012. Without any nightlife in the city, Anzor and his brother, here with a friend, just hang out, smoking cigarettes and telling stories.

[Disclaimer]

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.

Chai Khana
  Jumpstart Georgia
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