I think the only place in Abkhazia to have remained intact for twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is one of Stalin’s chalets up in the mountains, on the bank of Lake Ritsa. This military unit and forbidden region, this complex – where Stalin came five times at most – was guarded by Russian troops until 1997 when it was handed over to the Abkhazi presidency. It has become a tourist attraction and the 40-kilometre mountain road is always flooded with tourists. Anyone can take a look at Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s bedrooms or the pool table and the Volga boat made especially for Stalin.
Tourism is the key industry of Abkhazia. The GNP is unknown and the official annual budget is estimated at 100 de million dollars, a third of which is ensured by Russia as irredeemable help. The rest is covered by tourism and taxes. Russia has recently pledged a new 300-million-dollar irredeemable help – a favourite topic amongst old women chatting on the beach, hoping the money will be spent more wisely than that of their separatist neighbours in Southern Ossetia (apparently, they wasted the money on luxury cars and villas).
Abkhazia is quickly approaching Russia which is welcoming it arms wide open. Sukhumi has already been included in the weather forecast (among other Russian cities) of the main news bulletin of the national Russian channel. Moreover, a train leaving the Abkhazi capital has been linked to the train heading to Moscow. The increasing Russian presence in Abkhazia and Russia’s acknowledgement of the separatist republic required a space for an embassy. On one of the main streets of downtown Sukhumi, a former hotel has been turned into the Russian Embassy and behind it, the Moscow Cultural Centre has been built, in a rather big building. Close to the new Russian constructions, the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) has its regional headquarters; the FSB marked its one-year anniversary (since its official presence in the area) by planting a small park.
The number of Russian tourists increases from Sukhumi to the Russian border. And so do the prices. An official from Sochi has estimated that around 450.000 tourists a year cross the border with Abkhazia. Although the region is heavily mined, the Halo Trust has almost completely demined the area. Still, there are segments up in the mountains which are difficult to reach. The main resorts have been in the clear for some time now and the modern roads linking them are in an extremely good condition. Nevertheless, who cashes in the money for the infrastructure is a complete mystery.
Near the route to Lake Ritsa, the road towards the most western point in Abkhazia (the Pitsunda resort) opens up. This is a peninsula covered by the same sub-tropical vegetation, flanked by a deep bay, with water as clear as that of a mountain river. Here and there, on the edge of the wood close to the sea, several high-rise buildings appear – hotels which haven’t been renovated in decades. Among them there are huge canteens – now derelict – which served the entire resort. The metal building of a lighthouse has begun to go rusty; now it serves as scenery as the new lighthouse is set on the terrace of one of the hotels. 30 metres at sea, a dolphin circles us for an entire hour, while Petruţ is taking pictures underwater and befriends a Russian tourist who wants to mark the event properly. He invites him to a drink in the shade and asks for a friendship token: ‘davai ceas!’ (‘give me the watch’).
Sprawling a few kilometres north of Pitsunda is the town of Gagra, the most popular resort in Abkhazia, glued to the Russian border. Judging by the car tags, tourists from all over Russia come to visit. From the terraces one can hear blasts of dedications for youngsters come from every corner of Caucasus.
Leaving Abkhazia is a much easier process than entering it; however, this doesn’t happen without an Abkhazi officer turning us around and asking for graft as he is actually doing us a favour by allowing us to exit towards Russia. Obviously, besides Russian tourists, this guy hasn’t seen any other foreigner cross his check-point as he doesn’t know what pretext to invent. He stutters a little, then blushes and, seeing we won’t give him a dime, returns our passports and lets us through.
Friday, July 16th, 2010
by Stefan Candea
Pictures: Petrut Calinescu
Source: Around the Black Sea