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Abkhazia: Lucrative Farms Attract Mafia

Hazelnut farmers in disputed region are grateful to Russian mafia for imposing order on local criminal gangs.
By Tamuna Shonia

Gali, the southernmost region of Abkhazia, has seen a lot of conflict between Georgians and Abkhaz over the years. Now there’s relative peace, and local farmers are trying to cash in on one of the region’s most precious commodities – hazelnuts. Unfortunately, so are organised criminals.

The trade has become so violent in recent years that locals have even welcomed a new crime racket organised by Russian gangsters, because it has imposed some kind of order.

Thousands of Georgians are engaged in harvesting the nuts – and face considerable risks.

Ethnic divisions mean little to local criminals, and gangs from both sides in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict work together to hijack the harvest.

“Georgian and Abkhaz criminal groups team up during the nut harvest,” explained Mebrdzoli Chkadua, prosecutor of Georgia’s Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region. “Abkhaz police raid their part of the area from time to time, with marginal success. The criminals assault farmers and ambush vehicles.

“When the harvest is ready, the Georgian farmers usually take it to Zugdidi. The criminals make sure that huge quantities of these shipments go back to Gali, and very quickly on to Russia across the river Psou.”

Even with a security escort, this route apparently works out cheaper for the illegal nut traders. Shipping costs on the 300-km road north through Abkhazia are three times lower than anywhere in Georgia. The highway has been dubbed the “road of reconciliation” for the Georgian and Abkhaz mafias, with everyone benefiting except the Tbilisi government.

All this seems to happen with the open connivance of the police. Local resident Givi Korkelia explained, “There is simply no way that convoys laden with tons of nuts can leave Samegrelo [western Georgia] unnoticed in broad daylight. Obviously, the Georgian police are paid off, everyone from top to bottom.”

Every summer the hazelnut season begins around August 10 and runs until late September. IWPR spent three days with pickers in Gali as the harvest got under way. Whole families take part. The plantations are often far from the nearest village, making the workers vulnerable to attack.

During the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, farmers were routinely killed. In recent years, masked raiders have routinely robbed them of their entire harvests in broad daylight, leaving them with no income for the rest of the year.

“They took away four tons of nuts from me last year, my entire last two annual harvests. They also tortured me, but they let me live,” recalled local resident Nodar Gabisonia. He said the Abkhaz authorities ignored his official complaint.

Ethnically, Gali’s population is mostly Georgian, and the breakaway government in Sukhumi exerts less control here than in the rest of Abkhazia. Some Georgians have returned to live permanently while others live over the border but come back to Gali to tend their farms.

Ruslan Kishmaria, head of Gali’s Abkhaz administration, was keen to downplay the region’s criminal reputation, and compared it with adjacent parts of Georgia. “Do you think there are no robberies in the villages around Zugdidi during the nut harvest?” he asked IWPR. “We’ve been fighting crime in our part of the region. This season has been a lot quieter than last year’s. I’m not going to tell you how we have achieved this.”

“The locals must help us bring the entire area under control,” he said, referring to the local Georgians. “They know the people who are terrorising them. Some of them have been caught and identified…. Ethnic differences are not an issue here. We all want the local communities to live in peace. They have returned of their own free will, so they’ve got to obey the Abkhaz administration.”

This year things are different – criminals from Russia have taken over and while the extortion continues, at least it is organised and less random.

A local resident, who asked not to be named, explained how it works, “Some local criminal bosses came to Gali from all over Russia this year, professional thieves. One of them, an influential crime boss, gathered some 90 minor gang leaders who used to rob local Georgian farmers, and ordered them not to do it again.

“So that they did not leave empty-handed, he fixed a kind of levy, and laid down which racketeer should be in charge of which piece of land. Thus, on top of the tax which has to be given to the Abkhaz, there is now the protection racket.

“The good thing about all this is that it covers the entire population, and it means that no one, no family will go entirely bankrupt.”

Naira Shelia, who lives in the village of Tagiloni, agrees that the farmers are better off, “We feel safe this year since we learned that this Moscow-based criminal boss is in control of things, including our village, from 2,500 kilometres away. We pray for him.

“Last year we were robbed four times. It’s one thing when a thief steals something and makes off quietly, and quite another when unscrupulous bandits scare our kids, beating and humiliating us in front of them. Theft is common, but what we’ve had here in Abkhazia, and especially the lower Gali region in recent years, is on a completely different scale.”

It is little wonder that after more than 10 years of violence, locals in Gali say they would vote for their new “protector” if he decided to run for the Abkhaz presidency.

Tamuna Shonia is a journalist with Panorama newspaper based in Zugdidi, western Georgia.

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