Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abkhazia Revels in Nationalist's Visit

Abkhaz tourist season is saved by a bizarre political stunt.
By Inal Khashig

Populist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky became Abkhazia’s most unlikely tourism promoter last week after paying a four-day visit to the Black Sea republic that was deliberately designed to defy Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.


Putting aside his reputation as a Russian nationalist with xenophobic and anti-Caucasian views, the unrecognised republic welcomed Zhirinovsky with open arms, as he continually advertised Abkhazia as a safe holiday destination for Russian tourists.


On August 4 Saakashvili had warned Russian tourists that if they came to Abkhazia by boat through what are internationally recognised Georgian waters they risked being fired on. The statement caused a storm of protest in Abkhazia and Russia, although Georgian government officials later said the president’s words had been misinterpreted.


Zhirinovsky, who is deputy speaker of the Russian parliament and famous for his outspoken anti-Georgian views, then set off for the Black Sea coast, accompanied by 40 of his parliamentary deputies.


On August 11, he bought places for himself and his colleagues on the cruise ship Acacia and was followed by dozens of Russian journalists. Despite bad weather, ticket prices on the boat shot up.


Zhirinovsky whipped up excitement further by telling the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy live that the Acacia was being pursued by a Georgian military vessel that was ordering the Acacia to turn around.


Georgia’s deputy security minister Giorgy Ugulava confirmed that the Acacia had been ordered to turn back, but said that “no reaction came from the trespassers across the Georgian national state frontier”.


The Georgians said the Acacia was accompanied by a Russian military vessel and did not respond to calls. Nika Tabatadze, first deputy foreign minister, said,


"We aren't going to open fire and attack and sink all tourist vessels. ... What we are trying to do is prevent illegal entry into Georgia. Commercial or not, under international regulations Georgia has the right to inspect those vessels under presumption they are helping the Abkhaz side."


The Georgians say that Russia is breaking a sanctions regime on Abkhazia set by the United Nations and the Commonwealth of Independent States.


Half an hour before the Acacia arrived in port, the quayside in Sukhum had filled up with ordinary residents and activists from Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia who handed out T-shirts and caps with the LDPR inscription and put up banners saying “Abkhazia and Russia – Forever Together. LDPR” and “Everyone on Holiday to Abkhazia. LDPR”. The LDPR symbol had even made it onto an Abkhazian warship, next to the Abkhaz flag.


When Zhirinovsky himself stepped off the boat he seemed exhausted by his six-hour sea journey and said little. He was met by almost the entire Abkhaz government and parliament. As a mark of honour, he was given a room in Stalin’s former dacha – now the summer residence of Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba – on the edge of Sukhum.


Over four days Zhirinovsky did everything in his power to please the Abkhaz. He said in interviews that the Abkhaz themselves had to choose what state they wished to live in – and that Abkhazia should not necessarily become part of Russia. He met local parliamentary deputies, held a public meeting in the Sukhum philharmonia, and visited the Glory Memorial to the dead in the war in Abkhazia on the 12th anniversary of the outbreak of fighting on August 14.


He also pursued an exhaustive tourist schedule, walking along the Sukhum embankment, drinking coffee in the famous U Akopa café, visiting the Novy Afon monastery and Lake Ritsa.


By doing so in the presence of Russian television cameras, Zhirinovsky provided unprecedented free advertising to Abkhazia as a tourist destination.


Summer tourism from Russian visitors is virtually the only source of income for the residents of Abkhazia’s coastal towns of Gagra, Pitsunda and Novy Afon, who try to earn enough money to last them until the next year. They had been worried that news reports from the Caucasus would put off holidaymakers.


In fact this year has broken records for tourist numbers since the war ended in 1993. Last year, 300,000 tourists came to Abkhazia but this year the number has already topped 400,000. Holidaymakers are attracted by the clean, uncrowded beaches and low prices.


Whatever the Russian ultra-nationalist may have said in the past, Abkhaz were unanimous in gratitude for the bizarre saviour of their tourist season.


“We don’t expect Zhirinovsky to solve any important political issues, that is not anything to do with him,” said Rafael Sarkisian, chef in a Sukhum restaurant. “We needed him to come on holiday here. You couldn’t wish for a better advertisement for a peaceful Abkhazia.”


Inal Khashig is co-editor of IWPR’s Caucasian newspaper in Abkhazia, Panorama.