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

The Shadowland of Abkhazia

Lacking natural resources and political stability, Abkhazia's hard-won independence has doomed its people to a life of grinding poverty.

Abkhazia's separatist dream is an impossible one. Six years after winning its de facto independence from Georgia, the tiny Black Sea statelet has failed to secure any real social stability or sound economic prospects. Instead, it languishes in a political purgatory, racked by internal divisions and rampant crime.

This shadowland existence is a natural legacy of Abkhazia's stubborn defiance. Like most post-Soviet trouble spots, the population was dominated by a compact ethnic group which had high hopes that, in conditions of self-determination, the standard of living could be raised.

Before the war, Abkhazia was a prosperous region of Georgia where the local leadership and economy were dominated by ethnic Abkhazians. The fall of the Soviet Union and Georgia's economic collapse triggered a dramatic drop in the standard of living for almost everyone within this group.

The resulting conflict was not so much an outburst of micro-nationalism as a violent "fragmentation of the state". In other words, this fragmentation had an economic rather than a political bias.

The natural drive towards improving the standard of living, combined with a rebirth of national identity, was spearheaded by the indigenous elite and the criminal elements in Abkhazian society.

While the elite grew fat in the murky waters of the transformation process, the criminal clans increased their control over the political and economic life of the new regime. But, when the fragmentation of the state was complete, the fledgling government was forced to face up to very different realities.

The new climate in Abkhazia demanded painstaking and meticulous efforts to rebuild the local economy and to create an environment in which the region can develop. The regime is only just beginning to come to terms with the hopelessness of the situation.

On the one hand, the region can only develop if the regime is both recognised by the international community and is attractive to foreign investors. None of the former Soviet enclaves created by a fragmentation of the state (Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh, South Ossetia) has been able to meet these conditions - largely because their economies are founded on criminal structures. Furthermore, because of this criminal bedrock and the desire to expand mafia empires, the lawless enclaves soon became the scourge of neighbouring regions.

But the most serious problem of fragmentation is that these regimes, in their very essence, are incapable of survival.

Most political observers agree that newly formed statelets can only survive if they become dependent on a larger state or if they have sufficient economic potential, particularly in the form of natural mineral resources, a committed workforce or enterprises orientated towards the export markets.

An important factor is the readiness of Western countries and corporations to exploit resources. Without this, the local population is doomed to eke out a meagre existence and to endure economic conditions significantly worse than those which existed prior to the fragmentation process.

As a result of this, the regime becomes increasingly fragile and unstable and is even forced to resort to coercion in order to preserve what little equilibrium remains.

At present there is only a handful of these stubborn enclaves, but they have become ulcerous problems for the surrounding regions. The issue is not limited to the fact that micro-nationalism rips through the fabric of state formations. Micro-nationalism excludes entire ethnic groups from the process of world development, shifting them into the hinterlands of civilisation.

Relying on reports from representative offices on the ground, Western businessmen are forced to take these factors into account, throwing even the most profitable ventures into doubt.

The Abkhazian issue has already torpedoed any serious Western investment projects in Georgia. In terms of its workforce and industrial potential, Georgia is an example of a small state capable of developing extensively and intensively, albeit with numerous teething problems.

Abkhazia, with its population of 100,000, does not have that potential.

Leonard Amani is a Georgian political commentator based in London.