Split-Personality Village

Their village is remote, poor and no one knows what country it belongs to – but residents are still hoping things will get better.

Split-Personality Village

Their village is remote, poor and no one knows what country it belongs to – but residents are still hoping things will get better.

“Abkhazia?” said Valeriy Sharonov in surprise. “This isn’t Abkhazia. This is Russia. Russians have always lived here.”

Sharonov, 63, is a resident of Aibga, a village sitting the border between the Russian Federation and Abkhazia, which won a kind of independence from Georgia in the 1992-93 civil war.

“This land used to belong to a collective farm in Adler [in Russia]. No one can give it away to a foreign state,” he insisted.

While people like Sharonov who reside on the right bank of the river Psou tell you they live in Russia, those on the left bank are not so sure.

Uncertainty over the village’s status has left it undeveloped and – until now – inaccessible on the Abkhazian side.

The confusion stems from different interpretations of where the frontier runs. According to Sergei Sheigorodsky, a town council member in the nearby Russian resort of Sochi, the Soviet government mapped the border straight along the Psou in 1929 – but drew a kink in it to include the whole of Aibga within Russia.

“The border was drawn south of the village. This government resolution has never been changed or repealed, so technically it still applies,” he said.

But Abkhaz officials believe that south of the river, Aibga belongs to them.

“Four hundred and ninety two hectares of Aibga’s land belongs to Abkhazia,” Georgy Anua, the head of the Abkhazian government land agency told IWPR.

This position seems to be backed up by a 2001 directive from Sochi’s mayor Leonid Mostovoy, which includes only the northern half of the village within Russian administrative zoning. As a result, officials in Sochi advise Russian companies to avoid operating south of the river.

There is a road up to Aibga on the Russian side, but getting there is far from easy. Because the village is in a restricted frontier zone, anyone who goes there needs to obtain a special permit.

The Russians have a border post in the northern part of the village. “It’s a temporary thing,” explained one local. “The bridge across the river is falling apart. It would be hard for the guards to maintain a post on the other side.”

South of the river, the villagers see neither Russian nor Abkhazian security forces.

At first sight, it is hard to understand why anyone should care where the village belongs. The answer is business. Both sides have an interest in logging in this thickly forested area.

The sound of explosions echoes closer every day. Abkhazia’s state-run timber company, AbkhazLes, is building a road to Aibga, blowing up rocks with TNT.

“We are only about 300 metres away,” AbkhazLes director Adolf Shamba told IWPR. “The road will soon be finished.”

“We are going to have our own road to Aibga. We will no longer need to get permission from Russian border guards to take a detour to our own land.”

The logging firm plans to begin cutting timber around the village in early autumn. Abkhazia needs income as it struggles to recover from the civil war, and is pursuing its interests more aggressively than officials in comparatively affluent Sochi.

The Abkhazians say they will behave more ethically than illegal Russian logging they say is now going on, and will deploy rangers in the woods around Aibga to stop the practice.

“As far as I know, the Russians have not stopped illegal felling operations in this area,” said Shamba. “When we move in, we won’t cut down trees unless permitted to do so by environmental inspectors.”

Aibga residents hope that when the Abkhazian timber firm starts up, locals will get jobs and their lives will improve.

The village has gone downhill over the past decades. In Soviet times, the local collective farm thrived, supplying fruit and vegetables to Sochi and other Black Sea holiday resorts.

“When the collective farm existed, we used to feed half the city. We managed our land well,” recalled Aibga resident Alexei Lykasov.

Only about 150 people live in Aibga these days, and it is an aging population. Few jobs are available and the remaining villagers find it hard to make ends meet.

“It’s mostly elderly people who live here now,” said Lykasov. “Our children and grandchildren have moved to Sochi and the Black Sea coast. They rarely visit. Young people do not feel comfortable in this tough rural environment.”

The village is virtually cut off from civilization, especially in winter, when even a four-wheel-drive jeep will find the journey tough going. Since high water severely damaged the bridge, the southern half of Aibga has been completely isolated, and anyone who falls seriously ill has to be airlifted out by helicopter.

The villagers have reason to feel even more disgruntled by their economic decline as they watch substantial development going on at nearby Krasnaya Polyana – a mountain ski resort favoured by President Vladimir Putin.

But Lykasov, for one, isn’t about to leave. His parents came to the village in the early 20th century, and he has spent his whole life here, working for the collective farm until it fell apart. Now he keeps bees, and sells the honey down in the coastal resorts.

“My honey has a unique taste,” he boasted. “Where else will you find honey that smells of bitter herbs and vodka? A few tablespoons of it will make you a bit tipsy.”

Lykasov refuses invitations to go and live with his only son, who runs a 21st century business – mobile phones - in the regional capital Krasnodar.

“I’ve lived my whole life in this village. I wouldn’t feel at home in the city,” he said.

“Old people who abandon their homes to join their kids in the city never live long. They die idleness and boredom.”

Mikael Nersessian is a journalist for the Nash Dom Sochi newspaper.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists