Special Report

Abkhazia: Europe’s Trap Door

Yesterday's Soviet Riviera is today's narco-terrorist promised land.

By 8.9.05

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Chaos swirls around Abkhazia, breakaway republic in once-Soviet Georgia. The grenade-thrower who targeted President Bush in May, $80,000 on his head, has been captured in a raid which may or may not have involved the FBI. Last month, Russia agreed to pull its forces from all Georgian territory -- through Abkhazia, where the agreement has no force and the Kremlin keeps hundreds of peacekeepers. And in 2003, Georgian Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburdzania warned anyone reading the National Interest that "Wahhabi organizations have sprung up on the territory of Abkhazia, and where Wahhabis are, terrorists are not far behind." Abkhazia had by then already been "turned into a transit point for the smuggling of narcotics and radioactive materials," but not until June 15 of this year did Sir Brian Fall, Britain's Special Representative for the South Caucasus, meet with the Abkhaz leadership, ranking diplomats in tow. It was the adjacent Pankisi gorge that Khaburdzania declared to be the source of Ricin-producing components two years ago, and where, in February 2002, the United States sent some 200 Special Ops forces on a counter-terror mission.

Abkhazia -- midway between Britain and Pakistan -- is the Middle East's perfect low-profile destination for terrorists, drug smugglers, and international fugitives who demand the protection of a rugged quasi-state plus the convenience of what was once known as the "Soviet Riviera." Its Black Sea beaches are the closest one can get to London and other European cities without living under the control of a recognized government -- and in style. The cosmopolitan fellow with the money to pay for private luxury in the pursuit of crime is not surprised to see caravans of black Escalades winding their way through the streets of Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital. If a weekend of solitude is on the agenda, our traveler need only turn on his heel and climb into the abutting Caucasus. He shouldn't worry about losing his papers, if he's even got any. Since Russia set up its de facto blockade in 1994, visa-based entry into Abkhazia has run on a system of winks and bribes. And Georgia itself has now waived the requirement of any visa at all for all citizens of the European Union. The fraudulent and virtually undetected entry of powerful itinerants with illegal agendas is met in Abkhazia with a welcome mat.

Abkhazia is not the only quasi-sovereign trap door or hole in the attic that gives would-be mass murderers a staging point between Europe and the Arab world, but it also strikes the most dangerous balance between reliability and disorder. Nagorno-Karabakh, still in limbo between Armenia and Azerbaijan, is destitute, landlocked, and outside the protection of a major power; the unrecognized Transdnistr Moldovan Republic, headquartered in Tiraspol, is in turn the headquarters of the Russian 14th Army. Other regions where one can flee or break the law are either hardship regions -- like the Horn of Africa or the "tri-border" region of South America -- or places too distant to directly threaten the West, like Thailand and Cambodia. Even in an age of globalism, proximity is important, and the world's rogues would be hard pressed to get closer to the West on their own terms than through Abkhazia.

This alarming consideration has already been well pondered by some academics and policy thinkers. But Charles King, Associate Professor of Foreign Service and Government at Georgetown University and author of The Black Sea: A History, considers that knowledge, in the case at hand, to have translated poorly into power. The seemingly breakthrough Russia-Georgia agreement didn't improve the security situation in Abkhazia because "there is no Russian base in Abkhazia; the base was officially closed down by Russia several years ago -- or, more properly, transformed from a base into a convalescence station for the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] peacekeepers in Abkhazia." And the counterterrorism base that should be located in Abkhazia will go to the other end of Georgia, in Batumi, instead. The status quo -- ideal for exploitation by our foremost enemies -- remains. According to King, people are at last "beginning to give Abkhazia more attention in Washington, which is a good thing, but so far there has been rather little creative thought about what a solution would look like."

The time for that creativity has arrived. Abkhazia's combination of prime regional real estate and its extralegal status makes it just dangerous enough to dissuade weak powers from enforcing rules and just orderly enough to attract those looking to break those rules. The frontiers of Europe are congruent today with the frontiers of the rule of law. Rolling those borders outward should be a central objective of American foreign policy in Eurasia and the Middle East, from Minsk to Baku to Beirut. The object is not instant democracy; rather, the goal should be the elimination of "enterprise zones" of extralegal opportunity -- either by establishing them as sovereign or by folding their security responsibilities into those of a larger, more accountable, and more effective government. There are many places to focus, but Abkhazia is, perhaps, the best place to begin. Time, in the meanwhile, is wasting.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.