Where football meets politics

In breakaway Abkhazia, footballers receive Russian support, while in Georgia, a rival team-in-exile dreams of unification. Robert O’Connor reports

Astamur Adleiba stretches out a long, hulking arm and gestures to the stadium around us. ‘This place was all made possible by Russian money,’ he bellows.

A few feet below us on an artificial pitch, the young footballers of Dinamo Sukhumi brave the driving rain. Tuesday night training has started. Adleiba watches with a fatherly pride.

Here in Sukhumi, a picturesque sub-tropical paradise tucked away on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, a process of rebuilding is underway. It has been for 25 years.

In August 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, soldiers and tanks from the republic of Georgia rolled into Sukhumi, the capital of the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. The war lasted for 13 months. Backed by Russia, the separatists fought the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for sovereignty.

Abkhazia emerged with its freedom. The physical costs, though, were staggering. By some estimates, losses exceeded $20million. Approximately 3,000 Abkhazians were killed in the fighting. The physical destruction was devastating.

Today, Abkhazia is a rogue state. A tiny handful of countries acknowledge its independence. Even fewer have established diplomatic relations.

When the war ended, Abkhazia’s problems began. The 1990s saw Georgia impose a trade embargo against the separatists, fatally undermining early attempts at state building. In 2004, following a period of détente, Tbilisi resumed its sea blockade of Sukhumi, reinforcing Abkhazia’s economic dependence on Russia.

But football offers hope. Adleiba founded Dinamo in 2008, the same year that Russia defied international law to give its formal recognition to Abkhazian independence, after Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Now the club president, Adleiba is a keen believer in the healing power of sport. And, like most Abkhazians, he sees the republic’s future in partnership, not with Tbilisi, but with Moscow.

‘Without this money from Russia, we couldn’t survive,’ he says. ‘The conflict destroyed all sport here. When it was over, we started again from zero.

‘For football, there was no budget, no advertising, no facilities after the conflict. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to have facilities like this stadium, because of help from Russia.’ Russia has become shorthand for renewal in Abkhazia.

Leonid Dzapshba was the president of the Football Federation of Abkhazia (FFA) between 2007-2012. He personally oversaw the construction of 13 new football training centers in the republic. This has accelerated the game’s recovery.

‘There is a deputy of the Russian state Duma, Otari Arshba, who funded those centres with 30 million rubles of his personal funds,’ says Dzapshba.

In Abkhazia, all roads lead to Moscow. Russian aid accounts for around half of the republic’s annual budget, but since the two country’s economies are so closely tied, and since sanctions by the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a loose international organization representing most states of the former Soviet Union) have left Abkhazia isolated amongst other would-be trading partners, Sukhumi is, in practice, almost entirely dependent on Russian rubles.

‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ says Dzapshba. ‘It isn’t possible to just take money coming from Russia and spend it on football. There is no direct spending from Russia on Abkhazian football.

Football has a rich heritage in Abkhazia – In 2013, the republic held a celebration to mark 100 years since the game was first played here

‘But 12 clubs is a lot for such a small country. Some of them don’t have sufficient sponsorship, so there is a special mechanism for clubs to receive government money.’

Life is steadily improving here. Yet Sukhumi retains its physical scars. The remains of buildings gutted by fire and shelling during the siege of the city in early 1993 still stand, now overrun by nature, crumbling day by day as the city’s rhythms pass them by.

Central amongst them is the former government headquarters that once housed the Georgian administration. The place was scorched by fire the day in late September that separatists ran the last of the old regime out of Sukhumi. From its roof, the Abkhaz flag flutters in the breeze.

Football has a rich heritage in Abkhazia. In 2013, the republic held a celebration to mark 100 years since the game was first played here.

‘Once the USSR collapsed, it was clear that we would need to rebuild football in Abkhazia,’ says the president of Abkhazia’s National Olympic Committee, Valeriy Arshba. ‘That was always going to be tough, to create football that was self-sufficient in such a small country.

‘Compare with the situation in Ukraine, where they have two very strong clubs yet the rest of the league is weak. Abkhazia is trying to grow professional football in its own way.’

The Abkhaz championship comprises 12 clubs, each of them running between two and five youth teams. Young people and sport are taken very seriously in the republic. This is a young country, planning for the future.

It is not possible for Abkhazian teams to compete outside of the country, as Uefa and Fifa rules prohibit member nations from arranging matches with unrecognized territories.

‘It isn’t simple,’ says Dzapshba. ‘When I was a boy there were maybe 10,000 young people playing football in Abkhazia. Now, I would say it is probably a bit more than this. Come to any football pitch in Abkhazia at midnight, there will be young people playing.’

For now, the future is hazy. It is not possible for Abkhazian teams to compete outside of the country, as Uefa and Fifa rules prohibit member nations from arranging matches with unrecognized territories.

‘World sport is all about politics today,’ says Arshba. ‘That is very bad news for Abkhazia. We’ve written to Fifa and to the Olympic Committee, but our conversations are not being answered.’

South of the border, Georgia manages an uneasy relationship with its separatist territories. Here, the question is not one of independence, but of occupation. The Georgian view is that Russian involvement in Abkhazia represents a continuation of an occupation that began with the Soviet invasion of the first Georgian republic in 1921.

Goridze Chikhradze founded FC Gagra, based in Tbilisi, in 2004, in homage to Georgia’s lost territories. On its crest, the club bears the words ‘Georgia United.’ It represents Chikhradze’s dearest wish.

‘We are ready to find our friends in Abkhazia and create a much bigger club, much stronger,’ says Chikhradze. He is old enough to remember when Georgians and Abkhazians from Gagra lived together in harmony. He blames Russian interference for turning the community against itself.

It’s a view shared by others. Davit Taktakishvili is the head coach of the ‘other’ Dinamo Sukhumi, heirs to the side created by internally displaced persons (IDPs) who split from Dinamo in the Soviet league and began again in the early 90’s in Tbilisi. ‘Russia started this conflict,’ he says. ‘No doubt. Russia split Georgia.’

For the last ten years, Dinamo have played in front of tiny crowds in Georgia’s lower leagues. They dream of the kinds of facilities that Moscow has helped bestow on their namesakes in the north.

In 2014, Taktakishvili led an under-16 team of IDPs from Abkhazia to victory in a national competition for representative teams from Georgia’s provinces. To date, they are the only team from outside of Tbilisi to have taken the crown.

‘The parents were the ones who had actually fled the war,’ he says. ‘They wanted to express their children’s talents. But they also wanted to hear Abkhazia’s name loudly. They wanted to say to Abkhazia that you are still our brothers, to put aside the crimes of the war.

‘The parents’ position was that their children must retain their Abkhazian identity. They were very emotional.’

Some of the players even came from north of the border. Taktakishvili travelled to Gali to personally invite one member of his team to join up.

‘Usually Russia forbids us from contacting players living in Abkhazia,’ he says. ‘They always make obstacles when it comes to us and the locals.’

Even in the current Dinamo youth set up, 16 out of Taktakishvili’s 22 players are the children of refugees from Abkhazia.

A team from Abkhazia even invited Dinamo for a friendly match in 2012. Taktakishvili felt he had no choice but to decline. ‘It would be an insult to the memory of those that died fighting for a united Georgia,’ he says.

Back in Sukhumi, the appetite for a union through sport is just as tepid.

‘Georgia refuses to sign a document that guarantees they will not resume hostilities with Abkhazia,’ says Arshba. ‘So we cannot feel safe. They could resume the war tomorrow or the day after. This blocks everything.

‘If they would sign that document, then maybe we can start having conversations, not just about football but about living together.

For now, the diplomatic situation is, if anything, weakening.

In May, Syria became just the fifth UN member state, and the first in nearly a decade, to recognize Abkhazian independence. The same day, Tbilisi severed its diplomatic ties with Damascus. Georgia’s message to Abkhazia is clear; there may be peace, but that does not equal reconciliation.

‘Georgia is at war with Abkhazia, not the other way around,’ says Arshba. ‘We are the problem for them. We’ve tried to explain at international meetings that we need this agreement. If it comes, there are great possibilities for the future.’

He pauses. ‘Then who knows?’ he smiles, before adding: ‘Perhaps even Georgia will recognize us.’