Where football meets politics
Dinamo Sukhumi’s stadium under construction.
Photo: Hons084/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Where football meets politics
In breakaway Abkhazia, footballers receive Russian support, but in Georgia, a football team in exile dreams of unification. Robert O’Connor reports:
Astamur Adleiba, a football club president, points to the stadium around us. ‘This place was all possible with Russian money,’ he says.
Adleiba watches the young footballers of Dinamo Sukhumi as they start training.
Here in Sukhumi, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, they are rebuilding. They have been rebuilding for 25 years.
In August 1992, a year after the end of the Soviet Union, soldiers and tanks from the republic of Georgia came into Sukhumi, the capital of the republic of Abkhazia. The war lasted for 13 months. With support from Russia, the separatists fought the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for sovereignty.
Abkhazia won its freedom. But they lost more than $20 million. About 3,000 Abkhazians were killed in the fighting. The destruction was terrible.
Today, Abkhazia is a rogue state. A very small number of countries recognise its independence. Fewer have diplomatic relations.
When the war ended, Abkhazia’s problems began. In the 1990s Georgia imposed a trade embargo against the separatists. This made rebuilding very difficult. In 2004, after a period of peace, Tbilisi continued its sea blockade of Sukhumi, and made Abkhazia even more dependent on Russia.
But football offers hope. Adleiba started Dinamo in 2008, the same year that Russia refused to recognise Abkhazian independence, after Russia and Georgia had a five-day war over the two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Now the club president, Adleiba believes sport has healing power. 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 war 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 war. It’s only in the last few years that we have had facilities like this stadium, because of help from Russia.’
Leonid Dzapshba was the president of the Football Federation of Abkhazia (FFA) between 2007-2012. He helped the construction of 13 new football training centres in the republic. This has really helped the game’s recovery.
‘There is a deputy of the Russian state Duma, Otari Arshba, who funded those centres with 30 million roubles of his personal money,’ says Dzapshba.
In Abkhazia, all roads lead to Moscow. Russian aid is about half of the republic’s annual budget. The two country’s economies are very closely linked. Sanctions by the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (an international organization representing most states of the old Soviet Union) have left Abkhazia isolated. And so, Sukhumi is almost 100% dependent on Russian roubles.
‘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.
But 12 clubs are a lot for such a small country. Some of them don’t have enough support, so there is a special system for clubs to receive government money.’
Life is slowly improving here. But you can still see the effects of war in Sukhumi. You can still see the remains of buildings damaged by fire and shelling during the siege of the city in early 1993.
One of the buildings is the old government headquarters and of the Georgian administration. The place was damaged by fire the day in late September that separatists chased the last of the old government out of Sukhumi. The Abkhaz flag is on the roof.
Football has a long history in Abkhazia – In 2013, the republic had a celebration for 100 years since the first game here.
‘After the USSR ended, 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 difficult, to create football that was independent in such a small country.
‘If you compare the situation in Ukraine, there they have two very strong clubs but the rest of the league is weak. Abkhazia is trying to grow professional football in its own way.’
The Abkhaz championship has 12 clubs. Each team has 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 isn’t simple,’ says Dzapshba. ‘When I was a boy there were maybe 10,000 young people playing football in Abkhazia. Now, 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 not clear. It is not possible for Abkhazian teams to play outside of the country, because Uefa and Fifa rules do not allow member nations to play matches with unrecognized territories. . ‘World sport is all about politics today,’ says Arshba. ‘That is very bad news for Abkhazia. We wrote to Fifa and to the Olympic Committee, but they are not answering.’
South of the border, Georgia has a difficult relationship with its separatist territories. Here, the question is not independence, but occupation. The Georgian view is that Russian involvement in Abkhazia is continuing an occupation that began with the Soviet invasion of the first Georgian republic in 1921.
Goridze Chikhradze founded FC Gagra, in Tbilisi, in 2004. On its crest, the club has the words ‘Georgia United.’ It represents Chikhradze’s dearest wish.
‘We are ready to find our friends in Abkhazia and have a much bigger club, much stronger,’ says Chikhradze. He is old enough to remember when Georgians and Abkhazians from Gagra lived together in peace. He blames Russia for turning the community against itself.
Davit Taktakishvili is the head coach of the ‘other’ Dinamo Sukhumi, which comes from the team 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 war,’ he says. ‘No doubt. Russia split Georgia.’
For the last ten years, Dinamo have played in front of very small crowds in Georgia’s lower leagues. They dream of the kinds of facilities that Moscow has helped to give the other Dinamo in the north.
In 2014, Taktakishvili took an under-16 team of IDPs from Abkhazia and won in a national competition for teams from Georgia’s provinces. They are the only team from outside of Tbilisi to have won.
‘The parents were the ones who ran away from the war,’ he says. ‘They wanted to show 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 forget the crimes of the war.
‘The parents’ idea was that their children must keep 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.
‘Usually Russia stops us from contacting players living in Abkhazia,’ he says. ‘They always make problems when it comes to us and the locals.’
Even in the Dinamo youth team, 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 to say no. ‘It would insult the memory of those that died fighting for a united Georgia,’ he says.
Back in Sukhumi, the wish for a union through sport is just as weak.
‘Georgia refuses to sign a document that says they will not fight Abkhazia,’ says Arshba. ‘So we cannot feel safe. They could start the war again tomorrow or the day after. This stops everything.
‘If they sign that document, then maybe we can start having conversations, not just about football but about living together.
For now, the situation is getting weaker.
In May, Syria became just the fifth UN member state, and the first in nearly ten years, to recognize Abkhazian independence. The same day, Tbilisi cut its diplomatic contact with Damascus. Georgia’s message to Abkhazia is clear; there may be peace, but that does not mean working and being together.
‘Georgia is at war with Abkhazia, not the other way around,’ says Arshba. ‘We are the problem for them. We tried to explain at international meetings that we need this agreement. If it comes, there are great possibilities for the future.’
‘Then who knows?’ he smiles, and says, ‘Perhaps even Georgia will recognize us.’
(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)