After the declaration of independence of Kosovo, Kremlin-backed separatist leaders of Abkhazia (Georgian Apkhazeti) and Tskhinvali region of Georgia (soviet-communist name: "South Ossetia", Original name: Samachablo) have increased their contacts and travels to Moscow. They are trying to arrange their regions’ independence this way. The Kremlin will not back them openly of course, but in reality it is quite generous towards these regimes. At the beginning of March 2008 for example, Russia lifted the economic sanctions against the regions. It will not even mean a lot of change, because Russia was already importing contraband and providing arms, money and military instructors to the regimes. The so-called Russian peacekeeping troops in the regions are loyal to the Kremlin and are unfamiliar with principles of freedom of press and human rights.
Another question is what justice there is in the claim to independence of Abkhazia and "South Ossetia"(Original name: Samachablo) in comparison with Kosovo.
Instead of discovering and preserving the history of Georgia, cultural artifacts are being pillaged in the separatist region of Abkhazia.
The practice of black archeology (excavation for the purpose of robbery) began several centuries ago. However, even now, it is easy to find numerous artifacts from Abkhazia and all of Georgia on the Russian and European black markets. Just recently, Joseph Stalin’s pool table, kept in his villa in Ritsa, was sold to a Russian executive for $50,000.
Our cultural heritage is being taken away and the process is so irreversible that even Abkhazians have begun to take it serious. Aleksandr Ankvab, premier-minister of de facto authorities, made statements on this issue and confirmed that valuable museum exhibits, historical monuments and precious icons are indeed being taken away from Abkhazian territory.
Items found during archeological excavations in Abkhazia, exhibits from the Sokhumi state museum, icons and other units of cultural meaning are being sold in Russia. Some are sold illegally, others “officially”—like the medieval frescos from ancient Georgian churches—under the guise of rehabilitation and maintenance.
Abkhazia’s museum exhibits are taken to Russia on the basis of an agreement between Sokhumi and Krasnodar territory museums to rehabilitate icons and mosaic coatings. They are taken from Abkhazia for rehabilitation but then they are never returned.
This comes after the destruction of frescos and Georgian inscriptions in churches. Reportedly, the church inscriptions in Abkhazian villages of Likhni and Ilori have been removed. XIII century Bedia church and the grave of Bagrat III, the Ambari basilica, and the famous “Kelasuri wall” have been badly damaged. In addition, King Tamar’s bridge, the basilica in Gantiadi (II-III century), the Gentsvishi fortress (early medieval period), the Ilori Saint George church dated XI century, the Mokvi church, and the Tsebeldi fortress have been desecrated.
Russian experts estimate that the budget of illegal archeological business in Russia is tantamount to the budget of the average region. The major portion of archeological findings appear on the black market and then later in private collections. Many artifacts are taken to Europe, as Europeans know where to invest money. For this reason, Moscow has adopted a special law against “black archeology”.
Georgian culture and frescos are disappearing
Malkhaz Baramidze PhD, head of the Bronze Era Department of the Archeology Research Center and a member of Abkhazia’s Academy of Science, leads a group working on current, problematic issues in Abkhazia. Baramidze says that this topic is not new and that the materials found during archeological excavations in Abkhazia later appeared in the museums of Sochi or St.Petersburg and that many Georgian inscriptions dating from the early, middle and late medieval period have disappeared. In order to rescue Georgian monuments in Abkhazia the Georgian government asked UNESCO for help.
“We are often informed that Georgian cultural monuments are damaged on the territory of Abkhazia. However we are not eligible to check this information. In this regard we demanded to implement monitoring of Georgian cultural monuments in Abkhazia in partnership with UNESCO representatives. In 1996 the program was launched. We demanded to involve Murtaz Uridia, one of the best specialists in this group. He used to be engaged in rehabilitation of Bedia church. Though unfortunately the monitoring of Georgian monuments on the territory of Abkhazia was not carried out, as Abhazians did not allow the group to the territory due to the lack of security guarantees,” states Baramidze.
Georgian cultural monuments in Abkhazia are being badly damaged during the “rehabilitation” activities. Reportedly, the firm of uncertain origin “Baroque” is rehabilitating the churches of New Athens and Pitsunda.
The Georgian Patriarchy has repeatedly expressed its resentment that the rehabilitation process may cause serious damage to ancient frescos, icons and churches themselves. According to Paata Davitaia, former Minister of Justice of Abkhazia’s legitimate government and leader of the political party “We Ourselves”, many samples of Georgian art were kept in the Sokhumi museum. Icons were there, along with wine pitchers, vases, pots, various jewelry, weapons and other items found in graves during archeological excavations. Currently there is almost nothing left in the museum.
Davitaia explained that the premier of de facto authority, Ankvab, has made statements about it. He spoke on the TV channel NTV. “Recently studio ‘profession reporter’ made a program ‘Abkhazia’s black archeology’ depicting black archeologists arriving in Abkhazia, hold archeological excavations and take away found masterpieces of art and culture. In this regard Ankvab expressed his resentment and declared that Abkhazians blocked the border and strengthened control. Besides the frescos remained at churches are taken to Russia as if for the rehabilitation works. Then they are taken to various countries from Russia” stated Davitaia.
According to Davitaia, black archeologists found samples from the antique period discovered by archeologists during decades of archeological excavations in Abkhazia after the cease-fire was removed.
“Stalin’s billiard, a valuable thing for Georgian cultural heritage kept in Ritsa villa was sold to Russian businessman at USD 50 000. It is note-worthy that the ruins of the ancient city are discovered on Sokhumi coast. At present Black Sea covers the territory. The divers in Sokhumi always studied this ruins and they found many samples of Sokhumi art and life in the sea. Now this process is uncontrolled. Some interested people arrive from abroad, pay money, hire divers and take away anything they find. The local population is also involved in this process. Black archeologists buy things found by local inhabitants- antique pots, vases, gold, weapons, crosses decorated with precious stones,” said Davitaia.
Black archeology was common even in the Soviet period. Artifacts discovered in Abkhazian territory often appeared in Sochi, Adleri or Tuabse museums.
“Yuri Voronov was one of the biggest black archeologists. Many conferences are dedicated to his memory in Abkhazia. In Tsebelda he found and took away materials of Romanian period dated A.D. I-II centuries. He carried out excavations without any permission. In 1967 the Academy of Sciences of Georgia sent a special commission to Moscow in this regard. Voronin’s response was -“What’s up? What a noise? All our archeologists sell materials.
Voronin took away the well-known ‘Primorsk treasure’ from Georgia and sold to Hermitage in St.Petersburg. When we learned about it we tried to find official documents on purchase, but they did not tell us the name of seller. They showed only part of documents listing purchased things,” states Malkhaz Baramidze.
After the suspension of military activities from 1992 to1993, Madina Ardzinba, daughter of the former separatist leader Vladislav Ardzinba, became involved in the black archeology process. Three years ago, in autumn of 2004, before the inauguration of Sergey Bagapsh, Russian agencies disseminated news that Madina Ardzinba, historian and daughter of Vladislav Ardzinba, was detained at the check-point of the Georgia-Russian border carrying antique and precious items. Aleksandr Ankvab took part in this operation, but at that time, he was one of the opposition leaders.
Finally, various Abkhazian and Russian websites provide information claiming that since 2001, joint Abkhazian-Russian archeological expeditions have been carried out in Abkhazia. Moreover, it seems that not only Russian but also Greek archeologists are interested in the excavation process. Greek specialists have expressed their willingness to participate in excavations in early 2003. The Russian Academy of Sciences assumed responsibility to finance joint activities. The matter concerned excavations not only at Abkhazian coast, but under water as well. This research was based on the photos made from cosmos.
As it seems, Russian archeologists do not waste their time and there is nothing wrong with joint archeological expeditions. Nevertheless, the Georgian state should have control over the mechanisms and illegally found as well as legally discovered materials should not be taken to Russia.