Two Estonians, one Chechen and one Georgian in a deserted community in a warzone. What happens?
A quick history of the disputed territory of Abkhazia
Not many people have heard of Abkhazia. But if you are aware of the Russian city of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, then you would roughly know where Abkhazia is. The disputed region is 100km away from Sochi, lying in South Caucasus on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.
This area was once ruled by the Romans and the Byzantines, but when the Byzantines were expelled, a kingdom of Abkhazians was established in the 8th century. It grew to the strongest in the years between 850 and 950 AD, when it dominated the whole of western Abkhazia. In 1008, Abkhazia and Georgia were united under one kingdom by King Bagrat III.
In the 13th century, the Mongols began invading the Caucasus region, travelling from present-day Turkmenistan, through Iran, and up towards the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Much of Georgia was devastated.
In 1490, Georgia was disintegrated into three kingdoms and five principalities, of which one of them was Abkhazia. A few decades later, Abkhazia and the western part of Georgia then fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire when they expanded out from Istanbul in the 1500s, whereas the eastern part of Georgia fell into the Iranian Safavid dynasty.
Centuries would go by before Abkhazia and Georgia would be united again. But it is under the Russians this time. From 1803 to 1878, the Russians waged a series of wars against the Persians and the Ottomans in the Caucasus region. Over time, the Russians captured Chechnya (north of Georgia), Georgia, and Abkhazia, thereby bringing the fate of these people together under one Tsardom.
But how did the Estonians got involved?
Estonians in Abkhazia
As the Russians expanded in the Caucasus region in the mid-1800s, they carried out a process of ethnic cleansing and expelled Muslims from the region. In Abkhazia, more than 40% of the population migrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1864 and 1878. The tsar wanted to re-populate this land with Christians instead.
It was then when many Estonians were offered the opportunity to resettle in Abkhazia. Those who moved were enticed by the possibility of finally owning land. A number of settlements were built in western Abkhazia, such as Estonka and Salme. Many Estonians stayed in the region for the next century, building a vibrant community inside Abkhazia. In 1926, there were 779 Estonians in the region, and that increased to about 1,500 in 1989.
Georgians vs. Abkhaz, Chechens, and Russians
As the Soviet Union started to crumble in 1989, Georgia began demanding independence. Abkhaz nationalists in turn demanded an autonomous region to be established separately from Georgia. Riots triggered by inter-ethnic tensions between the Abkhaz and the Georgians broke out. Eighteen people died and 448 were injured in the riots.
In March 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called the Soviet Union Referendum, putting to voters the question of whether they would like to preserve the Soviet Union. The Abkhaz population overwhelmingly voted yes, while the Georgians boycotted. Despite this, a few weeks later, Georgia declared its independence on April 9, 1991.
To resolve the differences, the Georgian and Abkhaz authorities agreed to a power-sharing agreement. But this broke down only a few months later, in January 1992, when a hardline government came to power in Georgia in a coup. In July, the Abkhaz fraction of the republic started expelling Georgian officials while the Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba declared that he was ready for a war with Georgia.
In August 1992, the situation finally boiled over when the Georgian government dispatched 3,000 troops to the region. As the Abkhaz were relatively unarmed, Georgian soldiers marched into the capital of Abkhazia easily. But there, they engaged in ethnically based pillage, looting, assault, and murder.
This Abkhaz defeat then drew in support from Chechen and Russian paramilitary groups. They fought back and the conflict became a stalemate in July 1993, after 240,000 people were displaced. Today, Abkhazia remains unrecognized by most countries internationally, while Georgia continued to have no control over the area.
Perhaps as always, both side overestimated their abilities to win and end the war. The only thing that we underestimate, is the number of casualties and the number of tragedies.
Tangerines in Abkhazia
Abkhazia was a resort town in the Soviet days, where tourists would come and enjoy the beach. But they would likely be enjoying some tangerines as well.
Abkhazia has fertile soil and agriculture was also a big economic driver. The region used to have a virtual monopoly on citrus fruit in the Soviet Union by contributing 85% of the country's tangerines. Those who owned a citrus orchard were considered to be prosperous - they could afford a car or build a house with the money for the crop.
But after the independence war and the subsequent isolation, Abkhazia's economic ties to the rest of the world have been cut off. Jobs are scarce, and tangerine sales to Russia remain a lifeline. But times also are changing. Russia has now opened up to the rest of the world, and its markets are now flooded with cheap tangerines from China instead, suppressing the price of the Abkhaz tangerines.
Despite having autonomy in most regards, life in Abkhazia remains far from easy.
Tangerines, the movie
When the independence war broke out in Abkhazia in 1992, most of the Estonian community fled home to Estonia. Two Estonians, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and his neighour, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), stayed behind in Abkhazia. Margus owned a tangerine orchard, and he was hoping to do one last harvest before joining his family. Ivo, a carpenter, also stayed behind to make the crates for holding the tangerines.
But the two Estonian men were distracted when a skirmish broke out in front of Margus' orchard. It left one survivor from each side: a Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Georgian voluntary soldier (Mikheil Meskhi). Both were severely injured, but saved and nursed by Ivo inside his home.
In this deserted Estonian community in Abkhazia, the two Estonians, a Chechen and a Georgian were stuck together.
"It's nobody's war," Ivo said. But then everyone somehow got involved.
You can watch it here on YouTube for free.
Director: Zaza Urushadze
Starring: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen
Release date: October 15, 2013