"Black Sunday" in Abkhazia, by Izida Chania

Central Exhibition Hall, which housed the entire collection of the National Art Gallery, was destroyed by fire.

Central Exhibition Hall, which housed the entire collection of the National Art Gallery, was destroyed by fire.

Ekho Kavkaza — On the night of January 20 to 21, a devastating fire engulfed the National Art Gallery (Central Exhibition Hall of the Union of Artists of Abkhazia, where the entire collection of the National Art Gallery was housed. — Trans.) in Sukhum, dealing an irreplaceable blow to cultural heritage. Over 4,000 unique works by Abkhazian artists were lost forever, including 300 works by Alexander Chachba-Shervashidze, paintings by Varvara Bubnova, creations by Marina Eshba, and pieces by Valery Gamgia, the designer of symbols for independent Abkhazia. This tragedy at the National Gallery has since been referred to as "Black Sunday."

The fire was likely sparked by intermittent power outages. When electricity was restored around three in the morning, a short circuit occurred. Alarmingly, the gallery lacked any safety system, and only one person in Abkhazia was oblivious to the perilous condition of the storage area where these national treasures were kept – Dinara Smyr, the Minister of Culture. Displaying profound professional ineptitude, she admitted, amidst the ruins, her ignorance of the National Art Gallery's dire state, particularly the inadequacy of the premises for storing such valuable artworks.

The National Gallery building itself, long bereft of a roof and doors and overrun by vines, seemed to await the interest of an "investor" for conversion into apartments. It appears the minister was equally uninformed about this. Perhaps this is due to the Ministry of Culture morphing into a ministry primarily concerned with entertainment and funerals, operating on what's left of its budget without objection.

Tatiana, the granddaughter of renowned Abkhazian enlightener and poet Dmitry Gulia, reacted to the minister's excuses by suggesting on social media that funds earmarked for the writer's anniversary celebration should instead be diverted to establishing a fire safety system.

Officials who have served in this ministry are infamous for frivolities like gambling away employees' salaries in casinos or auctioning off a Picasso plate. And when funds are needed for vital causes, the perennial excuse is the country's lack of financial resources. Yet, there always seems to be enough for extravagant expenditures like the president's 30 million ruble (around $340,000 — Trans.) armoured vehicle (notably, rewiring the National Art Gallery would cost a mere 500 thousand rubles [According to Vissarion (Sergei) Tsvizhba, 20-30 million rubles ($226K - $340K Trans.]), constructing an imposing wall around the administrative building, installing a security system at the state dacha used by Bzhania, and bolstering the president's security detail.

+ Irresponsibility and Neglect: The Tragedy of Abkhazia’s National Art Gallery
+ Sergei Tsvizhba: "All of us, the entire nation. Everyone is equally responsible"
+ Black Sunday: 21 January 2024, by Viacheslav Chirikba

The same funds that the art gallery desperately needed. Just yesterday, the mismanagement of an irresponsible government culminated in losses amounting to several billion rubles, a figure not even accounting for the material and moral damage inflicted on the historical building and the nation as a whole.

Thus, we circle back to the "hero" of our era – President Aslan Bzhania. Indeed, he did stop by the site of the fire, en route to a corporate gathering. After a brief fifteen-minute visit, which he used to nonchalantly assign further investigations to the prosecutor's office, he proceeded with his administration, ministers, and deputies to Lake Ritsa. There, at Stalin's dacha, they celebrated the New Year, albeit belatedly due to Bzhania's absence from the country. Meanwhile, as young citizens, vilified by the president and his circle, struggled to salvage what remained of the paintings in the burned-out building, and news of the death of a compatriot in the DNR came in, these "Ivans who forget their roots" reveled at Stalin's dacha. The choice of location for their celebration, under such circumstances, seems particularly telling.

Indeed, Aslan Bzhania has reasons to celebrate: he has fulfilled many of his promises to various oligarchs. His actions have led the country into a mire of debt, authorized his inner circle to partake in mining, burdened the nation with oppressive contracts, sold assets that should remain unsold, and gifted what was not his to give. However, what reason did the "parish of the clergy" have to rejoice? Was it the dismantling of the energy sector, establishing a monopoly in the fuel market, or the country's distress sale? It appears that no one even dared to suggest to the head of state where he should have been during the humanitarian catastrophe that struck his country – a disaster comparable to the burning of the Abkhaz Scientific Research Institute of Language and Literature and the state archive during the Georgian-Abkhazian war.

This is our shared tragedy. We have allowed traders and dilettantes, fortunate boys and girls born to friends and relatives of Bzhania, those who failed professional competency tests in Moscow, and those evading accountability for crimes committed in Russia, to ascend to power in Abkhazian ministries and state structures. In doing so, they often ousted experienced professionals who had kept the crumbling sectors operational since Soviet times.

In my opinion, it is ludicrous, absurd, and counterproductive to propose discussing the situation with the parliament or the Public Chamber. The opportunity for such discussions has passed. Who should we discuss the latest Abkhazian tragedy with? Those who consented to alienate our country's territory? Those who turned their backs on their electorate, voting against a moratorium on electricity price hikes? Those who approved the transfer of the airport without even reading the country's detrimental contract? Those who have been complicit in selling off the energy sector and backing projects detrimental to the country? Those who silently witnessed the persecution of citizens and the mismanagement of budget funds? Those who reveled at Stalin's dacha amidst a national tragedy?

No, my dear compatriots, we are at an impasse. The warning signs have been clear, and we have tolerated so much that there are no longer any structures left in the country with whom one can discuss national interests. The time has come to cease making excuses, to stop metaphorically covering our heads in ashes and adding to the dark days. We must make a decision: do we, the public, relinquish control of our country, or do we overhaul the entire state governance system? A system where no one can indiscriminately spend budget funds or make decisions against the country's and people's interests. A system that values our history, culture, education, traditions, and the life and rights of every individual. The solution is straightforward, and Aslan Bzhania, with all his fences, guards, prisons, and security officers, cannot prevent the people from making a decision that adheres to constitutional norms.

This article was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.




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