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Abkhazia's tourism fights to regain fabled legacy

Russians are flocking back to the Black Sea beaches, although a string of recent bombings exposes the breakaway republic's ongoing tensions with Georgia.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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Sukhumi, Abkhazia

Abkhazia's richest man, Beslan Butba, is an incurable optimist.

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Although the tiny breakaway republic of Abkhazia is blockaded by much of the world, its people live under constant threat of war, and it's technically illegal for foreigners to visit, Mr. Butba is investing his personal fortune in restoring the tourist infrastructure that once drew 6 million Soviet holiday makers annually to its sun-soaked beaches and mountain resorts.

If you build hotels, Butba says, people will come: "Sukhumi is a beautiful city, but it's half destroyed."

A bitter war 15 years ago drove out the Georgian Army, along with some 250,000 ethnic Georgian residents, leaving Abkhazia with de facto independence that is unrecognized by any other country, including the rebel statelet's only friend, Russia.

Butba has already restored one luxury hotel on Sukhumi's fabled sea front and he has another hotel under reconstruction. "The way forward is to show the world that we can rebuild this country," he says, "and then they'll have to accept us."

Though laudable, Butba's hard-driving good cheer could be misplaced.

Once a lush, subtropical garden spot, Abkhazia has been ravaged and depopulated by war. The self-declared republic has a president, a flag, a national anthem, and an army. But most of its people carry Russian passports, the only valid currency is the ruble, and Abkhazia's borders are guarded by a hard-faced contingent of Russian "peacekeeping" troops.

Georgia exercises sovereignty over Abkhazia in the eyes of the world community and forbids any planes to land at its Soviet-era airport. The huge Black Sea cruise ships that used to make ports of call at Sukhumi's palm-lined waterfront have stayed away since the USSR's collapse.

"Before the war, it was heaven here, this was a happy place," says Lamara Tsvirzhba, a former scientist who ekes out a living as a small businessman. "Now we live amid ruins. Most people, even many Abkhazians, have left and all we have is the daily struggle to survive."

A few things are changing since Russia, in response to the West's recognition of Kosovo earlier this year, lifted the economic sanctions that had been in place since 1994. Russian tourists are trickling back to their Soviet-era beach haunts at Gagra and Pitsunda, where green-clad mountains plunge into a turquoise sea 30 miles south of the popular Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

"There are a lot of inconveniences to put up with, but it's so much cheaper than going to Sochi," says Natasha Savelyeva, a middle-aged Muscovite who was basking on the beach at Gagra recently. She says she hadn't heard anything about any threat of war, and isn't interested in politics.

Tensions in the region continue to reignite. On Sunday, two bombs exploded in Gagra and two additional bombs exploded in a Sukhumi market on Monday, prompting Abkhazia's President to announce that it would close its border with Georgia on Tuesday. Abkhazian officials said the bombs were Georgian-sponsored terrorism aimed at discouraging tourists; Georgia denies any involvement in the blasts.

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