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Breakaway state: Abkhazia has friend in Russia, but is that enough?

Understanding others

The statelet, which the world doesn't recognize, has retained its de facto independence from Georgia for years, thanks in large part to Russia's patronage. But many Abkhazians worry about being smothered.

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    A vendor sells popcorn at the seafront in Sukumi, Abkhazia, in May. The one-time Soviet vacation town is still scarred from a 1990s war between Georgia and Abkhazian separatists.
    Fred Weir
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For the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, it doesn't get much better than Sunday's triumph in the final of a "rebel" world cup for unrecognized nations.

This mountainous, subtropical, Puerto Rico-sized statelet on the Black Sea is recognized only by Russia and a handful of other states such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. As such, opportunities to do anything that puts it in the world's spotlight – like to both host and win last week's alternative soccer world cup, between contestants like Lapland, Kurdistan, and Panjab – are rare.

Otherwise, the sense of geopolitical limbo is quite palpable.

While life is visibly improving, there seems no way out of its basic predicament, one that many breakaway states confront. Most of the world, including close Russian allies like Kazakhstan and Belarus, view Abkhazia as a province of the sovereign state of Georgia, and that precludes any direct relations with the beleaguered government in Sukhumi. Global non-recognition is a red flag to most potential investors or tourists from anywhere, except Russia.

And while most Abkhazians say they're grateful to Russia for guaranteeing the little statelet's military security, and then recognizing its independence after Georgia invaded another breakaway territory, South Ossetia, in 2008, they also worry about getting smothered by Moscow's embrace.

"The protection we get from Russia is very real. We live under the gun here, and we know that Georgia would attack us again, as they did before, if not for Russia," says Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, a nongovernmental group in Sukhumi.

"Russia is the biggest power in this region, and it would be unwise to ignore that," she says. "But, while we will always try to be friends with Russia, we don't want to join them. We sacrificed a lot to have our own state, to be masters in our own home, and we are never going to give that up."

'Trapped'?

Vyacheslav Chirikba, foreign minister of Abkhazia, chafes at the suggestion that his country is "trapped" between a cold stone wall of global non-recognition of its independence and the growing demands of Russia, its only big friend and sponsor.

"We have survived nearly a quarter century that saw war, mass destruction, depopulation, isolation, and blockade. Now our economy is growing, there's a building boom and people from the Abkhazian diaspora are coming back to invest and live here," says Mr. Chirikba, an urbane, multilingual man who lived 17 years in the Netherlands. "I wouldn't call that being trapped."

But Abkhazia's dependence on Russia is hard to ignore.

Moscow's subsidies to Abkhazia will total about $100 million this year, which covers about half the little statelet's entire budget. According to Chirikba, Russia maintains a garrison of about 5,000 troops in two bases, and Russian border guards share frontier patrols with their Abkhaz counterparts.

Russia is the main destination for Abkhazian exports, mainly wine and citrus fruits, and the thousands of Russian tourists who come across the visa-free border to enjoy the cheap resorts and nearly empty Black Sea beaches every summer are the only other big source of income.

The republic's international isolation is so bad that Abkhazians can only visit most of the outside world on Russian passports, which about 20 percent of them hold – granted to them during the Putin era as former Soviet citizens. Even the foreign minister admits that when he travels, even to UN sponsored talks in Geneva, he must use his Russian document.

Yet the Abkhazian parliament recently resisted Russian pressure to lift a ban on foreign ownership of property, which might have resulted in a wave of Russian investment into the little republic's undeniably attractive, and mostly abandoned, seafront real estate.

"There is one school of thought here that says we should pass this law, because we desperately need development. And Russia is the only potential source of such investment," says Ms. Kvarchelia. "But others argue it would put Abkhazians in an inferior position. They wouldn't be able to compete with rich foreigners who would come in here and buy up all the best properties. For now, the issue has been postponed while we compile a full registry of properties, which will take some time."

The echoes of war

This stretch of Black Sea coast was the vacation Riviera of the former USSR, and its lush seafront today is littered with ruined sanitariums and hotel complexes that once hosted 6 million Soviet holiday-makers annually.

Abkhazians, a distinct ethnic group related to Circassians, were largely driven out – many took refuge in nearby Turkey – when Russia conquered the region in the 19th century. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed that Abkhazia would be part of Georgia, and after the USSR broke up, the Georgian Army moved in to assert control. But Abkhazians fought back, supported by thousands of volunteers from kindred Caucasus ethnic groups, primarily Chechens. By 1993, they had defeated the Georgians and established de facto independence in their utterly war-devastated territory, which was blockaded from all sides, including Russia. It was not until Vladimir Putin came to power that Russia ended its blockade and began aiding the breakaway region.

"We had a very big war with Georgia. It still defines our existence. There is no family in Abkhazia that didn't lose someone," says Kvarchelia.

But half of Abkhazia's Soviet-era population of 500,000 fled or were forcibly expelled during that war. Many credible reports document brutal ethnic cleansing of Georgian civilians by victorious Abkhaz troops and their allies, part of atrocities committed by both sides. The separatist government's refusal to repatriate most of the Georgians remains a major international sore spot and a continuing obstacle to attracting international sympathy to Abkhazia.

Abkhazian officials argue that they cannot begin to negotiate the refugee issue, or anything else, as long as Georgia refuses to recognize the Abkhazian government as a negotiating partner, and will not even sign a pledge not to use force to settle the sovereignty question in future.

"Georgia attacked us in 1992, they would have attacked again if Russia hadn't defeated them in South Ossetia in 2008. They are using the refugee problem as a political tool, not a subject of negotiation. Let them promise not to invade us again, then we'll talk," says Chirikba, the foreign minister.

Irakli Khintba, a close adviser to President Raul Khajimba, blames Georgian intransigence for Abkhazia's increasing dependence on Russia.

"Georgia's foreign ministry is extremely active in trying to block any attempt by us to make contact with anyone else, even in cultural events," he says. "They give us no option but to partner with Russia, then accuse us of being pro-Russian for doing so."

'No going back'

But Mr. Khintba admits that the savage war in the 1990s bred antagonisms between Abkhazians and Georgians that will take generations to ease. A case in point is the plight of about 50,000 Mingrelians, a Georgian ethnic minority, who were allowed to return to their ancestral homes in eastern Abkhazia about a decade ago but were subsequently denied citizenship or any political rights. Some officials admit that restoring rights to the Mingrelians is a serious challenge for Abkhazia's claim to statehood.

"This factor of ethnic hatred is very much alive, and is a factor in our political discourse," Khintba says. "It was a mistake [to cancel citizenship rights for the Mingrelians], and we need to resolve it."

He argues that Abkhazia's problems are similar to those of other little states being born around the world, sometimes amid brutal civil wars.

"For example, Kosovo, which is effectively a failed state, even though it's occupied by NATO and the European Union. Abkhazia is far ahead of Kosovo in terms of state-building. We won our own independence; it wasn't handed to us by anyone. We've run our own affairs for almost a quarter century. We have a democratic political system. We have law and order here. Yet Kosovo gets all sorts of advantages, and many doors are open to it, just because its sponsors are the Western powers. We know the world system is not fair," Khintba says.

Chirikba, the foreign minister, says the world is changing, and many new independent states are struggling to be born. He's recently made contact with separatists in Catalonia, Scotland, and the Srbska Republic in Bosnia, he says, and there are plenty of others.

"In any case, there is no going back for Abkhazia," he says. "Maybe there are cases where reconciliation is possible, where people can settle their differences and live together again in one state. Things are too far gone for that between Georgia and Abkhazia. Sooner or later, they are just going to have to acknowledge that."

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