|Caught between feuding enemies|
|June 28, 2008|
June 28, 2008
Technically, this pretty, pebbled beach town lies in Georgia. But no Georgian is spoken in the waterfront cafés and hotels overlooking the Black Sea. Russian is the preferred language and currency.
Most of the tourists are Russian, lured by low prices, splendid scenery and a hassle-free border crossing, where Russian visitors are waved through without visas, in violation of Georgian laws.
“It feels like home,” said Elena Gurbina, who took a train from Pyatigorsk, Russia, to spend two weeks with her husband by the sea in this breakaway republic called Abkhazia. “We feel safe here.”
Safe it might feel to the Gurbinas, but the truth is, this tourist haven is a geopolitical tinderbox, squeezed between two feuding enemies – Russia and Western-backed Georgia. This spring, the dispute escalated into a tense game of brinkmanship that could threaten the security of the entire region.
Tensions have been mounting since April, when Russia announced it would establish formal links with Abkhazia, which has declared its independence from Georgia. Russia, which is eager to thwart NATO's march into Eastern Europe – especially Georgia's aspirations of joining the military alliance – responded by sending more troops and artillery south of the border. It already had a 2,500-member peacekeeping force in the region, and Georgia called the added troops an “act of aggression.”
Since then, accusations have flown across the border almost daily, with each side accusing the other of spoiling for war. Last month, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia. Russia denied it, but UN observers who studied footage said a Russian fighter jet downed the drone.
Caught between these feuding enemies is Abkhazia, a mutinous land of emerald lakes, snow-capped mountains and misty rain forests. It has called itself a nation since splitting from Georgia after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, a defiant statement that fell on deaf ears around the world.
Despite Georgia's attempts to bring the enclave into the fold, Abkhazia's leaders have turned north to Russia for support and money.
The Russian influence in Abkhazia has infuriated Georgia, which has accused Russia of attempting to annex the region. It claims the Russian peacekeepers have sided with separatists and are secretly training Abkhazian soldiers.
Some fear an armed conflict between Russia and Georgia could erupt.
“The possibility of a war is nothing to sneeze at,” said Lincoln Mitchell, a professor at Columbia University's school of international and public affairs. “If there are more troops, the situation is explosive. If there is increasing Russian presence, the Georgians may feel they have to move in.”
Tiny Abkhazia was once the playground for the Soviet elite and millions of vacationers. Four of Joseph Stalin's favourite summer homes were in Abkhazia, one perched on a steep cliff overlooking Gagra. Many Russians still feel a sense of entitlement to this patch of Caucasian paradise that became part of Georgia after the Soviet Union collapsed.
War and economic isolation have mangled Abkhazia's natural assets. Today, it is a land of charred homes, potholed roads, wild horses, feral cats and an embittered population still nursing grudges from a war that ended 15 years ago.
In the capital of Sukhumi, the once-stately Hotel Abkhazia, which faces the beachfront boardwalk, is empty and strafed with bullet marks. A former waterfront restaurant has collapsed onto the beach.
Enter Russia, with a keen strategic interest in the region. Irked at the West's recognition of Kosovo, Russia last spring announced it was establishing formal ties with Abkhazia, lifting trade sanctions and pouring money into its ruined economy. It has even distributed Russian passports to Abkhazian residents.
Russian rubles have paved destroyed roads, repaired railways and bolstered the paltry pensions of senior citizens.
Abkhazia's separatist leader, Sergei Bagapsh, said statehood remains a goal here, but for now Russian troops are needed to keep the peace and Russian money is needed to rebuild the damaged country.
Reunification with Georgia, Mr. Bagapsh insisted in an interview at Abkhazia's so-called presidential administration building, is a non-starter.
“Georgia must understand that Abkhazia will never be a part of it,” he said. “If the United States, France, and Canada would build gold mountains in Georgia, we will still never be a part of it.”
Mr. Bagapsh insists that Georgia, not Russia, is the main provocateur in the crisis.
“We expect war at any minute,” Mr. Bagapsh said.
In Eshera, not far from Sukhumi, Tamara Ezugbaya's rambling, near-empty home sheds some light on why Abkhazia has turned its back on Georgia. Over a harrowing six-month period that began in December of 1992, Ms. Ezugbaya lost four of her five sons when Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia.
David, 21, and Astamur, 19, were both killed on Christmas Day during gun battles in the war's early months. Two months later, 17-year-old Vladimir died when his car came under fire and exploded. The eldest, Almashan, 23, died in a firefight in July.
“We had a big, happy family,” said Ms. Ezugbaya, who still wears black mourning clothes. “They helped their father build this house. Now I think, how have I managed to survive these 15 years without them?”
A fifth son, Janalbi, 25, is her sole surviving offspring. Her husband, Napolean, died three years ago at age 57, she said, of a broken heart.
Before the war, Georgians and Abkhazians in Eshera lived side by side, Ms. Ezugbaya said, pointing to a deserted house up the hill that once belonged to Georgian friends.
“They made a mistake by attacking us.”
Abkhazia, with help from fighters from across the Caucasus, eventually turned back the Georgian army, then chased hundreds of thousands of civilian Georgians from their homes, burning and looting as they went. Atrocities were committed on both sides.
The Georgians who once lived near the Ezugbayas' house have not returned. Their homes, reduced to blackened shells, have been reclaimed by sprouting vegetation.
Ms. Ezugbaya, who heads the village council, said Russian assistance will always be welcomed. “Without Russia, we won't survive,” she said.
Three hours to the south of Gagra's peaceful beaches is the grim highland town of Gali. There are no tourists here but the Russian language is still heard on the street, mainly from uniformed Russian peacekeepers.
Under the terms of an international ceasefire agreement, Russian peacekeepers were deployed to oversee the return of Georgian refugees and help rebuild infrastructure.
Situated just a few kilometres from the Georgian border, Gali lies within a 25-kilometre-wide buffer zone, which includes both Abkhazia and Georgia.
Most of its inhabitants are Georgian refugees who have returned to Abkhazia. Few venture outside the security zone because they don't feel safe in the rest of Abkhazia.
Ruslan Kishmaria, the Gali district leader, said he doesn't understand why the presence of thousands of Russian peacekeepers is seen as a threat by Georgians. As he spoke, a smiling Russian soldier stood in his office.
Georgia wants the Russian peacekeepers out of Abkhazia, to be replaced by an international peacekeeping force, but Mr. Kishmaria said Abkhazia will never allow it.
Then he launched into a tirade against the West. “Where was the West 15 years ago when we were attacked? No one remembered us. Where was the international community then? Only Russia helped.
“Now, Russia sends some peacekeepers to Abkhazia and you show up.”
Relations between Russia and Georgia have been deteriorating since 2004, when Mikhail Saakashvili came to power promising democratic reforms in the former Soviet republic.
Like Ukraine, Georgia has turned to the West for political inspiration and financial assistance. Mr. Saakashvili forged a personal bond with U.S. President George W. Bush and pushed for inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, both of which vexed Moscow, which considered Georgia to be in its sphere of influence.
Mr. Saakashvili also made reunification with Abkhazia and another rebel republic, South Ossetia, a centrepiece of his presidential agenda.
Despite the current impasse over Abkhazia, some observers have been heartened by recent diplomatic overtures in Sukhumi.
Last month, an official from the U.S. State Department met with Abkhazian officials, followed by a delegation from Georgia. One idea bandied about was to give Abkhazia some form of autonomy within Georgia with language and cultural guarantees.
However, a Georgian official later said little progress was made, adding the only way to reduce the risk of conflict is for Russia to withdraw its troops immediately.
Some observers say the prospect of another war in the Caucasus is sufficient deterrent to prevent both Russia and Georgia from making a misstep.
Georgia, which is vying to be part of NATO, can't risk its reputation by attacking Abkhazia. And Russia doesn't want a bloody legacy marring the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a resort city less than 25 kilometres from the Abkhazian border.
Prof. Mitchell said Georgia must work to win back Abkhazia's trust, which could take years.
If Georgian democratic reforms take root and the country's economy improves, Abkhazia may one day decide to return to Georgia, he said.
“Do you want to be a medium-sized region of an interesting, prosperous, NATO-moving country or do you want to be a small region of a considerably more difficult and less democratic and free country.
“Abkhazia has a choice.”
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