Border exodus puts war in the shade: Russians went on a spending spree yesterday to dump pre-1993 currency - invalid from today - as shoppers in neighbouring Abkhazia swarmed into Russia, roubles in hand

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The Independent Online
PROBABLY the last time so many people swarmed across the Psou River was a year ago when Eduard Shevardnadze sent tanks and troops to Georgia's Black Sea coast to punish Abkhazian separatists. No gunfire accompanied yesterday's exodus from the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia to Russia, though there was still something approaching panic. At stake this time were people's livelihoods - at least that part denominated in roubles and held in banknotes printed before 1993.

On most days only a few hundred people trickle across the border past fruit juice stalls now used by frontier police. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no formalities at all other than the occasional spot-check by the state traffic inspectorate, whose circular booth is now occupied by young men with guns and fatigues.

Yesterday, according to Russian estimates, more than 10,000 had come across by mid-afternoon. Since shops and banks on the Abkhazian side have been destroyed in the war with Georgia, people were looking for Russian shops to offload old roubles before they become obsolete today. Many returned empty-handed. 'This is a catastrophe,' said Timur, an Abkhaz warrior checking passports. From foreigners, he tried to extract money for a 'new visa fee'.

Timur and other Abkhazians seemed far more bothered by the Russian Central Bank's pronouncement than the latest news from the front. The fighting is a long way off, a three- hour drive down the coast around the city of Sukhumi, in Georgian hands but surrounded by Abkhazians.

No matter who takes Sukhumi, the decisions of the Central Bank could have a far deeper impact of people's lives. Abkhazia has its own flag, army and, in the town of Gaduata, a semblance of a parliament, where offices are decorated with a version of the US Declaration of Independence, with the unnamed tyrant of the original substituted by 'Shevardnadze'.

But Abkhazia does not have its own money: the only real currency is the rouble. In Abkhazia, as in many other parts of the former Soviet Union, the rouble is no longer mocked for sickliness against Western currencies or despised as a remnant of imperialism. It is prized. And it is this desire not to lose the rouble that took so many across the Psou River yesterday.