Abkhazia, the country that doesn't exist, prepares to follow Kosovo's example

Friday 21 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Underneath the red, white and green Abkhazian flag, border guards check documents on the bridge over the river Psou, just outside the Russian city of Sochi.

"Welcome to Abkhazia," says a hirsute official, wearing military fatigues and smoking a slimline cigarette. "Enjoy your stay in our country."

Abkhazia has a president, a flag, a national anthem and even a visa system for foreign visitors but the country doesn't appear on any maps. Officially, this small piece of sub-tropical Black Sea coastline with a population today of about 170,000, is a province of Georgia.

But since a vicious war in the early 1990s, it has been functioning as an independent state and, in the aftermath of Kosovo's independence, the Abkhazians hope their statehood will be recognised by the international community.

Shortly after Kosovo declared independence, the Abkhazian parliament, located in a seafront building in the capital, Sukhumi, issued a call for international recognition.

"After the recognition of Kosovo by many Western states, the geopolitical situation has significantly changed," read the parliament's statement. "Any legal decision has a universal character... All people have the same rights to freedom and independence."

On the seafront promenade, in the shadow of war-damaged buildings, old men while away the days drinking Turkish-style coffee and playing chess and backgammon. "Why is Kosovo any better than Abkhazia?" asked one. "It's exactly the same situation. We're a small country trying to stand on our own two feet."

The local papers are awash with Kosovo headlines and accusations that the West is engaging in "double standards" by recognising Kosovo but not Abkhazia. Western countries have said that Kosovo is a unique case, voicing support for Georgia's "territorial integrity", and a resolution to the Abkhazian conflict that does not alter Georgia's official boundaries.

Abkhazia's main hope for recognition is Russia. Vladimir Putin has hinted on several occasions that if the West recognised Kosovo, Russia may recognise Abkhazia and three other "breakaway states" on former Soviet soil.

Russian support has been a lifeline for Abkhazia for many years, a fact that has irked Georgia and been a key factor in the poor relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. At the Psou border crossing, Abkhazian women wheel in trolleys of goods from Russia. to sell in Abkhazia. Almost everything on sale in the republic comes from Russia, save a few bootleg goods from Turkey. Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Abkhazia, the rouble is used, and Moscow has issued Russian passports to Abkhazians who want them. In the past two years, Russian tourists have flocked back to the hotels along Abkhazia's palm-fringed beaches.

Immediately after the Kosovo declaration of independence, Russia went one step further and lifted economic sanctions on Abkhazia. In reality, Moscow has long turned a blind eye to cross-border trade with Abkhazia but the full legalisation of trade will make things easier for the Abkhazians.

"I'm planning to build a hotel, and before it would've taken six months to bring the cement across the border in small loads," says Otar Kakalia, a local businessman. "Now, I'll be able to do it in a single day."

In Sukhumi, the hope is now for Russia to go one step further and formally recognise Abkhaz independence. The Russian parliament will vote today on a resolution calling for Russia to recognise Abkhazia if Georgia joins Nato.

"There are different opinions within the establishment," said Sergei Markedonov, a Moscow-based political analyst. "Some want to recognise Abkhazia and others want to keep helping the Abkhaz but stop short of official recognition."

Stanislav Lakoba, a local historian and chairman of the de facto government's Security Council, said: "Russia is behaving like a football team that keeps passing the ball around the penalty area but each time it looks like a certain goal, they make another pass. We have every right to be independent and they should stop being scared of the West and go ahead."

Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili , has long stated that one of the main aims of his presidency is to bring Georgia's two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Tbilisi's control and allow the thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled their homes in Abkhazia to return.

The Abkhazians fear Mr Saakashvili will attempt a military solution to the conflict, which analysts say would be the only realistic way to return Georgian control. With American backing, the Georgians have pumped vast funds into modernising their army over recent years, and in Sukhumi, Abkhaz officials claim to have information that Georgia is planning an offensive.

"The Georgians have long wanted a military solution, but they are scared of Russia getting involved, and also of the US," says Mr Markedonov. "The Saakashvili government is set on Nato membership and integration with the West and if they start a military conflict they can say goodbye to that."

A plan for Georgia's accession to Nato is on the table for the summit in Bucharest next month, and George Bush promised after meeting Mr Saakashvili this week that he would support the Georgian bid. Russia has strongly opposed Georgian membership of the alliance, and could recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia in retaliation.

In School Number 2 at Gagra, young Abkhazians are in no doubt about where their future lies.

"My father died in the war so that I could grow up in a free country," said 15-year-old Sabina Tsushba.

"We're an independent country because we've made it that way ourselves," said another 15-year-old pupil. "It doesn't really matter whether the rest of the world takes notice of us or not."

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