Stuck in the middle of Abkhazia

Vodka and nostalgia are only friends for the ethnic Georgians trapped in a Russian-sponsored breakaway state that has failed to win recognition from the international community, reports Shaun Walker

Monday 18 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Ah, Moscow, reminisces an elderly Gali resident in a melancholy tone. Sitting in a ramshackle cafe, the group of old friends is already tucking into the second bottle of vodka of the day, despite the fact it is not yet noon. "We used to go to Moscow all the time. Or to Tbilisi, wherever we wanted. That was back then, when we had a life, when we still had the Soviet Union. Now, there's no life to be had here."

Gali is the kind of place where people wish that the Soviet Union would come back. A grimly depressing town of crumbling buildings ravished by both war and the passage of time, the only splashes of colour come from giant Soviet murals, depicting a happy life and friendship between nations that seem like bitterly cruel jokes given the recent history of the town and surrounding region.

Gali is part of Abkhazia, the "breakaway state" that split off from Georgia after a messy war in the early 1990s, and has functioned as independent ever since, unrecognised by the international community. The ethnic Abkhaz run the territory from its capital Sukhumi, but Gali is a district populated almost entirely by ethnic Georgians that nevertheless falls inside Abkhazia's boundaries.

After last year's war with Georgia, Russia recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, to the fury of Georgia and the alarm of the international community. Now, Russian aid and investment have flooded the republic, where most of the citizens have Russian passports anyway and Russian military bases have been set up. Kremlin critics say the territory is essentially becoming a de facto part of Russia, Moscow's garrison against Nato and the West in the volatile Caucasus region.

Away from the depression of Gali, the northern part of the territory is a lush, sub-tropical paradise, with stately old buildings and palm-fringed beaches. Joseph Stalin had several dachas here, and during the Soviet period it was seen as the most prestigious place to go on holiday. Now Russian tourists are flooding back, bringing in much-needed cash to a region were poverty and unemployment are rife.

Last month, Abkhazia held presidential elections, where the incumbent, Sergey Bagapsh was re-elected with a sweeping majority for another five years. Georgia called the election "illegitimate on legal, moral and political grounds" because there are thousands of Georgian refugees who have been unable to return to Abkhazia – Gali is the only district to where a return has taken place.

Most of the international community are on Georgia's side. Few countries rushed to follow Moscow's lead and recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Just Nicaragua and Venezuela initially backed the territories, mainly as a snub to Washington, while even Kremlin allies such as Belarus have not acquiesced to pressure and given their recognition.

Last month, the Kremlin scored the smallest of victories when the tiny Pacific island of Nauru said it would back the region's independence. A Russian newspaper reported that the announcement came the day after Moscow promised financial aid to the island state – equivalent to around £2,500 for each of Nauru's 12,000 citizens – in return for its becoming the fourth country to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But some say that by marginalising Abkhazia, the West is simply playing into Russia's hands. While the election was not perfect, it was fairly democratic by regional standards, with the other candidates offering real policies and given access to advertising and television airtime.

Many locals, while grateful for the support and recognition given to them by Russia, are suspicious of the encroaching Russian influence in the territory. Even Mr Bagapsh, while careful to praise Russia for its help, repeatedly states that Abkhazia looks not to Moscow but to Europe for examples. "We want to work with European countries," says the Abkhaz President, puffing on a Marlboro Light in his office on the seafront in Sukhumi. "We recognise that these are great democracies, and we want to study with them and work with them to improve ourselves and make our state better. But they don't want to work with us." Mr Bagapsh says he was invited to Paris to give a lecture earlier this year – but was then denied a visa.

Back in Gali, it's clear who is calling the shots. A high-level Russian election-observing mission, led by Vladimir Churov, a pompous man with a Santa Claus beard who, in his role as the Chairman of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, is in charge of running Russia's rigged elections. He was treated on election day to a banquet inside the town's main polling station.

The lunch was hosted by the ethnic Abkhaz head of the region, and glasses of sweet Caucasian wine were toasted to Russia, Vladimir Putin and Abkhaz independence. Outside the polling station, a group of old men complained about the situation. The Abkhaz authorities, they said, do not let them have Georgian-language schools, and impede free travel over the border. But they are also angry at Georgia and its President, Mikheil Saakashvili. People report threatening and abusive phone calls from Georgian secret services made to those who co-operate with the Abkhaz authorities.

Only 3,500 of the 55,000 people who live in the Gali region have been given the Abkhaz passports that would entitle them to vote. The process of granting passports in the region was stopped amid fears that Abkhazia would be destabilised by such a large number of ethnic Georgian citizens. "Their position is horrible," says a foreign NGO worker who used to work in Abkhazia. "The Abkhaz think that they're potential traitors, and if a war starts they'll fight with Georgia; the Georgians also see them as traitors for living inside the separatist state."

It is only about a dozen miles from Gali to the city of Zugdidi, inside Georgia proper. But the road is closed and residents have to pay a bribe to get across. It has become impossible to visit families or trade across the border. The residents of Gali are also not particularly welcome in Sukhumi, making their isolation complete. The train station lies in ruins – weeds sprouting from the tracks and rubble strewn across the platforms – as a grimly symbolic reminder of the town's isolation. At the de facto border with Georgia, the Russian tricolour flutters above a white-tent camp, set up next to a 14th-century stone watchtower, and a giant billboard with a picture of the Russian and Abkhaz presidents is on display.

An Abkhaz soldier at the border post refuses to say how many Russians are at the new army base, but there are believed to be more than 3,000 in Abkhazia overall. It is clear that the Russians are here to stay.

"This is our home and we want to live here," says one Gali resident who didn't want to be named. "We don't care who rules us. We don't have much of a problem with the Abkhaz. But because of these bastards in Moscow and Tbilisi, our lives are miserable."

Soviet republics: Path to independence

Lithuania Became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence in March 1990.

Estonia Independent since August 1991, after the "Singing Revolution.

Latvia Independent since August 1991 after a failed Soviet coup attempt.

Azerbaijan Independent since August 1991 after civilian unrest led to violence. Cease-fire declared in 1994.

Belarus Independent since August 1991. Discovery of 250,000 bodies in mass graves aided nationalist cause.

Moldova Independent since August 1991 amid clashes between Transnistrian forces, the Army and Moldovan police.

Ukraine Independent since August 1991.

Armenia Independent since September 1991 after Mikhail Gorbachev refused to unify Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh which led to ethnic violence.

Russia The Russian Federation was founded after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

Turkmenistan Declared independence in October 1991, but was not recognised as independent until December.

Georgia Independent since the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 – despite a declaration of independence in April.

Kazakhstan Independent since December 1991 – it was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence.

Kyrgyzstan Independent since December 1991 when it also joined the new Common-wealth of Independent states.

Tajikistan Independent since December 1991 after nationalist calls for rights.

Uzbekistan Independent since December 1991.

Abkhazia Declared independence from Georgia in July 1992. War with Georgia followed.

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