|“Russia – guarantor of peace and stability in the Caucasus”, the poster reads [Guy Degen]|
One year ago, Russia controversially recognised Abkhazia, a Georgian breakaway region, as an independent state.
But while local confidence appears to be growing, there are fears there will be renewed conflict with Georgia and the territory will remain nothing more than a Kremlin protectorate.
“This is Vladimir. He is my first son.”
|Indira Bartsits named one of her twins after Vladimir Putin [Justyna Mielnikiewicz]|
Indira Bartsits proudly gestures towards one of her infant twins, who were born just minutes before the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly visited her room at a maternity hospital in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, during his trip to the disputed region earlier this month.
She said she only decided to name the child after the Russian premier on the spur of the moment, but agreed that she was grateful to Moscow for recognising Abkhazia as an independent state a year ago.
Doctors at the hospital suggested she should name the other twin after Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, but she preferred to call him after her brother-in-law, who was killed during Abkhazia’s battles for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Despite protests from the United States and Europe, the Kremlin recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russia’s victory over Georgia in the war in August 2008, although no other country, apart from Nicaragua, has followed suit.
Georgians still see the rebel regions as part of their sovereign territory, and insist they should not be allowed to break away.
But in the streets of Sukhumi, there are propaganda billboards emblazoned with slogans such as “Abkhazia and Russia – Always Together” and many people are grateful to Medvedev and Putin.
“They are both very popular here, especially Putin, because he did everything for us,” said Laura Dziba, who works in a photographic shop where portraits of the Russian leaders were on sale.
During Mr Putin’s visit, he pledged almost $500m to fortify the region’s borders and develop a military base to house some of the 3,600 Russian troops which will be stationed here.
Georgia regards the Russian army as an occupying force, but the Abkhaz government sees it as the “guarantor of peace and stability”, as another billboard poster in Sukhumi proclaims.
“We’ll always consider Georgia as a threat until we sign a peace treaty,” said Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazia’s deputy foreign minister.
“We have to have clear guarantees that Georgia is not going to consider the possibility of military revenge in Abkhazia.
“From a long-term perspective, one day we will have to find a way to co-operate, to trade and to live side-by-side.”
At a dilapidated military training ground on the outskirts of the capital, Abkhaz soldiers run through their artillery drills on the crumbling concrete in front of ageing Soviet-era tanks and weather-beaten armoured vehicles.
The troops may be poorly-equipped, but their chief of staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Zaitsev, believes that in the event of any renewed conflict, Abkhazia’s Russian protectors would swiftly intervene, as they did when they crushed the Georgian army during the war over South Ossetia.
“After Russia recognised our independence, we feel totally secure, and the events of August 2008 showed why that is,” he said.
“Russian army border guards are already stationed on our state borders. That shows that if there was an attack on Abkhazia, it would be seen as an attack on Russia’s border guards, and of course they would take action to neutralise the enemy.”
Colonel-General Zaitsev, who also serves as Abkhazia’s deputy defence minister, showed off an American-made automatic rifle and other military equipment which he alleged was captured when Abkhaz forces drove the Georgians out of the remote Kodori Gorge area last year.
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When asked if he believes Georgian officials are telling the truth when they insist that they will only use peaceful methods to regain control over Abkhazia, he smiled.
“It’s my duty not to believe them,” he said.
Russia has long been a dominant force in Abkhazia; the currency is the Russian ruble and Russian money props up the region’s tattered economy.
Moscow now also controls the borders, the railway and the airport, causing Georgians to suggest that the Abkhaz are simply pawns in the Kremlin’s campaign to dominate the former Soviet Union, and that their “independence” is a sham.
“Abkhazia is under occupation by the Russian Federation, which is carrying out an extensive military build-up on territory which has been ethnically cleansed, and these activities will only destabilise the region further,” Alexander Nalbandov, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, said.
Some people in Abkhazia are concerned that they only have one international ally, and would like to develop links with European Union countries to reduce their dependence on Russia.
“The situation forced us into these circumstances,” Inal Khasig, an independent Abkhaz journalist, said.
“It’s also the fault of the international community, Europe and the United States, which have been constantly denying us the possibility of having our own state, so practically, this pushed us into Russia’s sphere of influence.”
At picturesque seaside resorts like Sukhumi and Novy Afon on Abkhazia’s sub-tropical Black Sea coast, there seems to be a growing sense of confidence, with more tourists sunning themselves on the beaches and the numbers of hotels and restaurants increasing.
|Reminders of conflict remain as tourists return to seaside resorts in Abkhazia|
But two Russian warships standing guard off the coast of Novy Afon are a sign that normality is still a long way off.
For about 50,000 ethnic Georgian refugees who returned to the devastated Gali region in the north of Abkhazia after the war in the early 1990s, the situation is grim and gradually deteriorating.
People in Gali live in desperate poverty amid the burnt-out houses of neighbours who fled the fighting, during what Georgia describes as a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
They often complain of harassment by the Abkhaz authorities and some fear they will ultimately have to leave.
“What can I say? Of course I’m thinking about what I will do if it gets worse,” said one ethnic Georgian woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Gross human rights violations against the local population in Gali are taking place constantly and there is no perspective for any improvement in the situation,” Alexander Nalbandov, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, claimed.
A United Nations observer mission used to operate in Gali, but it was shut down after Russia vetoed its mandate at the UN Security Council.
The international community is no longer able to monitor what remains a highly volatile environment, as was demonstrated when two people died in bomb attacks on the same day as Vladimir Putin’s official visit.
Although Abkhazia is enjoying its status as a Kremlin protectorate, it may take years for the bitter dispute with Georgia to be resolved, and while the region remains isolated from the rest of the world, genuine peace is likely to remain a distant hope.