Independent-Minded Abkhaz Look for Hero

SUKHUMI, Abkhazia -- On Freedom Square, in front of a gutted high rise that once housed the seat of government, stands an empty pedestal flanked on both sides by well-manicured shrubs.

The statue of Lenin that once occupied this spot is long gone, and the forlorn stump is waiting for a new hero -- perhaps an appropriate symbol for a republic that has been trapped in limbo for 15 years.

Abkhazia has lived in poverty and oblivion after winning de facto independence in a 1992-93 war against Georgia. Now residents hope to move forward with Moscow's recent decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and another separatist republic, South Ossetia.

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said he expected 10 or 11 countries to follow Russia's lead in the near future. But even if they do not, he said, Abkhazia will pursue its aspirations for statehood.

"Whether they recognize us or not, we are not going to turn off from the path of our independence," Bagapsh told reporters on a recent Kremlin-organized tour of the two republics.

Nicaragua last week became the first country after Russia to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow's recognition came after Georgia attempted to retake control of South Ossetia by force on Aug. 8.

Abkhaz residents said the Sept. 30 festivities commemorating the 15th anniversary of their independence bid would be toned down in a sign of sympathy to the South Ossetians. But unlike the South Ossetians, who openly say they want to join Russia, the Abkhaz insist that they will not give away their independence to anybody, even Moscow, which has given them Russian passports and covered their pension payments.

"We want to be independent and tackle all issues on our own," said Hieromonk Andrei, a black-robed monk who lives at the Novy Afon Monastery. "God has given us an opportunity to expand our horizons."

Similar sentiments can be heard across the republic. "Our fathers did not fight for independence in order for us to leave one side and join another," said Mikhail Kiut, 21, on the Russian border on the Psou River.

As Abkhazia looks to fill the empty pedestal on Sukhumi's Freedom Square, however, a candidate could easily end up being President Dmitry Medvedev, widely praised by residents for recognizing Abkhazia as independent in defiance of strong criticism from the West.

"When our independence was recognized on Aug. 26, we decided that a final line had been drawn under the war" of 1992-92, said Laura Sharova, a Russian who lives in the resort town of Gagra.

Or Abkhazia might chose to immortalize in stone another Russian, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who as president in March lifted trade and financial sanctions imposed by Russia in 1996.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich decided to act differently," said Leonid Lakerbaya, a senior Abkhaz official. "I believe Russia is grateful to him" for what he did as president, "but we are even more so."

For now, though, officials are keeping mum about who will tower over Freedom Square.