Uncertain Future for Georgians in Abkhazia

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Torrents of rain hammered down as our rusty Volga bumped and splashed along the potholed highway toward the Russian checkpoint near Gali, the frontier town on the edge of Abkhazia. Not far from Gali, lines of Russian armored personnel carriers stood menacingly in a field by the roadside, while Russian military installations appeared to have been reinforced significantly since my last visit, just before the war in August.

In Gali's waterlogged market, Georgian army uniforms were on offer at a couple of kiosks, hanging alongside black T-shirts bearing the Russian words for peacekeeping forces. One kiosk owner denied that the desert camouflage fatigues he was selling were second-hand bounty pilfered from Georgian military bases when they were occupied and stripped by Russian troops during the war. But the uniforms looked distinctly authentic.

On a nearby street corner, new propaganda billboards had been erected, depicting the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders walking down a red carpet in front of ranks of militiamen and young people jubilantly waving Abkhaz, Ossetian and Russian flags.

Although it is under Abkhaz control, the Gali region is mainly populated by an estimated 40,000 ethnic Georgians. It has long been a tense and uneasy place, both impoverished and war scarred, but since Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state, the future for its residents has become even more uncertain.

It is now more difficult for them to cross over into Georgian-controlled territory as the Abkhaz authorities firm up their border. The dilapidated United Nations bus service, which used to take people across the frontier bridge to trade or visit relatives, has been suspended, and the only transport across the divide is a horse-drawn cart.

Although the economic lifeline for some of Gali's Georgians hasn't been cut completely, it has certainly been damaged. They are also under pressure to give up their Georgian citizenship and take Abkhaz passports -- something many see as unacceptable.

Nevertheless, one Georgian woman told me that the situation in the area hadn't changed much since the war. "It was hard then, and it is hard now," she said. "One thing is different though: The Abkhaz are happy because Russia has recognized them." But she said she was now thinking of finally abandoning her hometown for the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for the sake of her eldest child who is approaching university age.

"I don't want him to study in Abkhazia," she explained. "Who knows what kind of things they might teach him at their university?"

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.