Georgian Province in Uneasy Embrace of Moscow

APAbkhaz men playing chess along the Black Sea coast in Sukhumi. Some are worried about overreliance on Russia.
SUKHUMI, Abkhazia — Russia's footprint is everywhere in Abkhazia, from billboards featuring President Dmitry Medvedev to its joint military exercises with the Abkhaz navy.

"Peace! Freedom! Independence!" proclaims a roadside billboard featuring Medvedev and Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh. Medvedev, although short, appears nearly twice as big as Bagapsh.

It could be a metaphor for how some Abkhaz feel since Moscow recognized their statehood following the Russia-Georgia war in August: grateful for the support but afraid of being swallowed up.

Officials in this breakaway Georgian territory of broad Black Sea beaches, lush fruit orchards and snowy mountains acknowledge that Russian soldiers have been interfering in their internal affairs.

For example, Russian soldiers regularly block foreigners seeking to cross the Inguri River into Abkhazia from Georgia and harass those who venture into areas under their control.

"There's already a lot of tension," said Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gvindzhiya. "But what can you say to a regular soldier? They don't even listen to me when I call them."

Ibragim Chkadua edited an opposition newspaper in Sukhumi, the capital, but closed it following the recognition of statehood, convinced that Abkhazia's political future would be written by the Kremlin.

"We've already become like a province of Russia," he said.

For more than a decade, Russia has stationed peacekeeping forces here to police a cease-fire between Georgia and Abkhazia. Now it plans to deepen its presence by permanently stationing 3,700 troops in the territory.

Abkhazia provides Russia with a military foothold in the South Caucasus, a potential base for its Black Sea Fleet and lucrative new markets.

The territory is expected to provide gravel for Russia's construction industry and hotels for visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. This year alone, Russia is expected to invest $200 million here.

Concern about overreliance on Russia leads some Abkhaz to suggest courting Western partners, at a time when Moscow is warning the West to stay out of its backyard.

Beslan Buratelia, an economist and member of ERA, an opposition party, said the key is to convince the Western investors who fled Russia for fear of political risks that they can safely invest in Abkhazia.

In a broader sense, the territory of fewer than 200,000 people is typical of the jigsaw puzzle of Caucasus nations: small, weak and with a history of having to maneuver between larger powers for what little autonomy it can grab.

Unlike South Ossetia, which Russia also recognized as independent after the Georgia war, Abkhazia has had de facto independence since the Soviet Union dissolved and has tried to keep it that way.

But Russia's cultural influence is rising here, along with its economic and political power.

A man named Zurab, who refused to give his last name, said he fought for Abkhazia's independence in its 1991-93 war with Georgia only to discover these days that the Abkhaz language is now rarely heard in public.

"At home, my family speaks Abkhaz, but when they leave the house my children speak Russian," he said. "If they want to go to Moscow to work, they have to know how to speak Russian. Still, I don't want my language to fade away. That isn't what we were fighting for."

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said Russia's military presence does not make his country any more subservient to the Kremlin than countries with U.S. military bases are to Washington.

"We have a security agreement with a superpower, a country that has nuclear weapons," Shamba said. "Since that moment, a war against Abkhazia means a war against Russia."

Still, he acknowledged that Abkhazia would rather be less dependent on a single country. "Unfortunately, this is a result of our geostrategic position," he said.

Meanwhile, the only country so far to join Russia in recognizing Abkhazia's independence is Nicaragua.

A reporter was permitted by Abkhaz authorities to make a rare visit to the Upper Kodor Gorge, a region occupied by Georgian military forces until they were driven out in August.

Russian troops in armored personnel carriers patrol the steep mountain passes, littered with the shattered remains of Georgian military hardware.

The upper gorge emptied as villagers, nearly all of them ethnic Georgians, fled ahead of the advancing Russian and Abkhaz forces.

Empty homes, their gardens overgrown with dead plants, line the streets of Adzhara, formerly the seat of a Georgian-backed Abkhaz government in exile.

At one of a series of fortified Russian checkpoints, soldiers detained a reporter for hours and demanded that he erase the contents of his camera, despite his permit from officials in Sukhumi to be there.

The soldiers eventually relented, but one issued a veiled threat: "Be careful. Things happen here. You're not in America anymore."