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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Are Welcome But Georgians Are Not

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The seafront at Sukhumi, in Abkhazia, is full of ghosts. Ghosts of those killed in the war and of those who fled, taking whatever they could with them. Ghosts of the people who played, loved and fought there. Ghostly buildings, like the once-grand Hotel Abkhazia, gutted by rocket fire and stripped to a skeleton. If bitter memories of the desperate Abkhaz war still fester here, 14 years after the ceasefire, it's partly because the evidence of the destruction also remains.

Not much of this seems to disturb the Russian tourists who return to Sukhumi year after year. For them, this is still the subtropical Black Sea playground of the Soviet years, if a little more downscale now. "I like the wildness of this place, and its feeling of freedom," one woman remarked to me blithely. A man sitting on the grass nearby offered a sharper analysis: "Generally speaking, it's so good here in Abkhazia that everyone wants to have this piece of land."

The Russians even have their own sanatorium complex, with its own bars and restaurants -- part of the huge beachfront compound occupied by the Russian peacekeepers who been here since the war. A little piece of the South Caucasus that will be forever Russian -- or so they seem to believe. Russian soldiers police the compound's main gate, where a huge portrait of Lenin gazes down sternly at the vacationers.

The compound caters mainly to military types, and the night I went for a meal there, sunburned soldiers and their wives were grooving drunkenly to a Russian pop hit celebrating army life. For some of them, the ruins of Sukhumi are just an unusual backdrop for vacation snapshots. Near the compound, I watched a tanned, blue-eyed youth taking a photo of a blonde in a tiny bikini amid the rubble of a half-demolished cottage. A family used to live there before the war. They were likely Georgians, and are unlikely to return any time soon. The ruined houses are the only signs that there was once a Georgian population here.

A few months ago, I dropped in to a little cafe in Sukhumi's brutalist Soviet-style suburb, Novy Rayon. Back in the early 1990s some of the worst fighting took place in the thick of this forest of apartment blocks. Many of the building are still battered and burned-out, like weird apocalyptic sculptures looming out of the grubby streets. Inside the cafe, an old man offered vodka and camaraderie. But when the talk turned to the Georgians, his mood soured instantly. "They will never be able to come back and live here," he growled. "If they try, they will be killed."

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.