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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Georgia's forgotten conflict

By Damian Grammaticus
BBC, Abkhazia

It has been a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked several bloody conflicts.

Chechnya is the most well known but, not far away, the region of Abkhazia also fought a costly war as it tried to break away from Georgia. Ten thousand people died.

Abkhazia used to be a centre for tourism
Abkhazia declared itself independent, but is not recognised by a single country in the world.

So the conflict remains unresolved, and the United Nations warns that Abkhazia continues to be a source of instability in a volatile region.

Abkhazia is so isolated that the only way we could get in was on the UN's daily helicopter service. The old Russian-made Mi-8 lumbered noisily above the waves of the Black Sea.

Since a UN helicopter was shot down flying between Georgia and Abkhazia two years ago, all flights skirt around the ceasefire line.

In limbo

This 3,000 sq km territory where the Caucasus mountains rise from the Black Sea is a lush and beautiful land.

We're used to living in isolation - if countries want to be friendly to us they can, like Russia is
Raul Hadzhimba
Abkhazian prime minister
The UN has overseen a fragile, tense standoff since 1993 when Abkhazian forces drove Georgian troops from the tiny republic.

Now the region exists in a kind of limbo, with almost all its borders closed and its economy throttled by an economic embargo.

The UN observers patrol a buffer zone in armoured vehicles.

It is a lawless, dangerous area for Major Yusuf El-Bdour and his team - UN personnel have been kidnapped.

"Our presence here is important," he says. "The locals feel that they are safe when they see the UN cars and the UN flag. If we leave I think the conflict will begin from the beginning."

'Struggle to survive'

The patrol drives through villages abandoned by Georgian families during the war.

Seryozha
Seryozha scratches a living in the conflict zone
Beautiful old houses lie in ruins. Roses grow out of control up rusting wrought-iron balconies.

In his sixties, Seryozha is left scratching a living in the conflict zone.

"My son was killed and I am half dead here. It's a struggle to survive. Every day we're promised a solution, but it's been 10 years and still there isn't one," he says.

Also waiting for a solution are a quarter of a million Georgians. They used to make up half of Abkhazia's population, but were driven out of their homes during the war.

This area is such a forgotten spot, which is of course not in the interest of a world that gets smaller and smaller and more inter-dependent
Heidi Tagliavini
UN special representative
In Georgia's capital Tbilisi, six members of Georgi's family live crammed into one tiny room in what was the Iveria Hotel.

It used to be one of the smartest in Georgia, now it's full of displaced families. Georgi, like the others, waits to return to his former home.

'Isolation'

"If Abkhazians don't want to let us return peacefully, we'll go anyway by force. I want my house back. I want to see the grave of my father and my nephew. How long can we wait? One way or another we have to go back."

But Abkhazia says there can be no settlement until Georgia recognises its independence.

"There's no way we will reunite with Georgia," Prime Minister Raul Hadzhimba told the BBC, "not after all the lives that have been lost.

Abkhazia cannot survive on its own. We need help from somewhere
Angela Karapetyan
"We're used to living in isolation. If countries want to be friendly to us they can, like Russia is."

Russia supports Abkhazia in crucial ways, keeping open a single cross-border link. It is a lifeline for the territory's economy.

During the war Georgia claims Russia gave Abkhazia vital political and military support. And today Russia is busy extending its influence in the territory.

Russian citizenship

Angela Karapetyan lives with her daughter Christina in Abkhazia's capital Sukhumi. Their third-floor flat is in a block that was gutted during the war.

Soviet passport
Many Abkhazians have only their old Soviet passports
Angela has rebuilt her home amid the ruins, but like most Abkhazians she is trapped.

The only passport she has is her old Soviet one from before the war. It is useless for travelling abroad.

Legally, people in Abkhazia are Georgians. But Russia is now giving them citizenship, a subtle way of extending its influence.

"Personally I think it would be good if Abkhazia became a part of Russia. Life would be better," Angela says. "We're very poor here. Abkhazia cannot survive on its own. We need help from somewhere."

On Abkhazia's frontier with Georgia there are checkpoints manned by young Russian soldiers. Several thousand Russians operate, alongside the UN, as international peacekeepers.

Georgia has cultivated ties with the United States. But Russia has tried to keep a hold on what was always its sphere of influence.

Conflict without end

"A lot of politicians in Russia still have imperial ambitions and an imperial mentality. They don't want to lose Georgia as a sphere of interest and influence," says Nino Burzhadnadze, the speaker of Georgia's parliament.

"They think that in the interests of Russia they should have a sick and disintegrated Georgia, which will be quite easy to manipulate. And in this way to have some influence in the Caucasus."

Heidi Tagliavini, the UN's special representative charged with solving the conflict, is left frustrated, unable to make any progress.

But she warns after 11 September the world cannot afford to leave such conflicts to fester.

"This area is such a forgotten spot, which is of course not in the interest of a world that gets smaller and smaller and more inter-dependent," she says.

In Abkhazia the result is a conflict without a clear end, and a region beyond international law.


SEE ALSO:
UN monitors kidnapped in Georgia
05 Jun 03  |  Europe
Abkhaz conflict looms again
09 Oct 01  |  Europe
UN outrage over Abkhaz killing
16 Aug 00  |  Europe
UN concern over Georgia kidnap
10 Dec 00  |  Europe


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