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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Abkhazia's tentative hopes for future

By Jenny Norton
BBC World Service

It is more than four months now since Georgia and Russia went to war over South Ossetia, but memories are still fresh in Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia.

Russian naval ship off coast of Abkhazia
The Russian navy keeps a close watch on Abkhazia's coast
Abkhazians watched television coverage of Georgia's attack on South Ossetia with great anxiety, and Russia's powerful counter-attack with huge relief.

The episode fatally undermined Georgia's position vis-a-vis both regions, and this, combined with their recognition by Russia over the summer as independent states, has lifted Abkhaz confidence.

"We feel much safer now in Abkhazia than we've felt in the past 15 years," says Natella Akaba, who runs a women's campaigning group involved in peace-building initiatives. "We see Russia as our protector."

On a tree-lined road leading into the capital, Sukhumi, large posters have sprung up celebrating the 15th anniversary of the end of the war which led to Abkhazia's breakaway from Georgia.

"Always ready to defend our free Abkhazia," says one depicting soldiers in fatigues and camouflage make-up.

Sense of identity

On the day in August that Russia recognised Abkhazia, Sukhumi's main square was full of cheering young people waving flags and driving around tooting their car horns and firing off celebratory machine-gun rounds.

"It was such a great day," a young economics student tells me, with a huge smile on his face.

Natella Akaba
We see Russia as our protector
Natella Akaba

"I was even on Russian television driving up and down in my car waving a big Abkhaz flag."

Fear of renewed violence is something people here have lived with since the war with Georgia in the early 1990s.

Almost every family here lost someone in the fighting.

Much of Sukhumi was left in ruins, and even today, many of its turn-of-the-century buildings are still no more than burned-out shells.

Strolling along the sunny seafront underneath the palm trees, where old men gather every day to drink coffee and play backgammon within sight of the sparkling waves, it is still hard to believe that such a lovely place could have seen so many horrors.

The seafront is being redeveloped and its bombed buildings are being restored.

Better life

On a construction site in the centre of town, I meet a group of migrant workers from Bukhara in Uzbekistan who say life is much better here than in Russia because the police do not harass them.

The shops on the main street are full of wedding dresses, and there are a lot more cars on the street - many of them big black Jeeps and BMWs brought in from Russia.

"We even have traffic jams here now," someone jokes.

map

But although Russia is very much on everyone's minds, there is no obvious sign of greater Russian influence around this run-down but pretty town.

However, a lot of the reconstruction work is being paid for by rich Moscow-based Abkhaz businessmen.

The 3,700-strong Russian military contingent now stationed in Abkhazia is not visible here.

But in the longer term it is hard to imagine how a tiny place like Abkhazia will be able to retain its sense of identity and hold its own against its much larger neighbour.

"You cannot not be concerned about Russian influence here," says Natella Akaba.

"I wouldn't want Abkhazia to end up as just a military base and a holiday destination for Russia. I have children and grandchildren and I want them to live in a country that's proud to be free."

'Failed state'

But any hopes that might be harboured in Tbilisi - that disillusion with Russia could push the Abkhaz back into the arms of Georgia - are dismissed out of hand.

"We have no other alternative," Ms Akaba continues.

"Even if things don't turn out well with Russia, it doesn't mean for us that the Georgians would be better."

Many other people I speak to say the same thing.

It is clear that no-one here has any faith or trust in Georgia's intentions, even less so since the events in South Ossetia.

"Georgia chose to try to solve things through the military option," says Stanislav Lakoba, a historian who heads Abkhazia's National Security Council.

"Once again they showed that they're nothing more than a failed state."

Like many people here, Mr Lakoba is disappointed in what he sees as the West's failure to understand Abkhazia's point of view.

Tough lives

In the past six months EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and countless US and European ambassadors and envoys have all passed through his office.

"They came, they listened but they did nothing," he says.

A building in Abkhazia
Many of Sukhumi's turn-of-the century structures are being redeveloped

Mr Lakoba seems in no mood to allow the newly created EU Military Monitoring Force for Georgia to operate on Abkhaz soil.

But like most people here, he is hopeful that in the longer term Nicaragua will not be the only country other than Russia to recognise Abkhazia.

If relations could improve between Russia and the EU, he says, then that might offer a way out of the current impasse.

I ask him what kind of a place he thinks Abkhazia will be in 20 years' time.

He says he hopes Abkhazia and Russia could one day be like Monaco and France.

Sitting by the sparkling sea in Sukhumi, it does not seem impossible to imagine. But there is another side to Abkhazia.

In the passport control hut, as I cross back into Georgia proper, a young Abkhaz border guard is arguing with two elderly Georgians, old enough to be his parents or even grandparents, who want to visit their children on the Georgian side.

More than a quarter of a million ethnic Georgians lost their homes in Abkhazia during the war.

Around 45,000 have returned and most live in the western districts bordering the rest of Georgia.

The border is now officially closed, making their already tough lives even more difficult.

The border guard is rude and aggressive to the old man and his wife, despite knowing that I am within earshot.

"If you want to see your children, it's going to cost you 300 roubles," he shouts.

Money changes hands and I watch as they trudge off, sighing with the resignation of people used to being pushed around.

Suddenly Monte Carlo seems a very long way away.

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