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Abkhazia prepares for presidential election

Six months after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered Abkhazia major military support, the BBC's Tom Esslemont reports from the breakaway territory as it prepares to go to the polls for its first presidential election since Russia recognised its independence from Georgia.

Election campaign posters, Sukhumi
The election campaigns have hardly questioned the role of Russia

In the lush, sub-tropical grounds of the Sukhumi military school, 20 Abkhaz soldiers are warming up with a march and rousing song.

They do so with such gusto that it nearly drowns out the noise of their boots pounding on the concrete.

With 3,600 Russian soldiers currently stationed in Abkhazia, their need to defend the homeland has been made easier. The Russians are here to provide security for this tiny breakaway state.

"Russia and Abkhazia signed several agreements. Russia says it will offer us military training and consultancy. It is the guarantor of our security," says Maj Gen Gary Kupalba, the deputy defence minister of Abkhazia.

But Maj Gen Kupalba admits that Abkhazia relies on Russia's support.

"Yes, every state depends on others, more or less. But even if we do rely on Russia for some economic support Abkhazia is still independent."

Wine boom

Abkhazia's relationship with Russia goes further than just military aid. It now depends on Russia for 90% of foreign investment. It also has a small amount of trade with Turkey, even though that country has not recognised Abkhazia's independence, because of its ties with Georgia.

Valeri Avidzba, chieft wine maker
If our people have chosen to be with Russia then this is their choice
Valeri Avidzba
Chief wine maker, Abkhaz Wine and Beverages company

By Abkhaz standards any investment is an improvement on what it had before. Under an ongoing Georgian embargo - and a Russian blockade, which ended in 2008 - what remained of Abkhazia's crumbling export industries collapsed.

Its one-time productive tea plantations along with many of its vineyards became overgrown.

There are signs, though, with new money, that that is changing.

In the centre of Sukhumi, next to the rickety hulks of old Soviet-era factories, there are one or two signs of activity.

Thanks to Russian investment, the Abkhaz Wine and Beverages company has increased production sevenfold. It is now one of Abkhazia's few thriving export industries.

This year it produced seven million bottles of wine, 86% of which was exported to Russia.

The pungent smell of alcohol wafts through the air. Inside thousands of bottles are being passed along a conveyor belt.

Little choice

Valeri Avidzba is chief wine maker at Sukhumi's only wine factory. I ask him if he is worried that Russia is his only export market.

Wine bottles at Abkhazia Wine and Beverages factory
Most of the wine produced was exported to Russia

"Absolutely not," he says. "We can hardly meet the demands of the Russian market with our produce. I am not worried.

"On the contrary, it opens a huge market and helps us to grow. If our people have chosen to be with Russia then this is their choice."

The truth, though, is that there is little choice. None of the five candidates in this election - including the incumbent, Sergei Bagapsh, has properly doubted Russia's role in Abkhazia - seen in the West as nothing short of annexation.

Even on the streets of Sukhumi, where glamorous new restaurants have opened in the past year, there's still a strong sense of national pride. It is one reflected widely in the views of the 200,000 people who live in the territory.

"No, Russia is not annexing Abkhazia," says Angela, who is in her 20s.

"American military bases are found all around the world but that does not mean America is annexing those countries. So I think that Russian bases are there just for protection of borders."

Russian investment

Although others are aware of the scale of Russia's power, they are equally resilient.

Map of Abkhazia

"I think that our population is mature enough to know when it is being absorbed by another country," says one middle-aged woman.

"I think that people of Abkhazia have enough intelligence to stop Russia's influence if it threatens our national identity, for example."

The election campaigns have hardly questioned the role of Russia, instead tending to focus on the need to build economic prosperity.

Russia supplies 90% of foreign investment to Abkhazia.

"We have to create conditions of order in Abkhazia," says ex-KGB agent Raul Khajimba, one of five presidential candidates.

"If people become more interested in economic development then more countries will recognise Abkhazia."

Russian control

Abkhazia, though, does not speak with one voice. Two hours drive along the Black Sea from Sukhumi is Gali, a community of ethnic Georgians.

Sergei Bagapsh, left, and Vladimir Putin shake hands during their joint news conference in Sukhumi, 12 August 2009
Putin (right), pledged 300m to strengthen Russia's presence

"Russia controls Abkhazia - no one else," says one Gali-based school teacher.

"Russia keeps law and order here. The authorities do not. Russia has more control over this region than Sukhumi," she said, adding that she did not want to be named out of fear for reprisals from those loyal to the authorities.

Like most of those in this community of 40,000 she does not have an Abkhaz passport. She says she has not been granted one and, therefore, cannot vote.

By way of contrast with Sukhumi, Russian investment here is only evident in the military bases down the road from her school.

For Sukhumi's de-facto government, $500m of Russian aid appears a positive sign.

But in the eyes of the West this is a state which still doesn't exist in its own right. And the tensions between those who back Russia's role here - and those who do not - are very palpable.



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