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Putin message clear in Abkhazia

13 August 09 12:04 GMT

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Sukhumi

The carefully-choreographed visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia on Wednesday was designed to send a clear message to both Georgia and the international community.

Mr Putin was telling the world, in typically blunt fashion, that Russia is here to stay, regardless of whether it violates the ceasefire agreements ending last year's war and regardless of the forlorn attempts of the international community to find a mutually acceptable solution on the final status of Abkhazia and the other breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Putin pledged to spend a staggering sum next year - $500m (£300m) - on strengthening the Russian military presence in Abkhazia.

He did not give much detail on why so much money would be needed other than saying it would be used to bolster the Russian military bases and to secure the de-facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia which is already patrolled by Russian troops.

It was confirmed on Wednesday that Russia now has just over 3,600 soldiers in Abkhazia.

Strategic importance

So could Moscow also be planning to go ahead with the construction of a major Russian navy base at Ochamchire on the Black Sea coast?

A top advisor to the Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh confirmed to the BBC that the government is very keen for the base to be built.

"The base will increase security and will bring investment to the region…it will bring life back [to Ochamchire]," said the advisor, Nadir Bitiev.

He added that some work did begin this year but then stopped, possibly because of the economic crisis.

"There's a 50-50 chance it will go ahead," he said.

If the base is built it would be important strategically for Moscow, potentially even giving the Russian navy an alternative home for its Black Sea fleet when the lease on the current base in Ukraine runs out in 2017.

That both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been turned into important and permanent Russian military outposts is now without doubt.

Instead of drawing down its forces at the end of last year's war with Georgia - as required under the ceasefire agreements - Russia has done exactly the opposite.

And for all the words of condemnation from Georgia and Western countries, there is very little that can be done to stop Moscow forging ahead with its plans.

Tradition of independence

As in South Ossetia, the key question remains how far Abkhazia will now be absorbed into Russia.

The Abkhaz have a much greater tradition of independence than the South Ossetians and officials here insist the territory will never be annexed by Moscow.

But Mr Putin's visit had all the trappings of an emperor inspecting newly-acquired territory, with the Abkhaz leader obsequiously perching before him, pledging at a news conference in Sukhumi that Abkhazia was a loyal ally.

And during a visit to a new maternity hospital in Sukhumi there was a moment of embarrassment for Mr Putin, as doctors proclaimed that newborn twins would be named after him and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

As one Abkhaz journalist put it, Abkhazia has spent the past 16 years demonstrating its independence from Georgia; now it has to prove to the world that it is also independent from Russia.

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