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Abkhaz Businessmen Challenge Russian Commander

Unclear legal ownership of a Russian military sanatorium provokes anger on the Black Sea.
By Inal Khashig

A row between Abkhaz traders and a Russian military sanatorium has become so bitter that the former went on an unprecedented two-day hunger strike earlier this month.


The still unresolved quarrel highlights the increased confidence of resident Russians in the unrecognised territory, with many Abkhaz unhappy about the dominant role Russian business is playing in their lives.


The dispute began last year when Alexander Fursenko, who is head of the Moscow Military District’s Sukhum Sanatorium, declared that all shops, cafes and businesses on the territory of the sanatorium - a popular destination for Russians wanting a holiday on the Black Sea coast - must come under its ownership, or else shut down.


“That is to say, a Russian lieutenant-colonel decided to expropriate other people’s property on territory that had been entrusted to him, forgetting that this was not 1917 but the beginning of the 21st century,” said Zurab Zukhba, one of the outraged businessmen.


The Sukhum sanatorium, in common with much property in Abkhazia, has an unclear legal status. Its managers, the Moscow Military District, have not signed any legal documents with the Abkhaz authorities and have no official permission to use the land.


Abkhazia broke away from Georgian rule in 1993 after a fierce war. It is now de facto independent but still regarded by the international community as part of Georgia. Over the last few years it has become increasingly part of Russia’s economic and political space, and most of its citizens now carry Russian passports.


An Abkhaz government commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Zantaria, ruled that the businesses had the right to continue functioning as before until Russia’s defence ministry and the Abkhaz government had signed a formal agreement.


However, with Abkhazia distracted by a political crisis following disputed presidential elections in October 2004, nothing was done - and Fursenko stepped up his pressure on the traders.


He gave orders for some of the buildings to be pulled down, while others were deprived of water and electricity. Many properties had trenches dug and piles of building materials put up directly in front of them to deter customers. Fursenko then proposed to some of the café- and restaurant-owners that they could work as hired labour in their own establishments.


“He calls us occupiers, when we have being paying our taxes here for ten years!” complained Lyudmila Bigvava, one of the threatened proprietors. “All our establishments were put up with the permission both of the administration of the sanatorium and of the town authorities.”


Bigvava is the owner of a traditional Abkhaz restaurant known as an “apatskha”. Her only son died in the 1992-3 war and this is her one means of making a living. When the military authorities of the sanatorium wanted to take over her business, they blocked the entrance with a pile of steel and concrete.


“I’ve been forced to sleep here, in the cold apatskha, since last October,” said Bigvava. “The moment I leave the territory of the sanatorium, Fursenko will give the order to pull [my business] down.”


The proprietors also allege that Fursenko is using the employees of the sanatorium to build his own private house without paying them.


The management of the sanatorium says only that the decision to remove the traders comes from their bosses in the Moscow Military District. Fursenko himself is away in Moscow and could not be contacted for comment, but his deputies called a public meeting to show their support for him.


One sanatorium employee, Zurab Kortava, told the meeting that Fursenko was acting responsibly. “My own brother is one of the protesting businessmen, but I think his position is wrong,” said Kortava.


“Fursenko wants to impose order but the private businessmen are stopping him from doing that.


“We employees are accused of building Fursenko’s house for free, but I want to tell you that we built the house of the previous owner of the sanatorium, so we are building the house of the current owner and we will do the same for the next one too. It is an honour for us to do this work.”


The traders have appealed to the Abkhaz authorities for help on a number of occasions, but without success.


“Maybe their inertia comes from an unwillingness to spoil their relationship with Russia, although it is obvious that Fursenko is simply exploiting that and pretending that his own personal interests are actually Russia’s interests,” claimed Zukhba, adding that Fursenko has his employees “under his thumb” as they are frightened of losing their jobs - a precious commodity in Abkhazia.


The hunger strike of May 6-8 finally forced a reaction from the government. But officials who visited the strikers only persuaded them to abandon their protest with a promise to intervene in the conflict.


“This is the last chance for the government,” said Zukhba. “If nothing is done, we will resume the hunger strike. I don’t see any other way.”


The deputy mayor of Sukhum, Boris Achba, assured the protestors that they would try to sort things out as soon as Fursenko returned.


“If the issue is not resolved, I will go on hunger strike with you,” said Achba.


Inal Khashig is co-editor in Abkhazia of IWPR’s newspaper Panorama.


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