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Abkhazia And Russia: Uneasy Friends

How deep does enthusiasm in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia for Russia run?
By Thomas de Waal

Every morning in Sukhumi, a group of men stands under a tall palm tree on the seafront at a small outdoor café in front of the shattered neo-classical facades of the Hotels Ritsa and Abkhazia.


The Café Akop on the embankment of the capital of Abkhazia is the favourite location for the city's men folk - ranging from the vice-president to ordinary workers - to meet and swap the latest gossip. The scene, with the habitués standing at dirty white metal tables and sipping thick Turkish coffee, is immortalized in the works of Abkhazia's most famous writer, Fazil Iskander.


One topic always predominates at the Akop: politics. And one morning last month the main discussion reflected the main topic on the minds of everyone in the unrecognised republic, relations with Russia.


"Russia is our economic partner," said Valery, a young official in the presidential administration, reflecting the pragmatic consensus of the coffee-drinkers.


If in the outside world there is a widespread view that the Abkhaz are enthusiastically loyal to Russia and would even like to join the Russian Federation, the picture on the ground is more complex.


Judging from the views at the Akop, most Abkhaz are grateful to Russia for the economic lifeline it gives them. At the same, time they are somewhat fearful of their vast neighbour and understand that Moscow uses Abkhazia for its own purposes in its disputes with Georgia.


This summer, the Russian-Abkhaz links became even closer, as the Russian foreign ministry allowed tens of thousands of Abkhaz to get Russian stamps in their old Soviet passports. This meant that they could travel freely for the first time in years.


"We are attracted to the places that accept us," said Rushni Jopua, a tall imposing man in a black suit who introduced himself as an actor and head of the Republican Party. "I have a Russian stamp in my passport. We want to go to the outside world, to go to England or Turkey."


Abkhazia fought and won a war with the government in Tbilisi in 1992-3 at a heavy price. In 1999, it declared itself an independent state - a declaration rejected by the outside world. In the mean time, the breakaway republic uses the rouble as currency and earns vital revenue by trading its tangerines across the Russian border to the north.


A good relationship with Moscow is therefore a given - but there are obvious disputes about how far the relationship should go.


When he was prime minister and de facto leader of the republic, Anri Djergenia spoke up for the idea of what he called "associated relations" with the Russian Federation. But Djergenia was unexpectedly sacked from his job last month by the Abkhaz leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, and promptly moved to Moscow. One explanation for his dismissal is that he became too close to Russian officials.


Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia's foreign minister, appears to take a cooler view of the relationship, implicitly blaming the Georgians for Abkhazia's closeness to Russia.


"In 1994 eighty per cent of our trade was with Turkey, before [the Georgians] imposed sanctions on us." Shamba told IWPR in an interview last month. "Now they are driving us towards Russia."


He added, "I think that if the question is of becoming part of Russia, I hear most people are against."


Abkhazia's best-known historian Stanislav Lakoba points out that Russia has had many shifts of policy in its history in the Caucasus and in Abkhazia in particular. The Abkhaz put up some of the fiercest resistance of all the North Caucasian peoples to the tsarist armies in the 19th century. Even after the Russian conquest, they rebelled against Moscow during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8.


"For 30 years after 1877 the Abkhaz were punished, not allowed to settle or live in the towns," Lakoba said. The ban was lifted after 1905 and in the 20th century Abkhazia enjoyed greater favour in Moscow than other Caucasian regions - a status it has generally enjoyed ever since.


People love to talk history in the Caucasus and several of the Akop coffee-drinkers overlooked the recent past and dwelled on the 19th century Caucasian wars. What is more, most were unashamed in their sympathy for another small Caucasian people, universally feared and loathed in Moscow, the Chechens.


"At any moment any republic in the Caucasus could be in the same position as Chechnya," said Valery. "And in Abkhazia we know what it means to be on the receiving end of force."


Officially, the Abkhaz government keeps quiet on Chechnya. But popular feeling is different. Chechen warrior Shamil Basayev, public enemy number one in Russia, is still recalled with fondness here, as he fought alongside the Abkhaz against the Georgians in 1992-3.


"I consider them the Robin Hoods of the 21st century," explained Roin Agraba, a tall unshaven man who said he had trained as a historian. "Abkhazia did not go down the same path. But we sympathise with all oppressed peoples."


The seizure of the theatre in Moscow in October by Chechen militants, which led to the deaths of more than 120 hostages, has led to a general backlash against people from the Caucasus, which the Abkhaz said they felt too.


Agraba's wife, Gunda Sakania, who described herself as a poet, turned up and joined the discussion.


"I love Russian culture, I studied there," she volunteered. "But we don't want to lose ourselves. What is unpleasant is when you cross the Russian border and they humiliate you. You know what? There we are 'people of Caucasian nationality', that's who we are."


Sakania said she now heard many more unpleasant jibes against Caucasians than before. "Earlier you might have heard one of those insults in a queue, but now you hear it amongst members of the intelligentsia, people of culture," she said.


So if Russia remains the main ally of the unrecognised republic it is perhaps by default. The only other country with which the republic shares a border, Georgia, is closed off, an enemy, while another historical ally, Turkey is far away.


"For us to be Turkey is to be thrown back 300 years," said Lakoba. "While for us Russia has associations of Europe, it's a more European country than Georgia."


Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor