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Abkhazia Blasts Scare Tourists

Abkhaz authorities say serial bombings are part of a Georgian plan to wreck their economy.
By Inal Khashig
A series of explosions in Abkhazia has created renewed tensions in the region after a relative lull, with the Abkhaz government alleging that the Georgians are trying to scare away Russian tourists from Black Sea resorts.



The latest blast took place on July 2 on Abkhazia’s administrative border with western Georgia, when a vehicle ran through a checkpoint, turned over and an object thrown from it exploded, according to Alexander Diordiev, aide to the commander of Russian peacekeeping troops.



No one was hurt in that incident. However, several people have been injured in four other blasts over the last week in the Abkhaz capital Sukhum and the northern resort of Gagra.



The de facto authorities in Abkhazia say the explosions are the work of Georgian security services trying to create instability just as the summer tourist season gets under way.



Diordiev, aide to the commander of Russian peacekeeping troops, also blamed the Georgians for the most recent explosion on the border. Georgian officials strongly deny the allegations.



The peacekeepers are deployed in what is still termed the “conflict zone” along the Abkhaz-Georgian boundary, 14 years after the end of a war in which Abkhazia claimed independence from Tbilisi. Although it has remained effectively separate since that time, it has not been recognised as a state. The dispute remains unresolved, with sporadic bouts of tension and localised violence.



The first two explosions occurred within five minutes of one another on the morning of June 29, one next to a supermarket in Gagra, the other at the town’s market.



Two explosions went off in Sukhum the following day in a similar manner. The similarities led the Abkhaz authorities, who had been wondering whether the first bombs were part of an underworld feud, to declare that they were the work of the Georgian security services.



“This was a terrorist act directed against Abkhazia, and against the Russians who take their holidays in our republic,” said Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh. “Georgia, which is unceasing in its efforts to destabilise the situation in Abkhazia, stands behind these acts of terror.



This view is shared by police, opposition groups and ordinary people in Abkhazia.



The authorities also blame Tbilisi for two explosions – again occurring five minutes apart – which damaged the railway line outside Sukhum on June 18.



The Georgian media provided substantial coverage of the explosions, mainly reporting the view that they were the work of criminals. Several news reports said some of the explosions occurred at sites which belonged to the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov.



Georgian defence minister David Kezerashvili said the Abkhaz accusations against Tbilisi were “not serious”.



“We have said more than once that [Abkhazia] is a territory that isn’t under anyone’s control, one where many criminal groups are active,” he said.



On July 1, the Abkhaz authorities closed their border with Georgia.



The move will mainly hurt the ethnic Georgians who have moved back to Gali region in southern Abkhazia since the end of the conflict.



Thousands of these people travel back and forth across the river Inguri, which forms the border, to trade, study, vote or just visit relatives in western Georgian, especially the town of Zugdidi.



“My brother was due to take his exams in the economics faculty and he’s been preparing for them for a whole year, but a few days before the exams they refused to let him back [from Gali] to Zugdidi,” said Giorgi Buliskeria, who comes from Gali region and is now in Tbilisi.



“I am very worried for my relatives – they say it’s very dangerous to be there.”



Abkhaz officials say the bomb attacks involved small amounts of explosives set off by remote-control, suggesting that they were intended to cause a scare rather than produce numerous casualties.



“They mainly needed the surge of news created by the explosions to start a big negative campaign against the Abkhaz resorts,” said Alisa Bigvava, city prosecutor in Sukhum.



Local officials suspect the blasts were the work of one local resident who was able to move freely around Abkhazia.



If the explosions were part of a plan to scare off Russian tourists – hundreds of thousands of whom have visited Abkhaz coastal resorts in the past few years – the tactic appears to be working.



People working in resort areas say that there are empty rooms in almost all Abkhazia’s hotels and boarding-houses, a situation which has not been seen in the last five years.



Russian tourists are by far the biggest source of income for this small, impoverished republic which has no links with the outside world except via Russia.



“Throughout April and May, the world media were trumpeting the fact that a new Georgian-Abkhaz war was about to break out,” said Vyacheslav Bartsits, deputy head of Abkhazia’s state committee for resorts and tourism. “And that naturally frightened tourists away. As a result, in June around 25-30 per cent fewer tourists took holidays in Abkhazia than last year.”



However, Bartsits predicted that barring fresh “outrages” over the next two weeks, the influx of tourists would pick up again as it has in previous seasons.



Georgian political analyst Paata Zakareishvili said that it was plausible the explosions had been aimed at the tourist trade.



“This aim was basically achieved,” he said. “I think that the tourist season in Abkhazia has been wrecked. I don’t subscribe to the theory that it was some kind of business feud. If one businessman blows up another’s business, his own business also suffers, because the tourist season is the main source of revenue there.”



Abkhaz officials argue that the evidence points towards Tbilisi.



“I believe the person who ordered these terrorist acts paid well for them and we should look for this person in the security services of Georgia,” said Ruslan Kishmaria, special representative of the Abkhaz president in Gali region. “When Tbilisi pretends to be insulted that the Abkhaz should falsely accuse it, it’s just a game.”



Zakareishvili said that by closing their border, the Abkhaz authorities were damaging their own position.



“It’s only the [Georgian] population of Gali who suffer from this, and I don’t think it is to the advantage of the Abkhaz authorities to provoke hostile feelings amongst the Gali Georgians,” he said.



Inal Khashig is editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia. Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgian editor in Tbilisi.