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Tangerine Fever Grips Abkhazia

The citrus fruit trade is the main means of survival for the Abkhaz since they broke away from Georgia.

The "yellow fever" season has begun in Abkhazia.

That is what Abkhaz call the time of year when the tangerine harvest is ripe and thousands of residents of the unrecognised republic flock to its northern border with Russia to trade them.

Since the end of the war with Georgia in 1993, the tangerine trade has become the main source of income for Abkhaz families. With the region's chronic lack of employment, the money they earn in the three months of the season must be enough to sustain them over the rest of the year.

With the border closed to the south, the tangerine traders all head north to the river Psou that divides Abkhazia from Russia. Here on either side of a narrow bridge, the respective customs services have set up posts.

Last week, an impressive column of trucks had already built up and a two-kilometre-long queue of people, pushing trolleys and carts piled high with tangerines, stretched back into Abkhazia. To cross the bridge and reach the Russian side of the border can take up to ten hours on a weekday and even longer at weekends.

Most of the traders are ordinary people, who harvest their own tangerines and come back repeatedly to the border, until the season ends.

"I could trade my tangerines on the Abkhaz side too, but the price here is much lower than on the Russian side and my family badly needs the extra roubles," said Nadezhda, a woman in her fifties, standing in the long queue.

She said the salary she earned after 30 years teaching as a maths teacher was not enough to live on. Which is why she has to spend her weekends ferrying up to 50 kilogrammes of tangerines in a small cart, made out of an old child's pram. When she has sold her cargo, she generally uses the money to buy food, which is cheaper in Russia.

"My daughter-in-law used to come here," Nadezhda said. "But she developed health problems and the doctors told her that if she did not stop dragging heavy loads, she could not have children. So I took over the tangerines. Otherwise we would have nothing to feed the family."

This hand-to-mouth existence is a far cry from Soviet times, when the Abkhaz owner of a small citrus orchard could afford to have a large two-storey house and at least one car - a rare privilege in the communist era.

Abkhazia used to have a virtual monopoly on citrus fruit production in the Soviet Union. Eighty five per cent of the country's tangerines - which were an essential part of New Year celebrations in every Soviet household - came from the Black Sea republic, helping to give the region one of the highest standards of living in the country.

In 1991 the end of the Soviet Union and the move to a market economy brought a flood of citrus fruits from around the world. Despite this, Russia's taste for Abkhazian tangerines has remained - the only problem is the difficulty of getting them out of the republic. Even though the sanctions regime imposed on the entity by the CIS has weakened, ordinary traders still have enormous difficulties getting their product to market.

Currently, the bridge across the Psou can cope with 7-8,000 pedestrians and about 200 cars a day. The Abkhaz authorities have long been trying to persuade the Russians to build another and the regional governor on the other side of the water - Alexander Tkachev, head of Krasnodar Region - said last year that he supported the idea.

Since then nothing has happened. "Whatever decisions are taken at a political level to improve the situation on the Russian-Abkhaz border, the situation is practically not changing, since everything depends on middle- and lower-ranking bureaucrats who work at the post on the River Psou and for whom it's not profitable to change the existing situation," said the entity's prime minister Anri Djergenia.

Djergenia recently reported a meeting he had with a senior unnamed Russian official on the border in which the two men discussed ways of improving cross-border cooperation.

"I was asked what the biggest problem was with the border-post and I named Mr Kozlov, which prompted the puzzled senior official to ask 'Who's that?'" Djergenia said. "There's no way he could have guessed that I was talking about an ordinary private who does what he pleases, regardless of the decisions and instructions that come down from above. And there are plenty of private Kozlovs on the River Psou."

There is plenty of money to be made on the border. A good half of the Abkhaz "tachechniki" or trolley-pushers, do not leave the Psou for the entire season. They buy tangerines on the Abkhaz side, drag them across the border and resell them on the Russian side, pocketing the difference in price.

The most industrious of these traders earn up to 300 roubles (a little less than ten dollars) a day, which in Abkhazia is regarded as a good wage. Over the last two years, they have been joined by people from the North Caucasus and places as far a field as Moldova and Ukraine.

"When I was a child, tangerines were a fantastic treat, but now I can't bear the sight of them," said Svetlana Koditsa, from the town of Beltsy in Moldova.

Svetlana makes three trips across the border a day before she has something left over from what she pays to cover her accommodation, food and bribes to the police, who, she complains, demand money even from those standing patiently in line.

"You try not to give it to them and they might not let you through," she said angrily.

Saida, a young Abkhaz woman, standing next to her in the queue, is one of tens of thousands of people from the republic who acquired Russian citizenship this summer. This had only made things worse, she lamented, as the Russian police were now fining visiting Abkhaz for not being properly registered in the Black Sea coastal towns.

The mad rush of activity, caused by the tangerine trade, lasts until mid-February, when the second part of the "yellow fever" season begins, and Abkhaz begin trading mimosa, a much sought-after flower in Russia. Around March 8, International Women's Day, the queues on the border thin out and a time begins, which Abkhaz prefer to call the "season of curses and hopes."

Inal Khashig is BBC Caucasus and Central Asia correspondent in Abkhazia.

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