Agence France Presse
March 21, 2008 Friday


Abkhaz separatists left dangling by Russia

by Olga Nedbayeva
SUKHUMI, Georgia, March 21 2008


In Sukhumi's main train station, once at the centre of a thriving
tourist trade, the only train still rolling is a four-carriage affair
to the town of Adler across the border in Russia.

The ghostly scene at the shuttered station symbolises Abkhazia, a
rebel province of Georgia seeking independence but whose sole support
from the outside world comes from Russia.

Without that train, which runs three times a week, and without a
trickle of Russian trade and even tourists, Abkhazia would struggle
to survive.

But what the Abkhaz rebels really want -- to be recognised in the
same way that Western governments have recognised Kosovo's
independence from Serbia -- remains frustratingly distant.

"We are waiting for concrete steps like the signing of a military
alliance and not loud words," said Stanislav Lakoba, head of the
separatists' security council.

Russia, which backs Serbia in the Kosovo dispute, earlier this month
announced a lifting of trade restrictions with Abkhazia, a move
Georgia denounced as encouraging separatism.

On Friday, the Russian parliament was expected to vote in favour of
recognising Abkhazia if pro-Western Georgia ever joins NATO.

But Lakoba says Moscow is just playing games.

"They treat Abkhazia the same way they play football, preferring to
make useless passes and avoid responsibility, rather than scoring a
goal," he said. The weekly newspaper Nuzhnaya is even more scathing
about rebel Abkhazia's benefactor: "Russia's behaviour is like the
promise of the psychiatric hospital doctor to fill the swimming pool
with water once the patients learn to swim."

Nestled under the forested Caucasus mountains on the palm-fringed
shore of the Black Sea, Abkhazia has real economic potential for
tourism and agriculture.

But the picturesque capital Sukhumi is a ghost town, heavily scarred
from the fighting in the early 1990s in which nearly all
ethnic-Georgians -- half of the population -- were driven from their
homes.

Some in Abkhazia are pinning their hopes on a surge in trade when
Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but major investment
would be needed to rebuild the economy.

Railways chief Guram Gubaz says it would take "at least 200 million
dollars (130 million euros)" to fix the line which until the war ran
all the way from Russia to Armenia.

Narine, a 38-year-old engineer, is typical of many in Sukhumi, where
employment is scarce, the streets are almost empty of traffic, and
many houses remain ruined and abandoned.

She sells newspapers every day of the week -- and anything else to
make a living. "I never turn down work. I distribute beauty products,
I make cakes," she said.

"I earn just enough to buy food and nice clothes for my 15-year-old
daughter," Narine said.

Beslan Baratelia, one of the leaders of the Economic Development
Party of Abkhazia, said that average monthly salaries were between
100 and 200 dollars.

"But most income is unofficial. People resell Russian products, host
tourists, and live off their vegetable gardens."

Narine said the real future, at least for her daughter, is with
Russia. "She must do her finance studies in Russia -- she'll have
more chances."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress