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These were supposed to be the finest of times in Abkhazia. With the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, just a few kilometres up the Black Sea coast, this climate-blessed but politically cursed corner of the planet was finally going to have its moment after 20 years of isolation.
At Café Medovik, a Western-style wine bar near Sukhumi’s palm tree-lined boardwalk, staff excitedly got ready for an influx of tourists from Russia and abroad. After all, once you’re in Sochi, the capital of Abkhazia is only a 90-minute drive south – and the beaches and food here are superior to what the Olympic city sells.
The war that gave Abkhazia an independence that few countries recognize ended in 1993, but residents remain trapped in a post-Soviet tug-of-war between Russia and neighbouring Georgia. Russia is now exploring for oil off the once-pristine coast of its de facto vassal, while Georgia aspires to NATO membership that might bolster fading hopes of regaining its lost territory.
With the conflict here frozen but not resolved, only a few of Sochi’s visitors have trickled south to this forgotten territory. Abkhazia got ready for the world, but the world stayed away.
“Three Olympic volunteers came the other day, three Russian girls. They had a great time, but that’s it. We haven’t seen anyone else,” said Oksana Mertsekulava, the 36-year-old manager of Café Medovik. To prepare for the anticipated Olympic crowds, she placed extra orders of Abkhazia’s sweet wines, as well as the salty cheese required to make khachapurri, the delicious local take on pizza.
Ms. Mertsekulava wasn’t the only one who was hoping the Olympics might transform this desperately poor place ($10 a day is considered a good salary here). The Abkhaz government announced on Feb. 10 that it was waving the usual visa requirements for Sochi guests. All a foreigner has to do is show up at the border – just a 10-minute drive from the Olympic Park – and pay about $12 to cross.
But Russia’s overriding focus on the security of the Olympics – as well as the frozen political standoff – have combined to deny Abkhazia its chance at escaping obscurity and isolation. A receptionist at the city’s premier Hotel Ritsa said only one of its 20 rooms was occupied Sunday night.
When Russia built its so-called “ring of steel” around Sochi – designed to keep Islamist militants based at the eastern end of the Caucasus mountain range from attacking the Games – it left Abkhazia on the outside. In January, a sheet of flimsy blue metal was erected at the border crossing between Abkhazia and the Sochi region, preventing all vehicle traffic until after the Paralympic Games end March 16. The daily train between Sukhumi and Sochi has also been cancelled, making a haunted house out of Sukhumi’s Soviet-era main station.
Russia also established an 11-kilometre-deep “security zone” inside Abkhazia for the duration of the Olympics, meaning that anyone heading towards the border must pass through checkpoints on the Abkhaz side that are manned by Russian border guards and Federal Security Service (FSB) agents.
Residents of Abkhazia, a predominantly Christian area that during Soviet times was part of the Georgian SSR, aren’t themselves considered a threat to the security of the Olympics. But the territory’s general lawlessness – a senior Russian diplomat was assassinated here last year, and much of the economy is dominated by criminal activity – made it easier to seal the border off than police it.
While insisting the territory is safe to visit, Viacheslav Chirikba, Abkhazia’s underemployed foreign minister, says he understands Russia’s decision to tighten the border. “The most important thing is that people who go to the Olympics feel safe,” he said in an interview in his office, which shares a floor with Abkhazia’s Finance Ministry.
You can still get to Abkhazia from Sochi during the Olympics, but you have to walk through the border area yourself, and then negotiate a drive on the other side.
As soon as you cross, you leave the relative modernity of the Olympic city behind for a place where cars contend with cows for space on the road. Many buildings are still scarred by bullets and shells fired two decades ago as Abkhazia – with Russia’s support – fought to separate from Georgia in the wild days that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Only six countries, including Russia, recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. The rest of the world still sees the territory as part of Georgia.
It’s Moscow that makes the rules in Abkhazia. People here speak Russian, use Russian rubles, and almost all of Abkhazia’s 240,000 residents – including Mr. Chirikba, the foreign minister – carry Russian passports under a policy Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced in 2002.
But Abkhazia isn’t part of Russia. Instead it lingers in a post-Cold War twilight zone, hotly contested by Moscow and Tbilisi, forgotten by everyone else.
“Everybody would love it if Canadians, Europeans and Americans came here after the Olympics,” said Amiran Khalvash, a 48-year-old driver who has set up shop on the southern side of the border with Russia, hoping to make money driving the tourists who walk through. “Please God, make it happen.”
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