- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia

Despite signs that Russia plans to economically and militarily dominate Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, Abkhaz officials are hopeful Russian assistance will bring much-needed development.

In August, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia for control of Abkhazia and another seceding province, South Ossetia. Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations three weeks later.

Georgia claims that its territories are now occupied by Russian troops and pro-Russian puppet governments. Temuri Yakobashvili, minister for reintegration and chief negotiator on the conflicts, says Russia seeks nothing more than territory.

“Let’s be honest. Russia has no interest in developing Abkhazia. Russia never had any interest in developing the occupied territories,” he said.

Since August, a flurry of treaties pledging humanitarian and military assistance have been signed between the Russian and Abkhaz governments, including an agreement signed in March that would allow Russia to maintain a force of 3,800 soldiers in Abkhazia for the next 49 years.

According to the Times of London, Russian soldiers based in Abkhazia and South Ossetia participated in Russian military exercises in the North Caucasus between June 29 and July 6, similar to drills executed by Russia just before the war with Georgia began in August.

Russia will also base several small naval vessels in the Abkhaz city of Ochamchire, and plans to begin dredging the port this year to allow the docking of larger vessels, according to Eurasianet.org, a part of the Open Society Institute.

Abkhaz Defense Minister Merab Kishmaria said Abkhazia is open for further negotiations including the possibility of making Abkhazia the new port of harbor for the Russian Black Sea fleet, which has leased the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol until 2017.

Although Western analysts have described these installations as forward operating bases poised for further conflict with Georgia, Abkhaz officials say they are necessary for their defense.

“No one ever asks the question: ‘Why is there a brigade of 7,000 NATO troops in Kosovo? Why have all former Warsaw Pact countries been integrated into NATO?’ There is one reason: everyone wants a security for the state,” Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said. “If other countries can do this, why can’t we pick a partner to defend us?”

Russian tourists have also burgeoned Abkhazia’s struggling economy. Sukhumi has become a popular destination for Russians looking to vacation on the Black Sea. Abkhazia is expecting nearly 1 million tourists this year, Mr. Bagapsh said.

For many Abkhaz citizens, Russian involvement is a welcome change after 16 years of isolation because of Abkhazia’s unrecognized status after the 1992-93 Abkhazia-Georgia conflict.

Aseyev Vyacheslav, a resident of the de facto Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, dismissed criticism that Russia was trying to conquer Abkhazia.

“That’s all just politics. Russia is helping us build roads, giving out money because we have no industries, we can’t do it ourselves,” he said.

Today, the once prosperous mining town of Tkvarcheli has been mostly abandoned. Ruins of the town’s industry and residential neighborhoods are dotted with periodic signs of human inhabitance. Most of those who remain are those who were unable to leave - retirees who receive an Abkhaz government pension of $4-$8 a month.

“The poorest people in the world, in Africa, earn one dollar a day, whereas our pensioners receive $5, $6 a month. How can you live like that?” Mr. Vyacheslav said.

As Russia gradually made it easier for the Abkhaz to obtain Russian citizenship throughout the 1990s, pensioners had an opportunity to obtain a larger — albeit still insufficient — Russian pension of $90-$120 a month, according to humanitarian workers.

For eleven months during the siege of Tkvarcheli by Georgian forces in the early 1990s, Beslan Kubrava trained his two young children to sprint to the basement for safety. He timed them so that once the bombardments began he knew they would be the first to safety.

Mr. Kubrava is now finance minister of the de facto Abkhaz government, and his son will soon graduate from a university in Russia. He said that since living through the siege, he fears nothing.

The Abkhaz government is dependent on Russian aid to function, and 80 percent of its citizens have turned to Russian citizenship as a way to better their lives.

“People took [Russian citizenship] and they got pensions, they were able to travel to receive medical attention. They were able to send their children to study in Russia. … I understand that many are displeased with this move in the West. But I’m sorry, we had to do something,” he said. “Obviously, it would be nice if our government was strong enough to answer all of the needs of our citizens. That’s our dream, but all countries have gone through this, particularly those that have lived through war,” he said.

Mr. Yakobashvili, the Georgian negotiator and minister for reintegration, says the door is always open for Abkhazia to return to Georgian rule.

Mr. Yakobashvili says the most recent deal offered by the Georgian government focused on de-isolating Abkhazia and included the opening of a free-trade zone in Ochamchire, and a Georgian-funded ferry system that would connect Abkhazia to other Black Sea countries.

However, Mr. Yakobashvili also admitted there were inadequacies in Georgia’s peace approach before he took office in January 2008.

“One of my big surprises in this job was that I discovered there was never ever a genuine peace process. There were a lot of, there were pieces of a puzzle, but you can’t see the picture … that’s what we had. We had some confidence-building mechanisms, some ideas … but because there was not a final clear picture, none of these efforts ever had positive results,” he said.

Georgian officials now view the conflict not as an internal problem but rather an external conflict between Russia and Georgia.

“The separatism is bred, supported, armed and promoted by the Russian Federation. In this regard, it is far more sophisticated and difficult today because the regions are under occupation,” Mr. Yakobashvili said.