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Russian Return To ‘Soviet Riviera’ Brings Hope, Concern To Breakaway Abkhazia

  • Tom Balmforth

Vacationers on a beach in Gagra, Akhazia. Tourism is called the “locomotive” of Abkhazia’s economy and the number of visitors to the region is expected to grow by 15 to 20 percent over the 1.5 million people who came last year -- already more than six times the population of the region.

Vacationers on a beach in Gagra, Akhazia. Tourism is called the “locomotive” of Abkhazia’s economy and the number of visitors to the region is expected to grow by 15 to 20 percent over the 1.5 million people who came last year -- already more than six times the population of the region.

SUKHUMI -- On the evening of April 16, a lawmaker who was battling to prevent Russians from buying property in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region stepped out of his car by the decaying Soviet-era port and set off down the palm-lined Black Sea waterfront.

Moments later, the sedan was engulfed in an explosion powerful enough to be heard in the foothills above Sukhumi, the sleepy capital of the Moscow-backed region. Two nearby vehicles were also mangled in the blast and belched black smoke into the sky:

But Almas Djapua was unhurt -- and his cause has won out, at least for now: A bill that would have allowed the sale of property to foreigners, including Russians, was withdrawn, soothing those who feared the Abkhaz themselves would be crowded out amid a Russian buying spree in the small coastal territory.

The dispute over foreign ownership in a lush region once known as the Soviet Riviera has highlighted Abkhazia’s predicament. Shunned by most of the world, it is so heavily reliant on Russia that gratitude for Moscow’s support is tempered by concern Russia’s embrace could tighten into a choke hold.

Abkhazia broke from Georgian government control in a fiercely fought war in 1992-93, shortly after the Soviet collapse unleashed ethnic tensions and ignited territorial disputes. Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent country after Moscow’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, angering Tbilisi and the West, but only a handful of states followed suit on recognition.

From Abkhazia’s de facto borders to its beaches, Russia’s strong sway is evident.

Entering from Georgian-controlled territory, a visitor treads through a no-man’s-land featuring a potholed bridge crossed by locals in a horse and cart. Chatty, laid-back Abkhaz guards are the first encountered, but it is the uniformed officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who run the show, seated in metal booths behind intimidating one-way glass.

Russia pumps billions of rubles into Abkhazia in subsidies every year.

Still more vital is a boom in tourism, the lifeblood of a subtropical region to which sun-starved vacationers flocked from all corners of the Soviet Union for a few precious days or weeks at the shore. That reliable flow dried up as Abkhazia was first separated from Russia by the Soviet breakup and then plunged into war.

PHOTO GALLERY: Abkhazia -- Coming Back To The 'Soviet Riviera'

But times have changed again and Abkhazia is benefiting from a combination of factors. Cheaper than costly Sochi, just across the border, it is also getting Russians barred from the beaches of Turkey and Egypt due to tensions with Ankara and security fears after the downing of a passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015.

It is also more accessible than Crimea, which Russia forcibly seized from Ukraine in 2014. A bridge from Russia to the peninsula, bypassing mainland Ukraine, is not due to be finished until December 2018, and the number of Russian visitors to Crimea is down this year after a patriotic spike in 2015.

In Abkhazia, those numbers are up -- again.

In late May, with heavy spring showers signaling that tourist season wasn’t quite under way, Russians were already being carted by the busload on excursions to Novy Afon, an Orthodox Christian monastery whose gold cupolas gleam in the green mountains overlooking the sea.

Russian tourists posed for cameras in the mist rolling off a 6-meter waterfall; others ventured into nearby caves that are among the largest in the world. A short walk along the coast, a tour guide -- a self-professed devotee of Josef Stalin -- was showing young couples around the Soviet dictator’s dacha overlooking the Black Sea.

“Every year, it’s a record,” Avtandil Gartskiya, the de facto tourism minister who led a battalion during the war against Georgian government forces, tells RFE/RL, loudly, from just across a table in his office in Sukhumi.

Gartskiya calls tourism the “locomotive” of Abkhazia’s economy and said the number of visitors to the region is expected to grow by 15 to 20 percent over the 1.5 million people who came last year -- already more than six times the population of the region, which is about 240,000.

From June to the “velvet season” in early autumn, Russian vacationers sun themselves on the pebbly beaches and bed down at grand, Soviet-era hotels featuring statues of Lenin, creating an echo of the region’s heyday.

Djapua, the lawmaker whose car was blown up, was fighting a move that would take Russia’s return to the next level. He was pushing back against a proposal to lift the ban on foreign property ownership, which would have opened up prize coastal real estate for purchase by Russian citizens and investors.

Supporters of lifting the ban argue that Russian money pouring in would rejuvenate Abkhazia and help transform a scarred land strewn with derelict buildings sprouting vegetation -- constant reminders of the 1992-93 war that ended with de facto independence and the isolation that has come with it.

Russia’s recognition and support is a giant exception to that isolation, and the gratitude is palpable. But resistance to the proposal to let foreigners buy property reflects apprehension about giving Russia so much traction as to effectively turn Abkhazia into a province of Russia. While most outsiders see Abkhazia as a Russian protectorate, its people prize their proclaimed independence.

“We have an understanding of…certain red lines that exist and which, if crossed, have the danger of dealing a big blow to the national interests of the state,” says Inal Khashig, the founder and editor of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent weekly. “The state is small, our society is also small. There are very many dangers that exist and we are trying to ensure ourselves against them, perhaps over-ensure ourselves. It’s better sometimes to be safe than to allow things which you won’t then be able to get back.”

Russian subsidies to Abkhazia will reportedly total 7.7 billion rubles ($117 million) this year.

In February 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin tightened Moscow’s grip with a “strategic partnership” treaty that aimed to formally bring the de facto government’s foreign and defense policies in line with Moscow’s. Adding to thousands of Russian troops already based in the territory, it also envisages a common “defense and security space” and a joint military force.

On paper, at least, the pact may have made Abkhazia toe the line on Turkey, the breakaway region’s second-largest trading partner, joining Moscow in imposing sanctions after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian warplane that it says crossed over the border from Syria in November. But in an indication that Russia’s influence has limits -- or that Moscow is more interested in geopolitical optics than in enforcing the rules it set -- several people said that little has changed in reality.

There has also been tension over potential drilling in Abkhazia by Russian state energy giant Rosneft.

And while it is Georgia that often voices alarm at what it calls Russia’s "creeping annexation" of Abkhazia, the region has displayed more of an independent streak than South Ossetia -- another breakaway Georgian region that Russia recognized as an independent country after the 2008 war.

South Ossetia may hold a referendum next year on becoming part of Russia -- something that Abkhazia’s de facto prime minister, Artur Mikabia, said on June 10 would never happen under his watch. Abkhazia wants to be an "independent state" and "loyal ally of great Russia," he said.

Stanislav Lakoba, a historian and former chief of the separatist government’s National Security Council, echoes this sentiment.

“In the grand scheme of things, we are under Russian patronage,” he tells RFE/RL. “We know that we are not an entirely independent state. But there should be a level of understanding in relations for Abkhazia and for Russia.”

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at