Conflict Brewing Over Breakaway Georgian Province

Abkhazia Map i i
Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Abkhazia Map
Lindsay Mangum/NPR
A ruined building in the center of Gali. i i

A ruined building in the center of Gali. It's a common sight throughout Abkhazia. Gregory Feifer/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer/NPR
A ruined building in the center of Gali.

A ruined building in the center of Gali. It's a common sight throughout Abkhazia.

Gregory Feifer/NPR
A view of Abkhazia. i i

Abkhazia is a tiny strip of lush, subtropical land that lies between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. Gregory Feifer/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer/NPR
A view of Abkhazia.

Abkhazia is a tiny strip of lush, subtropical land that lies between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea.

Gregory Feifer/NPR
Deputy Defense Minister Zakhan Namba displays what he says is a Georgian reconnaissance plane. i i

Abkhazia's deputy defense minister, Zakhan Namba, displays what he says is an Israeli-made Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane that his forces shot down on May 12. Abkaz officials say spy drone flights are a serious provocation. Gregory Feifer/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer/NPR
Deputy Defense Minister Zakhan Namba displays what he says is a Georgian reconnaissance plane.

Abkhazia's deputy defense minister, Zakhan Namba, displays what he says is an Israeli-made Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane that his forces shot down on May 12. Abkaz officials say spy drone flights are a serious provocation.

Gregory Feifer/NPR
The remains of what the Abkhaz military says is a Georgian plane. i i

The remains of what the Abkhaz military says is a Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane shot down over Abkhazia on May 12. Gregory Feifer/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gregory Feifer/NPR
The remains of what the Abkhaz military says is a Georgian plane.

The remains of what the Abkhaz military says is a Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane shot down over Abkhazia on May 12.

Gregory Feifer/NPR

Russia and its pro-Western neighbor Georgia are teetering on the edge of a military conflict over Georgia's separatist province, Abkhazia. Moscow is providing economic support to the tiny province, and a bitter standoff over Abkaz independence is pitting Russia against the West.

Abkhazia seems like it should be a paradise: A prime holiday destination under the Soviet Union, the thin strip of lush, subtropical land lies where the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains descend into the warm Black Sea. But amid its palm trees, Abkhazia is a surreal land of ruined buildings, deserted villages and a population suffering from a 15-year economic blockade.

At the border with the rest of Georgia, a dilapidated horse-drawn cart ferries a handful of people over the murky Inguri River. Bored-looking, blue-helmeted Russian soldiers look on. The Russians have been in the province as peacekeepers since 1994, when Abkhazia split from Georgia after a bloody civil war.

But Georgia accuses the Russians of siding with Abkhazia. The self-styled republic is officially recognized by no one, but Moscow has kept it alive with economic support — and has issued most residents Russian passports.

Escalating Confrontation

In the half-ruined capital, Sukhumi, Abkhazia's deputy defense minister, Col. Zakhan Namba, opens a shed containing parts of what he says is a high-tech Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane that his forces shot down this month.

Namba says Georgian spy plane flights are a serious provocation and that his men have recently brought down seven of the Israeli-made drones. Tbilisi says it's lost only one, to a Russian fighter jet last month.

That's when Russia escalated its confrontation with Georgia by boosting legal ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another Georgian breakaway region. Moscow accused Georgia of preparing to invade Abkhazia and sent more soldiers. Georgia says Moscow is simply looking for an excuse to start a war.

'A Small People'

The Abkhaz are a separate ethnic group from the Georgians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tbilisi accused them of wanting to secede and Georgian troops sacked Sukhumi in 1992.

Like many residents, Guri Kichba says soldiers looted her family's apartment.

"It's amazing they didn't kill us," she says. "After that, our sons felt they had no choice but to protect our homes. Many went to fight armed only with sticks."

Kichba's son was killed during the conflict. The following year, the Abkhaz retook the region and the Georgians retreated. Mass atrocities were carried out on both sides. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were forced to flee Abkhazia.

After pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili took power in Georgia in 2003, he vowed to reunite Abkhazia with Georgia. But Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh says his government refuses to even consider Georgia's recent offer of autonomy because Tbilisi has lost any moral authority to rule Abkhazia.

"The Abkhaz people almost disappeared before the war," he says. "The only option for our survival is full independence."

The Abkhaz say they fought for centuries against the Georgians and the Russians. Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba says he has no illusions about Russia's motives today. The Kremlin is furious over NATO's promise last month to someday accept formerly Soviet Georgia as a member.

"We're a small people," Shamba says. "And it's the weakest who are blown away by the world's political winds. We have to find help ... wherever we can."

Abkhazia's leaders say the West has so far refused to listen to their arguments, but they cite the precedent set by Kosovo. One day, they say, the international community will have to realize the only way to avert war over Abkhazia is to recognize its independence.

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