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Russia and its pro-Western neighbor Georgia are teetering on the edge of military conflict. At stake is a tiny province that wants independence from Georgia. The name of that province - Abkhazia. The province of Abkhazia has been getting economic help from Russia. And that's angering Georgians and pitting Russia against the West.

NPR's Gregory Feifer has more.

GREGORY FEIFER: Abkhazia should be a paradise: a prime holiday destination under the Soviet Union. The thin strip of lush subtropical land lies where the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains descend into the warm Black Sea.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

FEIFER: 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.

(Soundbite of horse)

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 here 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 here with Russian passports.

(Soundbite of doors opening)

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

Colonel ZAKHAN NAMBA (Deputy Defense Minister, Abkhazia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Colonel Namba says Georgian spy plane flights are a serious provocation and that his men have recently brought down seven of the Israeli-made drones, although Tbilisi says it's lost only one to a Russian fighter jet last month. That's when Moscow escalated its confrontation with Georgia by deciding to establish legal ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another Georgian breakaway region. Moscow accused Georgia of preparing to invade Abkhazia and sent more soldiers to the region. Georgia says Moscow is simply looking for an excuse to start a war.

(Soundbite of singing)

FEIFER: Children in fatigues sing a patriotic song during marching drills in the center of Sukhumi.

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

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

Ms. GURI KICHBA: (Through translator) It's amazing they didn't kill us. After that, our sons felt they had no choice but to protect our homes. Many went to fight armed only with sticks.

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

President SERGEI BAGAPSH (Abkhazia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: 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. And Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba says he has no illusions about Moscow's motives today. The Kremlin is furious over NATO's promise last month to someday accept former Soviet Georgia as a member.

Mr. SERGEI SHAMBA (Foreign Minister, Abkhazia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: 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, he says, 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.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Sukhumi.

SMITH: Later this week on MORNING EDITION, Gregory Feifer travels to Georgia to report on that side of the confrontation.

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