Georgian Returnees in Abkhazia Fear War and Renewed Flight

"That's the capital, it's different," said Besik. "Russian investments go there, but in Gali it's all Abkhaz funds."

For aid organizations, it is business as usual in the Gali district.

"We have returned to more or less to our pre-war [1993] work of assistance," said Stephan Maurer, the Danish Refugee Council's representative in the Caucasus, "although the lower part of the district just opened [Thursday]. We have seen increased Russian and Abkhaz forces, heavy artillery and tanks. No harassment towards local population, but people are concerned."

Frozen Economy

Stalin -- an ethnic Georgian -- vacationed on the Abkhaz coast and built five "dachas" or holiday homes.

The beaches of Sukhumi and Gagra, where today thousands of Russians flock every year, are about 35 miles north of Gali, but feel farther away.

There are no picturesque scenes for holiday snapshots in Gali. The small weekly market features women selling spicy homemade sauces, peppers and nuts while bored youngsters hang around the two shops selling military gadgets.

A teenager boasted a big tattoo on his left triceps, a statement of his origin.

"It's the Georgian Christian cross," he said proudly.

The taxes paid to Sukhumi seem to get stuck up north. Buildings, roads, telephone lines are rusting. The provision of basic services is poor and heavily under-resourced.

Gali's once-rich agricultural economy, which supplied tea, citrus and tobacco throughout the Soviet Union, is now struggling. According to a U.N. report, gross domestic product for the Gali district has fallen by 80 percent to 90 percent; unemployment is up to 95 percent.

"I count on myself," said Lashkarava, the baker.

"These signs are the product of my work," she said, showing her oven-burnt arms. "The [Georgian] government gives me 28 lari a month [$20] as IDP [internally displaced person] allowance. People are trying to create a bridge on their daily life. I set up the bakery thanks to a loan from the Danish Refugee Council. Otherwise, what would I have done?"

The elderly also have a hard time in Gali. The Abkhaz government grants pensioners $9 per month, while the Georgian government gives $49. But a loaf of bread costs almost $1.

Furthermore, the Georgian allowances have to be collected in Georgia proper, so when the bridge is closed many people are cut off from their essential income.

Frozen Conflicts

The unstable situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not unique. So-called frozen conflicts are scattered all over the former USSR.

In the Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh followed the same pattern. The majority is ethnically Armenian but was part of Azerbaijan. A war flared in the 1990s, killing more than 22,000 and creating more than a million refugees in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Today the region, controlled by Armenian separatists, is recognized by no one and the territory lies in ruins.

Closer to Europe lies Transdniester, a slice of land controlled by Russia-loyal separatists but officially part of Moldova. A potential conflict zone on the European Union's border, Transdniester looks like a Soviet theme park, with Lenin statues and USSR symbols at every corner.

The recent conflict in South Ossetia and Kosovo's self-declared independence in February boosted these regions' ambitions.

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