Georgian Returnees in Abkhazia Fear War and Renewed Flight

Amid the phone calls from customers ordering bread, pizza and the cheese-filled pie "khachapuri," Nanka Lashkarava reflected on her life in her 10-square-meter bakery in Gali, south Abkhazia.

She holds an Abkhaz ID from a republic nobody recognizes, a Soviet passport from an entity that no longer exists and a Georgian ID card from a country that lies on the other side of a non-recognized border.

Still, her current legal limbo seems an improvement on her previous existence as a refugee in Moscow.

But if war breaks out between Russia and Georgia over Abkhazia, as it did over South Ossetia, another separatist region between Russia and Georgia, she knows she will have to pack up her life and flee. Again.

The baker, whose name has been changed for this story, is one of an estimated 45,000 ethnic Georgians to have returned to Abkhazia out of roughly 200,000 who fled the conflict between Georgia and its breakaway region in 1993.

The return of the pre-war population has been a key issue in the dispute between the Georgian government and the secessionist Abkhaz authorities based in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi. The Gali district is the only area where ethnic Georgians have been allowed to go back since the end of the conflict.

The brief but nasty war over South Ossetia further casts a shadow over the fate of these people, as Abkhazia's government this week asked Russia to recognize the region's independence.

Currently, the border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper is sealed, stranding people used to traveling freely between the two regions.

The violence in the Kodori gorge, another hot spot in Abkhazia, has added to the tension. Georgian troops regained control of the small pocket of land two years ago. With Georgia focused on the Russian troops entering its territory from South Ossetia, the Sukhumi faction in Abkhazia managed to regain the gorge.

The de facto independent Abkhaz authorities tolerate the returnees to the Gali district, which was and remains an almost exclusively ethnic Georgian area -- the population is almost totally Mingrelian, regarded as a Georgian subgroup -- but so far, for security reasons, greater numbers have not returned elsewhere and the ethnic Abkhaz maintain an almost exclusive control over the local administration.

Meanwhile, the Georgian government in Tbilisi is committed to the full-scale return of the displaced to Abkhazia.

But as the request for Russian recognition suggests, the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia has strengthened the resolve of the authorities in Sukhumi to seek independence.

"We paid a high price for our independence over the last 15 years," said the young deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gunjia, over the phone from Sukhumi. "We won't be part of Russia or Georgia."

So will Abkhazia get the independence green light from Moscow?

"If any country will recognize it as an independent state," George Hewitt, a professor at the SOAS University in London, told ABC News over the phone from Sukhumi, "Russia should not be the first, as it'll convince the Georgians and the West that Moscow has been maneuvering the tension in the Caucasus."

Hewitt thinks the solution must come through negotiations. Currently, that seems not to be an option, so the deadlock remains for Abkhaz and Georgians alike.

Troubled Past

The three documents Lashkarava holds -- the Abkhaz and Georgian IDs and the Russian passport -- reflect the chaos that complicated people's lives in disputed regions at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Much of the discord is the result of Joseph Stalin's legacy. During Stalin's rule, national and ethic identities were shifted, encouraged or suppressed. Entire nations were uprooted and deported to the other side of the Soviet Union and scattered through the desolation of the Russian Siberia or the Kazakh steppes. Arbitrary borders were drafted, dividing nations and fomenting ethnic unrest.

In Abkhazia, Georgians were brought in to change the demographic balance and the Abkhaz language was banned.

When the Cold War faded and the Soviet Union died, the former republics declared independence.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not want to be part of an independent Georgian state and went to war against Georgia -- winning de facto independence with Russian support through a bloody conflict, resulting in their current semi-autonomous status.

Frozen in Time

The lush green area of Abkhazia, once the place in the sun of the Soviet intelligentsia, remains frozen in time, littered with war-damaged houses, potholed roads and patrolled by U.N. armored vehicles and Russian tanks. At the numerous checkpoints, hard-faced and listless Russian soldiers seemed more interested in soliciting watermelons from passing cars to combat the triple-digit Fahrenheit summer heat.

The ethnically distinct Abkhaz minority runs the statelet of Abkhazia on the Black Sea and demands formal independence from Georgia. The self-declared republic has a president, a flag, a national anthem and an army.

But most Abkhazians carry a Russian passport, and the only valid currency is the Russian ruble. The enclave's isolated economy is fueled by Russian business interests -- though Moscow has never officially recognized the republic -- and Abkhazia sits comfortably behind a shield of Russian peacekeepers that divide the territory from the rest of Georgia.

Gali's residents have been allowed to relatively freely cross into the neighboring Georgian districts, mainly by heading to Zugdidi, the last Georgian town before the Inguri River that defines the border with Abkhazia. The Soviet passport, a relic from the past, is the most common document used to cross the bridge.

Since explosions at the beginning of July in the capital, Sukhumi, the sea resort Gagra and in Gali, the border has been closed, cutting off a lifeline for small traders and for people with relatives on both sides of the conflict zone. For weeks, thousands have remained stuck on one side or the other of the bridge.

The Abkhaz authorities maintain a shadowy stand on the return of the displaced, blocking a full assessment by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But when asked about it, the response is different.

"We are glad people returned; we encourage people to come back," Arshba Besik, the administrative chief of the Gali district, told ABC News.

Shrugging his shoulders, the ethnic Abkhaz stressed, "The central [Abkhaz] government is allocating funds for better heath care, education."

Still, the state-of-the-art computer and TV system in his office in Gali was a stark contrast to the outside, where the roads bear the scars of lack of maintenance for decades.

The roads got better near Sukhumi.

"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.