Rebel leader says West must accept Abkhaz state

SUKHUMI

Nearly a year after Georgia’s war with Russia, the leader of Georgia’s biggest rebel region is determined Tbilisi will never rule his land again.Shrugging off international calls for Georgia’s territorial integrity to be respected, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh told Reuters in an interview that the West needed to come to terms with his Russian-protected Black Sea statelet. 

“Abkhazia will never again be a part of Georgia. We are building an independent state, and have no intention of going anywhere,” he said. Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s amid the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse and has run its own affairs since. In last year’s Georgia-Russia war, Abkhaz troops drove Georgian forces out of a last foothold they had in the province.

Following that five-day war, when Moscow’s troops crushed a Georgian land and air assault on the separatist region of South Ossetia, Russia recognised both rebel territories as independent states—a move followed so far only by Nicaragua.

Although the West has so far refused to acknowledge Abkhaz independence, Bagapsh said he still wanted dialogue. “We are not asking for any help from the West, we are asking only for understanding, understanding that there’s no going back,” Bagapsh said in the interview, conducted late Wednesday.

Abkhazia’s dilapidated seaside capital, paint flaking from villas which were once the playgrounds of the Soviet elite, still bears the scars of the 1990s fighting. The torched shell of the former communist offices stands gathering weeds and ruined homes are fenced off in the heart of Sukhumi. By agreement, Russia has taken charge of securing the region’s borders. Several thousand Russian soldiers are stationed here, and the Russian military is building a naval port south of Sukhumi and an air base to the north. Russian tourists stroll the seafront, the rouble is the currency, and Russian the lingua franca. In the aspiring country of some 200,000 people—many holding Russian passports—some are asking whether Abkhazia has simply swapped Georgian rule for government from Moscow.

“We must understand one thing—no country in the world is absolutely independent,” Bagapsh said in his seafront office.“They (Russia) are protecting us, our children. For 15 years we’ve been living not knowing whether war will start tomorrow or the day after,” he said.

The Abkhaz do not hide their bitterness towards Georgia. But they also hold a strong sense of national identity, and a belief that for centuries they have faced repression, colonisation and displacement at the hands of greater powers, among them Russia.

The Ottoman and Russian empires fought over Abkhazia in the 19th century before it was annexed by Russia in 1864. After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union gave the territory some autonomy, recognising its distinct language and identity, until Stalin, a Georgian, incorporated it into Georgia in 1931.

The Abkhaz now bristle at talk of creeping annexation, and argue they are as open to the West as they are to Russia. “We are building an open state,” said Bagapsh. “We are ready to talk with any state that wants to talk with us.” The Abkhaz point to Kosovo, the world’s newest state, as a case in point—recognised by major Western powers within hours of its declaration of independence.

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