Abkhazia waits for new war with Georgia: "If the Russians leave, tomorrow NATO will be just outside Sochi."

KP special correspondent Darya Aslamova is sure only force can tear the small proud Abkhazia Republic from Russia
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В Абхазии снова ждут войны с Грузией: «Если русские нас кинут, НАТО завтра будет под Сочи»

It was Aug. 14, 1992. I woke up at 06:00 in the morning at Stalin's old dacha. The Georgian Army was everywhere. Soldiers were sleeping side-by-side. Tropical birds sang in the nearby garden. I had just sat down on the windowsill under the sun to do my eyebrows when I saw Georgian Defense Minister Kintovani waddling to the sea in a wet towel.

"War in a resort town?" I thought. "What nonsense!"

"How many hours until the war?" I shouted to him. "Will I have time to get to Sukhumi?"

"You've got two hours," he answered.

I remember walking with my friend to Sukhumi. We bought the only remaining cucumber at an empty city market and a bottle of Soviet champagne. I remember the pained face of Sergey Bagapsh, who is today's Abkhazian president. He must have sat alone in the huge empty building housing the Cabinet of Ministers waiting for the world to end.

I remember how the first bursts of machine gun fire forced us into the home of a stranger — a woman named Emma who was shaken with fear. We sat on the floor drinking champagne and eating the cucumber as all hell broke loose around us.

I remember how the Georgian Army raked the sweet resort town with fire.

Drunk soldiers smashed storefront windows and robbed the goods. One soldier even handed me a bottle of fake French perfume.

"Here!" he said. "Take this. I won't worry over it!"

On that violent August day, all seemed lost for Abkhazia.

"The Abkhazia campaign is over," Kintovani said victoriously before his flight to Tbilisi.

But the war had only just begun.

I remember carpets of bright mandarins spread over the snow in Abkhazia's bullet ridden gardens in March 1993. No one would harvest them. Picking a mandarin might mean catching a stray bullet in the head.

If as a foreigner I remember the war just just like yesterday, how vividly do the Abkhazians recall those heavy days? I laughed with them at the irony when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli made his fiery appeal to the Abkhazian people: "Brothers and sisters...!"

Georgia once again hurled the whip down upon Abkhazia this resort season, testing the Abkhazians with sabre -rattling in the Kodorsk Gorge, secret attempts at negotiations, spy planes flying overhead, proposals for a broader autonomy, provocations on election day on the Abkhazian-Georgian border and U.S. mediators visiting Sukhumi. But all this ballyhoo just worsens the cold war between Georgia and Abkhazia.

As we drove into Sukhumi, we were greeted by a poster reading: "Glory to a victorious nation! 1992-1998."

Is the young unrecognized nation preparing for another war?

Everyone is armed

I voted by the highway near Gagrami and quickly became irritated. I stood beneath the sweltering sun for 40 minutes waiting for a car to pull over and give me a ride. "I guess no one wants to earn anything?" I thought perturbed. Finally, a young man stopped in an old foreign car.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To Sukhumi," I said.

"Get in," he said.

"How much for the ride?" I asked.

"That's a bit unnecessary," he said. "Do I look like a cabbie or something? We give good people free rides here. This isn't Moscow."

My benefactor's name was Timur. He was a usual member of Abkhazia's post-war generation. His basement at home stored a Kalashnikov, two pistols, "Mukha" grenade launchers and a bulletproof vest.

"It's like Israel here," he said. "We're all in the 'Reserve.' If the homeland calls, I'll fall into line and obey my commandeer. It's easiest this way. There's no need to feed a professional army. The army feeds itself. By the way, our guys serve two years not like in Russia."

"We have a law on circulating arms, but it doesn't work," said Ruslan Kishmariya, presidential representative in the Galsk region. "And thank God. The people are too afraid to register their weapons. What if they suddenly came and took them away? We'd have to face the Georgians without any weapons like during the last war."

"You want to know how prepared Abkhazia is for war?" asked Deputy Defense Minister Harry Kupalba. "We have tanks and artillery. They're all Soviet trophy arms. Before the war, when the Soviet Union was divided up, Georgia received a whole slew of arms from the South Caucasus Military District. We ended up with a large portion of them. When the Georgians exited Abkhazia, they left everything here without even exploding it. There were over 200 tanks from Ochamchiri to the border. We took everything. It was much cheaper than buying the equipment new."

"During the military operation, I was first deputy defense minister," said Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba. "When the UN troops came to Abkhazia, I rode around with them so they could see the arms the Georgians had abandoned. They spoke to each other in English thinking I didn't understand: 'How could the war have been lost with such artillery? Hundreds of guns and tanks.' Well we took everything."

"Is your home also stocked with weapons?" I asked.

"My home," he said. "No, that's nonsense. I have a machine gun and pistols. But my grandchildren are growing up and I'm thinking about how to get rid of the weapons. My son who went to the front at age 16 is far better prepared. I remember going to see Dudaev in Chechnya during the war to beg him for planes. He had two aerodromes fully loaded. He had anything you could ever want — everything that had been stored in the North Caucasus Military District. They took 47,000 machine guns and we were left with the shells. But Dudaev didn't give us any planes. He said: 'You kiss Russia's ass and you're still asking us to give you planes?!' Our relationship ended there. But today Abkhazia is poles apart. This isn't 1992 when we didn't have an army or weapons. We've tasted victory. We have a budget and arms expenditures. Russia's support is also increasing. We're going to talk with Georgia differently now."

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, you could buy anything and everything from countries party to the Warsaw Pact," Kupalba said. "They were selling weapons for the price of metal. A tank went for $1,000 per ton. So for $10,000 you could buy a tank. Today a Lada sells for $12,000. If we didn't buy the arms back then, we'd have nothing now. Today we have our own aviation — Czech training planes analogous to the Su-25. It's easy to mount ammunition on them. We also have MiG-24 military helicopters. How many? Well we shouldn't talk in numbers. But the Georgians don't have it as easy as you think. The U.S. didn't give them anything free besides 'Iroquois' helicopters that were used in Vietnam. Ukraine sold 40 T-62 tanks to Georgia, but gave them old broken equipment on the sly. There's a lot of corruption in Georgia's higher echelons which is why contracts are signed for purchasing old weapons. So we're no less armed than the Georgians."

"And how many people are you prepared to call to arms?" I asked.

"Within 24 hours 25,000 men. And up to 60,000 in a week. The Kuban Cossacks have promised an additional 5,000 men. Entire battalions fought with us. Three hundred Cossacks were killed in the war and 7-8,000 men from all over the former Soviet Union volunteered to fight. If Georgia attacks, our diaspora will also be activated (4 million Abkhazians live in 50 countries worldwide)."

Storm clouds along the border

The road to the Georgian border is covered in potholes. Our car bounces so much I start to hiccup.

"You don't mind we're driving in the opposite lane?" I asked Kishmariya.

"How else can we pass?" he said surprised.

Several UN jeeps drove passed us loudly.

"Ahа, there goes the 'tourists,'" Kishmariya said, laughing angrily. "They drive back and forth all day long, spying and not doing a single thing. And fairytale wages! Six years ago, the Georgian 'Zviadists' took a Slovak peacekeeper hostage. He sat in the mountains, drank Cha-Cha, ate well and played cards the whole time. His wife later came to see him. She begged the Zviadists to keep him captive longer. The UN was paying the hostage $15,000 per day! Of course, they let the Slovak go and the Zviadists released a tape of the negotiations with his wife. I can't stand these guys. They come from Sri Lanka or Pakistan to teach me how to live in my land?! Go take care of your own country first! Recently a delegation from the EU parliament came to see me at my office. They said: 'We thank your separatist state for allocating two hours for negotiations.' 'What kind of state?' I asked. 'Separatist,' they said. 'Aha, so it's like that!' I said. And within 8 minutes they were gone."

The Galsk region is a territory housing a large population of Megrelians. After the war, nearly 50,000 Georgian refugees returned to Galsk.

"The Georgians were shouting to the international community: 'What a disgrace! 200,000 refugees!'" Kishmariya said. "But the Georgians aren't saying a word about the fact that they're starting to go home."

The Megrelians are a distinct people with their own language and traditions. But the Georgians don't consider them to be an independent nation.

"They're only Megrelians until the age of 16," he said. "But as soon as they get their passport they're Georgians."

The closer to the border, the more women in black. The Megrelians have a genuine cult venerating the dead. Mourning over a great uncle lasts decades. And one mourning merges with the next and eventually there is no reason to take off the black clothing.

Nabakevi village. The Russian peacekeeping station sits proudly below the banner, "Russia." It was here that strange, scandalous events occurred on the day of the Georgian elections. Georgia accused Abkhazians of committing an act of terror — blowing up a bus to scare the Georgian population in Abkhazia and prevent them from voting.

Abkhazian Major Bubnov examined me suspiciously."Do you have permission for an interview?" he asked.

"Where from!" I said with a smile. "At least just tell me what happened. Where were the shootings?"

"On that day we heard sounds of fighting close by," Bubnov said. "There were shots. And then a shell flew toward us. Luckily no one was injured."

"I know. I was there!" said a Megrelian farmer riding by on his wagon. "I went to Georgia for the elections. I had already voted and as I headed back they started shooting. Bullets were flying all over. It's not clear who took the shots. I jumped in a ditch and laid there. Then I walked home crossing the border by foot."

"We're tired of these provacations," Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh told KP. "The situation on election day was a genuine spectacle. Shots were fired into an empty bus. The bus caught fire. And cameras and fire engines appeared."

"Any act of terror without victims is suspicious," Kishmariya said. "In whose interest would this be? Only Georgia's. And Georgia once again is accusing Abkhazia of terrorism. Why would the Abkhazians shoot an empty bus?"

"Well who shot down the Georgian drones?" I changed the topic.

A sly look came over Kishmariya's face. "The Abkhazian forces. Do you have reason to doubt that?" he said. (And I remembered how I had asked a Russian military expert: "Maybe we shot down the drones?" "Of course we did!" he said surprised. "Who else?"

"A Georgian journalist called me that day and asked: 'Mr. Kishmariya! How did the Abkhazians shoot down the Georgian drone? With what'" he said. "'With special equipment called a 'Boomerang,' I answered. 'What's that?' she asked. 'A unique nonexpendable weapon,' I said. 'You throw it and it comes back.' You won't believe me, but the Georgians published that!"

Old and new games

"After Kosovo, Georgian authorities attempted to use scare tactics by openly threatening Abkhazia with force," Shamba said. "Burdzhanidze's statement is still on Web sites that we will fight Russia if Abkhazia's independence is recognized. They thought they'd scare us, but everything happened the other way around. Russian leaders slammed their fists and sent in additional troops. Speaking in Batumi May 8, Saakashvilli was already singing a different tune. He started saying that the Georgian Army isn't capable of fighting, NATO wouldn't help us, Russia is our closest ally. That's tough measures. That's the audience. They only need to slam their fists."

"After Kosovo, Georgian authorities attempted to use scare tactics by openly threatening Abkhazia with force," Shamba said. "Burdzhanidze's statement can still been seen on the Web that Georgia will fight Russia if Abkhazia's independence is recognized. They thought they'd scare us, but their comments had the reverse effect. Russia's leaders slammed their fists on the table and they sent more troops to Abkhazia. Saakashvilli was singing a whole other tune when he spoke in Batumi May 8. He said that the Georgian Army isn't capable of fighting, NATO wouldn't help, Russia is our closest ally... That's the audience. Russia only needs to slam its fist."

"After the war, Georgia signed an agreement which it currently disputes. The Georgians were weak and afraid we'd take Tbilisi," Shamba continued. "Why did Shevardnadze say: 'Standing on my knees, I'm asking that we be taken into the CIS'? Because he needed strength to stop us. And then Moscow sent its Marines to Poti to stop our attack on Tbilisi. And now the Georgians have a revanchist air about them. They sent troops to the Korosk Gorge, built a patriotic camp along our borders, spent millions of dollars on arms. Listen, why do they need so many weapons? What's happening with Georgia is a natural process. Human history is a constant shifting of borders. We witnessed the fall of the Russian Empire. And Georgia's current form was artificially created by Stalin."

After Kosovo's independence was recognized, highbrow officials such as Deputy Aid to the U.S. Secretary of State Matthew Bryza and the U.S. ambassador to Georgia visited Sukhumi.

"They came to feel us out and see what we're made of," said Presidential Advisor Nadir Bitiev. "For them we're the same old FSB agents, only darker and we speak Russian with a strange accent."

"At a closed meeting 1.5 years ago, the Georgians told Bryza that peaceful means weren't solving the Abkhazia question and only military force would work," said Kupalba. "Bryza said: 'If the situation is solved quickly, within 2-3 days, the international community won't have the time to come to their senses. But if the ordeal lasts several weeks, we won't support you.' And so Georgia was brushed off by the U.S. The Abkhazia issue cannot be solved in three days."

"The U.S. declared its interest in the South Caucasus and is inching toward the North Caucasus," he continued. "Russia also wants to have influence in the South Caucasus and prevent Georgia from joining NATO. Georgia has unanimously left its sphere of influence and Russia must reconcile with this fact. So Russia needs to use what it has — little Abkhazia. If Russia loses Abkhazia, then tomorrow NATO will be just outside Sochi. The West has hinted that if the mediators change, Russian forces leave Abkhazia and NATO peacekeepers arrive they'd examine our membership in various international organizations."

"I met with the messengers Matthew Bryza and the U.S. ambassador," said Bagapsh. "We are ready to proceed with negotiations with Georgia under one condition — that Georgian forces are withdrawn from the Kodorsk Gorge. Abkhazia's status is not under consideration. We will never again be a part of Georgia. And the Kodorsk Gorge belongs to Abkhazia. Georgians are increasing their forces, but they shouldn't be disillusioned into thinking we're sitting here idly. When Saakashvilli said that the drones flied, fly and will fly above Abkhazia, we answered: 'We shot the drone down and we will continue to do so.' I requested the contingent of the Russian Army to increase their troops. It was our initiative. Abkhazia is home to many Russian citizens. In terms of the Russian passports. In 1998, I met with Shevardnadze and spoke about this issue. Let's solve the problem about UN documents for Abkhazians. He wasn't interested. So I told him in four years 90 percent of Abkhazians would have Russian passports. Shevardnadze didn't believe me. But we started this procedure and we've been successful. The West speculates that Russia wants to annex Abkhazia. But this is absurd. Under law Russia cannot attach another nation to itself. Putin and I spoke about this. It is in Russia's interest to have an independent friendly state and free economic zone on its border. Abkhazia can become an original duty-free. Every large state rests near a smaller state. It is normal. If the U.S. has a remote zone of interest such as Georgia or the Kyrgyz Republic, why can't Russia can't observe its interests on its own border?! We are a buffer between possible NATO bases in Georgia and Russia."

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В Абхазии снова ждут войны с Грузией: «Если русские нас кинут, НАТО завтра будет под Сочи»