You are here:   Dispatches > Moscow: Putin's Empire Strikes Out

Abkhazia is different. The mountains fall beautifully into the sea like a second Riviera. The capital, Sukhumi, is eerily quiet and depressingly still. But the Soviet colonnades have been whitewashed and the promenade pieced back together since the savage wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his functional office, the Abkhaz National Security Adviser, Stanislav Lakhova, sternly explains its political meaning. His face is disfigured by a huge purple birthmark, but his fierce nationalism and bright eyes lend him a certain charm. "You suggest that empires are a bad thing, but for me they bring stability. Shall I remind you of what Mikhail Lermontov wrote to a Crimean friend? That as long as you are on the edges of an empire and far away from the Tsar, things are actually for the best. One more thing: think of Russia as Don Quixote and Abkhazia as Sancho Panza." 

I am ushered upstairs to meet "President" Sergei Bagapsh, a man with an oddly avuncular manner. He envisages a more formal arrangement with Moscow. "We intend to join the Russia-Belarus union state as soon as Minsk recognises us. And I have no doubt that this arrangement will be finalised positively." But other officials seem to want to strike out away from the Kremlin. Sergei Shamba, the Foreign Minister, explains that he has a "multi-vectoral foreign strategy", adding cryptically: "We have met officials from all branches of the Turkish government." An Abkhaz source later confirms that there has been a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. The source adds, "Turkey has a three-million-strong Abkhaz diaspora due to 19th-century Russian ethnic cleansing. And using them, we can eventually get ourselves out of this strategic corner."

But as I drive further south towards the frontlines, this sounds more and more like a fantasy. Greenery has swallowed the villages the ethnically cleansed Georgians once inhabited. The formerly prosperous town of Ochamchiere is like a sunny set from a post-apocalyptic film with its stretches of roofless and ravaged buildings. "Oh, you think it's bad today," intones presidential adviser Nadir Bitiev. "When it's winter with the dogs and eery noises, that's when it's bad." 

Putin has ordered the place be militarised. A large naval base will now be built here. Russian troop numbers in Abkhazia are rising from 1,500 to more than 3,500. In the badly maintained office of government at the frontline town of Gali, a local official smokes heavily and confesses, "My people are the victims of superpower relations."  

View Full Article
Bill Corr
October 6th, 2009
10:10 AM
The dismemberment of the Soviet Empire caused tragic suffering ... even the remaining Pontic Greeks were involved as victimes

September 29th, 2009
3:09 PM
The "harsh consonant" "D"? Idiotic.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Related content
More Dispatches
Popular Standpoint topics