SUKHUMI, Georgia (Reuters) - In the capital of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region, the sea breeze rustles the palm trees and beneath them a group of teenage schoolgirls in camouflage gear rehearse marching drills.
“If, God forbid, a war starts, girls should be able to defend their country just like the boys,” said Astada Chkado, a 16-year-old pupil at Sukhumi’s Middle School No. 4.
Fifteen years after Abkhazia won a war to throw off Georgian rule, tensions over the region are close to spilling over again into an armed conflict.
A U.N. report says at least three unmanned Georgian spy planes have been shot down over Abkhazia since March -- one by a Russian jet, according to the United Nations, though Moscow denies it -- and Russia has sent in extra peacekeepers to counter what it said was an imminent Georgian attack.
Tensions subsided after a round of diplomacy this month, but observers warn the conflict could flare again at any time. Even if it does not, it could hinder Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO because the alliance does not want to get embroiled.
The conflict has global implications. It has pitted former imperial power Russia, which backs the separatists, against the United States, which supports Georgia, a vital link in a Washington-endorsed oil export corridor from the Caspian Sea.
“We have reached the final threshold, when any careless step can lead to war,” said separatist foreign minister Sergei Shamba in his ministry -- a few rooms at one end of a corridor in a building missing many of its window panes.
Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, used to be a favorite destination for Soviet holiday-makers. The conflict has taken a heavy toll.
In the semi-tropical heat, plants sprout through deserted buildings with bullet marks on their walls. Just off the seafront, a massive concrete pier designed to look like an ocean liner is now a derelict shell.
Abkhazia runs its own affairs, though no state has recognized its independence. Tbilisi has vowed to restore its control and bring back hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians who were driven out in the fighting.
Today, there is no evidence of Georgian rule. Instead, Russia’s influence is everywhere, from the sanatorium in Sukhumi where officers in Russia’s nuclear rocket forces are sent for rest cures to the pensions Moscow pays to all local retirees.
This year Russia went further, scrapping economic sanctions and establishing semi-formal ties with the separatist authorities. It sent extra troops and firepower to strengthen the Russian peacekeepers based here since a 1994 ceasefire.
The top separatist official in Gali region, on the tense de facto border with Georgia, said Russia’s intervention prevented a likely Georgian attack, though Tbilisi denies any such plan.
“It frightened them (the Georgian government),” said Ruslan Kishmaria. “They understood that the time when they could dictate their terms to us is over.”
Russia’s backing has given Abkhazia the confidence to start looking to a prosperous future.
The memoirs of Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew take pride of place on the bookshelf in separatist president Sergei Bagapsh’s office. He sees parallels with his own region.
“Singapore found the strength to develop and join the world’s most developed countries,” Bagapsh told Reuters. “It is not a big player in world politics but it resolves internal issues for its own people.”
“I would say (to potential investors) ... come to Abkhazia while everything is still not too expensive.”
Abkhazia’s economy does indeed seem to be picking up. Budget revenues are now $1.7 billion, the government says, up from $400 million four years ago.
Natalie Milovanova, boss of the “Yug” real estate agency, said that three years ago a two-room apartment in Gagra, Abkhazia’s poshest resort, would sell for $1,000. Now the average price is $80,000.
These signs of progress are a vindication for Milovanova, who says her husband was killed in the war with Georgia.
“For 15 years, we have been able to live independently. We took the rough with the smooth and did the best we could. But we did not become degraded. We are developing,” she said.
“I cannot even imagine that in my lifetime or in the lifetime of my children, Georgian influence over Abkhazia will be restored. This victory cost us too much for that.”