CHUBURKHINJI Abkhazia (Reuters) - Trudging over a bridge hundreds of meters long, English teacher Natia Ablotia struggles home in the blazing heat, laden with goods that are cheaper to buy across the river in Georgia than in Abkhazia, where she lives.
After nearly six years as effectively a protectorate of Russia, life is still tough for many in the breakaway Georgian region. Last week, in a spasm of frustration over corruption and poor living conditions, protesters stormed the president’s headquarters, forcing him to flee and then resign.
Abkhazia’s story - how a once popular and affluent resort area broke away from a former Soviet republic, sought protection under Moscow’s wing but has struggled to make ends meet - has resonance for another Black Sea region, Crimea, which split from Ukraine to be annexed by much wealthier Russia in March.
Ablotia, 39, is one of hundreds who cross the bridge from Chuburkhinji in Abkhazia each day to buy cheaper food and goods, enabling them to stretch their modest monthly wages further.
“It’s hard over here,” she said, resting her purchases - three bags of shopping and a green plastic watering can - at the Abkhazia end of the two-lane road bridge over the broad, green valley of the Inguri river.
“Everything is cheaper over there,” she added, pointing back at the Georgian side of the de facto border, which is still closed to cars by military posts. “The road is hard. You have to walk 800 meters, over the bridge.”
Turning its back on Georgia, as Crimea has to Kiev, disrupted Abkhazia’s trade and transport and hitched its economy to the oil-fueled rouble, importing heavily from Russia, where wages and prices are much higher than in Georgia - or Ukraine.
Abkhazia first threw off Georgia’s control in a bloody conflict in the early 1990s, when ethnic Abkhaz were unwilling to be ruled by independent Georgians in post-Soviet Tbilisi rather than from Moscow. The scars of war and ethnic cleansing are still evident in the ruins of pock-marked buildings.
But the break became definitive only in 2008. When Russia defeated Georgia in a brief war over another rebel region, South Ossetia, Moscow recognized both separatist governments as independent in a move followed by scarcely any other state.
While Russia’s critics saw a strategy by Vladimir Putin to secure military and territorial advantage and to undermine former Soviet republics set on breaking with Moscow and drawing closer to the West, the Kremlin has framed its help for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea in humanitarian terms.
But Abkhazia’s struggles with poverty may give some Crimeans pause to worry about Moscow’s commitment to their prosperity.
Abkhazia, with just 240,000 people from a cocktail of ethnic groups, is no Crimea: the latter has three times the territory and a population of more than 2 million, a majority of them ethnic Russians.
Russia has said it could spend up to $7 billion this year alone to integrate Crimea’s economy into its own - no simple matter when they share no land border [ID:nL6N0OE2ES].
In Abkhazia, by contrast, Russia invested just a tenth of that in five years, from 2009 to 2013. Just over half went on construction projects, including kindergartens, two theaters and a stadium, and the rest on pensions and state workers’ wages.
But last week’s protesters complained the local government had wasted much of the money - allegations of corruption are widespread - and had failed to use the aid to boost employment.
“We cannot deny that something was done. But they act like foremen for the bosses. Great Russia gave them the money and they just report back on the expenses: ‘This is done, that is done’. But the problem is nothing was built where people could get jobs,” said opposition activist Beslan Avidzba.
There are no official unemployment data. According to the local government, the average monthly wage last year was 9,580 rubles ($273), about a third of that in Russia.
“Twenty years have passed. We could have lived in clover for 20 years,” said Dmitry, a unemployed man in his 30s, sitting on a fence overlooking the sea in the regional capital Sukhumi and contemplating Abkhazia’s post-Soviet decline.
“If people survive, fight for life and for money and only wake up to earn some money and feed their families, they become hardened and rough, like a cactus.”
Discontent burst into the open last week when the opposition took over the office of President Alexander Ankvab and forced him to flee to a Russian military base in Abkhazia. Ankvab resigned on Sunday, saying he wanted to avoid violence.
At the height of the crisis, Vladislav Surkov, a close aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited Abkhazia and held several meetings with Ankvab and the opposition, urging them - successfully, as it turned out - to avoid bloodshed.
Although the Kremlin insisted he did not take sides, there are indications that Moscow was not happy with Ankvab. An official who oversees Russian-Abkhazian ties, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Ankvab had taken a “socialist” approach, whereas Moscow was more interested in stimulating the economy than merely providing welfare handouts.
“The disagreement between Moscow and Ankvab over the investment plan was that Ankvab wanted to restore the social infrastructure and Moscow’s policy is to give fishing rods instead of fish,” the official said.
After Ankvab’s resignation, Surkov praised his decision and said Russia would keep supporting Abkhazia financially and militarily. A new presidential election will be held in August.
Economically, the region’s best hope is attracting more tourists from Russia.
Famed for its subtropical climate, clean sea and snow-capped mountains, Abkhazia was a favorite retreat for Georgian-born Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and a sought-after holiday destination for generations of workers from across the USSR.
Today, a broad new coastal highway covers the few miles to the Abkhazian border from the lavish Olympic Park built for this year’s Sochi winter games. But after the checkpoint, the road narrows. The picturesque mountain landscape is dotted with abandoned apartment blocks with empty windows and bullet holes.
Abkhazia won the 1992-93 war against Georgia but, like its population, which was virtually halved by an exodus of refugees, tourism has never fully recovered. It is hard to find a place on the shore without a view of battle-scarred hotels. The charred hulk of a public building dominates the center of Sukhumi.
“The war did us tremendous harm. In fact all the resorts were plundered,” said Tourism Minister Tengiz Lakerbai. “Now we use only 30 percent of what we had before the war.”
Crimea’s resorts, too, face challenges, despite the largely bloodless break with Ukraine, which had provided the bulk of its tourists, most arriving overland. Now, to attract Russians and others traveling by air, it must compete with modern facilities in Turkey, Bulgaria and further afield. [ID:nL5N0MO3QN]
According to the Abkhazian tourism ministry, the number of visitor-days spent at its resort hotels peaked at 1.3 million in 2007, the year before the Russia-Georgia war. The latest figure, for 2012, was just 1.1 million.
Those data exclude the many visitors who rent private apartments or make day-trips over the border. But even though visitor numbers are substantial, they spend little.
Altogether, 600,000-700,000 tourists visit Abkhazia each year. But only one in five stays in a hotel and around a quarter come only for the day, hopping over from more comfortable Sochi. On average, each visitor spends just 1,000 rubles ($28) a day.
Relaxing on an almost empty beach in Sukhumi, tourist Svetlana Khlupova, manager of a hairdressing salon near Moscow, reflected on her holiday with wry humor, happy to enjoy a bargain package in Abkhazia, even if it lacks the all-inclusive frills on offer at the busier Russian resorts up the coast.
“The nature is beautiful and the people are friendly,” she said. “It’s OK with me when nothing else is included.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan