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Story Publication logo August 16, 2008

Abkhaz puppets, or not?

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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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The parliament, national security council, ministry of foreign affairs -- all these institutions in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi occupy one block of buildings located directly on the Black Sea coast. For Sukhumi, unlike Pitsunda and Gagra, has never been considered only a holiday resort. It was and it is an administrative center, the capital of the region. The monument of Lenin from the square in front of the former communist party committee is gone a long time ago, but administrative center of Sukhumi -- separated for years from outside life -- has remained to some degree like soviet theme park.

When I talk to the officials of the Abkhaz administration I wonder, is it still here like in the good old Soviet times, that all their decisions have to be approved in Moscow as well as appointments to the most important administrative jobs? Georgians would never call the present Abkhazian government anything other than "marionietki" --puppets. But is this really so, that top Abkhazian officials are just blindly carrying out the Kremlin's instructions?

Russia doesn't have just one center of power – I hear from a high-ranking Abkhazian parliament deputy who doesn't want his name to be disclosed. In the end of 2003 he was involved in the negotiations with Russia when in the local presidential election a majority of Abkhaz citizens voted for Sergei Bagapsh, thereby rejecting the candidate supported by the Kremlin. For weeks Moscow kept saying no to the election results that had been announced by the local election commission.

The official said they had tried to explain to the Russians that they should not worry – that any politician elected here as president of Abkhazia has no choice, he has to support Russia. Without Russia we have no chance. So why this should this matter to them if it was Bagapsh or somebody else?

I try to find out who was Russian partner in those negotiations: Russia's Foreign Ministry? The Kremlin representatives? Parliament's deputies? The special Russian envoy? Who played the role of the Russian puppet master, controlling Abkhazian puppets?

My source gets angry. He doesn't think in the first place that Abkhazian politicians are just puppets. He remembers it well. The high-ranking guy from the Federal Security Service yelled at him, demanding that they withdraw their support for Bagapsh and switch their support to the Kremlin's candidate.

"We are not puppets so we did not agree," he says. "I told him I was not afraid of his threats. At the same time we talked to other Moscow emissaries. They trusted us. They were high enough to have access to Putin. We convinced them; they convinced him. In the end the Kremlin approved Bagapsh and gave up on their own candidate.

Abkhazians try to play several Russian instruments. They are friends with the heads of the local administration in the Russia's southern regions. They seek their own communication channels with Russia's ruling party "United Russia". They talk to the Russian business magnates. They nourish their contacts to the Kremlin. And above all they make their best to keep contacts with their northern Caucasus brothers -- the Chechens, Ossetians, Gabardino-Balkarians. They would be their natural allies in any war with the Georgians or any other enemy.

In Moscow now, a few days later and after the Russian war with South Ossetia, I talk to the Russian politician, one of the former high-ranking parliament members who was involved in the negotiations in 2003 and 2004 over the disputed Abkhazia election. At that time he was very satisfied with the final outcome. But he remembers well how he visited top Kremlin administration official after Sergei Bagapsh was sworn in and took office.

"Ok, we gave up, but we still think he is not our man," he recalls the other saying. "Can we trust him? How come? Bagapsh has a Georgian wive. Her father lives with them."

My Russian parliament source says he was shocked by the comment. He had to react. He lowered his voice, answering his Kremlin's host. "I will disclose to you an Abkhazian state secret," he recalls telling the Kremlin's man. "Bagapsh has always loved his wife."

Abkhazia parliament speaker Nugzar Ashoba, meanwhile, tells me details of the recent visit to Abkhazia by European Union foreign policy representative Xavier Solana.

He says he told Solana that Europeans should have come here a long time ago. As an independent state we would be EU's neighbous -- Romania and Bulgaria are just across the Black Sea.

According to Ashoba Solana listened to Abkhazian officials with great interest. He told them in the end he believed they were Europeans too and that he saw no chance for the solution to their conflict with Georgia without Russia.

Knowing they had no other ally than Russia Abkhaz officials could hardly risk an open confrontation with the Kremlin. But they were for sure interested in opening up communication channels to the outside world.

Unfortunately, after the recent war in the South Ossetia, they will have to postpone their plans in this regard for some time to come.

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