Abkhazia election: Breakaway Georgia region votes

A view of Sukhumi, Abkhazia Abkhazia' capital, Sukhumi, is falling into disrepair

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Parliamentary elections are being held in the separatist territory of Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in a bloody war in the 1990s.

Today there is a fragile ceasefire between Abkhazia and Georgia but some worry that signs of instability are growing in the region again.

A burning car and a road strewn with machine guns and cartridges - that was the scene a few weeks ago, after Abkhazia's President Alexander Ankvab was attacked in an ambush.

He was on his way to work when a bomb blew up his car and men hidden behind the trees started firing with machine-guns.

The president survived but his two bodyguards were killed.

Falling and crumbling

Mr Ankvab, who became president in August, says his main aim is to fight corruption.

But in this region, that can be a risky undertaking.

Georgian political analyst Archil Gegishidze said the ambush was just the latest sign that powerful criminals within Abkhazia do not want to lose their influence.

"It's a symptom of the existing instability," he said.

Start Quote

Liana Kuarchela

We are developing without having an opportunity to use the European experience in our development”

End Quote Liana Kuarchela Abkhaz Centre for Humanitarian Programmes

"Generally the situation is tense. More fear, more uncertainty about the future. This is why the outcome of the upcoming elections is not that easy to predict."

When it was part of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was a tropical playground for the empire's elite.

And when you are on the beach in the centre of the capital, Sukhumi - surrounded by palm trees and with the snow-covered Caucasus mountains overlooking the bay - you can see why it was so popular.

But today, since fighting its war of independence with Georgia, Abkhazia is cut off from most of the world.

The piers are falling into the sea and the mansions are slowly crumbling into the lush forests.

The only large country to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state is Russia, which supports the territory financially and militarily.

More than 70% of the national budget is paid for by Russian aid money and around 3,500 Russian troops are stationed here.

But while Russia wins ground, Europe is losing influence, says Liana Kuarchela, from the Abkhaz Centre for Humanitarian Programmes.

Illegal but tolerated

"Abkhazia is not recognised," she says.

"And I think Georgia has a lot to do with the situation because Georgia's position is to block all contacts of Abkhazia with the external world, unless they are channelled through Georgia, which is not acceptable to Abkhazia.

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"So we are developing without having an opportunity to use the European experience in our development."

You can see the impact of that isolation at the administrative boundary line which separates Abkhazia and Georgia.

Most cars or buses are not allowed to cross, so a couple of tiny horse-drawn carts go back and forth between the checkpoints, laden down with old women in headscarves carrying fruit and vegetables to sell at local markets on either side of the border.

The trade is not legal but is tolerated by both sets of authorities as it is one of the few ways local people can buy products or earn money.

It all looks pretty peaceful, with chickens and cows wandering between the armed border guards.

But shooting breaks out regularly here and local Abkhaz or Georgian police officers are often targeted.

Start Quote

Vyacheslav Chirikba

Unless the Georgian leadership reverses its policy of not recognizing Abkhazia, we will have conflict forever between Abkhazia and Georgia”

End Quote Vyacheslav Chirikba Abkhaz foreign minister

European Union monitors say the number of incidents has increased over the last few months, and they are calling on both sides to show restraint.

Nightmare scenario

The scars of the last time Georgia and Abkhazia went to war are still visible at the old Abkhaz parliament.

It is a huge empty shell of a building, looming over the capital.

Trees are growing out of the smashed windows and the building's ornate stone pillars are still pockmarked from the shooting 20 years ago.

Tens of thousands of people died in that war, and a quarter of a million had to flee their homes - a humanitarian disaster the region is still struggling with.

Today, Georgia sees Abkhazia as Georgian territory, occupied by Russian forces, but Abkhazia says it is an independent state.

And it is clear, talking to Abkhazia's Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba, that neither side is prepared to back down.

"Technically we are in a state of war," he said.

"We didn't sign a peace treaty with Georgia after the war we had.

"Unless the Georgian leadership reverses its policy of not recognising Abkhazia, we will have conflict forever between Abkhazia and Georgia.

"We have a treaty with Russia on mutual co-operation and help. If Georgia attacks Abkhazia, Russia will have to intervene according to this treaty."

That is why this conflict matters: the prospect of Russia at war with Georgia, a close Nato ally, is a nightmare scenario.

And it is one which has already happened. In 2008, Russian tanks advanced on the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, after fighting in Georgia's other breakaway territory, South Ossetia, sparked off a war between Russia and Georgia.

The tanks were only stopped by a last-minute European-mediated ceasefire, but the West very nearly found itself dragged into a military confrontation with Russia.

No-one wants that to happen again.

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