Crammed into a beat-up van driving up the Black Sea coast to Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, we passengers listen over and over to a CD compilation of Caucasian pop hits. One of the songs, a bouncy Russian tune called "Sukhumi," has lyrics that open a window on the past:
Two days before March 4 parliamentary elections in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, campaign posters in its predominantly ethnic Georgian district of Gali were few and far between. But, amidst an ongoing campaign by Georgia to reclaim its breakaway regions, scrutiny of the elections in this district has been anything but sparse.
Less than a week before the March 4 parliamentary elections in Georgia's unrecognized breakaway republic of Abkhazia, opposition candidates have accused President Sergei Bagapsh of interfering in the election process with the aim of ensuring the election of a parliament "loyal" to the present leadership.
Tensions between Tbilisi and the separatist leaders in Sokhumi escalated July 28 after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile will be moved to the Kodori Gorge, a small pocket of Georgian-controlled territory within the disputed territory of Abkhazia.
"A guest is a gift from above," a storeowner told me over homemade vodka, honey and grapes during a recent trip to the breakaway region of Abkhazia. When God was distributing land to the world's nations, he continued, the Abkhaz missed out because they were busy attending to their guests.
While Georgia and Russia focus their attention on easing tension in South Ossetia, recent developments in Abkhazia should not be overlooked. The breakaway Black Sea region's political environment appears to be ripening for peace. Unfortunately, Tbilisi might be too preoccupied to take notice.
Russian leaders are hinting that Moscow may retaliate using economic means if Georgia takes action designed to expel Russian peacekeepers from the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Some political analysts are concerned that the diplomatic confrontation over the peacekeepers' continuing presence could reignite armed conflict in the Caucasus.
The Georgian parliament is expected to consider a resolution on February 15 demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia. Given the recent tussles between Georgia and Russia, political analysts say that the withdrawal resolution seems assured of passage.
In Abkhazia, the restoration of the railway is viewed with hope, doubt and fear. De facto Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Shamba believes in the best-case scenario: a railway completion agreement could be reached at the end of 2005 -- providing "conflicts of interest in Tbilisi don't prevent it," he stated in an interview with EurasiaNet.