Situated in the north-western corner of Georgia with the Black Sea to the south-west and the Caucasus mountains and Russia to the north-east, Abkhazia was once known as a prime holiday destination for the Soviet elite. It was also an important tea, citrus fruit and tobacco growing area.
Once part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, Abkhazia adopted Christianity in the sixth century. With the rise of the Ottoman empire 500 years later, Islam gained increasing influence. The ethnic Abkhaz people have close historical, linguistic and cultural ties with the peoples of the Russian North Caucasus which put up fierce resistance to Moscow’s expansionism in the first half of the 19th century.Abkhazia was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1810 as a protectorate and finally annexed in 1864. Many Abkhaz fled and many Russians and Georgians arrived in the years which followed. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Abkhazia gained a measure of autonomy until Stalin, who liked to holiday there, incorporated it into Georgia in 1931. It was still called an autonomous republic but there was very little sign of genuine autonomy while Stalin was alive. Georgian became the official language and the Abkhaz language and cultural rights were repressed. Many Georgians were resettled there. The repression eased substantially after Khrushchev came to power in the Kremlin. At the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, less than a fifth of the people of Abkhazia were ethnic Abkhaz while the rest of the population was made up largely of Georgians. When Georgia became independent, supporters of a break with Tbilisi in favour of independence and closer ties with Russia became more vociferous. Tension rose and in 1992 Georgia sent troops to enforce the status quo. In late 1993, they were driven out amidst fierce fighting. Several thousand people were killed. About 250,000 Georgians became refugees and are still unable to return. Most of those who remained have since left too. Abkhazia declared independence early in 1994. It has never been recognised by a single country and the price has been high indeed. An economic embargo remains in force and Abkhazia is isolated in just about every sense of the word except from Russia which maintains a border crossing and has re-opened the railway line to Sukhumi. Moscow has further infuriated Tbilisi by making it easy for people in Abkhazia to gain Russian citizenship. Most now hold Russian passports.
Georgia insists, that Russia supported the campaign to expel Georgian forces in 1993. Incongruously, the Abkhaz forces also had help from Chechen fighters, their traditional Caucasus allies and at the same time the sworn enemies of Moscow. The rivalries became still more complex in 2001 when the Kremlin accused Tbilisi of allowing Chechen fighters to take refuge from Russian forces in the Pankisi Gorge, home of their kinspeople, the Kists. Anyone criticised by Russia is likely to rise in Chechen estimation. The accusation forged a new Chechen bond with Georgia. Moscow agreed in 1999 to the closure of its base at Gudauta in the conflict zone, pledging that henceforth it would be for the sole use of peacekeepers. Georgia still alleges that it is used to offer military support to pro-independence forces and, because it says it has been unable to gain access to inspect it, still expresses doubts about whether the base is genuinely used purely for peacekeeping purposes. The fragile peace is maintained by UN military observers and CIS, in effect Russian, peacekeepers. The UN patrols the buffer zone which keeps the Abkhaz and Georgian sides apart. There are sporadic shootings and kidnappings with the potential for violent explosion never far beneath the surface. The strategic Kodori gorge is the only part of Abkhazia over which Georgia retains partial control. Tbilisi sent forces there in summer 2006 to disarm a rebel group. There was fury in Sukhumi when it also announced plans to set up what it described as a "legitimate government" of Abkhazia there .
Population: (1991) 550,000 (2003) approximately 250,000
Major languages: Russian, Abkhaz
Major religions: Christianity, Islam
Natural resources: Agricultural, primarily citrus fruit, tobacco, tea, timber; some coal, hydro-electric power
President: Sergei Bagapsh
Sergei Bagapsh was elected president in January 2005. The vote was a rerun of the previous October’s election which was surrounded by controversy, with allegations of widespread irregularities. At that time, a divided Abkhaz electoral commission declared Mr Bagapsh the winner over the Kremlin-backed candidate, Raul Khadzhimba. This brought turmoil, with the Supreme Court first upholding Mr Bagapsh but changing its mind after supporters of Mr Khadzhimba rampaged through the court building. In the end, Mr Bagapsh and Mr Khadzhimba, both strong supporters of Abkhaz independence, agreed to campaign on a joint ticket in the January 2005 rerun, with Mr Bagapsh standing as president and Mr Khadzhimba as vice president. Mr Bagapsh has said that relations with Tbilisi must be sorted out through negotiations between "two sovereign states". He pledges to build integration with Russia and rules out compromise with the Georgian authorities on sovereignty. Mr Bagapsh was Abkhaz prime minister between 1997 and 2001. He has a Georgian wife. Vice President Khadzhimba was prime minister until immediately after the October 2004 elections