Letter from Abkhazia — From the March 2014 issue

Sochi’s Troubled Neighbor

A journey through a Russian client state on the Black Sea

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When the world tunes in to figure skating during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, we’ll all learn that the Iceberg Skating Palace is built atop what was once a protected coastal marshland frequented by migrating birds. We’ll hear about Vladimir Putin’s vicious antigay laws, and about how Russia spent $51 billion to turn Sochi, a temperate beach town, and the mountains nearby into the site of what may be the most corrupt Olympics in history.

But the TV crews will likely miss a complex sideshow — a place with its own history of Russian heedlessness and malfeasance. Five or so miles from the gleaming, blue-windowed Iceberg, the silky-smooth pavement of Sochi ends and the potholes begin. This is the border with the Republic of Abkhazia. Among the drug-sniffing dogs used to check cars coming and going, there’s a German shepherd who hops around on three legs. Russian guards stand nearby, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and aimlessly pacing in their stiff gray woolen overcoats.

The United States does not recognize the Republic of Abkhazia, and in fact, only Russia and four of its other client states do: Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Tuvalu and Nauru, two tiny South Pacific nations with about 10,000 citizens apiece. The official U.S. position is that Abkhazia, which was once part of the Soviet Union, is now a rogue, breakaway region of Georgia.

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