ACHANDARA, disputed territory of Abkhazia — It's election season in the country that doesn't officially exist.
In a bare gymnasium with mildewed walls and no working lights, the current Abkhaz leader recently appealed for votes in Saturday's presidential elections. He also asked villagers to register their AK-47s and not to keep rocket-propelled grenades at home.
In the Republic of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh said, people should concentrate on the democratic process, not stockpiling heavy weaponry.
The only problem is that according to almost all interpretations of international law, there's no such country. Most of the world views this small stretch of land wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains as a rebel province that belongs to neighboring Georgia. In short, Abkhazia isn't on the map.
The Kremlin says otherwise; it recognized Abkhazia and another Georgian region as independent states in August 2008, and sent Russian army units and millions of dollars to back their governments.
So Bagapsh, a heavyset man who favors gray pinstriped suits, spends his days climbing in and out of a dark Lexus sedan in the rocky corners of a nation that isn't technically a nation and rallying votes.
Visitors to this geopolitical twilight zone pick up their Abkhaz visas at the foreign ministry — full color, stamped, signed and embossed with hologram stickers — on the condition that they don't paste them in their passports. It might cause complications in other countries, ministry workers explain.
At the "international border" crossing from Russia, a collection of shacks with corrugated metal roofs, no one seems concerned about checking for an Abkhaz visa anyway.
Abkhazia has become a place caught in the complexities of Caucasus blood feuds and Moscow's foreign-policy machinations. Critics see the Russian presence in Abkhazia as the forward thrust of a Kremlin bent on regaining influence in the post-Soviet world.
It's a lonely position: Only Venezuela and Nicaragua have followed Moscow's lead in naming Abkhazia a country unto itself.
Georgia and Abkhazia, neighbors and rivals, share centuries of intertwined history. In the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was at first a relatively independent republic — with a "special union treaty" with Georgia — but then Josef Stalin decreed that it would be a part of his homeland, Georgia. Abkhazia was a favored vacation ground of the late dictator.
In Abkhazia today, on the eve of the presidential elections, those who are running for office say their country has made an irreversible break with Georgia.
"We are recognized by the biggest state in the world, Russia. ... There are realities in the world from which there is no stepping back," Bagapsh said as he smoked a cigarette after a campaign stop.
Georgia calls Abkhazia an "occupied territory." A European Union report this year ruled that Abkhazia had no right to secede, and that other countries have no legal basis to recognize it as anything other than a northwestern flank of Georgia.
Yet, there it is, with a flag — an open hand surrounded by stars — a standing government and its borders secured with the full backing of the Russian military machine, courtesy of a recently inked 49-year agreement that allows Russia to build bases here. Official Russian news wires reported in August that an economic development and aid plan worth more than $340 million had been proposed for Abkhazia in 2010-2011 and that an additional $465 million-plus was on the table for defense spending next year.
And, of course, there's the presidential election.
Bagapsh is up against four other candidates in the polls Saturday. Most think that barring rampant fraud, no one will gain the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Bagapsh's three serious competitors, including recently resigned Vice President Raul Khadjimba, have pledged to back just one man in the second round.
That is unless things get out of hand, which has been known to happen in Abkhazia. The 2004 elections ended in both Bagapsh and Khadjimba, then the Kremlin's candidate, declaring victory. Their supporters seized different government buildings, raising fears of armed conflict until both men agreed to join a single ticket and restage the elections.
Asked Tuesday night whether Abkhazia had turned into a more stable locale, Khadjimba replied that if there are problems this time around, "this will be the responsibility of the ruling power — to the full extent."
Khadjimba, a former member of the Soviet KGB security services, was standing in the small back room of his campaign headquarters, which had bare walls and an Abkhaz flag stuck in the corner. Another man, whose presence wasn't explained, sat at a desk next to Khadjimba and pressed his ear to a headphone, which presumably was connected to a recording device.
While all the candidates publicly welcome Russia's support, some worry that Bagapsh took the money without enough consideration for building Abkhazia as a self-sustaining state.
"No one will try to worsen relations with Russia," contender Beslan Butba, who made his fortune in Moscow construction and trade centers, told McClatchy. "It's dangerous for any country — not only for Abkhazia but any country — to be dependent on the scale that we are on Russia."
For now, Abkhazia needs the cash. A 1992-1993 war for independence with Georgia destroyed much of the infrastructure. In the lush capital of Sukhumi, perched on a shimmering Black Sea coastline, many buildings have stood empty and charred for more than 15 years and still bear the crisscrossing patterns of bullet holes. During the fighting, in which both sides are accused of war crimes, the Abkhaz historical archives were burned to the ground.
Before that war, Abkhazia had a population of 525,000, but about 300,000 fled, most of them ethnic Georgians. Today the government claims 216,000 citizens, but some suspect that it's even fewer.
Driving toward a recent Bagapsh campaign rally, spokesman Nadir Bitiev crossed a bridge and looked over as the river below disappeared. He'd fought nearby during the 1992 war against the Georgians, when he was 16.
"A lot of people died on this bridge," he said. The car moved on, toward a small village where Bagapsh was getting ready to speak. As Bitiev rounded a corner, there was the Black Sea, and on the horizon two Russian navy ships.
"It's a reality, we exist. We must be dealt with," Bitiev said. "We need to convince the international community to recognize us. ... Sooner or later it will happen."
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