“Behind the Sochi Curtain: The hidden country of Abkhazia” – Yahoo Sports
07 February, 2014
Yahoo Sports reporter Martin Rogers and video producer Alan Springer traveled to Russia during July and September 2013 to get an up-close look at Sochi and its surroundings, plus focus on the bigger social issues facing these Winter Olympics. This is Part 2 of our seven-part "Behind the Sochi Curtain" series.
“Sukhumi, Abkhazia – Less than five miles from the heart of the 2014 Olympic Village is a hidden nation.
It has its own passport, language, flag and anthem. It
has lingering scars of a bloody civil war and even an Olympic medalist. But most Westerners have never heard of Abkhazia, which is a shorter drive to Sochi's Olympic Stadium than MetLife Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVII, is to Manhattan.
But Abkhazia might as well be on another planet from these Winter Olympics. Don't expect Olympic visitors to get to know it, either. Abkhazia's borders are closed for the duration of the Games.
Abkhazia is a nation-state whose status is deeply complicated. It has no official standing with the United Nations, U.S. foreign policy nor Western internet maps. The region is considered part of Georgia, one of the 15 republics created when the Soviet Union disbanded in the early 1990s.
Reality is different, though. Georgia has wielded no political control over Abkhazia's territory since a bloody civil war two decades ago. What's more, a bloc of six countries led by Russia, and including Nicaragua and Venezuela, does recognize Abkhazia's status as a full-fledged nation.
For Abkhazia and its citizens who crave full international acceptance, the arrival of the world's winter athletes and biggest media organizations on its doorstep should be a dream come true. Instead, the Games have become nothing more than a sad reminder of what they don't have.
In September, Yahoo Sports video producer Alan Springer and I crossed the ramshackle border post just down the one-lane highway that runs along Sochi's coast. We walked past slumbering stray dogs and bored-looking customs officers, took a local taxi and stumbled into a national remembrance day that seemed to include every one of Abkhazia's nearly 300,000 citizens.
Abkhazia's capital of Sukhumi was in the midst of the 20th anniversary of its liberation from Georgian control, and we received the warmest of welcomes. They don't get a whole lot of visitors here – a ministry official reported that only 112 Americans came in the year of 2012, most of them people with Abkhaz relatives or spouses. Children, soldiers and even the president of the country offered a handshake and a smile.
"We know a lot about Americans, but Americans do not know about us," said president Alexander Ankvab, who agreed to an impromptu interview and seemed remarkably cheerful for a man who has reportedly survived nine assassination attempts – allegedly by criminal gangs who fear the impact of his reforms.
Around him schoolchildren laid wreaths to commemorate those who perished in the 1990s conflict that led to Abkhazia's current limbo as a marginalized state, free of Georgian influence but hamstrung from connecting with the wider world.
"The Olympics will be a huge celebration and we are open for everyone who will visit us," Ankvab said back in September.
It will not turn out that way for the president and his fellow citizens.
Abkhazians can see the mountains where the alpine medals will be won. You need only go a mile from the Abkhaz border to see in full view the futuristic Fisht Olympic Stadium, where the Opening Ceremony will be celebrated Friday night in Russia (Friday morning in the U.S.).
Yet that short journey is now closed off to Abkhazians, after the Russian government ended the uncertainty of what would happen to the border during the Olympics. Leaders ordered it shut on security grounds due to fears that terrorists could use the gateway to access gain easy access to Sochi.”
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