Wed, Aug 08, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Georgia up in arms over Russia's plans for Winter Olympics

THE GUARDIAN , SUKHIMI, ABKHAZIA

A bitter diplomatic row has broken out in the republic of Georgia over Russia's plans to harness the economic potential of breakaway Abkhazia to prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

There were wild celebrations in Moscow last month when Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi was chosen to host the games despite having practically no infrastructure in place.

But now Russian officials have fanned the flames of a long-running territorial conflict by announcing plans to import building materials from Abkhazia -- a de facto independent mountain republic, which is legally part of Georgia but has controlled its own borders since a fierce civil war in the early 1990s.

At least 305 billion roubles (US$11.9 billion) is expected to be invested in the games, raising the possibility of tens of millions of roubles pouring in to the tiny Abkhazian economy, which is officially strangled by sanctions.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov said in a newspaper interview that cement and gravel for constructing sports facilities would be bought from the republic. Furious politicians in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, retaliated by threatening to prosecute Russian companies that buy property in Abkhazia.

Nino Burjanadze, chairwoman of the Georgian parliament, said in a telephone interview that Russian cooperation with Abkhazia could provoke an international boycott of the games.

"The Kremlin is forgetting that Abkhazia is not part of Russian territory," she said. "If our sovereignty over the region is ignored we will do everything we can to encourage a boycott of the games, as there was in the case of the Soviet summer Olympics in 1980 [when some countries refused to take part because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan]."

However, Abkhazian Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia said Russian investors were not deterred by Tbilisi's threats.

"Georgia should not fear development of Abkhazia's economy," he said.

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