Behind the Sochi Curtain: The hidden country of Abkhazia

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.

Sasha is a young man in his early 20s who speaks about Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers with so much knowledge and passion that only his accent stops you from believing he must have grown up in Southern California. A student who makes some spare cash by driving around visiting politicians or film crews, he is a sports fanatic and once played basketball for the Abkhazian national junior team.

His eyes light up when he learns we come from California and engages in a lengthy discussion about sports, especially the NBA. But when conversation shifts to the Winter Olympics there is just a sad shake of his head.

The border closure means that despite his geographical proximity to Sochi, Sasha's Games experience will be just like how he watches games from the NBA or European basketball leagues: finding online streams through his temperamental internet connection.

"I will never be so close to something like this again and I would give anything to see it," Sasha said. "It would be a dream. But we have a lot of dreams in Abkhazia, and a lot of them do not come true."

The glittering excesses of the Olympics and its vast spending projects are like any number of uppercuts, hooks and knockout punches to the economic gut of Abkhazia. While tens of billions were spent on renovating Sochi's tourist facilities for the Winter Olympics, the Abkhazian beach town of Gagra, once considered in Soviet times to be the most appealing beauty spot for hundreds of miles, continues to suffer from a lack of investment.

Russian troops guard the border between Abkhazia and Georgia to the northeast, while the territory is flanked by the Black Sea to the west. That Russian protection and the economic funding Moscow provides is the main reason why Abkhazian political officials do not complain about the Olympic border closures, which, whether necessary or not, seem achingly unfair.

[Behind the Sochi Curtain: Olympics' arrival stirs up grim reminder]

"Russia has been a close and strategic ally to Abkhazia," said Stanislav Lakoba, the country's chief historian and former interior minister. "We are a small country and we value our friendship with Russia. Nowadays, Russia is the only close ally of Abkhazia."

While he is glad for the chance to tell his country's story, Lakoba admits some frustrations with America. He claims that during the war the Georgians destroyed documentary information on Abkhazia's history, but that when he reached out to some leading American universities for assistance in order to rebuild the archive, they refused to help.

If Sochi is a freshly-minted neon whirl, then Abkhazia is the epitome of "back to basics." Many buildings have been restored and there are a few swanky western cars dotted among the clanking relics on the streets. But up in the hillside villages farmers tend their herds with antiquated machinery. Some even travel by horse and cart; stray animals wander on roads in need of repair.

There is natural loveliness, too: refreshingly clean air, rolling hills, winding streams, a stunning hillside castle and a gorgeous and largely unspoiled coastline, all a pleasant change from the omnipresent billboards advertising giant global corporations on the Sochi side.

For potential visitors there is much to see, but during its biggest window of touristic opportunity, a bureaucratic veil has been drawn. For a while after International Olympic Committee made its hosting decision in 2007 it looked like the Sochi Games could be Abkhazia's greatest blessing since achieving its relative version of independence. There was talk of new investment and improved infrastructure and an influx of tourism.

"When we think of all the countries that will be represented at the Olympics, and all the people who will come, it is sad that they do not get a chance to see us and our country," said Milana Vozba, a 22-year-old student, language expert and political assistant. "And it is sad for us that we can't show them. I am sure there will be people who come to Sochi and leave still not knowing anything of Abkhazia, even though it is so close."

Many Abkhazians, especially young adults like Vozba, want to be part of the wider world and even dream of affiliation with the European Union, primarily for the economic benefits it would bring. Currently, protection from Georgia comes at a price and Abkhazia is estimated to be dependent on Russia for up to 70 percent of its economy.

Russia's use for Abkhazia appears to be functional with no interest in painting on it a Sochi-style shiny face like it has for all those Olympic visitors and dignitaries. If Abkhazia is a secret nation, Russia seems happy for it to remain that way.

Sochi threw up dozens of gleaming hotels at a rapid pace to accommodate Olympic visitors and VIPs, but here in Sukhumi, a former government building in the main square still stands abandoned and riddled with bullet holes after two decades. It is treated more as a badge of honor than an eyesore, a symbol of the sacrifice Abkhazia went through to earn even a limited independent status. Outside, marching troops prepare for a national parade planned a few days after our visit.

Just down a side street, on a hastily converted basketball court, a youth wrestling competition was taking place, watched by a small collection of onlookers and Abkhazian dignitaries. Wrestling is the most popular sport in Abkhazia, and was the source of its only Olympic medal, courtesy of Denis Tsargush's bronze in the 74kg category at London in 2012.

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Abkhazians celebrated wildly when Tsargush clinched a medal 2,000 miles away, but his moment of honor was achieved in Russian colors. Abkhazia's clouded status means it cannot send an official team of athletes to the Games and for Abkhazians, the prospect of representing Georgia would be unthinkable.

Tsargush was immersed in a mild controversy when Russian officials listed in his Games biography Gudauta, Russia, as his place of birth. Gudauta is actually a small Abkhazian town; Georgia filed a protest, but little came of it.

"Like [Tsargush], Abkhazia has a lot of talented athletes," said Jury Logua, deputy chairman of the Abkhazian state committee for sports and youth. "[But] we are a proud and dignified people, and the fact that our athletes won't be represented at the Olympics as an independent state is very disappointing. We are very well prepared and [could] independently participate in the Olympics. But our athletes will compete under the Russian flag.

"I hope that in the future our athletes will be allowed to represent Abkhazia. And I hope the IOC and western states will allow us to participate at sporting events under the Abkhaz flag soon and cheer up all of the Abkhaz people all over the world."

Many nations have sought to further their national identity through sports. Georgia hastily recruited a string of imports with no familial links to the country for recent Olympics, including a pair of Brazilian beach volleyball players who renamed themselves "Geor" and "Gia" in time for Beijing, and 16-year-old American ice dancer Allison Reed ahead of Vancouver in 2010.

Without recognition, from the IOC or the UN, Abkhazia has no such opportunity.

"We have athletes with dreams and we are a country that loves sport and knows how to fight hard," said Logua, pointing to a pair of teenage grapplers locked in combat a few yards away. "We just need the opportunity."

The closest thing Abkhazia has come to an international sports extravaganza was the 2011 World Domino Championships in Sukhumi, which attracted contestants from dozens of countries.

It turns out our driver Sasha is not the only sports fan around here. In a little café down from the government's offices, a group of men cluster around a television set to watch a foreign soccer game with keen interest, plenty of shouting and presumably cursing at the action on the screen.

Given there is clearly an appetite here for elite sporting competition, will the same groups congregate to watch and cheer during the Winter Olympics?

"Maybe we will for some events," said one in the group, a middle-aged man called Igor. "But it is hard for people to watch this thing that is taking place so close to us, yet we are shut off from it. For some people it is too painful to see, too much of a reminder."

For pictures of Abkhazia, click on the picture below: