Along the border near Sochi, a ring of steel rises

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 7, 2014 at 12:58 am •  Published: February 7, 2014

ON THE ABKHAZIAN BORDER, Russia (AP) — The Russians here in the deep south of the country swear by luscious Abkhazian tangerines, and Mukhmunad Ashabokova is a vital part of the transport link that brings the bright orange citrus into Russia.

Most days in the tangerine season, she rolls her squat cart loaded down with the fruit across the bridge over Psou River from her garden about two miles inside Abkhazia. She sells the thick-skinned orbs on the street inside Russia at a border crossing that's only about three miles south of Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. She makes the hour-long roundtrip on foot, a cog in a primitive economy that flourishes in the shadow of Russian President Vladimir Putin's $51 billion Olympic showplace.

After an arduous journey of border and customs formalities on both sides, Ashabokova hauls the tangerines north and sells them in Russia for about 50 cents a pound (35 rubles a kilo). She returns home with the cart weighed down with plastic bottles of cooking oil and big bags of rice and other grains for her and neighbors.

"We need to eat," she explains.

Abkhazia is a festering geopolitical sore, and the economic system still operating in these and many other parts of Russia is decidedly 19th century. As Russia opens its doors to a curious world with the dawn of the Sochi Games, places like this border crossing expose the vast contradictions still gripping the one-time superpower 21 years after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The deeply poor region is one of an overflowing basket of ethnic districts in the nooks and crannies of the towering mountains, fertile valleys and seaside plains of the Caucasus region of southern Russia. Beginning with Josef Stalin, born in Georgia not far south of Sochi, the Caucasus' restive people were kept in line and subservient to Soviet power with state-imposed brutality. The tactic was born of the czar's Russian expansion into the region in the mid-18th century.

But when Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, much of the Caucasus turned again into a cauldron of open rebellion, on-and-off bloody warfare and the constant threat of Islamic terrorism, first in Chechnya and now just to the north in Dagestan.

Here on the other side of the majestic Caucasus range, Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation after Moscow forces crushed the Georgian army in a short war in 2008. The Georgians had, in Soviet times, administered Abkhazia and were once the majority population in the district. Abkhazia had gained nominal independence and the Georgians wanted it back. Russia said 'no.' Moscow carries a grudge against the Western-looking Georgians and their ties with NATO and the European Union.

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