By Inal Khashig in Sukhum (CRS No.162, 17-Jan-03)
Despite heavy snow showers and freezing temperatures, Abkhazia's entire government, as well as crowds of onlookers, recently turned out at Sukhum station to celebrate the resumption of rail services across their northern border to the Russian town of Sochi, after a ten-year break.
In the spirit of old Soviet welcoming ceremonies, children were allowed time off school on December 25 to carry flowers, banners and bring the traditional gifts of bread and salt to welcome the first passengers on the reopened service.
A military brass band played the nostalgic wartime favourite "Slavianka's Farewell" over and over again, as the first commuter train to travel to Sukhum from Sochi since August 14, 1992, when the Georgian-Abkhaz war broke out, pulled into the station.
But the rail service was restored without Georgia's consent and it lashed out at Russia, which has been acting as mediator and peacekeeper in the dispute for many years. "This is an unscrupulous encroachment upon Georgian national integrity," charged Malkhaz Kakabadze, Tbilisi's main negotiator on Abkhazia. David Shengelia, a Georgian guerrilla warlord who operates in the west of the country, vowed his men would try to blow up every single Sukhum-Sochi train.
A high-level Georgian delegation has taken its complaints to Moscow and is threatening retaliation against Russia.
"Unless Russia discontinues the unauthorized train service between Sukhumi and Sochi immediately, Georgia is prepared to halt transportation and telecommunication services for Russia's military bases in its territory," Georgian transport minister Merab Adeishvili told a press conference on January 15.
In response, the Russian foreign ministry announced that the reopening of the railway route was simply designed to "promote links between Russian and Abkhaz businesses and, generally, create a more favourable environment for resumed political dialogue."
For Abkhazia, the new link has enormous significance. "The re-launch of this railway service promises a host of economic and political benefits for Abkhazia," said Valery Arshba, the vice-president. He said he hoped that the economic embargo against Abkhazia "would soon be lifted despite the wishes of those states that are seeking to isolate our republic."
Abkhaz travelling in new trains on the 120-kilometre route have found the trip a novel and exciting experience.
Once every two days, exactly at 12:20 PM Moscow time, a train consisting of a locomotive and ten carriages pulls into the capital of Abkhazia. The light-coloured car interiors still smell of fresh paint. Vandals have not yet targeted the stuffed artificial leather seats of this re-commissioned train owned by the private Sochi Transportation Company. The route is operated under a contract with Abkhazia's railway department.
Before they board, the conductor warns the passengers that no more than 100 kg of baggage per person is allowed on the train. In the heat of the tangerine-picking season many farmers will want to use the train to ship large quantities of the fruit to the Russian border.
It is a Sunday, and there are no more than a hundred passengers on the train. "The time-table is not very convenient," said Rita Lolua, chief of Abkhazia's Department of Railways. "We want to talk to the Russians about changing it."
It's warm, even hot, on this train. Passengers seem unaccustomed to the unusually tidy carriage: no one discards sunflower seed husks or tangerine peel.
An elderly woman takes a napkin out of her purse, and starts wiping her shoes. "The kinds of trains we are used to are the ones with broken windows and dirty as a pigsty. This one is clean as a whistle," she remarked to a male fellow passenger.
Every carriage is patrolled by two police guards. A uniformed official collects the fare on the train. "It's ten roubles to the border (about 30 US cents, a very low price even by Russian standards), and another ten from there to Sochi, but the other ten will be collected after we cross the border," she told IWPR.
An old man flashes his Second World War veteran card, which normally entitles him to a free ride in public vehicles. "This is a privately owned train on a commercial route," the ticket collector explains to him. "No free rides here. The fare is very low, but it applies to everyone without exemptions."
Asida Avidzba, an elderly Abkhaz woman, frequently comes to Sukhum to visit her ailing sister. "Russia abandoned us after the war, but now things seem to be getting back to normal," she mused with hope in her voice. "I was granted Russian citizenship last summer. Now this train has been re-launched. Maybe they'll start paying us Russian pensions soon."
The train slows down and comes to a standstill at Tsandripsh, five kilometres from the border. Abkhazian customs officers and border guards climb in. Their checks last less than 30 minutes. At Vesyoloe on the Russian side, passengers are asked to step out of the cars while border checks are carried out.
In a poll conducted by the Sukhum-based opinion pollster Okno at the end of last year, the resumption of the train link with Russian was voted the "Highlight of the Year 2002". Popular interest in it far exceeded other events, including the surprise resignation of then prime minister Anri Djergenia and even the mass acquisition of Russian passports.
"The economic isolation of Abkhazia left us in such a state that we are delighted by a commuter train as if we are launching some kind of spaceship," said the speaker of the Abkhaz parliament Nugzar Ashuba.
Inal Khashig reports for the BBC from Abkhazia and is a regular IWPR contributor. Margarita Akhvlediani, IWPR Coordinator in Tbilisi, contributed to this report.