KGB Playground

Newsweek has an interesting article today about the KGB’s long tradition of working (and playing) in Abkhazia and how this legacy has been passed on to the FSB and carried over to the present day. Here’s an excerpt:

The Russian special services’ “special relationship” with Abkhazia began well before the region’s break from Georgia in 1991, in the days of the Soviet KGB. From Stalin’s era on, every other Abkhaz family had a KGB officer, a secret agent, or an informer among their relatives. Former agents told NEWSWEEK that Moscow gave the tiny South Caucasus republic a special status–of an autonomous republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic–in order for the KGB to have a pleasant headquarters in the palm-lined seaside boulevards of Sukhumi. Locals like to boast that “Abkhazia used to beat the world record on the number of secret agents per capita,” says Lavrik Mikvabia, a colonel in the Abkhaz border guard. And Vladimir Rubanov, a three-star general who ran the old KGB’s analytical department, told NEWSWEEK that “the KGB always had its special power in Abkhazia. When I came for vacation and went out for a beer with my friend, a senior Abkhaz KGB commander, we did not have to pay for our beers or a plate of crabs. We just showed our KGB IDs.”

Traditions are respected in the Caucasus. So nobody was surprised whenthe FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, inherited the Mayaksanitarium, a former KGB rehabilitation center for agents, after thebreakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Or when officers of the FederalProtection Service, the agency guarding the president and other topofficials, brought their families to spend summers at the dacha thatKhrushchev once used–a strictly guarded, enormous resort covering morethan 10 square kilometers of seafront property in Pitsunda. Now arotating cast of former and current FSB officers has arrived to rentand privatize luxury hotels, sanitariums, and dachas on prestigiousbits of land.

In the two years since Russia went to war to”liberate” Abkhazia andSouth Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia, the Russification in thoseprovinces has accelerated. Almost all the best Abkhaz architecturalmonuments have ended up in the hands of Russian investors: the19th-century palace of the Prince of Oldenburg; Olda’s Tower; anothergraceful palace in the Mauritanian style in the hills overlooking thecity; and Gagra’s oldest landmark, the ancient Persian Attaba Fortress,dating to the fourth and fifth centuries. Luxurious real-estatedevelopments like the Dolfin Hotel,which opened last January, have emerged along the seafront, wakingPitsunda’s tourist industry from years of comatose postwar decay.Tsyshba, the Gagra privatization guru, proudly boasts that the city is”the best FSB resort.”

The Dolfin Hotel’s manager, Alexander Chukbar, agrees, but he addswarily that the new owners “are not the kind of people one can just goup to and chat with.” In Soviet days, the KGB was a state within astate. Now, with former KGB officer Vladimir Putin and his circle offormer spooks still very much in control of the country, the FSB’s handextends into almost every major Russian business. Former KGB officersturned businessmen are warmly welcomed in their old Abkhaz stompinggrounds–and have brought billions of dollars of investment. Rosneft,Russia’s state oil company famous for its ties to the Russian securityestablishment, arrived this year to open an office in Sukhumi and begina $32 million geological-research program offshore in the Black Sea,considered a prospective oil-rich region…

…[T]he biggest investorof all is Prime Minister Putin, who visited Abkhazia last summer forthe war’s first anniversary, and pledged $500 million in state aid tostrengthen Abkhaz defense. He has also promised millions for a hugeproject to redevelop the town of Pitsunda, famous for its enormous oldpine trees–beloved by the tsars, the Soviets, and the new Russianelites alike. The Russian government is planning to build what AstamurKetsba, head of the regional administration, calls “Putin City”–alavish luxury resort with a port for yachts, health clubs, and privatebeaches. It is expected to be ready in time for the 2014 WinterOlympics in nearby Sochi. In the meantime, Abkhaz President SergeiBagapsh told NEWSWEEK that he has already received 300 million rublesof 9 billion offered, and that he has reached an agreement with Putinthat will allow Russian citizens to own private property in Abkhazia.He boasted that the airport Sukhumi will open next month is better thanthe one in Sochi, and that soon, Russian S-300 surface-to-air missileswill be stationed in his breakaway republic.

Not all the locals are happy about the invasion of Russian money,fearing an assault on their newly won independence. Tomara Lakrba, themain architect of the towns of Gagra and Pitsunda, says she was”astonished” when she saw the proposed designs for Putin City,which–with more than 10 stories (where three or four are normal)–sheconsidered tall and ugly. “I realized that Russian security servicesgave us our independence in order to be able to decide what to buy andbuild in our cities,” she says.