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October 31, 2014

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Along the border near Sochi, a ring of steel rises

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AP Photo/Morry Gash

Mukhmunad Ashabokova watches as someone puts tangerines in a bag at the Abkhazian border Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, near Sochi, 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.

ON THE ABKHAZIAN BORDER, Russia — 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.

On the eve of the official opening of the games, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon restated his appeal for warring parties around the world to lay down arms during the games. His message was certain to have landed on deaf ears in the Caucasus, where the terrorist threat hangs heavy over the games. The gleaming festival of sport is close at hand, and it is just as closely and personally associated with Putin as are his repressive tactics in the Caucasus. Russian security is massive. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and security forces have created a so-called "ring of steel" encircling Sochi. That includes what should be considered the friendly border with Abkhazia.

Is it enough? Caucasus-based Islamic extremists gave the world a taste of what they can do when they set off bombs and killed dozens in the southern Russian city of Volgograd late last year.

At the border, the ring of steel is in open view. Tall fences topped with razor wire and cameras flank both sides of the riverine frontier with Abkhazia. Russian sensitivities showed when border patrol forces screeched to a halt in front of a car carrying an Associated Press news team visiting the border this week. Three soldiers jumped out of the truck and forced a cameraman to erase video images.

The ring of steel extends off shore in the Black Sea, where Russian gunboats bob in a line just a few hundred yards (meters) apart at a distance from the Sochi beaches. Inland, anti-aircraft batteries are tucked away in the towering peaks.

Putin has promised a safe Olympic Games and is determined to fulfill his vow — a bit like a swimmer diving confidently into a lake filled with crocodiles.

Steven R. Hurst, an Associated Press writer covering the Sochi Games, has spent large parts of his career reporting on the Soviet Union and Russia. He reported on the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow as an AP correspondent there.

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