Stalin residence symbol of Abkhaz independence

KHOLODNAYA RECHKA, Georgia (Reuters Life!) - Army green and nestled amongst lemon trees, the luxurious dacha once belonging to the Soviet Union’s most notorious leader is hidden on a cliff top overlooking Abkhazia’s lush Black Sea coast.

It was here that the mustachioed, hyper-paranoid Josef Stalin plotted and entertained party officials and his mistresses for 20 years. He hung chandeliers absconded from murdered Czar Nicholas II and watched Charlie Chaplin films in an airy, wood-paneled cinema.

The dacha has become emblematic of this sub-tropical strip of land. It belonged to a Georgian, is now inhabited by an ethnic Abkhaz and has piqued the interest of Russians.

Over the past few years wealthy Russian businessmen have offered millions for the three-floored mansion, Abkhaz government sources said. But they were dissuaded when Georgia claimed everything in the breakaway region was its property.

Now Abkhaz self-styled president Sergei Bagapsh lives on the top floor, while Stalin’s shortened beds and netted ceiling lamps -- he was embarrassed by his stout stature and had a deep fear of shards of glass -- lay as he left them.

A 250 rouble ($8.09) bribe slipped to one of Bagapsh’s guards will get you in to Stalin’s favorite dacha -- he had up to 70 across the Soviet Union -- which is officially closed to the public.

It is encircled by scores of orange-roofed huts, where thousands of guards protected the man behind the Great Terror of the 1930s and the notorious Soviet labor camps, who was obsessed by the fear of assassination.

“It is one of Abkhazia’s gems and it belongs to us,” said one of the guards, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russia recognized Abkhazia, which has a population of around 250,000, as independent last year after its war with Georgia’s other breakaway region South Ossetia.

Bagapsh has repeatedly said Abkhazia will not be absorbed into Russia, though aid packages and a steady flow of tourists from the motherland have made the former playground of the Soviet elite dependent on Moscow.

“We are a small republic without our own currency and dependent on the Russian rouble,” the region’s Economy Minister Kristina Ozgan told Reuters.

Though pockmarked from the separatist war with Georgia in 1992-93, this sub-tropical strip of land attracts tens of thousands of Russian tourists drawn by prices long gone in the motherland and a longing for Soviet nostalgia.

Russian-backed shiny hotels and restaurants have sprung up along the winding promenade in the region’s capital Sukhumi.

The economic crisis, however, is shattering Abkhazia’s tourist ambitions.

Fifty-one year-old Ashot, who sells plots for vineyards inland and south of Sukhumi, blames the drop in custom on Russia: “They have a crisis in Russia, so now we have one. They are Abkhazia’s lifeline.” (Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Casciato)