Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Abkhazia is situated along a narrow strip of eastern Black Sea, between the coast and the Caucasus mountains. It is bordered to the north by Russia, and to the south and east by Georgia, of which it is still legally part despite de facto secession as a result of the 1992–93 war with Georgia.
Abkhazia historically formed one of many principalities with a history of feudal semi-independence from the Georgian kingdoms; the name Apkhazeti was also used to denote western Georgia as a whole in the eighth to eleventh centuries. Linguistic evidence suggests that Abkhaz and Kartvelian languages have been in close contact for at least two millennia, although Georgian nationalist ideology portrays the Abkhaz as more recent newcomers to the region since the seventeenth century. The Russian Empire annexed Abkhazia in 1864, precipitating a massive forced migration of the region’s Muslim population to the Ottoman Empire, a movement known as the Muhajirstvo.
During the period of Georgian independence in 1918–21 and the early Soviet period Abkhazia enjoyed republican status with treaty ties to Georgia, the binding nature of which remains a subject of heated controversy between Georgian and Abkhaz historians. Abkhazia was subsequently subsumed within Georgia as an autonomous republic in 1931. The remainder of the Stalinist period was characterized by the large-scale migration of Georgians (mainly Mingrelians) into Abkhazia, and the repression of Abkhaz cultural institutions and language. Although cultural policy shifted in the 1950s towards enhancing Abkhaz rights, there were periodic demands from the Abkhaz for the transfer of the autonomous republic to the Russian republic on grounds of discrimination at the hands of Georgians. These demands were most concretely rooted in the demographic marginalization of the Abkhaz, who by 1989 constituted only 17.8 per cent of the autonomous republic’s population. Other sources of contention between Abkhaz and Georgian populations in Abkhazia included allocations of political posts, language policy and education.
Georgian moves towards independence exacerbated Abkhaz fears, leading to the outbreak of clashes between local populations in Abkhazia in 1989. Georgian President Gamsakhurdia negotiated a short-lived power-sharing agreement with the Abkhaz in 1991, which was rendered obsolete by the incursion of Georgian paramilitaries into Abkhazia in August 1992. Support from North Caucasian volunteers as well as locally stationed Russian units contributed to an Abkhaz victory and the de facto secession of Abkhazia from Georgia. The war involved serious human rights violations on both sides, with extensive ethnic cleansing, harassment of Abkhaz, Georgians and other ethnic groups, hostage-taking and indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations. As a result of the war the majority of Abkhazia’s Georgian population, an estimated 200,000, were displaced to other regions of Georgia.
Negotiations to resolve the conflict have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations, while CIS (Russian) peacekeeping forces – mandated by a protocol to the Moscow Agreement on the ceasefire and separation of forces brokered by the Russian Federation in May 1994 – were stationed in Abkhazia. The negotiations process remained blocked by disagreement over the prioritization of the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), favoured by Georgia, or the prioritization of determining Abkhazia’s future status, favoured by the Abkhaz. After the ceasefire of 15 May 1994 significant though disputed numbers of Georgians were subsequently able to return only to Abkhazia’s southernmost Gali district, although they still lived in an insecure environment. Notable clashes between the Georgian military and Abkhaz militias occurred in October 2001.
Although ethnic issues were peripheral to the Georgia’s Rose Revolution in November 2003, political change injected those issues with a new dynamism. President Mikheil Saakashvili, elected in January 2004, placed pledged to restore the country’s territorial integrity, including by a reassertion of control over Abkhazia.
Trends in the peace process in 2006 initially offered cautious grounds for optimism. In May the Coordinating Council, a forum established by the UN in 1997, convened for the first time since January 2001. High-ranking officials on both sides indicated that initial agreements had been reached on the issue of the return of Georgian IDPs beyond the Gali district and on the contentious issue of Georgian-medium education in Abkhazia. However, agreement on the status and mandate of (Russian) CIS peacekeepers in Abkhazia remained elusive, as did any kind of consensus on what kind of status Abkhazia would in future enjoy vis-à-vis the Georgian state. Concepts for this status, which envisaged different forms of autonomy ranging from limited self-government to confederal status with numerous constitutional guarantees, were presented for public discussion in Georgia. Neither option, however, satisfied Abkhaz desires for unqualified independence.
Despite some promising signs, tensions between Georgia and Russia, which was overtly sympathetic to Abkhaz separatists, sharply increased in 2006. In July 2006, Georgian forces captured the Kodori gorge and established an Abkhaz government-in-exile there. This led to Abkhaz withdrawal from negotiations. Meanwhile, Moscow assiduously provided ethnic Abkhaz in Abkhazia with Russian passports, allowing ‘protection of Russian citizens’ to become a leading justification for Russian actions.
Geopolitical factors provided added incentives for conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. In December 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that if Kosovo were to gain independence from Serbia, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be free to become independent of Georgia. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence and many countries, including the United States and most EU member states, recognized it despite Moscow’s strenuous objections. Moscow was angered by American military support to Georgia and support for Saakashvili’s ambitions for Georgian membership of NATO. Moscow also disliked the US-backed oil pipeline opened in July 2006 that traversed Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and which reduced Russian leverage over EU member states by making them less reliant on Russian energy supplies. As tensions between Georgia and Russia mounted in 2007 and 2008, conditions worsened for ethnic minorities in Abkhazia. Exclusion of minorities threatened to push the region into conflict.
In April 2008, Russia claimed that Georgia had massed 1,500 troops in the upper Kodori Gorge in preparation for an invasion of Abkhazia. Moscow indicated that it was sending additional peacekeepers to the area in order to ‘retaliate’ against any such offensive. In May 2008, UN observers verified a claim made by Georgia the previous month: that a Russian aircraft had shot down an unmanned Georgian drone over Abkhazia. The UN mission in Georgia criticized Tbilisi’s use of spying drones over Abkhazia, but also stated that the Russian action represented a violation of the 1994 cease-fire agreement.
Conflict escalated dramatically in August 2008 following skirmishes between Georgian forces and militias in South Ossetia. Conflict that began in South Ossetia spread to Abkhazia within a day. Although the alleged Georgian provocation that sparked its actions had nothing to do with Abkhazia, on 8 August, Russia provided air support to Abkhaz militias attacking Georgian forces. Russia then moved troops into Abkhazia and swathes of Georgia proper, including a seven-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ along the Abkhazia boundary line. The Russian army and Abkhaz fighters forced Georgian forces to retreat entirely from Abkhazia; ethnic Georgians fled or were expelled amid reports of war crimes and human rights abuses. Russia agreed to a French ceasefire proposal in mid-August, but made clear its intention to leave 3,800 troops in Abkhazia. Before the month was out, Moscow recognized Abkhaz (and South Ossetian) independence and in September entered a ‘friendship treaty’ with the territory that included pledges of military assistance and cooperation. Although western countries in particular continued to reject its independence, the longstanding de facto independence of Abkhazia appeared cemented, with the displaced Georgian minority facing long odds of ever returning home.
There is no reliable data on the demography of Abkhazia or the precise number of Abkhaz, itself a highly politicized issue. Abkhaz officials claim an ethnic Abkhaz population of 110,000, but this may be an overestimate. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated the total population of Abkhazia to be in the region of 180,000–220,000 in 1998. International Crisis Group, on the basis of the 2005 electoral roll, estimated the total population of Abkhazia to be in the region of 157,000–190,000. Abkhaz are thought to constitute some 35 per cent of the total population of the republic.
The Abkhaz (Apswa in Abkhaz) speak a distinct north-west Caucasian language related to Circassian and the (extinct) Ubykh languages. Although concentrated in Abkhazia, many Abkhaz have emigrated on a semi-permanent basis to the Russian Federation since Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia. A very small number of Abkhaz remain in Georgia (3,500 according to the 2002 Georgian Census). The Abkhaz language has had a literary tradition since the late nineteenth century based on successive Latin, Georgian and Cyrillic-based scripts. The religious orientation of the Abkhaz is ambiguous and syncretistic: Christian, Muslim and animist traditions have been salient in different historical periods.
Apart from the Abkhaz, Abkhazia’s principal ethnic groups are Armenians, Russians and Georgians. While Armenians and Russians are concentrated in urban centres in central and northern Abkhazia, the Georgian population is overwhelmingly concentrated in southernmost district of Gali, bordering Georgia. The vast majority of this population belongs to the Mingrelian subgroup. Closely related to Georgian, Mingrelian is an unwritten vernacular language spoken in the western Georgian province of Mingrelia and the south-eastern regions of Abkhazia. Official Abkhaz discourse often claims that it is Mingrelian rather than Georgian that is the mother tongue of the Gali population, but the population itself views the Georgian and Mingrelian identities as fully compatible.
Abkhazia is one of a number of de facto states in the former Soviet Union seeking international recognition as an independent state. It remained unrecognized by any state or international body until Russia and Nicaragua recognized its independence following the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
From the beginning of the 20th Century through the August 2008 war, politics in Abkhazia have been dominated by tension and conflict with Georgia and the fluctuating interest of regional powers in resolving it. Some leading Abkhaz politicians have cited increased integration with the Russian Federation as their goal. Abkhaz sources claim that the Abkhaz now constitute a plurality in Abkhazia, alongside significant Armenian and Russian minorities. These groups have demonstrated outward support for Abkhaz secession from Georgia, even though this may be contingent on the preservation of a Russian orientation in Abkhazia’s foreign policy.
Even before the August 2008 war, Russian leverage in Abkhazia was considerable. Due to a formal blockade from the Georgian side, Russia has provided Abkhazia’s only external economic contact and destination for its principal exports of nuts and citrus fruits. Russians also have provided the bulk of the tourists who still make use of Abkhazia’s once flourishing tourist industry (official Abkhaz sources claim more than 1.5 million tourists visited Abkhazia in 2005, compared with 400,000 in 2004). Russia’s attempts to gradually assert control of Abkhazia included the issuance of Russian passports, introduction of the rouble and payment of pensions.
Despite this Russian leverage, Moscow’s ability to assert political control has not always been clear. This was demonstrated in Abkhazia’s (internationally unrecognized) presidential election of 3 October 2004, when it was widely assumed that the Russian-backed candidate and then-prime minister Raul Khajimba, also supported by the ailing outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba, would win. Overt Russian support for Khajimba backfired, however, and following the count Abkhazia’s Supreme Court declared former prime minister Sergey Baghapsh the winner. Pressure on the Supreme Court to reverse this decision, compounded by Russian pledges to intervene in defence of its interests in Abkhazia, led to a stand-off between supporters of each candidate. The conflict was eventually resolved by an agreement between Baghapsh and Khajimba to run new elections, in which they would run on a joint ticket as president and vice-president respectively. This compromise succeeded in capturing 90 per cent of the vote in new elections, and the new administration took office in February 2005.
Parliamentary elections were held in March 2007 despite opposition from Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and his US allies. There was a 44 per cent turn-out for the elections and, of the 34 candidates that stood the second round, 26 Abkhaz, three Russians, three Armenians, two Georgians and one Turk were elected.
The Abkhaz Constitution contains non-discriminatory clauses and grants minorities the right to native-language primary and secondary education. In practice, Russian is the lingua franca in Abkhazia (and is recognized as a second state language in the constitution) and also the first language of many Abkhaz. The Abkhaz state has not granted requests from the local Georgian population for official Georgian-medium teaching, although the authorities may turn a blind eye to it given the political sensitivity of the issue. There were reportedly 16 Georgian schools in Abkhazia in 2005, all located in Gali. Unlike Abkhaz schools, which followed a Russian curriculum, these schools operated according to the Georgian curriculum in terms of the hours allotted to specific subjects. However, Russian was the medium of instruction, making their main qualification as ‘Georgian’ schools the fact that Georgian is taught as a subject, although in some schools there was reportedly also teaching of other subjects in Georgian. Efforts to increase the role played by the Abkhaz language have been restricted by a lack of institutional capacity and qualified teachers, as well as resistance from russophone Abkhaz.
Debates over the desirability of pro-Abkhaz linguistic policy have tended to emerge in the context of other political issues, such as the 2004 presidential contest, when competing candidates sought to politicize the issue in support of their respective campaigns. This reflects considerable ambivalence regarding a pro-Abkhaz orientation among the substantial portion of the Abkhaz elite that does not speak Abkhaz. Minority groups, whose continued support for Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia is crucial, are also ambivalent about an enforced policy of linguistic Abkhazianization. The result is significant continued support for the dominance of Russian in Abkhazia.
Even before the most recent war, displaced Georgians were not allowed to vote in Abkhaz elections. Those who had returned, estimated at 40,000, lived mostly in the Gali district, where they were prone to gangsterism and intermittent upheavals and instability. Georgian language education in Abkhazia remained a major area of contention. Abkhaz officials were reluctant to make concessions in this area precisely because it would encourage Georgian return. The authorities also took pains to highlight the identity of remaining Georgians as Mingrelian, a Georgian dialect sub-group prevalent in western Georgia, whose members resisted seeing any conflict between simultaneous embrace of the Mingrelian and Georgian aspects of its identity. Sporadic Abkhaz efforts to ‘support’ Mingrelian have taken the form of the publication of a trilingual Mingrelian-Abkhaz-Russian newspaper, Gal.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Armenian Community of the Republic of Abkhazia
Tel: +995 122 63777
Centre for Humanitarian Programmes
Tel: +995 122 65598, 79927, 73227
Civic Initiative and People of the Future Foundation
Tel: +995 122 68404
Sources and further reading
‘Abkhazia: a problem of identity and ownership’. Central Asian Survey, vol. 12, no. 3, 1993, pp. 267-323.
About Abkhazia: http://apsny.ru
Civil Georgia: http://www.civil.ge
Clogg, R., Article on inter-ethnic relations in Abkhazia, forthcoming in Nationality Papers 2007.
Cohen, J. (ed.), A Question of Sovereignty: The Georgia-Abkhazia Peace Process, Accord, London, Conciliation Resources, 1998.
Coppieters, B., Federalism and Conflict in the Caucasus. London, Royal Institute for International Affairs, 2001.
Coppieters, B., Nodia, G. and Anchabadze, Y. (eds), Georgians and Abkhazians: The Search for a Peace Settlement, Köln, Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, 1998.
Duffy Toft, M., ‘Multinationality, regional institutions, state-building, and the failed transition in Georgia’, Regional and Federal Studies, vol. 11, no.3, 2001, pp. 123-42.
Hewitt, G. (ed.), The Abkhazians: A Handbook, Richmond, Curzon, 1999.
Institute for War and Peace Reporting: http://www.iwpr.net
International Crisis Group, ‘Abkhazia today’, Europe Report no.176, 15 September 2006.
Krag, H. and Funchthe, L., North Caucasus: Minorities at a Crossroads, London, MRG, 1994.
Matveeva, A., The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities, London, MRG, 2002.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Caucasus reports, via: http://www.rferl.org