Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There is no reliable data on the demography of Abkhazia or the precise number of Abkhaz, itself a highly politicized issue. According to the last census in 2011, Abkhaz officials say that the population is 242,826, 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. They are concentrated in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, although many Abkhaz have emigrated on a semi-permanent basis to the Russian Federation since Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia. 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.
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 the 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 emigration 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 in-migration of Georgians (mainly Mingrelians) into Abkhazia and the repression of Abkhaz cultural institutions. Although cultural policy shifted in the 1950s towards enhancing Abkhaz rights, there were periodic demands from the Abkhaz for transfer 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 Abkhazian fears, leading to the outbreak of clashes between local populations in Abkhazia in 1989. President Gamsakhurdia of Georgia 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 was 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 originally by the Sochi Agreement brokered by the Russian Federation in July 1993, were stationed in Abkhazia. The negotiations process has been 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. Since the ceasefire of 15 May 1994 significant though disputed numbers of Georgians have been able to return only to Abkhazia’s southernmost Gali district, most of whom were displaced for a second time following a new outbreak of violence in May 1998.
Politics in Abkhazia continue to be dominated by the conflict with Georgia and the fluctuating interest of regional powers in resolving it. Although many commentators, especially in Georgia, assume that Russia controls developments in Abkhazia, this is misleading. This was demonstrated in Abkhazia’s (internationally not recognized) 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 businessman Sergey Baghapsh the winner.
Abkhazia is now one of a number of de facto states in the former Soviet Union seeking international recognition as an independent state, although leading Abkhaz politicians often cite 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 demonstrate outward support for Abkhazian secession from Georgia, although this may be contingent on the preservation of a Russian orientation in Abkhazia’s foreign policy. 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. 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.
There is little doubt that Russia’s leverage in Abkhazia is considerable. Due to a formal blockade from the Georgian side, Russia provides Abkhazia’s only external economic contact and destination for its principal exports of nuts and citrus fruits. Russians also provide the bulk of the visitors who still make use of Abkhazia’s once flourishing tourism industry. Significant numbers of the population in Abkhazia have also acquired Russian passports and are regularly described by Russian political figures as ‘Russia’s citizens’.
In 2009, Moscow and Abkhazia entered into an agreement that would allow for Russia to take control of its border with Georgia. Russia strengthened its ties with Abkhazia (and its recognition of the area as a formal state) in 2014 when the two countries signed a ‘strategic partnership’ agreement. Some citizens are increasingly worried about the economy’s reliance on Russia, with billions of rubles funnelled by the Russian government to Abkhazia. There have been some attempts to limit Russian influence by prohibiting them from purchasing real estate.
As a separatist republic still lacking international recognition, language and identity are strongly contested issues in Abkhazia, which declared independence from Georgia following its secession in the 1990s. In this context, ethnic Georgians living in the region are still marginalized from public life. This is especially evident in Gali, one of the most volatile areas near the border of Abkhazia, where officially only instruction in Abkhaz and Russian is permitted at the pre-school and primary level, meaning that Georgian language speakers are denied the right to receive education in their mother tongue. Some families have reportedly been forced to move to the Zugdidi region in western Georgia so that their children can attend Georgian schools.
Updated September 2018