Abkhazia is located on the Eastern shore of the Black Sea, in the mountainous Caucasus region. The precise origin of the Abkhaz people is unknown, but a popular theory in Western scholarship holds that they were directly related to the Heniochi tribe, a proto-Georgian group that lived along the northeastern shores of the Black Sea, on the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains (Lang). However, ethnic Abkhazians are not at present considered ethnically related to ethnic Georgians. The Abkhaz people speak the Northern Caucasus Abkhaz language, and are classified as a North Caucasian people, such as the Kabardins and Adighe (Nodia). Documented history cites the first mention of Abkhazia as a trading post under the Greek and Roman Empires. The Abkhaz adopted Orthodox Christianity under the Greeks, but slowly adopted Islam as they were subsumed by the Ottoman Empire. Today, the Abkhaz population is a mix of Orthodox and Islam, with 94% of the Abkhaz people speaking the Abkhaz language as their primary tongue (Gordon). Abkhaz authorities report their ethnic population at 110,000, but this may be an inflated figure; in 2005, the International Crisis Group estimated the total population of Abkhazia to be 157,000-190,000, counting only about 35% as ethnic Abkhazians (Minority Rights Group International).
Early Abkhaz traders
Abkhazia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1810 and officially annexed in 1846. That year, many ethnic Abkhazians fled the region and many Russians and Georgians took their place (BBC News). The region gained some political cl out under Stalin -becoming an autonomous republic in 1931 – in all likelihood and rather bizarrely because Stalin liked to vacation there. However, Abkhaz “autonomy” was extremely limited: the people were incorporated under Georgia, were forced to speak Georgian, and saw many of their cultural attributes suppressed (BBC News). After Stalin’s death, however, the Soviet regime adopted a substantially more pro-Abkhaz policy, encouraging the people to maintain a separate, non-Georgian identity (Nodia).
The Abkhaz “National Project,” forming in the late 19th century, was an appeal to ethno-linguistic nationalism, a pan-Circassian movement that led to the brief formation of the Republic of Mountain Peoples, which included Abkhazia and Daghestan (Nodia). The Republic declared its independence from Russia in 1918 and, though soon crushed by Soviet forces, managed to keep its political ideals alive throughout the Soviet period (Lang).
Soviet rule played a surprising role in Abkhaz nationalism. Though the Georgians – already knee-deep in their own “National Project” – saw the Soviets almost exclusively as a foreign occupier and enemy, the Abkhaz held a different view. In many ways, the Soviets served as protection against complete Georgian domination. Soviet ethnic quotas ensured that ethnic Abkhaz occupied important bureaucratic posts. After Stalin’s death, the new leadership’s pro-Abkhaz stance only served to heighten Abkhaz affinity for the Soviet system: the people blamed their previous struggles on Stalin’s identity, as he was an ethnic Georgian (Nodia).
Despite the differences between ethnic Abkhazians and ethnic Georgians, the Georgians preserved their claim to Abkhazia, largely because Georgian “high culture” – first developed in the medieval period – included Georgian, the “language of literacy.” Because the Abkhaz language did not have an alphabet, educated elites in Abkhazia spoke Georgian and were assimilated into the idea of Georgian culture (Nodia). Georgia’s claim on Abkhazia was enhanced by its demographics: many ethnic Abkhazians had fled their territory during the Stalin years, and the population in Abkhazia was only one-fifth Abkhaz by 1991 (BBC News).
With the breakup of the USSR, Abkhaz nationalism grew stronger. Ethnic Abkhazians formed the Confederation of the Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus and demanded independence from Tbilisi and closer ties with Russia (Nodia). In 1992, Georgia sent troops into Abkhazia to “enforce the status quo,” and violence ensued. Thousands were killed, thousands became refugees, and the Georgian troops were eventually forced out. Abkhazia wrote its own constitution in 1994, creating a “government-in-exile” grudgingly accepted by Tbilisi. Then in 1999, much to Georgia’s dismay, Abkhazia declared independence. Though no country officially recognized Abkhazia, Russia consistently made its favoritism known by maintaining a border crossing and making it easier for the Abkhaz to obtain Russian passports and gain citizenship (BBC News). In 2003 the newly-elected Georgian President Saakashvili promised to “unify the country,” but his efforts were focused solely on South Ossetia; he found Abkhazia too politically charged. In 2006, Saakashvili sent troops to seize the strategically important Kodori Gorge on the eastern border of Abkhazia, an area that he had previously granted to the Abkhaz people, under the justification of trying to control “widespread banditry” in the region. Russia meanwhile worked to strengthen its relationship with the separatist territory, announcing a “comprehensive deepening” of ties in trade, agriculture, education, diplomacy, and social support in April 2008 (New York Times). Abkhazia’s ties to Russia served to further infuriate the Georgian leadership, exacerbating the deterioration of Russo-Georgian relations that led to the August 2008 war. When the August 8th conflict broke out in South Ossetia, it did not take long to spread to Abkhazia. Acting under what the Abkhaz Foreign Minister called “a friendship treaty” with South Ossetia, separatist forces launched air and artillery strikes, with Russian help, on August 9th against Georgian troops stationed in the Kodori Gorge (Associated Press). The violence that ensued displayed yet again the Abkhaz separatists’ commitment to nationalism at all costs.
An Uncertain Future
Though a ceasefire has been implemented in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war, Abkhazia’s future is still very much in doubt. Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence on August 26, 2008, but at this stage only Nicaragua has followed suit. In February, the parties of the Georgian war – Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia – made tentative progress by agreeing to implement “incident prevention” mechanisms to work together towards security in the region. However, the West is skeptical about Russia’s intentions and commitment to the deal (Lobjakas). Russia continues to be actively engaged in the region, and has pledged 3,800 troops over the next 49 years (RIA Novosti). The Abkhaz government has reestablished control of the Kodori Gorge and, under the leadership of President Sergey Bagapash, continues to push for officially recognized independence.
Of the many ethnic populations in the post-Soviet territories, the Abkhaz have shown themselves to be among the best organized and, as of August 2008, the most prominent. This prominence, however, has come at the high price of regional stability and thousands of lives. Nothing short of the most skillful negotiations and diplomacy will be needed to forge a long-term solution for Abkhazia.
- David Lang, A Modern History of Soviet Georgia (Grove Press, 1962).
- Ghia Nodia, “The Conflict in Abkhazia: National Projects and Political Circumstances,” in The Conflict in Abkhazia: National Projects and Political Circumstances, edited by Bruno Coppieters, Ghia Nodia and Yuri Anchabadze (Vrije Universiteit, 1998).
- ________, “Regions and Territories: Abkhazia,” BBC online, 12 December 2008.
- Raymond Gordon, “Abkhaz,” Ethnologue: Languages of the World (SIL International, 2005).
- ________, “Abkhazia,” World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (Minority Rights Group International, 2008) http://www.minorityrights.org/1928/abkhazia-unrecognised-state/abkhazia-overview-unrecognised-state.html.
- ________, “Abkhazia News,” The New York Times Online, 11 August 2008.
- The Associated Press, “Abkhazia Moves to Flush out Georgian Troops,” ABC News Online, 9 August 2008.
- Ahto Lobjakas, “Signs Could Point to New War Despite Russian, Georgian Step Toward Stability,” Radio Free Europe Online, 20 February 2009.
- ________, “Official Site of Sergey Bagpash,” Administration of the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, 2009.
- ________, “Russia to deploy 3,800 troops in Abkhazia for next 49 years,” RIA Novosti Online, 6 March 2009.