Monday, May 12, 2008
It may be a surprise to find that first in our list of countries to survey is Abkhazia.
Abkhazia has a president, a flag, a national anthem and even a visa system for foreign visitors, but the country doesn't appear on many maps.
Abkhazia is the land located in the Transcaucasus region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It is a land that was incorporated into Russia in 1810; was declared an Independent Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1921; by December 1921 had signed a treaty of federation with Georgia(which we shall visit later); and was merged into Georgia as an autonomous republic of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1931.
It sounds an idyllic land. Squeezed between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains the climate in Abkhazia is mild. The coastal areas have a subtropical climate and it had been known as the "Soviet Riviera" in the 1970s and 1980s. To this day, tourism is said to a key industry.
It is a fertile land. It is a land richly irrigated by small rivers originating in the Caucasus mountains. Its agriculture supplied Soviet markets with tea, tobacco, wine and fruits (especially tangerines) and, it is said, these agricultural products remain an important part of the economy of this country.
But in truth, Abkhazia today is a half-abandoned place of rusting ports and skeleton homes. It is a vast junkyard of collapsed structures and resurgent nature. The factories are blighted, offices shut down.
Roads are dotted with the shells of homes, picked clean of all but the frame. Staircases to nowhere rise from tangles of vine. Cows claim the right of way on shattered roads, stepping among the bomb craters and puddles.
The economy is broken, but the people don't starve. Families have turned to their gardens to survive; to their milk cows and chickens; their fruit and nut trees.
It is called a "ghost country" because no other country has officially recognised it. Only Abkhas recognise their sovereignity over their land.
It is said that there are about 200,000 ethnic Abkhaz in all, of whom 150,000 live in Abkhazia. These people are a Caucasian ethnic group, and their origin is not clear. Classical sources speak of several tribes dwelling in the region, but their exact identity and location remains controversial. The Abasgoi of the Graeco-Roman authors are sometimes considered as the predecessors of modern-day Abkhaz, but the identification is not universally accepted.
Once part of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, many Abkhaz adopted Christianity in the sixth century. Surveys of Abkhazia's population (1997 and 2003) shows the Abkhaz people are highly religious. In 2003, 60% of the people surveyed considered themselves Orthodox Christians, 16% Muslims, 8% atheists and unbelievers, 5% pagans, 3% devotees of an Abkhaz religion. Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews accounted for less than 1% each. It would seem to be a population not riven by tensions based on religious identification.
Yet this land is rift. People inhabiting this place are not at peace with each other. Conflict between peoples over this land is primarily a consequence of conflicting views and of longstanding fears with regard to the preservation of language, culture and national identity.
The French historian Papin described in 1824 the "state of perpetual hostility" in which the Abkhaz were living "with their neighbours the Russians from Doudjouk-Kal and the Mingrelians". Events such as the Caucasian war, which ended in 1864, the deportation of a large part of the Abkhaz population by the Tsarist regime in the wake of the failed uprisings of 1866 and 1877, the Georgian colonization of the country and the establishment of Soviet rule, are grievances still held by Abkhaz today. The Abkhaz feel their culture is on the verge of extinction.
The Abkhaz feared that the "Georgianization" of Abkhazia,
which in their view was far advanced under the Soviet regime
and their view is supported by the chart to the left which was published by Conciliation Resources).
They feared this "Georgianization" would be completed through the integration of Abkhazia into a Georgian framework. They were concerned that a rise in the number of Georgians through further ‘colonisation’ would lead to the exclusion of the Abkhaz from political power in their own homeland and limit their rights.
The Georgians feared the Russification of Abkhazia by cultural means and the loss of the ‘historical’ Georgian character of this region. They criticized the close links between the Abkhaz leadership and Moscow.
In the view of both parties, political sovereignty – which meant in practice full control of the state apparatus of Abkhazia – was the sole instrument to counter that fear of extinction.
Georgian language was made compulsory in Georgia and the Abkhazi felt their culture was being assimilated and dissipated. An existential crisis, real or merely perceived, is a motivating force. A secessionist movement of the Abkhaz people living in this region declared independence from Georgia in 1992, so it is now a de facto independent republic, but de jure an autonomous republic
covering 8,600 km² of land located within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.
What can we see of the present situation in this land where the Abkhaz live?
Concern about conflict escalating into crisis and violence.
Conflict over this land has festered since the fighting in 1992-1993. Fourteen years of negotiation, led alternately by the UN and Russia, have done little to resolve it. Conflict remains a central factor in the experience of living in this land. The main topic of discussion in the region is whether war is going to break out again.
Years of stalemate have solidified each side’s distorted and negative image of the “other”.
Tensions rose in July 2006 when a forceful Georgian police operation raided a "renegade militia" out of upper Kodori Gorge, the one part of pre-war Abkhazia not controlled by the de facto government in Sukhumi.
Since then Georgian-Abkhaz negotiations have been frozen. While Georgia asserts that it is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, its military budget rose in 2005 at a rate higher than any other country in the world. Bellicose statements by some officials do not increase confidence.
Georgia accuses the Abkhaz secessionists of having conducted a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing. This claim is supported by an OSCE declaration and many Western governments. The United Nations Security Council has diplomatically avoided use of the term "ethnic cleansing", but it has affirmed "the unacceptability of the demographic changes resulting from the conflict."
Local media are broadcasting statements from Moscow warning that if Georgia attacks Abkhazia, Russia will support its citizens there and tens of thousands of people in Abkhazia now hold Russian passports.
Last week a Georgian newspaper, Rezonansi, printed a front-page headline asking,'Will war in Abkhazia begin tomorrow?' The article said that Russian and Abkhaz forces were preparing to attack the Upper Kodori Valley, the only part of Abkhaz territory still under Georgian control.
It was reported last week that the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking to Russian journalists, had said, "I think that a few days ago, we were very close [to war] and this threat is still real."
The rise in tension comes after Russia sent an additional 500 troops to Abkhazia to join the peacekeeping force there (which operates under a mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States). It also comes after a number of serious incidents between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Moscow has withdrawn from CIS sanctions against Abkhazia and has authorised official contacts with the de facto government there. The Georgians have accused Moscow of behaving aggressively by deploying extra troops and shooting down a Georgian unmanned spy plane over Abkhazia on 20 April 2008.
The Georgians are saying they have no intention of declaring war, but Georgia holds parliamentary elections later this month. Can we see that the Georgian president might be grateful for this chance to be seen as bold?
The president of the unrecognised Abkhazia republic, Sergei Bagapsh, stated on Wednesday, 7 May 2008 (in an interview with the Spanish El Pais newspaper), that Abkhazia will eventually achieve independence just like Serbia's Kosovo gained sovereignty in February 2008.
"We want a lawful state, independent and democratic... If Kosovo can be independent then so can Abkhazia," Bagapsh said. "We [Abkhazia] do not want Moscow to recognise us in defiance of the United States in order to take revenge for Kosovo," he added, "We want independence because we have a right to it. Because we have deserved it."
[Much more to come ... as there is much, much more to learn]
News Archive for Abkhazia
Wikimedia Atlas of Abkhazia
HDI: N/A (Rank 2008: N/A)