A reply to a recent article by Brian Withmore over at www.rferl.org.
In his article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on the 30th of March, regular columnist Brian Withmore describes what he calls “Russia’s land grab in Abkhazia.” Withmore especially refers to recent reports that Abkhazian leadership is prepared to cede 160 square kilometers of land in the Gagra region of Abkhazia to Russia as part of a deal to settle a border dispute, something which has aroused considerable debate internally in Abkhazia. Withmore details how Abkhazia, in the aftermath of Russia’s recognition of the territory as an independent state in 2008, has become increasingly dependent on Russia in political, economic and military spheres, and being subjected to what he terms increasing “russification.” Withmore also brings up the historical events of Muhajirism – by which a large part of the ethnic Abkhaz population was exiled to the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the conquest of the Caucasus by Imperial Russia from the 1860s onwards – in an attempt to establish a modern parallel between Imperial Russia’s dealings with Abkhazia and current Russian influence.
> Map Of Georgia
While Withmore is correct to point out that Abkhazia’s increasing dependence on Russia is potentially worrysome for the future development of the territory, his analysis of current reality in Abhazia and Russian-Abkhazian relations is lacking in several respects. First off, Withmore declines to mention that Abkhazia’s increasing dependence on Russia is in large part a result of efforts by Georgia and the Western powers to isolate Abkhazia economically, politically and socially in the wake of Abkhazia’s de facto secession from Georgia in the aftermath of the 1992-1993 war. For instance, while Georgia and the West have routinely decried the decision by Russian to extend Russian citizenship and passports to the population of Abkhazia, no effort has been taken to provide the Abkhazians with status-neutral documents, or let them be able to travel outside their republic on their own passports, unlike what has been the case in the conflicts in the Balkans and Northern Cyprus. As Georgia and the West have also been eager to block economic activity in Abkhazia, the Abkhazians have in turn been forced to look to Russia as one of their few reliable sources of trade and investment. Two recent examples of Georgian and Western economic pressure on Abkhazia has been the pressure exerted by the Finnish government on mobile service provider Nokia to abandon plans for modernising telecommunications equipment in Abkhazia, and the Georgian campaign against the plans by clothing giant Benetton to open an outlet in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi.
In the political and military sphere, the Abkhazian dependence on Russia is admittedly considerable, with about 70% of the state budget comming from Russia, Russian military bases being established in Abkhazian towns such as Ochamchira and Gudauta, and Russian border guards patrolling Abkhazia’s de facto border with Georgia. However, the Abkhazian political leadership is not dependent on Russia for their political positions, unlike what is the case in Georgia’s other breakaway repuplic South Ossetia, and are not appointed by the Kremlin as is the case in the Russian republics of the North Caucasus such as Chechnya. Although many Abkhazians, especially those who fought for the territory’s independence from Georgia in 1992-1993 consider Abkhazia to be more than capable of providing for its own security, it is clear that Russian military assistance, including joint control by Russia of Abkhazia’s borders – an arrangement which is subject to review every 5 years – provides the de facto authorities with considerable leeway with regard to Abkhazia’s security situation. More crucially, Russian troops do not patrol the streets of Abkhazian cities, nor do they play a direct role in the internal politics in the republic, and most Abkhazians therefore do not consider themselves to be “occupied” by Russia, as Georgia and some of its allies would have it.
Considering the linguistic and cultural “russification” of Abkhazia mentioned by Withmore, it is important to underline that this is not a recent process, but has been evident at least since the early Soviet era. The Abkhazian intelligentsia has for a long time enjoyed a close connection to the Russian cultural sphere, with Abkhazia’s answer to Mark Twain, Fazil Iskander, publishing much of his works in Russian for instance. During the Soviet period, the multicultural character of society in Abkhazia in addition to the greater possibilities for social advancement provided by the knowledge of Russian precipitated a linguistic shift among the ethnic Abkhaz population away from Abkhaz and towards Russian. In many respects, the linguistic developments in Abkhazia have not been considerably different from other titular autonomous republics and other lesser subdivisions of the former USSR which typically enjoyed less cultural autonomy than the constituent republics of the union. After Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia, most of these cultural trends from the Soviet era have carried over into Abkhazia’s present day social reality, with the result that the Abkhaz language today is widely considered to be endangered.
Being a small language comprising less than half a million speakers on world basis, Abkhaz language is considered by many lingusts to be among the most complex and hardest languages in the world to learn. This, combined with a deficit of resources and adequate teaching material on the language has complicated efforts to preserve it. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that the increasing dominance of the Russian language in Abkhazia, and the lack of proficiency in Abkhaz among not only Abkhazians, but also the non-Abkhaz population of Abkhazia, would result in the complete assimilation of the peoples of Abkhazia into Russian culture in the near future. As recently pointed out by the prominent Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal, the peoples of the Caucasus have in the past displayed a remarkable ability to preserve their own ethnic and national identities in the face of attempted assimilation by various empires. As such, it is very likely that Abkhaz ethnic and national identity will in fact continue to survive and thrive, despite the increasing Russian influence. Moreover, it is also quite likely that the Russian language can form one of the components of an emerging civic Abkhazian national identity, which in the future might complement or replace the ethno-linguistic identities curently prevalent among the various ethnic groups in Abkhazia. The traces of such an embryonic civic national identity can already be found among the Armenian population of Abkhazia, which threw in its lot with the ethnic Abkhaz and their national project in the 1992-1993 war, and thereby acquired a considerable stake in Abkhazia as an independent state.
Lastly, those who hope that current disagreements and tensions between Russia and Abkhazia will result in increasing rapprochement between Georgia and Abkhazia are also likely to be disappointed. While the current “russification” of Abkhazia can be considered voluntary, the “georgification” which took place during the Soviet era, and especially in the years 1936-1953 was forced, and this period is still considered by the Abkhaz to be a particularly painful chapter in their history. Also, the events of Mujahirism which Whitmore explicitly mentions also happened more than 150 years ago, while the wounds from Abkhazia’s much more recent conflict with Georgia just a few decades ago have barely began to heal. While it is true that many Abkhazians do detest the heavy influence of Russia in their republic, and especially the attitudes of some Russians with a neo-imperialist mentality who still consider Abkhazia to be a kind of Russian satrapy, Russia still does not lay claim to Abkhazia as being a part of its territory in the same way the Georgia does, and Russia, unlike Georgia, does not deny the uniqueness, or even existence, of a separate Abkhaz(ian) identity and history. Herein lie some of the crucial obstacles in the path towards Georgian-Abkhazian rapprochement as seen from the perspective of the Abkhazians.