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The "Abkhazia" project: political nation or community of minorities? By Natella Akaba

International Alert | Georgia-Abkhazia on the road to 2020

Natella Akaba
Chair of the Association of Women of Abkhazia

Abkhazia as a multi-ethnic community

The onset of the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war, the ensuing blockade and other socio-political upheavals in Abkhazia led to radical changes in its ethno-demographic composition. This process began soon after the Georgian troops entered Abkhazia, with a well-organised evacuation of ethnic Jews and Estonians by the Israeli and Estonian governments. Shortly afterwards, in the summer of 1993, the majority of Abkhaz Greeks were transported to Greece in a ship sent specially by Athens. The mass exodus of Russians, Armenians and Abkhaz during military action took place mainly in an impromptu fashion or with the support of the Russian state emergency services and the Black Sea fleet. However, since Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence in 2008 and the provision of security guarantees mainly through the Russian military presence, some of the residents who previously left have started to return.

After the end of the armed conflict, a significant proportion of the Georgian population left Abkhazia. However, in the late 1990s – at the suggestion of Vladislav Ardzinba, the first president of the Republic of Abkhazia – around 50,000 ethnic Georgians returned to the Gal district and a number of villages in the Ochamchira and Tkvarchel districts.

The 2011 census puts the population of Abkhazia at 240,705 people. Just over 122,000 of these (50.71%) are ethnic Abkhaz, over 46,000 (17.93%) are Georgians, almost 42,000 (17.39%) are Armenians, while over 22,000 (9.17%) are Russians. The rest of the population consists of minority ethnic groups – Turks, Greeks, Estonians and others. According to available data, there are currently members of around 60 nationalities living in Abkhazia.

As regards the denominational composition of the population, according to the 2003 census, 60% of the country’s citizens class themselves as Christians, 16% identify themselves as Muslims, 3% indicated “traditional Abkhazian beliefs”, 5% consider themselves pagan, 2% are members of other religions, while 8% consider themselves atheists. As the journalist Engin Psheu comments, the data suggest that the Abkhaz do not share a common religion.[1]

Some trends


Post-war Abkhazia thus continues to be a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational country, despite the quite substantial changes in its ethnic composition. This means that state-building against a background of ethnic and denominational diversity continues to be a topic of practical and not merely academic interest for the leadership, political and public actors, and civil society. The most important issue in this context is the extent to which inter-ethnic relations can remain harmonious, as well as the degree to which all citizens regardless of nationality, creed or other features are equal. One encouraging sign is that ethno-cultural and denominational pluralism is generally felt to be positive and a cause for special pride by citizens of Abkhazia from various ethnic backgrounds.

The results of a survey – carried out by the sociologist and senior lecturer at Kuban University, Emir Tuzhba, in 2009 – help to give a better understanding of how Abkhaz citizens from different ethnic backgrounds perceive themselves. This survey was carried out with members of the main ethnic groupings in Abkhazia (apart from Georgians, who do not figure in the survey). The sample consisted of 656 respondents, of whom 222 were Abkhaz, 216 Russian and 218 Armenian.

Analysis of what factors contribute towards success (above all economic success) showed that the majority of respondents considered that a good education, a useful profession, good connections and acquaintances, as well as family support, well-off parents and age were all more important factors than a person’s nationality. However, 37% of the respondents believed that being the “right” nationality was important. At the same time, many considered that individual life chances depend not only on nationality, but mainly on the individual’s own qualities. Even so, most people commented that persons of the “titular” nationality predominated, particularly in terms of being appointed as senior government officials, obtaining good jobs and, to a lesser degree, achieving economic success. People across the various nationalities agreed that while ethnic inequality was evident in politics, they tended to see success in private business as being the result of individual effort and less connected with ethnic background.[2]

As Tuzhba states, the predominance of Abkhaz in the ranks of the state elite and the established principles by which officials are selected suggest that a strategy of ethnic protectionism is being pursued in senior appointments. However, he adds that there is nothing unique about this: a similar situation exists in virtually all the national republics of the former USSR. He does, nevertheless, go on to say that this sometimes leads to psychological distress among the “non-titular” population and increases disparities in how people from different nationalities perceive changes affecting their lives.[3]

It is relevant here to quote the famous sociologist Egbert Yan, who states that the systemic legal and social entitlements of the titular nation are legitimate compensation for the discrimination they have borne in the past.[4] This observation is entirely applicable to the “Abkhaz situation” in terms of the period of Soviet history in which the Abkhaz were subjected to overt discrimination, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is thus entirely to be expected that most of those questioned believe that the Abkhaz have a clear political predominance in terms of representation at government level. It is also significant that this is acknowledged not just by Russians and Armenians, but also by some, although not all, Abkhaz who took part in the survey. Therefore, a serious analysis of the reasons behind this feeling on the part of the non-Abkhaz population and the implementation of steps towards harmonisation of inter-ethnic relations are clearly indicated.

Possible future scenarios

The most likely and desirable scenario in the foreseeable future is as follows. An inclusive project is underway in Abkhazia – a movement of people who share the aim of building a political (civic) nation and consequently a shared state. According to a number of ethnologists and sociologists, the creation of a nation requires a “core” of a shared ethnos around which the process of nation-building will take place, since nations cannot “be created out of nothing”. The ethnic Abkhaz already constitute such a core. However, when building the nation, the socio-cultural and spiritual needs of the Abkhaz and other ethnic groups must also be met to maintain ethno-cultural diversity. This is achieved by implementing the right policies on education, culture and the nation’s spiritual life.

There is a legal framework for building a civic nation – the current Constitution (adopted in 1994) states: ‘the bearer of sovereignty and the only source of authority in the Republic of Abkhazia is its people – the citizens of the Republic of Abkhazia’ (Chapter 1, Article 2). In this context, the term “the people” clearly has no ethnic connotation and thus comprises the country’s entire multi-ethnic population. At the same time, the Constitution outlines that the state guarantees all ethnic groupings residing in Abkhazia the right to the free use of their native language (Chapter 1, Article 6). Chapter 2 – entitled “Human and civil rights and freedoms” – also includes the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some of these provisions are declaratory in nature, but others are a fact of life in present-day Abkhazia. For example, Abkhazia has Abkhaz, Russian and Armenian schools, as well as Georgian schools in a number of localities in the Gal district. International organisations visiting Abkhazia often focus their attention on the Gal district – in particular, on problems connected with the teaching of the Georgian language in local schools. The Abkhaz authorities, and Abkhaz society as a whole, cannot tolerate the highly ideologised textbooks on history, geography and literature published in Georgia to be used in schools. Many people take the view that young people educated in the spirit of the ideology that led to war in 1992 will be unable to integrate into Abkhaz society and be loyal to the Abkhaz state. The Abkhaz side believes that suitable Abkhaz textbooks must be compiled for Georgian schools in the Gal district, although clearly these textbooks may well be fiercely criticised by the Georgian side.

Television and radio in Abkhazia are broadcast in Abkhaz and Russian languages. Print media are published in Abkhaz, Russian, Armenian and Mingrelian. It has turned out to be much more difficult to find ways of developing and expanding the use of the state (i.e. Abkhaz) language. Given the traditionally widespread use of Russian as the language of international communication and the absence of any effective language policy, it is hard for the Abkhaz language to stand up to the competition. State support for any language requires serious financial outlays. This is no easy task in a post-war, post-blockade country with a semi-ruined economy. The situation is causing justified alarm among the Abkhaz population. Members of the non-Abkhaz population generally sympathise with the concerns of the Abkhaz about the future of their native language, although the planned translation of administrative documents into Abkhaz by 2015 may cause problems, unless all sides are given the necessary training.

It cannot be ruled out that Abkhazia will choose an exclusive approach and shift towards ethnic segregation or ethnic nationalism. This would pose a serious threat for national security. However, any attempt to enforce the assimilation of the non-Abkhaz population, or rapid translation of administrative documents into Abkhaz without state support for Abkhaz language teaching programmes, would be just as unacceptable. We must remember that ethnic relations are not a given – they can be transformed: any tension or conflict within multi-ethnic and multi-denominational societies must be prevented or resolved promptly by ensuring that the correct policies on national minorities are in place.

Proposals and recommendations

Yan states that: ‘since it is hardly possible to completely reverse the predominance of the titular ethnos whose native language functions as the state language, there will inevitably be some ethnocratic features in democracy. In the case of the appointment of civil servants (this also relates to most public offices), preference is given to people with a perfect command of the country’s language, that is, members of the titular ethnos.’[5] The data provided above suggest that this situation also applies in Abkhazia. Inequality of opportunity for members of various ethnic groupings can be overcome by imaginative measures protecting non-state languages and providing opportunities for the state language to be studied by members of other language groups. However, this should not in any way be enforced.

Systemic action is required to rally the citizens of Abkhazia around the idea of state-building. We should not, however, lose sight of the need to maintain ethnic diversity or indeed forget that the language and ethnic identity of the Abkhaz were persecuted for centuries and that robust measures are needed to support and protect them.

The Abkhaz parliament recently passed a law “On freedom of conscience and religious associations”. This law confirmed the priority of the human right to freedom of conscience and creed. However, policy on ethnic relations has not yet become a topic of urgent public discourse. Moreover, in what appears to be a serious omission in such a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational country as Abkhazia, there are no institutions dealing with the problems of minorities.  

Creating a strong civil society will allow the rights of all citizens to be asserted, regardless of their ethnic background. Maintaining the country’s natural ethnic diversity will not prevent the formation of a united civic nation, which we understand to mean a union of people who want to create a shared state – in other words, ‘people united by the idea of sovereign and solid co-citizenship’, as defined by Valery Tishkov.[6] A number of researchers refer to such nation states as “plebiscitic” – that is, created by means of some sort of plebiscite. Ethnic, cultural, linguistic and denominational differences are not necessarily an obstacle if people are united by the idea of a common state. Proponents of the theory of plebiscitic nationalism emphasise the inherent right of the individual to opt to change (or not to change) nationality and to maintain their allegiance to another nation.

It is also important to remember that, in practice, the will of the people is almost never unanimous. Abkhazia may also contain groups (united by ethnic or other features) that are not completely loyal to the Abkhaz state project. At this stage, the population of the Gal district can hardly be expected to support unanimously the idea of an Abkhaz state. However,  here too, there is nothing unique about this: there is no state in the world whose citizens are unanimous in their desire to constitute a single nation and build their own state. In a democratic state, the majority has the right to choose. Given all of the above, the task of integrating the population of the Gal district into the Abkhaz political nation will be particularly important for the success of the entire Abkhaz national project.

We can concur with Tom Trier that: ‘… the democratisation of Abkhazia will bring a benefit to the whole of society, including the non-titular ethnicities. Abkhazia needs the help of the entire international community and not only the Russian Federation to develop a model of a more inclusive society in which the legitimate interests and needs of minority groups are taken into account. It seems that, in recent years, the Abkhaz administration has been coming to an understanding of the need to work towards the reconciliation of the multi-ethnic population of its territory and to adopt a more ethnically inclusive policy.’[7] However, we should note that there have been some outstanding successes in extending the use of the Abkhaz language, including by people from other ethnic groups, which can be rated positively. At the same time, human rights protection must be strengthened and a policy formulated which enables ethnic and denominational diversity to be maintained. It is essential to strike a balance between multi-ethnic or multi-national patriotism and the ethnic nationalism of the titular nation. It is possible that a multi-level identity option might be the most acceptable choice for Abkhazia.

Topics for discussion

The political and intellectual elite, as well as civil society in Abkhazia, have so far clearly failed to start any debate over the optimum model for building an Abkhaz nation-state. Given that, even in global academic circles and the global political beau monde, there is still no generally accepted definition of the nation, and that discussions are still being held over what constitutes a nation-state and whether nationalism is an evil or a necessary concomitant of the transition to democracy, any discussion of this topic requires serious thought. It is important, in this context, to examine the theoretical distinction between “civic” and “ethnic” (or “cultural”) nations. Marianna Fadeicheva states that ‘nation exists in two aspects – a civic nation, the essence of which resides in collective sovereignty based on shared political participation; an ethnic nation, which includes all those linked by a common origin in the same land, blood ties, language, spiritual culture’.[8] Under this approach, supporters of the ethno-cultural conception of the nation prioritise the cultural legacy, whereas the defining features of a civic nation are considered by its adherents to be the political principles shared by citizens of that state. However, both concepts can be interpreted in different ways and are certainly not exhaustive.

Abkhaz society and leadership must also answer the following questions:

  • What state model is most applicable for Abkhazia in light of the existing internal and external threats?
  • Who are the political subjects of the Abkhaz national project?
  • How can democratic institutions be strengthened while simultaneously fully respecting the political and socio-cultural rights of all citizens of Abkhazia?
  • How can one maintain the development of the Abkhaz language and Abkhazia’s ethno-cultural identity, given that Abkhazia is the only ethnic nation in the world in which Abkhaz is cultivated?
  • Whom do we have in mind when we refer to the people of Abkhazia and the Abkhaz nation?


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[1] E. Psheu. ‘Natsionalnaya ideya Abkhazii: vybor v protsesse stroitelstva gosudarstva’ [The national idea of Abkhazia: choice in the state-building process], Abkhazsky uzel, 7th September 2012. Available at http://abhaz-uzel.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3175:natsionalnaya-ideya-abkhazii-vybor-v-protsesse-stroitelstva-gosudarstva&catid=84:analitika&Itemid=487.

[2] E. Tuzhba (2012). ‘Osobennosti sotsial’nogo samochustvia etnicheskikh grupp i ikh otnosheniy v Abkhazii’ [Specific aspects of the social self-perceptions of ethnic groups and their relations in Abkhazia]. Available at http://ecat.lib.mpgu.edu/Opac/index.php?url=/notices/index/143590/default#.

[3] Ibid., p. 97.

[4] E. Yan (1996). ‘Demokratia i natsionalizm: edinstvo ili protivorechie?’ [Democracy and nationalism: unity or contradiction?]. Available at http://www.tatar-history.narod.ru/yan.htm.

[5] Ibid.

[6] V. Tishkov. ‘Kak ponimat’ “narod” i “natsiu”’ [How should we understand the terms “the people” and “the nation”], Prosveschenie, 7th March 2012. Available at http://prosvpress.ru/2012/03/narod-i-natsiya/.

[7] T. Trier. ‘O natsional’noy politike i problemakh etnicheskikh men’shinstv v Abkhazii i v Gruzii’ [On the nationality policy and problems of ethnic minorities in Abkhazia and Georgia], Caucasus Times, 30th October 2011. Available at http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20997.

[8] M. Fadeicheva (2004). Etnonatsional’nye predely grazhdanskogo obshchestva v Rossii [Ethno-nationalist limits of civil society in Russia], p. 1. http://www.espi.ru/Content/Conferences/Papers2004/Fadeicheva.pdf.

Source:International Alert

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