Abkhazia, Georgia, and history: a response, by George Hewitt

George Hewitt


An anniversary article on the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 from the perspective of Abkhazia has provoked a vigorous reaction focusing on questions of linguistics, settlement, and current politics. Its author, George Hewitt, responds to some of the points raised.

The article I was invited to contribute to openDemocracy to mark the anniversary of the events of August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has occasioned an exchange of lengthy and sometimes heated comments (see "Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on", 11 August 2009). Some bear on substantive matters of history and linguistics as well as the interpretation of these recent political events; others include personal remarks directed at the author. This article responds to the former, though it begins with a few words on the latter.

When, as the first reactions came in, openDemocracy's deputy editor David Hayes (who commissioned the article) consulted me over possible responses to the more personal comments, I replied that it was best if everything was published exactly as submitted. This is in order that unbiased readers might see for themselves the sort of reaction (including attempts to discredit the author) that any questioning of the standard Georgian position on the Georgia-Abkhazia dispute always evokes and thus reach their own conclusions about (i) which side has the stronger arguments and (ii) whether there is any value in engaging in this kind of debate, when representatives of one side see in a text what they want to see rather than what is actually written there.

I had not intended myself to look at the comments attached to my article, as the content of the negative reactions was entirely predictable. A few individuals did, however, urge me to do so; and a reading of this material (forty-one postings at the time of writing) leads me to offer a few further observations, which gradually ascend from a response to the low currency of gratuitous insinuation to matters of scholarly record and relevance.

Since "Georgia" is a fluid concept, it is problematic to say definitively when I last set foot there. However, since the location of the capital, Tbilisi, is not in doubt, I can state that I have not visited there since the end of 1987 and have absolutely no intention of doing so again. But I was indeed lucky to be "in the right place at the right time": namely, two academic years spent in Soviet Georgia (1975-76; 1979-80) plus various stays there up to the mid-1980s. In these years, the atmosphere was that of a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met, and (in Soviet terms) prosperous society, whose only (if privately expressed) rhetorical venom was directed against its northern overlord - a sentiment, however, never associated with Georgia's then communist party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze, for whom (notoriously) the sun rose from that direction.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Georgia's descent into the maelstrom of nationalism was alarmingly swift and depressing to watch. Sadly, it would appear that, far from learning the lessons and drawing the appropriate conclusions, this fundamental problem has not yet been recognised.

If my being married to an Abkhazian is irrelevant to the discussion, why mention it (though I normally do so myself in conversation in order not to be accused of withholding the fact)? But since it has been raised, a simple fact may be of interest to those who do so - including the poet Tariel Chanturia, who first cast the "aspersion" in his Georgian disquisition of 1989 on the importance of the boudoir in history. This is that my wife's advice in May 1989, when I first proposed contributing to the Georgian-Abkhazian debate, was that I should not become involved, as she accurately foresaw the nature of the reaction and predicted (contrary to my naïve belief) that reason and common sense would not prevail.

The heart of things

In regard to the nature, value, or user-friendliness of my writings, it is not for me to defend these; I am quite happy for objective readers and posterity to make that judgment. I know very well where the balance of opinion lies, from the views either expressed by those who have made direct use of my linguistic publications on both Georgian and Abkhaz or brought back to me from Tbilisi by colleagues and/or students who, having contact with today's Georgian linguistic community, have been told their opinion.

If I had details of the charge that I strove to have my own works published at the expense of those of Georgian scholars (whatever this might actually mean) I would respond, but I have no idea how to proceed with regard to this manifestly gratuitous slur. As for supposing that an author has any say in how much his publishers should charge for his books, such a statement is revealing about the commentator's knowledge of the real world; it is not clear, moreover, why this should even be mentioned in the context of the article in question. My alleged lack of "love" for the Georgian language prompts me to ask why, in that case, is it that my wife and I should choose to continue communicating in a language some suppose me to hate?

In a similar vein, the tossing out of generalised and unsubstantiated accusations should have no place in mature debate. I have in mind remarks of the kind that Abkhazia is a "Nazi pseudo-state". As it happens, I have spoken to three European visitors over recent weeks who arrived here in Abkhazia from Georgia (or who had previously spent time in Georgia). All of them had been warned about visiting an Abkhazia described in precisely these terms; and all three could not believe how what they saw and experienced here for themselves could possibly merit such derogatory dismissal.

Regrettably, so much of what emanates from Georgian sources bears no relation to Abkhazian reality. I do not have with me the appalling book Conflict in the Caucasus by (if memory serves) the expert on Krim-Tatar art and folklore, Svetlana Chervonnaja (published originally in Russian under the title Abxazija 1992: Post-kommunisticheskaja Vandeja); thus I cannot check whether the quote ascribed to Abkhazia's first president, Vladislav Ardzinba to the effect that "if Georgians did not wish to be citizens of Abkhazia and did not leave voluntarily, they would be driven out" actually appears in it as claimed. But even if it is there, like many "facts" in that work, it should be treated with the utmost caution and suspicion (it is noteworthy that the book was published under a "vanity publishing" scheme, and that the foreword to the English translation was written by Eduard Shevardnadze; scholarly discussion requires higher standards).

What's not in a name

Insofar as it is possible to detach points of fact from personal insinuation, some issues of linguistics and history are raised in relation to my article - if in tendentious form.

For example, the term "Abkhaz(ia)"' is stated to derive from the Georgian /apxaz(eti)/. But what if it does? The traditional view, which is the only tenable one, is that the Georgian terms themselves derive from the Ancient Greek /Abasgoi/ ("Abazgians") or /Abasgia/ ("Abazgia"), which in turn were adaptations of the local ethnonym /Abaza/ (in this connection, see my own  "The Valid and Non-valid Application of Philology to History" [Revue des Etudes Géorgiennes et Caucasiennes 6-7, 1993, pp 247-264], for a rebuttal of Tamaz Gamqrelidze's tendentious attempt to make the Georgian terms the originals).

In similar fashion the name of northern Abkhazia's most famous resort, Pitsunda, derives from the accusative-case form of Ancient Greek's designation for the spot, namely /pityounta/ (from the nominative /pityous, "place of pines"). This also lies behind the Georgian toponym /bich'vinta/, whereas the Abkhazians have long had their own name for it, namely /A.mza.ra/ ("the place of pines") (for the etymology, see my article "On the etymology of Bich'vinta (Pitsunda)" [Revue des Etudes Géorgiennes et Caucasiennes, 6-7, 1993, pp 205-209).

In any event, Kartvelians (my suggested superordinate to refer globally to the Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan and Laz peoples) should be rather careful about drawing hasty conclusions based on the source of the most widely used name for this or that people/country/place. After all, the very term "Georgia" (in Russian, Gruzija; in French, Géorgie; in German, Gruzien; in Turkish, Gürcistan, and so on) has nothing whatsoever to do with the Georgians' self-designation for their land (viz. /sakartvelo/).

What would the word "Georgia" suggest about the people's origin? The old name for today's eastern Georgia (Iberia/Iveria) is most plausibly explained as deriving from the Old Armenian phrase /i Virs/ ("to the Georgians"). So the genitive plural case of this Armenian ethnonym - seen in the expression /i Vrats/("among the Georgians") - produced in Persian by way of a transformation of the troublesome (to Persians) consonant-complex /vr/ the term /gordzh/, which in turn gave Turkish /gürc/, which then Italian visitors/merchants duly transposed to fit their own language's requirements, producing a toponym homophonous with the English term. Hence the above (partial) array of names for "Georgia" - from which, it should again be emphasised, no conclusions at all can be drawn about the settlement or original ownership of the territory in question.

The trigger of war

It is a long way from such matters to the Georgia-Abkhazia war of 1992-93, but the same considerations of intellectual responsibility must guide understanding. It is contended, for example, that the war began on 14 August 1992 when Georgian troops were introduced to protect the railway-line that linked Georgia (and Armenia) to Russia from attacks by marauders. It is true that the passage of trains along that line was being disrupted, but (as contemporary reports confirm) the attacks by robbers and hijackers were taking place not in Abkhazia but in Mingrelia, which lies on the Georgian side of the border.

I can confirm this by reporting the following. In late June 1992 a German colleague and I returned by train from Maykop in the north Caucasus region of Adygheia to Abkhazia. He spent a night in Sukhum, while I went on to Ochamchira. He then came to spend a night with us in Ochamchira, before continuing his journey to Tbilisi. He told us that he had been advised by the leadership in Sukhum that he should reconsider his plans and fly from Sukhum because no one could guarantee his safety once he crossed the River Ingur into Mingrelia, where a civil war was raging between supporters of the ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and those of the military (later state) council that had overthrown him in January 1992. My colleague decided to risk it, and we duly bade him a nervous farewell from Ochamchira as he boarded the train to Tbilisi (and he did, I am happy to report, reach his destination without mishap).

It is often wrongly claimed that there was an agreement at the time between Vladislav Ardzinba and Eduard Shevardnadze that Georgian troops could be introduced into Abkhazia (see Ardzinba's own account, in the recent Russian-language Age of Ardzinba, of his phone-conversation with Shevardnadze over the report of a build-up of troops in Mingrelia in mid-1992 and Shevardnadze's promise that there was no threat to Abkhazia).

When the rabble that constituted Georgia's so-called National Guard (commanded by the "sculptor" Tengiz Kitovani) crossed the Ingur, they killed those manning the post by the bridge and some Abkhazians they met in the nearby village of Okhurei (taking hostages too) in order to hinder reports of their incursion reaching Sukhum. The head of the Abkhazian forces happened to be in Tqvarchal at the moment, and had to race back to Sukhum as soon as he (belatedly) heard the news of events at the Ingur in order to help organise resistance.

It is true that both sides committed atrocities once the war started. But one side only was responsible for initiating the war in Abkhazia, and that side alone deserves to carry the full blame for it and its consequences.

The shift of sensibility

The charge that in my article I neglect the Russian factor prompts the following. It is natural to expect that - if one looks back at Russian treatment of those Caucasians who resisted Russia's southern advance in the 19th century (from northern Abkhazia across the north Caucasus, minus the North Ossetians, through into northern Daghestan) - the Abkhazians would be implacable enemies of Russia. But, given this universally understood history, the question that the Georgians prefer to ignore in this regard is: what caused the Georgians to replace the Russians in Abkhazian disaffections?

The shift started with the rush by Kartvelians (largely Mingrelians) to colonise the regions of Abkhazia emptied as a result of the expulsions/migrations to Turkey in the 1860-70s. (This was a period of population movement; it was at this time, incidentally, that Svans moved out of Svanetia into the upper Kodor valley, vacated by the Dal and Tsabal Abkhazians when they were removed to Ottoman lands [the vacating by the Dal-Tsabalians of their ancestral lands is noted by the Abkhazian-born Mingrelian Petre Charaia writing in the last quarter of the 19th century, as cited by T Achugba and R Agwazhba in their just-published Russian book Abkhazia and Abkhazians in the Russian Periodical Press, volume II]).

The influx of (mainly) Mingrelians into eastern Abkhazia in the later 19th century also led to pressure to mingrelianise the existing residents of the Gal region (an undertaking in which Mingrelian priests in southeast Abkhazia played a devious role by mingrelianising Abkhazian surnames when registering births, followed by their wholesale reclassification as Mingrelians; see T Achugba's forthcoming The Ethnic History of the Abkhazians in the XIX-XXth Centuries, in Russian).

The later history is rich in events that defy easy summary, but whose landmarks indicate the continuation of a pattern that provides a clear answer to the question above about the shift in Abkhazian disaffections. These landmarks include the occupation of Abkhazia by Georgian Menshevik forces in 1918; the erosion of Abkhazia's status from full Soviet republic in 1921 to union-republic with Georgia in 1922 to autonomous republic within Georgia in 1931; the further large-scale settlement by ever more Kartvelians (largely, again, Mingrelians) from 1937-53; and the subsequent questioning of the Abkhazians' very historical presence in their homeland, which was (according to the Georgians' most magnanimous theory) allegedly always a land with two autochthons (Abkhazians and Kartvelians).

These factors in combination only strengthened and deepened Abkhazian certainty that from the beginning of the 20th century the threat to their well-being came from Tbilisi rather than Moscow. They also answer the puzzlement of those who wonder why Abkhazians do not complain about, or strenuously oppose, the immigration of other ethnic groups (such as the Armenians and Russians); the crucial differences are the scale of the Kartvelian (Mingrelian) increase, and the fact that no other immigrant group has similarly manufactured a historical claim to the territory (with the imputation that the Abkhazians have no - or, at best, restricted - rights there).

True, Russia has long had (and retains) an interest in what happens here in Abkhazia; as recently as 12 August 2009, prime minister Vladimir Putin stated in Sukhum that Russian actions in August 2008 were not dictated solely by altruism. There is nothing surprising in that, for all powers behave in accordance with their national interests. But to put it in context and in order to understand why various minorities in Soviet Georgia reacted from late 1988 negatively (not to say with alarm) toward Georgian ambitions of independence, it is enough to read what leading Georgians themselves at the time were saying about these minorities and their right to reside as "guests" on "Georgian" soil (the figures include political oppositionists such as a trio of, now deceased, Mingrelians - Merab Kostava, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Giorgi Chanturia - as well as a plethora of intellectuals, mostly historians and, I am ashamed to say, linguists).

Among the many instant experts on Georgia who have sprouted from nowhere over recent years, which ones have read (or have the necessary language-skills to enable them to read) all of the offensive material that was produced in those dark days across the whole Georgian-language media? Most observers are probably familiar with the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians", which rang out from all sections of the nationalist movement; but, I have to say, I know of no individual, group or political party in Abkhazia unfurling parallel banners.

This is why I say that the Georgians have only themselves to blame for the alienation of the minorities (particularly those, like the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, with titular enclaves) living within Soviet Georgia's boundaries and their subsequent wars; all the Russians had to do was sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Georgia's decline into the self-inflicted chaos that duly ensued and which some voices actually predicted would result, if the country chose, as it did with such relish, the path of ethnic nationalism.

The necessary context

What of the matters of territory, sovereignty, the historical relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia raised in some of the comments on my article? In this respect, reference is made to a letter written by members of the upper échelons of Abkhazian society on 23 March 1870 in which they stated that Abkhazia formed a long-time constituent part of Georgia; this is taken at face value as proof of the Georgian stance on the historical relationship.

The letter does indeed exist, but like any such historical document it needs to be examined with a view to explaining why such a statement should have issued specifically from the pen of such individuals and at such a moment. The answer to this, like so many other questions, appears in the little book by Stanislav Lakoba, Answer to Historians from Tbilisi (Sukhum, 2001, in Russian). The author writes on page 12: "But since all Abkhazian peasants were proprietors of their own land and were not dependent economically on feudal overlords, they were obliged to pay redemption only for their personal emancipation. At the same time Georgian and Mingrelian princes and nobles were in receipt of huge sums of money also for land, which placed them in a considerably superior position to the Abkhazian privileged upper-class." It becomes clear that the aristocrats who put their name to the letter, which was composed with the help of Georgians, were prepared to falsify the historical position of Abkhazia's relationship with Georgia for the base goal of seeking personal financial advantage.

The Abkhazians have no irredentist claims against Georgia. The earlier northern border of Abkhazia ran along the River Khosta, to the north of the current border with Russia along the River Psou; though one might reasonably conjecture that Abkhazia will not be presenting the Kremlin with demands to reclaim lost territory any time soon. Nor have Abkhazians been responsible for carrying out any terrorist acts on Georgian soil. The converse is patently not the case. Since the end of the war, hundreds (including local Mingrelians) have been killed in bombings and shootings, largely in the Gal district. Two groups, the Forest Brethren and the White Legion, were mostly responsible for the killings during the 1990s; the Georgian journalist Akaki Mikadze reported that these groups were actively supported by Georgia's interior and state-security ministries (see Vremja, 3 June 1998).

Terrorist acts continue to be perpetrated: on the very day of Putin's visit to Abkhazia, two people were killed in an explosion in Gagra, and another bomb exploded in the early evening of the same day in the capital, mercifully causing no casualties. In order to put pressure on the Mingrelian residents of Gal, those who are prepared to work with the Abkhazians have been targeted. At the time of Abkhazia's last presidential elections in 2004, one Davit Sigua was head of the Gal electoral commission; he was abducted and has not been heard of since.

The conduct of the Abkhazians in the upper Kodor valley operation in August 2008 is a notable contrast. The local Svans were given a guaranteed corridor and set time to evacuate, and as a result there was not one casualty on the Kartvelian side. All Svans who did not take up arms against Abkhazia are free to return to their farms; according to information received on 18 August 2009 in the high settlement of Azhara ("place of the ash-tree" in Abkhaz), 216 Svan returnees have already been registered, and I saw evidence in the valley of bee-keeping and hay-making. Abkhazian troops in the area are under instructions to greet the locals but not to engage in conversation so as to avoid disputation.

The condition of progress

The issue of the Mingrelians is a further point of discussion. Anyone even minimally familiar with my writings on the Mingrelians, whether in Abkhazia or Mingrelia, over the years will know that my concern for this people's language and culture is demonstrably greater than virtually any other scholar (whether in Georgia or Abkhazia). To be specific, it is my longstanding view that Mingrelian's one-time literary status should be restored; the number of Mingrelian publications (a school-primer, a few books, plus newspapers and local journals) from the late 1920s through to 1938 suggest that the language must then have enjoyed a degree of official support. Tbilisi, ever fearful of separatist demands, regards such a suggestion with horror. In Abkhazia, if Mingrelians in the Gal region wish their children to be taught in Georgian, this should not be opposed, but there should be provision for Mingrelian also to be taught (to some level) in the relevant Georgian-language schools.

The Mingrelian-Georgian distinction remains visible in, for example, the contrast between the (relatively good) treatment of Georgian refugees from in and around South Ossetia in 2008 and the appalling neglect of many or even most of the Mingrelian refugees from Abkhazia in 1993. The wider point is that if the then Georgian leadership had in mid-1992 given a moment's thought to the way that Abkhazians and Kartvelians lived in such intermingled settlements in so many parts of Abkhazia, they would never have dared putting at risk the apparent harmony existing in those communities by starting the war in the first place; there was, after all, no threat of any kind from the Abkhazians to any of the non-Abkhazian residents of Abkhazia prior to the 1992-93 war.

The concluding chapter of that war is often seen as one of the ethnic cleansing of the Kartvelian residents of Abkhazia. Two near-contemporary reports - from the United Nations in November 1993, and from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples' Organisation (UNPO) in December 1993 - state that they could find no evidence of such an action. A little book called The Pass of the Persecuted (Tbilisi, 2001) by the Mingrelian writer Guram Odisharia - who himself fled via the Kodor valley into Svanetia - describes the horrors he experienced along the route.

Guram Odisharia makes clear that the flight of residents from the south of Sukhum took place before the arrival of Abkhazian troops, which took place after the fall of Sukhum on 27 September 1993; and that their attempt to travel along the direct highway into Mingrelia (the natural route) was stopped by Georgian forces, who ordered them back and threatened them ("Go back, or we'll kill all of you! Who gave you the order to leave the town!"). In addition, Odisharia reports that there were incidents of Svans robbing their near-destitute fellow-Kartvelian Mingrelians after they had survived the trials of passing over the mountain-pass. Such elements of the historical record do not fit the neat categories some are tempted to impose on it for contemporary political convenience.

This background too emphasises the point that only with recognition and international guarantees of Abkhazia's security against Georgian aggression will there be a realistic possibility of any return to Abkhazian regions other than Gal for the refugees stuck in a Georgian limbo for the last sixteen years (it is relevant here that Mikheil Saakashvili was repeatedly pressed to put his signature to a non-aggression pact with South Ossetia and Abkhazia prior to August 2008, and just as consistently refused).

It is easy to refute the claims of Georgian nationalists vis-à-vis Abkhazia, if one knows where to look and takes the trouble to do so. As long as scholarship is compromised by political interest, calculation, or blind partisanship, it will be necessary to make the effort.

Source: openDemocracy




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