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Abkhazia: A Broken Paradise, by Georgi Derluguian

Sarai Reader 2007: Frontiers

Georgi Derluguian was born in 1961 in Krasnodar, the North Caucasus region of Russia. In 1978-1985 he attended Moscow State University obtaining a degree (summa cum laude) in African studies. His first dissertation investigated the social and environmental aspects of guerrilla wars in Mozambique which he directly observed during the two-year stay in that country. In an ironic way, in May 1989 this work earned a major recognition by being censored at the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR for what was termed a “gross if not malicious exaggeration of the difficulties of socialist orientation in the conditions of Africa”. In 1990 Derluguian joined the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations at Binghamton University defending his second doctoral degree (a Ph.D. in sociology) in 1995. Subsequently Georgi Derluguian held appointments at the University of Michigan, Cornell, Universite de Bordeaux (France), and the US Institute of Peace. In 1997 he joined the International Studies Program and Department of Sociology at Northwestern University where he presently holds the rank of Associate Professor. Georgi Derluguian is the author of numerous articles, book chapters and essays translated into Japanese, Polish, Korean, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Turkish. He also gives public lectures, writes for major newspapers in the United States, Mexico, and his native Russia and appeared as an expert on ethnic conflicts and terrorism on CNN, Fox News, PBS and Oprah Winfrey show. Derluguian’s research and teaching were recognized by numerous awards including the MacArthur Peace and Security Fellowship and Carnegie Scholar of Vision. His most recent book is Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography  (University of Chicago Press, 2005) which earned Honorable Mention of the Political Sociology section of American Sociological Association and was listed by the Times Literary Supplement among Books of the Year. 

Abkhazia: A Broken Paradise

The conventional explanations of the Abkhazian independence war against the Republic of Georgia invariably dwell on the combination of local ancient hatreds and Moscow's secret meddling. This explanation is both incorrect and politically harmful. After all, what can be done if the hatreds are so ancient, and Russia, as any state faced with similar problems, might predictably have no option but to continue 'meddling' in its complicated Caucasus underbelly? To reframe these inherently pessimistic assumptions, let us revisit the typical arguments or 'facts' one hears from the participants in the Abkhazia conflict. Such analysis is by no means a pedantic exercise. Abkhazia's troubles are structurally similar to other smouldering separatist conflicts all over the Caucasus and the Balkans. By getting the record straight with Abkhazia, we may gain a deeper understanding of the ethnic troubles in the post-Communist peripheries such as Karabagh, Chechnya and Kosovo as well.

The social processes and historical structures commonly understood as background to the conflict, as this essay seeks to demonstrate, are not at all 'background' factors. Rather, they form the historically complex trajectory which at certain points could ignite – and also defuse – conflicts which are then configured in ethnic terms, as presumably confrontations between the Georgian majority, Abkhaz minority and interventionist Russia. The usual ancient hatreds' or, in a more fashionable academic twist, historically path-dependent explanation for these tensions is about as correct as blaming the contemporary violence inNorthern Ireland on the long-standing theological dispute between the two branches of Western Christianity.

Let me throw in some hard 'facts': the Georgians are Orthodox Christian and so are, of course, the Russians – at least, most of them believe so on the basis of their getting to the church for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and occasionally on Easter, which totals on average two-and-a-half times a year (Furman, 1999). The religious practices and beliefs of the Abkhazes should be described as agnostic-syncretist while (to put it more bluntly) basically pagan (Abdushelishvili, Arutyunov and Kaloyev, 1994). The politicised sector among the Chechens, who for a brief period in the early 1990s (though not earlier and no longer today) passionately considered themselves brethren to the Abkhaz people, by all accounts are more serious Sunni Muslims than the happily syncretist Abkhaz. This is mostly because the Chechens, who over the last two centuries have regularly engaged inconfrontations with the Russian imperial machinery, came to stress Islam as their anti-imperial identity (Zelkina, 2000). In the Caucasus wars of the 19th century, the Georgians(or rather the Georgian elites) usually sided with Russia not simply because they wereChristians, but because their Orthodox Christian background had culturally facilitated the access to Russian imperial careers. Curiously, the three men who in 1944 ordered and oversaw the deportation of the entire Chechen nation were the ethnic Georgians highly positioned in Moscow: Colonel Mikhail Gvishiani of NKVD; chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrenti Beria; and Joseph Stalin (Lieven, 1998).

In order to stay on track in this political maze, let us follow the wisdom of great historianFernand Braudel (1986) and begin with the fundamental structures, literally with the fabulous soil and climate of Abkhazia.

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