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Abkhazia’s Diaspora: Dreaming of Home

Elizabeth Owen - EurasiaNet

High atop a mountain chain in western Turkey stands Mezit village, a hamlet founded in the 19th century by Abkhaz rebels on the run from Tsarist Russian troops. More than 130 years later, Mezit’s Abkhaz residents now have one goal -- to return to Abkhazia, where Russian troops are now a welcome presence.

"We would like to see this place with our own eyes, a place where our language is spoken," said Nalan Uran, a middle-aged Mezit homemaker, as she indicated a black-and-white photograph of her great-grandfather in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhum.

That is a desire the de facto Abkhaz government would like to encourage. Promoting the return of Diaspora members is seen as one way to strengthen efforts to secure the territory’s independence from Georgia.

Thousands of Abkhaz, known as makhadjiri, fled Abkhazia for Turkey in the mid-19th century after resisting the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. Today, Turkey is home to the world’s largest Abkhaz Diaspora community. Size estimates vary - Diaspora leaders say 1 million people; Abkhaz estimates range from 150,000 to 500,000.

Their value for the de facto government in Sukhum lies more in their interest in Abkhazia -- and their financial influence. Turkey’s Diaspora community reportedly remains a potential key source of outside investment, a long-term priority for de facto leader Sergei Bagapsh’s administration. Campaigning for Turkish recognition of Abkhazia’s independence fulfills another role.

The catch lies in getting those Diaspora who return home to stay. Since the end of the 1992-1993 war with Georgia, only about 3,500 Diaspora members have returned to live permanently in Abkhazia, according to Anzor Mukba, head of the territory’s Committee on Repatriation.

"Not everyone wants to return to a place where a war might start tomorrow," Mukba said.

The financial incentives are limited. The committee pays for housing for those members of the Diaspora who wish to return and have no property within Abkhazia. It also pays for any school-related expenses, and for a 150-guest wedding. Those who can demonstrate that they are of Abkhaz origin are additionally eligible to receive Abkhaz passports.

To cover the expenses, the de facto government takes a 2-percent cut from each paycheck issued in Abkhazia. No exact figures were available on the total sum. In 2007, the de facto government budgeted $1 million for repatriation-related programs, according to the website of de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh.

"A mass migration [from Turkey] I don’t expect," commented Mukba. "A mass migration can only happen if people feel themselves to be badly off where they are, and they don’t feel badly off in Turkey."

Some members of the Diaspora community concede as much. "Turkey opened their arms to us and we really appreciate that," said Turgut Cilo, the ethnic Abkhaz owner of a transportation company in the Turkish city of Inegöl, near Bursa. "We’ve always been conscious of our culture, but we’ve tied our destiny to this country."

Investment lets these Abkhaz balance both identities, they say. Emphasis reportedly falls on tourism and agriculture, yet details are scant.

Abkhaz Diaspora entrepreneurs in Turkey say that now is a great time to invest aggressively in Abkhazia. Georgian pressure on Turkey to block any such investment has declined since the August 2008 war with Russia, they note. "The situation has changed," said Irfan Argun, chairman of the Istanbul-based Caucasian-Abkhazian Solidarity Committee, a Diaspora group that was established to support separatist Abkhaz during the war with Georgia in the early 1990s. "The Turkish attitude is getting softer."

Immediate hopes focus on establishing a direct plane or boat link between Turkey’s Black Sea port of Trabzon and Abkhazia. Members of the Diaspora wanting to visit their homeland must currently travel via the Russian city of Sochi to reach Abkhazia, a lengthy route that requires a Russian visa. Travel via Georgia is not considered an option.

Some Diaspora members who visit are disappointed to find that reality does not live up to their preconceived notions. Dilapidated buildings and a sketchy phone system perplex one middle-aged woman from Ankara. "It wasn’t what I expected," she said with a sigh.

Seated at a Diaspora-owned cafГ© in downtown Sukhum, a group of ethnic Abkhaz from Turkey recently complained that Russian border guards demanded a $5 payment for each visitor to Abkhazia not on a pre-approved list.

"They’re setting the conditions and pushing hard. They’re asking where we’re going in Abkhazia, why, when," recounted Aslan Yavuz Sir, a young foreign policy analyst from Ankara.

The impression left on some Diaspora travelers is that "the Russians don’t want us to come back," Yavuz Sir continued.

Skepticism over Moscow’s intentions among some Diaspora members conflicts with the views of many Abkhaz in Abkhazia, where Moscow’s support is seen as an essential -- if not always beloved -- buffer against a belligerent Georgia.

Diaspora leaders in Turkey maintain that pragmatism alone drives Abkhaz ties with Russia. "The Russia thing didn’t come out of sincere love or affection," commented the Caucasian-Abkhazian Solidarity Committee’s Argun, who regularly meets with Russian envoys to Istanbul. "The negative policies of the world states pushed Abkhazia closer to Russia."

Transportation company owner Cilo agrees. Russia’s recognition of Abkhaz independence "we do not see as a gracious act, but as something to pay its debt from the past," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

But for Turkey’s Abkhaz Diaspora, that past includes no Soviet experience. Some say they had no information about Abkhazia until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ignorance worked both ways; on a 1991 trip to Abkhazia, local Abkhaz "looked at us like aliens," Cilo recalled with a chuckle. "They had no idea of Abkhaz in Turkey or the outside world."

More than 17 years on, the reference points can still be different. Abkhazia’s tendency to see the present in terms of the past strikes one Sukhum hotel owner who migrated from Istanbul in 2001. "The war [with Georgia] ended 15 years ago," commented Talik Khuatish, who also sits in the territory’s parliament. "We need to strengthen [our people’s] psychology."

Language can be another issue. "More young Abkhaz speak Russian than Abkhaz," said one Diaspora retiree from Istanbul who gave his name as Semi. "If this continues, we Abkhaz will be speaking to each other in Russian and English, not in Abkhaz."

Despite their occasional bewilderment at what they see as lingering Soviet influences, Diaspora pride in Abkhazia dies hard. On a moonlit Sukhum beachfront last October, passers-by looked on approvingly as a group of ethnic Abkhaz youngsters from Turkey performed an impromptu set of folk dances to accordion music and hand clapping. "We need to go back to this, to making our young people here proud of their culture," said one pensioner, who gave his name as Tifur.

Back in Turkey’s Mezit village, Diaspora members say their community is willing to lead the way. "Our families who were kicked out [of Abkhazia] were the rebels who refused to submit," commented 28-year-old Onur Cilo. "And, now, out of this rebel psychology comes the stubbornness to go back."

Editor's Note: Elizabeth Owen is the Caucasus news coordinator for EurasiaNet, based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Source: EurasiaNet Civil Society

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