CRIA: Interview with Prof. George Hewitt

George Hewitt and Tevfik Esenc

“Federalisation Remains the Best Way for Georgia to Avoid Outbreaks of Further Internal Disputes”

Interview with Prof. George Hewitt

Professor, London School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS)

Prof. George Hewitt is a leading scholar of Abkhazian and Georgian languages and culture, and author of: Georgian, a Structural Reference Grammar (John Benjamin, 1995), and A Georgian Reader (SOAS, 1996); Hewitt is also a contributor to Some of his other works include ‘Peoples of the Caucasus’ (in F. Fernández-Armesto, ed. Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994)); and The Abkhazians, a handbook (as author & editor, Curzon Press, 1999).


The Spring 2009 issue of Caucasian Review of International Affairs (see: contains George Hewitt's interview entitled 'Federalization remains the best way for Georgia to avoid further internal disputes'. The original, full and unedited version of that interview is presented here. 

CRIA: In light of a tumultuous past—but with a view to the immediate future—would you give your thoughts on national reconciliation between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali (and other parts of Georgia), and how progress might be best achieved?

HEWITT: Sukhum and Tskhinval (shorn of the intrusive i-suffix that is the mark of the Nominative case in the GEORGIAN language), as metonyms for the Abkhazians and (South) Ossetians respectively, would strenuously object to the implication that the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent ‘parts’ of a Georgia wherein they could be parties to any ‘national’ reconciliation.

Tbilisi has had no say in S. Ossetian affairs since the war instigated there by Georgia’s first post-communist leader, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, ended with the Dagomys Agreement in June 1992, just as it has had no say in Abkhazian affairs since the war imposed on the republic by Eduard Shevardnadze on 14th August 1992 ended with the expulsion of Georgian forces at the end of September 1993. Georgia, thus, effectively lost ‘de facto’ jurisdiction over these one-time autonomous entities in 1992/3 — South Ossetia became an Autonomous District within Georgia in 1922, whilst Abkhazia was downgraded by Stalin from being a full republic with treaty-ties to Georgia to become a mere Autonomous Republic within Georgia in 1931. And especially after Russia’s ‘de iure’ recognition of their independent status on 26th August 2008, any notion of re-establishing Georgia’s Soviet borders belongs to the realm of fantasy.

Reconciliation will come in time, as it does in all cases of conflict, but it will have to be purely international in nature, reflected in normalisation of relations between neighbouring states.

Even if one accepts the definition followed in Georgia since circa 1930 as to who is correctly categorisable as a ‘Georgian’, ‘Georgians’ constituted only around 71% of Georgia’s population in 1989, when the last Soviet census was taken. Even with Abkhazia and South Ossetia out of the equation, there are still potential ethno-territorial problems within Georgia proper. In July 1989 fatal clashes occurred not only in Abkhazia but in the southern Dmanisi-Marneuli region, which is heavily populated by Azerbaijanis, whose high levels of fertility were openly described in objectionable articles as a threat to Georgia’s demography, and at the same time noises were made about the treatment of the (Ingilo) Georgian population in Azerbaijan’s Zakatala Region. Georgia’s relations with Azerbaijan have been good in recent years, in part no doubt as a result of the decision to export Caspian oil through pipelines that cross Georgian territory. Georgians and Armenians have been rivals in many spheres for centuries, and the predominantly Armenian-populated district of Dzhavakheti in south-western Georgia looks more to Erevan (Armenia’s capital) than to Tbilisi: Armenian is spoken, and the Armenian flag is flown. There have been disputes over ownership of local churches and graveyards, and Tbilisi’s insistence on the closure of a Russian military base has caused local unemployment to rise. Isolated Armenia does not want a dispute with another neighbour (sc. in addition to Azerbaijan and Turkey), but Dzhavakheti could easily prove another flashpoint for Georgia. In addition, it would be interesting to discover (though how this could be achieved is unclear) the extent to which the sizeable Mingrelian population in western Georgia is happy to be classified as ‘Georgians’ solely on the basis that their language is a sister-language to Georgian and because they have been largely educated in Georgian language-schools, Mingrelian being denied ‘literary language’ status.

Given the demographics, federalisation was the obvious way to restructure the state when Georgia gained the opportunity to control its own affairs. Instead, the dangerous flames of nationalism were fanned, which antagonised many/most of the ethnic minorities living within the country’s Soviet borders. Had the sensible course been followed, one could hypothesise that the S. Ossetian and Abkhazian conflicts (not to mention the civil war that was conducted in Gamsakhurdia’s home-region of Mingrelia following his ousting in January 1992) might have been avoided with the result that Georgia might have proceeded to peaceful and prosperous independence with no shrinkage of borders. However pointless it is to engage in such speculation, federalisation remains the best way for Tbilisi to avoid outbreaks of further internal disputes. 

CRIA: How would the Abkhazian and South Ossetian leadership promote the return of displaced refugees (IDPs) and rights for ethnic Georgians and the other minorities in the areas? How does Tbilisi re-earn the trust of these regions?

HEWITT: Let’s start with the second question. Before good-neighbourly relations can be established, Tbilisi has to abandon its traditional knee-jerk reaction of blaming everything on the Kremlin and Russian machinations. Georgians must face and acknowledge (to themselves and others) their own responsibility for the ills that have befallen their country as a result of animosities they themselves have created with both the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians. They have to cease distorting the history of Abkhazian and Ossetian residence in Transcaucasia and ensure that publications (which are still appearing) disseminating such distortions are (ideally) halted or, since publishing is no longer centrally controlled, subjected to meaningful criticism. Sadly, linguists and historians were the most enthusiastic of Georgia’s scholarly community to jump on the nationalist bandwagon set in train by the anti-communist opposition in the dying years of Soviet power. All of this has to change in order to demonstrate to neighbours and/or concerned minorities that there will be no return to the threatening chauvinism that developed in the late 1980s. If Georgians were prepared to acccept federalisation and also to reverse the denial of language-rights to Mingrelian, such a demonstration of equitable treatment for those living within Georgia proper might persuade Sukhum and Tskhinval that Georgian yearning for regional overlordship no longer presented a danger. Most of the refugees from S. Ossetia following the events of August 2008 are ethnic Georgians, whilst most of those who fled from Abkhazia after Georgia’s defeat in 1993 were ethnic Mingrelians (and local residents who abandoned their homes when the Georgian military personnel were finally ejected from Abkhazia’s Upper K’odor Valley on 12th August 2008 were mainly ethnic Svans). Emotions are undoubtedly still too raw to envisage an imminent return of Georgians to S. Ossetia; the Abkhazians have raised no objections to Mingrelians staying in, or returning to, the south-easternmost province of Gal, where, whatever the (disputed) ethnic origins of these locals, there had been a preponderance of Mingrelian-speakers for decades, and Svans who did not take up arms against Abkhazians during the war or thereafter are free to live in their homesteads in the K’odor Valley. But, as long as Georgians and/or Mingrelians and/or Svans are perceived as being likely to act as Tbilisi’s 5th-columnists and thus to present a danger of undermining the independent statehood of either S. Ossetia or Abkhazia, any large-scale return is simply out of the question. Sadly for the refugees themselves, failure on the part of the Georgian authorities to recognise the post-1992/3 realities and to pretend that re-establishing control over the lost territories and a mass-return of the refugees have been ever imminent has only resulted in extra misery for the people concerned, for whom no adequate housing has been built or found despite the fact that large numbers have migrated out of Georgia since independence, presumably vacating many domiciles into which refugees could easily have been moved.

With particular reference to Abkhazia, the exiles in whose repatriation the Abkhazians are most interested are the descendants of those Abkhazians who migrated to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the great Caucasian War (1864) or following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877/8, a population-shift which denuded Abkhazia of its native inhabitants and created the opportunity for the start of large-scale inward Mingrelian migration, something which became state-policy under Stalin’s anti-Abkhazian campaign from the late 1930s and which had such a disastrous consequence for the republic’s ethnic balance, Abkhazians forming only 17.8% of Abkhazia’s population by 1989.

As regards the denizens of the Gal District who view themselves as Mingrelians/Georgians, the question of citizenship is certainly problematic. Dual Abkhazian-Georgian citizenship is, for obvious reasons, in the light of the belligerence that has emanated from across the Ingur-border since 1989, forbidden. Perhaps those who prefer to keep Georgian citizenship but who have displayed no anti-Abkhazian feelings during their years of residence can be granted special residency-rights. But, if they wish to become full citizens with voting rights, then they will have no choice but to give up Georgian citizenship. 

CRIA: What are some policies that the collective leaderships of the three parties (Sukhum, Tbilisi, Moscow) can take to immediately improve relations and stability, and to preempt future violence? What can the international community do to ameliorate this process?

HEWITT: Again it is preferable to start with the second question. The international community made a monumental error in arbitrarily deciding at the break-up of the USSR that recognition would be granted only to the union-republics and to no lower entities. This effectively enshrined Stalin’s borders. Once Georgia, within its Soviet frontiers, was recognised more or less as soon as Shevardnadze returned from retirement in Moscow in March 1992 (despite the fact that the legitimate president had been ousted, the ruling military junta had no democratic mandate, and a civil war was raging in Mingrelia), preservation of Georgia’s territorial integrity became the order of the day. Abkhazian demands that they be allowed the right to exercise self-determination have been drowned out by the drum-beat of the priority of territorial integrity ever since. And this seemingly sacrosanct international principle has girded Tbilisi in a protective cloak that has allowed it to escape international censure for essaying aggressive territorial integrationism in Abkhazia under Shevardnadze (1992-93), a war that cost the lives of 4% of the local Abkhazian population, and in South Ossetia under Shevardnadze’s usurper, Mikheil (Misha) Saak’ashvili, in 2008. The policy of punishing both S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, the victims of Georgian aggression, with sanctions and isolation has achieved the very opposite of what the West presumably desired, namely driving both these republics into ever closer ties with Russia. Russia realised the error of having recognised Georgian claims to lands over which Tbilisi had demonstrably lost any moral right to demand jurisdiction and duly reversed that decision on 26th August 2008. For the West to persist in a manifestly failed policy betrays what can only be described as a collective retarded stubborness, which will result in exclusively Russian influence being exercised over the future of the two republics. Since the West has declared an interest in Transcaucasia in terms of the pipelines and trade-routes that it furnishes to the Caspian basin and Central Asia, it would be sensible to follow Russia’s lead, recognise both new states, use its influence to persuade Tbilisi to abandon both the militarism that was recklessly supported by the Bush administration and all thoughts of NATO membership, act as guarantor that no further military adventurism will be tolerated, and then work with Russia to find a modus vivendi according to which all the peoples of the region can co-operate in working for the common good. After all, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have not been the only theatres where recent Transcaucasian conflicts have been played out; the first region over which neighbours (Armenians and Azerbaijanis) went to war was Nagorno-Karabagh, and Karabagh Armenians are no more likely to accept resubordination to Baku than either the Abkhazians or South Ossetians will accept reintegration within Georgia. Russia cannot realistically be excluded from involvement in the region, Armenia being a close ally and thus one obvious area where Russia can claim a legitimate interest. The emergence of an international frontier splitting Azerbaijan from Russia’s province of Daghestan created a serious problem for the Lezgians, whose territory was thus divided and relatives found themselves living in different countries. Some new thinking is necessary. Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis demonstrated how difficult they found it to co-operate when left to their own devices in the years between World War I and sovietisation, their petty rivalries causing exasperation among the delegates to the Paris Peace Conference of the day. Assuming that Russia neither wants nor needs permanent instability on its Caucasian border, one possible way forward might be: universal recognition of all three Transcaucasian loci belli, followed by active encouragement of a Transcaucasian Union, with advisory, supportive or even collaborative roles for the USA, EU and Russia. How this would work in practice I cannot say; I am not, after all, a political scientist, and some readers at this point might be thinking: ‘Evidently so!’ But one thing is clear: the current situation cannot be allowed to continue; a dead-end has been created out of the folly of pursuing a policy based on ignorance and the refusal of major players to admit their mistakes. Something better has to be found, and that something cannot be compulsory reintegration of regions that everyone acknowledges to have been de facto independent for some two decades. 

CRIA: What role does the Russian language currently play in Georgia (and the South Caucasus)? Is it still a lingua franca, or is it being progressively relegated? Does a young Bakinian entrepreneur, for instance, disembark in Tbilisi and salute his equally young counterpart in Russian or English, and how might that show Georgia to be gravitating towards a certain sphere of influence—i.e. Moscow or the West?

HEWITT: There can be no denying that Russian is in decline amongst the Georgians, English being the first foreign language of choice, especially among young, post-Soviet educated Georgians. Even during Soviet times many Georgians tended to take a perverse pride in their less than perfect competence in Russian. It is in no way surprising that, once independent, pro-Western sympathies came to the fore. No-one can blame them for this; Georgian anti-Russian sentiment has long been well known, despite the awkward historical fact that Georgians were the ones who gave Russia its first toe-hold south of the Caucasian mountains back in the 18th century. Even when the USSR disintegrated, there was a sense that it might take quite some time for things really to change, as what was needed was a generation of leaders not tainted by a Soviet past. With the emergence of the Western-educated Saak’ashvili and his cabinet of ministers with a largely similar background, it might have been thought that the situation was set for real improvement. Regrettably, the active and open baiting of the northern neighbour that has been all too characteristic of this government proves that something more than a non-Soviet past is necessary for successful leadership, common sense being a useful starting-point. Good-neighbourly relations need to be built not only amongst the peoples of Transcaucasia but between Tbilisi and Moscow. Pursuing the always unrealistic dream of NATO membership will not help in this, and, of course, it is not in NATO’s own interests to have as members states with either overt or covert anti-Russian agendas. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians have had to recognise geo-political realities; the Georgians should do the same. 

CRIA: A word for Georgian linguistic diversity: how widely spoken are Mingrelian, Laz and Svan in (and outside) Georgia? And how far apart are groups of speakers in geographic terms?

HEWITT: Georgian, Mingrelian, Laz and Svan are the four members of the South Caucasian (or Kartvelian) language-family. This family cannot be demonstrated to be related to any other language or language-family spoken today or at any time in the past. The compact area in which these languages are spoken is concentrated on Georgia (proper) and extends into eastern parts of modern-day Turkey, where the bulk of the Laz are to be found. Within Georgia, because of census-practices since circa 1930, no-one knows how many Mingrelians or Svans there are or, amongst each of those ethnic groups, how widespread is the knowledge of Mingrelian and Svan — there are only negligible numbers of Laz in Georgia. It is anecdotally believed that there are perhaps 50,000+ speakers of Svan, whilst half a million would be the maximum for speakers of Mingrelian, though the number of ethnic Mingrelians would exceed this. Since there were no Russian-language schools in Svanetia, all Svans brought up in Svanetia will have been educated through the medium of Georgian, learning and speaking Svan at home. As there were Russian-language schools during Soviet times in Mingrelia, it can be concluded that not all Mingrelians will necessarily be fluent in Georgian, though most probably are; however, by no means all ethnic Mingrelians know Mingrelian, as many were brought up in a purely Georgian-speaking environment. Over many years Georgian has been extending its range westwards at the expense of Mingrelian, whilst Mingrelian extended its range westward at the expense of Abkhaz, but that process has now ended. Laz, given the geographical position of its speakers (along the east Turkish coast from the Soviet/Georgian border as far as Rize), has been influenced by both Greek and Turkish. The number of Laz speakers is unknown, estimates ranging between 100,000 and a quarter of a million. As with both the closely related Mingrelian and Svan within Georgia, the language has not been taught or officially encouraged. Only between Laz and Mingrelian is there any degree of mutual intelligibility. 

CRIA: What are some links between language, identity and citizenship in modern Georgia? Are speakers of Mingrelian, Laz and Svan equally at ease in Georgian and Russian? Are the tendencies of the speakers of these sister-languages comparable to those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in any notable ways?

HEWITT: We’ve already touched upon the nature of bi- and tri-lingualism amongst the Kartvelians in Georgia. Since Mingrelian, Svan and Laz were not regarded as official languages from c.1930, it has been impossible to see in census-returns the level of their retention as 1st or 2nd languages of the local populations. As Mingrelians, Svans, Laz and, most ridiculously of all, the North Central Caucasian speaking Bats community, which lives in the one east Georgian village of Zemo Alvani, have been classified as ‘Georgians’, it is extremely difficult to answer such questions as how they identify themselves in their own minds and how important they feel preservation of their mother-tongue to be. The Bats (their language being related to Chechen and Ingush) are reported no longer to be teaching their language to their children, and Bats has been heavily influenced by Georgian for almost two centuries at least. Whilst most Svan lived secluded in the highlands of Svanetia, their language (with a bewildering variety of local variations) was pretty secure. But after a disastrous winter at the end of the 1980s, many were relocated from Upper Svanetia to lowlands in west Georgia, in some cases to villages where non-Georgians lived in the expectation that a Svan presence would georgianise [sic] them! The extent to which Svan can be preserved as populations move out of the mountains must be open to doubt. Back in the days of glasnost’ some Mingrelians living in Abkhazia voiced their concerns at the way their language/culture was ignored for the greater good of Georgian, and the backlash that such talk occasioned was not confined to verbal assaults. The issue of language-rights for Mingrelian has for some time been and still remains a very sensitive issue, as most Georgians seem incapable ofing distinguish between language-rights and political rights, fearing that granting the former would lead to separatist-demands for Mingrelia. This is indeed a possible, but by no means inevitable, corollary, and my suggestion for meaningful restructuring of the state along federal lines is in part meant to avoid such a consequence. However, because of the situation that has evolved since c.1930 the fascinating question of the link between language, identity and citizenship with reference to the Mingrelians, who are the largest of the minorities living within Georgia, plainly cannot be easily answered. However, one would have to say that, on the surface at least, the situation with Mingrelian and Svan (I ignore Laz for the reason given above) is not directly comparable to what we have seen with calls to defend Abkhaz and Ossetic. 

CRIA: You’ve met and worked with the last speaker of Ubykh Tevfik Esenc, who passed away in 1992. Can you summarise what this experience meant to you and any subsequent implications?

HEWITT: I had the immense privilege of meeting Tevfik Esenç in Istanbul in 1974 and of making recordings with him over the course of one week that summer. Travelling, courtesy of the British Council, to Tbilisi the following year to spend the academic year 1975-76 learning Georgian and gaining a familiarity with Abkhaz, Avar and Chechen (plus Mingrelian and Svan), I realised just how precarious was the future for several of the other indigenous languages of the Caucasus, which had by then become my area of specialisation. I determined that I had to do whatever I could to try to prevent any other such language following Ubykh to the grave. It was with this thought in mind that I decided to make a statement on the developing conflict between Georgians and Abkhazians as nationalism, directed against a number of local minorities (notably the Abkhazians), began to explode among the Georgians from late 1988. It seemed to me that the opinions being expressed in Georgian papers to which I had access in England could lead to a situation whereby the very physical survival of the Abkhazians might be called into question. I had hoped to persuade any open-minded reader who was prepared to read the Open Letter that I submitted in Georgian to the weekly ‘Literary Georgia’ in the summer of 1989 that the nationalism being championed by those leading the struggle to rid Georgia of communist rule could lead to disaster not only for the Abkhazians but also for the future of the Georgian state itself. The attempt signally failed...

 Source: CRIA - Caucasian Review of International Affairs




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