The 1988 'Abkhaz Letter': A Turning Point in the Quest for Independence

II Session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, September 1989.

II Session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, September 1989.

SUKHUM / AQW'A ― On 17 June 1988, a group of Abkhaz intellectuals anonymously submitted a document, later known as the "Abkhaz(ian) Letter" or "The Letter of Sixty," to the Presidium of the XIX Party Conference in Moscow. This privately printed, 87-page document, accompanied by signatures on twelve additional pages, called for the establishment of a party-government commission to address Abkhazia's status and the Abkhaz people's right to self-determination.

In this letter, the authors requested the establishment of a party-government commission to study and justly resolve the issue of Abkhazia's direct subordination to central authorities. The letter particularly emphasised that the Abkhaz people have an inalienable right to self-determination.

Despite concessions made in 1978, the letter noted that autonomy remained essentially fictional, with all important decisions being made in Tbilisi to benefit local Georgians, especially concerning land tenure. Therefore, the authors of the document stated that "the act of including the SSR of Abkhazia into the SSR of Georgia, followed by its transformation in 1931 into the Abkhaz ASSR, was an act of violating the national rights of the Abkhaz people." 

+ A century of Sovietisation, or How Abkhazia became a republic, by Vitaly Sharia
+ Contrary to the will of the people: how the S[oviet] S[ocialist] R[republic] of Abkhazia became an autonomy within Georgia
+ The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953, by Stephen D. Shenfield

The penultimate paragraph called for "the removal of the Abkhaz ASSR from the Georgian SSR and the restitution of Abkhazia's status as a Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was proclaimed in the early years of Soviet power (1921-1931). It should be noted that during most of those ten years, Abkhazia had treaty ties with Georgia, implying that this type of relationship was likely considered in the request for restructuring the constitutional arrangements.

During that period, the relations between Georgia and the Abkhaz ASSR were tense. After Stalin's decision to downgrade Abkhazia's status and incorporate it into Georgia in 1931, tensions simmered between the two. Abkhaz intellectuals, reflecting a long-held desire for autonomy, repeatedly petitioned for secession and the re-establishment of Abkhazia as a republic within the USSR.

This need arose because Tbilisi did not consider the fundamental interests of the republic's residents. Georgian historians distorted Abkhazian history, claiming, among other things, that Abkhazians and Georgians appeared and developed simultaneously in the republic's territory, and later even challenged the autochthony (indigenous status) of the Abkhazians.

+ Abkhazia's Historical Struggles: A Historical Letter by Arkhip Labakhua and Ivan Tarba
+ Letter of despair, by Badrak Avidzba 
+ Rewriting History? A Critique of Modern Georgian Historiography on Abkhazia

In response to the "Letter of Sixty," Viktor Ryabov, an instructor from the Subdepartment of Interethnic Relations of the Organisational Department of the CPSU Central Committee, visited Abkhazia on August 13, 1988. He met with the public in Sukhum, Gudauta, and Ochamchira districts, after which he visited Tbilisi.

It remains unclear when news of the existence of the Letter and the request it lodged in Moscow became known in Georgia, but it may not have been until the spring of 1989. In the meantime, the Georgian press began publishing articles that disturbed various minority communities in the republic. For example, literature expert Tariel Kvanchilashvili published an article on Georgia's demographic situation, advocating measures to slow down the birthrate of ethnic minorities who tended to have large families (e.g., Georgia's Azerbaijanis) and to increase the birthrate among Georgians themselves. He expressed concern that if the current trends continued, Georgians could become a minority in their own republic, leading to "a Georgia without Georgians."

One should not hide the fact that in our republic the increase of the Georgians is very low, whilst that of representatives of other peoples is taking place at a hastened rate and quickly. If this tendency continues for long, there will come a time when we shall find ourselves in a minority in our very own republic … If in Georgia the Georgians decline, whilst others increase at such a fast rate, this will inevitably at some stage lead us to the point whereby we shall be left with a Georgia without Georgians.

"mere ra ikneba?" (What will there be then?) in Literaturuli Sakartvelo, 30 September 1988, pp. 3–4.

The appeal of the Abkhaz intelligentsia did not receive further development. Meanwhile, the "Abkhaz Letter" was sharply perceived in Georgia, and a campaign was launched to discredit the Abkhaz national movement and the Abkhaz people in general. The appeal of the Abkhaz intelligentsia became one of the stages of the national liberation struggle.




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