Diasporal Policy and the Formation of the Abkhaz State, by Yuri G. Argun


Abkhazia in the Context of Contemporary International Relations
Pitsunda, The Republic of Abkhazia: June 29 - July 1, 2004

Diasporal Policy and the Formation of the Abkhaz State

Yuri G. Argun

Since the end of the 20th century, as the USSR and Yugoslavia started falling apart, diasporal issues have been placed top of the agenda in the Eurasian region. In theory, “diaspora” (Greek term for “dispersion”) means that a significant part of a people (an ethnic community) stays or lives outside its country of origin, as a result of either the threat of genocide or particular political or social and historical factors. The term was first used to describe Jewish people living outside their historic homeland, i.e. not in Palestine. Later, it was also used to designate some “classical” groups, e.g. Armenians, Greeks etc.  Nowadays the term “diaspora” has a wider meaning.

In the second part of the 19th century, after the mass deportation of the mountain peoples of the North-West Caucasus that followed the Russian-Caucasian and the last Russian-Turkish wars, the majority of the Abkhaz and Adygs found themselves outside their historical territory: they were displaced to the Middle East and Europe. The north-western and central parts of Abkhazia were totally devastated. Ethnic groups and territorial communities of Sadz people who then lived on the coast near the modern cities of Sochi-Khosty, Adler, Gechripsh, Tsandripsh and Gagra, disappeared, and so did the mountain communities of Akhchipsui, Tsvidzh, Aibgovtsy, Chua, Khamysh, Pskhyvtsy, Dalts, Tsabalts, Gumts and others, as well as the Ubykh people who are closely related to the Abkhaz (Abasa) and used to live between the Shakhe and Khosta rivers. The Abazyn people, who lived in North Caucasus, were also displaced. But it was the Abkhaz from Bzbrsk and Abzhu who suffered the most.   

Deported Abkhaz people (Abasa) were stricken by innumerable disasters and suffering – tens of thousands of people perished from hunger, cold and epidemics. Abkhaz who were expelled but remained in their homeland were groundlessly accused of “treachery” and “betrayal” by the tsarist regime. Those who remained were declared a “guilty” and “temporary” population of the country and were thus stripped of the right to settle in the central and coastal parts of Abkhazia. Like the other mountain peoples, the expelled Abkhaz were prohibited from returning to their homeland. A resolution by Emperor Alexander II read: “A return is inconceivable”. Despite the ban, thousands of Abkhaz would overcome many hurdles and reach the Abkhaz coast from Turkey, but the tsarist administration sent them back. 

Thus, on 12 August 1880 the ship Agios Petros sailed from Turkey to Batumi under a British flag. The ship, designed to carry 400 passengers, had three times this number on board – all poor Abkhaz, including four dead bodies. Because it was impossible to walk on the ship, people would crawl over one another like maggots. The smell was appalling: the ship had been cruising near the shore but the authorities never allowed her to anchor. The skipper was ordered to return immediately to Turkish waters. What’s more, the Caucasian governor sent an order from Tbilisi to “take all steps necessary to prevent the emigrants from stepping ashore” (Dzidzarzia, 1982, p. 389). 

People, who had been left without food and water all this time, started dying. A leak appeared in the ship, and the water level in the hold rose by 1.5 arshins (about 1.5 m), but the tsar’s satraps did not waver: they fired gunshots on the ship as it was being toed to the Turkish shore by a steamer and convoyed by a military schooner, after which the convoy and the steamer returned to Batumi . . . Eventually, the skipper, wishing to unload his living cargo, approached the shoreline again, some 20 miles away from Batumi, and let all the Abkhaz disembark onto the rocks, where there was no water, or food, or plants or a road. Having spent 20 days in such unbearable conditions, 178 people died, 200 men escaped and the remaining 750, mainly women and children, all exhausted, were sent to Batumi. That was how Abkhaz settlements appeared near Batumi in the end of the 19th century.

The issue of the exiled Abkhaz returning to their historic territories resurfaced after the Soviets came to power. Inspired by the restoration of the Abkhaz state, a group of Abkhaz from Greek Macedonia addressed a letter to the Abkhaz authorities on 30 September 1925, asking to be returned to their homeland, i.e. to free Abkhazia. The first reaction of the relevant Soviet bodies was positive, but the issue proved to be so complex and thorny that attempts to address it lasted until 1931, when all vestiges of the appeal disappeared. The dreams of Macedonian Abkhaz to return to their ancestral land were dashed: the “father of nations” already had his own plans, according to which Abkhaz ancestral land was about to host another people, thus contributing to the Abkhaz linguistic and ethnic assimilation. Interestingly, it was at the beginning of 1931 that Abkhazia was annexed to Georgia with an autonomous status, following an order by Stalin, and without consultation with its people. In such conditions, descendants of the exiled Abkhaz, of course, were not in a position to raise the repatriation issue.

So, neither in tsarist times, nor in the Soviet era were any Abkhaz (Abasa) officially able to return to their ancestral land. At the same time, Georgia, having eliminated the Abkhaz authorities, systematically and massively peopled Abkhazia with Megrelians and Georgians. With Stalin’s aid Georgians were returned even from Iran, whereas the letter that Abkhaz (Abasa) living abroad had sent to the highest echelons of authority in the USSR remained unanswered until Gorbachev’s time.

To date, hundreds of thousands of descendants of the deported Abkhaz (Abasa) live abroad, many of whom are willing to return to their historical homeland, but find their route back closed. As per Mr Shevardnadze’s order No. 140 of 31 January 1996, Sukhumi sea port and airport are closed. The same applies to foreign nationals wishing to cross the Abkhaz border from the Russian Federation via the Psou river. One might wonder if there are any descendants at all of the exiled Abkhaz who wish to return to their ancestral land? A mere two years after Georgian occupying troops were forced out and Abkhazia became an independent country, at a time when ships were still sailing between Sukhum and Trabzon, several thousand Abkhaz had returned to their historic homeland.

Paradoxically enough, whereas Georgia insists on a “dignified return of Georgians to Abkhazia” (with the friendly support of five world powers – Yu. A.), the Abkhaz are not allowed back to Abkhazia! Georgia demands that “Georgian refugees be returned to Abkhazia with due respect”, and that Abkhazia be returned to Georgia. Once again, it is trying to create a favourable situation in Abkhazia - using demagogy, tricks and terror – with a view to realising a century-old dream of enlarging its territory at Abkhazia’s expense and assimilating the Abkhaz into the Georgian ethno- cultural sphere. And the international community is simply turning a blind eye!   

Meanwhile the Abkhaz authorities, of their own volition, have allowed the return of more than 50 thousand Georgians to Gal region.  This is despite the fact that Georgia contested this humanitarian action, because it wants these Georgian colonists to return to Abkhazia under the Georgian flag. Unfortunately, this humanitarian step by Abkhazia was exploited in order to establish a favourable context for the Georgian special services to perpetrate terror acts, murders and kidnappings in the Gal region. All these crimes are being perpetrated because there is no condemnation of Georgian state terrorism in this region on the part of the international community and no action taken against it.

During the post-war decade the Abkhaz people has made its final choice. After the Georgian occupying forces had been forced out of Abkhaz territory, the Abkhaz Supreme Council adopted a constitution in which it is stated that “the Republic of Abkhazia (Apsny) is a sovereign democratic state run under the rule of law and encompassing the historical right of people to free self-determination”. Later on, in a referendum held on 3 October 1999, 97.9% of the voters voted in favour of the constitution now in force. Based on the referendum results, the Abkhaz parliament adopted the Act on State Independence of the Republic of Abkhazia on 12 October 1999. All three branches of power are now functioning: the legislative, executive and judiciary, as in any modern and civilised state.

In Abkhazia, the rule of law and a civil society are taking root, the economy is strengthening, state institutions are being improved, different parties and political movements are active, including opposition forces; alongside the state media, dozens of independent newspapers and magazines are printed taking on current issues, among others, on the need to improve state structures etc. But to form a fully-fledged modern civil society, an attribute of democracy, it is necessary to have international support as well as the support of the numerous Abkhaz diaspora, which, in turn, needs repatriation. So, today one of the most important problems facing Abkhazia is ensuring the return the descendants of the 19th century Abkhaz refugees to their historic homeland, because otherwise all prospects of maintaining and developing the Abkhaz ethnicity will be jeopardised. We hope for the support of the international community and its good will to solve this very important problem.

An independent democratic state with the rule of law is not a goal in itself but a necessary condition for the survival and further existence of the Abkhaz people, for the development and flourishing of its unique culture, its language, customs, traditions etc. The Abkhaz people have long realised it, which is eloquently confirmed by historical facts: after the Russian-Caucasian war ended in 1864, the tsarist government soon eliminated the Abkhaz princedom (the last in the Caucasus). The Russian administration started introducing customs that were foreign to the Abkhaz. The people responded with a rebellion in 1866. It is worthy of note that the Abkhaz people has a long and established tradition of statehood and has never abandoned its fight to restore it. Generation after generation, for the last 140 years, the Abkhaz have been struggling to restore their state in order to safeguard their ethnicity and culture. This is proven by undeniable facts.

Abkhaz rebellions in 1866 and 1877-187; the participation of an Abkhaz company in the "Wild Cherkess division" on the Russian side in World War I, the aim of which was to rehabilitate the Abkhaz people*;the creation of the first revolutionary Kiaraz detachment immediately after the tsar’s abdication, and its engagement in expelling the occupying forces of the Georgian Democratic Republic from Abkhazia in 1918-1921 as well as in the installation of the Soviet authorities in the region, the proclamation of an independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia (SSR Abkhazia) on 31 March 1921 and the recognition of Abkhaz independence by Georgian SSR; the meeting in Duripsh in 1931 and a protest against the annexation of Abkhazia as an autonomy within a united Georgia; the issue of excluding Abkhazia from a united Georgia and its joining the Russian Federation, which provoked the poisoning of the head of the Abkhaz government, N.Lacob, in Tbilisi by Leonty Beria on Stalin’s instructions at the end of 1936 and then, again, repression of the Abkhaz political leadership, national intelligentsia, advanced peasantry; letters; appeals; protests; conventions in 1947,1953,1956, 1957, 1978, 1989, to name but a few. The steady and acute character of the issues raised by the Abkhaz and the various appeals made to the respective political authorities were exceptional in the former Soviet Union. For good reason.

From the beginning of the 20th century on and especially under Stalin’s totalitarian regime, the percentage of ethnic Abkhaz in Abkhazia shrank from 55.3% at the end of the 19th century to 15.1% in 1959, whereas the number of Georgians increased from 500 in 1886 to 240,000 in 1989.ethnicnamed In their own homeland, the Abkhaz became the fourth ethnic group after Georgians, Russians and Armenians.  This became impossible after the incorporation of Abkhazia into a united Georgia - officially as an autonomy, but, in reality, without any rights.  At this time, more particularly after political power was dismantled in Abkhazia in 1937, a special organisation, “Abkhazpereselenstroy”, was created and tasked with carrying out an organised and massive relocation of Georgians to Abkhazia, the costs of which were to be covered by the state. It was not until then that compact Georgian settlements appeared around the Abkhaz villages, changing dramatically the demographic situation. It was back then that the transfer of the Abkhaz alphabet to Georgian script started, radio broadcasts in Abkhaz were stopped, Abkhaz schools closed, geographical names were given a Georgian slant, and an active falsification of Abkhaz history started.

Many years have elapsed since then yet nothing has changed either in the mentality of the Georgian authorities or in that of a part of the writing intelligentsia. Attempts to dictate things to Abkhazia continue: either the country is called “Georgia”, or the Abkhaz are called a Georgian tribe, or the Abkhaz are said to have left the mountains and come to Abkhazia only a couple of centuries ago or else they say that both Georgians and Abkhaz are indigenous peoples etc. The international community and the friends of Georgia seem unreceptive to the idea of Abkhazia’s independence but they are very keen “to maintain Georgian territorial integrity”, an artificial creation from totalitarian times, even though Abkhaz and Ossetians would have to be eliminated in the process. The support from the “friends” of the Georgian administration is understandable to some extent; the country’s former leader, during his time as a USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs betrayed the country’s interests, contributing to its collapse and to German reunification. The question is why Abkhazia, having done nothing more than merely make use of its right to self-determination, is associated with all that?

Unfortunately, Georgian society today is stricken by a terrible sickness going by the name of aggressive nationalism: it is not in a position to think normally or build relationships with its neighbouring countries. This disease translates not only into absurd and unscientific theories with regard to the history of Abkhazia and the Abkhaz people, but also into lying to its own people and into the use of children and women in the government’s risky policies. In 1930s-40s the Germans sustained the Nazi movement that brought Hitler to power. Today, the German people and government, having come to realise the evils of Hitler’s troops, are paying compensation to former Nazi concentration camp prisoners. In the course of the 20th century, Georgia committed so many crimes against the Abkhaz (it occupied Abkhaz territory on two occasions, it perpetrated genocide on the Abkhaz people and its culture and it has been trying to deprive them from the holiest of all things – from their homeland) that a condemnation by the international society would be only appropriate, but alas …

At the same time, the Abkhaz have legitimate claims against the Georgian authorities. In the first place, they concern the removal of economic and political sanctions that were introduced against a ruined Abkhazia by the heads of CIS states on 19 January 1996, following a request by the head of Georgia, since these sanctions are premeditated, illegal and directed against the Abkhaz people. They further require that the directive of the Georgian president to close Sukhum sea port and airport be withdrawn. We also need to bring to the international tribunal in The Hague the issue of monetary compensation to be paid by Georgia for damages resulting from its military aggression against Abkhazia in 1992-93. According to the preliminary data, the economic damage suffered by Abkhazia during the military onslaught amounts to some 11.4 bn US dollars.

Only a sovereign democratic state and the rule of law may provide a reliable guarantee of the physical and ethnic survival of the Abkhaz people as well as its further cultural revival and the protection of the rights and freedoms of all peoples living in Abkhazia. The recognition of Abkhaz independence by the international community will be the main guarantee of the survival and further flourishing of the Abkhaz people.

In order to ensure decent conditions for the Abkhaz in their historic homeland, the People’s Assembly – the Abkhaz parliament – adopted a special directive “On the act of Abkhaz (Abasa) deportation in the 19th century” on 15 October 1997, blaming the mass extermniation and deportation of the Abkhaz  (Abasa) to the Ottoman empire in the 19th century as an act of genocide, the worst crime against humanity.

According to the convention adopted by the UN General Assembly on 28 July 1951, the Abkhaz (Abasa) who were deported in the 19th century are recognised as refugees. Furthermore, the document establishes an “inalienable right of the descendants of the Abkhaz deported in the 19th century to a free and unimpeded return to their historic motherland”. For the successors of more than 300 thousand Abkhaz (Abasa) deported in the 19th century are considered refugees according to contemporary international law, and have the right to return to their historic homeland.

Today, we are once again calling upon the UN, OSCE, CIS and other international organisations and the Russian Federation, as the successor of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, to provide the necessary material and humanitarian aid to allow the free and unimpeded repatriation and integration of the descendants of the Abkhaz (Abasa) deported in the 19th century to their historic homeland.

Considering the above, I believe that it is necessary to include the issue of repatriation of the Abkhaz to their historical territory into the scope of negotiations being held to settle the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, i.e., the necessity to ensure their free and unimpeded return to Abkhazia. This issue is all the more urgent since the State Committee on the Abkhaz repatriation as well as the Abkhaz Mission in Turkey have received several thousand applications from the members of the Abkhaz diaspora, asking the President of the Abkhaz Republic to grant them Abkhaz citizenship and to allow them to return to their historic homeland.

Ten years after it was proclaimed, the Abkhaz Republic is now demonstrating its vitality, its ability to solve the most complex problems with regard to the revival and development of the economy, notwithstanding its dilapidated infrastructure, its economic and political isolation and the suspension of external trading links. A revival process is now underway, which extends beyond the economy and includes the establishment of the rule of law, the development of civil society and improvements to state institutions.

Democratic rule has now become an integral part of all aspects of Abkhaz society. Abkhazia can now definitely be called a sovereign state. Of course, there are still problems to be solved and issues to be addressed. Yet to tackle this agenda, it is necessary to have the support of the international community.

Having said that, let me answer a rather delicate question, what would happen if Georgia accepted Abkhaz independence? First of all, this would strengthen Georgia’s authority within the Caucasus and worldwide. Secondly, it would be possible to talk about taking measures to promote trust between the Georgians and Abkhaz peoples. Thirdly, it would contribute to the economic revival of the conflicting countries and help them to tackle their social problems. It is a truism: it is better to have a good neighbour than have an enemy as a neighbour! If Georgia still intends to annex Abkhazia either with foreign support or by using force, this is not going to happen. Nothing can be achieved by force these days, not even by superpowers: neither the USA in Vietnam, nor the USSR in Afghanistan were successful, and neither would Georgia be in Abkhazia. Sooner or later, Georgia will have to recognise Abkhaz independence, because there are no other options left, and the sooner it does, the better – for Georgia itself and, of course, for Abkhazia.

Finally, it is pure fantasy to try and take your neighbour’s homeland, Abkhazia in this case, and offer them instead the broadest autonomy, i.e. to outfox them. The Abkhaz are sick and tired of hearing about the right to autonomy - they had had enough of this in Soviet times under Stalin. Stalin and the Soviets belong to the past. The present is a de-facto independent Abkhazia and an independent Georgia. Building a normal relationship between the two countries would be advantageous for Abkhazia, for Georgia, for the Caucasus and the world as a whole. All other speculations about the Abkhaz land are doomed to failure. The decision to grant independence to Algeria was not an easy one for the French government yet, having realised the futility of suppressing the national liberation movement by military means, in September 1959 France recognised the right of the Algerian people to self-determination. As early as 18 March 1962, after an Algerian referendum that had supported its self-determination, both countries signed an agreement on future economic and cultural co-operation. Abkhazia has gone through the necessary stages – it is up to Georgia now to make the next move. We have not lost hope in its ability to reason.  

* The Abkhaz squadron was awarded a George’s cross for their “humanity in war”.




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