Abkhazia is situated on the Eastern coast of the Black sea, bordering Russia in the North and North Caucasus along the Caucasus Mountains Range and Georgia in the East. Abkhazia is divided into seven administrative districts: Gagra, Gudauta, Sukhum, Ochamchira, Gulripsh, Tquarchal and Gal. Due to its mountainous nature, Abkhazia has many rivers and lakes, and rich fertile soil. The climate is very mild, averaging around 15 degrees Celsius. Higher elevations experience a more varied climate, with significant snow and even glaciers in some parts. The capital city is Sukhum (Aqw'a in Abkhaz) which lies on the Black Sea coast.
History Early Development
6th Century B.C.: The Greeks established trading posts in Abkhazia, a Caucasian land, then part of the region known as Colchis at the Eastern end of the Black Sea. Their cities, especially Dioscurias (modern day Sukhum) grew to be a prosperous trade center. In 55 AD Saint Andrew and Simon the Zealot came to Abkhazia to preach Christianity where they were both buried. First Century B.C.: The Romans fortified Sukhum. The peoples' longevity was reported. 523 A.D.: Abkhazia became part of the Byzantine Empire. Christianity was adopted. 780 - 978: The Kingdom of Abkhazia flourished and the Abkhazia Dynasty extended its sway over much of what is now Western Georgia. 1300-1500: A portion of Abkhazia was under Mingrelian Rule 1500 - 1680: The Abkhazian Chachba Dynasty drove the Mingrelians out and established the southern boundary that exists to this day. 1578: Abkhazia was invaded by the Ottoman Empire 18th Century: Abkhazia, in alliance with Georgia, made repeated efforts to drive out the Turks.
Map of Europe in Year 800, Southeast - Kingdom of Abkhazia
Source: The Cambridge World History - Volume 4: A World with States, Empires and Networks 1200 BCE–900 CE
1801 - 1804: Various Georgian areas (Kartli and Kakhetia-1801, Mingrelia-1803, Imeretia and Guria-1804) came directly under Russian Rule (voluntarily seeking protection from Ottoman Turks and Iran). 1810: Tzar Alexander the First, issued a Charter to the ruling Prince of Abkhazia acknowledging Abkhazia as an autonomous principality under the protection of Russia. 1864: After prolonged fighting across the entire region of the Caucasus, Abkhazia was the last Caucasian principality to be forcibly annexed to the Russian Empire. Russian oppression was so severe that over the next few decades more than half of the Abkhazian population fled to Turkey and the Middle East. 1917 - 1918: Abkhazia joined the Republic of the North Caucasus. The Mensheviks took over the government of Georgia and annexed Abkhazia by a mixture of political manoeuvring and the application of ‘fire and sword’ by General Mazniashvili’s troops.
March 1921: The Bolsheviks overthrew the Mensheviks in Georgia. The Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic was established independently of Georgia and headed by Nestor Lakoba. 1922: Abkhazia was a signatory to the formation of the USSR acting as a sovereign Abkhazian Republic. 1925: Abkhazia adopted its first Constitution under which it was united by a Special Treaty of Alliance with Georgia. 1931: Stalin (Georgian) and Beria (Mingrelian) reduced Abkhazia to the status of an autonomous Republic within Georgia. 1937 - 1953: Forced mass immigration into Abkhazia was carried out from Western Georgia (Mingrelia) by Stalin and Beria. In Abkhazia, as well as other regions of the USSR, mass oppression was carried out, thousands of intellectuals were persecuted. Before the enforced georgianisation of the 20th century, Abkhazia had a highly diverse demography with many Turks, Armenians, Jews, and Greeks, among others. Abkhazia celebrated its diversity, and the strict homogenization under Georgian rule greatly contrasted with the traditionally tolerant Abkhazian culture. During the period of enforced georgianisation (1937-1953), the Abkhaz were deprived of the right to teach their children in their native language; all Abkhaz schools and institutions were closed from the school-year 1945-46. The Abkhaz were only compelled to study in Georgian schools. The Abkhaz script (originally based on Cyrillic and then on Latin) was altered, against the will of the Abkhaz people, to one based on Georgian characters in 1938. Despite the reintroduction of schooling in Abkhaz and a reformed, Cyrillic-based script following the deaths of Stalin and Beria in 1953, in 1978 Abkhazian intellectuals signed a letter of protest to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR complaining about the status of Abkhazia and blamed the Georgian leaders for pursuing a "Beriaite" policy aimed at the "Georgianization" of the Republic. Major demonstrations at Lykhny (a sacred place in Abkhazian tradition) followed. The Abkhazian campaign, to be incorporated in the Russian Federation, was rejected by Russia and Georgia. Instead, concessions were made to the Abkhaz, including the opening of the Abkhazian State University and TV broadcasting for 15 minutes twice a week in the Abkhaz language. During that year (1978), Moscow allocated millions of roubles to help Abkhazia. The Abkhazian government never received the money. The sum was dispersed to constrain the Abkhazian people's protest at existing conditions.
From the book: Trans-Caucasia by Harold Buxton (1926)
1988 - 1989: Leaders of the National Movement in Georgia demanded the abolition of the "Autonomies within Georgia together with secession from the USSR. 1988 - 1990: The Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic unilaterally adopted a number of measures which essentially effected the secession of Georgia from the USSR, abrogating in the process all legal acts that united Georgia and Abkhazia under Soviet jurisdiction. 1990: On the eve of the signing of the new Soviet Union Treaty, Abkhazia, like all of the other autonomous republics, declared its sovereignty. On the next day, Georgia declared the abrogation of the Abkhazian Declaration of Sovereignty. Georgia abrogated the autonomy of Ossetia, leading to armed conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia. 1992: Abkhazia declares the sovereignty of its own territory and proposes a federative treaty to Georgia to fill the "legal vacuum" that resulted from Georgia's unilateral abrogation of all Soviet legal documents. On August 14th, exactly 20 days after being accepted by the United Nations, Georgian troops entered the territory of Abkhazia without any notification to the Abkhazian government and launched a land and air attack on the southeast part of Abkhazia and its capital city. Bloody fighting continued for 14 months. 1993: On September 30th, Abkhazian forces - backed by the Confederation of the Peoples of the North Caucasus Organization, finally ousted the Georgian troops from the territory of Abkhazia. 1994: In April, a joint Declaration of the Political Settlement was signed by the parties to the conflict - the UN, Russia and OSCE, in the presence of the UN Secretary General. The Declaration outlined principles for the peaceful settlement of the conflict on the basis of equality between the parties. In May, negotiations under the auspices of the UN sanctioned the deployment of the CIS peace-keeping troops to separate the parties to the conflict.
After Georgia annulled all Soviet legislation, Abkhazia, as a temporary measure,re-enacted its 1925 constitution, and a new constitution was acclaimed by popular referendum on November 26 1994, restating Abkhazia’s national sovereignty, which was not recognised by Georgia or any other state, as were the elections in November 1996; the Constitution was amended in 1999, at which point Abkhazia finally declared its formal independence Later, a regime of economic sanctions was imposed on Abkhazia by Russia, Georgia and the CIS states. This had a severe impact on the economic growth and development of Abkhazia. Until 26th August 2008, when Russia (followed by Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Syria) recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Abkhazia continued to act as a de facto sovereign state, constantly making its case for international recognition, having finally declared its full independence from Georgia in 1999.
Politics and Issues in Abkhazia’s Relations with Georgia
After the end of the conflict in 1993, Georgia made several military attempts to take Abkhazia back (e.g. in 1998 and 2001). The introduction of troops (masquerading as police) of the Georgian Army in the upper part of the Kodor Gorge of Abkhazia effectively put an end to the already fragile peace process. Until the troops fled from the Gorge after bombing and prior to a land-attack on 12th August 2008, Georgia continued to claim that part of Abkhazia to be part of Georgia by relocating there the so-called “Government in exile” (The Georgian-recognised Government of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia never had any actual jurisdiction over, or relevance in, Abkhazia). Georgia and the international community (apart from Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu) refuse to recognise the Sukhum-based government, despite the fact that it exercises sovereign rule over its territory and people, whilst Georgia has been unable to do so since the end of the war on 30th September 1993. Abkhazia demands reparations from Georgia for destruction during the 1992-93 war as well as for the economic damage suffered due to the sanctions placed on Abkhazia by the CIS states. Within Georgia, there are high numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs, or refugees) from the war, mainly Mingrelians who fled in fear of what the post-war chaos would mean for those who supported the Georgian invasion. Georgian President Saakashvili (like his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze) often uses the IDPs as a bargaining chip for humanitarian assistance from the world-community. Abkhazia argues that the return of ethnic Abkhazians in Turkey, descendants of those who were expelled by the Russians or who left Abkhazian voluntarily at the end of the 19th-century Caucasian War and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, should also be allowed. Abkhazia demands for recognition as a sovereign state both by Georgia and by the international community have been substantially strengthened by Russia’s recognition of 26th August 2008.
Current Abkhazian Politics
In 2004 presidential elections were held, which caused much controversy when the candidate backed by outgoing president Vladislav Ardzinba and by Russia - Raoul Khadzhimba - was defeated by Sergey Bagapsh. The tense situation in the republic led to the cancellation of the election results by the Supreme Court. After that, adeal was struck between former rivals to run jointly: Bagapsh as a presidential candidate and Khadzhimba as a vice presidential candidate. They received more than 90% of the votes in the new election.
This partnership between president and vice-president continued until May 2009, when, in advance of the presidential elections that were scheduled for 12 December, the vice-president resigned and was subsequently one of five candidates to enter the ballot. According to the figures released on 13 December 2009 by Abkhazia's Central Election Commission, on voting day 73% of the electorate participated in the poll. Sergey Bagapsh was reelected with majority of 59.4%; his vice-presidential partner was Alexander Ankvab, who had served as Prime Minister from 2005. Raul Khadzhimba came second with 15.4%. The remaining candidates (with their share of the votes) were: Zaur Ardzinba (10.8%), Belan Butba (7.9%), and Vitali Bganba (1.5%).
Bagapsh's unexpected death in office on Sunday the 29 May 2011 meant that Vice-President Alexander Ankvab took over the presidency in advance of new presidential elections, which had to be held within 3 months. There were three candidates: Ankvab himself, previously Prime Minister; Sergey Shamba, long-term Foreign Minister; and Raoul Khadzhimba. The results of the elections on 26 August (the same day as Abkhazia's Day of Recognition) gave Ankvab a clear victory with 54.86% followed by Shamba with 21.04%, and then Khadzimba with 19.83%.
The new president quickly set about replacing personnel, both inside and outside government (for example, the long-time head of the state television-service was relieved of his duties). Abkhazia's new Minister of Foreign Affairs is Dr. Viacheslav Chirikba, who hold a doctorate from the University of Leiden (Holland), and who most recently served as adviser to the late president on foreign affairs, also heading the Abkhazian delegation to the Geneva Talks.
After his defeat in the 2011-elections, Khadzhimba was widely derided as a ‘political corpse’, but he managed to gain a seat in Parliament in the elections of 2012 and was thus able to become the focus of opposition to the president. Having failed to mobilise a hoped-for mass-demonstration in August 2013 in an attempt to oust Ankvab, Khadzhimba espoused the cause of ‘passportisation’ (viz. the question of how many of the basically Mingrelian population concentrated in the easternmost Gal District or the former parts of this District assigned to the neighbouring Tquarchal and Ochamchira Districts after the 1992-93 war with Georgia, most of whom are thought to hold Georgian passports, should be allowed to possess Abkhazian citizenship and thus voting-rights). This had been the issue over which the former Secretary of the Security Council, historian Stanislav Lakoba, had fallen out with, and had subsequently been sacked by, Ankvab in 2013. There was large-scale dissatisfaction with Ankvab’s rule (e.g. his failure to fulfil his manifesto-promise of eradicating corruption, his questionable priorities for public spending, his micro-management of government coupled with absence of a strategic vision), and this, together with the playing of the nationalist card over ‘passportisation’ AND the apparent signalling of a green light to proceed from Vladimir Putin’s personal representative for the region, the Chechen Vladimir Surkov, who had himself fallen out with Ankvab, resulted in the marshalling of around 6,000 demonstrators (some participants unrealistically claim that the crowd numbered as many as 26,000) outside the presidential office on 27 May. Some of the demonstrators broke into the building. In order to avoid bloodshed, Ankvab refrained from issuing orders to shoot and withdrew to the Russian barracks in the town of Gudauta; he resigned on 1 June. The Speaker of Parliament, Valerij Bganba, took over as acting-president. Presidential elections were called for 24 August. After a short campaign, which saw the employment of a number of distasteful tactics, Khadzhimba managed to secure an unexpected victory in the first round by attracting 50.57% of the votes cast by 70% of the overall electorate — almost 23,000 residents (most Mingrelians, but including Abkhazians, Armenians, Russians and others) of the Gal, Tquarchal and Ochamchira Districts were not allowed to vote after a decision (of highly dubious legitimacy) by Parliament. Former Chairman of the Security Service, Aslan Bzhania, who had been appointed to this shadowy post by Bagapsh and who, despite becoming known to most of the electorate only when he declared his candidacy, had been expected by many to win the first round with around 43% of the votes, came second (with 35.91%); former Defence Minister, Mirab Kishmaria, came third (with 6.4%), and former Interior Minister, Leonid Dz(i)apshba, was fourth (with 3.4%). Abkhazian society remained sharply divided throughout the period of stagnation that characterised Khadzhimba’s first presidential term, the international highlight of which was the recognition of the country by Syria in May 2018.
Presidential elections were scheduled for July 2019. Opposition-leader Aslan Bzhania had been tipped to win, but he fell ill with suspected poisoning and had to be admitted to hospital in Moscow in April. He survived but had to withdraw his candidacy because of his severely impaired state of health. Khadzhimba managed to be re-elected with 48.68% of the vote in September’s second round of voting. However, he was finally ‘hoisted by his own petard’ when, after growing protests, Abkhazia’s Supreme Court on 10 January 2020 annulled the results of the 2019 election, resulting in his resignation of the presidency two days later. Victory was duly secured on 22 March by Aslan Bzhania with 58.92% of the votes (against the 36.93% secured by Adgur Ardzinba). Bzhania appointed former president Aleksandr Ankvab as Prime Minister and retained from the previous administration Daur Kove as Foreign Minister. It remains to be seen what impact the Covid-19 crisis will have on Abkhazia’s already fragile economy.
According to the data of the census, conducted in February 2011, the population of the republic stood at 240,705.
The urban population of the Republic represents 50.3% or 121,255 persons, whilst the rural population represents 49.7% or 119,450 persons.
The ratio of men to women was 46.4% and 53.6% respectively. The population-figures for the most numerous nationalities break down as follows: Abkhazians – 122,069; Russians – 22,077; Armenians – 41,864; Georgians – 43,166; Megrelians/Mingrelians – 3,201; Greeks – 1,380.
Abkhazians in the Republic make up 50.71%, Armenians 17.39%, Georgians 17.93%, Russians 9.17%.
There is also a large Abkhazian Diaspora of over half a million, based in Turkey but with populations in Syria and Jordan.
Abkhazians speak Abkhaz, though Russian is also common and shares co-official status, - whilst Mingrelian and Georgian are widely spoken in the Gal district, where most of the returned ‘Georgian’ refugees live. Written Abkhaz, based on the Cyrillic alphabet, first appeared in 1862.
The majority of Abkhazians within Abkhazia are Orthodox Christians, comprising approximately 75% of the population. Although officially a canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the affairs of Orthodox Christians are run by the Eparchy of Abkhazia under Russian Orthodox influence. Another 10% of Abkhazians are Sunni Muslims, and there are small numbers of Jews, Lutherans, Catholics and followers of new religions.
The majority of Abkhazians live in rural areas, mostly in large family homes where they grow and process their own food. Horses have an important place in Abkhazian culture. Equine sports and equestrian activities are popular with Abkhazians and often play a central role in festivals. Song, music, and dance are also important to Abkhazian culture. There are joyous songs for weddings, ritual songs, cult songs, lullabies, healing songs, and work songs. There are special songs for the gathering of the lineage, for the ill, and songs celebrating the exploits of heroes. All of the arts are represented in Abkhazia. There are drama and dance companies, art museums, music schools, and theatres for the performing arts. Poetry and literature are also held in high regard. It has recently been acknowledged that there is a disproportionately high occurrence of nonagenarians and centenarians in certain areas in the Caucasus, including Abkhazia. These long-lifers are known for continuing their active lifestyles, continuing to work the fields, dance, sing, and walk for miles long past their ninth decade.
Abkhazia is mostly rural and boasts a variety of abundant agricultural natural resources, primarily citrus fruit, tobacco, tea, and timber. It also has some energy resources with coal mines and hydro-electric plants. Abkhazia’s economy is heavily reliant on Russia, using the rouble as its currency, and relying mostly on Russia as export market, a trading partner and investor. Turkey is another big economic partner for Abkhazia. Economic and travel sanctions were imosed on Abkhazia in 1996 by the CIS countries after its declaration of sovereignty and the removal of Georgian troops from the country. The economic blockade following years of military conflict devastated the Abkhazian economy. No foreign direct investment was able to breach the blockades, and international trade is highly restricted. Lifting of the embargo by Russia opened new horizons for the country’s economic growth. Tourism to Abkhazia is on the rise, with the number of tourists reaching almost 2 million visitors in 2007 and the expectation that this number will continue to grow in coming years. Fishing and construction industries are increasing their volume annually.
Nature & Environment
Despite the years of isolation, Abkhazia managed to preserve its unique and virgin natural parks and resources. Abkhazia is rich in freshwater and may become one of its biggest exporters. The fast-growing tourism industry is challenging Abkhazia’s environment. Years of isolation, however, deprived Abkhazia of its access to international know-how on environmental protection standards.
Khibla Gerzmava, Soprano
Denis Tsargush, wrestler, (2009, 2010 FILA Wrestling World Championships)
Rusudan “Rusa” Goletiani, Chess Woman Grand Master
Gennady Pasko, impressionist painter
Levars Butba, abstractionist painter (died 2007)
Akhra Tsveiba, football player
Vladislav Ardzinba, first president of Abkhazia (died 2010)
Bagrat Shinkuba, writer, poet, historian, linguist, and politician (died in 2004)
Sergey Bagapsh, second president of Abkhazia (died 2011)
Fazil Iskander, well-known writer
Murat Yagan, Canada-based philosopher
Places of great symbolic importance
New Athos (Novi Afon)
New Athos Monastery
Main national holidays
New Year (December 31-January 1) – Celebrates the end of the year.
Old New Year (January 13-14) – Celebrates the end of the year according to the Julian, or Old Style Calendar, which was followed prior to the Soviet era. It remains primarily a family occasion.
Azhirnihua (January 14) – Day of the world’s creation, renovation.
International Women’s Day (March 8)
Paskha/Easter (set by Orthodox Christian calendar)
Victory Day (May 9)
Memorial Day of May 21 – Memorial day for the victims of the Caucasian War and forcible deportation of the Mountainous Caucasian Peoples.
Saint Simon’s Day (May 23)
Motherland’s Defenders’ Memorial Day (August 14)
Recognition Day (26th August)
Liberation Day (September 30) – Since 1993, this holiday has been held to commemorate the driving out of Georgian forces from Abkhazia. There is a parade of the Abkhazian military forces, as well as dancing and music festivals.
Abkhaz Army Day (October 11)
Kurbannihua (Fall, set by moon) – International religious Muslim holiday. Lykhnashta (Fall, after harvest) – Every year Abkhazians gather in the village of Lykhny where there are horse races, equestrian games, and outdoor exhibits and markets with produce, crafts and other products from across Abkhazia.
Constitution Day (November 26)
Abkhazians also celebrate religious holidays, with many families observing both Orthodox Christian and Muslim festivals, as well as pagan traditions.
Abkhazia is represented at UNPO by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia.
Government Executive power:
President: Alexander Ankvab (since 26 September 2011). The President of the Republic is the head of State and elected for a term of 5 years. Any Abkhaz national who is a citizen of Abkhazia aged from 35 - 65 can be elected President of the Republic of Abkhazia. Elections are based on universal, equal and direct suffrage. The President cannot serve for more than two terms;
Vice-president: Mikhail Logua;
Prime Minister: Leonid Lakerbaya. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government;
Cabinet: Ministers are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Prime Minister;
Parliament comprises a unicameral People’s Assembly (Azhwlar Reilaazara) (35 seats; members elected by universal, equal and direct suffrage to serve five-year terms); Speaker of Parliament: Nugzar Ashuba. Elections: last held March of 2007 (next to be held in March of 2012).
The Supreme Court of Abkhazia is the highest judicial body
The President of the Republic is the Head of the Council of Justice
Political parties and leaders:
1. Social-Political Movement 'Aidgilara' –Kvarchia Valeri;
2. Movement of Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace and Social Justice – Kichba Guli;
3. Social-political Movement 'Kavlat' – Kondjaria Garik;
4. Congress of Russian Communities of Compatriots of Russia in Abkhazia – Nikitchenko Gennady;
5. Communist Party of Abkhazia – Shamba Lev;
6. People's Party of Abkhazia – Lakoba Yakub;
7. Republican Social-Political Movement 'Aitaira' (Revival) – Damenia Oleg;
8. Republican Organization of the Social-Political Movement 'Amtsakhara' – Nachach-Ogli Vladimir;
9. Republican Party 'Apsny';
10. Republican Social-Political Movement 'United Abkhazia' – Mikvabia Artur;
11. Social-Democrat Party of Abkhazia – Alamia Gennady;
12. Republican Social-Political Movement 'Ayaira';
13. Party of the Economic Development of Abkhazia 'ERA' – Beslan Butba;
14. Social movement of war veterans 'ARUA' – Vladimir Arshba;
National Unity Forum (composition of several parties)