To their surprise, the people of the small Scottish town of Kilmarnock have recently witnessed a diplomatic battle between Georgia and Abkhazia over the memory of the 1992-1993 war. The Georgian Embassy had requested to modify a local memorial dedicated to the casualties of the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, stressing that the wording and the inclusion of the Abkhazian flag were contrary to UK foreign policy not to recognize Abkhazia.1 According to Sukhum/i these events proved yet again that Tbilisi is trying to “exterminate” Abkhazia’s “historical past, cultural and national identity”.2 (Featured Image © United Nations)
Identity is one of the cornerstone of Abkhazia’s and Georgia’s rhetoric. For Tbilisi, it is important to show that Abkhaz and Georgian identities are the same, while for Sukhum/i identity remains essential for historical and political causes. This article draws a picture of the importance of identity in Abkhazia. To that end, it analyzes the legacy of the 1992-1993 identity conflict and the measures taken by Sukhum/i to preserve the Abkhaz identity, before observing the limits of such policy.
The Legacy of an Identity Conflict
25 Years after the signing of the ceasefire, the memory of the conflict still has an important place in the minds of the 240.000 inhabitants of Abkhazia. On the ground, the shadow of the war looms everywhere. In addition to the numerous war monuments and memorials built in honor of the fallen, giant panels, on which the portraits and names of the dead soldiers are featured, have often been erected in cities and alongside roads.
In the center of Sukhum/i, the imposing former parliament building that was entirely burnt during the war strongly reminds of the past fights. If for some locals the old building should be removed for Abkhazia to be able to look at the future, some others consider it an important way to recall what they “endured to get their independence”.3
Abkhazians claim that their identity has never been recognized by Georgia in many ways. According to Viacheslav Chirikba, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, “problems between Abkhazia and Georgia really started at the time of the ‘georgianisation’”4, when, at the initiative of Stalin, many Georgians were settled in Abkhazia, the Georgian language replaced the Abkhazian language in schools and places were renamed with Georgian names. For Abkhazia, this event was a way for Georgia to assimilate the region in order to keep it within its borders.
One must note that today, according to Tbilisi, the contrary is happening in the Gal/i district, where around 45.000 Georgians are living: it is not possible to teach in Georgian at school anymore, and the Georgian language can only be taken as a second foreign language course by children.
Moreover, since the proclamation of Abkhazia’s independence in 1992, Georgia has never stopped claiming the reintegration of the territory into its own borders and adopted a non-recognition policy to prevent any state from recognizing the region. Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia in 2008 not only harmed this strategy, it also led to a change in Tbilisi’s perception of the conflict: it is not a Georgia-Abkhazia war, but a Georgia-Russia war.5
In this context, Abkhazia is not recognized as a side in the conflict anymore and the demand of Sukhum/i for independence is seen by Tbilisi as the result of Russian propaganda in the region. This was also evident in the example of the memorial in Kilmarnock, where the Georgian embassy claimed that, by including the Abkhazian flag, the memorial was reflecting Russian propaganda.6
As a reaction, Abkhazia has always tried to preserve and promote its own identity, while the fear of seeing another war on its territory was still strongly present. In 2008, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia somehow permitted to see the future with more serenity.7 Nevertheless, the desire to safeguard their identity has far from disappeared in the absence of global recognition.
The Importance of Identity in Abkhazia
Identity takes a special place in Abkhazia. The trauma of the “georgianisation” as well as the absence of worldwide state recognition that would give to Abkhazia a definitive status in international law, created a feeling of insecurity regarding foreign influence within the territory. Thus, many measures have been implemented in order to preserve the Abkhaz identity, notably in the field of citizenship and property.
First, it is not easy for a non-Abkhaz8 to obtain an Abkhazian passport, while the conditions that are to be fulfilled show well Abkhazia’s will to safeguard the main elements of its identity. To be eligible for Abkhaz citizenship, article 13 of the law on citizenship states that one must, among other conditions, know the Abkhaz language, live on the territory for ten years and have presented a proof of rejection of the previous citizenship – except for Russian citizens.
If, on a pragmatic level, learning the Abkhaz language can be a hindrance because of its difficulty while only few courses and learning books exist, the most problematic is undoubtedly the prohibition of dual citizenship. Only people from the four states that recognized Abkhazia could accept such condition – Russians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and people from Nauru. For others, it would be impossible to “switch nationalities” because this would equal, for their original government, a stateless situation, which is generally prohibited in international law.9
On the other hand, it should be noted that, because of the lack of broad recognition, it is not possible to travel with an Abkhazian passport. Consequently, there are few advantages for someone to resign its citizenship to get an Abkhazian passport. This is notably why dual citizenship is allowed for Russian citizens.10
But not having an Abkhazian passport also impedes the owning of property in Abkhazia. Only Abkhazian citizens can buy land or real-estate. A measure implemented by Sukhum/i in order to avoid Abkhaz lands from being bought massively by foreign countries. Both Russians and people coming from Arab countries are expressing their interest in doing so.11 Nevertheless, it is possible for a foreigner to rent property for up to 99 years, which many did in order to launch a business in Sukhum/i.
Corollary, foreign investments are also looked after with great care. Abkhazia’s economic relations are not limited to the four states that have recognized it. Indeed, for instance, Turkish investments are numerous since many Abkhaz are living in Turkey. In 2009, the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey was estimated between 150.000 and 500.000 people.12 China also has small investments in Abkhazia, mainly in the agricultural field. Recently, Beijing offered to invest massively in Abkhazia and send around 3.000 workers to build new infrastructures in the context of the Silk road project, such as seaports or chacha fabrics processing. Sukhum/i refused the proposal, scared that receiving so many Chinese people at once could have consequences for their identity.13
Identity is a subject of major controversy at the political level. For instance, in 2014, the Abkhazian President, Alexander Ankvab, had to resign because he was considered “not Abkhaz enough” by his political opponents due to his liberal policy towards Georgian inhabitants of Abkhazia.14 This case shows the limits that arise when the focus is too much on identity in a multiethnic society.
The Multiethnic Society and its Georgian Inhabitants
More than 38 languages are spoken and 62 ethnicities are living on the territory – Abkhazians, Turks, Estonians, Ukrainians, Syrians, Greeks and Georgians but to name a few.15 Abkhaz people represent only 50% of the population in Abkhazia, which is few in comparison to the other de facto states of the region.16 Thus, aside from Abkhaz, Russian is also an official language in Abkhazia and is the most used language in daily life because it happens to be that most inhabitants know.
Consequently, the focus on Abkhaz people and identity is sometimes problematic and creates inequalities within society. This has been particularly stressed not only by international NGOs but also by some local civil society actors.17 The case of the Georgian inhabitants of the Gal/i region is often taken as an example.
Around 200.000 Georgians fled to Georgia because of the 1992-1993 war. Afterwards, an agreement between Sukhum/i and Tbilisi allowed 60.000 Georgians to return to Abkhazia, most of whom settled in the Gal/i district near the border. Those returnees could possibly be reintegrated into society in part by the issuance of Abkhazian passports, but this remains an important topic of controversy.
Georgia is still perceived as a threat by a part of the Abkhazian population for the reasons mentioned above: Tbilisi still has claims on the territory of Abkhazia and never stopped attempting to discourage further international recognitions. Moreover, no agreement on the non-use of force has been signed by the two sides, which leads some people to think a military attack is still possible.18
According to some Abkhazians, if Georgians were able to vote in Abkhazia, this could destabilize results in political elections, and thus, be used by Tbilisi to influence Abkhazian politics. In 2013, an amendment to the law on citizenship introduced the prohibition of dual nationality, which led to the invalidation of the 22.700 passports previously issued to ethnic Georgians.19
Many Georgians in Gal/i would like to obtain passports in order to regularize their status in Abkhazia and benefit from property and social rights.20 They live mainly from agricultural products that they sell at the Zugdidi market, the closest Georgian city to the border, where they can get a better price than in Abkhazia. The impossibility to ensure their property and business puts them in an uncertain situation.
All of this ultimately raises the question whether this policy will lead to a deterioration of Abkhazia international image. The country tries to be exemplary in terms of democratic values and respect for international law. But can it really become a full member of the international society if it fails to balance its focus on Abkhaz identity with the demands of its minorities?