Geogians and
Abkhazians

Chapter 2 Part 1

The Conflict in Abkhazia: National Projects and Political Circumstances


Ghia Nodia
This chapter consists of 3 parts (1, 2, 3, and notes)

There are many different ways in which to contextualize - and explain - a conflict like the one in Abkhazia. In some cases pre-existent ("ancient") ethnic hatred, previously kept in check by an outside power but liberated by democratization, is seen as the cause of all the trouble; others see the conflict as a minority's reaction to an assault by a majority's nationalism; while instrumentalists prefer to look for elites who manipulate ethnic sentiments in their particular ("group") interests: once these interests have been exposed, the puzzle of the conflict may be considered solved. Still others tend to reduce the problem to a conspiracy by an outside imperial power which decided to play the divide et impera card once again. I believe that all the above factors were valid (to different degrees, of course), but that they could do no more than encourage a conflict which had its root causes elsewhere.

In my view, the conflict in Abkhazia is a conflict of political modernization. In the modern era, ethnic groups find themselves in a world where the political map is increasingly defined by nation-states rather than multi-ethnic empires, and where political power is legitimized by the will of peoples/nations rather than divine right of monarchs. In this new world, ethnic groups feel that they have to define their own political status as well. Empires may acquire the policies of "official nationalism", that is, they may try to assimilate minority populations into their language and culture (the Russification policy of the late 19th century is regarded as a classic example of this).[1] Smaller groups that do not yet have separate political identities by the time the tide of political modernization reaches them find themselves in the situation described by some scholars as an "assimilation dilemma":[2] either they have to acquire the national and political identity of a politically dominant - and usually more "advanced", that is, modernized - nation, which has already developed a statehood of its own, agree to reduce their native vernaculars to the status of "kitchen languages" and recognize the superiority of the ways of the powerful and "advanced" nation over their own traditional mores; or they have to acquire a distinct cultural and political personality and create ("invent", "imagine" - as modern students of nationalism like to say) their own programme for achieving proper political status which will represent and maintain this distinctness.

The problem is that history does not provide ready-made material for modern nations-to-be: different ethnic groups create a patchwork of languages, cultures and political traditions, which have to be reshaped to fit into the hard and fast lines of nation-states. Newly emerged nationalist elites take on this job of "reshaping" the pre-existent ethnic material so that it fits into the more rigid model of modern nationhood. I will call the basic pattern, on which the work of reshaping or reconstructing is based, a national project. A national project is an ideal construct which usually holds answers to at least several major questions: 1. "Who are we?", that is, how do we define the people comprising our national "we"? 2. What is "our land" - how can we demarcate the territory that is our national home? 3. What political status would be appropriate for our group (are we eligible for fully independent statehood or is something more "modest" acceptable)? 4. What are we not - in contrast to whom do we define our identity (remembering the assimilation dilemma, this question can be reformulated thus: "who would we become if we chose to be assimilated")? 5. Who is our primary enemy? (this may or may not coincide with the group or state representing the threat of assimilation) - and who are our other enemies (usually seen as conspiratorial allies or puppets of the primary enemy)? 6. Who are our friends and relatives - who are our "natural" or provisional allies? 7. What is our civilizational orientation - what civilization are we part of (such as "Western", "Middle Eastern", "Latin", etc.)? 8. What kind of political and economic order do we want to have? (the late 20th century seems to provide few alternatives to "market democracy" - though in reality there is a choice, and it may be contingent on the answer to the previous question: for instance, nowadays a Western orientation provides stronger motivation for adopting a democratic system than do other cultural affiliations).

In an ideal world of utopian nationalism, every nation would have its own national project and national statehood in accordance with a certain idea of historical fairness; together, they would constitute a concert of humanity. In real life, however, the implementation of a national project may take place at the expense of one's neighbour: populations are mixed, the messages of history are vague, and there are no clear criteria for deciding who "deserves" what. Conflicts occur, grounded in clashes between different national projects.

The conflict in Abkhazia - or, to be more accurate, the conflict about Abkhazia - is a case of this generic type. I believe that, with the liberalization and further democratization of the Soviet Union, it was unavoidable. In saying this, however, I do not mean that the war in Abkhazia was unavoidable too. In order to understand the roots of the conflict, one has to describe and understand the national projects around which Georgian and Abkhaz nationhood, respectively, were constituted (or constructed - to use the more modern word); the particular political circumstances, however, will help us understand why the conflict unfolded the way it did.

Formation of the Georgian and Abkhaz National Projects

In describing national projects, I will have to refer back to some historical facts. Since history is often used by both parties in order to justify or denounce certain political claims, I want to make it clear at this point that I will only make my historical references in an attempt to understand why Georgians and Abkhaz developed the kinds of national projects they did, and why their visions came into conflict. In doing so, I will not question legitimacy of either group.

Modern Georgian nationalism began in the mid 19th century.[3] Ilya Chavchavadze, who can be regarded as its founding father, tried to base a new vision of Georgia on European models of liberal nationalism. He formulated his slogan as Mamuli, Ena, Sartsmunoeba - "Fatherland, Language, Faith". This shows both continuity and a break with the medieval Georgian tradition. In the Middle Ages, "Georgian-ness" was equated with being an Orthodox Christian. The eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli adopted Christianity in the 4th century, and from the religious split of the 7th century, when Georgia became diophysitic (that is, shared Greek Orthodoxy, in contrast to monophysitic faith of the Armenian Church)[4] until the late 18th century, when Russia became involved in the Caucasus, the Georgians were the only Orthodox Christians surrounded by a predominantly Islamic population. Those ethnic Georgians who adopted some other religion - even if they continued to speak the Georgian tongue - were no longer considered Georgians by others: they were called either Tartars (if they switched to Islam), Armenians (if they were baptized in the Armenian church) or even prangi, "French" (if they adopted Roman Catholic faith). On the other hand, the church used Georgian, so language became an important marker as well, though in conjunction with religion. In the mid 10th century, the Georgian hagiographer Giorgi Merchule formulated what became the medieval paradigm of what "Georgia" meant: "Georgia consists of those spacious lands in which church services are celebrated and all prayers are said in the Georgian tongue".[5] Ilya Chavchavadze, by putting "Language" before "Faith", secularized Georgian nationalism, making it similar to other linguistic nationalisms of the 19th century, and opened it up to Muslim Georgians and Georgians of other denominations; in doing so, however, he could also appeal to the medieval tradition.

This way in which the modern Georgian national project reconstructed a medieval past will help us understand important aspects of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. In the words of Ernest Gellner,[6] Georgians defined their country as the realm of Georgian "high culture", that is, the area where Georgian was the language of literacy and an elite culture. This area also included Abkhazia. The root of the conflict lay in a discrepancy between the high culture of Abkhazia and popular Abkhaz ethnic culture (we must remember that Gellner warned strongly against interpreting the term "high" in terms of value: it merely implies attribution to the "higher" classes of society). Ethnic Abkhazians are not ethnically related to Georgians - linguistically they are kin to the North Caucasian peoples (Kabardins, Adighe, etc.). But the medieval Abkhaz kingdom was part of the Georgian cultural and political realm. The Abkhaz, unlike the Georgians, had no alphabet, so Georgian was the language of the Abkhaz aristocracy. Whenever Georgia, or Western Georgia, represented a unified political structure, Abkhazia was part of it. In some periods, the whole of Western Georgia was unified under the name of Abkhazia (Abkhazeti), at other times, approximately the same territory bore the name of Egrisi (which means "land of the Megrelians" - a sub-ethnic Georgian group). When Georgia disintegrated into smaller princedoms, these cultural ties between elites were preserved. This history has led Georgians to believe that Abkhazia is a legitimate part of Georgia, despite the fact that, ethnically speaking, the Abkhaz are not related to the Georgians.

However, this inference from the way the idea of Georgia was reconstructed in the 19th century became important only later, when Georgian nationalism reached the stage of a political movement. In the beginning of the nationalist movement in Georgia, the national ambitions were still pretty timid, being mostly confined to issues of culture, the preservation of the native language and the like, and the idea of even limited autonomy within the Russian empire was not seriously entertained until the 1905 revolution in Russia. Georgian nationalism was not fully politicized until Georgia was pushed into acquiring full independence by the break-up of the Russian empire and, later, the failure of the Transcaucasian Federation in 1918. This was when the paradigm of Georgian political nationalism was formulated. This paradigm was re-invoked, almost unchanged, by the national liberation movement of the perestroika period. After the experience of brief independence in 1918-21 (interrupted by the Russian Communist invasion), nothing short of full independence could satisfy Georgian political ambitions any more. In 1989-90, there was not a single political party or group in Georgia proper[7] that did not include in its charter a demand for independence. Russia naturally filled the slot for "the enemy" (independence meant independence from Russia) and it also embodied the threat of assimilation. This did not mean particular emotional hostility to this country, much less to Russians as an ethnic group, but that is a different story: where the plan for independence was concerned, the major impediments were expected from the North. Turkey had been a threat in the period 1918-21, and recollections of medieval Muslim invasions were still strong enough to encourage mistrust, but since Turkey was a rival force to Russia, this made her an ally for Georgia.

However, neither Turkey nor any other regional country is the ally: the major protector and patron is seen - however realistically or otherwise - as "the West" in general. This is an extrapolation of the paradigm of medieval times when Christian Georgia, which felt itself under siege from Muslim countries, looked for help to the "big" Christian world. Culturally, Georgians have difficulty in saying "we are a Western nation", though some would say that typologically, in their essence, Georgians are Westerners who went astray under the influence of their non-Western neighbours. The fact is, however, that, in terms of orientation, since the 19th century the Georgian elite has been looking for models in the West. Democracy is considered to be the model of political order - not because Georgians are such committed democrats, but because nowadays there is no other way to be Western. Many supporters of the nationalist Georgian president Gamsakhurdia said that in the event of a contradiction, independence should take precedence over democracy - but, arguably, even this attitude does not contradict the "Western way" in principle: the nation-state is a Western idea as well, and Western nation-states have not always been democratic from the outset.

Since independence from Russia is the primary task of Georgian nationalism (and given the presence of Russian troops and the degree of Russian leverage on Georgia, many believe it has yet to be accomplished), all other adversaries are viewed in the light of this opposition. Minorities who are not loyal to Georgia therefore have to be conceptualized as accomplices of Russia. This is not to suggest that the Russians did - or did not - support Abkhaz or Ossetian secessionism; it merely explains why it is that, from the Georgian perspective, any conflict with minorities only makes sense in relation to its struggle for independence from Russia. This has seriously damaged the Georgian ability to assess the situation because, although Russian support for separatist causes within the "union republics" was indeed logical, these attitudes have prevented Georgian elites from seeing the interests of the Abkhaz or Ossetes in their own right.

Two other features of Georgian nationalism which are relevant here are that it is non-assimilationist and non-imperialist. In relation to the first point, I will refer to a distinction frequently made between the French and German forms of nationalism. In the words of Roger Brubaker,[8] the former is assimilationist (and ultimately universalist), while the latter is differentialist. The French pursue the project of assimilating their minorities, which makes them willing to accept them as "French" in so far as they adopt French culture and agree to forget (or at least give secondary value to) their own particular heritage. Ataturk's idea of Turkish nationalism also follows this pattern. The concept of Russian nationalism was never clearly formulated, but its mainstream is inclined towards the assimilationist model as well. In these cases, culture and language take precedence over "blood", that is, common ancestry. For the German type of nationalism, however, it is jus sanguinis - that is, the principle of blood heritage - that matters most. Even in today's highly democratic country, this principle remains valid for the acquisition of citizenship, so that in recent decades culturally Germanized descendants of Turkish immigrants have had greater difficulty in acquiring citizenship than ethnic Germans from Russia or Kazakhstan who did not even speak the language but had documents to prove their ethnic ancestry. Following this classification, Georgians (like most other Caucasians, with the possible exception of the Azeris, who assimilate any Muslims easily) give preference to the exclusionist model. Though some representatives of minorities (especially Armenians and Ossetes) have been quite happy to assimilate and made their names sound more Georgian, most Georgians resist this and have difficulty in perceiving ethnic converts as "real" ones. Since Eduard Shevardnadze came to power in 1992, there have been some deliberate efforts on the part of non-governmental groups and Shevardnadze's party (the Citizens' Union of Georgia) to reinforce the sense of common citizenship rather than ethnicity, but they have not been particularly successful and never reached the stage of endorsing assimilationism: this would be rejected by both ethnic Georgians and minority communities.

Likewise, Georgian nationalism has never had imperialist/expansionist ambitions. This is obviously not how it appears from the Abkhazian perspective: the Abkhaz see Georgia as an empire which wants to conquer "foreign countries" (such as Abkhazia). In an interview, the Russian democrat and Nobel prize-winner Andrei Sakharov once called Georgia "a small empire", and this line is quoted in most Abkhaz and Russian accounts of the conflict. Of course, if one calls any state with a multi-ethnic population an "empire", then Georgia may also be called one (although in this case there would be very few states that are not empires). But if an "empire" is defined as a state whose national project is based on the idea of conquest and expansion (which would make more sense to me, and would correspond to the traditional use of the word), then Georgia hardly fits into that category. The national project of modern Georgia is that of a classical nation-state - it is based on the idea that "we only want what belongs to us, but what does belong to us, we will never give up". Abkhazia is Georgia, because it has always been part of Georgia when it was united. Georgians cannot see Abkhazia as a "foreign" land which was once conquered by them, and the accusation of imperialism usually makes them furious. They have a very clear idea of what "our land" is, even though it is now carved up by the borders of Soviet Georgia. (Most people believe that some land that was "historically ours" is now in Turkey, as well as in Azerbaijan or Armenia, but even the most radical nationalists understand that bringing this up would be impractical - so it is better to allow the Soviet maps to define the image of "our land").

It is obvious to any serious scholar of nationalism that the definition of "our land" is politically contingent, and that there are no universally valid criteria here. But this is not the point: once the definition is formulated, nobody would consider claiming any territory which is not "historically ours". Georgians sometimes profess to playing a special role in the Caucasus, and the Iberian-Caucasian idea (based on the alleged kinship between Georgians and many North-Caucasian peoples, including the Abkhaz) was indeed popular in Gamsakhurdia's times and may be seen as kind of proto-imperialism. But even the craziest Georgian nationalist would be unlikely to contemplate annexing Chechnya or Daghestan. In general, in so far as nationalism is centred around the idea of a nation-state, it is hardly compatible with the idea of empire. There are also other kind of distinctions: nationalists are usually selfish and self-centred, while imperialists are altruistic and cosmopolitan, care for the world and try to improve it (although quite willing to impose happiness and progress by force). For good or ill, Georgians as a nation are not notable for the latter qualities.

As for the modern Abkhaz national project, its construction starts with the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.[9] But the initial ethnic and historical setting in which the Abkhaz elite had to carry out its task was different from the Georgian one. Although Abkhazia had a history of statehood to which it could appeal, this history did not come with a corresponding "high culture", that is cultural traditions based on specifically Abkhazian writings.

Another feature of Abkhaz nationalism was that the national project of the Abkhaz was less about political independence than about survival as a distinct ethnic group. This appeared to stem from particular historical circumstances. Circassian tribes put up strong resistance to Russian domination, and "appropriate" repercussions followed. In the 1870s, the majority of the ethnic Abkhaz population was forced to move to Turkey (in what is called Mokhajirstvo). Even so, they were luckier than peoples like the Shapsughs and Ubykhs, their neighbours to the north of the Caucasus range, who were either slaughtered or driven completely from their land (survivors from the slaughter also took refuge in Turkey). Being few in absolute numbers, not protected by traditions of literacy, and gradually becoming minority in their own land, the Abkhaz faced the obvious danger of sweeping assimilation. It could be said that the emotional cornerstone of the Abkhaz national project is to avoid a repetition of the fate of the Shapsughs and Ubykhs.

Following the above-mentioned duality of the cultural and political tradition, the Abkhaz national project started developing in two versions. Since ethnically they were kin to the Circassian tribes, the logic of ethno-linguistic nationalism naturally pushed the Abkhaz to seek their identity within this realm, in the pan-Circassian movement which was forming on the century-old border. After the Bolshevik revolution this movement gave birth to the short-lived Republic of [Caucasian] Mountain Peoples. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the same idea was revived in the form of a political movement, the Confederation of the Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus (at some point, "Mountainous" was dropped).

On the other hand, it still mattered that the high culture and political traditions of Abkhaz statehood were traditionally Georgian (though Turkish and Russian elements were added later). The Abkhaz aristocracy was very close to the Georgian, and cultural ties were still considerable. In the administrative sense, Sukhumskiy okrug - that is, Abkhazia - was affiliated to Kutaisskaya guberniya, or western Georgia. This was the basis for another movement which sought the establishment of Abkhaz identity in close connection to Georgia, though retaining a special status. Of course, initially it was not about political status, because Georgian nationalism itself was still not politicized, but if translated into political terms, "special status within Georgia" would probably describe this trend. In both cases, however, the Abkhaz looked not for autonomy vis-a-vis Russia as a whole, but for some larger cultural entity (Circassian, Georgian) within which it would have a chance to retain its separate identity. In other words, the emerging Abkhaz nationalism did not define itself in terms of relations with Russia as a whole, but sought the locus of a separate Abkhaz identity within the western Caucasian region.

Both trends competed, the former one appearing to get upper hand. In the period of Georgian independence 1918-21, the ethnic Abkhaz elite was divided, with opponents of unity with Georgia in the majority, but the Georgian government was able to combine an alliance with the pro-Georgian section of the Abkhaz elite with military pressure to keep the province within the newly independent Georgia.[10] In the Georgian constitution of 1921, Abkhazia was defined as an autonomous unit within Georgia (this constitution was adopted, however, just four days before Georgian independence ended with the Russian invasion).

The attitude to the Soviet period differs radically in the Georgian and Abkhaz national visions. For the Georgians, the independence that was suspended in 1921 continued symbolically after the break-up of the Soviet Union. This means that nothing that happened during this period of suspension could be called legitimate: everything was imposed by the foreign occupying force. The same cannot be said of the Abkhaz. Since there was no time for the above-mentioned provision of the 1921 Georgian constitution to be implemented, one can only fantasize about what Abkhaz autonomy in an independent Georgia would be like. In reality, however, modern Abkhaz statehood (or, rather, its symbolic prototype) came into existence for the first time under Soviet rule. An administrative unit within the Soviet matryoshka system of nationalities (that is, one nationally-defined territorial unit containing another one) can hardly be called a real "nation-state", but a Soviet national-territorial unit still had many symbolically important features that contributed to the development of national/political consciousness: the territorial unit was actually called "Abkhazia", and the Abkhaz language was given official status - that is, it became a language of "high culture" with many consequences for bureaucracy, educational policy, literature in Abkhaz language and the like. Thus, unlike the Georgians, the Abkhaz legitimize their post-Soviet claims by referring to the Soviet period of their history (though not to it alone).

The major change that occurred during the Soviet period was that Georgia and Georgians exclusively filled the slot for "enemy image" in the Abkhaz national project. In addition, Russia became the chief protector against "Georgian imperialism". There were several reasons for this. Between 1921 and 1931, the administrative framework of nationalities in the South Caucasus changed several times and, with it, the status of Abkhazia. The Russian Bolsheviks encouraged ethnic minorities in Georgia to rebel against the central government, to make their own conquest of it easier, and they initially welcomed the proclamation of a separate Abkhaz Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1921 (when the military operation against Georgia was still under way). Later, Abkhazia was made part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic - and, in 1931, an autonomous republic within Georgia.[11] If the republic proclaimed in March 1921 is taken as the reference point, then becoming an autonomous unit within Georgia was a demotion. What was especially important about this, however, was that these events occurred when the Soviet Union was being run by Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, who was later joined in Moscow by his compatriot, Lavrenti Beria. This allows the Abkhaz to think that the demotion of their status was really an expression of Georgian imperialism: Stalin did it because he was a Georgian.

>From the Georgian perspective, however, the whole thing looks completely different. The Georgians' attitude to Stalin is quite controversial, but Georgian nationalists at least regard him as a Russian imperialist who actively sought to conquer Georgia in 1921 - and his actions afterwards can hardly be explained by Georgian patriotism either. No people as few in number as the Abkhaz were granted the status of "full" union republic in the Soviet Union. Abkhazia's becoming part of Georgia can be fully explained by the general logic of the clusterization of Soviet nationalities - why should one refer to a specifically "Georgian" factor in this particular case? Georgians can also argue that if Stalin was responsible for subordinating Abkhazia to Georgia in 1931, then he was also responsible for the separation of Abkhazia from Georgia in 1921. Even if one insists that Stalin's actions were motivated by latent Georgian imperialism, Georgians in general can hardly be held accountable for Soviet nationality policies, whoever carried them out: they never elected those leaders, and were never consulted about what they did.

Apart from this demotion in status, under Stalin's rule the Abkhaz endured a period of Georgian demographic expansion, when some of the ethnic Georgian population was resettled from other parts of Georgia, and a period of a "Georgianization" policy in late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Georgian language was imposed on Abkhaz students in schools and the Abkhaz were forced to use a Georgian-based alphabet instead of a Cyrillic-based one (there exists a unique Georgian alphabet). These policies aroused in the Abkhaz the above-mentioned fear of extinction as an ethnic group, through forced assimilation. Again, these policies could be explained by the latent "Georgian imperialism" of Stalin and Beria or by another shift in the Soviet nationality policy. I believe that Beria, unlike Stalin, was more of a secret Georgian nationalist, and that that might have had some influence on his decisions regarding Abkhazia - though these kinds of policies were hardly unprecedented in the former Soviet Union. In any case, these changes in Soviet policy substantially increased Abkhaz animosity towards Georgians. The fact that after Stalin's death the policy changed again, this time in favour of the Abkhaz, only reinforced the Abkhaz belief that full responsibility for their deprivations lay with Stalin's and Beria's nationality.

Nor did the system of Soviet ethnic quotas do much to help Georgian-Abkhaz relations. Certain bureaucratic posts were set aside for ethnic Abkhaz, and this, given that the latter comprised only a minority of the population of Abkhazia, was a serious impediment to the careers of the Georgians living in the autonomous republic. Georgians resented this. Some of them registered as ethnic Abkhaz, which increased the resentment of other Georgians even more. The Abkhaz, on the other hand, saw this system (introduced and maintained by Russians) as the main way of safeguarding their interests against the Georgian assault.

Soviet rule contributed in one more way to the deterioration of Georgian-Abkhaz relations. As I said, the Abkhaz aristocracy was more likely than other classes in Abkhaz society to envisage the future of Abkhazia in a union with Georgia. However, it was precisely this group that suffered most disproportionately from the Communist repression. It is difficult to detect here any intention to sever Abkhaz-Georgian relations, but the effect was the same.

Thus, by the end of the Soviet Union, there was only one element of the Abkhaz national vision which was quite unambiguous: Georgians were the enemy. The positive project for political status was not as clear. I see at least two reasons for this. First, as I said, the modern history of Abkhaz statehood started in the Soviet Union, which made the Abkhaz nationalist vision confined to their status within the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. Second, the Abkhaz had a much weaker starting-point than the Georgians: they were much fewer in absolute numbers, they were the minority in Abkhazia, and their status within the USSR was lower than that of Georgia. This meant that unlike the Georgians who (in practical terms, mistakenly) appealed to "international law" to uphold their right to restore full independence, annulled by the Russian/Soviet invasion, the only practical option for the Abkhaz was to appeal to Moscow and the Soviet past before 1931. In saying this I am not repeating the one-sided (and humiliating) version promoted by many Georgians - that Abkhaz separatists are puppets of the Kremlin and have no agenda of their own; but the reality is that when formulating their demands the Abkhaz had to estimate in what circumstances they would have the greatest chances of support from Moscow.

As a result, the positive part of the Abkhaz political project changed with the circumstances, though two underlying ideas remained constant: 1. guarantees of security for the Abkhaz as an ethnic community - thereby preventing the Shapsugh and Ubykh scenario; 2. as much independence from the arch-enemy (Georgia) as possible. Different versions of how to achieve this goal might have been: a) having equal status with Georgia within the Soviet Union - which of course meant separation from Georgia; b) joining the Russian federation with the same status as Abkhazia had in Georgia; c) full independence; d) federal/confederal relations based on an equal treaty with Georgia, which would in fact mean something very close to independence. The first option is no longer feasible, while the other three are still being discussed within Abkhazia and in negotiations led by the Sukhumi government.

The role of chief political patron/ally is, logically, filled by Russia. This alliance is a purely pragmatic one, based on common interests: in so far as both see Georgian nationalists as the enemy, they have a reason for coordinating their actions. The Russians can use the Abkhaz against the Tbilisi government, while the Abkhaz do not have a wide choice of powerful allies other than anti-Georgian forces in Moscow. This is not a sentimental alliance, of course, and the Abkhaz can hardly forget their experience of Mokhajirstvo (which they cannot blame on Georgians) or the tragic story of the Ubykhs and Shapsugs (nor did the more recent experience of the Chechen war do much to strengthen their trust in Russia). It has become quite evident to the Abkhaz that Russia is simply making use of them without being in any way committed to their security. The sentimental allies are the blood brethren in the Northern Caucasus: ethno-linguistically related peoples who showed their solidarity by actually spilling blood in the war of 1992-93. These two alliances, however, contradict each other and often put the Abkhaz in an awkward situation. During the meetings of the "Confederation of the Mountainous Peoples", while everybody else was involved in intense Russia-bashing, the Abkhaz had to say that Russia was not as bad as all that and was sometimes "constructive". Since the Chechen Republic is now seeking active cooperation with Georgia and Chechen officials often publicly denounce Chechen participation in the war with Georgia as a "mistake", it is becoming evident that pragmatic considerations have to take precedence over a sentimental vision of pan-Caucasian ethnic solidarity. This means that as long as confrontation with Georgia continues, the Abkhaz still have no allies to rely on besides Russia.

The Abkhaz also have a dual cultural orientation. Their awareness of kinship with the Circassian peoples is the natural place for the Abkhaz to locate their cultural identity within the Caucasian realm. However, despite the undoubted popularity of the concept of a common Caucasian culture (and "Caucasian Home"), so far nobody has conceptualized this common-ness in a way that would make it fit into the modern world. "Caucasian-ness" is intuitively associated with ancient traditions of hospitality, highly ritualistic behaviour and a machistic glorification of militancy - something which has few chances of surviving the erosive forces of modernization. The Chechens have increasingly turned to Islam - but this is unlikely to happen with the Abkhaz: ethnic Abkhaz include both Christians and Muslims, and most are hardly religious at all. Recently, an Abkhaz newspaper reported that the curriculum of the first private Abkhaz school in the capital, Sukhumi, would include a new subject: Christian ethics,[12] something scarcely compatible with a Muslim-oriented culture. Abkhazia was very much Russified when in the Soviet Union: Russian was the lingua franca for its multiethnic population, and the domination of the Russian language was exacerbated by the fact that it was one of the most popular resort areas in the former Soviet Union. The Abkhaz elites are very Russified linguistically and, despite recent disappointments, culturally they remain very firmly oriented towards Russia (in contrast to the Chechens).

The attitude to political models and ideologies is also contingent on the political situation. In the final years of the Soviet Union, the Abkhaz sided with non-democratic forces standing for the preservation of the unified state. When Georgian troops entered Abkhazia in August 1992, they destroyed not only symbols of separate Abkhaz statehood, but statues of Lenin as well. Later, too, the Abkhaz tended to look for allies among Russian neo-Communists and nationalists. This does not mean that the Abkhaz are by nature less inclined to democracy than the Georgians. It just so happens that anti-democrats in Russia are more anti-Georgian (and hence pro-Abkhaz) than democrats. Many democratically-minded Russians also empathize emotionally with the Abkhaz cause but, as a political force, the Russian democrats (or "so-called democrats") still tend to respect Georgia's independence and territorial integrity more than their opponents.

While not as politically ambitious as the Georgian variety (that is, it does not insist on full independence), Abkhaz nationalism seems to be stronger and more intense. This is probably due to the fact that the Abkhaz face - or believe they are facing - physical extinction. While Georgians have a recent record of fighting not only with the Abkhaz and Ossetes, but also with each other, the Abkhaz have so far succeeded in keeping their political differences hidden (in the face of the "common enemy"). While Georgians have had their moments of weakness, and in the wake of losing the war in 1993 were close to giving up their independence (in return for favours from Russia), the Abkhaz have so far expressed much greater firmness in their stand.


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Georgians and Abkhazians. The Search for a Peace Settlement
© August 1998, Vrije Universiteit Brussel