Friday, August 28, 2009

The News from Greater Abkhazia

Every day, my friend Milton dutifully forwards me the Der Spiegel Online Newsletter. The scope and depth of their reporting is now rarely found on this side of the Atlantic. Yesterday's lead article, Abkhazia Attempts to Invent Itself, is a good case in point. The newspaper chronicles the invention of a nation, if not entirely out of whole cloth, then nearly so. As an adherent of localism, it might seem I would favor their struggle. But let there be no doubt, my sympathies lie not with what the Abkhazians are attempting, nor with their Russian enablers, but with the Republic of Georgia, from which they have separated themselves. This story contains no clear heroes, for even the Georgians have acted rashly. But the real culpability, it seems to me, lies with Russia, who has fomented the dissatisfaction and faciliated the rebellion all along. The fact that all three peoples are Orthodox is lamentable and yet another troubling and disconcerting layer to the tragedy.

I watched with dismay last year as America's man in Tbilisi, Michael Saaskashvili blundered into an unwinnable confrontation with Russia, ending in much destruction and loss of life, occupation of even more Georgian territory and Russian recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian "independence." To date the Republic of Abkhazia is recognized by Russia, Nicarauga and, I'm told, the Gaza Strip. The only one that matters, of course, is the first. While the "nation" of Abkhazia is certainly less of a fiction than that of South Ossetia, it is not without its own comic- opera elements, in the Grand Fenwickian tradition.

  • Abkhazia is obviously not a member of the UN, but is a member of UNPO, the "Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, along with Balochistan, Buryatia, the Buffalo River Dene Nation, the Crimean Tatars and of course, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.

  • The Prime Minister maintains that within 10 years the country could become "a sort of Monaco."

  • The country diplomatic abbreviation is ABC, which is marginally better than South Ossetia's, which is SOS.

  • The entire country contains less than 200,000 population, down 350,000 or so from the figure 16 years ago. That population drop is accounted for by the ethnic cleansing of the majority Georgians.

  • The Abkhazians have removed all "i's" from the end of words, that being considered too Georgian. The capital, formerly Sukhumi is now simply, Sukhum.

  • Abkhazia even has a national Olympic Committee, though there is no possibility of them being allowed to compete. The minister of athletics (while lighting a Parliament cigarette) explained that they did particpate succesfully, however, in the World Championship Domino Tournament, and their ongoing negotiatons with the International Sambo Federation (explained as a "sort of Soviet-Russian judo") were progressing nicely.

  • The country's parliament, presidential office, and office of the prime minister are clumped together in downtown Sukhum. The assembly meets in a room that "resembles the lobby of a small-town bank." There are already 12 political parties.

  • There is, of course, a Miss Abkhazia Pagent, though currently unrecognized by the international beauty pageant community.

  • In an effort to highlight differences between Abkhazian culture and that of Georgia, and even Russia, much is made of the fact that they have 7 distinct sounds for the letter "k."

    • While some of these facts are not without humor, the reality is that Abkhazian nation-building is being played-out in the one of the most volatie regions of the world, where large powers, whether they be Russian, Turk, Persian, British or American have historically used pawns in the area to advance their own agendas. This is clearly evident in the case of Abkhazia, where the successful secession from Georgia was accomplished almost totally with Russian troops. And anyone who thinks that the current boundaries of those countries bordering the Black Sea are set in stone, has not been paying attention.

      I was slow to learn of Abkhazia. In Ottoman histories, and in some 19th-century Russian literature (such as Lemontov's, A Hero of our Time), one reads of the Circassians, who are loosely associated with this region. In reading-up on Georgia prior to my first visit there, I became aware of the hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees who had fled Abkhazia during the war and were camped in Tbilisi and Zugdidi.

      To reach the province of Svaneti, the road (not the main road, but the road) snakes along a narrow ridge above the rushing Inguri River. The impressive hydroelectric dam along the river supplies power to both Georgia and Abkhazia and is something of a landmark in the region. But along the way--well within Georgia proper--we had to pass through a Russian checkpoint, manned by a couple of sleepy soldiers and of course, a tank. Clearly Russian control included not only Abkhazia, but extended well into undisputed Georgian territory as well.

      On a later visit, I attended Vespers at the ancient Anchiskhati Church in Tbilisi. Before long, the nave was packed with people, and being susceptible to claustrophobia, I stepped outside for some air. A sudden thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of rain and I sought cover under the covered portico leading into the churchyard. I shared this small space with a middle-aged beggar lady. We smiled at each other, and she made no attempt to ask me for money (though I gladly gave her some as the storm cleared and I was ready to move on.) At one point, she shrugged her shoulders and simply said "Abkhazia," as if to explain her plight. And I understood.

      In 1931, Stalin did away with the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia and made it an autonomous territory of his native Georgia. This marked the beginning of Abkhazia's complaint. During the Soviet period, the Abkhazians, or the Apsua, were never very numerous. More Georgians moved into the territory, as did Armenians and Russians. Population breakdowns over the years tell the story:


      44% Georgian

      17% Abkhazian

      17% Russian

      15% Armenians


      46% Georgian

      18% Abkhazian

      15% Armenian

      14% Russian


      37% Abkhazian

      30% Georgian

      12% Armenian

      12% Russian

      Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia thought it would receive independence, rather than remaining an autonomous region of Georgia. By this time, ethnic Georgians comprised almost half of the total population and so they remained as they were. But the Russians used the nationalistic impulses of the Apsua minority to maintain their considerable influence in the area, and to stage the 1992-1993 Abkhazian War. Even so, Russian was content with the unsettled status-quo, making no move to recognize an "independent" Abkhazia. That is, of course, until the Bush Administration pushed forward with the dismemberment of Serbia in their recognition of an "independent" Kosovo. Russia repeated warned of the consequences of this action, but to no avail. To the Russians, what was good for the Kosovar goose was good for the Abkhazian gander. And in the summer of 2008, the U.S. was left with no grounds to oppose the move that did not smack of hypocrisy. Obviously, the State Department does not see it this way. And while cool sophistication has replaced bluster and ineptitude in the White House, there is no indication of any substantive change in the assumptions which underly the disastrous course of our post-Cold War foreign policy.

      Daniel Larison, as usual, sums it up well, here. He writes:

      Self-determination along ethnolinguistic lines has been one of the great curses of the modern era, and it is responsible for a large part of the bloodshed of the last two centuries in Europe and around the world. Separating the concept of a nation from a polity representing or somehow embodying that nation is quite difficult. There has long been a flawed idea that every nation that lacks its own political independence is necessarily unfree or oppressed or denied its “natural” rights. This falsehood was used to good effect as a justification for dismantling the Austro-Hungarian empire, which arguably had the most elaborate system then in existence for respecting traditional legal rights and languages of its various subject peoples, and the bloodshed among these various peoples in the decades that followed was the result of destroying the so-called “prison of nations.”

      Great powers have promoted or opposed specific cases of self-determination based largely on whether it would aid or harm their rivals or otherwise advance or threaten their goals in the region....As I said repeatedly before last February and many times after that, one of the reasons why recognition of Kosovo was so dangerous and foolish is that it would provide a precedent and a provocation for Russia to promote separatists inside allied countries, and it would also generally contribute to international instability. Until then, Russia was still mostly willing to respect status quo borders and was formally opposed to interference in the internal affairs of other states....Russia had no interest in endorsing ethnic self-determination and independence movements. The partition of Serbia changed this in a significant way. The blatant and willful disregard for Serbia’s sovereignty that recognizing Kosovo entailed made clear that the West as a whole had contempt for international law whenever it suited us....Now that Moscow has turned the rhetoric and posturing of self-determination against a “pro-Western” government, Westerners are rediscovering their wariness of political fragmentation and their distaste for non-viable, criminal statelets. Suddenly there is great concern over “Russia’s fictional sovereignties,” as if the sovereignties that the West propped up in the Balkans were any more real.

      UPDATE: Metin Sonmez has graciously provided a link that provides more information from the Abkhazian/Circassian side of the argument, here.


      The Ochlophobist said...

      Is that capital pronounced suck-um?

      John said...

      It would not surprise me in the least if it was. If I was guessing, I would pronounce it sook-um.

      Milton T. Burton said...

      This is an excellent post and someone should say so. Since no one else will step forward (were all your regulars daunted by its length and substance?) and do so.

      Every time I see the word "Ottoman" I am reminded of P.J. O'Rourke's comment that "It was called the Ottoman Empire because its average sultan had the approximate I.Q. of a footstool"

      John said...

      Thanks, Milton. Certainly in the latter centuries, O'Rourke's quip had a lot of truth to it.