SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )


Sergei Arutiunov
(Institute of Ethnography, RAS)

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

2. The lessons of Abkhazia

Before the eruption, in August 1992, of the Georgian-Abkhazian terribly blood- shedding and devastating war, the total population of Abkhazia was about half a million, of which about 45% were Georgians, only some 18% native Abkhazians, about 15 % were Russians, almost the same number of Armenians, and the remaining 9-10 % were Greeks, Jews, Estonians and others. Over the course of the war nearly all Georgians had to flee as refugees for Georgia, Greeks for Greece, Russians and Armenians mainly for Russia, particularly to the adjacent Krasnodar Territory. As a result, now Abkhazians constitute more than 50% of the more than twice reduced total population. Abkhazia is de-facto independent. Life is hard, especially concerning the environment (sewage systems have been damaged by war), medicine (a lack of medicines is acutely felt because the tiny country is nearly suffocated by the joint Russian-Georgian blockade), but agriculturally is more or less self-supporting. Previously the most important cash crop, citruses, were rotting on the ground because the blockade prevented their exportation, but still the republic has managed to re-open the schools and to provide some other basic social services.

Balkarians constitute about 10% of the population of Kabardin-Balkaria, being concentrated in the southern, more mountainous part of the country. There were some extremist attempts to secede from the joint republic but they were not supported by the majority of Balkars. The extremists and their demands reflect a real desire among the Balkarian population to have their own, separate from the Kabardinian, school system, cultural institutions, mass media etc. On the other hand, most of these institutions do exist already, but rather as attachments or branches inside more developed and better financed respective Kabardinian institutions, and the majority of Balkarians believe that an attempt at realizing separation from Kabarda may lead to a blood-shedding conflict in which would not be worth the effort.

It is important to note that in the pre-industrial societies 'narodnosts' can and do exist as separate political organisms (states). But when they join the industrial level but do not immediately become nations, they can exist only in association with a larger and more developed nation: not possessing their own school system or mass media, they have to use those of such a nation.

A deep desire of Abkhazians for a long time has been to have mass media and schools with their own language as a medium, and several alphabets have been created for this purpose (on Latin, Georgian, synthetic and recently on the Cyrillic base with a number of additional letters for specific Abkhasian sounds).

However, having been forcefully integrated into Georgia in 1930, the most supported schools used the Georgian medium. For its entire history, Abkhazes were associated with Georgia and did not mind this, but in the USSR, under Bolshevik (in fact exclusively Georgian) oppression, they began to be more and more oriented towards developing much closer ties with the Russian people, their language and the Russian culture, which were less suppressive and more promising. This was, of course, done at the expense of diminishing ties with Georgians, in a number of cases with a deliberate refusal to learn and speak Georgian. Correspondingly, in the early 1990's they were against the dissolution of the USSR, against the proclamation of the Georgian independence, and they initially demanded incorporation into the Russian Federation instead of being a part of Georgia. A similar preference can be observed in the South Ossetia.

The essence of the conflict was a desire to change the association, or, rather, to formalize politically the shift in the cultural association which had already de-facto occurred.

Before the revolution both South Ossetians and Abkhazians were obviously associated with Georgians, and their bilingualism was Native-Georgian. But in the USSR it shifted to a Russian-Native bilingualism, where the Russian occupied the leading position, and Georgian, if in a trilingualism, would stand in third place.

There are other areas in Georgia, where the situation was similar: in some districts of S. W. Georgia Armenians and in S. E. Georgia Azeris constitute nearly 70 % of population, and, apart from their native language, speak Russian better than Georgian, but, since they do not demand any change in their political association in favor of Armenia or Azerbaidjan, and are far away from the boarders of Russia, there are no conflicts.

We may assume therefore, that the essence of these conflicts lies not in an inherent and historically predetermined enmity between these ethnic groups, but mostly in political manipulations of a certain part of the ethnic elite, which tries to exploit the normal interests of mass bearers of a respective ethnicity in order to monopolize for themselves the benefits of privatization and economic-political transformation, not stopping even at ethnic cleansing.

Are these conflicts inevitable? Is there a fatal predestination for every ethnic group to compete with its neighbors in a Darwinian struggle for existence?

There are some examples which demonstrate that a peaceful coexistence of various ethnic groups, like in Switzerland or Great Britain (with the notable exception of North Ireland) is possible. But such cases in the modern world are rare. A coexistence may be realized only when the modern state of law provides firm constitutional guarantees for all ethnic minorities, and more than that, is willing to grant certain additional privileges and extended opportunities to the undersized ethnic groups. The smaller and less developed the ethnic group in question, the bigger such benefits must be, and they must find their reflection not only in more generous financing of respective cultural measures and affirmative action, but in voluntary recognition by the dominant nation, by Russians in Russia and Georgians in Georgia, of the rightfulness of such a policy. Should the Georgian government take some steps for a reconciliation with the demands of the Abkhazians, accept their proposal for a confederation, provide constitutional guarantees for their special cultural and economic rights in Abkhazia, 200,000 ethnic Georgians would today peacefully live among their citrus orchards in Abkhazia, instead of becoming refugees. All this, however, remains little more than just wishful thinking. Certainly, none of these prerequisites have ever existed in Georgia, where the predominant mood of the society and the politicians was just the contrary, and where aggression against Abkhazia was being planned already in May 1992. And even although there have been some attempts to legally guarantee the rights of undersized minorities in Russia, generally the tendency towards centralization at the expense of minority rights tends to become more and more prevailing. The current tendency to eliminate from the republican constitutions 'discrepancies' with the Federal Constitution is a reflection of this trend and may turn as dangerous as the neglect of Abkhazian expectations in Georgia.