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

The Role of Historiography in the Abkhazo-Georgian Conflict

Seiichi Kitagawa
(Hirosaki University)

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

Theoretical setting

Like many other ethnic conflicts, the Abkhazo-Georgian issue has many causes and backgound problems. Every specialist in the various fields of social sciences can explain one or the other side of this conflict with an individnal method. In my opinion, the role of historiography is particularly important in explaining the many ethnic issuses of the present Caucasia. Of course these conflicts have their own history of development. But, I mean here, that the historiography itself is one of the main factors of the conflicts among, other causes such as sociological, economic, regional, religious, tribal and political view points.

It is very easy to understand how historical literatures without scientific evidence would agitate nationalistic minded people. As in the cases of Japan-Chinese or Japan-Korean historical issues, the articleof the late Prof. Inqolova about the origin of the Azkhazians of Azkhazia had a crucial influence on Georgian political activists and provoked anger among the Abkhazians. The protest and demonstration against the publication of this unscientific article by a Georgian newspaper became the direct cause of the bloody conflict of Sukhumi in 1989. As Japanese schoolbooks of history became the cause of anger among Chinese, Korean and other nations of Asia, so the unpublished article of this philologue did so also among the Abkahzians.

In the former Soviet Union, all publications were censored elaborately beforehand and in theory any possibility to cause displeasure among the brothers of Soviet nations could not be found in schoolbooks, popular histories and periodicals. Future harmony among theSoviet nations was considered more important than facts of the past.

Scientific literature was less censored than popular literature, but every political unit of a titled nation had its own state historiography. In Caucasia, the first ethnic issues started in the form of academic discussions on one or the other problem of the historical pasts, among historians, academicians, doctors and doctoral candidates of the neighbouring political units of republics, autonomous republics and autonomous provinces.

First, they had to arrange their research within the limits of official historiography, which demanded the sovereignty, or at least the autonomy of the enclaves of titled politico-administrative units. Second, the status and the boundary of a titled nation had been determined by historical right and the present distribution of inhabitants. The density and growth of a nation could be controlled by population policy and historical right by finding more proof of "indigenousness" of the titled nation.

It is now well-known that the boundaries of the Soviet national unitswere often changed by the Moscow government at least in the Caucasus or else change was requested by people who were dissatisfied with the existing border. Any new study which exceeded the limit or undermined the geographical structure of the historiography of neighboring republics was understood as an infringement on the neighbor and the author was criticized as a disturberof socialistic order.

The present frontiers of titled units are not always in accord with the past activities of the Soviet nationalities. Until the korenization policy, they could share their historical past; but after that they had to divide everything among themselves. A cultural or political activist of the past who has internatonal stature, must also be recognized as a national leader by the moderndry residents living in their own national enclave, although any sense of nationality meant nothing at the time of the leader.

The institution of titled nation came from political attitudes toward ethnocracy, and ethnocracy did not come along with the real democracy. Superiority of a titled nation over other national minorities within their titled national territory was not ensured by theSoviet constitutions, but in reality important posts of any official organizations were given to the members of that titled nationality. To be a member of a titled nation within its border is to have a better chance of success in life. So, to judge the "indigeniousness" of a nation in its titled enclave is not only of a matter of scientific fact or national pride, but also of material interest. Quiet discussions among scholars were followed by disputes between nationalists and then civil wars. We can find examples of this in the conflicts in the Mountainous Karabakh and clashes between Lezghi and Avar activists and the Azerbaijani police and so on. The cause of the Abkhazo-Georgian conflict is one of these cases.


Some of the most important items of historical disputes between two nations are as follows.

1) Ethnic identity of ancient Abkhazians (Abasgoi). Were they ancestors of Apsuas (present Abkhazians) or Kartvelians (Georgias)?

2) Ethnic charactor of the Abkhazian kingdom.

3) Ethnicity of the Bagratid kings; Georgian or Abkhazian?

4) Ethno-territorial structure of the Abkhazian Princedom (satavado).

5) Abkhazian policy of the Gerogian government in 1917-21.

6) Abkhazian policy of Soviet Georgia and the growth of the Georgian immigrants in Abkahzia.

All of these items are subjects of scholarly discussions.


The first known state of Georgia is Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece. In all Georgian literature on histroy Colchis is named Egrisi, of which descendants are claimed to be Megrelians (an ethinic group of western Georgia). Howere, based on some linguistic data, western as well as Abkhazian philologues claim that the inhabitants of Colchis were Abkahzians. The half brother of Media Apsyrtos (old Babilonian 'absu' (the abyss), or an Old Abkhazian */a-psw-art- (the Abkhaz-pronoun suffix-pronoun) bears the Abkhazian name by the explanation John Colarusso. Thismeans natives of the eastern coast of the Black Sea were Abkhazians and the Georgians, who live there now, were newcomers. So, the present Abkhazians have the right of titled nation including the demand for sovereignty and independence from Goergia. After Colchis, Lazica occupied the ancientterritory of Colchis as a successor state, which was inhabited by Megrelians in the Georgian view or Abkhazians in the Abkhazian view. The Lazs people who live in Turkish Lazistan now, speak a language very akin toMegrelian, so one can determine the main body of Lazicas were Georgians.

If the inhabitants of the kingdom of Lazica were Georgians, where were the present Abkhazians' ancestors at that time? From the first or second century, Greek writers wrote about the Apsilae and the Abasgoi. There are some opinions about their origin and identity. Maybe they were indigenous to Abkhazia or the whole of Western Georgia, and until that time had been simply called Colchians or Lazicas together with other tribes and ethnic groups of Western Georgia. Or else they were newcomers from the Northern Caucasus, during these centuries. They may have had relations with the present Svans (an ethinc group among Georgians), or Adyge-Abkhzians. If they were native Adyge-Abkhazians, present day Abkhazians, as the decendants of indigenous inhabitants, have the perfect right of titled nation. One typical Abkhazian opinion is that not only the Abasgoi but also the Apsilae belonged to the Abkhazians. One of the most extreme opinions of Georgians is that both of these groupes were Georgians, and the present Abkhazians penetratedthrough the Caucasian Mountains to Azkhazia in the 17th century; according to this opinion, the Abkhazians have no right to a titled nation and or even to autonomy, which they currently enjoy.

In the 11th century B. C., the Assyrian inscriptions made reference to the "Abeshela", a tribe which lived in the North Anatolian mountains. Then, in a mediaval Georgian chronicle written by Juansher, mentions a toponymy of "Apshileti" (or the land of Apshils). Some scholars insist that Apshil is the missing link between the ancient Abeshela and the classicApsils. Here we must take into account that V. Ardzinba, chairman of the supreme soviet of Abkhazia, is a specialist in the history and languages of ancient Anatolia. After the weakening of the Lasica (in Georgian Egrisi) kingdom, in the 6th century the Princedom of Abasgia became a direct vassal of the Byzantine Empire. According to Prof. Mariam Lordikipanadze, the Abasgoi annexed the "Apsilia north to the river Kodori" in the second century, and then after the 6th century the "Apsilia proper" between the river Kodori and the river Egrisitsqali (Ghalidzga). In the 730s the Arab general of Murvan the Deaf invaded Western Georgia. Juansher wrote that the "city of Tskhum of Apshileti and Abkhazia" was burnt by him. Tskhum was at that time called the city of Apshileti, which in the 8th century was incorporated into Abkhazia. So, according to the theory of some scholors the Abkhazia Proper existed to the North of Tskhum (Sukhumi), where the main body of the inhabitants became the ancestors of the presentday Abkhazians. The Tskhum district of the Apsletia and the Apsletia Proper, between the Kodor and Egrisitsqali, were inhabited by theGeorgians. In this view, Tskhum has even a Georgian etimology. But, according to an other opinion, the Apshletis were the ancestors of the present day Abkhazians, who now call themselves the Apsuas, and the Abasgoi were their nothern brothers who used a language very akin to that of the Apshletis and came across the mountains. Therefore, the present Abkhazians are indigenious to the central as well as the northern part of Abkhazia.


One can find two key factors in the ethinc issues of the Caucasia. One is the institution of titled nation and the second is the theory of "indigenousness" of inhabitants. As long as the institution of titled nation was prolonged within the borders settled in Soviet times, the claim of inheritance by the inhabitants would continue. One of the Russian solntions to the conflict, namely to make the Geogian refugees go back to the Gali and Ochamchile regions under the protection of international peacekeeping army, was harshly rejected by the Abkhazian side, because this was the /iskonnyj/ territory of Abkhazia, although these provinces were inhabited compactly and densely by the ethnic Georgians before 1994. As for the Georgians, all Abkhazia except the NorthWestern corner of the country is also the /iskonnyj/ territory of Georgia. But, neither sides has an accurate memory of their ancient ancestors. Abkhazians have no explanation as to why they are called Abkhazians and their country is called Abkhazia, when they themseves werecalled Apsua and their country Apsuni. Only historiography can fulfil their desire for national satisfaction about the past. So, historiographywanders between the policy of titled nation and the theory of indigenousinhabitants. Before trying to solve the conflict we must understand each side's national sentiment about history as well as the material interest which comes from it. Then we must wait for a new theory of the past which depends neither on the system of tilted nation nor on the theory of "indigenousness".

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

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