Abkhaz experts discuss Georgian narratives about Abkhazia

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Georgian Myths about Abkhazia

One thing hindering a resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is undoubtedly the average Georgian’s mythologized view of Abkhazian history. Distant from real history, myths such as the outdated idea that the Adyghe tribe Apsua came from the mountains and assimilated or displaced the true Abkhaz, who were Georgian tribes, or the contemporary myth that there was no Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, rather a conflict between Georgia and Russia, are unlikely to bring a resolution to the existing Georgian-Abkhaz conflict closer.

Such myth-making, which has flooded the internet, including comments under every video on the YouTube channel Chegemskaya Pravda, prompted our editorial team to do a separate program on this topic. The editor of the newspaper “Chegemskaya Pravda,” Inal Khashig, and historian Astamur Tania attempted to respond to the most popular Georgian myths about the Abkhaz and Abkhazia.

Full text of the discussion:

Inal Khashig: Hello, welcome to Chegemskaya Pravda. I’ve been planning to make a short program about comments that appear on our YouTube channel. They mostly concern events in Georgia and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. There’s a lot of comments, most of them from Georgians. They have their own perception of Abkhazia, the conflict, and everything related to it. It’s not very convenient for me to respond to each of them individually; it takes a lot of time. On the other hand, I would like to address the situation related to myth-making altogether. Our resident expert Astamur Tania is with us today. Astamur, hello.

Astamur Tania: Good morning.

Inal Khashig: I think you’ve read these Georgian comments about Abkhazia. Let’s start with discussing these issues. Let’s begin with the “Apsua”, the Abkhaz.

Astamur Tania: First, we don’t know how representative these comments are, but they appear regularly in large numbers. Of course, I agree that these comments need periodic discussion. It’s good to engage with the audience, and it’s good that the programs are generating interest. I would encourage viewers to continue commenting.

Inal Khashig: Let’s get specific. The first thing that irritates me is the assertion that there are “Apsua” and there are real Abkhaz. That is, the Apsua who appeared somewhere in the 16th-17th centuries, came from the mountains, assimilated the Georgian tribe of Abkhaz, and started calling themselves Abkhaz, while the real Abkhaz…

Astamur Tania: By the way, they didn’t start calling themselves Abkhaz; they called themselves Apsua.

Inal Khashig: This is Pavel Ingorokva’s theory that emerged in the 1940s.

Astamur Tania: It doesn’t really qualify as a theory.

Inal Khashig: Yes, it’s not quite a theory, but nevertheless, it was adopted and is still used by some Georgian historians. I would like you to comment on how well this theory corresponds to reality.

Astamur Tania: First, regarding mythology ⁠—  it’s an integral part of nation-building. Every nation has its own mythology that forms an idealized perception of itself and not always a favorable one of its neighbors, as nations often contrast themselves with others. Historically, both the Georgian and Abkhaz nations are young nations. Please do not confuse ethnicity and nation; they are completely different things.

A nation can be more ethnically diverse, like the Georgian nation, which includes various ethnicities such as Megrelians and Svans. This process is ideologically linked to socio-economic processes, including capitalism. Similar processes have been observed in Europe. For example, the Italian nation formed in the latter half of the 19th century as Italy unified.

These are not distant processes in time. Naturally, the emergence of a nation is accompanied by the formation of mythology. In this process, not only historians play a significant role but also artists, because art influences human emotional perception more strongly than science. Therefore, if we look at romanticism and historicism in painting, at Wagner’s music, or at the emergence of styles like neo-Gothic and pseudo-Russian, we see that all of this is related to the rethinking of the nation, new forms of ethnic self-expression, and its economic development in the surrounding world. It’s also interesting to consider Georgian literature of the 19th to early 20th centuries, where Abkhaz are mentioned.

We see that the portrayal of Abkhaz in literature is idealized, depicted as knights. This is linked to the search for a place and the study of history. It is known that the Abkhaz played a key role in the formation of Georgian statehood, so an ideal place was sought for the Abkhaz. However, when it was not possible to integrate the Abkhaz into the Georgian nation, another mythology emerged, portraying the Abkhaz as people without roots or tribe. In my view, the roots of the conflict lie in policies of national and cultural humiliation. We did not have serious economic disagreements between Abkhaz and Georgians; each nation had its own economic niche that did not intersect.

Perhaps they really believe that Adyghe and Abkhaz are mutually intelligible languages, but the difference between them is much greater than between Moldavian and Portuguese due to more than 3000 years of independent development. If a language develops independently, it is not accidental. This is because at some historical stage, isolation, mutual isolation of these languages occurred. Adyghe and Abkhaz have a common linguistic ancestor, but this was very long ago, as much as 3,000 years ago. And these languages have diverged.

This is connected with geography, economics, and various other processes. Thus, it is impossible for Adyghe to have come from the mountains to Abkhazia and invented a language within 300 years ⁠— that would be incomprehensible. For example, Ukrainian and Russian have had 400-500 years of independent development, but they are perfectly mutually intelligible.

Also, they write (in comments), “What kind of state? What state are you claiming?” Listen, if we take ancient history, medieval history, there was a period of feudal fragmentation; there were many more states than now, including on the territory of Georgia. There was an Abkhaz state that formed the basis for the unification of all these fragmented states, but this state disintegrated, and all its parts entered into various foreign policy relations.

If we talk about the present state, it is enough to look at how the Abkhazians are fighting for their own. After the beginning of the conflict on August 14, 1992, Abkhazians defended not only for ten days or the first two weeks. Despite Georgia’s clear military superiority, the Abkhazians managed to hold out. Circassians and Cossacks came to our aid. This means that the Abkhazian political elite managed to establish relations with the outside world, which allowed them to receive assistance. But what was happening before the war?

Let’s remember that Russians, Greeks, Estonians, and other peoples who lived here saw protection in the Abkhazians. But it is also worth remembering that Georgian politicians wrote in the newspapers of that time — leaders talked about the need to limit the rights and birth rate of representatives of other peoples. Such ultra-nationalism repelled other peoples from Georgians. These roots of the conflict need to be understood if we want to understand its causes. “Georgia for Georgians,” or “Lilliputians who attacked Gulliver’s body.” Shevardnadze called them Lilliputians attacking Gulliver’s body. When a people are subjected to aggression, they will seek means of self-defense.

If we look at the number of casualties from the Abkhazian side during the war, about 2500 people, these are military losses, of which about 1800 were Abkhazians. We are very grateful to everyone who came to help, but the majority of casualties were Abkhazians, as it should have been. Today, the Abkhazians are very vigilant in protecting their sovereignty. This state is dear to us. We may lag behind in development in economic, social, and political terms, but we are working on this with varying success, considering our limited capabilities. Our people are very small, and this must be understood.

I’ll pause here.

Inal Khashig: There is a modern myth. It boils down to the assertion that in reality there was no Georgian-Abkhaz war. There was a conflict between Georgia and Russia — a war. This war was Russia’s, they occupied Abkhazia. After 2008, this theory began to gain ideological support following the law on occupation. And all this led to a situation that over about 16 years (I understand how effectively this machinery worked), the majority of Georgians now believe that it was a Georgian-Russian war.

They argue, “What weapons did you shoot with, and what weapons did Georgia shoot with?” The Soviet Union was collapsing. If anyone remembers, the Transcaucasian Military District was headquartered in Tbilisi. This Transcaucasian Military District did everything in its power to assist the Georgian armed forces. This was in addition to the weapons they were given under the Tashkent Agreement. This was the decision of the former Russian leadership. And the war began. During this war, assistance was also provided to the Georgians.

Among the Abkhaz, as the initial footage shows, out of twenty people, only a few held rifles, while the rest either had no weapons or had hunting shotguns. At least this illustrates the situation in which the Abkhaz people found themselves at the time. I remember even Vladislav Ardzinba said, “No one gave us a single shell or cartridge.” Everything had to be acquired independently. This was the situation when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the Soviet army with it. Everyone was trying to get something somewhere. Soviet weapons and ammunition remaining in the arsenals were available both to Georgians officially and to us unofficially.

To avoid illusions about a Russian-Georgian war, one must understand that after this war, Abkhazia found itself in a severe blockade — men aged 16 to 60 could not cross the border. It was a real reservation. The list of what could be brought across the border could fit on a small piece of paper. There was indeed an extremely harsh blockade. If it had been a Russian-Georgian war, this would not have happened. There was also a very complex negotiation process, and Moscow helped us twist arms.

Astamur Tania: This is repeating today. So we need to talk about this. Georgian authorities always tried to solve the problem of relations with Abkhazia through intermediaries. First it was Russia, then Western countries. Now they are saying again that Russia should solve it. But all attempts have been unsuccessful. It must be taken into account that there exists an Abkhaz nation with its own understanding of its history, mythology, and belonging to historical territories. The Abkhaz have no other homeland. We have nowhere else to go.

So the Abkhaz will continue to fight for their country, as they have been doing for over thirty years now. Our people have always demonstrated resilience in various situations. At least to reasonable people, it is understood that the Abkhaz are a party to these relations. We have special relations with Russia. We managed to establish relations with our neighbors who helped us during the war. Unlike Georgian politicians, we managed to establish connections with other peoples living in Abkhazia. This is a testament to political skill. Yes, there are also myths, as if the Abkhaz in the USSR were somehow patronized.

It is well known that during the Great Patriotic War, the Abkhaz population numbered about 60,000 people. Over 5,000 Abkhaz perished in battles, which is nearly 10% of the total population. Significant losses were suffered especially among the young male population. No one particularly looked out for us. The Abkhaz also fought to establish national institutions. For example, the Abkhaz managed to have the Abkhaz language recognized as a state language in the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

It is important to note that the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was part of the Soviet Union with reduced sovereignty, but it was a Soviet socialist state within the Georgian SSR. For instance, Abkhaz television was obtained through protest actions. All of this was achieved through mass demonstrations. It wasn’t done in a way that someone wanted to give us something for free, and we are ungrateful.

Inal Khashig: However, I would like to return to discussing the myths that exist. I will not delve further into specific details now.

Astamur Tania: But we must discuss them. Discussing them is also necessary in Georgian society. If we want to understand where the contradictions and conflicts began, we must get to the bottom of this. This is important for Georgian society.

Inal Khashig: I would still like to understand the nature of this myth-making and its connection to the rhetoric of the Georgian authorities. Even Mikhail Saakashvili sometimes spoke of “our Ossetian and Abkhaz brothers,” which is relevant today. It concerns how specific issues are discussed, such as the right of the Abkhaz to their own state, their right to choose their own path, etc. This raises questions among Georgians. Why is this happening?

On one hand, we are called “brothers, let’s go together into the EU,” for example as Kobakhidze did on Georgian Independence Day, May 26, announcing Georgia’s candidate status for the European Union together with Ossetians and Abkhazians (but at the grassroots level, the atmosphere is completely different). On the other hand, apart from medical programs provided by Georgia to Abkhazians, which are funded by international money, there are no other programs that really work.

Other programs created by the Georgian government to improve relations are practically ineffective. If you decide to go to Georgia for treatment, to your enemy — it means there are some complex circumstances. It gives a sense of insult when Abkhazians are told, “come, eat from our hand.” It’s strange and offensive, especially under the sanctions and isolation imposed on Abkhazia. To treat people you want to live with like this makes no sense.

Astamur Tania: The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict today is more of an internal political factor and propaganda tool. Propaganda discourse, often lacking specifics, plays a significant role. Indeed, propaganda has a lasting influence on mass consciousness. There are distinct differences between what Georgian opposition figures state and what the government expresses. However, in my view, the discourse of Georgian Dream proves to be more pragmatic.

This needs to be acknowledged, especially considering attempts by the Georgian president to liken the situation with what happened in Ukraine to Abkhazia in 1992. It was not His Imperial Majesty’s Leib Guard Semyonovski Regiment that invaded Abkhazia in 1992, but Georgian forces led by Tengiz Kitovani and Karkarashvili. The Georgian population, for the most part, welcomed them with flowers. This was the result of prolonged nationalist propaganda, stoking the image of the enemy. This persisted throughout the 20th century. It’s important to remember this.

Certainly, if we analyze the historical context, we’ll see that Georgians and Abkhazians did not have deep-rooted disagreements. Another myth suggests that Georgians, according to historical data, are the indigenous population of Abkhazia. However, Abkhazians and Georgians had little direct contact; interactions occurred through intermediaries such as the Mingrelians, which significantly influenced cultural exchange. Comparing material culture, the daily life of Mingrelians and Abkhazians is much closer than that of Mingrelians and eastern Georgians. Anthropological analyses show that Abkhazians and Mingrelians are much closer to each other than Mingrelians are to Georgians.

Mingrelians are undoubtedly a Kartvelian people linguistically, but with a history of more than two thousand years of independent development of the Mingrelian language. Currently, there are attempts to assert that the Mingrelian language is a dialect of Georgian, but this does not reflect reality. Mingrelians consider themselves an integral part of the Georgian nation, reflecting their political identity. Svans also consider themselves part of the Georgian political nation, despite cultural and ethnic differences. Thus, historically, Abkhazians interacted primarily with Mingrelians.

Another myth concerns ancient inscriptions in Georgian in Abkhazian churches and on coins of the Abkhazian kingdom. If you take coins from modern Britain, you won’t see inscriptions in English but in Latin. What conclusion can be drawn? That ancient Romans lived in England? We have inscriptions in churches and on gravestones. This is similar to the use of Latin in Germany.

There is a temptation to use historical circumstances for political justification, but it’s necessary to proceed from real data. Mythology is an integral part of national identity, and without it, a nation cannot exist. Abkhazians, like other peoples, have their own mythology, which is also significant for their cultural self-determination. It’s important to realize that there is a Georgian state and an Abkhazian state, and an Abkhazian people striving to preserve their state as a guarantee of their survival and development. Based on this, further relations should be built.

All talk of brotherhood among peoples belongs to the past Soviet national policy. It cannot be claimed that the English and Germans are fraternal peoples despite their ancient ties. No one would say they are fraternal peoples. These are remnants of Soviet ideology about fraternal peoples. These phrases themselves mean nothing. If we look at the history of any people, they had the most conflicts with neighbors and so-called fraternal peoples. Conflicts arose over resources, feudal possessions, plunder — ultimately, everyone is out for themselves. Historically, such relationships existed among most peoples.

Yes, we are ancient peoples, and Kartvelians are ancient peoples, and Abkhazians. We are even present in ancient Greek mythology. But our region is not significant for all humanity; it is important for us. We must create peaceful and comfortable living conditions for ourselves. After all, no people evolved directly from bacteria into lizards and then into humans. People have always migrated, and our homeland is Africa, for Homo sapiens — that is our historical homeland. We must leave these questions to specialists and think based on our pragmatic interests how we can be mutually beneficial to each other. In this sense, the policies of Georgian Dream give me certain hopes.

Inal Khashig: I can already foresee in the upcoming comments that Abkhaz historian Astamur Tania claimed that Abkhazians came from Africa to Abkhazia. But I would like to return to today’s realities. Besides being a historian, you were part of the Constitution reform commission. You were involved in the presidential commission for constitutional reform, and now the president has presented his version of the Constitution to parliament. I know that this version differs from what the Constitutional Commission recommended to the president. What are the differences? And I would like you to briefly comment on your attitude toward these presidential innovations.

Astamur Tania: Initially, it was said that this was the commission’s project. Now, thankfully, they started writing that the project was developed based on the commission’s proposals. There is a significant difference between these projects. Most importantly, the commission did not propose dissolving parliament because this mechanism would change the political structure for the worse. We reviewed and concluded that such a mechanism would empower the executive branch to artificially create parliamentary crises to dissolve an unwanted parliament.

This is very harmful for Abkhazia because, if you look, all our crises are resolved not by the executive branch, which, according to the Constitution, has all the authority, but for some reason by parliament. By the way, I was very satisfied with the reaction of our deputies. They immediately expressed their position that they do not support this idea. I believe that everything here needs to proceed at a calm pace. This definitely won’t be resolved before the elections. We proposed our project in 2022 and anticipated that the transition from the current Constitution to the amended Constitution cannot happen so quickly.

We need a mechanism to implement these amendments, considering the many legislative acts related to the Cabinet of Ministers as a collegial body of power. Therefore, we thought that if we start in 2022, by the end of the current president’s term, this package would be developed and implemented after the elections to avoid legal and political destabilization in the country and not disrupt the governance system. This is currently not feasible. I think that in the near future, we won’t be able to implement any constitutional reforms, and that’s good because we need to seriously consider this issue.

We need to achieve national consensus in maintaining control over our economy. Therefore, as I have said, I am satisfied with our deputies’ position. Honestly, against the backdrop of the threat that our society and people may lose control over our economy, the issue of constitutional reform is secondary. We could have a wonderful Constitution, but if we do not control our economy, it is useless. We will not be able to ensure the growth of our creative and demographic potential, the development of culture, language, and other important aspects. So this is a matter of paramount importance. We see what is happening in the tourism sector and other industries.

We need to achieve national consensus in maintaining control over our economy. This does not mean that we will not accept investors, but there are certain areas where our own people are successfully working, such as in tourism or the hotel business. We can attract chains, but we need to carefully monitor prices of goods and preserve retail outlets for local entrepreneurs. We cannot allow one investor to buy all the hotels in Abkhazia because it would lead to a monopoly and the ability to dictate the country’s policy through economic influence. This is not just theory; we see how this happens in other countries. It poses threats to our society and internal political stability. So we must approach these issues carefully, taking into account the experience and mistakes of other states.

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