Historian spurs debate on Abkhazia’s past

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Debate on Abkhazia’s history


As odd as it is, living in Georgia, one might even forget that the country has been struggling with territorial conflicts for over thirty years. The overwhelming majority of the Georgian society agrees upon several fundamental points about Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, abstaining from the discussion and analysis beyond the entrenched, somewhat comfortable paradigm.

The media, especially the most popular TV channels, also remember the issues of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region only when something remarkable happens, when there are anniversaries, and when some politicians take out the regions from their arsenal to once again instrumentalize them for their petty political interests. There are only a handful of organizations and online media outlets specifically focusing on or at least, covering the subject, while the Georgian segment of social networks is devoured by the news of the internal political skirmishes between the Georgian parties.

In this sense, the Facebook post of the new generation historian Beka Kobakhidze about “how Abkhazia was alienated, how the Abkhaz nation was formed, and how we ended up with separatism” came out without backstory. A small Facebook blog, which was not even intended as an academic paper or a scholarly article, turned out to be a trigger for a massive and lengthy discussion that the author himself could not have imagined initially.

No one bypassed the topic raised by Kobakhidze, from ordinary citizens to prominent academicians, everyone contributed as they could.

What did Kobakhidze say?

The historian started his text from the 10th century, stating that “united Georgia was not a nation-state in the modern sense,” while the ideological foundations of the country were laid later by the Georgian chroniclers.

Then the historian highlighted one of the first points of collision between the Georgian and Abkhaz historiographical perceptions, stating that Leon II is among the most sacred Abkhaz figures for the Abkhaz nation along with Nestor Lakoba and Vladislav Ardzinba, while Georgians portray him as a Georgian ruler.

Kobakhidze himself claims that Leon II would be neither Georgian nor Abkhaz in the modern sense, and he’s “almost certain” that he spoke Greek. Then Abkhazia was united with the rest of Georgia, and “Georgian cultural and political dominance from the late tenth century onwards is unquestionable.

The historian moves to the 15th century when unified Georgia broke up, and Abkhazia “was cut off” from the Georgian religious and political centers, falling under Ottoman influence. Kobakhidze claims that the late Middle Ages Abkhazia left the Georgian cultural and political space.

Kobakhidze also claimed that the colonialist Russian Empire saw “the Muslim Abkhaz and Circassians as a threat”, ending in the mass deportation of these nations. “This was a genocide, which is spoken about in today’s Abkhazia in rather hushed voices”, the historian concluded.

The academician continued with the abolishment of serfdom, stating that railroads were built, and urbanization began, but the railroad came to Abkhazia from Russia – Novorossiysk. Here, Kobakhidze concluded that this is how cultural and political integration of the population of Abkhazia into the Russian, not Georgian space took place.

Talking about the Soviet era, the historian said that the Abkhaz Bolshevik leader Nestor Lakoba is “a patriot, defender of Abkhazian national interests, and a hero” in the collective memory of the Abkhaz, but in fact, he “was a red feudal lord and the national interests were the last thing on his mind”.

About the Beria-Stalin period, Kobakhidze recognized the repressions against the Abkhaz people but also claimed that Georgians do not hold any responsibility for it, as these two people were only ethnic Georgians, but in fact, part of the occupying state and “did the most damage to Georgia”.

Then he criticized the work of the Georgian historian Pavle Ingorokva, whose theory that the Abkhaz migrated from the North Caucasus into Georgia in the Late Middle Ages, still forms the collective memory of Georgians about the region. This conclusion does not withstand any scientific criticism, claimed Kobakhidze.

He continued stating that the supporters of Ingorokva’s theory are still overwhelmingly dominating in modern Georgian historiography, while the mistakes of the Georgians were very well used by the Abkhaz nationalists, actively supported by Russia since 1991.

Kobakhidze concluded his blog by highlighting the complete ethnic cleansing of the Georgians from Abkhazia, stating that today Abkhazia has formed into a fascist and chauvinistic entity, that takes pride in ethnic cleansing and has no sympathy for the residents of Gali.

He offered several steps for reintegrating Abkhazia, stating that without the collapse of Russia, it is impossible.

Diverse reaction and public outrage

The post by Kobakhidze immediately induced intense discussion among the Georgian public. Society was divided into at least three parts: the ones who mostly supported the ideas developed by the historian; the ones who agreed partially, but supported the motivation of the post to provoke historical debate on the subject; and the ones who strongly disagreed with Kobakhidze, even blaming him for advocating “the interests of Georgia’s enemies”.

Each of these three segments included people from different backgrounds, and even the ideological groups, that usually agree on the fundamental issues, sided with different positions. The post not only managed to create enemies out of the friends but also to unite against Kobakhidze the people who, as the Georgian saying goes, “wouldn’t even say hello to each other”.

For example, Georgian humanitarian scholar and the former Rector of one the biggest Georgian universities Ilia State University, Gigi Tevzadze, who is an ardent critic of the ruling party, replied that “Russian agents or useful idiots are working.“

His comment was backed by the pro-government expert Guram Nikolashvili, who added that the “ambitious” historian wastes his talent “for likes and screenshots”. This could have been the only occasion in the last decade when these two persons, symbolizing “two different worlds”, briefly coexisted in harmony.

The pro-Western/liberal segment of the Georgian society demonstrated two extremely contradictory stances on Kobakhidze’s post, – a part of the liberals and so-called liberal media supported his claims, while the other part criticized the historian for promoting “Russo-Abkhaz narrative”.

The first part underlined that the existing approaches to the conflicts in Georgia are outdated, thus supporting Kobakhidze’s endeavor to provoke new academic and public discussion. As for the critics, some of them went so far as to accuse the historian of “questioning Georgia’s territorial integrity.”

Kobakhidze was mostly backed by the young generation historians, the experts who work in the conflict resolution field, the researchers who have been calling for reforms in Georgian academia for ages, the Georgian media outlets actively covering Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, and other representatives of the society not necessarily fully sharing Kobakhidze’s assertions but upholding the urgency of the changes in historiographical approach.

The biggest opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, associated with the UNM, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, quickly reacted to the discussion raised by the historian. Well-known anchor Eka Kvesitadze publicly thanked Kobakhidze for adopting “the function of spreading history”. Kvesitadze invited him as a guest to her political TV show to talk about the issues discussed in the post, where the historian was granted a solid television time to elaborate further on his controversial blog.

However, even in the ideological circles where the historian found the biggest encouragement, many received his assessment with a pinch of salt. This segment of the so-called liberal society always approaches the historical analysis of the Georgian conflicts that goes deeper than simply stating that everything is “Russia’s fault” with extra reluctance and caution.

Almost everyone agrees in Georgia (and, basically, beyond) that without Russia’s utterly negative involvement, the conflicts would be easier to resolve but not many sympathize with the idea of examining the historical or modern problems within the very Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian axis.

Needless to say, Kobakhidze overnight grew into a subject of sheer denunciation by the considerate number of the so-called old-generation historians and the conservative section of Georgian society, including pro-governmental activists. The latter, albeit, for an already established image of Kobakhidze as a ruling party critic rather than purely his academic considerations.

The historian was criticized for a splendid array of elements – “historical inaccuracies”, “fabricating Georgian history”, “repeating Abkhaz narrative”, “moving the academic discussion to non-academic space”, “encouraging separatism”, “influence from foreign states”, “historical illiteracy”, “not being thoroughly familiar with the historical sources”, and so on.

The old-generation historians, such as, for instance, Teimuraz Gvantseladze and Zurab Papaskiri separately highlighted “factual mistakes” in Kobakhidze’s text, also stating that Beria-Stalin actions in Abkhazia were merely a part of the general Soviet policy toward ethnic minorities in the Soviet republics and the region was not an exception. Papaskiri claimed that Abkhazia was always part of “the Georgian ethnocultural, political and state organism”, recommending Kobakhidze to read more sources.

In addition to the chaos around Kobakhidze’s post, some of the critics of his historical scrutiny disagreed with each other on the extent of the historian’s incorrectness. Historian Beka Chichinadze academically challenged some fundamental aspects of Kobakhidze’s assumptions, especially about the active historical involvement of the Abkhaz nation in the Georgian political and cultural life, claiming that it is obvious that the Abkhaz people were engaged representatives of the Georgian realm. In the comments, he was still criticized by Papaskiri and Gvantseladze about some aspects of his post, while the latter was accused by Chichinadze of the constant attempts “to erase Abkhazia’s history”.

What now?

As the researcher David Bragvadze ironically mentioned, Kobakhidze’s post caused larger public reverberation than the possible impeachment of the President of Georgia. It came as no surprise, as the Georgian society painfully receives any judgments that confront the deeply ingrained beliefs and narratives.

In this sense, the Georgian society might not be very different from any society that built its statehood around the national idea. Yet, there is something very specific to the Georgian case. The territorial issue is the most sensitive topic for the overwhelming majority of the Georgians, – the red line in its brightest manifestation, – but the conflicts are still the least present subject in the everyday political life of the country.  

Purely historically, some interpretations and assumptions of Kobakhidze might indeed be controversial but the importance of the historian’s blog goes far beyond the historical accuracy of the text. Challenging some of the core convictions in the collective memory of the Georgian people, Kobakhidze resuscitated the essential discussion from apparent unconsciousness.

The author noted at the beginning of the post that he had two goals, one to express his opinion and “the other to give impetus to the discourse on the history of Abkhazia.” It is difficult to predict if the arguments on Facebook will be echoed by new academic research, but Kobakhidze vividly overachieved in giving impulse to the discussion that has been dormant for years.

Whether this effect will be long-winded or not, we yet have to witness. Even if not, the blog has already unveiled significant characteristics of our society. It vividly demonstrated that the Georgian is not fully ready for the critical reexamination of its history but it longs for this discussion within its unreadiness. And, this is not about the correctness or incorrectness of the Kobakhidze’s post, it is about avoiding the temptation of never questioning what we strongly believe as individuals, or as a society.

It is often said that the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict started at university, among the academics from both sides. Maybe it is time for the scholars to loosen the knot that they themselves tied so tightly decades ago.

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