“We and Georgians are fighting for the past, not for the future” | Abkhaz historian Astamur Tania

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Interview with Abkhaz historian

The Center for Social Justice publishes an interview with Abkhaz public figure and historian Astamur Tania. The interview has been moved without changes. All rights belong to the Center for Social Justice. Publication date: December 11, 2023.

The Center for Social Justice continues its series of interviews with public figures in Abkhazia. Our goal is to bring Abkhaz perspectives, voices, and representations into our public discussions and through this process facilitate rapprochement and trust-building between divided societies.

Tamta Mikeladze’s interview with an Abkhaz social activist and historian Astamur Tania.

Text editor: Roland Raiki

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. It is always interesting to hear your views and opinions. Obviously, the content of this interview is influenced by the discussions that are actively taking place in our society. In recent years, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has largely been viewed from a foreign policy perspective. At the same time, the ethno-political dimension of the conflict is increasingly being lost. In this regard, I would like to ask you the first question. Historically, when and in what context did the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict begin? What periods and aspects would you single out?

This conflict has different stages. Until the late 19th Century there was no conflict because both Abkhaz and Georgian societies lived under feudalism, under which there were no nations and therefore, no national consciousness. At that time, Abkhaz in their mass had little contact with eastern Georgians, having closer contact with Mingrelians in the east and Adygs and Ubykhs in the west of their ethnic area.

The conflict developed in the process of formation of the two nations, which proceeded roughly synchronously, with a difference of several decades in favor of Georgian nation-building. The emergence of the Georgian and Abkhaz nations, as well as others, is directly connected with the advent of capitalism and the Age of Enlightenment, with which universal education, humanities, literature, and arts began to develop, and national self-consciousness, i.e. awareness of one’s cultural, historical and linguistic community was formed.

Even after the collapse of the Russian state, the question of independence was not as obvious for either Georgia or Abkhazia as it seems to us today.

The Georgian nation was formed by incorporating sub-ethnic Kartvelian groups, often with quite significant linguistic differences, such as the Mingrelians and Svans. Since Abkhazia and the Abkhaz people played a significant role in the formation of Georgian medieval statehood, it was natural for Georgian intellectuals to include Abkhaz in the emerging Georgian national mythology as an organic part of the Georgian nation. It is no coincidence that in Georgian literature there is a somewhat romanticized image of Abkhaz, this is directly related to the idea of incorporation of them into the Georgian nation.

Even after the collapse of the Russian state, the question of independence was not as obvious for either Georgia or Abkhazia as it seems to us today. In addition, after several waves of Muhajirism in the second half of the 19th century, colonization of Abkhazia by representatives of different peoples, and first of all by neighboring Mingrelians, began. At first, this did not cause protest in the Abkhaz society, which in the main continued to live a fairly isolated patriarchal way of life.

However, by the end of the 19th Century Abkhaz society began to gradually modernize under the influence of economic processes and the spread of education. First Abkhaz-speaking intelligentsia appeared. There is no doubt that Dmitry Gulia is the main figure in the first wave of Abkhaz intelligentsia. He can rightfully be called the founder of the Abkhaz nation, as he laid the foundation of Abkhaz humanities: linguistics, literature, journalism, theater, history, and ethnology. He was not alone, of course, but it was his activity that was the most versatile and stimulating. Thus, the process of transformation of the Abkhaz ethnos into the Abkhaz nation began.

In both the Georgian and Abkhaz cases these processes had a lot in common, as they were started not so much for internal reasons, but for external ones, associated with the integration of both societies into the more highly developed Russian state system and Westernization, which was also carried out through Russian education, science, more modern technology, and capitalist economic model.

With the decline of the Russian Empire in Georgia, the ideas of social democracy were quite popular among the intelligentsia; within this ideology, the Russian semi-feudal monarchy was seen as an outdated institution that artificially restrained the development of society and suppressed the national identity of the non-Russian peoples of the empire. The Social Democratic movement set as its goal the transformation of Russia into a federal republic with modern parliamentary institutions and high self-government of the peoples. These ideas were popular among the Abkhaz intelligentsia. Naturally, such views were persecuted by the police apparatus.

While in Abkhazia Sovietization is assessed as an act of liberation from Georgian rule and restoration of Abkhaz statehood, in Georgia it is considered occupation.

Another area of national expression in Georgia was the church question – more specifically, the question of restoring the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which had been lost in the early 19th century. The Tsarist authorities fought this movement severely, persecuting its supporters.

While in Abkhazia Sovietization is seen as an act of liberation from Georgian power and restoration of Abkhaz statehood, in Georgia it is considered occupation.

As soon as in early March 1917 the monarchy in Russia fell, the Georgian national movement decided on the issue of autocephaly of the Georgian Church, which was proclaimed 10 days after the abdication of Nicholas II.

This was followed by the reaction of not only the Russian Orthodox Church, which did not recognize this act, which lasted until 1943, but also the nascent Abkhaz national movement. On his initiative, an Abkhaz church-popular assembly was held in Sukhumi, which declared its desire to restore autocephaly of the Abkhazian church on the basis that until the end of the 18th Century, there was an autocephalous Abkhazian Catholicosate (no one remembered that the jurisdiction of this structure included not only Abkhazia but also feudal states of Western Georgia). Then, however, for objective reasons related to a small number of clergy, they decided to limit themselves to achieving the status of an autonomous diocese within the Russian Orthodox Church.

This situation shows that even then contradictions between the two young national projects of Abkhaz and Georgian began to appear. Of course, one can look for intrigues of imperial forces in this, and even find them, but this does not cancel the fact that the Abkhaz national project considered itself as an independent unit seeking self-determination. Naturally, at that time neither Georgia nor Abkhazia were yet talking about independent state existence. The main political forces assumed that Russia would be transformed on republican state principles, taking into account the rights of different peoples.

Even after the collapse of the Russian state, the question of independence was not as obvious for either Georgia or Abkhazia as it seems to us today. Otherwise the Transcaucasian federation, in the creation of which Georgia played a leading role, would not have been formed. Only in May 1918, it broke up into three independent states under the influence of both external and internal factors.

If we consider the political situation in Abkhazia, it was also multidirectional. Some political forces were pulling towards Georgia, others – towards integration with the regions of Southern Russia and the North Caucasus. The first composition of the Abkhazian National Council in its majority was oriented towards these regions. It is no coincidence that it took part in integration processes that led to the creation of the Mountainous Republic – a federal state, of which Abkhazia was a part for a short time.

The main reasons for the genesis of the conflict were the policy of destroying the Abkhaz language and culture, by eliminating Abkhaz education and replacing it with Georgian education.

However, after the Bolsheviks seized power in Sukhumi and then in Gagra and Gudauta, representatives of this council resorted to assistance from Georgia, which led to the establishment of Georgian control over Abkhazia. But even Georgian Mensheviks understood that Abkhaz were not Georgians but a separate people, so the reduced Abkhaz autonomy continued to exist, and the autonomy of Abkhazia was also enshrined in the constitution of the Georgian Republic.

After Soviet power was established in Georgia and Abkhazia, the SSR of Abkhazia, formed on 31 March 1921, was proclaimed an independent state, which was recognized by the RevCom of Georgia. It should be noted that today there is a directly opposite assessment of the establishment of Soviet power in Abkhazia and Georgia, which also characterizes the presence of national contradictions. While in Abkhazia Sovietization is assessed as an act of liberation from Georgian rule and restoration of Abkhaz statehood, in Georgia it is considered occupation.

Although it is unlikely that such harsh assessments were characteristic of the societies of the time. Bolsheviks were obsessed with the idea of a world proletarian revolution and the unification of all workers. For them, the creation of national republics was only a tactic connected with the desire to satisfy the national agenda of the peoples of the former Russian Empire and to remove the contradictions between them. The Bolsheviks believed that with the help of Communist ideology and an economic model free from the exploitation of man by man, within a short time, inter-ethnic conflicts would be ended and forgotten within a socialist union of peoples.

The main reasons for the genesis of the conflict were the policy of destroying the Abkhaz language and culture, by eliminating Abkhaz education and replacing it with Georgian education. As a result of this policy, the ZSFSR and then the USSR came into being. This was presented as economic and political expediency. Local leaders spoke of the need for independence of Abkhazia as a short-term act aimed at erasing the memory of Georgian chauvinism and mutual animosity between Abkhaz and Georgians, sown by Mensheviks.

This period is associated with the emergence of pseudo-scientific theories that Abkhaz are part of the Georgian people, and then the work of Pavle Ingorokva, who suggested that modern Abkhaz are not descendants of ancient Abkhaz, but some kind of aliens from the North Caucasus.

It seems that the development of contradictions and conflict relations between Abkhaz and Georgians was connected with the process of change of demographic situation in Abkhazia that started after the Makhajirs and gained momentum in the wake of colonization. So, in particular, according to the census of 1897, Abkhaz made up 55% of the population of the Sukhumi district (about 60 thousand) and Georgians about 24% (about 26 thousand), but according to the census of 1926, Abkhaz were 27% and Georgians 33%.

But it is wrong to think that the transformation of the independent SSR of Abkhazia into a treaty SSR within the SSR of Georgia immediately led to national oppression of the Abkhaz people by Georgia. For me, it is not obvious at all, because in the Soviet Union at that time the policy of Korenizatsiia that lasted until the early 30s was dominant.

In this sense, the reaction of the authorities to the anti-kolkhoz uprising in Abkhazia in February 1931 is indicative. A decree was adopted to increase the number of specialists who spoke the Abkhaz language, who would carry out the party line on the ground, and to improve the teaching of the Abkhaz language. I think it was a completely justified decree because they saw that the illiterate population was unable to understand state policy.

Then, in the second half of the 1930s, the policy of nativization was replaced by the policy of enlargement of peoples, which meant the assimilation of small nationalities the existence of which was considered unprofitable by the Soviet authorities, since the maintenance of national institutions of such peoples was allegedly expensive and did not make economic sense. According to this approach, small peoples were to gradually be dissolved into larger ones by appropriate linguistic and cultural policies.

The Abkhaz people in particular were supposed to merge with the Georgian people. This was accompanied by repressions against intellectuals and the political elite, including those who had recently been formed as a result of Korenizatsiia, and now they were proclaimed bourgeois nationalists. Similar processes took place in Georgia; there too those who, in the opinion of the authorities, were cleansed of those who were nationalists.

To accelerate the process of assimilation of Abkhaz, under the slogan of development of new lands and economic growth, colonization of Abkhazia was carried out. But the policy of resettlement of Georgians in Abkhazia itself was not a cause of future conflict, because in general relations between Abkhaz and Georgians who settled in the neighborhood were good. In any case, there are no reports of any sharp conflicts. Moreover, there were cases when after Stalin’s death Abkhaz persuaded Georgian neighbors not to return to Georgia. It should be understood that for these people resettlement in Abkhazia was also a tragedy and at the first opportunity they wanted to go back.

The main reasons for the outbreak of the conflict were the policy of destruction of the Abkhaz language and culture through elimination of Abkhaz education and its replacement with Georgian education.

In particular, there is a report from Akaki Mgeladze to Joseph Stalin where he explains why the Abkhaz language is not necessary. Despite the usual duplicity of the Soviet era and propaganda that proclaimed the brotherhood of workers of the Soviet Union, this policy was clearly perceived by Abkhaz as a national humiliation, especially since it was accompanied by the repression of the national intelligentsia. This period is associated with the emergence of pseudo-scientific theories that Abkhaz are part of the Georgian people, and then the work of Pavle Ingorokva, who suggested that modern Abkhaz are not descendants of ancient Abkhaz, but some kind of aliens from the North Caucasus.

Abkhaz society is small and repressions touched every family. Of course, we know that brutal repressions were carried out on all peoples of the USSR and Georgian too, but in our case, it had a national connotation. Just like the deportation of some nations during the Second World War had national connotations.

I, like most Abkhaz in my family, had people who could share their memories of these events, how in schools they were forbidden to speak Abkhaz among themselves and were taught in Georgian, which they did not understand. At that time toponymy began to change, almost all names of Abkhaz villages were Georgianized.

Abkhaz react strongly to the repression of their intelligentsia in the 1930s and often see this as a crime committed by Georgians rather than a general policy. You know very well that as a result of repressions Georgian intellectuals died and there were heavy losses in Georgian society. The Georgian ethnicity of Stalin, Beria, and others does not mean that the repressions organized by them had an ethnic basis.

 Yes, I understand that we perceive it as the purposeful destruction of Abkhaz intelligentsia in order to incorporate Abkhaz people into the Georgian nation. As for Stalin and Beria, our society mostly looks at them as people who promoted the interests of Georgia, albeit within the USSR. The fact that many Georgian nationalists of the late Soviet period treated Stalin’s personality with piety partly contributed to this perception. I realize that this is such a parochial approach, typical for us and other small nations, when they are proud of any celebrity that came from their nation and do not consider the activities of this historical figure objectively. And Stalin was undoubtedly the most famous Georgian, whom many Georgians are still proud of today.

Yes, but similar processes took place in all Soviet republics. Was it a common policy?

In the North Caucasus, there was Russification and in Abkhazia there was Georgianization, that is why we had a conflict with Georgians. For example, there was an Abkhaz village. A Georgian village was founded next to it. Our elders remembered how these people were crying, longing for home. In fact, they were refugees and after Stalin’s death, they decided to go back. Abkhaz gathered a meeting, called these Georgians, and said – do not go anywhere, stay here. They persuaded them to stay. This shows that there were no domestic conflicts between them.

Perhaps if after Stalin’s death more attention had been paid to the rehabilitation of the Abkhaz people, the ground for conflict would have disappeared.

The initiators of institutional segregation, by the way, were Georgian political leaders. Separation of the university was the first step and it was done by Georgians. I think that there were corrupt interests, but it was all wrapped up in national wrappings.

But instead, if we take the 60s-70s, and especially the 80s, we had a gradual aggravation of relations, with some decline, but constant. One can often hear in Georgia that Abkhaz had privileged positions in the Soviet years that did not correspond to their number in the republic, that we had television, university, Abkhaz language had the status of state language in the Abkhazian ASSR. But those who say so do not take into account that this was not granted by the Georgian authorities voluntarily but as a result of mass protests by the Abkhaz people.

Before the collapse of the USSR disputes on the historical topic of who came from where and who came before were sharply intensified. Not only scientists, who undoubtedly set the tone by seeking to gain popularity in their societies through public debates but also all segments of the population. Historical topics were the most popular among the conversations not only among the intelligentsia but also among peasants and workers, i.e. people who were not at all scientifically trained.

Conflict societies are characterized by opposite assessments of the same historical events and figures, back to ancient times.

For example, I studied in a Russian school and my class was mostly Georgian. As a child, I almost did not think about my ethnicity, but I really felt that I was an Abkhaz when my Georgian friends and acquaintances started telling me that I was not an Abkhaz, that I was an Apsua and had come down from somewhere.

At first, it was perceived as absurd and mass insanity. I hoped that people would soon come to a normal state, but it did not happen. On the contrary, it gained momentum. Undoubtedly blame for this lies on such political figures as Gamsakhurdia and Kostava who, fighting for the freedom of Georgia, for some reason sought to suppress the national identity of Abkhaz, probably so it was easier to mobilize the population under their banners. Naturally, this caused a response and Abkhaz nationalism was growing.

The initiators of institutional segregation, by the way, were Georgian political leaders. Separation of the university was the first step and it was done by Georgians. I think that there were corrupt interests, but it was all wrapped up in national wrappings. Do you know how Abkhaz perceived it? Georgians are more numerous in Abkhazia, if they divide the university, then it will be the turn of other institutions, first of all political, which will lead to loss of political and cultural positions of the Abkhaz people, i.e. Abkhazia will completely go under the rule of Georgians, and Abkhaz will be left with nothing in the role of some bastards, deprived of their history and identity, and this will be followed by dissolution of the nation.

And the central authorities in Soviet Georgia followed such a policy. They wanted to be popular, even though they were called communists, they wanted to be in the national trend. It is indicative that one of the most extremist publications was “Akhalgazrda Komunisti” (Young Communist), strange as it may seem, at that time ultra-nationalist articles were written in this newspaper.

Yes, I worked with archives, and that’s true.

I was still at school at that time, I was very interested in politics and history. There was one newspaper in Abkhazia, now if you read it, it seems very primitive. It was called “Bzyb” and it was published in Gudauta. And since Gudauta had the most Abkhaz, this newspaper wrote articles that were mostly in tune with the feelings and emotions of Abkhaz of that time, unlike “Soviet Abkhazia” where they tried to maintain at least some balance. This newspaper was the most popular among Abkhaz.

Conflict societies are characterized by opposite assessments of the same historical events and figures, back to ancient times. The image of the enemy was formed on both sides at a rapid pace. The Soviet apparatus practically did not oppose it; it, too, actually split along national lines. The population sat and counted what positions were occupied by Georgians and Abkhaz, up to directors of taxi parks and restaurants. The main thing was that a person was of a certain nationality, but not his professional or personal qualities, all that was put on the back burner.

The entry of Georgian troops, who, it should be recalled, was accompanied by unprovoked shelling of Abkhaz villages and then Sukhumi beaches full of vacationers, was clearly perceived by Abkhaz as an act of aggression to eliminate Abkhaz statehood.

I have witnessed many times when some Abkhaz spoke with annoyance about the daughter of Abkhazian king Gurandukht who entered into a dynastic marriage with King Gurgen that led to unification with Georgia. This sounds ridiculous and is a vivid example of the projection of the modern worldview, to the distant past, in which such categories as Georgian and Abkhaz nation did not exist at all. But this is a litmus test of the presence of a conflict of national projects, which is projected onto the national mythology.

For example, if we take an assessment of historical events that are closer to us, then here we see opposite assessments. For example, the Tbilisi events of April 9, 1989, are unambiguously assessed in Georgia as a tragedy and a crime of the Soviet authorities against the Georgian people. But in Abkhazia, they look at it quite differently, because at that rally there were demands to abolish the autonomy of Abkhazia. Largely due to Georgian policy, Abkhaz came to love Soviet power, which they hated in the first decades of its existence. But after Stalin, especially in the 70s and 80s, Abkhaz began to see protection from Georgia in the central Soviet power.

But I emphasize that this was not an irreversible situation, even after the clashes of 1989. In 1991, as a result of negotiations, it was possible to agree on the quota principle of elections of the Parliament of Abkhazia, which, as it seemed at the time, gave the parties quite reliable guarantees that their interests would be respected.

I remember well that in 90-91, we were relatively calm, and human relations were gradually restored. Fighting was mainly taking place not in the streets, but in offices and the press, but its degree was lower than in the late 80s. Abkhaz people were very satisfied that Georgians overthrew Zviad Gamsakhurdia and hoped that Shevardnadze and those who appeared democrats, would change their policy towards Abkhazia. There was such a hope. Georgian society, including in Abkhazia, was then divided into supporters and opponents of Gamsakhurdia, and the rallies that took place in Abkhazia were mainly directed not against Abkhaz, but against the illegal Georgian government that took power by force.

There is a theory that the war was started by Shevardnadze to unite Georgian society, but I honestly do not think so. Perhaps later it was used to unite Georgian society, but initially, I think there was a subjective factor. In fact, power was not in the hands of Shevardnadze at that time. I think he was not lying when he said in an interview that Kitovani was to blame for everything and that it was on his own initiative that he introduced troops to Abkhazia. I think it is possible that when Kitovani received so many weapons under the Tashkent agreement he decided to become a hero of the Georgian nation by solving the problem of Abkhazia with lightning speed and at the same time to get large assets in his hands.

The entry of Georgian troops, who, it should be recalled, was accompanied by unprovoked shelling of Abkhaz villages and then Sukhumi beaches full of vacationers, was clearly perceived by Abkhaz as an act of aggression to eliminate Abkhaz statehood. Shortly before the war, there was a struggle for sovereignties. Abkhaz authorities made decisions – Georgian authorities canceled them, Georgian authorities made decisions – Abkhaz authorities canceled them. For example, shortly before the war, a decision on a 20-kilometer zone was made. According to this decision, 20 kilometers along the entire state border of Georgia were to come under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense of Georgia.

If we cut off 20 kilometers of the border strip from Abkhazia, there would be nothing left of Abkhazia itself. The Gali district was already virtually uncontrolled by the Abkhazian authorities, and here they were going to take away almost the entire Gagra district and mountainous part of Abkhazia. Naturally, Abkhazia refused to carry out this decision.

You say that the conflict was related to historical issues and it was especially aggravated in the 80s, but how correct is it to consider the conflict only through the prism of nationalism? You do not agree with other political explanations, which, for example, are related to the fact that in the 90s the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by the collapse of the economy and everyday life, and life in the new reality caused fear and anxiety; or that the elites were not ready for the emergence of a new state and did not know how to govern the country, and against this background the paradigm of the new state was not agreed between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Among them, it was unclear what the power distribution in the new state would be.

Naturally, since the Soviet government financed national institutions, both ours and yours, the colossal funds of the Soviet government were distributed and spent on the maintenance of the educational system, theaters and ensembles, and so on. It should be recognized that many nations actually emerged thanks to the Soviet government. Their formation was not a consequence of the independent development of the economic basis, which naturally led to the emergence of the nation, as it happened in many European countries. The economic model and new political conditions were introduced by the Soviet authorities, who were engaged in equalizing the social development of the national peripheries. Nevertheless, the process of nation-building became irreversible.

Therefore once the socialist economic model went bankrupt and the Communist ideology and the Soviet apparatus were destroyed, the former Soviet nations were left with only one ideological banner – nationalism. It is still flying above the post-Soviet space above other banners. And this is a natural course of the historical process, all nations of Europe have gone through it, but much earlier than us.

Young nations are characterized by nationalistic romanticism, which is manifested especially in art, which glorifies and embellishes history, inspires society with pride in itself, and plays on emotions.

After the entry of Georgian troops ethnic cleansing began to be carried out in those regions that were under their control and it was impossible for Abkhaz to feel safe in these areas.

This nationalistic romanticism became most pronounced during the decline of the USSR and after its collapse: “We are great! We are beautiful! We have the best and oldest history, wonderful ancestors who can only be proud!”. From this flowed the notion that as soon as we became independent, as soon as we could independently dispose of our resources, we would immediately live almost as if in paradise. Political demagogues who painted such pictures of the future were very popular at that time, especially since they themselves believed in what they were saying.

In reality, neither Georgians, nor we, nor other nations realized how naive we were. We were children, you and we. In many ways we still are, we believe that success can be achieved not by hard, long and consistent work, but by magic. Hence the desire to shift responsibility to someone else, someone to whom we trust the power. We cannot get used to the paternalism of the Soviet state, which decided for a person where to study, where to work, what to wear, what to watch. This is too deeply ingrained in the consciousness of post-Soviet people.

One of the accusations I heard in Georgia against Abkhaz is that Abkhaz were against the independence of Georgia and that they were pro-Soviet, that is, they supported the Soviet Union, which shows the problem of their political consciousness. How do you explain this?

As I said before Abkhaz did not like the Soviet regime because it was destroying their usual way of life. It was undoubtedly an archaic way of life, but in it, Abkhaz lived freely without constant control from the state. Institutionally the Abkhaz ethnos became a nation during the Soviet period, it was a Soviet nation. When relations between Georgians and Abkhaz escalated, Moscow acted as an arbiter, and naturally Abkhaz retained pro-Soviet sentiments, constantly appealing to some Leninist national policy, which was considered the height of justice, to the fact that Abkhazia was one of the Soviet republics and the creator of the Soviet Union.

As for the creation of the Soviet Union, this is not true either, even Georgia was not a founder of the Soviet Union. The founder of the USSR was the ZSFSR and Georgia was a founder of the ZSFSR. At the time of the signing of the Union Treaty Abkhazia was a part of Georgia as a treaty republic, so it signed the Union Treaty as a part of the Georgian delegation. Abkhazia was not a union republic.

After the entry of Georgian troops ethnic cleansing began to be carried out in those regions that were under their control and it was impossible for Abkhaz to feel safe in these areas. Lenin’s national policy was popular in the sense that enlightenment and Korenizatsiia were connected with the so-called Leninist line, although it was mostly implemented under Stalin.

During the war, killing became a daily norm, an everyday occurrence, it greatly distorted the image of a human being that we are accustomed to in peacetime. If it helps anyone, we can only comfort ourselves with the fact that Georgians and Abkhaz are not unique in this sense.

Thus the orientation towards the union center was dictated by the desire to obtain guarantees of security and national identity. And around these needs was built a mythology on the historical theme of good Lenin, who wanted the good, but did not have time – as Fazil Iskander wrote.

If we remember the war period, it is often said that the conflict was started not from the bottom up, but from the top down. When we discussed these issues with refugees, they said that everything happened suddenly and that there was no alienation and violence between people. In 1989, as you mentioned, there were some clashes in the cities, but Abkhaz and Georgians lived mostly peacefully.

This is a cartoon picture, we should always avoid simplifications. First of all, let’s remember the footage of the Georgian army entering Sukhum, Georgians greeting them with flowers, they probably understood that Abkhaz were not very happy about it. I stayed in Gagra for some time at the very beginning of the war and some wild things started happening there. We did not expect such things. Some people were dragged out of their homes, killed in the street, looting on ethnic grounds began at once, corpses were forbidden to be taken away and buried, and there was a real policy of ethnic cleansing. Georgian armed groups were the first to start the policy of ethnic cleansing.

After the entry of Georgian troops, ethnic cleansing began to be carried out in those regions that were under their control, it was impossible for Abkhaz to feel safe in these areas. You were absolutely unprotected by anyone and you could be killed just like a dog and they would have nothing to do with it. When the troops entered Ochamchira, the first thing they did was tear down the Abkhaz flag, throw it down, and raise a Georgian one. Symbols were fought against. In fact, this attitude aggravated the situation. I do not know whether there would have been such mass resistance on the part of Abkhaz if they had pursued a softer policy, it is difficult for me to say, but then resistance was the only way out.

Let’s say in Ochamchira, yesterday people lived with each other in friendship, as relatives, and suddenly today these yesterday’s relatives start to persecute you like a wild animal, that’s what started to happen. The resistance of Abkhaz was natural in such conditions, and it was mass and voluntary, no authorities drove people into trenches. What happened later, the liberation of Sukhumi, you call it a fall, and the mass exodus of the Georgian population is a consequence of this.

Even when we had a ceasefire, in July 1993, there were rallies in Sukhumi that we would not allow the return of Abkhaz. Rallies were held by Georgians and they took place after the agreement of July 27th 1993, on the eve of the last Abkhaz offensive, because according to this document, the Abkhaz population had to return to Sukhumi, and authorities had to return, rallies were held under the slogan that Georgians would not allow the return of Abkhaz. Another thing is that what happened next was exactly the same thing that Georgians were doing towards Abkhaz and Abkhaz were doing the same thing.

What Abkhaz did in Gali, is this, in your opinion, a kind of revenge?

You know, it is not so much revenge, but rather an expression of anger – you did it and we did it.

Although during the war there was experience of mutual assistance and support between Georgian and Abkhaz neighbors, this war was quite brutal. Brutal facts were seen on both sides.

They were not much different from each other in this sense, knowing both what Georgians did and what Abkhaz did, I do not see much difference. During the war, killing became a daily norm, an everyday occurrence, it greatly distorted the image of a human being that we are accustomed to in peacetime. We studied violations of human rights during the war and found some hellish stories: immolation, killing of children, brutal things.

These acts, of course, do not fit into the romantic picture that both you and we imagined about ourselves before the war. If it helps anyone, we can only comfort ourselves with the fact that Georgians and Abkhaz are not unique in this sense.

Before the war of 2008, before Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was the topic of independence actively discussed in Abkhaz society and did you think that time would come? Or would you have allowed a model of distribution of power and coexistence in one political body together with Georgians?

Of course, we dreamed of being independent, but we thought that it was unrealistic to reach the level of independence immediately. Therefore we considered the establishment of confederal relations with Georgia as a possible compromise. At that time the word confederation caused allergic reactions in Georgia, so during the negotiations other terms appeared – “union state”, “common state” – but everywhere Abkhaz insisted on equal subject relations in order to have a guarantee against interference from Georgia in internal politics. We understood that everything could not be written in a document, and that due to its size and economic potential, it would be an asymmetric state, but we wanted to somehow protect ourselves.

At the same time, Shevardnadze expected that with the help of Russia and countries that were members of the Group of Friends of Georgia (USA, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, France) he would achieve inclusion of Abkhazia into Georgia. The Georgian authorities feared that if it was an equal-subject state, the likelihood of its disintegration on legal grounds was much higher. For example, Abkhazia can say that we have been in the union state, we did not like it and we are leaving. Here refugees became hostages of the situation, Georgians said let refugees return, then we will hold a referendum and determine what the future will be, Abkhaz on the contrary insisted on a package solution that included recognition of equal status, return of refugees and lifting of sanctions.

This is still relevant for us…

The Abkhaz authorities did not immediately say that they would not return refugees, moreover – the process started, about 1,000 people a month were returning. Even apartments that Abkhaz occupied in Sukhumi, in other cities they could not be registered until the late 90s, they were given temporary residence permits because refugees might return. Then they started to issue permanent permits.

The process began, but the Georgian authorities said that it was too slow, insisted that there should be a mass return of refugees, and all the time they were pushing for the Russian peacekeepers to be given police functions so that they could forcefully facilitate the return. In fact, the Georgian authorities themselves broke the process.

There was a point in the approach when in the first years after the war, humanitarian aid from the international community was mainly directed to the Gali district, and the interests of the rest of the population of Abkhazia were ignored.

According to the Agreement, it should have looked as follows: lists of returnees should have been agreed upon, these people should have been notified that they were obliged to respect the laws of Abkhazia and that if they committed war crimes they would be held criminally responsible. All this is written down in the 1994 Quadripartite Agreement on the Return of Refugees. Look through this document.

Some part went back to Gali, but was there a readiness for other regions as well?

It was written there, first of all, to the Gali region, and most of the residents returned there. By the way, under the pretext that the return was spontaneous, beyond the control of UNHCR, the position of the Abkhaz side, which did not prevent this return, did not receive a proper positive assessment from Georgia and the international community. No measures were taken to ease the sanctions.

There was a point in the approach when, in the first years after the war, humanitarian aid from the international community was mainly directed to the Gali district, while the interests of the rest of the population of Abkhazia were ignored. It took years to balance this situation.

I think that all these outdated theories about borders, sovereignties will be revised, and I think that both we and Georgians are actually fighting for the past, not for the future.

We must admit that we tried, of course, to delay the process of return to other regions of Abkhazia, but it was not initially planned to ignore it completely. But these demands for mass return, military threats and sanctions – all this stalled the situation.

There is this notion in Georgia that after the 2008 war, Abkhazia was no longer interested in conflict resolution. They got everything they wanted, that their independence would be recognized, and were not interested in resolving the conflict before the war in Ukraine started.

This is partly a fair point of view, it prevailed and dominated in Abkhazia; moreover, some of our political analysts wrote that the conflict was over because Abkhazia had achieved everything. As if the conflict were not bilateral or we were moved to another planet away from Georgia. Naturally, the conflict is not over and time shows us that anything can happen, we are not immune to anything. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has demonstrated that the status quo based on the stalling of the conflict is very fragile.

Has the war in Karabakh greatly affected the perception of the conflict?

Yes, Karabakh certainly influences us, although most Abkhaz do not consider the Karabakh situation.

Why?

I do not know why.

Do they think that Georgia is not strong enough to resort to militarism?

I think that all these outdated theories about borders, sovereignties will be revised, and I think that both we and Georgians are actually fighting for the past, not for the future. You have a completely wrong assessment of Ardzinba, you see him as some kind of fanatic. But he was a pragmatic man and an authoritative leader, ready to take responsibility. It is no coincidence that the greatest successes in negotiations were achieved with his participation.

Given these fears we are talking about, where do you see new perspectives and a platform for peace consolidation?

I am optimistic and idealistic. It’s not always a good thing, but based on my worldview I think it’s likely, or rather I would like to allow for that possibility, that the world will be a better place after all this turmoil. I have that hope. And if it will be better, I think that all these outdated theories about borders, sovereignties will be reconsidered and I think that both we and Georgians are actually fighting for the past and not for the future. Because the picture of the desired future that we have drawn for ourselves is primitive and does not correspond to today’s time.

I think that we are similar to you also in that we have provincial thinking and false idea of our extreme importance for the world, we think that the earth’s axis passes through our garden. In fact, we live on the periphery of large highly developed countries, we are mainly consumers, not producers of achievements of the world civilization, of course, we contribute something, but mostly we are consumers. If we suddenly disappear, no one will notice it except our nearest neighbors. Therefore we should appreciate each other more and at least not poison each other’s lives, but preferably help each other.

I still think that we should work to transform the conflict by improving economic and social conditions, improving the quality of education, and shaping the public worldview in such a way as to make a new war impossible.

Someday, perhaps, we will rise above the myths that shaped our nations in the 20th century, look at the world more broadly, and realize that we need each other. And some specific forms, they are not so important if we restore trust between our peoples, renounce violence against each other forever and pragmatically solve issues that are of equal concern to Abkhaz and Georgians. I still think that we need to work on transforming the conflict by improving economic and social conditions, improving the quality of education, and shaping the public worldview in such a way as to make a new war impossible.

How do you see the future of Abkhazia, how do you want the Abkhaz people to be?

I would like my people to be preserved, not to cling to the past, to be integrated into global processes, and to have equal opportunities for creative development. We often say that it is necessary to preserve ancient traditions. Traditions are such a thing, which is necessary for adaptation to the surrounding world, that is why they have changed a hundred times in the past and continue to change every day.

The traditions we cling to are largely part of the literary creation that emerged in the Romantic period, they have nothing to do with reality. We need to think about basic things without which the nation does not exist – economy, demography, Abkhaz language, education, and culture, which should be in close connection and interaction with the world, change and transform.

In the same way, our society should not move forward with its head turned toward the past.

Abkhaz ethics values “auyura” (humanity) above all, it is considered synonymous with the concept of “apsuara”, the most important thing is to preserve these values in ourselves in the face of challenges we face. It can help us not to disappear.

Do you think there is such a danger?

Of disappearing? We are on the brink. I, for example, have a very poor command of the Abkhaz language, my parents had a much better command of the language, and my children know it worse than I do. Unfortunately, the language is in a position where it cannot survive without modern methodologies, economic and political incentives, large financial investments.

In our country people who are engaged in programs of development of the Abkhaz language often push it into the ritual sphere. Our textbooks are full of agrarian vocabulary and archaic words that are not applicable in modern life. It looks as if children are being prepared for collective farm life and manual agricultural labor. Our children are quite modern, live in cities, computers are commonplace for them, so they should be taught based on the modern way of life, otherwise, it is uninteresting and devoid of practical sense.

So, our society should not move forward with its head turned to the past. We need to stop being afraid of the present and the future, it is pointless and dangerous.

I witnessed a funny episode that happened with the daughter of my friend. He speaks Abkhaz brilliantly. His daughter also knows the language perfectly. They speak only Abkhaz at home, it is a rare capital city family where Russian was a second language for a child. And one day she calls him and asks in clear Abkhaz language: Dad, what does this word mean? And he does not know, does not understand. He called one of his relatives, then another. The word is from a textbook for the fourth grade. Then it turned out that it was a stretcher, on which in the old days the dead were brought down from the mountains. Why should a modern child in the fourth grade know the name of an object from the hunting life of past centuries?

In the same way, our society should not move forward with its head turned toward the past. We need to stop being afraid of the present and the future, it’s pointless and dangerous. We need to change, improve our competitiveness in accordance with modern conditions, and at the same time remain Abkhaz.

Thank you very much for the interview. It was very interesting and emotional to hear your thoughts and perspectives. Thank you very much for your honesty and reflexivity. I think this kind of dialogue, trust and honest sharing of experiences can play an important role in conflict transformation. I think that reading this text will be meaningful and transformative for Georgian society. In this way, we can better see our own past and even our future.

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