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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Georgia/Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Georgia/Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eaec41.html [accessed 14 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In December 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that if Kosovo gains independence from Serbia, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be free to become independent of Georgia. As tensions between Georgia and Russia mounted in 2007, conditions worsened for ethnic minorities in Georgia's unrecognized breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Exclusion of minorities in these regions threatened to push the region into conflict.

Soviet-era settlement of Georgians in Abkhazia and the demographic marginalization of ethnic Abkhaz led to their distrust of Georgia's drive for independence in the final days of the Soviet Union. With Russian assistance, ethnic Abkhaz defeated heavy-handed Georgian forces in a 1992–3 war that saw atrocities on both sides. Abkhazia lost over half of its population as an estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgians fled to Georgian-held territory, mostly in the neighbouring Zugdidi district. Abkhaz now form a plurality of the population, alongside sizeable Armenian and Russian populations. Those Georgians who remain are concentrated in Abkhazia's southern Gali district. Abkhaz authorities have gradually extended their de facto control over most of the territory. Talks remain at an impasse as Abkhazia insists on recognition of its independence as the first step in peace talks, while Georgia places priority on the return of displaced Georgians.

Displaced Georgians are not allowed to vote in Abkhaz elections. Those who have returned, estimated at 40,000, live mostly in the Gali district, where they are prone to gangsterism and intermittent upheavals and instability. Georgian-language education in Abkhazia remains a major area of contention. Abkhaz officials have been reluctant to make concessions in this area precisely because it would encourage Georgian return. The authorities also have taken pains to highlight the identity of remaining Georgians as Mingrelian, a Georgian dialect sub-group prevalent in western Georgia, whose members resist seeing any conflict between simultaneous embrace of the Mingrelian and Georgian aspects of its identity.

Ethnic Abkhaz are of two minds regarding Russia's backing. Russia has gradually asserted control in the area through issuance of passports, introduction of the rouble, payment of pensions, attempted control of politics, and increasingly through language. While some Russophone Abkhaz join ethnic Russians and Armenians in generally favouring integration with Russia, Abkhaz speakers tend to favour a future of independence.

Rising tensions between Tblisi and Moscow are increasing the threat to the Georgian minority while making ethnic Abkhaz more reliant on Russia, whether Abkhazia becomes independent or not. Against the backdrop of Russian anger at Georgia's intention to join NATO and Georgia's 2004 expulsion of alleged Russian spies, in June 2006 Georgian military forces increased their presence in the Kodori Gorge, a part of Abkhazia still under divided control. In May 2007, Georgia established a 'patriot youth camp' in an area under its control near the ceasefire line, and refused access to UN observers. In response, Abkhaz authorities increased nearby patrols, as did peacekeepers from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

A similar situation exists in South Ossetia, where conflict with Georgian authorities in 1989–90 increased the desire of South Ossetians to work towards closer integration with Russian North Ossetia. While South Ossetians have set up a de facto government, Russians have provided most residents with passports. Although a 2004 ceasefire has held, near-daily shootings continue. In the conflict zone of Tskhinvali, ethnic Ossetian villages are interspersed with ethnic Georgian villages, as well as those of mixed ethnicity. If tensions boil over again, both groups stand to suffer. South Ossetian officials are largely looking to developments in Abkhazia to provide a precedent for finalizing their split from Georgia.

In August 2007, the Georgian government accused Russia of violating its airspace to fire a heavy missile (that failed to detonate) near South Ossetia. Russia denied the claim, accusing Georgia of staging the incident as a provocation. In September, military clashes occurred in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, addressing the UN General Assembly, blamed these on Russia and accused Moscow of backing a 'mission of terror'.

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