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Assessment for Abkhazians in Georgia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Abkhazians in Georgia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
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.
Georgia Facts
Area:    69,700 sq. km.
Capital:    Tibilisi
Total Population:    5,190,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Abkhaz exhibit many factors that increase the likelihood of conflict in the future if the dispute over the status of Abhazia remains unresolved: the group has experienced both repression and rebellion in the recent past; it is highly organized both militarily and politically; and it is concentrated in a distinct region. Further, the new Georgian leadership under Saakashvili has demonstrated a willingness to engage in brinkmanship to re-unite the fragmented country, and this poses a serious risk for renewed violence. Although negotiations continue haphazardly, and while there is substantial external pressure on both sides to reach a settlement, Georgia's democracy remains unstable and the Abkhaz have not participated in Georgian politics for more than a decade. The central government has little to no influence over Abkhazia – the Abkhaz vote in their own regional elections, raise their own armies, and pay taxes to Sukhumi, not to Tbilisi. The Abkhaz demand recognition of their de facto independence, which is something that the Georgian leadership is adamant it will not cede.

The ongoing low-level violence that has been occurring in Abkhazia keeps the danger of a return to full-blown civil war fairly high. The relative state of peace today is maintained by peacekeeping troops which are nominally from the Commonwealth of Independent States, but in reality are comprised entirely of Russians. They are joined by a UN observer mission, which has helped oversee some repatriation of ethnic Georgians.

Repatriation is another contentious issue between the Abkhaz and the Georgian government. More than a quarter of a million Georgians left Abkhazia during the war, some by choice and some by force. Since losing control of the region, Shevardnadze's government, and now Saakashvili's, has consistently pressed claims against Abkhazia for gross human rights violations. A Georgian government commission investigating the question has issued in-depth reports alleging genocide and ethnic cleansing. In addition, Georgian officials have stated that they have sufficient evidence to warrant the convocation of an international war crimes tribunal. Georgian accusations pertain not only to the 1992-1993 period, but also to the treatment of returning Georgian refugees in 1994-1995. Tbilisi has cited the Abkhaz for practicing a form of "apartheid" against Georgians, as well as for allowing separatist militants to plunder, torture and expel civilians. In addition, Georgian judicial officers have accused then-Abkhaz President Ardzinba and his close associates with personal complicity in genocide. To date, a few thousand ethnic Georgians have been allowed to return to their homelands. Ominously, however, the Abkhaz have issued "registration cards" to returning Georgians which identify them as being of Mingrelian ethnicity (Mingrelia is the region of western Georgia bordering Abkhazia whose people speak a distinct dialect of Georgian).

The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia remains largely unresolved. Despite continuing talks, both sides continue to express virtually irreconcilable positions: Abkhazia demands independence, and Georgia is determined to preserve the country's unity. Abkhazia also declined Georgia's offer in September 1998 for "the highest status of political autonomy within an integral Georgian federative state," and has continued to refuse other similar offers by the new Georgian leadership.

The fragile state of peace in Abkhazia seems dependent upon the presence of 3,000 Russian peacekeepers, whose mandate was recently extended, and on the willingness of Saakashvili not to engage in further acts of brinkmanship. The current environment can be described as a highly unstable "neither peace nor war".

Post Script

Today, the ethnic Georgians remaining in Abkhazia constitute a "majority at risk." This statement is not meant to obscure the past reality, or future possibility, of persecution of Abkhazians, but instead reflects the complexity of ethnic conflict in post-Soviet Georgia and the Caucasus in general. While religion (Islam versus Christianity) is a motivating force in several Caucasian disputes, the Abkhaz conflict springs from competing visions of nationalism and ethnicity. Before the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, Georgians represented approximately 69 percent of the country's population and 46 percent of Abkhazia's (the Abkhaz themselves numbered about 18 percent of their titular republic). Conflict between the two groups runs as a thread through the pre-Tsarist, Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras. The recent war and subsequent stalemate must, therefore, be seen as the latest in a series of Georgian-Abkhaz armed and political conflicts that have punctuated their mutual history.

The situation for the Georgians of Abkhazia remains unresolved and extremely dangerous. Abkhaz authorities have announced specific quotas for the return of refugees (in May 1995 set at no more than 200 per week), but their security has been inadequately protected -- or deliberately neglected -- by both the government of Abkhazia and the 3,000 Russian peacekeepers deployed in the region since June 1994. The difficulty of securing the lives and property of refugees is underscored by the 1998 expulsion of 30,000–40,000 Georgian returnees by Akhaz troops following fighting in the Gali region. It is also reported that thousands (perhaps as many as 40,000) have returned unofficially, and therefore are not registered with any Abkhaz, Georgian, or international governmental agency.

Ultimately, Abkhazia's Georgians will find security only when a comprehensive political settlement is reached between Tbilisi and the separatists. Given the complexity and intensity of Georgian and Abkhazian politics, and the potential spill-over effects of the region's multiple conflicts, lasting tranquility may depend on a larger Caucasian peace process. If so, the ethnic Georgians of Abkhazia will likely remain a majority at risk well into the next century.

Analytic Summary

The Abkhaz are a Muslim minority group that resides in the self-governing autonomous region of Abkhazia in northwestern Georgia (BELIEF = 2). The Abkhaz won de facto independence for their traditional homeland in a bloody civil war which ended at the negotiating table in May 1994. The political status of Abkhazia today is one of the most contentious issues in the Caucasus.

The Abkhaz are traditionally mountain dwellers, known for their horsemanship, fighting ability and legendary longevity. Abkhaz nationalists trace their history back past the middle ages (TRADITN = 1). They have always displayed a high degree of group cohesion, and this was further reinforced by the war for independence (COHESX9 = 5). An enormous influx of non-Abkhaz occurred throughout the Soviet period, encouraged by Stalin, who was an ethnic Georgian, and his lieutenant, fellow Georgian Beria. Hence, Abkhaz blame Stalin for turning them into a minority in their own land. According to the final Soviet census, at the time of Georgian independence Abkhaz comprised only 18% of the population of their region. Today, after their victorious struggle for quasi-independence and a mass exodus of ethnic Georgians, the Abkhaz may make up a third of their region's shrinking population. The primary grievance, politically, is a demand for unconditional independence, recognized by Tbilisi and internationally (AUTGR303 = 1).

In large part, Abkhaz grievances have been economic in nature: Abkhazia's Black Sea coastline features some of the choicest vacation spots in the former Soviet Union, and during Soviet times the Abkhaz believed that tourist revenues which were their proper due were instead diverted into Tbilisi's coffers by greedy Georgian officials (ECOGR503 = 1). The relative prosperity of the region was destroyed by the war and massive emigration of ethnic Georgians that accompanied it, leaving Abkhazia today as one of the most economically depressed regions in Georgia. One concrete instance of political discrimination against Abkhaz occurred in 1990 when the "Aydgylara" (the Abkhaz popular front) was banned from participating in elections because its activities were confined to a single region of the country.

In December 2000, Moscow placed travel restrictions on Georgian nationals, necessitating a visa for anyone wishing to enter The North Caucasus. These restrictions did not apply to citizens of the two break-away republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which was widely interpreted as an attempt to further undermine Tblisi's influence in these regions.

Despite external pressure to reach some kind of agreement, repeated rounds of negotiations have not led to any solution to the political standoff between the Abkhaz and the Georgian government. Low-level violence has continued since quasi-independence between the Abkhaz militia army and militant Georgian groups that demand a return of Georgian refugees and a renouncement of independence by Abkhazia (CULGR503 = 1). Since 2000, there has been a continuation of infrequent, but violent, incidents involving Georgian and Abkhaz troops, including the 2001 downing of a UN helicopter and several deaths due to land mines (REB01-03 = 1); additionally, sporadic intercommunal violence has been constant (INTERCON01-03 = 1)..

The wars in Chechnya have posed a problem for the Abkhaz leadership, for they received support from both sides in their war for independence. As of 2003, the Abkhaz are not supportive of the Chechen cause, choosing instead to stay allied with Moscow, whose peacekeepers are its ultimate guarantor of independence.

Since 2003, both Georgia and Abkhazia have elected new presidents: Saakashvili for Georgia and Bagapsh for Abkhazia. Bagapsh has not shown a greater willingness to negotiate, and remains committed to independence and close relations with Russia; Saakashvili, meanwhile, has made a clear commitment to reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia during his tenure. The region's relative peace, therefore, remains in a particularly uncertain position. The situation in Abkhazia since the end of the war was perhaps best captured by then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who in 1995 described the region as existing in "neither peace nor war."


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