donderdag 4 december 2014

Mongolia as SSR.

Last week, I wrote ‘the gloves are off’. Indeed, I would argue that, with the cancelling of the South Stream gas pipeline project, the conflict Russia has with many of its neighbours - including the EU, entered a new phase. The move shows that the Russian leadership is willing to abandon its strongest leverage towards Europe: gas. Simultaneously, something else happened, which was covered less: a remarkably deep new pact between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia – including military cooperation. Although Russia recognized the independence of this Georgian breakaway region in 2008, many see this move as the prelude to a future annexation. In 2008, many would have regarded this exaggerated, but since Ukraine lost Crimea in March, everything seems possible. However, Russia doesn’t need to. With its formidable army, size and status, it is able to project quite some power without annexing anything. Abkhazia is an example, as are Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia in Georgia  - and the considerable Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine, Northern Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia and Belarus furthermore. The case of Mongolia is in that regard an interesting one, and one I wanted to delve into for quite some time.

Some time ago, in that peaceful time long gone when Crimea was simply Ukrainian and Armenia was eager to be the next member of the Eurasian Economic Union, I joked with my friends that Mongolia might be the next republic in the Russian Federation. Russia, as what’s left from the USSR, consists of 22 federal republics (including Crimea since March). Three of them, Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva, are inhabited by ethnic Mongols. One more makes little difference, wouldn’t it? Increasingly threatened by an more and more expansionist China to its South, joining its enemy enemy might be the only way to survive. We all know it didn’t happen. However, with the tension around the South China and Black Seas, it seems a miracle that none of the big powers tried to court Mongolia more explicitly. Most probably, it’s still beneficial for both China and Russia to let Mongolia be, and maintain its neutral status squeezed in between the two authoritarian powerhouses.

The Federal Republics in the Russian Federation inhabited by ethnic Mongols: Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia. 

As we speak, there is talk that Mongolia might join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is a club of mainly Post-Soviet countries plus China, established in 1996 to settle border disputes in the heart of Asia, but increasingly helping each other out to streamline regime security and the fight against terrorism. Mongolia is an observer state since 2004. The question is though, if the wish to join is cherished more in Beijing than in Ulaanbaatar. Most Mongols, including in government, see the SCO as a China-dominated club of authoritarian regimes. This image is the opposite of Mongolia’s: democratic and carefully manoeuvring in between Russia, China and the USA – the so-called ‘third neighbour’ policy. (There’s few other examples. Nepal and Bhutan are also stuck in between big powers, but they seem to have chosen for India.) Moreover, apart from its SCO observer status, Mongolia has an ‘Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program’ with the NATO, and it delivered troops to the NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Mongolia continuously needs to balance its foreign policy act.

Mongolia and the Mongols: in red the places inhabited by ethnic Mongols, and accentuated the boundaries of the Medieval Mongol Empire. 

Outer Mongolia, conscious of Ming China’s policies in Inner Mongolia, looked at the Russian Empire to counter Chinese colonization efforts. Shortly after the Outer part of Mongolia became independent in 1912, it signed a Friendship Treaty with the Russian Empire, and subsequently Russian settlers arrived. China, now a republic as well, continued to meddle in Mongolian affairs. Russian presence in Mongolia continued to grow, however. During the Civil War that followed the October Revolution from 1918 to 1922, many ‘White’ Russian fled to Mongolia, and stayed. However, the Reds won, and two years later, in 1924, Communists took power in Mongolia as well. As the powers in Mongolia got even more cosy with Moscow, a new wave of immigrants followed: Soviet specialists and advisers. The Soviet Union encouraged cross-border contact, especially between areas populated by ethnic Mongols in the Soviet Union. In 1944, the Mongol-inhabited Tuva republic was annexed by the Soviets, but Mongolia kept its independence.

The Soviet Union expansion during and around the Second World War. 

During the Second World War, Mongolians fought the Japanese side to side with the Soviets (and even under their formal command). As a result, China recognized Mongolia’s independence finally, in 1945 – but under protest. After its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China directly recognized Mongolia’s independence, but relations neither got that warm. After the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, Mongolia firmly chose the side of the USSR. In 1986, as a result of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union improved. It was even proposed to withdraw the Soviet troops from Mongolia. Of course, this alarmed the Mongolian leadership. To reassure them, the Soviets explicitly stated the obvious - that ‘no third countries should be harmed.’ In the end, not all Soviet troops were withdrawn from Mongolia. Anyway, the Mongolian leadership established ties with the US in 1987. A ‘third neighbour’ was created.

Mongolia abandoned Communism in 1990, but the re-branded Socialist Party only lost power in 1996. Contrary to many Post-Soviet states, the Russians of Mongolia nowadays speak Mongolian. There’s only 1600 left of the 110.000 that lived there before 1992. Like in Georgia, English replaced Russian as ‘the language of inter-ethnic communication’ – and as the gate to the outside world. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Mongolian-Russian trade plummeted, and the business contact with China rose simultaneously. However, even though the relationship between the three neighbours is more balanced than before, the Russian continue to maintain their strong ties with Mongolia.

zondag 23 november 2014

Mingrelian mourning.

Eastern Georgia is the home of the Mingrelian people. At times, Mingrelians are called 'the Jews of Georgia'. With both Europe and the Middle East at reasonable distance, this shouldn't be mistaken as anti-Semitism. Actually, Georgia is a good friend of Israel internationally. As such, the label 'Jew' can even be seen as a compliment. However, Georgians from the Eastern regions call them untrustworthy and cunning as well - or even sly. But, how come? Traditionally, the Mingrelians are traders.

Trading in Megruli. 

I am fascinated by cross-border communities as the Mingrelians. It is striking how many of them - Armenians, Lebanese, Tuareg, Dutch (?) - are involved in trading (without being particularly affluent per se, by the way). People from peripheral regions seem to fulfil a middle-man position. 

Indeed, the capital of Samegrelo, Zugdidi, is not exactly what you would call a thriving trade centre (although I do love the place). 

Mingrelian is related to Kartuli, the main Georgian language, but the languages aren't mutually intelligible. The Mingrelians inhabit both the region stretching from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea, Mingrelia or Samegrelo, and parts of Abkhazia, the region further West along the coast. Abkhazia is de facto independent since 1993, when it fought a short separatist war with Georgia (see earlier posts).

Another view of Zugdidi. 

Many of the Abkhaz Mingrelians where expelled from Abkhazia during and after the war, as they were seen as Georgians (and many see themselves as such indeed) - but some of them stayed. Mingrelian surnames tend to end in -ia, -aia, -a, and -ava - just like many the names of ethnic Abkhaz do. In a territory where there is many inter-ethnic marriage, and where the language of day-to-day communication is Russian anyway, it is often rather difficult to differentiate between Mingrelians and Abkhaz. Furthermore, many of the government jobs are reserved for ethnic Abkhaz. Since 1993 in particular, it's quite beneficial to register as an Abkhaz, therefore. (When Abkhazia was under control of the Georgian state, many Mingrelians were registered as Georgians, for the same reasons.)

A typical Mingrelian house, both in rural and residential areas. 

Characteristic for Samegrelo are the two-storied detached houses surrounded by a large, green, fenced yard full of palm trees (and if you're lucky apricots, tangerines, pears, etc.). All houses have an elevated veranda. Often there's water tanks on a high platform. Houses are strikingly often painted in mint green, by the way.

A front door with the characteristic mint green plaster. 

As the Likhi mountain range divides Georgia in two, the Western part of Georgia was often separated from it's East. The Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires had a bigger influence here than in Karli and Kakheti (there it was Persians before and Persian after). Only during Russian and Soviet rule both parts were properly unified again since long. Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, the poet father of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first President of independent Post-Soviet Georgia, was from Abasha in Samegrelo. Therefore, the support for Zviad was higher in Samegrelo than elsewhere. However, Zviad was a Georgian nationalist. Not all Mingrelians feel that Georgian though. When I was around, it happened several times that the ubiquitous toast 'Gaumarjos Sakartvelos!' (Long live Georgia!) was replaced with 'Samegrelos gaumarjos!'

The yard and the colour are typical Mingrelian - the architecture less.

Traces of the different past of Western Georgia can be found in the existence of milk kinship, for example. Milk kinship is also present in many Muslim societies. However, just like the Georgians, Mingrelians are Christians for centuries. They are Georgian-Orthodox. Therefore, the literary language of the Mingrelians is Kartuli (Georgian), and and attend church service in Georgian. However, like anywhere, many pre-Christian rituals are preserved. It wouldn't surprise you that liquor is involved in many of them, even during funerals and the subsequent mourning process.

A funeral company in Zugdidi. 

Mingrelians mourning is quite ritualized. Libation or drinking offerings are part of this. It's fairly common to see small glasses of wine or liquor on a gravestone. Sometimes there's grapes as well - or even flowers. During the visiting of the body, a banquet for close kin is organized - although the food shouldn't be prepared in the same house. Night wakes last for four to six days. The women in particular scream, howl and sing polyphonic songs. Forty days later and a year later again, commemorate feasts are held. During these commemorations, food, drinks and candles are put on the grave. Interestingly, it is also tradition for male relatives to not shave on Saturdays for a year after the deceasing of their family member.

A grave stone with drink offering.

zondag 19 oktober 2014

one day in the life of a small crossing.

As a contrast to the big Enguri crossing, we visited one of the five smaller ones that provide an entry point into Abkhazia as well. Here you see some pictures of the Khurcha crossing, near the village of Orsantia. The five 'small' crossings are mainly used for trade and family visits. It is the time of the hazelnut harvest, and since Nutella and Ferrero Rocher discovered the riches of the Black Sea shores recently, business is booming. Nuts are brought from Abkhazia, and sold to the Georgian traders who are in contact with international buyers. It is said that annually twenty tons hazelnuts are crossing the ABL (the administrative boundary line, yes).

Apart from the all the nutty business, the crossing seemed a quiet place.  

It turned out the Russian border guards, probably conscripts, were as curious for us, as we were for them. 

There was something of a Wild West atmosphere, with lots of cigarettes, motor bikes and wodka. 

Talking about cigarettes: you probably find this type of claw machines only in Georgia. Imagine, and this particular one was placed at a remote border crossing! 

Georgians who cross are usually able because they got hold of certain documents. If you don't have the right documents, no crossing. As simple as that, even when you live there your whole life and even if everybody knows your mum lives in the next village. 

There's different 'right' documents. One type is an old Soviet passport. It turned out they are still useful, at least at the Georgian-Abkhaz ABL. During Soviet times, a passport was valid for life, and with pictures taken only during your childhood, twenties and fourties, some old people still manage to use them to cross with. 

Another way is an Abkhaz passport. With the 'international' version, you're able to travel to Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, the only countries recognizing the Abkhaz state obviously. If you, as an ethnic Georgian, happen to carry a Georgian passport as well, there won't be any trouble crossing back-and-forth (although the Georgians officially say you're crossing nothing - you just move around in Georgia). Carrying an Abkhaz passport is a sensitive topic for ethnic Georgians though, which makes it a tricky strategy.

There's also an Abkhaz 'internal' passport. There's no big difference with the international one though, but with this one you can't travel to South America or the Pacific. Note that most Abkhaz inhabitants also carry a Russian passport, which they use for the biggest chunk of the usual passport stuff.

woensdag 15 oktober 2014

How I managed to get broke in Abkhazia and why this might be interesting for you.

During the last two weeks, I strolled around in the part of Georgia where the provinces of Samegrelo and Abkhazia meet. Both have stunning scenery and fastastic people, among other things. However, what makes this place most intesting is that Abkhazia isn't ruled by Tbilisi any more since 1993. Abkhazia is a so-called 'de facto state', and the Georgian-Abkhaz war is a 'frozen conflict'. From 1992 to 1993 Abkhazia fought a separatist war, and with help of a broad variety of foreign fighters, including Russian soldiers (but also Chechens and other North Caucasians), Abkhazia has been de facto independent onwards. As a result of the August War of 2008, in which Russia and Georgia fought five days over one of this other unruly regions of Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazian independence was recognized by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Hamas. 

However, the boundary between the Abkhaz and Mingrelian provinces can't be called a border. Borders deliniate states, and most countries in the world don't see Abkhazia as a state. The EU therefore calls the dividing line the 'ABL' - Administrative Boundary Line. To make things more complicated, there's ethnic Georgians living on both side of it. In fact, the villages you enter directly after crossing the ABL into Abkhazia are basically hundred percent Georgian populated. Naturally, the people on both sides have strong bonds, whether personal, economic, or else. But at times, there's many obstacles. The Russian Army, which is manning the border posts (the Abkhaz aren't able), doesn't always let everybody cross. Their power to let people cross or not, is a very strong tool in the power politics of the Caucasus. 

To get an idea what was happening in reality, during the day-to-day life of an average gray zone inhabitant, we visited many places and spoke to quite a few people. There's five 'small' crossings of the ABL, mainly used for trade and family visits. The main crossing is Enguri bridge. As the Georgian consider Abkhazia part of their state, obviously, their checkpoint pretends to be a 'normal police' one, with no real checks, apart from an occasional chat if they beckon you. 


It seems as if there's considerable price differences between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides of the border, as everybody around was carrying big bags as after a day of shopping. When you cross the Georgian checkpoint, you enter the 'border' area. The Enguri bridge itself is badly maintained, and not used by much more than pony carts used to carry the heavy bags. 

For most of the ABL, the Enguri river forms the boundary between Samegrelo (Georgia) and Abkhazia. 

The Abkhaz tried hard to make the entry to their side look like a real state border, and did so with some help of the Russian Army border guards. We had to show our passport twice, hand in an official clearance, go trough the customs with our rucksacks, and answer some questions. The Russian conscripts didn't know Latin script though, so, as our clearances were in Cyrillic, and our passports in Latin, this took some time. The guards were friendly though, and were willing to compare the size and number of inhabitants of Abkhazia and the Netherlands, for example. Thereafter, we entered Abkhazia properly, and we were welcomed by some billboards commemorating Victory Day last week, an enormous Abkhaz flag, and some empty marshrutkas. It turned out most of the border crossers were picked up by relatives or friends, and public transport became a problem. 

We had to take a taxi, and for 300 rouble (about $10) we were brought to Gali, the main town in the Georgian populated part of Abkhazia. This was six times more than budgetted, but, worse, soon we discovered that travelling from Gali to Sokhumi wasn't easy either. There was only one, lonely marshrutka, staying suspiciously empty for one-hour-and-a-half. The marshrutka was twice as expensive as the internet had informed us before: 200 rouble (or $7). A taxi would have been $50.

This is NGO street, by the way. UNHCR, Danish Refugee Council and World Vision manage to keep field offices in Gali. Gali was a lot bigger than I expected, more livelier also, but it wasn't a happy place. Obviously, this was were most of the war was fought in the nineties, and this place probably isn't high on the reconstruction priority list of the government in Sokhumi, the Abkhaz capital hundred kilometres away. On the way to Sokhumi, most buildings were abandoned and few maintained. Fields weren't kept either. Abkhazia lost half it's population during the war, and this was still obvious.

After an hour drive we arrived in Sokhumi. We needed to get there, because without a visum, we couldn't leave the territory. In the 48 hours after entering Abkhazia you need to travel to the capital to take and pay for your visum. We managed to find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 21 Ulitsa Lakoba, but we were directly send to the Consular Office, at 33 Ulitsa Sakharova. 

At the Consular Office, we had to show our clearances again (happy we printed double), and we got our visum, on a separte paper. Probably this is not to accomodate the Georgian authorities, but to enable foreign visitors to keep their passport. As most states don't recognize Abkhazia, they don't recognize it's visa either. A visum was $10 (to be payed in US dollar), but they didn't have change. Going to a bank, split our $50 note, pay the fee (twice $2), and get a receipt (welcome in the Post Soviet sphere) was the least we could do. 

In comparison with the rest of Abkhazia, Sokhumi was an oasis. There were green palm trees everywhere, along the broad lanes for example, and every square meant in fact a small park. The buildings were painted and the Black Sea was never far away. It doesn't surprise my that half the Soviet Union travelled here to celebrate holidays, although - for a Dutchman - the type of beaches here continue to be a wee meagre. This is the boulevard.

Some things doesn't seem to have changed since the Battle of Sokhumi in 1993, and the abandoned harbour right in front of the boulevard was one of them, the gigantic Abkhaz flag on top notwithstanding. 

The Psou river crossing to the Russian Federation and the Enguri river crossing into Georgia proper are both about 120 kilometres from Sokhumi. Abkhaz generally don't understand why Westerners tend to enter via Georgia, but when I explained, all was clear. Taking a marshrutka  back and arrive in time (before the ABL closes at seven) wasn't that easy, however. Whilst Tbilisi is always, everywhere, boiling over with taxis, marshrutkas and other possible ways of transport, Sokhumi wasn't. We found exactly three taxi drivers in an hour. Moreover, we had only 1800 rouble ($60) left, and yes, there weren't ATMs. It turned out the trip back would be 2000 rouble (that's a small, but significant difference, it turned out). One of the taxi drivers didn't want to do it for the money we had left, the second one was piss drunk, and the third one was amazing, the best driver I met around here since now. It was a pity his eye sight was so bad, and he was kinda deaf (the music was nice, but just very much too loud). Himself an ethnic Abkhaz, his wife was Georgian, so he told about his mother-in-law in Georgia, his brothers-in-law in Gali, and his dacha in Ochamchire. Time flew, and here we're already crossing the Olori.

If you take a taxi or marshrutka from Sokhumi to the ABL, it takes at least one-hour-and-half. To Gali, it's an hour, and then it's still about fifteen kilometres. Since there's so few marshrutkas leaving Gali, and since Gali is the last place you want to be stuck after five o'clock, make sure you have transport to the Enguri bridge. In contrast to Georgia, there's high levels of criminality here, and you can't cross into Georgia proper after seven. Waiting in Gali until it's the next morning is not advised. 

Since we found a broad variety of stories, tales and myths online and on print, I share our own experience. I hope it helps you, one day, any time. 
  • Don't go in the weekend, because the Consular Office will be closed. It's a pity, since this unables you to travel to Abkhazia if you're working during the week in Georgia. If so, only Friday afternoon or Monday morning are options. 
  • From the centre of Zugdidi, you can take a marshrutka to the Enguri bridge for 1 lari ($0,50). A taxi is 10 lari ($5). 
  • You can't assume that there's marshrutkas at either the Abkhaz side of Enguri bridge, or in Gali, so take enough roubles with you. A taxi to Gali is 300 rouble, and from Gali to Sokhumi it's 1500. A marshrutka from Gali to Sokhumi leaves about every hour (but maybe two), and costs 200 rouble, not 100. It takes an hour. At the moment $1 is about 30 rouble.
  • There's no need to look for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Go directly to the Consular Office, 33 Ulitsa Sakharova. 
  • Visa are $10. They don't have change, but that doesn't matter, since it's half as cheap as we thought. 
  • There's only one ATM in Abkhazia where you can use your Western Maestro or Visa cards. It's at the Sber Bank, 1 Plochad Konstitutsiy. 
  • Go back in time. The drive from Sokhumi to Enguri takes at least one-hour-and-a-half, if you're lucky and if you take a taxi. If you take a marshrutka to Gali and a taxi to the ABL, it will take at least two hours. And the ABL closes at night. After seven, you're stuck in a place you don't want to. 
 I do have to admit though, that the Enguri is price-less at that time of the day. 

maandag 14 juli 2014

unholy cats and dogs.

Once I witnessed what could be called a lynch mob. A dog catcher caught his prey on the central square of Marrakesh, Morocco. The crowd of Jema el Fna sucked to the crime scene as water to a plughole. I don’t know what Moroccan dog catchers tend to do with the stray dogs they gather eventually. I don’t know either, if this particular dog made it. I was deeply impressed, however.

The first thing that struck me when I went to Morocco in 2008, was the absence of pigeons. It might be clear that I’m not a big lover of these animals, but I never noticed how familiar they are to big cities. Visiting my first big squares outside of Western Europe, I was for the first time consciously missing these ‘birds’ as well.

Cats in Morocco, in Rabat

So when I came to Georgia, I was already prepared. There are pigeons here, but not that many. Compared to Rome, Amsterdam or London, there are none. Moreover, it might even be the case that there are more turtle doves than ring doves here.

In Morocco, there were cats - literally everywhere. I assume they fulfilled the ecological role of the city pigeon satisfactory, and they were a happy sight. The usual clashed between cats and dogs didn’t occur, as I saw only a few of their counterparts, including the instance described above.

Cats were everywhere, like here, in Volubilis, an ancient Roman city

In Tbilisi, there’s both cats and dogs. Moreover, in contrast to the vast majority of stray animals, they seem to be tame. There’s, to my knowledge, no flocks roaming around, attacking lone souls at night. I'm aware this isn’t a given. It was in Bishkek that I felt afraid of a dog for the first time. A group of stray dogs was blocking the street I intended to take. This weren’t lap dogs.

A dog in Ushguli, Georgia

I assumed there was a strong link between the local culture towards these animals, and the subsequent behaviour of the people around. The people I talked with about this assent. In Tbilisi the stray dogs are treated well, or at worse left alone, whilst the dogs in Morocco are chased, stoned and screamed at.

It is said that dogs are considered ritually unclean in Islam. This means they aren’t seen as a nice and loyal buddy. Probably this image arose from scavenger dogs (and wolves, foxes, jackals and hyenas – widespread in the Middle East). They carried diseases, including rabies. Moreover, the biggest contenders of the early Muslim Empire were the Persians. In these days, the Persians were Zoroastrians, and dogs are held in hight regard in this ancient religion. They are even considered particularly clean! The saint of my enemy might be my devil? However, the Quran says nothing about dogs. There were many contemporaries of Muhammad who kept hunting, shepherd and guarding dogs, and probably the prophet himself did as well. It’s the interpretation that makes the difference, also at the present.

There is no discussion that cats are very clean, ritually and what more

In times long gone, dogs were seen as unclean in Christianity and Judaism as well, for the same reasons described above. Moreover, cats weren’t seen as endearing purring pillows. As cats were linked with the Egyptian pantheon, they were seen as companions of the devil. In Medieval times, many cats ended up in the fire, with or without the old ladies they accompanied. They never had such a bad time in Islam. It was said Muhammad liked his pet cat very much.

Why are all my neighbourhood cats black?

Of course, I am curious if you have the same impressions as I had. Is there a cats and dogs border, does it lie in the Strait of Gibraltar and on the Turkish-Georgian border, and does it have anything to do with religious culture? After the wine and filter coffee boundaries, I am curious if there's more unexpected lines to draw.

zondag 29 juni 2014

people's ethnocracy.

Two weeks ago, I went election monitoring in Samegrelo. This Georgian region, inhabited by the Mingrelians - who consider themselves ethnic Georgian, is bordering the separatist province of Abkhazia. Abkhazia was an autonomous part of Georgia in Soviet times, and declared independence when this overarching structure fell apart. A secessionist war followed from 1991 to 1993, and due to chaos in the Georgian centre, and help from armsmen from Russia and the Northern Caucasian republics (like Chechnya), Abkhazia is a de facto  independent statelet since 1994. After the short August War between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Abkhazian independence was recognized by the Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru - and by similarly unrecognized South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza (Hamas), moreover. Vanuatu and Tuvalu withdrew their recognition. Although the 2008 War centred around this other problematic Georgian territory - South Ossetia, Abkhaz forces were able to expel the Georgian authorities from the Kodori Gorge in the Northeast of the region. As such, they control the whole former Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia since then.


The designation of Soviet republics was a rather complex one. In the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, ethnic Russians formed the majority until 1991, and in many autonomous republics (one step lower in the hierarchy) there were more Russians than the so-called 'titular nation' as well. In Abkhazia, the Abkhaz people only counted for a meagre twenty percent of the population at the end of the eighties. Traditionally, they did keep the political power, however. Many other nations consider Abkhazia their homeland since long. Armenians form the majority in its capital, Sokhumi. Many of them settled in Abkhazia in the nineteenth century, as Abkhaz were evicted by the Russian imperial troops to Ottoman lands, whilst the Ottoman empire became a less hospitable place for the Armenians. Armenians and Greeks inhabited the cities and the shore, whilst Mingrelian Georgians lived more inland. The mountains were inhabited by Abkhaz and Georgian Svan. There's also some Afro-Abkhaz, who trace their origins to the Ottoman slave trade, and might be Ethiopian Copts or Jews. They arrived in the seventeenth century.

When war broke out, the ethnic composition of Abkhazia changed irreversible. The Greeks, after colonizing the Black Sea shoreline for thousands of years, were evacuated in 1993 to a country none of them ever went. Operation Golden Fleece referred to the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed to the Eastern coast of the Black Sea. Many Armenians, Russians, and Ukrainians fled to their now independent states. Germans, in the Russian empire since the eighteenth century, used the opportunities of the fall of Communism and the unification of Germany, to immigrate to the homeland of their forefathers. The Georgians didn't move to Georgia proper though. They considered Abkhazia as much as their homeland as the rest of the former Georgian Soviet Republic. Many of them were forcefully expelled, especially from Sokhumi. My election buddy was born there.

Population size x 1000

Many of these numbers are very context dependent. For example, the number of Abkhaz didn’t significantly change in the beginning of the twentieth century, but the total population of Abkhazia doubled. Therefore, their relative numbers decreased. Migrelian Georgians are sometimes registered as Mingrelian, sometimes as Georgian, and sometimes even as Abkhaz. After the war in the nineties, many people fled or were expelled. Therefore, although there numbers didn’t really change, the relative amount of Abkhaz increased significantly. Many Ukrainians, Germans and Belarusians identify as Russian, moreover. Russian continues to be the language of inter-ethnic communication in Abkhazia.

Although sometimes presented as such, religion doesn't play a role in the Abkhaz conflicts. Most Muslim Abkhaz were expelled when the Russian empire subjugated the territory in 1864. They left for the Ottoman Empire and their descendants live currently predominantly in Turkey, Jordan and Syria. The majority of Abkhaz are Christian-Orthodox today, but as a result of Soviet Atheism, most consider themselves as secular. 

Roughly half of Abkhazia's half a million sized population in 1989 moved, including two-hundred thousand Georgians. Prior to the war, ethnic Georgians comprised about 46% of the population. About 45.000 remained, roughly as many as the remainder of the Armenian community. Small pockets of Georgians continued to reside in the border region, in the districts of Gali, Ochamchire and Tkvarcheli. Their status continues to be contested, by Georgians and Abkhaz alike. If they apply for Abkhaz citizenship, they abandon the hope to reunite with their motherland, and they need to surrender its citizenship. If they maintain their Georgian passports, they can't take part in Abkhaz public life, like elections.

Many of the people from Gali are registered in Georgia as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). These internal refugees were often housed in abandoned factories, schools and apartment complexes during and after the war in the nineties. The Georgian state was unable to care properly for them, and, moreover, hoped they would return soon anyway. Just like Palestian refugees in the countries surrounding Israel, the Georgian IDPs from Abkhazia weren't integrated in Georgian society, so that their return would be logical. Many people on the voters’ lists in Samegrelo were born in Gali. As registered IDPs, they were allowed to vote in the Georgian elections. Many of them returned to Gali during the last years, however, to work on their farms, for example. Usually, they tend to cross the so-called ABL (Administrative Boundary Line) without any problems, but due to political tension in Abkhazia as we speak, they weren't able two weeks ago.

 A polling station in an IDP settlement (a former factory) in Zugdidi. 

Although it’s fair to say that Abkhazia is de facto occupied by Russia, who guards its borders, sponsors its state budget and maintains its security, the Abkhaz do not wish to be annexed by the Russian Federation, as Crimea and South Ossetia do. Being so dependent on the Russian state leads to constant tension, therefore. Abkhaz politics are dominated by ethnic Abkhaz, a relic from Soviet times. In the last elections, not a single Russian was elected. During the Presidential elections of 2004, the candidate favoured by Russia, Raul Khajimba, didn't make it, and Sergei Bagapsh became President. After the death of Bagapsh in 2011, Alexander Ankvab, his Vice-President, was elected.

Ankvab believed the small and still-endangered Abkhaz nation would only survive when its state would become more inclusive. People with Abkhaz ancestors from the Middle East were asked to return to their motherland. Ethnic Abkhaz, wherever they reside, can become Abkhaz citizens. The policy wasn't very successful, as most of them see little future in Abkhazia, where they don't speak the language, and can't practise their religion. Economic prospects in Turkey are way better, moreover. Some refugees from Syria arrived. Those who aren't ethnic Abkhaz, but resided in Abkhazia in the five years prior to 1999, can apply for Abkhaz citizenship as well. Many of the Georgians in Abkhazia are therefore unable to become Abkhaz, as they lived in Georgia proper directly following the war. It is not possible to have dual citizenship in both Abkhazia and Georgia, although a Russian passport is allowed in Abkhazia. Ankvab wanted to give the Georgian people of Gali Abkhaz passports. This would make them loyal to Abkhazia, where their future would be, instead of Georgia, the country of their past. Bagapsh and Ankvab believed these people weren't Georgian moreover, but 'Georgianized Abkhaz.'

This was too much for many of Ankvab's competitors, including Khajimba. Together with allegations of an authoritarian ruling style, people's protests in May forced him to resign on June 1st. New presidential elections are scheduled for the end of August (24rd). The Caucasian people have a long history of people's assemblies, which are often dubbed 'mountain democracy' in the Northern Caucasus (and  'skhod' in Russian). Decisions are made on the base of consensus among a gathering of men.


It's very interesting how local dynamics shape the democracies of Abkhazia and Georgia. With ethnically related people on both sides of the ABL, elections show themselves more complex than they seem on the surface. Abkhazia, a multi-ethnic ethnocracy, turns out to be way more democratic than you would think, considering their dependence on the Russian Federation. The local elections in Samegrelo, part of Georgia, which has a settled tradition of democracy by now, are still influenced by communities living on both sides of the front line, whether you call them Mingrelian or Georgian.