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.