Georgian daily questions feasibility of Turkish Abkhaz resettling to Abkhazia

24 Saati, Tbilisi
18 Apr 06

Georgian newspaper 24 Saati has said that the leadership of breakaway
Abkhazia understands the risk of the ethnic Abkhaz population becoming
an "absolute minority" and sees the repatriation of descendants of the
19-century migrants from Turkey to Abkhazia as a solution. However,
the newspaper questions the feasibility of such a plan and notes that
it may cause problems not foreseen by the separatists or their Russian
supporters. The following is the text of Dimitri Avaliani's article
"Abkhaz dream - prospects for repatriation with unknown results"
published in 24 Saati on 18 April; subheadings as published:

The Abkhaz authorities view the repatriation of descendants of the
Mohajirs [who were forced to resettle to Turkey in the 19th century]
as the way out of the demographic and political impasse.

"A part of the ethnic Abkhaz community in Turkey wants to return to
Abkhazia," Sokrat Jinjolia, director of [the Sukhumi branch] of the
Caucasian Institute for Democracy, said during his visit to Turkey last
week. The Abkhaz delegation, which also included the chairman of the
[Abkhaz] state repatriation committee, Anzor Mukba, and the chairman of
the parliament's defence and security committee, Garik Samanba, visited
Turkey to meet with representatives of the ethnic Abkhaz community.

"We travelled a lot in central Turkey and met with representatives
of the diaspora. The main thing for them is opening up the ways to
Abkhazia and knowing what is going on in their historical motherland,"
Jinjolia said.

According to Jinjolia, one of the deputy prime ministers of the
Republic of Turkey, members of the Turkish parliament, representatives
of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Russian Embassy to Turkey took
part in the meeting. He also said that representatives of the Turkish
authorities noted that Turkey supported only a peaceful settlement
of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

"Representatives of the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey expressed their
hope that the Russian authorities will make it much simpler to cross
the Russian-Abkhaz border, which will facilitate the arrival of the
Abkhaz diaspora in their historical motherland," Jinjolia said.

The Russian authorities will no longer make Jinjolia beg for the
open border: By a decision of the Russian Border Guard Department,
as of last week, foreign citizens are allowed to cross the border at
the Psou checkpoint.

Demography as Abkhaz national idea

Nowadays, the main Abkhaz national idea is the survival of the ethnic
group. For them, survival is associated with "demographic supremacy".

In the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the ethnic Abkhaz, the
perpetuation of the existence of the Abkhaz ethnic group is possible
only in conditions of demographic supremacy. From this point of view,
the Abkhaz perceive the mass expulsion of ethnic Georgians as the
"restoration of historical justice". In other words, their view is
that the ethnic Georgians went back to where they came from, and this,
in the Abkhaz point of view, is entirely fair.

Any aspiration of the Abkhaz towards national sovereignty and any
ideology of achieving it was unimaginable from the very outset without
getting rid of the main obstacle - the ethnic Georgian majority. At the
same time, any mention of "ethnic cleansing" gives rise to an extremely
negative reaction and protest among the Abkhaz, despite the fact that
this phrase, which is "ugly" in their opinion, precisely describes
what they did to the ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia and what
is recognized at present as the main achievement of the Abkhaz victory.

The issues of the recognition of Abkhazia's status, its political
system or civil rights are not as pressing to Abkhaz society as the
"demographic issue".

However, at the same time, the demographic situation in modern-day
Abkhazia clearly shows that there is still a long way to go towards
achieving the main goal of the Abkhaz ethnic group. Back during [the
first separatist president Vladislav] Ardzinba's rule, a "census"
was conducted that "established" the size of the population that was
advantageous to Sukhumi's policy. According to that "census", 320,000
people resided in Abkhazia, that is to say, more than a half of the
people who lived there before 1992 (whose number used to be more
than half a million). This was done to enable the Abkhaz authorities
to declare their policy an expression of the will of Abkhazia's
population and reaffirm their legitimacy. However, in late 2003
[as published, should be 2004], during the scandalous presidential
election, the Abkhaz themselves put an end to this "trick" because
they had to calculate the real number of voters before the highly
contested and very important election. It emerged that, in reality,
Abkhazia's population did not exceed 150,000-160,000.

Even against the backdrop of the decrease in population, the Abkhaz
are still a minority. At present, Abkhazia's population consists of
three roughly equal groups, not only in terms of ethnicity but also in
terms of political orientation. These are the ethnic Abkhaz themselves,
some supporting the idea of Abkhazia's sovereignty and others favouring
integration with Russia; the Russian-speaking population, which is
clearly of pro-Russian orientation and in which ethnic Armenians
dominate; and the ethnic Georgian population of Gali District with
its pro-Georgian orientation.

At present, ethnic Abkhaz are prevalent in the government bodies and
hold the highest posts, which does not reflect the real proportion
of the different ethnic groups. How long can this situation continue?

Migrants of Armenian origin already reside in Abkhazia, mainly in Gagra
District. The modern-day Abkhazia, whose population has decreased
several times over the last 14 years, is a complete "desert" from
the demographic viewpoint. However, for now, the difficult social,
economic, and crime situation hinders the cultivation of this desert
by foreign migrants.

Given the current situation, this state of affairs bodes nothing good
for the Abkhaz nation. If Abkhazia's sovereign status is legitimized
and lawful investments start coming in, which is the goal of Abkhaz
policy today, the region will be flooded by migrants from Russia and
other CIS countries for the simple reason that the growing economy
will need a big workforce.

And this will affect Abkhaz politics no matter what. The ethnic Abkhaz
will gradually find themselves in a position from which they are now
desperately trying to get out from - in an absolute minority.

And putting an end to the domination of ethnic Abkhaz in the positions
of power will then become just a matter of time. Abkhazia will be
transformed into a Russian-speaking country in which the Abkhaz
themselves will wield very little influence. They will have much
less possibility to take part in governing their own country than
they had before 1992.

In other words, the Abkhaz will lose even the illusory advantage
which they now perceive as the main achievement of the victory they
attained at the cost of great sacrifice.

Repatriation - a threat or a new political lever?

The Abkhaz pin great hopes on the return of the descendants of the
Mohajirs, who live in Turkey and some Middle Eastern countries and
whose ancestors were deported from Abkhazia in the late 19th century
by the Russian Empire. Sukhumi has announced that their repatriation
is an official priority. The Abkhaz community is united and is part
of the Adyg-Cherkess diaspora that is quite influential in the
Middle East and especially in Turkey. There are reports that the
Abkhaz community is a few-hundred-thousand strong. This is a huge
demographic resource for the Abkhaz. However, the majority of these
people are not enthralled at the prospect of going back to their
historical motherland. At any rate, despite the fact that they have
common ancestors with the modern-day Abkhaz, they are people with a
completely different mindset, effectively a different ethnic group.

To many of them, although Abkhazia is their ancestral motherland,
it is not associated with the place of permanent residence.

The Abkhaz authorities are trying hard to make their demographic
dreams come true. The latest visit by the Sukhumi delegation to Turkey
served this purpose too. However, the prospect of the Mohajirs' return
raises many questions which Sukhumi itself finds hard to answer. What
will the mass resettlement of citizens of Turkey and Arab countries
bring to Abkhazia? What will the repatriates' attitude towards
the Russian-speaking and ethnic Georgian population of Abkhazia,
or even towards the modern-day ethnic Abkhaz, be? Will the Islamic
factor gain strength? Will this signify Abkhazia's "Turkization",
its transformation into Turkey's satellite and active promoter of
Turkey's interests?

An increase in the number of Turkish-oriented population will naturally
strengthen Turkey's influence on internal Abkhaz politics.

Russian interests will be damaged substantially in any case. In
contrast to the modern-day Abkhaz population, the potential repatriates
are not connected with Russia in any way except through negative
historical experience. The likelihood is quite high that Russia will
"dig its own grave" in the Caucasus: Instead of a "friendly" separatist
entity created with its support, a hostile region will emerge on its
border and it will become the main base for North Caucasian separatism.

What prospects will this scenario create for Georgia? The Abkhaz
authorities and Abkhaz population are today radically opposed to the
return of the Georgian refugees to their own homes. They cite many
reasons for this, although the main reason is their fear of becoming
an absolute minority again. However, it is quite possible that their
resistance will not be so radical if, together with the refugees,
some of the descendants of the Mohajirs will also return, which will
make the Abkhaz population feel "demographically safe".

The issue of the Abkhaz repatriates raises numerous questions. What
does their return mean to Georgia in terms of the conflict
settlement? How will Sukhumi's policy change towards Georgia or
towards Russia if the repatriates come to power? What are the risks
and advantages for Tbilisi? Is it actually possible to drive Russia
out of Abkhazia? Georgia may be faced with these questions, in all
their complexity, in the future.