Theoretical justification of ethnic cleansing in modern Abkhazian historiography
25/11/2011 13:36
Malkhaz Toria

(Published on the basis of works of T. Achugba)

At the end of September this year, the Sukhumi-based Respublika Abkhazia newspaper in the article "A valuable work on the history and ethnology of the Abkhazian people" published information on nomination of monograph "XIX-XX centuries. Ethnic history of Abkhazians. Ethnopolitical and migration aspects" for the award of G. Dzidzaria. Its author is Abkhazian historian Teimuraz Achugba, who was born and raised in Batumi.

According to the newspaper, this work "is the first systematic and extensive experience of large-scale study of the problem relevant to contemporary ethnology and history". Attention should be paid and other assessments. In particular, the fact that "studies related to the extensive analysis of the history of the Abkhazian people in XIX-XX centuries are attracting attention of domestic and foreign historians, who seek to see objective reasons for current events in ambiguous facts and processes of past times."

It is emphasized that "for a long period of time objective research of the history of Abkhazia had been artificially constrained by interested Georgian political and academic elite, which exercised powerful ideological pressure on the minds of the scientific community of the republic. As a result, several generations of historians have failed to create a holistic objective work, which would have covered the most important landmarks in the historical development of Abkhazia during the Russian Empire and the Soviet regime, among which ethno-political, socio-cultural, immigration and other issues can be especially noted".

According to the newspaper, the work of Achugba "is of great public importance, emphasizing preservation and purposeful and consistent movement of cultural traditions, as well as clearly justifying continuing right of Abkhazians to political and state self-determination." Hereby it is also noted that the third chapter of his work Achugba pays a great attention to the Georgian-Abkhazian relations in XIX-XX centuries. According to him, "along with relocation there was cultural and linguistic assimilation that for autochthonic population was extremely difficult to withstand. Particularly severe consequences it had for Abkhazians of Samyrzakan, who were eventually assimilated by colonists. "

In Chapter 4 Achugba blames the Georgian society and state institutions of Georgia for all troubles that fell on the Abkhazian ethnos on the course of its entire history. But in his work there is not even a hint about the "deeds" of the Russian Empire and its modern successors, who had a lion's share (in the full sense of the word) in a targeted disruption and destruction of the Abkhazian identity ... particularly bitter it is to hear this from a man who was born on Georgian soil, where he became acquainted with the Georgian culture and the basics of science.

It is regrettable that so vast a work does not mention, even for the sake of appearance contribution that was made at the time and still are being made to the present day by clerics and intellectuals of Georgia in physical rescue of the Abkhazian ethnos, in its scientific, cultural and educational activities. It is very interesting to know what caused this "rebirth" of Teimuraz Achugba - a man who emerged from the Georgian society. It was in the Georgian capital where he learned the basis of science, where his formation as a scientist happened. Many of his works were devoted to investigations of materials, reflecting good-neighbourly coexistence of our peoples until the nineties of the last century ... Although, how his colleagues in Batumi noted "Timur always had some quirks ... some strange things used to happen to him in his student years too".

Unfortunately, this kind of strangeness found fertile ground in the separatist ideology, and they ripened and began to spread like metastasis among common Abkhazian population who naively and trustingly followed their reactionary separatist leaders. Meanwhile, today's separatists had authoritative predecessors back in the twenties of the XX century. Later, in the sixties and seventies with emergence of more favourable conditions their ideological heirs started to display hitherto hidden intentions. These ideas and concepts, in fact, played into the hands of a common enemy of Georgians and Abkhazians ...

It would be interesting to find a psychological explanation to what circumstances led to such dramatic "transformation" of T. Achugba, such ingratitude towards Georgians and his going across to the camp of the enemies of Georgian statehood. What is he today as a scientist? Whose orders is he following? And in exchange for what? Why has he chosen the camp of our common enemy to true service to a native land?

The attitude of the Club of Experts towards this "work" is definitely negative, since its author Teimuraz Achugba represents centuries-old relations of Georgians and Abkhazians who have passed many ordeals together exclusively in a negative context, and his "scientific" conclusions do not correspond to reality. Our assessment is that this "work" fits more into the framework of ordered materials aimed at creating even more tension in the Georgian-Abkhazian relations and deepening existing estrangement. Constant appeals to "enemy image" in the face of Georgians created by the separatists and their Moscow patrons aim to "legitimize" ethnic cleansing of Georgian population and the results of the Russian aggression. In general, the Club of Experts fully agrees to the assessment of Teimuraz Achugba by a young historian Malkhaz Toria, who was one of the first Georgian scientists who responded to the "work" of his colleague.

Gogi Maisuradze

As a result of the Georgian-Abkhazian armed conflict the vast majority of its population was forced to leave the territory of Abkhazia. The Georgian side assesses this fact as "ethnic cleansing" and so does the international community. While de facto Abkhazian authorities assess the cleansing of Abkhazia from Georgians as an act of restoring historic justice. The modern Abkhazian historiography actively pursues theoretical substantiating of politics of "expulsion of Georgians to their historical homeland - over the Enguri River". To achieve this, a formula was developed according to which vast experience of relations and coexistence between the Georgian and Abkhazian ethnic groups is denied; Georgians are perceived as completely different from autochthonous Abkhazian world, as an alien force with hostile attitude which has no place in "future Abkhazia." All this is done for establishment of "Abkhazian national identity." While in reality, we are dealing with an attempt to maintain a permanent conflict identity, which usually leads to opposition and confrontation with other identity. For Abkhazians these "others" are - or have recently become - Georgians. Building of an image of a Georgian as a foreign, non-Abkhazian element was initiated in the writings of Abkhazian scientists back in the last century, although in the post-conflict context, this process took more acute forms.

One of the main tasks of the de facto government of Abkhazia is to restore the "lost Abkhazian identity" among the population of "south-east Abkhazia" i.e. modern Gali district. Part of the current Abkhazian elite links search of "true" roots of the population of the Gali district - historical Samurzakano - with the "future young Abkhazian republic". Abkhazian historian Achugba in his recently-published book "On the problems of identity in south-east Abkhazia (XIX-XX centuries)" notes: "Of course, peaceful life and restoration of historical justice – revival of the Abkhazian language in Samyrzakan, culture and national identity samyrzakanians is a very complicated problem, but nevertheless, its practical implementation is a sacred duty of the independent Abkhazian state, and solving of these problems will be an additional barrier to revanchist plans that Georgia nurses against Abkhazia".

This book clearly demonstrates a general trend in the current de facto leadership of Abkhazia, according to which existence of anything Georgian in geographical area that is in administrative boundaries of Abkhazia is ruled out. This also applies to such ethnically homogeneous space as is the Gali district in which the majority of population are Georgians. According to a relatively moderate view, the Gali district is the boundary of the Georgian and Abkhazian ethnic territories, where interaction between these two ethnic groups was intense (Solovyova 1985: 44). Although the modern Abkhazian historiography presents the Gali district not as a zone of contacts between Georgian and Abkhazian ethnic groups, but as the main springboard of invasion of Abkhazia by "other" hostile Georgian ethnos. At the same time Georgians are always seen as someone coming from across the river Enguri. It is the river Enguri that represents administrative as well as ethnic, and almost a sacral boundary, which clearly separates and distinguishes Georgians and Abkhazians from each other. And existence of the Georgian population in Gali is explained by results of assimilation policies and overcoming by Georgians of this boundary.

Modern ethnological and sociological research especially focuses on the influence of differences in perception of interethnic relations. As a rule, negative perception of difference from neighbouring ethnic groups plays a major role in escalation of a conflict. We can say that it is perception of differences, rather than differences that is a reason to a certain extent of nature of relations between ethnic groups. For example, conflicts in Kosovo, the Middle East and others point out that ethnic conflict can arise even when cultural differences between the opposing parties are small, while the big cultural difference between African-American population and indigenous American people in the United States does not create a conflict between them (Multicultural Toolkit).

In certain situations perception of differences may be less acute. For example, according to Harry Triandis, in a multinational environment people are likely to view people who are slightly different from them in language, clothing or religion as "one of us" (Triandis 1994: 237-238). In other cases at a particular time and in a particular place among the ethnic groups takes place advancement of some distinctive features (Woodward 2002: 10). As a result of certain factors, perception of these differences is negative. This can happen even between ethnic groups that traditionally live side-by-side or even together. And in some cases, as M. Brown notes, one of the sources of a conflict may be that those two ethnic groups co-exist next to each other (Brown 1997: 83).

From a cultural point of view Georgians and Abkhazians are close to each other and have long experience of co-existence. But a great role in the escalating conflict between them was played by this negative perception of existing differences. The perception of differences in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict can be caused by many factors (political situation, factor of external forces, etc.). We will not mention all specific factors that determined the negative perception. In this case we will highlight a role of historians who seek to build and strengthen in the community perception of the role of the neighbouring ethnic group and that of living alongside. It should also be noted that all factors can be interrelated. For example, a historian can falsify history under the influence of political situation. In turn, historians can affect consciousness of the political elite, etc.

The book by T. Achugba that reflects well the position of de facto Abkhazian authorities brings several arguments to confirm otherness of Georgians and Abkhazians:

1. Ancestors of inhabitants of Gali were Abkhazians;
2. The River Enguri is a natural and almost insurmountable boundary between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Abkhazians;
3. Georgians are assimilationists;
4. Remains of the Abkhazian identity still exist in modern Gali district.

There should also be noted that the purpose of this article is not to debate on any historical subject. Our purpose is to demonstrate that the Abkhazian historian is merely trying to show otheness of Georgians, but not to investigate a particular issue. This is well illustrated by selection of information and its interpretation.

The main position of the author about ethnic background of population of Samurzakano is given unequivocally, in the affirmative form. According to him, "the matter is practically undisputable in the science, if not to take into account works of some Georgian authors, who, especially in the forties and fifties of the last century – in the period of total assimilation of Abkhazians wanted to see Kartvelians and not Abkhazians as original inhabitants of Abkhazia. In the process of disintegration of the USSR, and especially in post-Soviet era, by social order of the Georgian authorities historians, philologists, journalists, representatives of humanitarian and non-humanitarian spheres of Georgia launched large-scale activities to further falsify the history of Abkhazia and the Abkhazian people "(Achugba). The results of several general census of population, he considers a result of the assimilation policy and denies autochthony of Georgians on this territory.

According to Achugba, ancestors of majority of the population of the Gali district were Abkhazians. It should be noted that here the author uses mostly notes of Russian travellers. These data has descriptive and superficial nature, and cover a short period of time (mainly, XIX century). Accordingly, this information is probably not appropriate to determine the issue of an autochthonous status of any ethnic group in a specific area. In addition, such a fundamental issue as the problem of autochthony requires a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study, which should take into account many factors. And theoretical basis of the said work shows little sign of such a study and, as they say, is made in the traditions of "factual history". Meanwhile, by opinions held in the Georgian historiography, Mingrelian-language population lived in this area long before formation of Samurzakano. There are a lot of data to prove this fact (toponymy, historical texts, archaeological data, and results of a comparative linguistic analysis.) Achugba prefers to keep silent about these data while sources that he presents generally do not contradict autochthony of Georgians.

Data collected by Achugba, says that the river Enguri was a border between Abkhazia and Samegrelo. This is indicated by traveller François Gamba (1820), S. Bronevoy, M. Peysoneli, Baron Ash (1830), etc. According to the same sources, notes Achugba, the River Galidzga served only to separate two Abkhazian districts – Samurzakano and Abzhua areas. According to him, there are reports on this of officers Tornau (1834-35) and M. Seleznev (1832). According to the latter, residents of Samurzakano opposed its joining to Samegrelo, saying that they were Abkhazians, not Mingrelians; General G.I. Philipson (1859) due to the fact that Samurzakano was a disputed territory between the Samegrelo and Abkhazia, says: "There is no doubt that it must belong to Abkhazia, because its inhabitants belong to the Abkhazian nation, and have nothing to do with Mingrelians." D. Machavariani and J. Bartolomé in the article "Samurzakano" noted that Samurzakano is separated from Samegrelo with "the River Enguri, which is often impassable, while on the side of Abkhazia there are no natural barriers. This may explain the large influence of Abkhazia rather than Samegrelo on Samyrzakan in the old days. Customs of Samyrzakan inhabitants are more like Abkhazian than Mingrelian "; According to N. Albov " residents of Samyrzakan, like Abkhazians of other regions have a negative attitude towards trade" which, according to him, "distinguishes them from their neighbours Mingrelians, who deep down are all terrible hucksters "(Achugba).

We are left with an impression that the author examines these sources out of context and in a biased manner. For example, when he speaks of the River Enguri as a natural and almost insurmountable border between the principalities of Samegrelo and Abkhazia, he forgets about existence of other views, according to which the border of the Abkhazia Principality moved to the River Enguri only in the XVII century. And the Abkhazian author's work, of course, says nothing about this. He just gives contents of sources that he used.

In addition, some information, indeed, are not suitable as an argument. For example, assertion of N. Albov that Samurzakano inhabitants have Abkhazian customs, since they like other Abkhazians do not like trade. This cannot be an argument, and the author is, apparently unaware of the fact that an ethnic group is not homogeneous from a social point of view. Thus, it is impossible to judge belonging to ethnicity by social activity.

Achugba believes that on the territory of Samurzakano Mingrelians assimilated ethnic Abkhazians. In his view, the main cause of assimilation is demographic expansion of Mingrelians throughout Samurzakano and Abkhazia. He lists factors behind the migration of Mingrelians: class struggle, land hunger, blood feud, selling of peasants, capture of prisoners. "Demographic expansion, which began mainly with Mukhajirstvo, became more intense at a later stage and in 1916 in Samurzakano, in this region of Abkhazia Mingrelian element became very important. In addition, it was indeed mainly from Samurzakano that settlement of Mingrelians on the rest of the territory of Abkhazia had been occurring"(Achugba).

The author lists reasons why the relocation of Mingrelian "colonists" had been happening so "freely" in the territory of Abkhazia. According to him, "Resettlement of Mingrelians in Abkhazia was never hampered due to the so-called mountainous feudalism: Abkhazian peasants considered hired labour as shameful, and need for a hired labour for landowners in Samyrzakan and throughout Abkhazia had never lost its importance "(Achugba). This argument also has no solid scientific basis. But we should emphasize another moment as well. There is the following view in the Georgian historiography: from the time when Murzakan Shervashidze received from his father what is now the Gali district, he settled Abkhazian nobles in Samurzakano, i.e. here we are talking about the reverse process - migration of Abkhazians to the territory of the modern Gali district. The term "Samurzakano" also appears in this period. Given this, it is unclear on what the assertion is based that residents of Samurzakano existed as an Abkhazian ethnic group. Though, it is also impossible to deny migration of Mingrelians in this period, but really there is no conclusive evidence that arrived Mingrelians were met by Abkhazian population in this area. In any case, this cannot be argued on the basis of the work of Achugba. With the same success it could be argued that Mingrelainas that came there were met by local Mingrelians.

Subsequently, the author continues the idea that "weakening of the Abkhazian ethnic nomenclature, narrowing of Abkhazian ethnic and cultural spaces throughout Abkhazia, and especially in the adjoining to Samyrzakan Abzhua region, had a negative impact on preservation of ethnic identity of Abkhazians of Samyrzakan. Change of the ethnic situation in the Samyrzak region in favour of Mingrelians, settling of Mingrelians-migrants on lands "freed" from Abkhazians all over Abkhazia took an irreversible character. Mingrelization of Abkhazia and Abkhazians were in far-reaching interests of Georgian intelligentsia that dreamed of creating a small Georgian empire at the expense of empty lands of Abkhazians, Ubykh, Circassians and other indigenous peoples of the Caucasus"(Achugba).

The author has also a very original explanation of why Abkhazians of Samurzakan have forgotten their mother tongue. Apart from the fact that it happened as a result of frequent contacts and growth of Mingrelian population, the author concludes that "the Abkhazians in general are good at learning languages. Ability of Abkhazians to study other languages, flexibility of Mingrelian language and difficult for a foreigner to study Abkhazian language has led to the fact that in Samyrzakan, during some 20-30 years native Abkhazian language was absorbed by Mingrelian" (Achugba).

Having cited such "strong" arguments, the author says, and that "apart from Mingrelian ethno-linguistic development Abkhazians of Samyrzakan had been also influenced by the Georgian and Russian languages. The thing is that, at insistence of the Georgian public, here, as throughout Abkhazia, the Georgian language along with the Russian became the language of the church"(Achugba). Here we are dealing with, to put it mildly, either with inaccuracy, or with a conscious departure from reality. Everyone knows that Georgian language became a liturgical language of Abkhazia and as well as a formal one back in the IX century.

In addition to the author accuses Georgian intelligentsia and religious groups of the time that they strongly hindered "humane" wish to teach the Abkhazian language in schools. The author also accuses the Georgians of intentionally changing Abkhazian surnames in the Georgian way - adding Georgian family name endings to them: "initiators and inventors of family name changes were priests of exclusively Georgian, more precisely of Mingrelian, nationality. They usually changed last name in newborn infants when they were christened. As a rule, parents and children, who did not know either Georgian language or Georgian alphabet used to learn about these acts of Georgian priests later, often after the establishment of Soviet power, when the church books were used as almost the only written source for re-recording and registration of citizens" (Achugba).

In his view, a certain role in the loss of national identity Abkhazians of Samyrzakan was played by "elimination of the statehood of Abkhazia in 1864. With the establishment of Soviet power and the formation of SSR of Abkhazia, Abkhazian people, albeit in cut-down form, but still revived their statehood. However, with the transformation of Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia into the Abkhazian ASSR and, especially, with its entry into the Georgian SSR, statehood of Abkhazia became formal in nature, despite the fact that in the past Abkhazians for not a century or two had a powerful state with a common all-Abkhazian king - apskha "(Achugba).

According to him, it was the period of Stalin's coming to the power when mass assimilation of Abkhazians living in Samurzakano took place. "At the same time, expression of sympathy to everything Georgian and, of course, recognition of oneself as Georgian was encouraged at the level of the Georgian government and even of the Soviet Union. For those who have changed the Abkhazian national identity into Georgian, roads were open wide to education, to leading party, Komsomol, governmental, economic and other positions "(Achugba). If one accepts these arguments, assimilation was happening in the reverse direction. The author, of course, is silent about the fact that a considerable part, if not the majority of today's Abkhazians have Mingrelian surnames. Since starting from the seventies of XX century the same processes had been happening similar those of the period of Stalin's personality cult, when the trend was to encourage registering as Abkhazian and "Abkhazian nationality" used to open way to a career.

In connection with the ethnic identity of modern population of the Gali district the author makes it even more paradoxical conclusions. According to him, "during the Georgian-Abkhazian war and post-war period, in Samyrzakan respect of towards its historical roots, and the Abkhazian national identity, was preserved not a few hundred people, as it is recorded in the annals of the census, but thousands of people. This is indirectly confirmed by an undeniable fact that during the war, the vast majority of Samyrzakan population did not participate in hostilities against Abkhazians and the Abkhazian state. And second, after the war, representatives of a number of Abkhazian surnames (Ezugbaya, Zukhbaya, Inalishvili and others) have expressed their desire to restore their Abkhazian names and "Abkhazian" nationality. As expected, a step made by Samyrzakanians even today irritates and strengthens the revanchist attitude of Georgian authorities in relation to indigenous population of Samyrzakan and Abkhazia as a whole. To prevent the return of indigenous population of this region of Abkhazia that borders Georgia to ethno-cultural roots of their ancestors, Georgian security services are constantly stirring up the situation in this region"(Achugba).

Thus, as it was noted, the work Achugba as the entire Abkhazian historiography reflects an attempt of de facto authorities to legitimize ethnic cleansing that took place in Abkhazia. It is the efforts of historians it is attempted to make theoretical justification for the policy of expelling Georgians over the River Enguri, "to their historic homeland." Reputation of Georgians as oppressors and occupants in post-conflict Abkhazia comes not only from the experience of the armed conflict. Such negative display of the Georgians, for the most part, is due to an artificial increase in perception of differences. The result is that experience of peaceful coexistence between Georgians and Abkhazians is forgotten, there is a destruction of traditional forms of relationship, strengthening of the conflict of identity and preservation of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. This is clearly reflected in the Gali district - directly in the conflict zone, against the background of the current processes.

Many Georgians returned to the Gali district and the present government of Abkhazia, for certain reasons, and are unable to re-implement their mass expulsion. Perhaps, this may explain the attempt of the Abkhazian regime to revive the so-called "lost identity of Samyrzakanians." For example, certain activities are taking place in education sphere. Study of the Georgian language is banned in schools of the Gali district; In addition, they are trying to suppress Georgian mentality by advancing "Mingrelian factor". At the first stage the Georgian language should be forgotten, perception of difference from the rest of the Georgians in the minds of local people must be enhanced and prevailed. As a result the Mingrelian language, too, will be replaced by Abkhazian and that will help to restore the so-called self- identity of "Samyrzakanians."

For example, Mingrelain-language newspaper is published in Gali and it is printed not at the initiative of Mingrelians, but by efforts of the Abkhazian side. An idea to start broadcasting on Mingrelian language also indicates that they are pursuing this kind of policy. We can say that among inhabitants of the Gali district, this policy has a little success, but perception of differences from Georgians in Abkhazians is still quite great. Although, as Stuart Hall remarks, perception of differences is not a fixed essence at all, it is not once-and-for-all. The boundaries of difference is continually repositioned (Hall 2002: 54). One must take steps to realize the existing distrust, to overcome it and restore confidence between the parties, which may occur precisely in view of positive experience of co-existence.

Achugba T. On the problems of national identity in South-East Abkhazia;

Solovieva L.T. "The role of migration in ethnic development of Samurzakano." Inter-ethnic contacts and the development of national cultures. Collection of articles, Moscow, 1985;

Brown E.M. "Causes and Implications of Ethnic Conflict" in the Ethnicity Reader. Nacionalism, Multiculturalism and Migration. Edited by M. Guibernau and J. Rex. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1997;

Hall S. Cultural Identity and Diaspora in Identity and Defference, Ed. by K. Woodward, Sage, 2002;


Triandis H.C. Culture and Social Behavior, McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994;

Woodward K. Concepts Identity and Difference in Identity and Difference, Ed. by K. Woodward, Sage, 2002.

In case of using the material the hypperlink on the Expert Club is obligatory