Abkhaz stress their European heritage

Resolving to identify with Europe, with Asia or in a mediating role between the two has been a part of political and identity choice for many Caucasians. The region is often described as the ‘Eurasian borderlands’, an ambiguous geographic point of reference at best. A clear choice of continental identification is often a proxy indicator for choosing the model of political and economic development.

Geography is a poor guide here: different schools of thought place each of the three South Caucasian republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia either on the territory of Europe or Asia.

Yet, many current institutional arrangements support their claim of being a part of European shared cultural heritage, as well as the legal and political space. All three are members of the Council of Europe and they are all eligible for taking part in European cultural and sports events, such as the European Games (a regional variation on the Olympics), the UEFA European Championship, or the Eurovision Song Contest.

Of the three states of the South Caucasus, only Georgia has followed a determined policy of integration with NATO and the European Union. In Abkhazia, they took notice.

‘Georgians always try to escape parts of their past, to escape the East,’ tells me Akhra Smyr, an Abkhaz journalist, in a Sukhumi café. ‘First they tried to escape the Iranian influence, now they are trying to escape the Russian influence. They keep trying to move to the West in order to suppress their own internal “Iran”’, he says.

‘In a way, Abkhazia has always been much more Europeanised than Georgia’, he adds.

It is a significant element of the narrative. Abkhazia broke away from Georgia following a tragic war in 1992–1993, and the habit of constructing their identity in contrast with Georgia persists among the Abkhaz.

When I ask Aida Ladaria from NGO Sukhum Youth House whether Abkhazia is Europe, her answer is unequivocal:

‘I think that we are Europeans. Although many call us Asians, we are geographically and mentally more European than Asian. We’ve always had connections to Europe; Abkhazia was located on the Silk Road, we had Genoese presence. The distinctiveness of the Abkhazian history is in the clear presence of both Asian and European traditions. Abkhazia is one of these unique places which was able to preserve its own identity regardless its tiny population and multiple wars.’

While the mainstream Georgian narrative focuses on the shared medieval history, which is used to justify the Georgian claim to the land, many Abkhazians downplay or deny the connection. Instead, Abkhazian publications put emphasis on the territory’s connections with Ancient Greece, medieval Kingdom of Abkhazia, and establishment of Genoese trading posts in the 15th century. Abkhazian and Georgian historical narratives are often contradictory, yet they have one thing in common: they pay a lot of attention to historical connections with Europe.

A map at the history museum of the town of Pitsunda showing the trade links of the town’s Hellinic precursor – Pityus. Photo: Dominik Cagara 2012
Probably every Abkhazian child knows the ancient Greek names for the capital city of Abkhazia, Sukhumi: Dioskurias and Sebastopolis.

‘I am a so-called a child of war. I was five years old when the war started and I lived through all the difficulties of the period, including the shortfalls of European policies towards Abkhazia’, Inna Krests, young Abkhazian historian explains.

‘Historically, Europe played a significant role in Abkhazia. Geopolitically, Abkhazia is located at the junction of two words: Europe and Asia, East and West. The two stars on our coat of arms symbolise the union of both cultures. The Greeks, the Genoese, the Venetians, later the English, French, and German travellers had their impact on Abkhazia.’

‘Let’s take the Basques. In ancient times, a people called Abazg used to inhabit to the territory of Abkhazia. According to one theory, the Basques, who are also struggling for independence, are descendants of an ancient Abazg migration’, she explains.

Although many are keen or stressing the shared Abkhazian–European heritage, Ms Krets points out that many Abkhazians are disenchanted with Europe due to European countries’ policy of siding with Georgia and European Union’s stated policy of non-recognition of Abkhazia’s independence.

‘I’m not an ethnic Abkhaz, but I am Abkhazian with my soul. I’m a fourth-generation Estonian. As a matter of fact, I’m also a European (laughs). I find it painful that the European community doesn’t recognise our republic. It’s all a matter of big politics, but in Europe itself there are small states which aren’t recognised and have a right to exist.

‘I was very affected by the armed phase of the conflict and the information war waged by Europe at different points. I have a lot of positive feelings towards Europe as well as prejudices. It’s a part of the world that interests me the most, historically, because of its profuse culture and the changes it underwent — just like Abkhazia’, she says.

Many negative sentiments towards Europe are also a result of the ongoing information war between the West and Russia in the aftermath of the escalation of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Russian TV channels are ubiquitous in Abkhazia and they paint a picture of weak, divided, and decadent Europe with little or no respect to ‘traditional values’ and rampant ‘promotion of homosexuality’.

‘Nowadays, Europe is perceived in a biased way. Nationalists and patriots see Europe as a danger. They see “Conchitas” [a reference to an Austrian pop-artist and cross-dresser, winner of the Eurovision song contest, who performed under the stage name of Conchita Wurst] and “European values” that are be unacceptable for our society, especially same-sex marriages. They see only this side of Europe, rejecting all the great culture which we were raised with by means of Soviet education. We know and appreciate the European culture. Today, unfortunately, the enemies of Europe propagate the ideas that it is old and in decline. A thinking person can choose the Europe they want to see: Conchita’s Europe — which also has its right to exist — or the other Europe’, Ms Ladaria argues.

When I ask Ms Ladaria about the future of Abkhazia and Europe, she gives a loud sigh.

‘Unfortunately, this is where geopolitics, globalisation, and the fight between unipolar and multipolar worlds enter the stage. We’ve always found ourselves in the middle. As for today, I think that for Abkhazia, which has always been independent, fought for its independence, and declared itself a sovereign state, the recognition of our independence remains a serious issue. The fact that Europe doesn’t recognise us, turns the society against Europe.
The fact that Russia recognised us, attracts the society towards Russia. Russia is undoubtedly our strategic partner. Still, I would like Abkhazia to be an open state. We want to be a part of the friendly family of European states. I don’t mean becoming a part of the European Union, but we would welcome good-neighbourly relations with European states. I don’t want one state to dominate in Abkhazia; be it Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, or Italy. We should have a parity between the West and the East.

‘European countries are friends of Georgia, with whom our conflict continues, although the armed phase is over. Although some of my colleagues would argue otherwise, the recognition by Russia didn’t put an end to the conflict. I wish Europe could look at us and consider our will and our right to be independent’, Ms Ladaria explains.

When I ask the same question to Ms Krets, she says ‘If Europe recognises us?’ and laughs.

‘There are smaller states than Abkhazia in the world. We were recognised by Nauru, which has area of 23 km². Our area is 8,700 km². Why that state has a right to exist, and we don’t? Our statehood goes back to a thousand years ago — the independent and sovereign Kingdom of Abkhazia appeared in the 8th century. If Europe starts paying attention to us and our developing statehood, then we’ll obviously support the idea of partnership. If, however, Europe tries to affect our quest for freedom and independence, the dialogue won’t be successful.’

The article discusses developments as seen from Abkhazia which doesn’t imply a position on Abkhazia’s international legal status and might not reflect the view of the publisher. The word ‘Abkhaz’ refers to an ethnicity, while ‘Abkhazian’ refers to an inhabitant of Abkhazia regardless their ethnic background or an institution based in Abkhazia. Abkhazian place-names and personal names are transliterated according to how they would be spelled in the Abkhaz language.

Dominik K. Cagara is a journalist, translator, and NGO activist who focuses on issues related to peace, security, and minorities on both sides of the Caucasus. He’s currently affiliated with media outlets Democracy & Freedom Watch and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting