In the Gali district of the Russian-occupied separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia, the local administration is launching a campaign to oust ethnic Georgians who refuse to officially change their identity.
Gali is located in the southeastern part of Abkhazia. Ethnic Georgians constitute an absolute majority in this district (Travelgeorgia.ru, accessed October 26). After the August 2008 Five Day War, Moscow established a military base in this area (Agrba-timyr.livejournal.com, January 18, 2014), and Russian border guards fully control the frontier between Georgia and Abkhazia, along the Enguri River (Svoboda.org April 21). The Russian military contingent often conducts large-scale exercises in Gali (Sputnik-georgia.ru, June 23, 2010).
The Abkhazian authorities have long pursued a policy of expelling the Georgian population not only in the Gali district, but throughout the whole of Abkhazia. Indeed, the final declaration of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) December 1996 Lisbon Summit highlights, “We condemn the ethnic cleansing, which resulted in the mass destruction and forcible expulsion of the predominantly Georgian population of Abkhazia” (Osce.org, December 3, 1996).
One year ago, the Abkhazian government seized Abkhazian passports from Georgians living in the Gali district (Abkhazeti.info, October 18, 2017). Without a passport, these residents are barred from participating in parliamentary, presidential or local elections in breakaway Abkhazia. Temur Mzhavia, a deputy in the parliament of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic (in exile, in Tbilisi), told this author that the seizure of Abkhazian passports represents clear discrimination against Gali’s ethnic Georgians: “Georgians of the Gali district are allowed to live in Abkhazia: they are given a ‘residence permit.’ But this document fails to protect any of their civil or property rights” (Author’s interview, October 21).
Georgians who have been deprived of their passports in Abkhazia do not have the right to sell the house or apartment that their ancestors built or bought. They do not even have the right to leave property to their relatives in an inheritance. The house or apartment where the Georgians live is considered property of the Abkhazian state. When a Georgian homeowner in Abkhazia dies, this person’s family can no longer use his or her house. An ethnic-Georgian resident is legally allowed to transfer ownership of his or home only to a citizen of Abkhazia (meaning, an ethnic Abkhazian). Depriving these individuals of their passport and banning real estate transactions involving their property is one of the ways the authorities in Sukhumi have been gradually ousting the ethnic-Georgian population from Abkhazia (GHN, October 19). But this is far from the only policy tactic.
Giorgi Gvazava, the chairman of the Parliament of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic (in exile), told the author about a second way: “People are forbidden to cultivate the land… [And when they] go to neighboring Georgia, the Abkhazian administration of the Gali district hinders their return, so that they cannot work the land that belonged to their ancestors. Such a person is then forced to leave Abkhazia so as to not die of hunger” (Author’s interview, October 21).
The local education laws are also designed to discriminate against ethnic-Georgians. Several months ago, Abkhazian authorities banned instruction in the Georgian language in this breakaway region. In the local Georgian schools, the Georgian language can be taught only as a separate subject. Vakhtang Kolbaya, the prime minister of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic (in exile), said, “There were once 58 Georgian schools in Gali; in recent years [many were closed, and] only 33 schools remain. But now, the Abkhazian authorities have shifted all Georgian schools to the Russian language of instruction. If [the schools were forced to use] Abkhaz, this could be considered a concern for [the republic’s] native language, but Abkhazia does not have any textbooks in the Abkhaz language; therefore, they have introduced instruction in Russian. The Georgian children and their parents asked to retain Georgian [as the language of instruction in their schools], but the Abkhazian administration refused” (Author’s interview, October 21).
The ban on teaching in Georgian is another means to expel the ethnic-Georgian population from the Gali district and the whole of Abkhazia. The Abkhazian authorities and Moscow expect that Georgians will choose to leave Abkhazia in order to be able to teach their children in the Georgian language.
The above policy of “ethnic cleansing” is reinforced by the fact that the Abkhazian administration has closed four of the five points of crossing on the Georgian-Abkhazian de facto border (Newsgeorgia.ge January 28). The only crossing—via a bridge spanning the Enguri River—is entirely controlled by Russian border guards. Movement across this bridge has, by design, become unbearable. And despite the population’s requests, the local administration has refused to assign a bus route between Gali and Zugdidi. Georgians, including children, are forced to walk several kilometers on foot to cross the de facto border. Again, the goal of the Abkhazian administration is to create agonizing conditions for ethnic Georgians and force them to either permanently leave Abkhazia or change their ethnic identity (GHN, October 19).
The head of the Gali district administration, Temur Nadaraya, calls on the Georgians of Gali to declare themselves ethnic Abkhaz in return for being accorded an Abkhazian passport and all the privileges of a citizen of Abkhazia (Civil Georgia August 1). Gali resident “K. M.” (who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons), noted that if an ethnic Georgian living in Gali changes his or her Georgian name to the Abkhazian style, he or she is automatically recognized as Abkhaz. But in this case, that person will have to give up contact with Georgian relatives in Georgia proper and will be seen to be showing intransigence toward Georgia (GHN October 19).
International law forbids the forcible change of a person’s or group’s ethnic identity as well as the creation of intolerable conditions that compel a person to either leave his/her home or change his/her identity. By accepting the terms of the Abkhazian administration, however, Georgians who do not want to leave Abkhazia are forced to publicly acknowledge that their ancestors were not Georgians but Abkhazians—that is, to change their ethnic identity (GHN, October 19).
International law and international opinion on this matter generally do not enter into the separatist Abkhazian authorities’ calculations since Sukhumi enjoys the full support of Moscow and the Russian occupying forces. Many Georgian experts believe that if the campaign to oust or assimilate the ethnic-Georgian population continues at the same pace, in two or three years Abkhazia may have no more Georgians left who have retained their ethnic identity—even in Gali district. Thus, the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population of Abkhazia will have concluded.