On June 27, the Moscow-backed separatist authorities of Abkhazia again closed their region’s border with Georgia. Tbilisi considers this border, which runs along the Enguri River, purely “administrative,” but Sukhumi and Moscow recognize it as a “state” border. The Abkhazian de facto government justified its actions by referring to the “anti-Russian rallies” raging in Georgia since mid-June (Lenta.ru June 27; see EDM, June 24). Last year, Sukhumi/Moscow enforced a similar ban purportedly on account of the World Cup, which was being held in Russia. In other cases, “swine flu” and various other excuses served to rationalize sporadic border closings (Sputnik-abkhazia.ru, January 26)
The current “temporary” border restrictions remain in place to this day, making it practically impossible to travel from Abkhazia to sovereign-controlled Georgia. Young people who live in the Gali district of Abkhazia and wish to take their exams at universities in Georgia are forced to risk their lives by climbing over a barbed wire fence. Some have reportedly been injured in these attempts (Livepress.ge, July 2). Russian border guards stationed at the Georgian-Abkhazian border are permitted to open fire and shoot “intruders.”
Many ethnic Georgians born and raised in Abkhazia who have remained there since the region broke away (with Russian backing) during the August 2008 war, regularly take the deadly risk of crossing into Georgia proper for socio-economic reasons. Inside Abkhazia, their only prospect for attaining equal civil rights is to change their ethnic identity and declare that they are ethnic Abkhaz, not Georgians (see EDM, October 3, 2013; July 9, 2014; October 26, 2017).
According to international law, forcing members of an ethnic community to change their identity is considered a form of discrimination and a violation of human rights. But as one of the leaders of the Georgian refugee community and the former chairperson of the Supreme Council of the (Tbilisi-recognized) Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, Giorgi Gvazava, told this author, “The Abkhazian authorities feel the support of Moscow and disregard such accusations.” Gvazava also stressed that, especially over the past few years, the anti-Georgian policies in Abkhazia have become particularly cruel (Author’s interview, July 20).
According to Gvazava, in order to force people to change their ethnic identity and declare themselves Abkhazians, the separatist authorities use not only intimidation but also administrative leverage. Namely, the Georgian population of the Gali district is deprived of passports and all civil rights, including curtailed rights to own property. “Georgian residents of Gali have to either accept the fact that their home, where their grandfathers lived, can be confiscated at any time by the authorities as property of the state of Abkhazia, or they must accept the program for the ‘final solution of the Georgian question in Abkhazia,’ ” Gvazava asserted (Author’s interview, July 20).
This program, Gvazava noted, has proceeded along several progressive stages. First, all Georgian schools were closed in the Gali district. The Georgian language is taught as a separate subject only a few hours a week, even though the ethnic-Georgian community of Abkhazia requested that children be allowed to study all disciplines in Georgian (Author’s interview, July 20).
In the second stage, Georgians were stripped of their passports, deprived of the right to participate in local elections and denied the right to own property. To reverse these sanctions, local ethnic Georgians were given only one recourse: providing the administration of the Gali district with an official statement that their ancestors were not Georgians but Abkhazians and requesting to “reclaim [their] Abkhaz surnames and Abkhaz identity.” To consider this application, the Abkhazian administration requires further evidence of “loyalty,” including the rejection of Georgian citizenship. At that point, the Georgian individuals residing in Gali are officially recognized as “ethnic Abkhaz,” issued an Abkhazian passport, and are again granted the right to participate in elections and own real estate (Author’s interview, July 20).
As the political analyst David Avalishvili pointed out to this author on August 3, Abkhazia’s citizenship policy is based foundationally on ethnic identity. For example, a person living in this breakaway region who has renounced his/her Georgian citizenship is not necessarily guaranteed an Abkhazian passport. To be granted Abkhazian documentation and become a full citizen of this self-declared “state,” a person “must change not only their citizenship but also their ethnic identity,” Avalishvili explained.
This policy of the Moscow-supported Abkhazian authorities is (at least on paper) actively changing the ethnic identity of the local Georgian community: 400 ethnic Georgians have already agreed to change their Georgian surnames to Abkhaz ones. For example, Agirbaia becomes Agirba, Adzinbaia turns into Adzinba, Lakerbaia into Lakerba, and so on (Resonance Daily, July 28).
Georgian residents of Abkhazia are afraid to openly talk about the repression and humiliation they are subjected to in the breakaway republic. But “M.K.,” who asked this author not to use his real name, brought up an illustrative case involving Timur Nadaraia, the head of the Abkhazian administration of the Gali district, where most of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians reside. During a meeting in April 2019 with Georgian locals, Nadaraia openly expressed surprise that they do not leave “for their Georgia” but choose to stay in Abkhazia if they “do not have any rights there and are humiliated every day” (Author’s interview, May 26).
Abkhazia’s (and by extension Russia’s) policies toward the Georgian population living north of the Enguri River are clearly leading to the ethnic cleansing of this remaining minority: Most of those who consider themselves Georgians are under mounting pressure to either leave Abkhazia forever or turn to the de facto authorities and declare that they are ready to change not only their citizenship but also their very ethnic identity (see EDM, October 26, 2017).
The targeted discriminatory nature of this policy is confirmed by the fact that, although Russian and Armenian minorities in Abkhazia face some of their own problems vis-à-vis the authorities (Ekho Kavkaza, January 21, 2019), they are conspicuously not required to renounce their ethnicities. Only Georgians are exposed to this form of discrimination. As such, it is also perhaps not surprising that reporting about 400 ethnic Georgian in Abkhazia changing their surnames have appeared at the same time as Moscow has been sharply increasing pressure on Tbilisi in an attempt to change the pro-Western foreign policy orientation of the Georgian state (see EDM, July 31).