Thursday, August 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Abkhazia Caught Between Ethnic and Civic Nationhood

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 13 – The population of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia finds itself deeply divided between those backing an ethnocentric model in which nationality would play the key role and those supporting a civic nation model in which citizenship not ethnicity would be the basis of political participation, according to a leading Moscow specialist on the region.
And both because of the ethnic diversity of the republic and because of the opposition of the international community to states in which one ethnic group is given primacy over others, Sergey Markedonov argues, the outcome of this increasingly contentious debate will have a larger impact than many might think (
If the civic model is adopted, there is a chance that the partially recognized republic of Abkhazia could develop in a more or less stable country on its own. But if the purely ethnic definition is used, that could undermine social and political cohesion within Abkhazia and increase tensions between Abkhazia and its neighbors.
The current political debate was touched off by the passage by the republic’s parliament of amendments to Abkhazia’s law on citizenship that provided for offering citizenship to ethnic Georgians who had returned from the Gal district and who had not compromised themselves in the eyes of Abkhazia by fighting against that republic.
On August 5, representatives of the Abkhaz opposition assembled in Sukhumi and demanded that President Sergey Bagapsh not sign the law but rather return it to the Popular Assembly for reworking. That is what he did, and the following day, the parliament appointed a working group to come up with yet another revision in the republic’s citizenship law.
As Markedonov points out, all Abkhaz citizenship legislation (as adopted in 1993, 1995, 2002, and 2005) has been based on two “underlying principles.” On the one hand, all the republic’s citizenship laws have excluded from citizenship any who “with arms in their hands fought against the Abkhaz Republic.”
On the other, he continues, the legislation has been ethno-centric in each case, clearly defining Abkhazia as “in the first instance” a state of the ethnic Abkhaz, intended as a home not only for those of that community living there now but also for the descendents of Abkhaz who were expelled from the North Caucasus in the 1860s and 1870s.
To those ends, the paragraph that the parliament initially voted to amend at the end of July specified three groups who could acquire Abkhaz citizenship: ethnic Abkhaz regardless of their place or residence or passport nationality, representatives of other ethnic groups who have lived in the republic “not less than five years,” and those who acquire it through naturalization.
A major reason why the issue of the relationship of citizenship and ethnicity is so sensitive in Abkhazia is that unlike Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, “where,” Markedonov points out, “there exist dominating ethnic communities, the Abkhaz even after military actions and the expulsion of the Georgian population do not form an overwhelming majority.”
Given population shifts during the course of the violence, there are today no universally agreed upon statistics for the ethnic make-up of Abkhazia’s population, but Markedonov suggests that there are 70-80,000 Abkhaz, a roughly the same number of Armenians, some 35-45,000 ethnic Russians, and 55-60,000 ethnic Georgians concentrated in the Gal district.
Consequently, the parliament’s approval of a measure that would extend citizenship to the ethnic Georgians could easily tip the political balance in Abkhazia not only domestically but in its relations with Georgia and other countries, and not surprisingly, therefore, many who opposed such a move denounced its supporters as “traitors.”
This emotional reaction has been fuelled in addition by the anticipation of the upcoming presidential elections in Abkhazia with both the incumbent president and his opponents concluding that victory of one or the other may depend on just who gets to vote, something the citizenship legislation will establish.
Extending Abkhaz citizenship to the ethnic Georgians of the Gal district thus appears to many as an “either/or” issue, Markedonov says: “either apartheid (this model was realized after the completion of the conflict) or attempts at integration (which the Abkhaz powers that be began to make very timidly beginning in2005).”
There is, of course, “a third variant,” the Moscow expert points out, yielding the territory and its people to Georgia. “But if one speaks seriously,” that is not possible and there is a compelling need for some compromise, possibly on extending Abkhaz citizenship to those who lived in Gal in 1994-99 and also to ethnic Georgians lacking Georgian citizenship.
But Markedonov suggests that Abkhazia needs to find a way to include the ethnic Georgians in the Abkhaz political community lest they become “a fifth column” and a source of new tensions. As a result, he says, “Abkhaz politicians will be forced to return to the issue of broadening the basis of Abkhaz citizenship” whether they want to or not.

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