Updated: Jul 25, 2022
On 23 July 1992 Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia, which had only the year before declared independence from the Soviet Union.
Is that how you become an independent country? Simply declare your independence?
In short, no. It is one thing to declare yourself an independent nation and another to have others recognise and treat you as such.
In the case of Abkhazia, the countries that recognise Abkhazia's independence can be listed on one hand. For the rest of the world Abkhazia is considered part of Georgia and more specifically a part of Georgia currently under Russian occupation.
Thirty years after declaring independence why is Abkhazia not recognised as an independent nation? For that answer, like always, we need a quick history lesson.
The history of Abkhazia is intertwined with that of Georgia, dating back as far as the first century. At various points in history the Abkhazian people have been unified with Georgia or they have been allowed to exist independently, in most instances as a vassal of Georgia.
One of their greatest periods was between 850 and 950 but this century ended in unification with Georgia. Over the years Abkhazia faced the same fate as Georgia being conquered by the Mongols and the Ottomans respectively.
During the fifteenth century the neighbouring Circassians (a blog is coming on these people very soon) grew in power with one man, Inal coming to the fore. He not only united all of the Circassian tribes, but he extended his rule to Abkhazia where the people were considered to have ethnic ties to the Circassains.
Inal (also known as Inal the Great) ruled from 1427 to 1453 and upon his death the various tribal principalities were established; one of these was Abkhaz. Abkhazia has a statue to Inal and remains one of the places around the globe with a large Circassian population.
While the Circassian’s were eliminated during a period of Russian ethnic cleansing in the late nineteenth century, the people of Abkhazia were relatively untouched and that is why today a large number of Circassians remain in Abkhazia.
In 1801 the people appealed to the Russian Empire for protection, but this would eventually lead to Russia annexing the region in 1864. At this time Muslim Abkhazian’s were deported to Ottoman territories, just like had happened to the Circassians.
With so many of the people deported other ethnicities began to settle in what was seen as a “buffer” Russian state. This meant that the Abkhazia people began to become the minority population and Russia imposed a strict regime of Russification of the region.
How then does present day Abkhazia come to be a part of Georgia?
Following the 1917 Russian revolution an independent Georgia was established, of which Abkhazia was included.
According to the 1921 Georgian constitution, Abkhazia had autonomy within Georgia. This didn’t last long though as Russian forces invaded both Georgia and Abkhazia in the same year. The Soviet Union set up Abkhazia as an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union. Just because it is called a republic does not mean it is an independent country though. Abkhazia was one of many "republics" set up at this time within the Soviet Union to manage historic ethnic enclaves where there were strong ethnic routes however in some instances these groups were no longer the major ethnicity of the region as migration had seen large numbers of Russians and other ethnicities settle in the area. These Republics in theory were able to govern themselves under the rights of self-determination.
Following the Soviet take over what followed in Abkhazia was a period of intense Abkhazian eradication.
All Abkhazian schools were closed, and children were forced to learn Georgian instead. The ruling elite were purged of any Abkhazian people, and they were replaced by ethnic Georgians who endorsed the "Georgification" of Abkhazia (all actions being directed and supported by the Soviet leaders).
While many of the Soviet states began to declare their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Abkhazia feared what this meant for the people. At the time there was great ethnic divides and tensions so it was feared that should Abkhazia be included in an independent Georgia they would lose all liberties. For this reason, 98.6% of people in Abkhazia voted to remain in the Soviet Union in a March 1991 referendum.
Despite this Georgia declared independence on 9 April 1991. Initially relations were good between the two factions, but things soon turned south which led to Abkhazia declaring independence on 23 July 1992.
The War for Independence and Eradication of Georgians
What happened next was war.
In August 1992 Abkhazia was accused of holding the Georgian Interior Minister captive which saw Georgian troops enter the region. At the time Abkhazia was not armed for such a conflict and so they received support from neighbouring regions and groups such as the Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians.
The war continued on for months and reached fever pitch in September when Abkhazia forces entered Sukhumi, the Georgian-held capital of the region and undertook, what can only be called a massacre of ethnic Georgians.
Faced with other unease across the newly independent nation, Georgia ceased fighting which left all bar one small region under Abkhazian control (this region would come under Abkhazia control in 2008).
Since the declaration of Abkhazia independence and the start of the war, the population of Abkhazia had fallen from 525,000 to just 216,000 with around 5,000 ethnic Georgians killed, 400 declared missing and a further 250,000 expelled from their homes.
A Frozen Conflict Zone
In 2008, Abkhazia capitalised on the Ossetian uprising which saw Ossetian separatists, backed by Russia, engage in a war with ruling Georgia (South Ossetia being another disputed Georgian territory).
At this same time Abkhazia took the opportunity to claim the final remaining part of Abkhazia under Georgian control. Supported by Russian troops the Abkhazia military moved on the region and expelled any remaining Georgian forces. On 26 August 2008, Russia then acknowledged the independence of Abkhazia. Two days later Georgia declared that Abkhazia was a “Russian-occupied” territory.
In 2014 Russia incorporated the Abkhazia military into the Russian fold which has been seen internationally as a step towards Russia annexing the region. It is important to note that 70% of people have Russian passports and Abkhazian passports are not internationally recognised.
With the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russians occupation of Abkhazia and other neighbouring regions will no doubt be put further under the international spotlight. According to Freedom House which rates the political rights and civil liberties of a location, Abkhazia achieves just a 40% freedom rating which is largely impacted by the lack of mobility for people as due to the frozen status of the region there is limited options for external interactions and travel.
So you hadn’t heard of Abkhazia before reading this blog?
I’m not surprised as today just five nations (member states of the United Nations) recognise Abkhazia as an independent nation while a further six places that recognise Abkhazia are themselves un-recognized nations.
The five nations who support Abkhazia’s independence are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria. The rest of the world considers Abkhazia a state of Georgia - a state occupied by Russia.
I'll end by posing the question, is Abkhazia any better off now than thirty years ago when they declared independence?
There really isn't very much on Abkhazia, especially in English but here are some digital articles you can check out to get you started.
"Abkhazia: Autonomous Republic, Georgia", Encyclopaedia Britannica, <https://www.britannica.com/place/Abkhazia>
"Abkhazia Profile", BBC World News (13 January 2020), <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18175030>
"Abkhazia", Freedom House (2022), <https://freedomhouse.org/country/abkhazia/freedom-world/2022>