Abkhazia is more than 2,400 miles from Barcelona, but last weekend’s Catalan referendum on independence was closely watched in Abkhazia, a partially-recognized territory that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s.
Abkhazians feel a natural affinity with other secessionists, and many there hope that greater international attention on the question of self-determination might have follow-on political benefits for their own picturesque slice of Black Sea territory.
“We feel for the people of Catalonia, because we have been in a similar situation,” said Asta, a 21-year-old international relations student at the Abkhazian State University. She was one of a small crowd of students who gathered October 5, on Sukhumi's idyllic seaside promenade, to express support for Catalonia. “Youth of Abkhazia with Catalonia” read one banner; “Freedom” declared another.
“When I first saw the news [about Madrid's crackdown on the referendum], I thought – ‘where did the democracy and human rights go, to which the European Union is so committed?’” Asta said. Her messages of support on social media elicited appreciation from Catalans, she said.
The day after the referendum, and attending violence, Abkhazia’s de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement criticizing Spain’s actions. “The current events in Catalonia have many common features with the processes that took place in Abkhazia in the early 90s,” the statement said. “Abkhazia, like now Catalonia, defended its right to independent existence exclusively by peaceful means, trying to resolve all contradictions with Georgia in the legal channel. In response, Georgia committed an act of armed aggression against civilians, unleashing a bloody war in Abkhazia.”
The Abkhazian-Georgian war ended in September 1993, with many thousands of casualties and nearly the entire population of ethnic Georgian Abkhazians displaced to Georgia. Allegations of war crimes have been levelled against both sides. The conflict remains frozen, with an agreement on the non-use of force unsigned.
“It is necessary to understand that Catalonia, as well as Abkhazia, is a territory with its own traditions of statehood, rich in history and cultural identity,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the modern authorities of Spain commit a serious crime against their own citizens, trying to suppress the desire of the people of Catalonia to independence, through brutal violence.”
Abkhazia's de facto foreign ministry has a representative responsible for Catalonia, Husam Kudzhba, who met this week with de facto foreign minister Daur Kove. Abkhazian cultural events in Catalonia are apparently being planned, with a desire to promote awareness about Abkhazia among the Catalans.
While events in Barcelona and the wider region remain fluid, Abkhazia’s foreign ministry is watching with a keen eye. It may be wishful thinking, but Abkhazians believe that the success of secessionist movements elsewhere will bolster their own claims to wider international recognition (Abkhazia is presently recognized by just Russia and a handful of unlikely allies). The “Kosovo precedent” is often discussed forlornly in Sukhumi, but locals hope that a Catalan equivalent may bode better for Abkhazia.