Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has announced a new state program aimed at developing and protecting the Abkhaz language in an effort to woo back its prodigal Abkhazian citizens.
Congratulating his “Abkhazian brothers and sisters,” Kvirikashvili promised his government’s backing, noting hopes that the project would help “restore burned bridges, which are necessary for our unity.” As if to underscore the seriousness of the occasion, the initiative was launched with that most sacred of post-Soviet rituals—a memorandum of understanding between the education and reconciliation ministries.
The new state program is only the latest in a multi-year charm offensive by the Georgian government towards its estranged constituents in Abkhazia, who ejected government forces and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgian residents following a Russia-backed struggle in 1992-93. Tbilisi supplies power to the breakaway statelet through the Inguri Dam, which straddles the administrative boundary, and even provided free electricity when the dam was undergoing maintenance. Georgia offers Abkhazians free university education, though it is ethnic Georgians in the beleaguered Gali region that primarily take advantage of the opportunity.
However, a steady trickle of Abkhaz have taken advantage of Georgian healthcare, which is relatively close by, reasonably well regarded regionally, and, importantly, free. A large, modern hospital was recently completed near Abkhazia in the village of Rukhi—where a major shopping complex is also taking shape—in an effort to win Abkhaz hearts and minds. Even Georgia’s hard-won visa liberalization agreement with the EU is fanning hopes in Tbilisi that Abkhazia might discover some value in Georgian passports.
Yet the de facto Abkhazian authorities are having none of it. In Abkhazia, which is enjoying a bit of a construction boom of its own, the separatist government has waved away Georgian entreaties, insisting that they are irrelevant given what they see as Abkhazia’s independence from Tbilisi.
Sukhumi's rebuke to Kvirikashvili’s language protection program was sharper still, calling Tbilisi’s gesture “hypocrisy” in promoting Abkhaz language and culture while enforcing a non-recognition policy. As an added jab, the de facto government noted that Georgian forces burned Abkhaz archives and the Institute of Language, Literature, and History in 1992.
“Against this backdrop, attempts by the present leadership of Georgia to create the appearance of concern for the culture and traditions of the Abkhaz people, with respect to which Georgia committed an act of armed aggression and tried to completely destroy, are absolutely cynical,” Abkhazia's de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Georgians might find the Abkhazian response more than a little unfair, as Georgia today is already quite different from the country of five years ago, much less the early 1990s. Meanwhile, even though Russia recognized its independence in 2008, Abkhazia’s reliance on Russia and international isolation has only compounded since then. However, Abkhazia seems no less bent on its national project, even at the cost of extended international seclusion. For the de facto government in Sukhumi (locally known as Sukhum), and likely much of the Abkhaz population, Tbilisi’s baubles and warm words matter little compared to their quest for national identity and sovereignty—at least for now. The Georgian government’s outreach program, laudable though it may be, may be too little, too late.
To date, Georgian efforts to woo Abkhazians have been largely material in nature—electricity, healthcare, university tuition, shopping centers, visa liberalization, etc.—but have done little to address questions of Abkhaz identity. Even the language protection program, though symbolically rich, promises little (so far) beyond vague assurances of governmental intent.
The Abkhaz national project is defined primarily by recognition, sovereignty, and self-determination. While independence has been the focal point of Abkhaz preoccupations, it is hardly the only possible vehicle for Abkhaz national expression. A well structured, broadly autonomous Abkhazia within a unified Georgian state could be an entirely capable means to achieve Abkhazian national aspirations, yet this concept has garnered little attention beyond occasional and ambiguous Georgian promises. Meanwhile, other Georgian experiments with decentralization and sub-national government have been unconvincing at best.
Abkhaz national aspirations may not be well served in its current predicament between suffocating Russian patronage and international isolation. But many Abkhaz see their status now as the best of several bad options. For now, though, Tbilisi appears unwilling to take bigger steps toward offering the Abkhaz an option within Georgia for genuine self-determination.