Most of the streets of Sukhumi, capital of the Georgian-claimed secessionist region of Abkhazia, are named after Soviet-era luminaries and notable figures from the conflict that gave the territory de facto independence. But stroll for long enough around the picturesque Black Sea city and an unusual road sign comes into view: Scotland Street.
Even before Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in 1992, Sukhumi has been a twin city of the small town of Kilmarnock, in the sometimes-secessionist Scotland. Abkhazians have long been advocates of Scottish independence, as they are of many other secessionist movements around the world.
That relationship has come under attack, however. The Kilmarnock town council has agreed to remove a small monument in a leafy park, inscribed: “In memory of those from our twin town of Sukhumi who died in the Abkhazian/Georgian conflict.”
The council did so after Georgia's ambassador to the United Kingdom became aware of the existence of the monument, which dates from the 1990s, and raised her objections with local authorities.
Particularly objectionable to the ambassador, Tamar Beruchashvili, was the Abkhazian flag that adorned the memorial.
“One of the main tasks of the Embassy of Georgia and generally the Georgian diplomacy is to use all means against the efforts of the Russian government to propagate the so-called independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the ambassador said in a statement. “In this particular case, we received very serious support from London, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as from the local authorities in Scotland.”
The Abkhazian reaction has been swift. Deputy Foreign Minister Kan Taniya created a Change.org petition to “save Abkhaz memorial in Kilmarnock” which as of this post's publication had garnered a little over 1,600 signatures. Abkhazia's honorary consul to the United Kingdom, professor of Caucasian languages and longtime Abkhazia advocate George Hewitt, described his “horror and disbelief” at the news, and has already began a lobbying campaign to prevent the memorial being removed.
To Hewitt, the incident is just the latest in a systematic attempt by Georgia to silence Abkhazia. “This is part and parcel of their wider campaign,” the British academic said. “Whenever Abkhazia tries to advertise its existence and products around the world, Tbilisi seeks to get them closed down.”
Abkhazia’s de facto Foreign Ministry released a terse statement, describing the “barbaric moves” of Georgia as “another vivid confirmation of the aggressive and anti-human character of the Georgian policy towards Abkhazia and its people”. Labelling the forthcoming removal of the memorial an “act of vandalism,” the ministry drew comparisons between this incident and the arson of Abkhazia’s state archives during the war, which is alleged to have been committed by Georgian troops. “All the efforts of the Georgian leadership,” the statement continued, “are aimed not only at the physical annihilation of the Abkhaz people, but also at the extermination of its historical past, cultural and national identity.”
This is not the first time in recent years that links between Scotland and Abkhazia have elicited international attention. During the Scottish independence referendum, Abkhazia’s Foreign Ministry sent diplomatic letters endorsing the secessionist movement. Hewitt suggested these links may have been forgotten in the current brouhaha. “I wonder to what extent the current members of the Kilmarnock Council are aware of letter of support sent in the past to Edinburgh by Abkhazia,” he said.
In Georgia, too, some suggest that Tbilisi has overreacted to the Scottish memorial. The ambassador's campaign appears to be a “rigid application of non-recognition policy that harms the overall aim of reconciliation,” Jaba Devdariani, a former Georgian diplomat, told EurasiaNet.org.
Devdariani suggested that the ambassador could have spoken at the memorial to “set the record straight,” or even to erect another monument nearby with a message of peace.
“Insistence on removing the memorial makes Georgia's policy moves -- such as the recently advertised project to support preservation of Abkhaz language -- ring hollow,” Devdariani said.