Does Abkhazia need a foreign policy makeover?

Abkhazia border.jpg

Abkhazia's limited international recognition has so far only made it more dependent on Russia. Sufian Zhemukhov considers how the Abkhazians might develop their status in the international context.

Sufian Zhemukhov
12 September 2012

Abkhazia has enjoyed the status of a de facto independent state since it won its secessionist war with Georgia in 1992-1993. After the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, six countries, all members of the United Nations, recognized Abkhazia’s independence (Russian Federation, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu). However, Abkhazia still lacks broad international recognition and continues to be the object, rather than a subject, of negotiations between other states, mainly Georgia, Russia, the United States, and the European Union.

The development of Abkhazia’s status is not the result of a consistent foreign policy but rather of a series of accidental international events unconnected to each other. Ethnic Abkhazians themselves have been inconsistent about their desire for independence. They have, in fact, applied several times to become part of other countries: they opted to remain in the USSR when Georgia split away from it two decades ago and have twice applied to join the Russian Federation.

'The development of Abkhazia’s status is not the result of a consistent foreign policy but rather of a series of accidental international events unconnected to each other.'

This does not mean that Abkhazians do not have comprehensive interests, however, or that they do not use their own methods to pursue them. Abkhazian foreign policy has been of significance to the extent that the country has occasionally been able to improve (or worsen) its international position. While independence is very important for Abkhazians, however, it is not the only driving force in their foreign policy. Economic and social interests are equally important motives that have helped determine the preferences of Abkhazia’s elite.

Abkhazia as a de facto independent state

From the beginning of their struggle for independence, Abkhazians had only a few allies and they were temporary or informal relationships. In 1990-1991, the Abkhazian separatist movement received considerable support from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to use it as an instrument to block Georgia’s first steps toward independence. Abkhazians boycotted Georgia’s 1991 referendum on independence, announcing their decision to remain in the USSR and voting for its preservation in that referendum (also 1991). 

In June 1992, in response to Georgians’ revival of their 1921 constitution, Abkhazians revived their own Soviet-era constitution of 1925. At that time Abkhazia was briefly united with Georgia in a more equal confederate fashion before being formally subordinated to Soviet Georgia in 1931.

In 1992, Abkhazia became a member of the so-called Commonwealth of Unrecognized States (CUS), an analogue of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Abkhazia established relations with other unrecognized states, including Serbian Krajina in Croatia, the Respublika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniestria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. When Georgia rejected CIS membership (it only joined at the end of the Georgia-Abkhazia war), Abkhazia separately applied for membership but was not admitted.

Moscow’s support ended with the fall of the USSR. Gorbachev’s former opponents-turned-presidents of Russia and Georgia, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, supported each other. When, in August 1992, Georgian troops moved to restore control over Abkhazia, Russia supported Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Circassian support for Abkhazia

Abkhazians are considered part of the Circassian world, which has its homeland in the Russian Caucasus. The Abkhazian language belongs to a branch of Abaza-Circassian languages. For that reason, Abkhazia gained a new ally, the Circassian community, in Russia and in a diaspora that exists across 50 states.

'For five years after the war the Circassian world remained Abkhazia’s only real supporter.'

There was a dramatic response from this community to the 1992-1993 Georgia-Abkhazia war, in which over 1,500 Circassian volunteers took part.

  • The five million strong Circassian community in Turkey organized several meetings.
  • A delegation from Circassian NGOs met in September 1992 with the prime minister of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, who offered to cooperate to stop the conflict, although his government later supported Georgia.
  • The Circassian Benevolent Association (CBA) in Jordan visited, and appealed to the government of Jordan and embassies of the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain.
  • In January 1993, a freight carrier from the Jordanian air force landed at Nalchik airport in Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian North Caucasus with 17 tons of humanitarian aid from the CBA and Prince Hassan of Jordan.
  • Chechen separatists also supported Abkhazia, and a Chechen volunteer battalion fought alongside the Abkhazians and Circassians.

Abkhazia’s September 1993 victory did not bring recognition, and the legacy of the conflict determined Abkhazian problems for years to come. The war claimed about 10,000 lives and caused several hundred thousand refugees to flee Abkhazia, among them more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians, who had constituted over 45% of Abkhazia’s population to the ethnic Abkhazians’ 18%. After the war, about 50,000 refugees returned to their homes; however, some 30,000 of them had to flee again during the 1998 renewal of hostilities.


The Russian-Abkhazian border over River Psou. Nearly 1 million Russian tourists visit Abkhazia every year. That number has shrunk in recent years — in the main due to perceptions of poor service and rising costs. 

Russia actively participated in postwar negotiations and gradually gained a central role in the region. In 1995, the Abkhazian parliament applied, unsuccessfully, to become part of the Russian Federation. In January 1996 Russia agreed to impose a CIS-wide economic blockade against Abkhazia. Other countries, including Turkey, supported this initiative.

For five years after the war the Circassian world remained Abkhazia’s only real supporter. Recognizing the importance of the Circassian community in its affairs, Abkhazia established relations with the Circassian republics of the Russian Federation (Adyghea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia). In 1997 Abkhazia even risked alienating Russia when, following the example of regional parliaments in Kabardino-Balkaria and Adyghea, it recognized the 19th century genocide the Russian Empire committed against the Abkhazian people. Meanwhile, Abkhazia was passive during two Chechen wars and thus lost the support of the Chechen separatist movement.

'Russian policy toward Abkhazia changed after 2000, when Russia eased the blockade against it, unofficially allowing imports and exports.'

After a national referendum, the Abkhazian parliament declared independence in October 1999. Russian policy toward Abkhazia changed after 2000, when Russia eased the blockade against it, unofficially allowing imports and exports. In 2001, Abkhazia once more applied to become part of Russia, this time as an independent associated state, but again Russia rejected its appeal. Abkhazia developed relations with other unrecognized states on post-Soviet territories. In November 2006, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestria, and Nagorno-Karabakh simultaneously recognized each other, although they lacked instruments of mutual support.

Losing Circassian support

Circassian NGOs responded to the August 2008 war with statements in support of Abkhazia. A meeting took place on Abkhazian Square in Nalchik on the day Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence two months later. Afterwards, delegations from all parts of the Circassian world met in Sukhum(i) to celebrate Russia’s recognition.

The Circassian national movement lauded Abkhazia as the first territory in the Circassian-Abaza family to become independent. In October 2008, an Abkhazian delegation participated in Circassian Day at the European Parliament. Gem Ozdemir, an influential German politician of Circassian origin, organized a meeting with 30 members of the parliament. Powerful Circassian organizations lobbied for the economic and political interests of Abkhazia in Turkey. In 2011, Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh even visited Turkey, though he was eventually unable to meet officials.

At the same time, problems between Abkhazia and the Circassians developed as a by-product of Abkhazian demographic policy. To resolve the country’s demographic problems, the Abkhazian parliament passed a law allowing all people of ethnic Abkhazian origin to become citizens. Over several years, ethnic Abkhazians finally reached 50 percent of the total population (see Table 1.) This is, of course, a fragile figure, considering the existence of some 200,000 Georgian refugees and their descendants who demand the right to return.

Ethnic Statistics in Abkhazia

(Censuses of USSR 1989, Abkhazia 2003 and 2011)
















































The Abkhaz immigration policy alienated Circassians, who were generally not included in the favourable category allowed to become Abkhazian citizens. Circassians had hoped that Abkhazia would allow the mass immigration of diaspora Circassians, descendants of those expelled from the Caucasus during the Russian conquest of the 19th century. However, Abkhazia made a preference for only some Circassian sub-ethnic groups, claiming that they belong to the same Abaza branch as the Abkhazians. The Abkhazian government included in this group:

Abazins from Karachaevo-Cherkessia,

Ubykhs from Turkey, and

  • Shapsugs from the Krasnodar region, Turkey and Syria.

Circassian activists viewed this differentiation as a calculated

In the meantime, Russia and Georgia have had their own reasons for wishing to spoil Circassian-Abkhaz relations. Abkhazian experts were on several occasions invited to Moscow conferences at which such sensitive topics as the denial of the 19th century Circassian genocide were discussed without the contributions of Circassian colleagues.

‘It is obvious that only the restoration of Abkhazia’s relations with Georgia will help counterbalance the heavy Russian presence in Abkhazia.’

Some participants of these conferences maintained that Sochi (regarded by Circassians as their last capital) was not part of historical Circassia, but Abkhazian territory, supposedly because the Ubykhs that lived in the area belonged to the Abaza subgroup. The Abkhazian government never made any official statement on this subject. Nonetheless, these individual statements, which the Russian media publicized, had a negative impact on Circassian-Abkhazian relations.

Georgia’s momentous recognition of the Circassian genocide in 2011 revived Circassian-Georgian relations while weakening Circassian-Abkhazian relations. Abkhazia gave its support to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The fact that Russia will hold the Olympics on former Circassian lands without acknowledging Circassian history and sensitivities has upset members of the Circassian national movement. In 2011, realizing the danger of losing the movement’s support, Abkhazians started to commemorate their Day of Genocide jointly with the Circassians on 21 May (abandoning their traditional May 31 commemoration). This, however, did not remedy the situation. In May 2012, Circassian organizations did not attend Abkhazian meetings in Kefken, Turkey, commemorating the Circassian genocide, a gathering they always used to organize together.

What drives Abkhazia into Russian arms?

The international community has concerns for Georgian territorial integrity and Russian involvement in Abkhazia. The U.S. government considers Russian actions an ‘occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.’

Many analysts argue that while gaining de jure recognition of its independence by Russia, Abkhazia is becoming de facto more a part of the Russian Federation. Abkhazia has its problems with its large neighbour, including tensions over border disputes and extensive Russian property purchases, but it has allowed Russia to increase its military presence. Russian security services recently claimed the existence of an Islamist extremist group in Abkhazia with connections to North Caucasian extremists. In response, Sukhum(i) rejected the possibility of introducing Russia’s infamous anti-terrorist methods into Abkhazia. It is obvious that only the restoration of Abkhazia’s relations with Georgia will help counterbalance the heavy Russian presence in Abkhazia.

Three issues continue to stand in the way of such a change in relations: i) the legacy of the 1992-1993 war, ii) Georgia’s refusal to allow Abkhazia to trade directly with outside states, and iii) the problem of Georgian refugees. The war traumatized Abkhazians and alienated them from the Georgians. After the war, Georgia took some steps to try and compel Abkhazia to return to Georgia’s orbit. But the subsequent opening of the Russian-Abkhazian border direct Russian financial subsidies into the Abkhazian budget doubled the dependence of Abkhazia on Russia and brought Sukhum(i) under the control of Moscow.

The refugee problem

The UN General Assembly has recognized the right of all refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and their descendants to return to Abkhazia. Significant obstacles lie in the way of that happening. The Abkhazian government fears that the return of refugees/IDPs would significantly increase Georgian involvement in Abkhazia’s internal affairs and that 200,000 returning Georgians would overtake the 100,000 Abkhazians in elections, creating a pro-Georgian government in Abkhazia.

'The Abkhazian government fears that the return of refugees/IDPs would significantly increase Georgian involvement in Abkhazia’s internal affairs and that 200,000 returning Georgians would overtake the 100,000 Abkhazians in elections, creating a pro-Georgian government in Abkhazia.' 

There is also the issue of refugee/IDP property, distributed among Abkhazians after the war. Redistribution would lead to socio-economic destabilization. The Abkhazian government was thus looking for ways to protect itself from the proper, but impossible, demands made by the Georgians. Russian investments in Abkhazia proved to be the solution. The Abkhazian government finds it more convenient to let Russian companies buy former Georgian properties from new Abkhazian proprietors than to return them to their original owners.

The road ahead

The recognition of independence has opened the door to new challenges and opportunities for Abkhazia. Engagement with Europe, the Circassian-Abkhazian diaspora, and Russia became the three main dimensions of Abkhazia’s new foreign policy. Although highly restricted in its possibilities, Abkhazia nonetheless could take some real steps to resolve its main problems and promote its international status.

On the one hand, there is a way to resolve the refugee problem to the satisfaction of both sides. They could agree to follow the Georgian model for repatriating the Meskhetian Turks, deported from Soviet Georgia under Joseph Stalin. This programme has provided Meskhetian Turks with Georgian citizenship and reimbursed them for their property, but it offers them no guarantees that they will be able to return to where they lived before their deportation. Abkhazia could similarly allow the IDPs/refugees to return, with Georgia recognizing that residents left their homes in Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war for reasons that Georgian policy itself helped to create, and reimbursing them for their lost property.

In the long term, Abkhazia would benefit from the return of Georgian refugees. It would put an end to the 2009 Georgian naval blockade, help normalize Georgian-Abkhazian relations, and allow for the opening up of relations with foreign states. Georgian involvement in the Abkhazian economy would also balance the Russian presence.

While relations with Russia will remain a priority in Abkhazia’s foreign policy, Sukhum(i) should develop relations with the capitals of the Circassian republics in the North Caucasus (Nalchik, Maykop, and Cherkessk) would help restore Circassian-Abkhaz relations and strengthen the pro-Abkhazian lobby inside Russia. Abkhazia could also develop a new policy toward the diaspora, positioning itself as an Abkhazian-Circassian country and allowing Circassians from the diaspora to become citizens. Such steps would transform certain obstacles into instruments for normalizing the situation in Abkhazia and developing its international status.

A version of this article was originally published as PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 245, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, September 2012.


© PONARS Eurasia 2012

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