Donnacha Ó Beacháin
Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University (DCU) where he lectures on post-Soviet politics, unrecognised states, Irish studies, and foreign policy. Ireland.

Firstly, I should like to commend the herculean efforts of Metin Sönmez who, more than anyone else I can think of, has brought the Abkhazian people to a global audience. Unfortunately, I have not visited Abkhazia since August 2014 and so my in-person recollections are somewhat fossilised. My last trip took place during  a time of upheaval that led to Alexander Ankvab fleeing Abkhazia, only to be replaced by Raul Khadjimba following a dubious election.

During the intervening years I have published several academic articles devoted to Abkhazia, based on my field research there. These have included articles focussing on elections, nation-building, attempts to attain recognition from UN member states, and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. I have also used Abkhazia as a case in works devoted to unrecognised states both in professional peer-reviewed journals and in the popular media.

The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict comes to Ireland

While I have not been to Abkhazia in recent times, Abkhazia has in a way come to me via the Georgian embassy here in Dublin. In March last year, the Georgian ambassador wrote a letter to the president of my university complaining that students taking a module I teach devoted to post-Soviet politics were being forcibly indoctrinated. The letter called on the president to act and was copied to other leaders within the university, as well as senior figures in Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

The ambassadorial communication said, inter alia, that “presenting Russia-Georgia war as if it were ethnical [sic] conflicts between Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians” was “nothing but an attempt to brainwash students through imposing false views that totally correspond to Russian narratives to justify its unlawful actions.” It continued:

“The fact is that the conflict in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia is not an internal rebellion or a civil war but coordinated attack [sic] fomented, planned and carried out by the Russian Federation. As a result of Russian military aggression against sovereign Georgia illegal, proxy regimes were created by Russia in both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia.”

It could not be said that my students had been deprived of a Georgian perspective. Over the course of recent semesters, I had facilitated 13 hours of guest lectures from Georgian professors, including a former ambassador, minister, and MFA director. In fact, the only sitting ambassador ever invited to my classroom was the current one from Georgia, who had written the letter. This was never, therefore, a question of students not being exposed to the Georgian perspective; the problem for the embassy was that the Georgian perspective was not presented as an unchallengeable truth. In this the ambassador confused the role of an embassy, which is to promote the interests of the state it represents, and a university, which is to foster critical thinking not least by exposing students to multiple viewpoints.

The Georgian ambassador’s intervention provoked strong criticism and was rightly characterised as an unacceptable attack on academic freedom in Ireland by the representative of a foreign government. Throughout the academic community and civil society more generally there was an outpouring of indignation. On national radio the Minister for Higher Education characterised the attempt to interfere with academic freedom as “most unwelcome”. The matter was raised in both houses of Irish parliament and addressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. As one governing party MP emphasised “academic freedom and independence are central parts of our universities and democracy [that] can’t be censored to suit political or commercial sensitivities”. In a letter to the Georgian ambassador the largest trade union in Ireland described “such political interference and suggested threats” as “unacceptable to our members, as it is to civil society across Ireland”. The union repeated calls on the ambassador to withdraw his letter. Despite the substantial and universal condemnation, the Georgian ambassador declined invitations to defend his position before the Irish media.

Conflicting narratives

The case affirmed a central feature of how successive Georgian governments have presented the conflict to the outside world. Abkhazian resistance to Georgia is de-emphasised in favour of a narrative that suggests that there is in fact no quarrel between Georgians and Abkhazians. According to this view, it was Russia that attacked Georgians in 1992 and Abkhazians want to be part of Georgia but are held back by the Kremlin. Usually, Abkhazians are not referred to at all in these presentations but their home is simply referred to as Georgian territory occupied by Russia.

This narrative is impossible to reconcile with the intense and bitter war launched in August 1992 by Georgian military forces controlled by Tengiz Kitovani and Jaba Ioseliani, and under the titular leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze. Abkhazians believed their struggle at this time was for nothing less than survival. These fears were reinforced by statements made by the Commander-in-chief of Georgian troops in Abkhazia, General Giorgi Karkarashvili, and Georgian Minister for Abkhazia in Tbilisi, Giorgi Khaindrava, both of whom publicly threatened genocide. During the 13-month war Georgians killed approximately 4 percent of the Abkhazian population. As is well known to all those familiar with the subject, the invasion had far-reaching effects on Georgian-Abkhazian relations and has left a legacy of bitterness.

It is not only Abkhazians that harbour resentment. During the war terrible atrocities were committed against Georgians, 250,000 of whom fled in terror. The vast majority never returned. Although tens of thousands (many of them Mingrelians) have since resettled in Gal/i they have consistently been denied basic rights. The inter-communal bitterness is reflected in the monuments Georgians and Abkhazians have erected to commemorate the war. Each side only remembers their own dead; the names of their ethnic adversaries are pointedly omitted. These kinds of exclusions chime with Abkhazian presentations of Georgia as an enemy state but sit less well with the oft-proclaimed position in Tbilisi that Georgians and Abkhazians are kindred peoples destined to live under the same jurisdiction.  

It is difficult to envisage any resolution to the dispute between Georgians and Abkhazians given the mutually exclusive features of their respective nation-building projects. Although the Georgian official narrative portrays the conflict as being one between Georgia and Russia, the clash is at heart an intra-Caucasian one between two different nationalities that have polar-opposite views. Georgians still speak of “territorial integrity” and of absorbing Abkhazia, whereas Abkhazians – separated from Georgia for three decades – say they would fight again rather than be governed from Tbilisi. Certainly, the prospects for reconciliation are remote if the official position of Georgia’s representatives is to deny there is any conflict with Abkhazians, only with Russia.