Yesterday (December 28th), final results were published for the census held in February: Abkhazia’s population officially counts 240,705 people. Preliminary results made public on the 28th of March had put that number at 242,826 — the new figure was arrived at after excluding double counts.
This marks the first time since 1989 that official census data have been published in Abkhazia. Abkhazia’s Demography is a very contentious issue due to the small share of Abkhaz in the population and the massive exodus of Georgians during the 1992-1993 war. The large demographic changes since 1989 have led to widely diverging estimates and claims regarding the size and ethnic composition of Abkhazian society. At one point, Abkhazia’s government claimed that Abkhazia still had some 320,000 inhabitants, compared to 525,061 in 1989, whereas some Georgian sources claimed the number had fallen to 150,000. While Abkhazian sources claimed that a lot of Georgians were still living in or had returned to Abkhazia, this was disputed by Georgia. Conversely, Georgian sources claimed that Abkhazia actually counted less Abkhaz than Armenians.
The current census is actually not the first since 1989 — a previous one was held in 2003. Its results have never officially been published, and they have been claimed to be inaccurate. One criticism was levelled at the fact that the census was administered during the Old New Year holiday, when many people were at their friends’ homes. However, its results have become public and they have formed the best demographic estimate so far.
The 2003 census put the size of Abkhazia’s population at 215,972, which means it has since increased by some 25,000 people. As of now, only an ethnic break-down of the final census results has been made public, but the preliminary results indicate that while all districts saw their population grow, the total increase is overwhelmingly due to the fact that the population of the City of Sukhum grew by more than 20,000 people (from 43,716 in 2003).
The ethnic break-down in turn tells us that the population increase is entirely due to an increase in the number of ethnic Abkhaz (from 94,606 in 2003 to 122,069 now) who now form a tiny 50.71% majority. The Armenian (44,870/41,864), Russian (23,420/22,077) and Greek (1,486/1,380) populations actually decreased. As in 2003, only a small number of Kartvelians chose to identify themselves as Mingrelian (3,598/3,201) rather than Georgian (40,443/43,166). Curiously, despite the fact that during the last couple of years, some 8000 gastarbeiter from Central Asia have reportedly come to Abkhazia, these do not figure among the largest ethnicities.
The increase in the number of Abkhaz corresponds to an average annual growth of 3.2%. For comparison, Wikipedia, based on CIA World Fact Book estimates for 2010, gives natural population increases (the difference of birth and death rates) of -0.49% for Russia, 0.09% for Georgia, 0.43% for Armenia and 0.95% for Azerbaijan. It is safe to say then that the 3.2% annual growth of the number of Abkhaz cannot be entirely due to natural growth. Assuming the preceding calculations are correct, this leaves four logical options:
- Many non-Abkhaz re-classified themselves as Abkhaz between 2003 and 2011.
- The 2003 census was flawed and underestimated the number of Abkhaz.
- The 2011 census was flawed and overestimated the number of Abkhaz.
- The 3.2% growth rate is to a large part due to immigration rather than natural increase.
Out of these, the first two possibilities seem unlikely, but they can only be excluded if more detailed statistics are made public. Regarding the fourth option, it is certainly true that members of the Abkhaz diaspora in Russia and Turkey have re-migrated during the past couple of years. The destruction of the 1992-1993 War and subsequent isolation made Abkhazia a very unattractive place to live in during the nineties, which means a percentage of the population left for Russia that is relatively higher than in surrounding countries, allowing a relatively larger number of Abkhaz to return between 2003 and 2011. However, the average annual growth percentage of Abkhaz between 1989 (when there were 93,267 Abkhaz) and 2011 is 1.2%, which is still very high, especially considering the fact that a few thousand Abkhaz died in the 1992-1993 War. So if migration is to explain the strong Abkhaz population increase, it still requires a significant re-migration from the Turkish diaspora, which should show up in the full census results.
Given the fact that the current census gives a higher figure for Abkhazia’s population than many Georgian and international estimates, and given the high number of reported Abkhaz, accusations will probably be levelled that the census was falsified. However, it was organised in cooperation with the Russian State Statistics Service, which is a professional organisation, so it should receive the benefit of the doubt, and criticisms should specify what numbers were falsified where and how.
Conversely, the inhabitants of Abkhazia should be able to judge whether these census results are plausible. After all, the population of Sukhum seems to have witnessed between 2003 and 2011 an increase of more than 20,000 people, which amounts to almost 50%. Similarly, any large scale re-migration of Abkhaz to Abkhazia cannot have gone unnoticed.
Any comments and/or information from anyone who can shed more light on the subject are highly welcome.