Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: Under Siege by Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm and David Szakonyi

Under Siege: Inter-Ethnic Relations in Abkhazia

Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm, and David Szakonyi

Hurst & Company, London
September 2010
160 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84904-020-4

(co-published by Columbia University Press, ISBN: 978-0-231-70130-3)

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that after the exodus of much of Abkhazia’s Georgian community in September 1993, Abkhazia is now mainly populated by Abkhaz. But the truth is that Abkhazia is still very much a multi-ethnic society, and that Abkhaz only form the largest minority, not a majority of the total population. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has generated a steady trickle of publications over the years, but there has been a dearth of literature on the development of Abkhazia’s society since independence and how this has worked out for the various ethnic communities. Under Siege, by Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm and David Szakonyi was conceived to fill that gap.

Under Siege starts out with a chapter with background information on Abkhazia, which is followed by two useful chapters on the demography of Abkhazia now and throughout recent history and on the specific situation in the Gali district, where Abkhazia’s Georgian population is now concentrated. Then comes the core chapter of the book, which discusses the ethnic dimension of a number of different topics, ranging from language policy and the media to property rights and the economy. This is followed by a conclusion and two appendices. The first appendix could just as well have been part of the main text, it gives individual portraits of the Abkhaz, Georgian, Armenian, Russian, Greek, Estonian, German, Polish, Turkish, Jewish, North Caucasian and Rom communities. The second appendix contains a number of tables concerning the ethnic make-up of Abkhazia’s population.

Is Under Siege a good book? Well, at its core, yes, but there are also three ways in which it disappoints.

Firstly, Under Siege struggles with its stance vis-à-vis the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. In its introduction on page 4, it acknowledges that many issues are contested, and it takes that consideration into account in its use of place names. This in itself is sensible, but the solution is not reader-friendly: forms like Gal/i and Ochamchira/e are ok, forms like Sukhum/Sokhumi and Tkuarchal/Tkvarcheli diminish readability. The book could instead have stuck to the names used in Soviet times, or to the locally used variants (seeing as it aims to describe the situation on the ground) in combination with a disclaimer that this choice is a practical one, and does not entail taking a side in the political conflict. (Similar disclaimers are already in place in the introduction.)

Contrasting sharply with the sensibility displayed in relation to place names, the book straight-out sides with Georgia when it comes to the legal status of Abkhazia, as if this were not the most hotly disputed issue of all. It claims as fact the (widely, though certainly not universally held) opinion that Abkhazia is de jure part of Georgia and that “it is not entitled to have a legislative complex of its own according to international norms” (page 74). Even with that opinion in mind, the practice of modifying every second (the implementation is inconsistent) instance of ‘Abkhazia’, ‘authorities’ and related terms (‘legislation’, ‘law enforcement officers’, ‘ministry’, ‘law-makers’, ‘constitution’, ‘borders’, ‘armed forces’) with the qualifier de facto is enormously annoying — over a course of 150 pages, the term ‘de facto’ appears some 300 times. It claims that this ‘nomination’ is “in line with international law” — even if one agrees with that notion, when has international law ever restricted editorial liberties? All this is all the more annoying since this being a book that aims to describe the situation on the ground, the broader issue of the legitimacy of Abkhazia’s independence is not really relevant, and a short disclaimer in the introduction that the authors do not in any way mean to imply the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Abkhazian state or any of its institutions would have sufficed to put the issue aside.

The book’s apparent failure to uphold neutrality in its presentation is especially regrettable because it distracts from the fact that its observations, assessments and conclusions turn out to be rather well-balanced. The book seeks to answer a number of questions (on page 3), like “Do the non-Abkhaz population groups in Abkhazia support the drive for independence?” and “Is Abkhazia an ‘ethnocracy’, where a minority group imposes its rules over the majority of the population, or are other ethnic groups involved in the decision-making processes?” The answers reached are not straightforward. Except for the Georgian population, the non-Abkhaz communities do support Abkhazian independence, but only tacitly. And the Abkhaz struggle for survival as a nation has developed into a system of “practice-formalised social exclusion”, by which the interests of ethnic Abkhaz are put above other ethnicities’ interests. But this is partially due to “the loyalty and passivity” of the non-Abkhaz communities themselves. And it “has not led to a clear-cut ethnocentrism”, and Non-Abkhaz do enjoy limited representation in government, especially lower government. While the Abkhaz won the 1992–1993 war, since they still only constitute a minority of the total population, they simply cannot afford to ignore the other minorities.

Secondly, while it is not completely unorthodox that the book should start with ‘Acknowledgements’ in which the people responsible for copy-editing and proof-reading are thanked, there are some shortcomings in these departments. Some mistakes are mere slip-ups, like the occasional misspellings and attributing the 2003 census results on the ethnic composition of Abkhazia’s population in the second appendix to the government in exile’s statistical department. Other mistakes are in essence minor as well, but they convey the unfortunate impression that the person responsible didn’t know better. For the interested reader, a list of problematic passages has been appended to the end of this text.

While these shortcomings are superficial in nature, they have the very regrettable effect of diminishing the authority of the text. They don’t do justice to the extensive field-work carried out by the authors, who interviewed over 90 people between February and December 2007. It is this research which makes the book really valuable.

Thirdly, at 150 pages, the book is not very long. It focusses mostly on the Abkhaz, Armenian, Georgian and Russian communities, which is understandable, because these are the largest. But the profiles of the smaller ethnic groups in the first appendix leave the reader wanting to learn more. The authors could perhaps also have addressed in more detail the interesting phenomenon of gastarbeiter coming to Abkhazia in recent years, mostly from Russia and Central Asia.

A comparison with other societies could also have formed a useful addition to the book. For example, the authors point out on page 82 that Abkhazian citizenship law discriminates in favour of Abkhaz, Abaza and Circassian ethnicities, any member of which can obtain Abkhazian citizenship. It would have been very interesting to compare this with similar arrangements for Israeli and Armenian citizenship. Likewise, on page 11 it is said that “Abkhazia does not qualify as a democratic entity and elections cannot be classified as free and fair, particularly as … about 200.000 displaced Georgians cannot vote.” This immediately invites comparison with the situations in Estonia and Latvia, where large parts of the Russian populations are stateless, and therefore cannot participate in elections. (There is definitely a democratic deficit here, but to claim that these societies therefore do not have free and fair elections is not very useful, and is somewhat akin to claiming that there were no Western democracies before the introduction of women’s suffrage. To be sure, there are other issues with the free- and fairness of Abkhazian elections.)

It is also a shame that while published only now, in September 2010, the book does not seem to have incorporated any events subsequent to the recognition of Abkhazia by Russia and Nicaragua in August and September 2008, which gives it a slightly outdated feel. This includes the frequent references to UNOMIG, which came to an end in June 2009, the autumn 2009 citizenship debate and the December 2009 presidential election, in which due to a change in election rules far fewer Georgian were allowed to participate than during the last presidential election.

Under Siege is not a perfect book, but its shortcomings are not so great that they couldn’t be fixed in a second edition. As it stands, they somewhat distract from the authors’ good field work and sensible considerations. In any case, the book is a very useful addition to the existing literature on Abkhazia.

List of Errata

  • Note 44 on page 40 reads:

    “According to linguists and ethnographers, the main feature that differentiates the Abkhaz from the Abaza is the letter `kh’ (`x’ in Cyrillic), which was added by Tsarist authorities, who were interested in severing the close connections between the sub-groups on either side of the Caucasian mountain ridge.”

    This phrasing is so unfortunate, it actually constitutes a direct insult to ‘linguists and ethnographers’. Reducing the differences between the Abkhaz and the Abaza people (or any two communities for that matter) to a minor orthographic detail is ludicrous, the idea that a minor orthographic difference should have the potential to contribute significantly to a split between two communities is fantastic, the claim that the Tsarist authorities designed the orthographies of the Abkhaz and Abaza languages is false and the idea that the linguists who did do so did so in order to sow dissent is a serious accusation that should be backed-up by a credible source. It so happens that Abkhaz and Abaza are indeed closely related people, and it would not have taken a lot of trouble to find out that the Abaza were probably formed through two distinct episodes of out-migration from Abkhazia.

  • On page 56, it is said that the period between 1910 and 1917 witnessed a “realignment with North Caucasian people” — which leads one to wonder: a re-alignment where from?, when the Abkhaz had just spent the better part of the 19th century fighting the Russian Empire along-side the North Caucasian people.
  • Page 74 claims that Abkhazia declared independence on 12 October 1999, but overlooks the fact that the ‘declaration’ which was passed on that date merely states that Abkhazia has been independent (de facto and de jure) since the war ended on 30 September 1993. This oversimplification then leads to the observation that the constitution had ‘however’ already been adopted in 1994, and the mistaken suggestion that its first article describes Abkhazia as a “sovereign, democratic, legal state” only after amendments passed in conjunction with the 1999 ‘independence’ declaration. (The relevant amendments concerned the appointment of judges.)
  • Page 100 introduces ‘the editor of Chegemskaya Pravda’, while a footnote two pages later mentions ‘a prominent newspaper editor, Inal Khashig’, whereas these are of course one and the same person.
  • On page 101 the state news agency Apsny Press is confused with its weekly publication Apsny.
  • On page 114 it is said that while more than two centuries of Ottoman rule led many people to identify as Muslims, Orthodox Christianity “seems to have gained more ground among Abkhazians”, which is a rather wry thing to say given that in the 19th century, the Muslim majority of Abkhazia fled the Russian conquest (which is discussed on several other occasions throughout the book.)

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Human Rights, , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. […] Read this article: Book review: Under Siege by Tom Trier, Hedvig Lohm and David Szakonyi […]

  2. you might be interested also in reading Hewitt’s review of the same book (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8200166).

    Among other things, it contests the notion that Circassians have the right to claim citizenship (and consequently own property) in Abkhazia as suggested in Trier’s book.

  3. sephiakarta says:

    Thank you! I am currently unable to access the full review. I had the impression that there were some Abkhazian citizens with a Circassian background, but I believe Hewitt when he says that Circassians can’t generally claim Abkhazian citizenship.

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