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

A first look at Abkhazia’s census results

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:

  1. Many non-Abkhaz re-classified themselves as Abkhaz between 2003 and 2011.
  2. The 2003 census was flawed and underestimated the number of Abkhaz.
  3. The 2011 census was flawed and overestimated the number of Abkhaz.
  4. 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.

Filed under: Abkhazia, , , ,

Book review: Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase by Jean Radvanyi and Nicolas Beroutchachvili

Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase: Russie, Géorgie, Arménie, Azerbaïdjan: un Avenir Commun Possible?

Jean Radvanyi and Nicolas Beroutchachvili
(Cartography: Manana Kourtoubadzé and Philippe Rekacewicz)

Éditions Autrement, Paris
January 2010
80 pages
ISBN: 978-2-7467-1296-6

Many a book designated ‘atlas’ is not in fact that, but rather a glossy reference work with an occasional map thrown in. Not so the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase. To be sure, it contains a fair share of running text, but it has maps on most pages, and these form the core of the book.

The Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase is divided into four chapters. The first contains some historical and geographical maps, the second is devoted to the inhabitants of the Caucasus, the third to its economies and the fourth to its conflicts. Apart from the standard political, physical and ethnolinguistic maps, there are plenty of maps not readily available elsewhere. These include a map showing where Europe might end and where Asia start according to various definitions, a map indicating what parts of the Caucasus were vassals of respectively the Turkish, Persian and Russian empires in 1783 and maps comparing the competing Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani territorial claims in 1919 and 1920. There are two maps showing the largest and second largest ethnicities per district, thus highlighting the distribution of minorities, such as the widespread Armenian presence in Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais, and the growing Dargin presence in the latter. There are maps indicating the presence of industries, various forms of agriculture, natural parks, tourism and infrastructure. There is even a map indicating Georgian and Armenian pollution along the river Kura and its tributaries.

Some maps stand out for showing different divides within the Caucasus. One map shows that between 1989 and 2002 the Russian population did not just (strongly) decrease in the Non-Russian South Caucasus, but also in Dagestan, Chechnya and to a lesser extend the other North Caucasian Republics except Adygea. Birth rates are high in the east (Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) and low in the west (especially Georgia). Mortality rates are especially high in Krasnodar, Stavropol, Adygea, North Ossetia and Ingushetia (no figures for Chechnya). The result is that population growth is strongly positive in Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Ajara and negative in Krasnodar, Stavropol, Adygea, North and South Ossetia and large parts of Georgia (outside Ajara).

The book is not perfect. The texts in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflict sections lack depth, failing to mention the ‘little wars’ of 1998 and 2001 in Abkhazia and 2004 in South Ossetia. The chronologies that accompany these and the Nagorno Karabakh sections completely omit the brutal 1918-1920 Georgian-Ossetian war, the 1918 Baku and 1920 Shushi massacres and Stalins terror in Abkhazia, instead devoting space to legal acts.

Overall, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh form a problem for the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase. It is understandable, although still regrettable that on a number of maps, some of these states (or Chechnya) turn up grey, there being no figures available. More generally, they don’t fit the narrative of many sections, where Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Russian Caucasus are compared to one another. In the introduction, the authors indicate that they have decided to ignore their independence, given that they have no international recognition, which is of course patently false, in fact by their own admission elsewhere in the book. More importantly, it would have been useful to pay more attention to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh, as they can be expected to score differently on many of the indicators compared to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The sensible thing would have been to include these as independent states, along with indicators that the legality of this independence is widely contested. To be sure, the indicators are still present at the bottom of each map, which feels rather obsessive: Abkhazia is presented no differently from Ajara, and still every map explicitly says that Georgia does not recognise its independence.

That said, these issues don’t detract from the fact that the Atlas Géopolitique du Caucase contains many useful and interesting maps. On top of that, it is almost mistake-free and it is designed very elegantly. To name but one detail, every section includes a black disk with Russian, Georgian, Armenian and Azeri translations of its topic. Perhaps it could have been bigger, but as it stands, it is a bargain at a mere €17,–.

Filed under: Book reviews, Cartography, Wider Region, , , ,

South Ossetia’s post-election struggle refocuses on March rerun

The post-election stand-off in South Ossetia between rightful winner Alla Dzhioyeva and the authorities seemed to come to an end with the agreement reached on Friday 9 December. However, while most of the agreement’s letter was adhered to, its spirit was violated.

As provisioned, Alla Dzhioyeva called on her supporters to stop their protests, she called off her inauguration and she publicly accepted the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the election invalid and to schedule a March rerun, in exchange for her being allowed to participate therein. However, while President Kokoity did as agreed dismiss Chief Prosecutor Taimuraz Khugayev and Chairman of the Supreme Court Atsamaz Bichenov, ratification of these dismissals was voted down on Wednesday 15 December by Parliament, controlled by Kokoity’s Unity party. Furthermore, Kokoity appointed several of his allies to the cabinet and to a newly resurrected Constitutional Court. Finally, neither Dzhioyeva nor any of her allies were appointed to the government, although it is unclear whether this was part of the final agreement.

While these actions prompted Dzhioyeva’s supporters to resume protests, these seem to have been half-hearted at best. Dzhioyeva herself raised Kokoity’s violations of the agreement with its guarantor, the Russian Embassy, but was rebuffed. It appears then that despite the fact that she has received far less out of the deal than she had hoped for, Dzhioyeva has resigned herself to a repeat election. The biggest worry for her is whether the election will be as fair as the first time and whether at least the clause that guarantees her right to participate in the rerun will be honoured. In this respect, it is especially worrying that the Head of the Supreme Court has remained in place and that Kokoity now also has allies of his control a Constitutional Court. In addition, March is a long time away and Dzhioyeva may find it hard to rekindle public outrage when her participation is ruled out in February.

That said, the deal did achieve one thing for Dzhioyeva. Kokoity resigned as President on Saturday 10 December (3 days after his term formally expired) and was replaced by Prime Minister Vadim Brovtsev who is Acting President until a new President is sworn in. Brovtsev is Russia’s man, and certainly not a friend of Kokoity’s. That means that as before, South Ossetia is still facing a three-way struggle. Russia controls the Presidency and can exert strong external pressure. Kokoity controls the institutions (Parliament, Supreme and Constitutional Court) and thus the legal playing field. The opposition has the people’s support and it is the only side with a credible candidate.

At the moment, Kokoity’s position looks strongest, which is a remarkable come-back given that none of the original election’s second round’s candidates were his. But the struggle can probably be won by any two sides that decide to cooperate. It is unlikely that this will be Kokoity and the opposition, so it is up to Russia to make up its mind as to whether it prefers a continuation of Kokoity’s corrupt and ineffectual regime, or it is prepared to admit its past mistakes and give the opposition a chance.

Filed under: Elections, Russia, South Ossetia, , , , , , ,

Snow Revolution or South Ossetian Winter?

So it has come to this. For a short while, South Ossetia’s Presidential election looked like a total win. The polling wasn’t merely quite free and fair, South Ossetia’s electorate actually handed a preliminary 56.74% second round majority to Alla Dzhioyeva, the opposition candidate, against Anatoly Bibilov, the candidate openly endorsed not only by autocratic President Kokoity and his Unity party, but also by Russia’s government (whose President Medvedev went so far as to schedule a personal meeting with Bibilov). Alas, before long the election descended into chaos after all.

After the publication of the preliminary results which indicated Dzhioyeva’s victory, the Unity party filed a complaint with the Supreme Court saying that Dzhioyeva’s campaign had engaged in voter intimidation, which the Supreme Court promptly ruled in favour of. It forbade the Central Election Commission to publish the second round’s final results, it ordered the Parliament to set a date for a repeat election, and it barred Dzhioyeva from participating therein.

Quite understandably, Dzhioyeva and her supporters have not accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling. And quite rightly, given that election observers declared the election more or less free and fair. So the situation has developed into a stand-off, with Dzhioyeva’s supporters on the streets in protest, and Kokoity and Moscow declaring that the Supreme Court’s ruling must be respected.

The current situation carries a strong sense of déjà vu, being so very similar to Abkhazia’s ‘Tangerine Revolution’ in the autumn of 2004. One would have thought that Russia’s authorities had learned from that experience, and given its non-interference in Abkhazia’s election this past August, it did seem that way. South Ossetia is even more dependent on Russian support than Abkhazia, its inhabitants probably consider Russia even more favourably, and South Ossetia is of less geopolitical interest to Russia to Abkhazia. So for all intents and purposes, the outcome of the election should have been much less important to Russia than the fact that they were conducted credibly. After all, the credibility of Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia squarely rests on the credibility of their respective state projects.

So what exactly does Russia think it is doing? Perhaps Russian officials were so fed up with the massive misuse of aid funds under Kokoity that despite the past negative experience in Abkhazia they decided to openly endorse someone they believed would be able to manage things properly, Bibilov. And perhaps they simply didn’t trust Dzhioyeva to do a good enough job. It is also possible that Moscow’s current insistence that the ruling of South Ossetia’s Supreme Court be respected reflects a genuine desire not to interfere in internal affairs. But that is a very charitable reading of events, and it is much more likely that in the reported words of Moskovsky Komsomolets editorial, the Russian officials responsible are not merely bastards, but morons.

Given the familiarity of the scenario that is enrolling now, current events have already been labelled the Snow Revolution, a designation that is perhaps not very catchy, but very fitting given the meteorological backdrop of Dzhioyeva’s vigil. Yet despite the very similar set-up, there are some important differences in comparison to the Tangerine Revolution in Abkhazia. Unfortunately for Dzhioyeva, South Ossetia’s parliament and all the Republic’s top officials seem securely on the hand of Kokoity and Bibilov. In 2004, Abkhazia’s Parliament and its Vice President favoured opposition candidate Bagapsh, while the security services declared their neutrality. The current legal situation is also different. There is now a Supreme Court ruling that is not easily overturned, whereas in Abkhazia in 2004, Khajimba’s supporters merely forced the Central Election Commission to issue revised results, a decision that could easily be undone once more. So while Dzhioyeva may be an excellent personification of a people patiently but adamantly refusing to have its will be denied, she is facing a formidable challenge. Instead of a Snow revolution, her people may simply face a South Ossetian Winter.

On the other hand, there are also difference that speak in favour of a positive outcome. The election result and the injustice is much clearer now than during the Tangerine Revolution in 2004, when Bagapsh scored a mere 50.08% majority, when the participation of Mingrelian voters was indeed questionable from a constitutional point of view and when the alternative was a comparatively reasonable second round run-off. Also, whereas in 2004, outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba was the father of the Abkhazian nation and his words carried a lot of weight, South Ossetia’s President Kokoity is an upshot ex-wrestler who enjoys little respect. Finally, South Ossetia is notoriously small, its population in the tens of thousands. In such a small community, where everyone knows everyone, including officials, it will prove hard to ignore the determined will of the people when it feels it has been subjected to a grave injustice.

Maurice Bonnot of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris expressed the problem very elegantly: South Ossetia’s political actors need to learn how to lose.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Elections, Russia, South Ossetia, , , , , ,

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