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

Book review: Kleine landjes by Jelle Brandt Corstius

kleine landjes - cover2Kleine landjes — Berichten uit de Kaukasus

Jelle Brandt Corstius

Prometheus, Amsterdam
February 2009
170 pages
ISBN: 978-90-446-1311-7

Kleine landjes is an account of a series of trips made by the Dutch journalist Jelle Brandt Corstius, generally stationed in Moscow, to Chechnya, Kalmykia, Abkhazia, Karachay-Cherkessia and Ossetia. It is not really an introduction to the Caucasus, in fact one learns more about Russia — police corruption, bureaucracy, drinking culture — than about these republics. (Although the particular selection is original and lends credence to Corstius’s professed love for small countries.)

The reasons for this are fourfold. First, Corstius intersperses his account with anecdotes from Moscow, and some of the action takes place in neighbouring Russian areas like Sochi.

Second, Corstius is not in the region to report on any dramatic events. The exception is his trip to South Ossetia shortly after the August 2008 War and his foray to some neighbouring Georgian villages, and this is indeed the most memoral part of the book.

Third, the excursions to the five republics are very short affairs, which only allow for superficial impressions and themes — hospitality, the impossibility of each of the languages and bride kidnapping. Corstius admits as much when he declares that a freelance journalist has no time to spend several days at a TBC-clinic in Abkhazia.

And fourth, Corstius’s semi-naive, semi-rebellious, deadpan approach succeeds in conveying to the reader the many incongruities a western visitor is faced with, but it fails to uncover some deeper connections. For instance, when visiting a community of old-believers near Sochi, Corstius remarks that some Caucasian peoples were deported from the region in the 19th Century, without mentioning the Abkhaz — which he has just before visited (the deportations do receive a little bit more exposition when he later visits the Cherkess). In another instance, the author mentions the mysterious Obozijnen settled throughout Karachay-Cherkessia. He probably means the Abazins, which are not all that mysterious (the Abazins are closely related to the Abkhaz).

Another downside to Corstius’s colourful style is that it leads to some assessments that are trite or even false, such as the assertions that time in the Caucasus has stood still since the middle ages, that pre-Soviet Russian painting was stuck in 1850 “well before impressionism”, that Garri Kasparov is an evil genius because Eduard Limonov and the National Bolshevik Party are part of his broad opposition coalition and that it is no surprise that the region has seen a lot of fighting given the abundance of oil and gas — about the only time that has ever been the reason for a war in the Caucasus was probably when Hitler tried to conquer his way to Baku — and Stalingrad took the brunt of that charge.

The key observation to make is that Corstius’s trips to the Caucasus were not undertaken for the purpose of writing Kleine landjes, but that the book serves as a convenient bundling of these episodes after the fact. One should read Kleine landjes then for Corstius’s adventures, including a drive over the Kalmukkian steppe, his attempts to escape from his minders in Grozny and talking himself onto a fully-booked plane to Moscow due to depart within 20 minutes — especially if one enjoys his work.

Lastly, Corstius has put up a number of short videos on his website of episodes throughout the book (noted with an *), a nice little addition which helps bring to life some of the characters he encounters.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Chechnya, Cherkessia, Kalmykia, Karachaya, North Ossetia, Russia, South Ossetia

Abkhazian Government suspends issuing of passports to Georgian residents

After opposition protests that citizenship law was being flaunted on a grand scale, the Government of Abkhazia has now suspended the issuing of passports to Georgian residents of the Gali, Ochamchira and Tquarchal Districts, while a commission — made up in part by opposition members — has to report on the issue before August 1st.

It seems there is disagreement within the government over the issue. Two weeks ago, Interior Minister Otar Khetsia defended the policy in place during the last five years. But now Secretary of the Security Council Stanislav Lakoba, one of Abkhazia’s leading historians, has condemned it in strong terms, warning ominously about the creeping ‘Georgianisation’ of Abkhazia. On the previous occasion that the issue came to a head, in the run-up to the 2009 Presidential election, Lakoba resigned over the matter. It should be noted that he was succeeded at the time by Interior Minister Khetsia. Both returned to their original post when Alexander Ankvab became President in 2011.

It is curious that Lakoba in his speech points to the fact that many current Georgian residents of Abkhazia are descendent from ethnic Abkhaz who assimilated during the 19th and 20th Century without drawing the conclusion that they should be treated as such for the purpose of citizenship law.

Very interestingly, while politicians from Gali District don’t usually voice their opinions in public, Governor Beslan Arshba has now in an interview with Apsnypress defended the issuing of passports to Georgian residents in particular, and their loyalty to the Abkhazian state in general.

The whole affair shows that Abkhaz are still very insecure about their position. By most accounts, the number of Georgians currently living in Abkhazia does not approach the number of Abkhaz, and so any fear of an imminent electoral take-over (as articulated by Lakoba) seems unfounded.

Most likely the commission will recommend a stricter implementation of existing citizenship law, but not the large-scale annulment of passports already issued. It remains to be seen whether these changes will be substantial or rather more symbolic in nature, and whether they will keep both Lakoba and Khetsia happy. (Opposition leader Raul Khajimba refused to attend its first meeting and Lakoba has also confessed to being sceptic as to its usefulness.)

For the opposition, even the current suspension presents a symbolic victory, since it has now managed to influence government policy for the second time this year (it has previously had an increase of electricity tariffs greatly reduced).

Filed under: Abkhazia, , , , , ,

Book review: Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus by Georgi M. Derluguian

bourdieu's secret admirer in the caucasus - coverBourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus — A World-System Biography

Georgi M. Derluguian

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
July 2005
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-14282-1

A description of Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus must begin with an explanation of its somewhat unpractical, yet intriguing title. The admirer in question is Yuri Shanibov, or as he was known in his youth and again briefly during post-communist transition, Musa Shanib. Derluguian describes how when he first meets Shanibov during a banquet in 1997, he by accident discovers — upon uttering the phrase cultural field — that Shanibov is not just a Kabardian nationalist leader and a Professor of Sociology, but also a profound admirer of the great French sociologist Bourdieu.

As the subtitle indicates, the book gives the life story of Shanibov, but only as part of a larger sociological analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two main questions that Derluguian aims to answer are Why was the Soviet project abandoned? (or equivalently, Why in 1988–1991, why not earlier (around 1968) or later?) and Why did the end of the Soviet project lead to such different outcomes in different places?

Derluguian’s answers to these questions can be summarised as follows. de-Stalinisation under Nikita Khrushchev was embraced by nomenklatura members because it meant they no longer had to fear for their personal security, indeed, their life. But when Khrushchev started to fight corruption too forcefully, aided by junior nomenklatura members like Shanibov looking for opportunities to fill senior positions, now that the cadres were no longer periodically being purged, the upper nomenklatura stepped in and removed him from power, replacing him with one of their own, Leonid Brezhnev. Derluguian surmises that if not for this coup, the room for experimentation under Khrushchev would have led to an analogue of the Prague spring, although he admits he is sceptical whether the resulting revolution would have succeeded.

With the help of the increased revenue of petrodollars following the 1970s oil crises, corruption became institutionalised under Brezhnev and dissatisfaction was bought off with subsidised consumer goods. Derluguian argues that contrary to the pervasive image of the Soviet Union as an all-powerful totalitarian state, this essentially made the nomenklatura unaccountable, and local party heads all but irreplaceable, deriving their power from local patronage networks. Even in cases when party bosses were replaced, their successors would prove just as corrupt. The low quality of consumer goods was another effect of Brezhnev-era accommodation. Workers could not in general achieve better wages and working conditions through strikes, but they would also not be fired, and so resorted to putting in less effort. In general, Derluguian makes the point that the Soviet Union did not lack the economic capacity to keep up with the capitalist west, but that the allocation of resources was woefully inadequate.

When structural problems became so great that the top of the communist party under Mikhail Gorbachev did undertake serious systemic reform, it could not rely on the nomenklatura, but had to engender a revolution from below. This revolution then quickly derailed, in large part because the freedom of Glasnost was quickly employed to voice nationalist concerns. Many of these concerns hailed back to the time when a particular territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union, but the strongly territorial structural make-up of the Soviet Union served as an essential catalyst in their coming to the fore. Besides being in economic competition, the different national territories also each possessed their own elites, for while the Soviet Union managed in many ways to transcend the national, intellectuals in the humanities in particular were constrained to their territory by the nature of their education, and the patronage systems that governed economic life further penalised mobility into territories where a person had no contacts. Some nationalist causes, like those of the Armenians and Azeris, were incompatible and clashed, reinforcing each other in the process. These were particularly difficult for the Soviet leadership to appease, since any compromise decision would keep both sides unhappy. The rising tide of nationalism could in principle have been dealt with through a combination of forceful suppression and economic hand-outs, but these were exactly the tools that the reformist leadership intended to no longer employ. Instead, the crisis was deepened by the shortages caused by the economic reform of perestroika.

In order to explain the different outcomes of nationalist revolutions in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan (chaos) and the Baltic States (liberal democracy), Derluguian employs the concept of the social class. Broadly speaking, Soviet society consisted of three classes relevant for his analysis. The nomenklatura formed the Soviet bureaucracy, the ‘ruling class’. The proletariat consisted of everyone else whose primary income was the wage they received from the Soviet State. One of the great achievements of the Soviet project was to proletarianise almost all of society, ranging from professors to farmers. Nevertheless, there were still those who came by or at least supplemented their income through other means, the sub-proletariat. This class was relatively large in the sub-tropical Caucasus, where favourable agricultural conditions allowed for independent income both directly through family plots and indirectly, through a blossoming black market. Derluguian also points out that under Brezhnev, perhaps one in six Soviet males spent time in prison, a figure even higher in the Caucasus, and that prison thus became the central socialising institution for the sub-proletariat. In the industrialised Baltic states, the revolution proceeded orderly because it was supported by a highly educated and liberal proletariat, and because the nomenklatura was relatively competent, accepting regime change without too much resistance, while in the agricultural Caucasus, the proletariat was weak, the nomenklatura much more corrupt and the sub-proletariat strong, inducing nationalist leaders to mobilise the latter.

Nationalist revolutions did not occur everywhere. In some places, like Central Asia, intellectuals were so weak that the nomenklatura could easily re-assert itself, symbolically adopting a few outward attributes of nationalism (although, in Tajikistan, only after a lengthy civil war). In many autonomous republics, like Kabarda, nationalist groups did mobilise, but not rapidly enough. By the time that they would have been able to take power, the Russian government had already regained enough strength to allow the local nomenklatura to hold on to power. Moreover, when the pressure reached its highest point, Georgia invaded Abkhazia, provoking great sympathy for the latter among North Caucasian nationalists. (Derluguian points out that the war in Abkhazia was for North Caucasian nationalists what the Spanish civil war was for the western left or the war in Afghanistan for Islamists.) The leaders of the North Caucasian republics soon realised that it was in their own best interest not to prevent young men eager to take up arms from crossing the border with Abkhazia.

In Chechnya, however, the nationalist opposition did mobilise quickly enough to overthrow the communist elite. The driving force behind this mobilisation was the national trauma of Stalinist deportation, but it was able to proceed so fast also because the Chechen elite was not entrenched in and thus had no stake in existing bureaucratic structures, since after return from exile, Chechens had systematically been excluded from the ranks of nomenklatura.

What about the Ingush, who shared the trauma of deportation with the Chechens, but opted to remain with Russia, splitting the Checheno-Ingush republic? Appearances are deceiving, because this act of separation was in fact a nationalist revolution of sorts, of more radical local leaders against the conservative Ingush elite in Grozny, motivated by the fear of becoming a minority in independent Checheno-Ingushetia, and by the desire to regain the Prigorodny District, including half of Vladikavkaz, a territory that had been Ingush before the deportation but which remained with North-Ossetia even after the Ingush return from exile. The struggle to achieve this escalated into a short but bloody war, which the Ingush lost, burying with it the nationalist spirit.

The Ingush pattern of counter-mobilisation in reaction to the Chechen nationalist revolution was replicated elsewhere. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia — presumably more confident about its own independence than Chechnya — reacted with war, which it lost. In Kabardino-Balkaria, where the Balkar minority lost its representatives in the first competitive elections, no war broke out, because the Kabardian revolution itself failed, and because the Kabardian nomenklatura, which thus stayed in power, reached a power-sharing agreement with the Balkars, achieving in effect a return to the Soviet status quo.

Finally, Derluguian leaves some room for the influence of individual leaders. One additional reason why the nationalist opposition mobilised quicker in Chechnya than in Kabarda was probably that Jokhar Dudayev was simply more radical than the Kabardian national leaders. In Adjara, Derluguian goes so far as to credit Aslan Abashidze with a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the post-Communist transition. At first glance it might seem clear that the separate status Adjara was awarded in the Soviet Union should not impact on Adjarans’ self-identification as Georgians, albeit Muslim Georgians. But Derluguian points out that this outcome was in fact not so obvious, and that radical Georgian nationalists, emphasising the Christian identity of Georgia and taking over control of the economy, were quickly alienating large parts of Adjara, pushing it on the way of Bosnia. Abashidze managed to subdue these nationalists and appease the local elite, while not resisting Adjara’s entry into the new Georgian state, at least formally.

Derluguian’s account convincingly brings together structural conditions and historically accidental developments. Inevitably, however, some questions remain unanswered. For instance, why did the Ingush and Chechens not share a common national project, like the Georgians and Mingrelians, and even the Circassians, spread out over several Soviet republics? Was there Karachay independist mobilisation like in Chechnya, which one might expect given that the Karachay shared with the Chechens the trauma of deportation, and the privilege of constituting the largest non-Russian group in their republic (unlike the Ingush and Balkars)? There is also something unsatisfactory about the binary division between the outcomes in the Baltic states on the one hand and in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan on the other. What about Armenia, Abkhazia, Belarus and the Ukraine? They seem to exemplify a middle way, where nationalists and members of the nomenklatura did come to an arrangement, but which ended up short of liberal democracy. Perhaps the answer lies in the nature and relative strength of the local nomenklatura.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus successfully supplements a ‘journalistic’ account of conflict with a proper scientific apparatus. But Derluguian also explicitly positions the book as a contribution to the field of sociology. The theoretical discussion, concentrated in Chapter 2, is rather dense for the layperson, and regardless of its merits, feels a bit overblown, considering that the most important outcomes for the case at hand seem to be the insight that an analysis should combine long-term structural developments with short-term historical accidents, the concept of social capital and the realisation that the Soviet Union had a sub-proletariat that played a crucial role during the collapse of communism. The sociological charts at the back of the book are somewhat superfluous, as they require a proper understanding of the text to be themselves understood and don’t add much new information. At best, they may help some readers recall the essence of Derluguian’s arguments.

The book contains a few minor details that are somewhat problematic. When the author mentions that before or during the Abkhazian war a number of mosques had been built by volunteers from the Middle East that were subsequently abandoned and even in some cases blown up, some more specification or references would have been welcome. In another instance, Derluguian describes how Aslan Abashidze shot the nationalist leader of Adjara, while he was at the time his deputy, but accounts elsewhere suggest that the person shot — Nodar Imnadze — was in fact Abashidze’s Deputy, Abashidze himself having been appointed leader of Adjara by Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Nonetheless, the overall judgement must be that the reader profits tremendously from Derluguian’s personal experience in the region, and the many notes and references invite follow-up reading.

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus is also beautifully published — although only the paperback edition features the cover image of Shanibov on a green background advertised online — elegantly written and virtually free from typographical mistakes. Most importantly, while it is a difficult book, it is well worth the effort, since it succeeds to a very large extent in exposing the logic behind not just the descend into chaos in the early 1990s Caucasus, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in general.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Adjara, Balkaria, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia, Kabarda, Russia, Wider Region, , , ,

Abkhazian opposition once again speaks out against issuing passports to Georgian residents

The issuing of Abkhazian passports to Georgian residents in the Gali District remains controversial. The Georgian government considers the passports illegal anyway, but it has in the past in particular condemned the alleged forcing of passport onto Georgians. Ironically, the Abkhazian opposition thinks Georgians are being given passports too easily. In the run-up to the 2009 Presidential election, it achieved a temporary moratorium. It has now again raised the issue, after the Interior Ministry’s Passport Service announced that since 2008, 16,096 Georgians had received an Abkhazian passport in Gali District, 6217 in Ochamchira District and 2453 in Tquarchal District.

The concern of the opposition is twofold. First, it claims that most Georgians have not lived in Abkhazia for at least five years immediately prior to 1999, and therefore, according to Abkhazian citizenship law, need to apply for naturalisation. To achieve this, however, they must prove that they have renounced Georgian citizenship. Second, it alleges that the government applies the procedures so carelessly because Georgians once naturalised are then allowed to vote, and will vote for the government.

The latter concern is probably warranted, even if the procedures are applied correctly. In particular, Georgian voters (who did not at the time require passports to vote) played a decisive role in the 2004 Presidential election, in which current opposition leader Raul Khajimba (then Prime Minister) suffered a first round defeat.

At the heart of the first issue sits a dilemma faced by governments around the world. Interior minister Otar Khetsia has responded to the opposition appeal with the assurance that all succesful Georgians applicants for Abkhazian citizenship hand in all the paperwork required by law, including a written statement through which they renounce their Georgian citizenship. But as much as it would like to, a state has no power over whether someone is a citizen of another state, nor even does that person themself. This is because citizenship is in essence no more than a series of legal rights and obligations which a state grants to and expects from a person. For instance, the Kingdom of Morocco considers all descendents of its citizens to also be its citizens, regardless of whether they want to be. This has thwarted Dutch efforts to end the dual citizenship of its Moroccan citizens. In the case at hand, no written statement will change that Georgia continues to consider Georgian applicants for Abkhazian citizenship its own citizens. The Abkhazian opposition might conclude that the government should therefore deny Abkhazian citizenship to Georgian residents, but ironically that would mean giving Georgia a veto in Abkhazian citizenship law. (And of course Georgia considers all residents of Abkhazia its citizens.)

The government policy to actively pursue the adoption of passports in the Gali District is the right one. It is an important step towards integrating Georgians into Abkhazian society, and removing their second-class status. Their loyalty will remain split between Abkhazia and Georgia, but this is the case whether or not they retain Georgian citizenship, and only true integration can generate appreciation for the Abkhazian state.

Finally, there is also a legal argument why Abkhazia should not require residents of the Gali District to give up Georgian citizenship. As in other nation states with large diasporas like Armenia and Israel, all ethnic Abkhaz around the world are automatically Abkhazian citizens, and may retain any other citizenship they possess. Since Abkhazia maintains that the residents of the Gali District are descendents of ethnic Abkhaz who gradually assimilated into Mingrelians in the 19th and 20th century (as Khetsia points out), it should not be too hard to fit them under this provision.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Georgia, ,

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