Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abkhazia Looks to Turkey for Fresh Blood

Government tries to encourage descendents of 19th century emigrants to come home.
By Anaid Gogoryan
  • Memorial to the Abkhaz exodus,.(Photo: Ruslan Tarba)
    Memorial to the Abkhaz exodus,.(Photo: Ruslan Tarba)
  • Abkhaz from Turkey attending the opening of a memorial to their ancestors who fled after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. (Photo: Ruslan Tarba)
    Abkhaz from Turkey attending the opening of a memorial to their ancestors who fled after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. (Photo: Ruslan Tarba)

Abkhazia is hoping Turkey will become a source of young immigrants who will shift the demographic balance in favour of ethnic Abkhaz.

Abkhazia is home to only a quarter of a million people, of whom just 100,000 are ethnic Abkhaz. Most of the ethnic Georgian population fled after a 1992-93 war that left Abkhazia as a self-proclaimed republic beyond the control of Tbilisi.

Turkey, meanwhile, has half a million people of Abkhaz background, descended from the flood of emigrants who left when this part of the Caucasus was conquered by Russia. The vast majority now only speak Turkish, but Abkhazia’s government is hoping many will be inspired to cross the Black Sea to make new homes in the land of their ancestors.

Iavuz Kuadzba was one of the first to do so, moving to Abkhazia in 1993 along with 200 others. Most of these early arrivals left again, discouraged by the poverty, hunger and destruction left by the war, and the almost decade-long blockade that followed.

Kuadzba, however, stayed on, and learned Russian and Abkhaz.

“If you have the desire, you can learn. I had the desire,” he said, speaking at his tourist office in central Sukhum. The office is based in an internet café owned by Rejep Uchash, another “repatriate”.

“It isn’t easy to open a business. You can’t get credit in Turkey, and interest rates in Abkhazia are high,” Kuadzba said.

The Abkhaz government assigns property to settlers like Kuadzba, who was given a house in Gagra, north of Sukhum. He does not have the money to restore the house, but has no plans to go back to Turkey.

“Of course it’s hard at times; the situation is bad. But I don’t think it will last. Some people went back saying they couldn’t do anything here. If someone is looking for riches, they will go back. You have to work here. But I can’t live in Turkey,” he said.

Since Russia recognised Abkhazia as an independent state two years ago, despite Georgia’s fierce objections, the government here has sought to make the repatriation process more systematic.

There are now around 300 Turkish Abkhaz living as permanent residents, and officials hope the flow will increase now that there is a programme in place to assist them.

“There used to be just appeals to return… but no programme,” Gennady Alamia, an opposition politician who heads the Abkhaz-Abaza congress, said.

Alamia said there had been concerns that Russia might object to the arrival of large numbers of Turkish citizens on its doorstep.

“The problem of repatriating people to Abkhazia was not made a top priority because of the risk that it might provoke a negative reaction in Russia,” he said. “We need to tell the Russian leadership openly that the return is essential in order to save the Abkhaz people. There are ten times more Abkhaz in the diaspora than there are in the homeland.”

Alamia said his mind was set at rest last year when he met Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who told him “the main obligation must be to preserve the Abkhaz people”.

The Committee for Repatriation helps new arrivals with citizenship, money and housing. They cannot sell their homes for 15 years to prevent them cashing in and going back to Turkey.

In September, Zurab Adleyba, a former government chief of staff, became head of the committee and began reforming the way it works.

“Our desire is that it’s mostly young people who come,” he told IWPR. “It’s easy to work with them. They adapt more quickly, and they’ll become full members of our society.”

Adleyba has drafted a plan of action which he is going to submit to the government. “It will include everything, starting with language study and adaptation. We have a specific concept that we need to put into practise. If I can do it, that’s fine; and if I can’t, someone else will,” he said.

Adleyba said Turkish businessmen had expressed interest in building housing for the returnees in Sukhum, and the Russians were prepared to build apartment blocks for them in the Ochamchira region.

Faruk Karchaa and his family are among those who have decided to stay for good. The 50-year-old brought his son and wife to Sukhum four years ago, and now owns a café in the city centre.

Karchaa has learned Abkhaz, but does not speak Russian yet, which makes life hard since that is the lingua franca in the city.

The family was assigned a house in Sukhum, but lack the money to renovate it so they are renting a flat.

Speaking in Turkish with his son Nesren translating, Karchaa said he had no regrets.

“I have come to the homeland of my ancestors,” he said.

Anaid Gogoryan works for the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper.