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

Abkhazia Welcomes Mountain Minority

Ethnic kin encouraged by promise of land and jobs to move to Abkhazia.
By Bella Ksalova
Ella Rakhmetova, an Abaza, lives in a house in the village of Krasny Vostok with no running water. She’s forced to use a well in the next street.



“My brother moved to Abkhazia three years ago and everything is working out for him there,” she said. “He has even started his own small business. My husband and I want to move there next year.”



Rakhmetova said that she would have left earlier if she had been able to sell her house. The choice for the Abaza, a small minority in the Russian autonomous republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, is increasingly clear. “Now Abaza are being well received in Abkhazia and given land, even houses,” she said. “Of course not everyone wants to leave the land where his ancestors are buried but I don’t see any prospects for our children here.”



According to the latest census data, there are around 30,000 Abaza, closely related to the Abkhaz, living in Karachai-Cherkessia.



The vast majority of the Abaza fled from Russia in the 19th century at the end of the Caucasian Wars with the Russian tsars and there are now many more of them in Turkey than in Russia.



Most of the 13 remaining Abaza villages in Karachai-Cherkessia are without running water, gas or heating. The formation of a new Abaza administrative district last year, including five of the villages, failed to solve most of the minority’s social problems.



It is hardly surprising then that many Abaza have wholeheartedly welcomed the invitation from the authorities in the unrecognised republic of Abkhazia to take up residence there.



The de facto authorities in Abkhazia have offered Abaza who wish to resettle there free housing, employment and educational opportunities.



The resettlement of Abaza in Abkhazia is part of the Abkhaz authorities’ plans to boost the population in the Black Sea region.



“There is no more important issue for our people than demography,” said de facto president Sergei Bagapsh, addressing the World Congress of the Abkhaz-Abaza Peoples in December 2006. “It is above all a problem of birth rates, the problems of an ageing generation, the preservation of Abkhaz language and culture.”



Since then, around 2,000 Abaza have moved to Abkhazia and been given Abkhaz citizenship and passports. Most have resettled in the resort town of Gagra and the Abkhaz capital Sukhum. They are being given 15-year leases on plots of land after which they will be asked to buy the land.



The Georgian authorities have warned the Abkhaz and Russians that they consider any acquisition of land in Abkhazia, still regarded as being internationally part of Georgia, as being illegal, but these claims are dismissed by the Abkhaz authorities.



The Abaza are not just feeling the pull to Abkhazia, many say they are being pushed out of Karachai-Cherkessia.



“People are leaving because they want to live a normal life and work normally and - most importantly - they want to be protected by the authorities,” said Uali Yevgamukov, head of the interim administration of the Abaza district in Karachai-Cherkessia. “And they don’t have that today.



“The people ought to have the chance to work the land and pass on traditional skills to their children. How can we do that if there isn’t a single tractor in our villages or a single normal working cooperative?”



The much-heralded creation of the Abaza administrative district came as a disappointment to the minority.



“The formation of the district is not solving people’s problems,” said Ella Rakhmetova. “We still don’t even have gas in this village. We are still being oppressed. We don’t have our rights respected. Everything is just on paper.”



Some Caucasian scholars say that the Abaza and Abkhaz were essentially the same people until the 9th century. The Abaza and Abkhaz languages are mutually intelligible and the Abkhaz-Abaza Congress brings together the two people all over the world.



In Karachai-Cherkessia, the Abaza are especially worried about losing their language, which is taught in very few schools.



“No one is forbidden anything,” said Umar Kishmakhov who is head of the Abaza Theatre. “If you want to learn your language - please do! But it all depends on the state of mind of young people. For example, I taught my son to speak Abaza but there was no way I could persuade my daughter to learn. The language is disappearing - and that is the real disaster!”



In Abkhazia, language teaching is in better shape, though experts say it is still a struggle to ensure the language is properly taught.



“During the war in Abkhazia, many scholarly works were burnt, in particular the big Abkhaz-Abaza dictionary of 15,000 words which we are now restoring,” said Saria Amichba, professor at the Abkhaz State University.



“The Abkhaz-Abaza language is phonetically complex - if you don’t know it as a child it can be hard to learn it as an adult. We have used the experience of other universities and developed a special programme and a series of grants for the language to be studied. Even so, the numbers of those studying in the Abkhaz language have fallen.”



Most of the Abaza IWPR spoke to in Abkhazia were delighted with the choice they had made.



Yelena moved to Abkhazia from Karachai-Cherkessia seven years ago with her husband and child and now works for the Abkhaz government.



“We haven’t lost anything,” she said. “We came to look and if we hadn’t liked it, we would have left but we stayed. The Abkhaz are our brothers and they treat us with respect because we have returned to our historic homeland. We have no plans to leave Abkhazia.”



Ramazan Darmilov, who works as a masseur, said that if Abaza in Karachai-Cherkessia knew what was awaiting them in Abkhazia, more would move.



“There is so much fine empty land in Abkhazia, there are huge spaces to work in!” he said. “Local people here treat me well and that kind of attitude brings out the best in people.”



Bella Ksalova is a journalist from Karachai-Cherkessia. Anahit Gogorian is a correspondent with Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia. Both are members of IWPR’s EU-funded Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.