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

Abkhazia's Megrelian Readers Find Voice

New publication aims to revitalise identity of west Georgian group living in Abkhazia.
By Anton Kriveniuk

When Vakhtang Ketsbaya picked up a new local newspaper in the border town of Gal, he was surprised to find that it contained articles in three languages - Abkhaz, Russian, and Megrelian. While the first two are common for many periodicals in Abkhazia, this was the first time he had seen his own language, Megrelian, in print.


"It seemed weird. I had never read Megrelian before," Ketsbaya told IWPR. "In fact, I was angry at first, thinking the [Abkhaz] government was trying to curry favour with us. But then I thought, why not? Why shouldn't I read news in the language that I was brought up with, and speak with my family?"


The Megrelians, also known as Mingrelians, are an ethnic group in western Georgia and southern Abkhazia who are closely related to the Georgians themselves. They have generally used the Georgian, Russian or Abkhaz languages in print. Many of them had no idea their mother tongue could be expressed in writing.


The integrity of the community was upset by the armed conflict between Georgia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia which broke out in August 1992. As a result of the war, the Megrelians north of what used to be a token administrative border found themselves in a self-styled independent Abkhazia, separated from Georgia by a very real frontier. Many fled to western Georgia, although some have since returned.


"My idea is to fill a historic gap," said Nugzar Salakaya, the editor of the Gal newspaper. "The Georgian government had always tried to suppress our ethnic identity. Now the time has come for the community to unite and develop as a cultural entity."


To this end, Salakaya intends to set up a Megrelian cultural centre in Gal, and views his paper as the first step towards that goal. So far, he has only been able to publish two issues of his paper. The first one came out in May with some support from the Abkhaz government, which donated 250 US dollars. The second issue, three months later, was paid for with the proceeds of the first.


The third is still pending due to a lack of funds, although Salakaya is confident that this is a temporary problem, adding, "Sponsorship is forthcoming, so we are making plans for the more distant future."


Salakaya, who is Abkhaz and not too proficient in the Megrelian language, told IWPR that the Megrelian portion of the paper uses the local dialect of the language, in Georgian script rather than the Cyrillic used for Abkhaz.


"We used the same language set-up when we first attempted to publish Gal in early 1995," Salakaya explained. "The project was backed by prominent Abkhaz politicians Yuri Voronov, Zurab Achba, and President Vladislav Ardzinba.


"I teamed up with colleagues in Sukhum to design the Megrelian alphabet so that children could study their mother tongue in school. This was to be sponsored by the president of Abkhazia, so we submitted our project for his review."


However, the president never responded, and Salakaya's brainchild, Gal, did not last very long the first time around. "I was determined not to publish controversial political material. I just wanted to run a local paper with local news," he said.


Salakaya believes his commitment to telling the readers the truth was the reason he eventually ran afoul of the local authorities, which insisted on censorship. The printing house was blown up twice, and the Abkhaz authorities blamed both attacks on Georgian guerrillas.


Following renewed Abkhaz-Georgian hostilities in May 1998, Salakaya was fired and the paper was closed down.


However, the editor has high hopes for the revitalised publication, and claims that local Megrelian-language television is not far behind. "The project is entirely feasible, but for now I cannot name any of the sponsors for fear of them coming under pressure," he told IWPR.


Vladimir Zantaria, vice president of Abkhazia in charge of human agendas, basically approves of Salakaya's initiative. "The Megrelians have a strong cultural tradition, and a rich language and folklore, and the world will be better off if they progress as a cultural entity."


Megrelians traditionally regard Georgian as their other native tongue - the two languages are related - but Zantaria does not think a local paper in that language would be a good idea. "The Georgian side would manipulate such a publication to brainwash and pressure the population of Gal," he said.


Reactions among Megrelians living across the border in Georgia have been mixed. Irakly Kvaratskhelia, a student in the town of Zugdidi, welcomed the news, telling IWPR, "A Megrelian-language publication will help us consolidate our culture. However, the language alone is not enough - it's a matter of what is in the paper."


The content has drawn criticism and suspicion from many Megrelians who regard themselves as part of the Georgian nation. "For some reason, the Abkhaz like to emphasise the strange fact that we are not Georgians," said Zugdidi resident David Tabagua. "This paper does it all the time. It will only get in everybody's way."


"The paper has its friends and enemies, but they all read it," reasoned the editor, adding he cannot go wrong with the idea of rejuvenating the Megrelian ethnos. "This idea is completely unrelated to politics. It's about the natural desire of the people to live and thrive in their own cultural context."


Anton Kriveniuk is a reporter for the Panorama newspaper in Sukhumi