ICG’s report on Abkhazia, some notes on the footnotes

Bridge on the Ingure - Photo by Giorgio Comai

Originally published on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

ICG’s latest report on Abkhazia is timely and its recommendations show the way forward. As usual, it provides a wealth of information and details. Yet, it is not without imprecisions

In the latest report on Abkhazia by the International Crisis Group – Abkhazia: The Long Road to Reconciliation – I found a lot of interesting details on how the situation is evolving in Abkhazia. I warmly reccomend to read it in full to anybody wishing to have a better grasp of the dynamics taking place in this territory. Wealth in details is one of the things I really like about ICG publications. For example, in this report they mention the fact that since September 2012, Russian guards joined Abkhazian guards at the de facto border with Georgia: “Now in booths with darkened windows, Russian guards seated behind computer screens check passports and question visitors. During a recent entry by Crisis Group, one Russian and one Abkhaz official manned the booth, with the Russian clearly in charge – though the Russians at the border wear uniforms identical to the Abkhaz, without visible Russian insignia.” (page 5-6)

This is a significant change. When I crossed the de facto border in late 2011, there were no booths. Border guards had to check by phone to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi to make sure everything was right with my visa. Since it was early in the morning, I had to wait a couple of hours before anybody picked up the phone at the Ministry. I took the chance to shoot some video footage on the Inguri bridge, which shows how indeed it is “a lone, narrow and very dilapidated bridge”, as accurately described at page 23 of the ICG report. When I finally was allowed to enter Abkhazia, border guards took note on a paper notebook. A Russian military camp was located very close to the checkpoint, but Russian military seemed to be uninvolved in the border crossing process.

The interesting details provided in the report make clear that the checkpoint on the Inguri is becoming more formal and institutionalized, and that the Russians are taking charge. I find also that minor details, like the fact that border guards do not have “visible Russian insignia”, contribute to offer a more precise and vivid picture of the situation on the ground.

Yet, exactly because details are so important, I would like to point at a few imprecisions included in the report.

Some notes on the footnotes

According to the report (page 5), “Russian officers and their families are eligible for Abkhaz citizenship upon completion of service there, as well as the right to retain their state-provided apartments. They are the only group allowed dual citizenship under Abkhaz laws.” It is not exactly so. Abkhazia’s citizenship law allow all of its citizens to have dual citizenship with Russia. Besides, it allows all ethnic Abkhaz to keep their previous citizenship when they acquire an Abkhazian passport, a provision dedicated in particular to the considerable Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey: should they return, they would be allowed to keep their Turkish passport, wich is of fundamental importance to allow them to travel abroad. The current law, in practice, creates complications in particular for Abkhazia’s Georgians willing to have a Georgian passport.

Note 106 (page 19), refers to the sentence “In a tacit admission that armed groups in the Gali district previously operated with government support, Georgia’s new administration vowed to crack down on them and end any official ties.” The note includes reference to an interview with an official in Sukhumi and links to an unrelated article on Civil.ge (actually, an article related to the contents of note 105). Since a tacit admission of the Georgian government can hardly come from an interview held in Sukhumi, something is probably missing.

Note 117 (page 20), reads “The 31 schools in Gali officially offer instruction only in Russian or Abkhaz. Georgian is taught as a separate course, though many teachers continue to teach in it when they feel they are not under official supervision.” A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, however, found that 11 schools in Lower Gali had education in Georgian. (" Living in limbo – The Rights of Ethnic Georgian Returnees to the Gali District of Abkhazia", Human Rights Watch, 2011, page 3).

Even reports from Abkhazian state-owned news agency claim that of the 169 schools in Abkhazia, 62 of them are Abkhaz language schools, 16 Russian-Abkhaz, 48 Russian, 32 Armenian and 11 Georgian (all of them in the Gali district).

Finally, then minister of education in Sukhumi Indira Vardania personally told me in October 2011 that there are schools in the Gali district with Georgian as the official language of education. She added that along Russian language books, pupils were still using old books passed over from the Georgian side a few years ago (I refer to this in my feature story about the language law in Abkhazia, more details in a forthcoming book chapter by this author).

The ICG is absolutely right in recommending that “The Abkhaz authorities should lift legal and practical obstacles to Georgian language education in the ethnic Georgian Gali region”, since indeed there are many obstacles to Georgian language education in Gali. Yet, note 117 claiming that “31 schools in Gali officially offer instruction only in Russian or Abkhaz” does not seem to be correct.

Besides, Abkhazian law does not limit the language of education to only Russian and Abkhaz as suggested in the report (“locals say the Abkhaz authorities have increasingly been enforcing laws on instruction in Russian or Abkhaz”, page 20), but rather says that everybody has right to education in his/her own mother tongue “within the possibilities offered by the education system” (law “ On the state language", art. 7). The same provisions that allows for Armenian language education, would perfectly allow also for Georgian language education.

Finally, the latest ICG report changed a practice used in previous reports to distinguish between “Abkhaz” and “Abkhazian”. The first footnote of ICG’s “ Abkhazia: deepening dependence” (February 2010), reads “The term Abkhazian(s) refers to residents of Abkhazia, regardless of ethnicity, or to the de facto authorities or institutions. The term Abkhaz (singular as well as plural) refers to a person of Abkhaz ethnicity. The two terms are not used inter-changeably. This report follows that standard usage.” The new report published in April 2013 drops “Abkhazian” and uses only “Abkhaz”, as emerges also from excerpts quoted above “Russian officers and their families are eligible for Abkhaz citizenship” (instead of Abkhazian). The distinction between ethnic Abkhaz and Abkhazian is particularly useful in a territory like Abkhazia that is deeply multi-ethnic and it is a pity that ICG does no longer mark the difference.

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst