The Armenian community in Abkhazia Today

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Armenian Reporter Internatinal [Paramus] 21 Aug 2004: 25. 

Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian lectured recently at Haigazian University on "The Armenian Community of Abkhazia." 

Tchilingirian, formerly of Boston, is Research Fellow and Associate Director of Projects of the Eurasia Program at the Judge Institute of Management, University of Cambridge. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science in February 2003. The title of his dissertation was "The Struggle for Independence in Post-Soviet South Caucasus: Karabagh and Abkhazia." Tchilingirian's research interests include political and territorial disputes in the Caucasus and Central Asia and their impact on economic and geo-strategic developments, the affairs of the Armenian Church and the Diaspora. His numerous analytical articles and reports have appeared in journals and publications in Europe, North America and the Middle East.Tchilingirian's talk on the Armenians of Abkhazia was partly based on his two-week trip to Abkhazia in the summer of 2003. 

Tchilingirian first described the overall situation in Abkhazia, which lies on the northeastern shores of the Black Sea and has a territory of 8,600 sq km. Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within Georgia during the Soviet period. With its wonderful climate and developed infrastructure for tourism, it was considered the "Riviera" of the Soviet Union. Successive Soviet leaders from Stalin onwards had their summer resorts in Abkhazia. About 1.5 million tourists visited Abkhazia annually in Soviet times, when its total population was only half a million. Agriculture was also a very successful sector of the economy, and Abkhazia had one of the highest GDPs in the Soviet Union.

The Abkhaz form a separate ethno-linguistic group in the North Caucasus, said Tchilingirian. Ancient Greek and Roman chronicles already mention them as living in this area. Sixty percent of the Abkhaz nominally follow the Byzantine Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Abkhazia came under Ottoman rule in the fifteenth century and stayed as such in the next few hundred years. Some forty percent of the Abkhazians now are Muslims. However, both Christian and Muslim Abkhazians remain attached to their earlier pagan rites. There is no mosque, for example, on the territory of Abkhazia, which was conquered by the Russians in the early nineteenth century. 

The lecturer explained that the Abkhaz had been a minority in their autonomous republic in Soviet times, forming only 18 percent of the total population. Georgians were the majority. Throughout the Soviet period, inter-ethnic problems existed between the two communities, leading to the emergence of an Abkhaz secessionist movement. One of the key grievances of the Abkhazians was the systematic policy of "Georgianization," which restricted the use of the Abkhaz language and culture. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a war erupted between the Abkhaz and the Georgians. It ended in an Abkhaz victory, but at the high cost of many deaths and destruction. 

Tchilingirian continued, saying that, despite the presence of a cease-fire and observers representing the United Nations and the Commonwealth of Independent States (the latter, largely Russians), sporadic clashes do continue in the bordering region of Gali. Some 60,000 Georgians have recently been permitted to resettle in the Gali region, but another 250,000-275,000 Georgians, who fled Abkhazia during the war, remain refugees. Hence, the overall population of Abkhazia has gone down in recent years. 

According to official figures, there are now 350,000 inhabitants in Abkhazia. However, Tchilingirian stated that unofficial figures put the number at 250,000, which is more realistic. The parliament has passed a law making Abkhaz the primary language in the country and rendering its teaching mandatory in all schools. However, there are not enough qualified teachers to teach the native language, and the Abkhaz generally remain Russophone, especially in the cities. Moreover, there has been a very sharp economic decline since the war. People now largely subsist on private, small-scale agriculture. Not much reconstruction is going on, and many of the buildings damaged during the war are still not repaired, especially in Sukhumi, the capital. Post-war Abkhazia is completely dependent on Russia. It carries on most of its trade with its large northern neighbor and uses the Russian ruble as its currency. The Abkhaz are also following Russian time, which has two hours' difference from Georgia. 

There are some signs that the economy, especially tourism, is gradually picking up, explained Tchilingirian. Some 300,000 tourists from Russia visited Gagra from January to August 2003, a much cheaper destination compared to similar locations in Russia. Moreover, Russian companies are now investing in tourism and energy exploration in Abkhazia. 

Tchilingirian then focused on the Armenians living in Abkhazia, who, he said, feel isolated from and are largely forgotten by fellow Armenians both in Armenia and in the rest of the Diaspora. 

Armenians have lived in Abkhazia for about 150 years, said Tchilingirian. Although Armenian merchants had established a small community there in the Middle Ages, the first wave of the ancestors of modern-day Armenians in Abkhazia arrived only in the 1880s, fleeing the regions of Trabzon, Ordu and Samsun-Jenik in the Ottoman Empire. A second wave followed after the genocide of 1915, especially from Artvin. 

Hence, the Armenians of Abkhazia descend mostly from the region of Hamshen, but unlike the Islamized Hemshin living in Turkey and Adjaria today, the Hamshen Armenians of Abkhazia remain Christian. 

Tchilingirian underlined the fact that, after the flight of the Georgians, Armenians now form about 30 percent of the population of Abkhazia. According to official figures, Armenians number about 100,000 out of the total 350,000 inhabitants of Abkhazia. The lecturer gives more credence, however, to the estimate of 60,000-80,000 Armenians currently living in Abkhazia, out of a total estimated population of 250,000. The Armenian presence is significant in Sukhumi, Gudauta, Gagra and their vicinities, while Armenians living previously in and around Ochamchira have left their homes. There are now around 50-60 Armenian villages in Abkhazia, while, in the past, that number was as high as 100. Moreover, Armenians living in the city of Adler in southern Russia have family ties with the Armenians in Abkhazia. 

Tchilingirian explained that even after the expulsion of the Georgians, Abkhazians now only form a plurality in their country and are destined to remain less than half the total population in the foreseeable future. Following the Armenians, the Russians are now the third largest group. The Abkhaz are trying to forge close ties with the other minorities in their republic, and, hence, the Armenians can play a significant role in the country's internal and external politics.

The strong Armenian voice in Abkhaz politics is also conditioned by the extensive Armenian participation in the Abkhaz war against Georgia. There were two Armenian battalions, totaling 1500 soldiers, in the Abkhaz army, which consisted of 6,000-7,000 soldiers. The Armenians sustained 240 dead, and there are now about 300 crippled former Armenian fighters. Twenty Armenians were made heroes of Abkhazia, the highest honor in the country, while 70 others received other decorations. 

There are currently three Armenian deputies in the Abkhaz Parliament, which consists of 35 members. Among them is Galust Trapizonian, who lost his leg fighting in the war. Other Armenians serve in the ministries and town councils. In Gagra, Armenians form 40 percent of the population, and Ishkhanuhi Kasian is the city's deputy mayor. Eight out of the Gagra town council's 28 members are Armenian, while Arsen Altunian is the deputy commander of Abkhazia's small air force. 

There are currently 41 Armenian all-day schools in Abkhazia, said Tchilingirian, with 3180 students and 640 teachers. Before the war, there were 52 Armenian schools. These schools are now being sponsored by the community's two main organizations, Krunk (founded in Sukhumi in 1994) and Mashtots (formed in Gagra in 1989). The Abkhaz government is providing 50 percent of the salaries of the teachers, while the other half is being supplied by the parents of the students. Almost all teachers in these schools are Armenian, with very few Russians and Abkhaz. The difficulties these schools face range from organizing an up-to-date curriculum and acquiring textbooks to coping with the lack of qualified teachers and money to repair the damage caused to the buildings during the war. For example, the Hovhannes Tumanian school in the mostly Armenian inhabited village of Alakhadzi, south of Gagra, was renovated in 2003 only after the principal found a benefactor, a graduate of this school, who is now a successful businessman in the Czech Republic. In recent years, the Armenian schools in Abkhazia have been receiving textbooks from Armenia, but the shipment costs from Yerevan have to be covered by the local community. 

Tchilingirian told the audience that cultural life in the Armenian community of Abkhazia is only developing gradually. The Tsovashunch song and dance ensemble has been organized in Sukhumi, and there is a bilingual (Armenian-Russian) newspaper, "Hamshen," published and edited by Artavazd Saretsian and his wife, Gohar. They receive no financial assistance and rely solely on subscription fees and the sale of individual issues. There are extremely few paid advertisements published in the newspaper. Tchilingirian explained that Saretsian has an old computer, on which the newspaper is prepared. Once a month, Gohar takes the diskette to the nearby Russian city of Sochi. She returns to Sochi a week later to take the 2000 printed copies for distribution in Abkhazia, bribing the Russian border guards along the way. 

Artavazd Saretsian is a poet and a member of the Armenian section of the writers' union in Abkhazia. He has translated Abkhazian sayings and short stories into Armenian. Besides the newspaper, he also publishes books. There are two Armenian church buildings in Sukhumi and Gagra, but they have no full-time priests. Armenian clerics from the neighboring region of Krasnodar in Russia visit the community from time to time. 

Tchilingirian explained that Armenian activities are hampered due to the lack of official links between Armenia and Abkhazia. The Armenian government does not wish to annoy Tbilisi. Like all former Soviet republics, Armenia had its own summer resort in Abkhazia, the Armenia Hotel, where the Soviet Armenian elite passed its summer vacations. 

Since the war, the Armenian government has practically given up its rights over this hotel so as not to be forced to sign any agreement with the Abkhaz government, which is not recognized by Georgia. The hotel has now been leased for 25 years to the Abkhaz army.

In the question-and-answer session, which followed the lecture, Tchilingirian emphasized that Armenian community leaders are unhappy with the lack of interest that both the government of Armenia and the Holy See of Echmiadzin show towards them. In the absence of Armenian priests, some Armenians hold their weddings and baptisms in the local Orthodox churches. Moreover, he made it clear that while the dialect of the Armenians in Abkhazia is closer to Western Armenian, the language taught at the Armenian schools is the standard Eastern Armenian. Armenians are engaged in agricultural trade and many own cafes along the seashore. During the war years, some 15,000-20,000 Armenians migrated to Russia, and many of the youth continue to see no prospects for the future, a feature that deeply concerns the community leaders. 

In the past, most Armenians in Abkhazia used to study in the institutions of higher learning in Armenia. These graduates continue to hold the important positions in the community. However, the Armenian government has ceased providing full scholarships to Armenians from Abkhazia in the past 2-3 years, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of Armenians from Abkhazia specializing in Yerevan. This feature will undoubtedly adversely affect the teaching of Armenian subjects in Abkhazia in the future, said Tchilingirian. Abkhazia has its own university from Soviet times, but its educational standards are not high. 

When a member of the audience asked about new religious movements, the lecturer explained that the Abkhaz government has passed laws against the spread of religious cults. Indeed, as an unrecognized state, Abkhazia has avoided the scrutiny of international human rights organizations. Finally, Tchilingirian informed the audience that presidential elections would be held in Abkhazia in October, and various Abkhaz factions are now courting the estimated 30,000 Armenian voters. Some political parties from Armenia are also trying to establish themselves in Abkhazia, but these efforts have received a mixed reaction within the local Armenian community. 

Copyright Armenian Reporter Aug 21, 2004

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2004-07-16
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