Abkhazia Lures Its Expatriates, Welcoming Them One by One

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 8 14:00:33 UTC 2009

May 8, 2009
Sukhumi Journal
Abkhazia Lures Its Expatriates, Welcoming Them One by One

SUKHUMI, Georgia — As night gathers over the Black Sea waterfront, a
dozen pilgrims meet in the second-floor classroom where they are
studying Abkhaz, the language of their new home. The neighborhood has
a decrepit, post-Soviet feel and is still pockmarked with bullet holes
from Abkhazia’s war to separate from Georgia. At moments of weakness,
when the task of learning Russian and Abkhaz is making her head swim,
Selin Katsba longs for Istanbul, where she grew up. Then she remembers
herself. In Turkey, many ethnic Abkhaz she knows are toying with the
idea of returning to the land their great-grandparents fled —
especially now that it is under the protection of Russia. If she
wavers, they will waver.

“In the eyes of my peers and my family, I am like a symbol and a
leader because I have returned,” said Ms. Katsba, 22, who arrived here
for a 15-day visit more than two years ago and never left. “It’s
important that I stay.” Now that Russia has recognized the territory
as a sovereign nation, authorities hope ethnic Abkhaz will return from
the places they fled to in the 19th century, in part to escape the
expanding Russian empire. They hope that some percentage of the
estimated half-million Abkhaz in Turkey will replenish Abkhazia’s
Abkhaz, whose numbers have slipped below 100,000, and that
entrepreneurs from the diaspora will provide new investment.

So far, the returnees are trailing in one by one, and no one expects a
sudden influx. But if Abkhaz repatriation picks up speed, it could
have a long-term effect, shoring up ties with Turkey, reaffirming its
split from Georgia and lessening its reliance on Russia. Officials
here say plans are afoot to build a mosque in the capital, a project
that has been discussed for generations, and one that would signal a
welcome to settlers.

As they try to visualize Abkhazia’s future, one concept that makes
sense, they say, is that of a Caucasian homeland. “Can anyone condemn
Jews for calling on all the Jews of the world and inviting them to
Israel?” said Abkhazia’s president, Sergei Bagapsh, in an interview
last week. “We may not be able to match Israel. But that is what we
aspire to.” Nine months after celebrating independence from Georgia,
Abkhazia stands with its ravishing, unspoiled coastline and a
sprawling, if run-down, tourism infrastructure. What it lacks is
people. When war broke out with Georgia, in 1992 and 1993, about
200,000 Georgians fled their homes, cutting the population almost in
half. The most recent census, in 2003, found a population of 215,000,
and much of the territory still has the eerie feeling of an abandoned

Abkhaz have been trying to increase their numbers through repatriation
since the 1990s, and officials say only around 2,000 have returned.
Many of those who returned soon after the war spoke neither Russian
nor Abkhaz, and found their homeland plagued by shortages, travel
bans, poverty and isolation. It was also Russified and predominately
Orthodox. Gennady Matveyev, a Russian whose grandparents settled in
Sukhumi, said the early resettlers never quite fit in.

“They came in their slippers, they came from the village,” said Mr.
Matveyev, 42. “They sat and sat. They didn’t like to work.”

But Russian recognition has breathed life into the project, and Mr.
Matveyev said that more recent arrivals were young and educated, “a
higher level of people.” As an incentive, the state now offers
repatriates citizenship, a year’s free housing and five years of
financial aid.

Among the twentysomethings at the Young Abkhazia Youth Patriotic
Movement, the subject arouses passionate enthusiasm. Last year, 45
members toured Turkish cities, meeting with young people from the
diaspora in hopes of strengthening ties.

Their counterparts peppered them with questions: Will there be another
war? Is it scary to live there? But the most common question was
whether Abkhazia was having “too much contact with Russia,” said Alias
V. Avidzba, the group’s president.

“That is the image from outside, but we explained that it is not true,” he said.

Cemre Jade, a 29-year-old Turkish-born sociologist working for
Abkhazia’s Center for Strategic Studies, a government-financed policy
research organization, hopes that Abkhazia can model its repatriation
program on Israel’s, which offers resettlers a full package of support
systems and benefits. In her own outreach, she describes Abkhazia as
an economy on the cusp of huge growth, which may be too prosperous to
afford in a few years.

But for members of the diaspora in Turkey, she said, the central pull
is the idea of coming home. Recently, when someone created a Facebook
page called “I’m Going to Return to Abkhazia Someday,” 600 people had
joined by the second day, she said.

“Now it’s not wrong to say you are from another country,” said Ms.
Jade, whose ancestors are Adyghe, a Caucasian people related to the
Abkhaz. “You can say, ‘This is my country in the Caucasus, and I’m
going to be there someday. I’m going to return to Abkhazia someday.’ ”

The same idea occurred to Amin Bakig, who was visiting Sukhumi from
Jordan last week. Mr. Bakig runs an Amman-based travel business that
caters to diaspora Circassians, a people related to the Abkhaz, who
are scattered through Turkey, Jordan and Syria. As soon as Russia
recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign nation, he knew it would be his
next big tourist destination.

A week in Sukhumi — now known by its Abkhaz name, Sukhum — had only
stoked his enthusiasm, and he will return in August with his first
group of 100 tourists. Three days into the visit, he was granted an
Abkhaz passport and a plot of land near the seashore. By the end of
the week, he had begun to think about recruiting investors for a major
tourist concern.

“Who doesn’t like to be in this country?” Mr. Bakig said. “Who doesn’t
like to be given free land? Who knows what they will give them later?

Mr. Bakig has long ago adjusted to the notion that the Caucasian
homeland is under Russian control. He speaks of Russians with great
warmth, and was inspired by Russia’s defense of Abkhaz independence
last year. His face takes on a more abstract expression, however, when
he talks about the descendants of the Caucasians who left the region
four generations ago and now number five million or more.

“There is a big dream,” he said, “that one day they will give
independence to the southern Caucasus. This is our dream. But we
cooperate with Russia.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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