Chen Bram

From Abkhazia to the North Caucasus: thoughts from the road

The following lines are some thoughts following my last journey to the Caucasus, in autumn 2011.

These thoughts are not necessarily coherent, and they are not “academic” in its narrow meaning. Rather, they bring some intuitions of a traveller, an ethnologist, and mostly – of a person who comes from one conflict zone (the Middle East) to another (the Caucasus). They also reflect both my personal (professional) experience of my visit in the Caucasus and my meetings with old and new friends in Abkhazia and the North Caucasus, as well as the gap between this experience and my impressions from the social and political reality of the area (as I understood it).

Travelling on Abkhazia’s roads, one cannot ignore the number of commemorative sites. Most of them refer to the battles for independence, while many also commemorate other bloody events, such as the victims of Stalin’s persecutions. In some cases new tablets of remembrance that relate to both old and new struggles are added to the Soviet commemorative sites for the fallen in World War II. Such an intensive culture of Remembrance is a sign not only of the enormous price paid for Abkhazia’s independence but also of the symbolic participation of the people. Similar patterns of remembrance can be seen in Kosovo, as well as in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. In all these cases, remembrance is a not only a state-project but also a “grass-root” dynamic from below. This reflect societies with patterns of “nations in arms”, where the conflict serves also as a primary mechanism of solidarity and nation-building. However, the strong cohesiveness that this model mirrors also raises at the same time dilemmas for the building of an inclusive civil society.

A unique pattern in Abkhazia is its multicultural nature, as witnessed by the participation of local Armenians, Russians and people from many other ethnic groups along with the Abkhazians in the 1992-1993 battles in Abkhazia, as well as in the project of building a new state and society. Moreover, while talking with people from different ethnic backgrounds during visits to Abkhazia in 2008 and 2011, I got the impression that, although there are, as everywhere, potential conflicts and mutual stereotypes, the relations between different groups contain also mutual recognition. In this respect, Abkhazian society is not only diverse, it is also an interesting example for multiculturalism. Still, the project of nation-building, which naturally focuses on the revival of Abkhazian culture and identity, has also a “built in” contradiction with such multiculturalism (as in other ethno-national models of nation-building). The question here is not only the possibilities for maintaining equilibrium between these contradictory pools (ethno-nationalism vs. multiculturalism) but also the linkage between this dynamic and Abkhazia’s political status and its relations with Russia and Georgia.

Thinking about these issues while travelling from Abkhazia to the Russian Caucasus and the Adyghe-Circassian Republics raises some possible ideas about future scenarios. In Sochi and along the roads travelling north in Krasnodar Kraj (actually in former Ubykh and Shapsugh areas), one sees the huge economic gap between these relatively flourishing areas and Abkhazia. The villages in the small Shapsugh sub-region are also benefiting from such economic development. Circassian culture actually became a resource for attracting buses full of tourists coming to view Circassian folk-displays. Tourism can contribute to a modus vivendi between cultural development and cultural sustainability, and this might be a possible future development in Abkhazia’s resorts once Russian tourists will re-discover Abkhazia. But at the same time, the current interactions between Russian tourists and Circassian hosts raise questions about the commemoration of culture, as well as about the orientalist and even colonialist messages that accompany tourists gazing upon “native” folklore-displays.

When one arrives in Adyghea, and more so in Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, many pessimistic thoughts are raised. During the 1990s, the Circassian republics in the North Caucasus struggled with a difficult economic situation, but at the same time there was a burdgeoning of new beginnings in the national and cultural dynamic, new contacts with the Circassian diaspora, and new civil organisations. Only a pale shadow of all these remains. A systematic description of the dynamic in the Circassian republics in the North Caucasus is beyond my scope here, and there are also important differences between the three republics. In all of them, however, it seems that Moscow’s policy towards these areas goes hand in hand with corruption, poverty, and in some cases even growing religious extremism (which legitimises moves to establish more intensive control). The dynamics of the Adyghean Respublic’s “Republic Day” symbolise this: on the surface, this was a multicultural celebration with fine representation from all the groups in the tiny republic. Closer observation, however, reveals how Adyghean culture is pushed aside by Russian and Cossack culture, and, at the same time, the culture of most groups is largely characterisable as a folkloristic reduction. Given this experience, it is no surprise that some Adyghe repatriates prefer to settle in Abkhazia rather then in the North Caucasus. One of them explained it to me thus: “In Abkhazia there is something vivid, whilst in the Adyghe-Circassian republics the horizon is limited.” But with the current geo-political situation, the question arises: can the future of Abkhazia under strong Russian patronage differ from the processes already evident in the North Caucasus?

Many people I met in Abkhazia are dreaming of “special relations” with the European Union; this, it seems to them, is a way to solve the paradox described above, a way to loosen the bear’s hug. This seems to me, however, to be no more then a fantasy: the EU is busy with its own troubles. It is also doubtful that the recognition from Venezuela or Nicaragua or some Pacific islands offers any real horizons for the future. In short, following the 2008 events, Abkhazia’s situation became better as far as its geo-political stand and its position vis-à-vis Georgia are concerned, but at the same time, in the deeper dimensions of culture, nation-building and identity-formation, the situation became also more risky. The realities of the North Caucasus call for a reconsideration of Abkhazia’s possible future place and role, given its position between Russia and Georgia. In other words, sometimes finding a way to re-build relations with your enemy can contribute to the processes of nation-building and strengthening one’s own identity, whilst having too strong an ally (Russia in this case) can also put such processes at risk. Moreover, the sensitive equilibrium between the Abkhazians’ ethno-national project and the multicultural character of Abkhazia will benefit if Abkhazian (and their neighbours) can find a creative way to navigate between Russia and Georgia and to locate Abkhazia in between them and with connections to both of them. Although this seems to be far removed at this moment from any “real politics”, this option should be at list theoretically live, since in other scenarios Abkhazia could easily turn into just another semi-autonomous “native” enclave.

Chen Bram
Research fellow at the Van-Leer institute, Jerusalem (and next academic year, 2012-2013 - visiting professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville). ISRAEL

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