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Armenian-Abkhazian relations: potential for a conflict is growing

Armenian squadron named after Marshal Baghramyan. Photo: hayduk.livejournal.com

Political crises and crime are a common agenda for Abkhazia, while ethnic problems are a kind of a taboo. But quite recently, that taboo was broken by Jamal Bartsits, a veteran of the Georgian-Abkhazian war.

This is what he said in just two points: the Armenian community of Abkhazia was not as active and cooperative during the war with Georgia as it is believed to be and its current growth may be dangerous for Abkhazia’s strategic security and culture.

The Abkhazian authorities reacted toughly: they urged Bartsits not to make things even worse.

But the problem of inter-ethnic relations is still there and may cause serious consequences for Abkhazia.

Armenians are the third biggest ethnic group in Abkhazia (60,000 people) though this is not a precise figure. The number of Georgians is a bit bigger.

But unlike the Georgians, who live compactly in the Gali region on the border with Georgia and are not Abkhazian citizens, the Armenians are spread all over the country and have a role that makes them the most influential minority in the republic.

Armenians were the only ethnic group that cooperated with Abkhazians during the war and shared with them all the hardships of wartime – occupation, robbery, murders, deportation and repressions.

Among those fighting on the Abkhazian side were also Russians, Greeks and even Georgians but Armenians were the most active.

Since the war, Abkhazia has made almost no progress in social integration and has failed to make its values a basis for its society. What it has today is an unstable Soviet-time multi-ethnic society and this is why the Abkhazian authorities are so careful in discussing ethnic problems.

In the Caucasus, when it is peaceful, ethnic disintegration is a guarantee of balance of interests and peace among ethnic groups, but when the region is faced with a crisis, it turns into a delay-action bomb.

Consequently, Abkhazian-Armenian relations in Abkhazia may develop in two different ways. Today, Abkhazia is facing the threat of a civil war and this may affect the relations.

After the war, the Armenian community refrained from playing an active role in Abkhazia’s political and social lives. Instead, they focused on agriculture. It was a kind of a public contract with the state and that contract would have given fruits had the Armenian community managed to evolve into peasantry. But that process was interrupted by internal instability.

In multi-cultural societies spawned by modern empires, chauvinism, patronage of natives and oppression of minorities are a common thing. During the post-war period, the Abkhazian Armenians faced such cases but they were not a system. Recently, things have become worse.

In societies like Abkhazia, ethnic groups are also social groups with different statuses.

The current economic crisis in Abkhazia is changing the status quo: until now, the local Armenians have been occupied with agriculture and tourism, while the Abkhazians have controlled politics, business, industry and tourism. But now that the Abkhazians are witnessing an outflow of investments and growing poverty, they are beginning to ask themselves if they need extra mouths. This is exactly what Jamal Bartsits meant.

The crisis is pushing people in Abkhazia to redistribute the national property and to find sources of living money. This process may result in a new war. And this is why the Abkhazian authorities were so tough in reacting to the veteran’s words.

The pressure on the Armenians is growing. For the time being, it can mostly be seen on the level of individual contacts. Currently, Abkhazia is changing its passports and hundreds of Armenians are complaining of extortions and delays. This is hardly a centralized state policy. Abkhazia is so small that there each “atom,” each citizen can play his own game.

But this makes people nervous and is all but good for Abkhazian-Armenian relations.

This example of domestic nationalism is just the tip of a much bigger problem: today, the Abkhazians are forced to redistribute their economic resources and they need some ideological ground for this: for example, they may say, “the whole tourism (trade, markets, etc.) is in their (the Armenians’) hands.”

Abkhazia’s problems are common for all of its citizens. The hotels owned by Armenians are as empty as the hotels owned by Abkhazians. But there are some problems that are more common for Armenians. In Abkhazia, there are no projects to promote food processing. The state is doing nothing to boost the exports to Russia. The Armenians in Abkhazia suffer from extortions on roads and no access to big trading facilities and are forced to sell their goods at low prices. They are getting more and more angry but not with the state. In societies like Abkhazia, the state is associated with the dominant ethnic group. So, for the Armenians, the source of their problems is the Abkhazian majority.

The Armenians are not the only ethnic group that is displeased with the Abkhazians. In fact, all of the North Caucasians and even the Abkhazian repatriates from the Middle East are critical of their policies. The Abkhazians feel themselves isolated and this feeling is kindling chauvinism among them. If they managed to integrate all of Abkhazia’s ethnic groups into one society, those groups would regard the current crisis as a social rather than an inter-ethic problem. But since the Abkhazians have failed to do this, they are not regarded as the ruling class and are forced to share the existing problems with the other ethnic groups.

The Abkhazian society is based on ethnic castes and each caste has its own social practices. Now that the statehood in Abkhazia is degrading and there is no law, the Abkhazian majority is adopting practices that are proving to be fatal to it. Thousands of Abkhazians are becoming victims of road accidents, drug habit, assassinations and suicides. The cause is clear: now that there is no law, the ethnic group that can afford being “above” it is suffering the consequences of this anarchy.

The Armenian community does not have such resources and is forced to abide by the law. As a result, they are not losing their young people to addiction, crime and other illegal practices.

In fact, the Abkhazians are going through a “self-genocide” and this is one more cause of the growing inter-ethnic tension: one ethnic group cannot help being angry when it keeps losing people while the other ethnic group is OK.

But the Armenian community is not as OK as it may look to be. Its problems are aging and emigration to Russia. In the Armenian villages, the people who obtained lands after the war are no longer able to cultivate them and their children are reluctant to do it. The problem is that the Hamshen Armenians still use extensive non-technological methods of land cultivation, which requires constant enlargement of cultivated areas and cooperation among families. This is a hellish, economically unavailing toil. So, people prefer looking for easier jobs in Russian towns.

So, despite the statistics provided by Abkhazian patriots, the Armenian community is becoming smaller and older. On the one hand, this is good as the Abkhazians will have fewer grounds for a conflict with their Armenian neighbors, but on the other hand, this is bad as the Abkhazian state will continue to degrade and this may become a fertile soil for new ethnic conflicts.

Anton Krivenyuk, specially for EADaily

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