Location. Since February 1931, the Abkhazia region has had the status of an autonomous republic within the Republic of Georgia. It is bounded on the northwest by the Russian Federation (specifically the Krasnodar region), on the northeast by the Karachay-Cherkess region, on the east by Svanetia, and on the southeast by Mingrelia. The linguistically related Abazians live in fifteen villages in the Karachay-Cherkess region, north of the Caucasus Mountains at the sources of the Kuban and Zelenchuk rivers. There are also some Abkhazian settlements in the Ajarían Autonomous Republic in southwestern Georgia, and many live in Turkey and other parts of the Near East (the result of nineteenth-century migrations). Physically the Abkhazian region is bounded by the Black Sea along the southwest, the Psu River in the north, the Inguri River in the south, and, along the northeast, the main chain of the Caucasus Mountains. The capital, Sukhumi (in Abkhazian, Aq w 'a), lies on the Black Sea, roughly in the center of the region. Of Abkhazia's 22,360 square kilometers, three-quarters consists of mountains and foothills. In a strip along the coast, the climate is humid and subtropical; moving inland, temperatures decrease as elevation increases (moderate cold at about 2,000 meters, cold at 3,300). The highest peaks are always covered with snow. The average temperature in Abkhazia is 14.5° C, but in the coastal resort of Gagra the average during the summer is 27.5° C. Average rainfall varies between 130 centimeters (e.g., in Sukhumi) and 240 centimeters.
Demography. The majority of Abkhazians live in their own republic, but within it they constitute a minority. According to the 1989 census, there are 102,938 Abkhazians. Besides Abkhazians, the 1979 census had counted 239,872 Kartvelians (mainly Mingrelians, with some Georgians and Svans); 76,541 Armenians; 74,913 Russians; about 14,000 Greeks; 11,000 Ukrainians; and about a thousand or so each Jews, Ossetes, and Tartars. Demographic changes in the area have been drastic: the population of Abkhazians fell from about 140,000 in the 1860s down to 58,000 in 1886, but then it gradually rose to the present number. In 1886 Russians and Kartvelians numbered only 972 and 4,000, respectively—less than 2 percent of the present population. By 1979 about a third of the Abkhazians were urban, constituting about 13 percent of the total urban population of the Abkhazian area. The most densely Abkhazian areas of Abkhazia today, however, remain rural, in upland regions away from the coast and north of the Kodor River. Most urban-dwelling Abkhazians maintain ties with relatives in villages, and people frequently go back and forth. (One typical pattern is to send children to spend summer vacations with their grandparents in the country. Another is for young Abkhazians to stay with their city relatives while they attend university or work for a while.) Abkhazians are famous for living to great ages: in 1970, 40 percent of those over 60 years of age were also over 90. Abkhazians today tend to marry late and, at the present time, to have only one or two children.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Abkhaz language, consisting of Abkhaz proper and Abaza, belongs to the Northwest Caucasian Family, whose other members are Circassian (e.g., Kabardian) and Ubykh (spoken only in Turkey since 1864, and now virtually extinct). There is probably a remote genetic relation between the Northwest Caucasian Family, the North-Central Caucasian (Nakh) languages (Chechen-Ingush and Bats), and the Northeast Caucasian languages of Daghestan, but any connection with South Caucasian, also called Kartvelian, is unlikely. There are two main Abkhaz dialects: northern (Bzep) and southern (Abzhewa), the latter being the basis of a literary language. The more northern, Abaza group has three dialects: Ashkharewa, Samurzaq'an and Tap'anta (the latter being the basis of a second literary language). Abkhaz, like the Northwest Caucasian languages in general, is characterized by a huge inventory of consonants and a correspondingly minimal vowel system. There are many categories of person in the verbal system. There are many relatively assimilated items from Arabic and Turkish, whereas the Russian borrowings, pertaining mainly to technology and government, are relatively unassimilated. The first attempt to provide an alphabet for the Abkhaz language was made by the Russian soldier-linguist Peter von Uslar in 1862-1863. After a number of refinements, another alphabet of fifty-five letters, devised by A. Ch'och'ua, was used from 1909 to 1926, when N. Marr's "analytical alphabet" of seventy-five letters replaced it. This script gave way in turn to the unified Abkhaz alphabet of 1928 (as part of the USSR's Latinization drive). In 1938, at a time when the USSR was changing its so-called Young Written Languages to Cyrillic-based scripts, linguists created a Georgian-based script for Abkhaz, and between 1944 and 1954 the Georgian language replaced Abkhaz entirely for use in the public domain, as part of a general attempt to Georgianize the Abkhazians. The Georgian-based script, in turn, was replaced in 1954 by the present Cyrillic-based alphabet. As of 1989, 97 percent of Abkhazians claimed Abkhaz as their native tongue and 78.2 percent claimed fluency in Russian; many southern Abkhazians also speak some variant of Kartvelian (Mingrelian or, less commonly, Georgian), whereas many speakers of the northern Abaza also speak Kabardian. In Abkhaz-language schools, Abkhaz is the language of tuition through the fifth grade, after which Russian is used. Finally, there is some talk now of a return to a Latin-based alphabet.