Abkhazians - Sociopolitical Organization



Until the Revolution, Abkhazia had a strongly developed class system dominated by a hereditary nobility; the people still remember formerly aristocratic surnames and afford their bearers special esteem. Yet the aristocrats were closely linked to the peasants in many ways (such as child adoption) and in spirit the society had and still has an orientation that is decidedly egalitarian. Kinship or ritual kinship was the basis of most political relations, and village or regional allegiances were often more strongly felt than larger ones; this pattern retains some strength. Abkhazians function today at all levels of society, although their political empowerment is limited in specific ways; for one thing, they tend to be farmers rather than merchants; for another thing, the preservation of a certain number of administrative posts for Abkhazians (more than would be expected for 17 percent of the population) loses much of its significance when one recalls that most important decisions are made at higher levels anyway. Formally, there are five administrative districts plus the area controlled by the Gagra city council; these regions exercise their control through the village councils and the collectives. Informally, however, these typical Soviet organs are significantly influenced by the local groups of elders and by the unofficial Abkhazian Council of Elders. Up until the last century, however, these leaders had little interest in influencing local affairs. On a more local level, Abkhazians, like other Caucasians, used to engage in constant small-scale feuding and raiding, among themselves and with other ethnic groups. Boys were trained in the arts of fighting. Many young men were killed. This kind of conflict is both glorified and lamented in Abkhazian folklore and poetry. Partly because of their strategic position between east and west, north and south, the Abkhazians have been repeatedly conquered or at least invaded (e.g., by Byzantium, Turkey, Georgia, Russia) and have almost as repeatedly fought back or rebelled.

Conflict. A dispute with Georgia that has been festering certainly since Beria and possibly since the Mensheviks exploded in violence on 15-16 July 1989. In 1978 leading Abkhazians had requested the right to secede from Georgia and join the Russian Federation. Then, taking advantage of glasnost, Abkhazians made requests (1988, 1989) for a return to the status enjoyed by Abkhazia from 1921 to 1931. A series of provocations followed, instigated by informal leaders in connection with the opening of a branch of Tbilisi State University in Sukhumi. Few Mingrelian residents in Abkhazia supported their fellow Kartvelians in the actual 1989 fighting. Many Georgians seek the abolition of Abkhaz autonomy and inclusion of this ethnic group within an independent Georgia, whereas now (1991) the Abkhazians are demanding restoration of their republican status of 1921-1931 or an association with other northern Caucasian peoples within a revamped USSR. Their position is understandable because, despite its status as an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), Abkhazia was allowed no real autonomy after the deaths of Stalin and Beria. The declaration of 23 July 1992 that reinstated Abkhazia's 1925 constitution, which granted the area republican status (albeit with special treaty ties to Georgia), led to the Georgian invasion of 14 August. Fighting continues, with no secure resolution in prospect, as of 1 October 1992.

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