Abkhaz footprints in Yorkshire - Agency Caucasus (P2)


9 May 2002, Agency Caucasus By Fehim Tastekin - Zeynel Abidin Besleney

Part II

Heritage in Yorkshire

- Now with your permission, I would like to talk about your family life. How much of Abkhazian culture do you think is practised in your household or in other words do you think that your wife brought with hers some Abkhazian culture into your family?

It is a very interesting question. Because my wife now finds herself divided between two cultures that is her native Abkhaz culture and my English culture. I also feel divided between those same two cultures. However, I can say that there are certain aspects of the Caucasian culture that survive in Yorkshire, where we live.

For instance, in the Northwest Caucasian culture, probably in Circassian culture too, wives do not normally refer to their husbands by their first name, particularly in public. Speaking Abkhaz, they would say "that one," "over there!" not "my husband George."

- How does your wife refer to you then?

Even today, my wife quite often refers to me as Hewitt. She calls, quite often, me Hewitt.

- Is that so only in the company of her relatives?

No, even when nobody is there. I think, this is something to do with the reluctance to use the first name. Apart from that, there are some certain things which that an Abkhaz expects but does not see in English, still surprise my wife when it happens.

For instance, whenever somebody comes into the room when Abkhazians are seated they will either stand up or make a move as if to stand up. My wife still does this. We, the English, do not expect her, certainly as a woman, to stand up when we come into the room. However, she equally finds it odd that nobody stands up or makes the move when she or some other visitors come into the room. Subsequently, she feels that there is something wrong here.

Having said that, looking at it the other way round she often points out that she has made more concessions towards the English culture than I have made towards the Abkhazian culture.


- Do you agree with her?

I believe she is certainly right in that. Nonetheless, I would say that one of the reasons why I do not make more concessions is because there are aspects of Abkhazian culture, which I think should be changed.

I am not saying anything new here, in this interview, because, one time I was in Abkhazia I did write an article which was published in one of the newspapers in Abkhazia about these aspects that need to change. For instance, the excessive amount of time spent at the table drinking is one of them I do not know if that applies to the Abkhaz in Turkey too but this is a big problem in Abkhazia.

In the Soviet society, which the Abkhaz was part of for 70 years, when the anecdote was "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us!" wasting time like this did not really matter. Because, in other words, nobody actually worked. So much time was wasted like this. Because, the society did not expect you to do anymore than that. However, things are different when you move over to capitalism that you are having to work yourself and you really cannot afford to waste that much time.

For instance, problems arise when somebody dies. The amount of time between the death and the burial! Mourning, mourning and mourning! Receiving guests, feeding them and mourning again! Then again, everything is repeated on the day of the funeral. It seems to me that one cannot afford to do this especially in the appalling conditions of the Abkhazian economy. People really do need to work.

As an illustration of this, I would like to tell of one incident that I myself experienced in Abkhazia. The last time I was in Abkhazia I had been told that a scholar at a research institute in Abkhazia wanted to discuss with me the ideal way of publishing an Abkhaz dictionary and what sort of information was needed to be supplied in this dictionary for a reader who does not know Abkhaz to get a full understanding of Abkhaz structure.

We arranged to meet on a particular date. We were going to discuss this rather important matter of lexicography. Anyway, we turned up on the day at the institute but there was hardly anyone there. We asked where everybody was. Then I was told that a former member of the academic community had died the day before. Naturally, everybody had gone off to pay their respect.

When said " but what about the meeting! This is our last week in Abkhazia. We are not here every day, every year. You wanted this meeting and here I am." All I was told was that the meeting could not take place because everyone had gone to the funeral.

Well, I am sorry to say that as far as I am concerned it is all very well paying respect to the dead. However, we are living and life goes on. I think this is more important. I believe that this very important business discussion should have come first and the matter of paying respect should have been delayed. This is just one concrete illustration of the sort of problem. It is illustrating how the priorities are not as how they should be. I consider if the Abkhazian society is to survive, regardless of the political situation, the nature of the society does have to change to adapt to more modern world.

To be honest with you, I did not expect my ideas to be welcomed in Abkhazia. I also do not really know what reaction my article produced. Nobody has told me. Nonetheless, I have to say that these are my long held views.

I obviously do not want to see the Abkhazian society totally change. Because if you make radical changes then obviously the very nature of what it is to be an Abkhazian will shift. At the same time, there has to be some kind of more workmen-like attitude. Something has to alter.

- I now wish to ask you a few questions about the current situation. As you know, Abkhazia has been suffering from an embargo since 1996. Abkhazia has therefore been immune to outside influences that would otherwise force society to change. How would you think that the embargo has affected the Abkhaz society and the social changes you have mentioned?

I do not think that the society is changing and it will until there is a greater possibility of introducing some western influence. As you said, Abkhazia has suffered from the embargo since 1996 and as you also know, I am sure, that there is far fewer people living in Abkhazia than there were before the war. In many places, it is like a ghost town. There are few work opportunities and little money. Therefore, people have even more time in their hands today than they did during the Soviet period. The result is that the Abkhazian themselves do not feel any pressure to change. Unfortunately, I do not think that the society has changed in the way that I would like.

If anything, the society is now even lazier, if this is the right word. In other words, the Abkhaz society has more carefree attitude than you do really need to have. Therefore, I want to hope that the political problems can be sorted out and subsequently there can be more western influence which can be the impetus to some sort of change.

This is not to say that the Abkhazians should become westerners. I would not want to see that. As I mentioned earlier, I now feel divided between two cultures. I can see things in Abkhazian society that are better than here in the west. For instance, the way the family is more of a unit which, of course, is not here, in England. I do not know about Turkey, it may be more like in the Caucasus.

However, here in the western world, we would like to be more by ourselves rather than with the family. I can see that certain things in Abkhazian society have advantages over what I am used to in the west, or what I am used to in this country. That is why I do not want them to become totally westernised. Nevertheless, having said that, I think a little taste of western influence is necessary for them to appreciate their problems and change their attitude in a more positive way. 


- Different from the current state of affairs, if Abkhazia were an internationally recognised independent state or, completely the opposite, remained part of Georgia what course do you think the social changes that you have mentioned earlier would take? In other words, what kind of modernisation process could be assumed to occur in Abkhazia if the war had not taken place? 

It is interesting you have said that. I do not think that it would make a difference between Abkhazia was independent or Abkhazia somehow re-associated with Georgia in the terms we are discussing. The reason I say that is because an Abkhazian commented to me a few years ago that the Abkhazians are obviously are a Northwest Caucasian people and speak a Northwest Caucasian language. However, in terms of the attitudes to life, they really have more in common with the Georgians than with their fellow North Caucasians. Perhaps, one reason for this is the close association with the Georgians. The Georgian character, as many people in the world know, is outgoing and welcoming. They have a lot of bonhomie and joie de vivre. To a certain extent, you see this amongst the Abkhazians as well. Whereas the North Caucasians are rather more reserved.

Obviously, it is to do being part of Russia or the Soviet Union where foreigners have very rarely visited. In the Soviet times, only very few people could visit the North Caucasus whereas Georgia would be visited easily. Hence, the fact that the Georgians were naturally outgoing and the fact that Georgia was more open to foreign influence affected the Abkhazian outlook as well. I think I agree this comment.

One unfortunate aspect of this is the difficulty that was experienced immediately after the war between from 1992 to 1995, when the blockade was introduced, when a certain number of Abkhazians from Turkey decided to go back to Abkhazia to try to make a life there.

We all know that this is a good thing as we all know the difficulties created by having a Diaspora community that reduced the native Abkhaz population in Abkhazia. It would be wonderful to have large numbers of Diaspora members back in the Caucasus to increase the stock of the native people. However, for the Diaspora was created at the end of 19th century, the Caucasians in Turkey were brought up according to Turkish way of life and attitude to life. Those who remained in the Caucasus were brought up largely according to the Soviet traditions. Hence, it was found that there was a different mentality between the Abkhazians of Abkhazia and those who went back from Turkey. Although they had a common language, they did not have the common attitude to life any longer. As a result, there were problems. Therefore, it is also because of those problems, not just the blockade that large numbers did not return to Abkhazia. It is a pity. The problem could be tackled if circumstances were ideal. If peace was restored and economy was flourishing in Abkhazia then more attention could be paid to educational processes to help to bring the two communities together.

Thus the answer to your question, I feel, is that you need to establish peace either as an independent country or in some form of re-association with George. Then these changes, because of outside influences, could take place more rapidly.


9 May 2002, Agency Caucasus By Fehim Tastekin - Zeynel Abidin Besleney

Part III

The Best is Federation or Confederation

- Tension has risen in Abkhazia since the entry of Ruslan Gelayev and his men to Kodor Gorge last September. Scenarios have been produced as to possible Georgian plans to re-attack Abkhazia. Do you think it is realistic to consider that the Georgians may try to repeat what they did in 1992 regardless of the presence of the UN and the CIS Peacekeepers and of the current state of affairs that are different from that of 1992?

I agree with the speculation that some circles in Georgia might very well have been planning a military adventure not only in the way that happened in 1998 in Gal region but also on the scale of the invasion of 1992. I certainly consider it possible. It is something that people have to be very careful of bearing in mind, as we all know, the fact that the leader of Georgia is favoured in certain western circles. 
Having said that, I reckon the situation is different now given, as you have mentioned, the presence of the western observers. It would be very difficult for Georgians to launch an all out war in Abkhazia in the way that perhaps some of them would like to do because of that international presence.

However, one of the dangers is the possibility of the CIS peacekeepers being either withdrawn or moved, as the Georgians have been suggesting, from Ingur to Galistka. Because, this would just move the terrorist activities thirty-thirty five kilometres further north.

If the CIS peacekeepers withdraw, I think the UN observers will also come out. One of the reasons the UN is there is, I think, not just to patrol the border region between Abkhazia and Georgia but also to keep an eye on what the CIS troops are doing. As long as the international observers are present, there the Georgians obviously will not be able to do what they did in 1992.

However, I was reading an article two days ago by Tom De Waal on the IWPR's web site where I read that there is now a generation coming along in Georgia that, of course, does not remember the horrors of the war. Few more years down the line, a military adventure may come to the fore again. Who knows?

In my opinion, the most important thing, right from the start, is that if you are going to get a settlement you cannot expect the Abkhazians simply to go back to the position they enjoyed, if I may say, which is what the Georgians are offering now, namely a maximum autonomy within Georgia. Because in a sense, the Abkhazians had that "maximum autonomy" as Abkhazia was an autonomous republic in Georgia. In the war thousands died and Abkhazia was destroyed. How can then we expect the Abkhazians simply to go back to status quo and say " Oh well, Georgians tried but let us go back"? There is every possibility that the Georgians might very well try it again. 

- Simply what is your suggestion?

There has to be some sort of majority. Within the Georgian context, Georgians are the majority and the Abkhazians are the minority. In the same way, you are not going to solve the Chechen problem unless you have some sort of generosity and concession, a major concession from Russia.

Years ago, I was told to mind my business and tell Margaret Thatcher what we should be doing in Northern Ireland rather than lecturing the Georgians what they should be doing in Abkhazia. The same applied all those years to the troubles in Northern Ireland. You need generosity and concessions from the majority of the population, the Protestants, towards the minority Catholic population. That was of course something the Protestants were not prepared to do.

Until you have those concessions from the majority, the conflicts are going to smoulder all around. Unfortunately, these days our politics is as such that if you are a state or if you are a member of the UN then the question is really no more important to fellow leaders than one of territorial integrity. Georgia was recognised as Abkhazia part of it. Therefore, it has to stay in its territorial boundaries. Well, whether it still retains it's territorial boundaries or not Georgia has to make important concessions more than Abkhazia had during the Soviet times.


- Do you think that the recent UN proposal for the settlement of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict can be used as a means to exercise pressure on Abkhazia?

I do not suppose that it can. The Abkhazians take the view that they fought for their territory and now are in control of it. They say that although we do not have the infrastructure, the cash or many opportunities we are still here. This is our land. We are never going to go hungry because Abkhazia have rich and fertile territory in terms of its produce. Regardless of how much pressure is applied, the Abkhazians will eventually have to decide for themselves.

It has been suggested for some years that the Abkhazians are a puppet of Kremlin. I think this is a misconception. They are not the puppets of Kremlin. Their stance in this particular question is just one indication of that. Even if Putin wants them to make concessions, I do not think they will make any if it is not in their interest.

-I understand! At this point I would like ask if in your opinion the US presence in Georgia will enable Georgians to get the upper hand in their conflicts with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

This query was raised with the Georgian Defence Minister at a press conference just a few days ago in America. In his reply, he said that the American troops are not in Georgia to get involved in matters relating Abkhazia. One hopes that the Americans will not be that naïve as to allow themselves to get involved. 

If they can be persuaded that there are these Al -Qaeda members in Abkhazia, which is a claim that has been made by the leader of the Abkhaz Government in exile Tamaz Naderashvili in his recent trip to Europe, and if they are that naïve to believe this nonsense then who knows what they may do. The Americans are Americans. Let us hope that they are not there for that purpose.

Abkhazia has been able to sustain her political position so far. The Abkhazians were able to use the Russian cards to restrain Georgia. Moreover, despite his illness for sometimes Ardzinba has been able to unite his people behind himself. Nevertheless, we know that there is now a growing opposition movement in Abkhazia to the policies of Jergenia.


-In the light of the recent political developments in the region what kind of future do you foresee for Abkhazia as a state in terms of it's independence once Ardzinba is out of the political scene?

Well it is a very difficult question to answer. The same goes for Georgia, too. People are asking what will happen if and when Shevardnadze leaves the scene, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

Once the Abkhazians did declare independence, which they did in 1998, it will be very difficult to turn back on that. I do not believe that the question of Ardzinba, or whether he is in or out of the political scene in Abkhazia, is totally important. Obviously, the personalities come into play. However, let us leave this subject for now but I think we may say that not everyone is in favour of Jergenia holding such a prominent position in Abkhazia. Nonetheless, I do not believe that Abkhazia is a sort of society that would be turning on itself in an internal conflict.

Some Georgians are suggesting, of course, as this is what they have been hoping for over a number of years that there is a conflict between the northern Bzip community and the southern Abjiva community. Ardzinba comes from the North. The area he comes from did not suffer to badly in the way the south did during the war. However, I really do not see that split happen in Abkhazia. I think if there were a danger of a split coming along, they would say " look, this is just what our enemies want to happen. Just remember what happened in 1992-93. We cannot afford to let this happen in such a small community."

About the personalities, we will see changes over the coming years on both sides of the border. However, I must say that I do not see that happen in Abkhazia.

- What is your observation on the developments in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia?

Of course, there are Chechens there. There has been a community of Chechen Kists living there for a century or so, numbering around 10.000. Because of what has been happening over the border in Chechnya itself there, of course, should be refugees making their way across the mountains to their fellow citizens in Georgia. Included amongst those, there were no doubt fighters. I cannot believe that there are Al-Qaeda representatives who made their journey from Afghanistan. I find this absolutely nonsense.

I admit that there are problems in Pankisi in terms of criminality. There is no doubt that certain Chechens are involved in this. However, the criminality problems are all over Georgia. Georgians have had a hand in this just as much as anyone else. In fact, it is in all over the Caucasus. One has to say that it is difficult to find peace where different nationalities live.

It has been suggested to me recently that all you need to do is to get non-corrupt police officers to the gorge to do their jobs properly. Then, you would not need to bring American military personnel in to their jobs. Thus, I do not believe that it is a terrorist situation. I would say it is more of a problem of criminality.

However on a broader level, it seems to me that best solution in the Southern Caucasus region will come when the three states of the region, namely Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, realise that it is in their own interest to form some sort of federation or confederation. Only if you got this broader association whereby the three states see the advantages of co-operation are you going to get the little areas, which are causing individual problems, which are Nogorno -Karabagh, Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia, feeling that they are going to get more secure because they are part of a larger grouping. As long as you have got these individual states thinking in terms of old my national position or territorial integrity, it seems to me the area is ripe for conflict in the future.

If only some pressure could be put upon them so that they themselves could see the advantages of this co-operation. Then the whole region would settle down and would be developing in the way that everyone wants to see, reducing the influence of Iran, Turkey, Russia, and America. That association could be an ideal basis for a future state bringing in the Northern Caucasus. Then the Caucasian common market can be established.


-The last question is on Abkhazia, again. As opposed to the question of what kind of future do you foresee for Abkhazia, I would like to ask what sort of future do you want to see for Abkhazia?

Firstly, I am not an Abkhazian. My interest in the region goes back to the languages and the viability of these speech communities where these languages are spoken. I would be just happy if they could find a modus vivendi where all of these communities survive. That is all I am interested in. To me, it does not really matter whether it is independence or some sort of a relationship with Georgia and Russia. The fact to the matter is that I want to see them survive which is all that is important to me. It is up to them to find their own solutions.

I began the speech I made here in 1989, which started my problems with Georgia, with the words that "any Abkhazian who wishes to secede from Georgia needs his head examined." When these words found their ways to Abkhazia, the Abkhazians did not like them. Because this was what they wanted at that stage. They said, "George should not be saying these." However, because they saw that overall my message was in their favour, they were able forget these opening remarks.

I could see that Georgians would react violently towards any move to divorce Abkhazia from Georgia. That is why I said it. It was not because I did not want to see Abkhazia as an independent state.

I say once again that it is up to the Abkhazians. They decided that they wanted independence. In fact, they must try to establish what is in their heart. As for me, my main hope is for harmony within various communities so that their languages survive. Because I am a linguist and that is how I became interested in the Caucasus in the first place, that is through the languages not through the people.

-We would like to thank you for sharing your invaluable time with us.

Part III

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