Republic of Abkhazia: A Conversation with George Hewitt

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The following is a Q and A with George Hewitt, a self-described "working-class Yorkshire boy," who is one of the world's experts on Georgian/Caucasian languages and history. After studying as a student in Georgia in the 1970s, he married an Abkhazian and began spending more time in that part of the Caucasus. He divides his time between Britain, where he is a professor at SOAS, London University, and Abkhazia, where he holds an honorary professorship at Abkhazian State University and is an honorary fellow of both the Abkhazian and Circassian Academies. In recognition of his deep understanding of Abkhazia, Hewitt was invited by the first president of Abkhazia, Vladislaw Ardzinba, to serve as honorary consul for Abkhazia in the U.K. He is currently writing a book on the region.

How does the Abkhazian language differ from the Georgian language? Can you give our readers an example of a word and how it is different in each country?

Abkhaz (like Circassian and the now extinct Ubykh) belongs to the North West Caucasian language-family. Georgian (like Mingrelian, Laz and Svan) belongs to the South Caucasian (or Kartvelian) language-family. There is NO genetic link between these two families (and, thus, their members) whatsoever. This fact is still not universally known even by foreign diplomats serving in Georgia (as illustrated by a Chinese representative visiting Abkhazia from Tbilisi earlier this year who asked why the Abkhazians refuse to speak Georgian to the Georgians, saying: 'After all, they're the same language, aren't they?'!).

'they give it/them to us' in Georgian = gv.a.dzlev.en but in Abkhaz = jy.ha.r.to.jt'

'they' is marked by -en in Georgian but by -r- in Abkhaz

'give' is the root -dzlev- in Georgian but -ta- in Abkhaz (the vowel of the root becomes -o- in the Present tense)

'it/them' is not marked in Georgian but is jy- in Abkhaz

'us' is gv- in Georgian but -ha- in Abkhaz

'to' is -a- in Georgian but not marked as such in Abkhaz

How would you describe Abkhazia to foreigners?

It is a triangular strip of territory in the northwest of Transcaucasia, bounded by the Black Sea, the Caucasus mountains (separating it from Russia), and the River Ingur, which is its frontier with neighboring Georgia. It has its own micro-climate, which is sub-tropical. A relatively narrow strip of lowland along the coast contains the best tourist resorts in western Transcaucasia (Pitsunda, Gagra, New Athos, Sukhum). The mountains are universally visible, extending virtually to the sea at Gagra (whose etymology in Abkhaz means 'holding the coast'), though lying further in land as one moves southeastwards. Citrus fruits, maize, tea, walnuts and hazelnuts are the main crops, but they do not of course grow as the land rises towards the mountains. New Athos is the site of one of the world's largest cave-complexes.

High in the mountains, following the course of the River Bzyp, lies the beautiful Lake Rits'a, one of the region's main tourist-attractions. Stalin had one of his five dachas (summer-resorts) in Abkhazia in a secluded spot beside this lake. The great natural beauty of the region can be counted as both the country's blessing and its curse (because so many outsiders have sought to gain control of it).

What is your favorite Abkhazian food?

Well, it's difficult to think of an example that is specifically Abkhazian as opposed to being Caucasian more generally. I might name /achashw/ 'cheese-bread' (plus local home-made cheese = /ashw/, especially when smoked), /achapa/ 'spinach/cabbage paste with a leavening of walnut-oil and the traditional Abkhazian herb-mix /adzhyk'a/', /adzhyndzhykhwa/ 'walnuts strung together and coated in a paste of grape-juice and flour', but my favorite regional delicacy would have to be dried persimmons, one of the main reasons for being in Abkhazia after harvest in the late autumn.

What is your favorite place in Abkhazia and why?

Without a shadow of a doubt, Pitsunda. The bay in north Abkhazia is home to a colony of a unique species of pine, which gives the place its internationally known name (from the accusative case-form /pityounta/ of the name given to the spot by the Ancient Greek colonists, namely /pityous/); the Abkhazians call it A.mza.ra = 'the.pine.plantation'. The water here is the cleanest along the coast, which makes swimming an utter joy. There is no man-made cathedral as magnificent as the pines as they tower, gently swaying, towards heaven, their foliage forming an incomparably tranquil canopy. There is no finer place to forget the trials and tribulations of modern life. No wonder that Krushchev chose to develop the area for tourism and in fact made his fateful decision to place nuclear missiles on Cuba while holidaying in his dacha here.

What are the three best attributes of the Abkhazian people?

Hospitality, generosity and tolerance.

How were you introduced to British author John le Carre?

While on a visit to Moscow, the author, whose real name is David Cornwell, met a famous Abkhazian weight-lifter and businessman, who, on learning that David wanted to write a book dealing with Caucasian themes, urged him to get in touch with me. In due course, a fax arrived from David asking if he could consult with me on a new novel. We invited him to visit our home in Yorkshire, so the whole family could meet him. He arrived and entertained us with his stories of encounters in Moscow (and more widely, e.g. with Yasser Arafat) and a wonderful gift for mimicry. He explained that he had originally intended to write the novel, which eventually came out as 'Our Game', against the backdrop of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. However, it struck him that, with so many ethnic players in the region, his readers might find it too difficult to cope with those distinctions. This persuaded him to use the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in the North Caucasus instead. He consulted myself and at least two other experts on the North Caucasus in London. I read (I think) three drafts of the book and was impressed by David's determination to get his facts right (though, unfortunately, after I sent my final comments on the third draft, someone must have offered David a false etymology of the term 'Chechen', which then found its way into the published version of the book -- the word does NOT mean 'mortal, human being' in the Chechen language).

I later had the pleasure of helping with his second Caucasus-related book 'Single and Single'.

Well-informed and with a razor-sharp intellect, David manifested no conceit and was always happy to take on board recommendations (and not just facts relating to the specialties of his various consultants).

Unfortunately, many writers today haven't followed John le Carre's lead to ensure accuracy in their reporting on Abkhazia.

What are the top five things most frequently misreported about Abkhazia?

1.         The Abkhaz language is NOT, as regularly reported even today, a Turkic language.

2.         The Abkhazians living in their Abkhazian homeland today (as opposed to the larger Abkhazian diaspora-communities across the Near East, predominantly in Turkey) are NOT Muslims but rather Orthodox Christians, though in most cases there is no strong adherence to any formal religion.

3.         The Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-93 was NOT instigated by or fought on behalf of, and won for, the Abkhazians by Russia. One only has to read the virulently anti-minority rhetoric across the whole Georgian media from late 1988 but more certainly from 1989 to understand why Tbilisi had problems with South Ossetians, Abkhazians and (albeit short of war) other minorities living within the frontiers of Soviet Georgia. While Russian citizens (e.g. North Caucasian and Cossack volunteers) did indeed fight on the Abkhazian side (just as Ukrainians gave support to Georgia), and while some Russian military might have sympathized with the Abkhazians and lent them some support, there was NO official Russian position that led Russia officially to fight and defeat Georgian forces.

4.         The Abkhazians are NOT puppets of the Kremlin, used in a political game that is designed to keep Georgia in Moscow's orbit or punish Tbilisi for its independence-aspirations. The Abkhazians demonstrated at the time of the last presidential elections that they would not meekly go along and vote for Moscow's preferred candidate, Raoul Khadzhimba, who duly lost the election.

5.         The Abkhazians have NO desire to become part of Russia or assimilated by the Russians. Given their geo-political position and the threat to their very physical survival emanating from Tbilisi and not Moscow over the last century, and given the pro-Georgian stance of the West in post-Soviet times, the Abkhazians have no option but to look to Moscow for support.

Do you think inaccurate perceptions of Abkhazia have colored the West's policies towards Abkhazia? If so, can you give an example?

I think it was largely ignorance of the Abkhazians and their history, coupled with an unjustifiably favorable view and inaccurate assessment of the best known Georgian in the 1980-90s, Eduard Shevardnadze, that led the West (with Great Britain under Premier John Major and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in the vanguard) to recognize Georgia in March 1992. That occurred at a time when Georgia was still fighting a war in South Ossetia and a civil war in Mingrelia, where supporters of the ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia were based, and when there was no legitimate government in Tbilisi. Once this was done, those western leaders who had recognized Georgia WITHIN ITS STALINIST SOVIET FRONTIERS were more or less obliged thereafter to uphold the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity. Russia, not wholly (as Vladimir Putin recently acknowledged on his visit to Abkhazia) for altruistic reasons, altered its stance and recognized Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) on 26 Aug 2008. And so, there is nothing to stop other countries guilty of that error in 1992 following the Russian precedent. Part of the Abkhazian case rests on legalistic arguments relating to Abkhazia's status in the first decade of Soviet power and Georgia's abrogation of ALL Soviet legislation late in the USSR's life and their resulting need to give themselves legal legitimacy by reinstating Abkhazia's 1925 Constitution. When I sent a letter via my MP to a minister representing John Major's Conservative government, I received a reply stating that 'The British government has no views on the maneuverings of the early Bolsheviks." With these words he airily dismissed the Abkhazian case.

What path should Western governments pursue if they are serious about supporting peace in the Caucasus?

While the large number of Georgian (mainly Mingrelian) refugees from Abkhazia remains a problem for the international community, there is no way that Russia is going to withdraw from its recognition of August 2008. There is also no way that any more such persons will be allowed to return to Abkhazia (outside the Gal District) as long as Georgia continues to refuse to sign a non-aggression pact and to make bellicose noises about retaking control. And so, there is only one way out of the impasse, and that is for the West to follow Russia's precedent, balance Russia's influence in the region, help to restore the infrastructure of Abkhazia and rebuild the local economy. With peace guaranteed by recognition, which Georgia would then have no option but to accept and follow, and with the economy restored, it MIGHT be possible for more refugees to return to a life in Abkhazia. Without recognition, there is NO chance of this happening at all and always a risk of renewed hostilities, which, with Russia responsible for Abkhazia's (and South Ossetia's) security, would be even more serious for Georgia than the fighting in August 2008. The policy pursued over the last two decades (which has essentially amounted to blind support for Tbilisi) has achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended and thus has to be deemed an ignominious failure. There has to be a radical change of thinking.

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