Tchilingirian lectures at Haigazian on the Armenians of Abkhazia

Department of Armenian Studies, Haigazian University
Beirut, Lebanon
Contact: Ara Sanjian
Tel: 961-1-353011
Email: [email protected]


BEIRUT, Monday, 19 July, 2004 (Haigazian University Department of
Armenian Studies Press Release) — Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian lectured at
Haigazian University on “The Armenian Community of Abkhazia” on
Thursday, 15 July, 2004.

Tchilingirian is Research Fellow and Associate Director of Projects of
the Eurasia Program at the Judge Institute of Management, University of
Cambridge. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics and
Political Science in February 2003. The title of his dissertation was
“The Struggle for Independence in Post-Soviet South Caucasus: Karabakh
and Abkhazia.” Tchilingirian’s research interests include political and
territorial disputes in the Caucasus and Central Asia and their impact
on economic and geo-strategic developments, the affairs of the Armenian
Church and the Diaspora. His numerous analytical articles and reports
have appeared in journals and publications in Europe, North America and
the Middle East. Tchilingirian’s talk on the Armenians of Abkhazia was
partly based on his two-week trip to Abkhazia in the summer of 2003.

Tchilingirian first described the overall situation in Abkhazia, which
lies on the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea and has a territory of
8,600 sq km. Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within Georgia during
the Soviet period. With its wonderful climate and developed
infrastructure for tourism, it was considered the ‘Riviera’ of the
Soviet Union. Successive Soviet leaders from Stalin onwards had their
summer resorts in Abkhazia. About 1.5 million tourists visited Abkhazia
annually in Soviet times, when its total population was only half a
million. Agriculture was also a very successful sector of the economy,
and Abkhazia had one of the highest GDPs in the Soviet Union.

The Abkhaz form a separate ethno-linguistic group in the North Caucasus,
said Tchilingirian. Ancient Greek and Roman chronicles already mention
them as living in this area. Sixty percent of the Abkhaz nominally
follow the Byzantine Orthodox tradition of Christianity. Abkhazia came
under Ottoman rule in the fifteenth century and stayed as such in the
next few hundred years. Some forty percent of the Abkhazians now are
Muslims. However, both Christian and Muslim Abkhazians remain attached
to their earlier pagan rites. There is no mosque, for example, on the
territory of Abkhazia, which was conquered by the Russians in the early
nineteenth century.

The lecturer explained that the Abkhaz had been a minority in their
autonomous republic in Soviet times, forming only 18 percent of the
total population. Georgians were the majority. Throughout the Soviet
period inter-ethnic problems existed between the two communities,
leading to the emergence of an Abkhaz secessionist movement. One of the
key grievances of the Abkhazians was the systematic policy of
“Georgianization”, which restricted the use of the Abkhaz language and
culture. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a war erupted between
the Abkhaz and the Georgians. It ended in an Abkhaz victory, but at the
high cost of many deaths and destruction.

Tchilingirian continued that despite the presence of cease-fire
observers representing the United Nations and the Commonwealth of
Independent States (the latter, largely Russians), sporadic clashes do
continue in the bordering region of Gali. Some 60,000 Georgians have
recently been permitted to resettle in the Gali region, but another
250-275 thousand Georgians, who fled Abkhazia during the war, remain
refugees. Hence, the overall population of Abkhazia has gone down in
recent years.

According to official figures, there are now 350 thousand inhabitants in
Abkhazia. However, Tchilingirian stated that unofficial figures put the
number at 250 thousand, which is more realistic. The parliament has
passed a law making Abkhaz the primary language in the country and
rendering its teaching mandatory in all schools. However, there are not
enough qualified teachers to teach the native language, and the Abkhaz
generally remain Russophone, especially in the cities. Moreover, there
has been a very sharp economic decline since the war. People now largely
subsist on private, small-scale agriculture. Not much reconstruction is
going on, and many of the buildings damaged during the war are still not
repaired, especially in Sukhum, the capital. Post-war Abkhazia is
completely dependent on Russia. It carries on most of its trade with its
large, northern neighbor and uses the Russian ruble as its currency. The
Abkhaz are also following Russian time, which has two hours’ difference
from Georgia.

There are some signs that the economy, especially tourism, is gradually
picking up, explained Tchilingirian. Some 300 thousand tourists from
Russia visited Gagra from January to August 2003, a much cheaper
destination compared to similar locations in Russia. Moreover, Russian
companies are now investing in tourism and energy exploration in Abkhazia.

Tchilingirian then focused on the Armenians living in Abkhazia, who, he
said, feel isolated from and are largely forgotten by fellow Armenians
both in Armenia and in the rest of the Diaspora.

Armenians have lived in Abkhazia for about 150 years, said
Tchilingirian. Although Armenian merchants had established a small
community there in the Middle Ages, the first wave of the ancestors of
modern-day Armenians in Abkhazia arrived only in the 1880s, fleeing the
regions of Trabzon, Ordu and Samsun-Jenik in the Ottoman Empire. A
second wave followed after the genocide of 1915, especially from Artvin.
Hence, the Armenians of Abkhazia descend mostly from the region of
Hamshen, but unlike the Islamized Hemshin living in Turkey and Adjaria
today, the Hamshen Armenians of Abkhazia remain Christian.

Tchilingirian underlined the fact that, after the flight of the
Georgians, Armenians now form about 30 percent of the population of
Abkhazia. According to official figures, Armenians number about 100
thousand out of the total 350 thousand inhabitants of Abkhazia. The
lecturer gives more credence, however, to the estimate of 60-80 thousand
Armenians currently living in Abkhazia, out of a total estimated
population of 250 thousand. Armenian presence is significant in Sukhum,
Gudauta, Gagra and their vicinities, while Armenians living previously
in and around Ochamchira have left their homes. There are now around
50-60 Armenian villages in Abkhazia, while, in the past, that number was
as high as 100. Moreover, Armenians living in the city of Adler in
southern Russia have family ties with the Armenians in Abkhazia.

Tchilingirian explained that even after the expulsion of the Georgians,
Abkhazians now only form a plurality in their country and are destined
to remain less than half the total population in the foreseeable future.
Following the Armenians, the Russians are now the third largest group.
The Abkhaz are trying to forge close ties with the other minorities in
their republic, and, hence, the Armenians can play a significant role in
the country’s internal and external politics. The strong Armenian voice
in Abkhaz politics is also conditioned by the extensive Armenian
participation in the Abkhaz war against Georgia. There were two Armenian
battalions, totaling 1500 soldiers, in the Abkhaz army, which consisted
of 6-7 thousand soldiers. The Armenians sustained 240 dead, and there
are now about 300 crippled former Armenian fighters. Twenty Armenians
were made heroes of Abkhazia, the highest honor in the country, while 70
others received other decorations. There are currently three Armenian
deputies in the Abkhaz Parliament, which consists of 35 members. Among
them is Galust Trapizonian, who lost his leg fighting in the war. Other
Armenians serve in the ministries and town councils. In Gagra, Armenians
form 40 percent of the population, and Ishkhanuhi Kasian is the city’s
deputy mayor. Eight out of the Gagra town council’s 28 members are
Armenian, while Arsen Altunian is the deputy commander of Abkhazia’s
small air force.

There are currently 41 Armenian all-day schools in Abkhazia, said
Tchilingirian, with 3180 students and 640 teachers. Before the war,
there were 52 Armenian schools. These schools are now being sponsored by
the community’s two main organizations, Krunk (founded in Sukhum in
1994) and Mashtots (formed in Gagra in 1989). The Abkhaz government is
providing 50 percent of the salaries of the teachers, while the other
half is being supplied by the parents of the students. Almost all
teachers in these schools are Armenian, with very few Russians and
Abkhaz. The difficulties these schools face range from organizing an
up-to-date curriculum and acquiring textbooks to coping with the lack of
qualified teachers and money to repair the damage caused to the
buildings during the war. For example, the Hovhannes Tumanian school in
the mostly Armenian inhabited village of Alakhadzi, south of Gagra, was
renovated in 2003 only after the principal found a benefactor, a
graduate of this school, who is now a successful businessman in the
Czech Republic. In recent years, the Armenian schools in Abkhazia have
been receiving textbooks from Armenia, but the shipment costs from
Yerevan have to be covered by the local community.

Tchilingirian told the audience that cultural life in the Armenian
community of Abkhazia is only developing gradually. The Tsovashunch song
and dance ensemble has been organized in Sukhum, and there is a
bilingual (Armenian-Russian) newspaper, “Hamshen”, published and edited
by Artavazd Saretsian and his wife, Gohar. They receive no financial
assistance and rely solely on subscription fees and the sale of
individual issues. There are extremely few paid advertisements published
in the newspaper. Tchilingirian explained that Saretsian has an old
computer, on which the newspaper is prepared. Once a month, Gohar takes
the diskette to the nearby Russian city of Sochi. She returns to Sochi a
week later to take the 2000 printed copies for distribution in Abkhazia,
bribing the Russian border guards along the way. Artvazd Saretsian is a
poet and a member of the Armenian section of the writers’ union in
Abkhazia. He has translated Abkhazian sayings and short stories into
Armenian. Besides the newspaper, he also publishes books. There are two
Armenian church buildings in Sukhum and Gagra, but they have no
full-time priests. Armenian clerics from the neighboring region of
Krasnodar in Russia visit the community from time to time.

Tchilingirian explained that Armenian activities are hampered due to the
lack of official links between Armenia and Abkhazia. The Armenian
government does not wish to annoy Tbilisi. Like all former Soviet
republics, Armenia had its own summer resort in Abkhazia, the Armenia
Hotel, where the Soviet Armenian elite passed its summer vacations.
Since the war, the Armenian government has practically given up its
rights over this hotel so as not to be forced to sign any agreement with
the Abkhaz government, which is not recognized by Georgia. The hotel has
now been leased for 25 years to the Abkhaz army.

In the question-and-answer session, which followed the lecture,
Tchilingirian emphasized that Armenian community leaders are unhappy
with the lack of interest that both the government of Armenia and the
Holy See of Echmiadzin show towards them. In the absence of Armenian
priests, some Armenians hold their weddings and baptisms in the local
Orthodox churches. Moreover, he made it clear that while the dialect of
the Armenians in Abkhazia is closer to the western branch of the
Armenian language, the language taught at the Armenian schools is the
standard Eastern Armenian. Armenians are engaged in agricultural trade
and many own cafés along the seashore. During the war years, some 15-20
thousand Armenians migrated to Russia, and many of the youth continue to
see no prospects for the future, a feature which deeply concerns the
community leaders. In the past, most Armenians in Abkhazia used to study
in the institutions of higher learning in Armenia. These graduates
continue to hold the important positions in the community. However, the
Armenian government has ceased providing full scholarships to Armenians
from Abkhazia in the past 2-3 years, resulting in a sharp decline in the
number of Armenians from Abkhazia specializing in Yerevan. This feature
will undoubtedly adversely affect the teaching of Armenian subjects in
Abkhazia in the future, said Tchilingirian. Abkhazia has its own
university from Soviet times, but its educational standards are not
high. When a member of the audience asked about new religious movements,
the lecturer explained that the Abkhaz government has passed laws
against the spread of religious cults. Indeed, as an unrecognized state,
Abkhazia has avoided the scrutiny of international human rights
organizations. Finally, Tchilingirian informed the audience that
presidential elections would be held in Abkhazia in October, and various
Abkhaz factions are now courting the estimated 30 thousand Armenian
voters. Some political parties from Armenia are also trying to establish
themselves in Abkhazia, but these efforts have received a mixed reaction
within the local Armenian community.

Haigazian University is a liberal arts institution of higher learning
established in Beirut in 1955. For more information about its activities
you are welcome to visit its web-site at <;.
For additional information on the activities of its Department of
Armenian Studies, contact Ara Sanjian at <[email protected]>.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress