The Abkhazian Political Nation, by Viacheslav Chirikba

Prof. Viacheslav Chirikba, Academician of the Abkhazian National Academy.

Prof. Viacheslav Chirikba, Academician of the Abkhazian National Academy.

We call the attention of our readers to the text of a speech by Viacheslav Chirikba, Doctor of Philological Sciences, Academician of the Abkhazian National Academy, and Director of the Strategic Research Centre under the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, at the Constituent Congress of the Union of Abkhazian Intelligentsia, dedicated to one of the problems of nation-building - the concept of the Abkhazian political nation.  

In modern Abkhazian society, the issue of nation-building is rarely discussed. There are practically no concepts or theoretical developments of national projects aimed at understanding the traditional foundations of Abkhazian society and the historical experience of the Abkhazian people as a political nation, the degree of their applicability, even partially, to a dynamically changing modern reality, to develop basic concepts of building the Abkhazian state and developing the Abkhazian political nation, to understand their parameters, resources, possible ways of development, and natural limitations. My report is dedicated to one aspect of nation-building - the concept of the Abkhazian political nation.  

The concept of a nation can have several meanings. One meaning is a civic nation, which, as such, is primarily devoid of mandatory ethnic content. An example is France. "I am French!" - in the modern context of France means not only an ethnic Frenchman, but any person who has French citizenship, speaks French, follows the laws of the country, and lives on its territory. Here, the concept of "nation" is very close to the concept of "citizenship". This does not mean that the French are devoid of national consciousness -- on the contrary, it is very strong. It is not, however, ethnic but rather civic nationalism -- they are patriots not of the French people, understood in the ethnic sense, but patriots of the country of the French Republic. Inside the country, all its citizens are French, regardless of their specific ethnicity. A similar situation is characteristic for Turkey, the United Kingdom, and a number of other countries. If they have nationalism, it is inclusive nationalism, including multi-ethnic components. Although there is, of course, ethno-nationalism in France and the United Kingdom, but it occupies marginal positions in society. The concept of a nation-state, understood not in an ethnic, but in a civic sense, comes to the fore. Here the term nation is essentially identical to the term state.  

The second situation is an ethnically conceived nation, and in such a case, it is equal to an ethnos. This situation is characteristic of many mono-ethnic countries, such as Japan, Korea, Iceland, Armenia, and even Georgia, where although there are significant minorities, they are completely marginalised. For such countries, exclusive, ethnic nationalism is typical -- their patriotism is patriotism of the unity of the country and ethnos, not the country and the people, understood not in the ethnic, but in the civic sense, as in the example of France. It is very difficult to become part of such exclusive societies.  

Finally, there is a third situation - a political nation, the concept of which, in a certain sense, combines the two afore-mentioned concepts - both the inclusive element of the civic nation and the presence of exclusive ethnic content - linguistic, cultural, mental, etc. In the case of multi-ethnic communities, the term "titular nation" is applicable here (i.e., the ethnos that gave the country its title, i.e., its name). The nation in such cases is equal to the concept of ethnos, an ethnic group. The concept of a state-forming ethnos is also quite applicable here (i.e., an ethnic group that not only created this polity, or state, but also fills it with specific ideological content, understood in the ethnocultural sense - ethnic territory, ethnos/people, language, culture, specific mentality, historical memory, and other parameters). Moreover, subtracting this ethnos from the sum of this community, united into a state, will instantly deprive this community of both its special form and any ideological content, turning it simply into a population.  

Earlier, I mentioned the need to understand the traditional foundations of Abkhazian society and the historical experience of the Abkhazian people as a political nation. Like others, the Abkhazian political nation has its historically conditioned parameters, determined by the historical path of its development. So what characterises the Abkhazian nation in retrospect? In my opinion, it has undergone six stages in its formation.  

The first stage correlates with the period of the emergence of early state-formations on the territory of mediaeval Abkhazia, which began the process of consolidating the ancient Abkhazian tribes of Abazgs, Apsils, Sanigs, and Missimians into a mediaeval Abkhazian nation.  

At the second stage, the process of tribal consolidation into a single nation ended with the creation of the Abkhazian Kingdom at the beginning of the 8th century, and simultaneously a single mediaeval Abkhazian ethnos, which, undergoing (according to Gumilev) the “passionary” phase of its development, began political expansion both north-west, and north- and south-east. The Abkhazians became an imperial nation. Very soon, the concept of "Abkhaz(ian)" (in Georgian apkhazi) as a resident of the expanding Abkhazian Kingdom began to include residents of Megrelia, provinces of western Georgia, and then the population of all Georgia, and in the northwest - coastal Adygheans and Ubykhs (in Adyghe Abaza). Queen Tamar was known as the Queen of Abkhazia, and her son Giorgi also bore the Abkhazian imperial title Lasha "Bright".  

The third stage comes with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the disintegration of the unified state, political fragmentation, which by the 15th century ended with the creation of essentially an independent Abkhazian principality, which survived as such until 1810, when it was incorporated into the Russian Empire. This is essentially a stage of barbarisation, decline of Christianity, dominance of the archaic model of military democracy. All this was intensified by the political domination of the (in many ways) backward Ottoman Empire and the spread of a new religion, which divided the formerly unified Abkhazian nation into two halves. But it was during this period that the characteristic features were formed of that Abkhazian society which European, mainly Russian, authors already found and described. It was essentially an egalitarian society, which never knew centralised despotism and strong central power. Power in Abkhazia was based not so much on coercion as on social consensus and balance between different layers of society, including the main political forces. The foundation of society was made up of free peasants. As the early Soviet historian K. D. Kudrjavtsev writes, "The Ankhajwy class (the freest peasant class) ... was the most numerous. It made up the bulk of the Akyta [rural community. - V.Ch.]. This class made up about 3/4 of the entire population of the country. An Ankhajwy could transition to another Akyta and to another AkhyalapSHjwy [head of the community] without any restrictions, which kept the latter from violating customary law."  

The fourth stage began with the entry of Abkhazia into the Russian Empire, essentially with a civil war between two clans of the ruling dynasty, followed by anti-colonial rebellions, retaliatory repression, the tragedy of the Muhadzhirs (forced emigrants), the colonisation of stigma of the guilt of the Abkhazian population, its complete marginalisation and the elimination in 1864 of autonomous statehood. However, colonisation always has two sides. Alongside negative and even catastrophic events, modernisation, progressive changes in social life took place, including the eradication of the slave-trade as part of economic activity, the creation of the Abkhazian alphabet and the appearance of the first printed books in the Abkhaz language, efforts to restore Christianity, the construction of cities and the emergence of an urban population, roads, bridges, means of communication, press, creation of schools for the Abkhazian population, and ultimately the formation of a European-educated Abkhazian intellectual élite.  

The fifth stage is the creation of Soviet Abkhazia. What is characteristic for this period? The decline of Christianity and the Soviet project of modernising and Europeanising society with a strong ideological component, atheism, the ideology of universal equality, equal opportunities, universal secondary education, faith in progress and the unification of mankind, as well as confidence in the imminent arrival of a bright future. Unprecedented flourishing of Abkhazian culture, literature, art, scholarship, creation of a Soviet scientific, creative, and political Abkhazian élite.  

The highest stage of the development of the spirit, according to Hegel, is when the absolute spirit realises itself in human thought, in cognition. At the stage of absolute spirit, intelligence manifests itself as self-knowing truth, as self-recognizing reason. It was in the late Tsarist period, and especially in the Soviet period, that the Abkhazian people became self-aware through the printed Word, through the Book. Before this, nothing like this ever existed, at least, traces of it have not reached us. The Jews were formed by the Old Testament, the Arabs by the Quran, the Georgians and Armenians by their own original scripts and the Christian religion. Self-knowledge came to the Abkhazians later, at the end of the 19th (but especially clearly in the 20th) century. Then, having arrived, it became the essence, the lifeblood, and ideology of the new, modern Abkhazian political nation. 

Cornerstone and formative for the modern Abkhazian political nation, in addition to many fateful historical events and printed works, were the publication of three great books - the popular-scholarly encyclopaedic work of Professor Sh. D. Inal-ipa "Abkhazians", the historical monograph of the great historian G. A. Dzidzaria "Muhadzhirism and the Problems of the History of Abkhazia of the 19th Century" and the novel by B. V. Shinkuba "The Last of the Departed". It can be argued that these three great books have largely formed the new Abkhazian nation.  

And finally, the sixth stage of the formation of the Abkhazian political nation came as a result of the glorious victory of the Abkhazian people in the war with Georgia in 1993 and the creation of the independent Abkhazian state. We live in it.  

Let's consider the exclusive understanding of the Abkhazian nation first. Who are the Abkhazians as a people? The main criteria of the Abkhazian nation are: Abkhazian origin, predominant residence in Abkhazia, knowledge of the Abkhaz language, and adherence to the canons of Apsuara (the Abkhazian cultural and ethical code). It's also important to note the moral-ethical categories that representatives of the Abkhazian nation should ideally possess: patriotism, service to the people, society, and, if necessary, readiness to defend the homeland. All of this was vividly manifested during Georgia’s war against Abkhazia. This, in my opinion, is the most important thing that can be said about the Abkhazian nation, understood in a narrow ethnic, exclusive sense.  

The second approach is to understand the Abkhazian nation not in a narrow ethnic, but in an inclusive civic sense. In this case, the nation acts as a synonym for both the state and all citizens of this state, regardless of their ethnic origin. In France, any person with French citizenship is officially considered French, in Turkey - Turkish, and so on. In the current situation in Abkhazia, we have, in essence, a combination of both approaches, with the first predominating - the Constitution of Abkhazia refers not to the "Abkhazian people" or "nation", but to the "people of Abkhazia". On the other hand, the president can only be an ethnic Abkhazian who knows the Abkhaz language.  

How to envisage an optimal situation? I see the solution not in a rapid, revolutionary, but in a gradual, evolutionary, movement towards a civic understanding of the Abkhazian nation. This is a process that will take a long period, a process that must necessarily be accompanied by the demographic strengthening of the Abkhazian nation, as well as the maximum strengthening of the positions of the Abkhaz language. Only then, when the Abkhazian nation or the Abkhazian ethnos is not threatened by demographic (and consequently) political marginalisation along with language-assimilation, will it be possible for us to relax the current regime of the exclusive approach and smoothly transition to civic nation-building. But for this, much still needs to be thought out, planned, and implemented. A revolutionary transition to an inclusive, civic nation-building at this stage would be fraught with the loss of many of (if not all) the sensitive positions held by the Abkhazian people across its ethnic territory and is therefore currently inapplicable and premature.  

Variables and Constants  

In nation-building, it is important to rely not on variables (i.e., what changes quickly), but on constants (i.e., on constant values). What are the constants from the perspective of the Abkhazian national project? Such categories as "homeland", "people", "language", elements of traditional culture, "national religion" are considered constants. 

What is the place of Apsuara (the traditional Abkhazian code of ethics)? Partly, Apsuara is etiquette, a collection of behavioural norms, something which is variable – etiquette, being historically determined, is subject to rapid changes, erosion, and as a basis for national self-consciousness, and even more so as a foundation of a nation, it represents a rather unstable, shaky, and rapidly changing entity.  

We already behave differently from how our parents behaved, and our children will in turn behave differently. Globalisation has not bypassed Abkhazia either, and its unifying and continuing influence on Abkhazian society is undeniable. So what, given such strong global trends, will remain of traditional etiquette in 50 years? The point is that we have no right to base national ideology on such an unstable and rapidly changing foundation. But Apsuara is not reducible to etiquette alone. It is something larger – it is an embodiment of the spirit of the people, their worldview, their moral-ethical image, the very cultural code of the nation. Nevertheless, these things are very subtle, very difficult to formulate or analyse. Therefore, we face the problem of transmitting Apsuara to new generations, because in an aggressive and competitive urban environment, the focus is not on following the advice of ancestors, but on egoism, focus on achieving a personal career, personal well-being, and on satisfying growing hedonistic needs. How can we reconcile natural human egoism with the idea of Apsuara, how can we make Apsuara a national ideology, similar to Confucianism or Buddhism? How to turn Apsuara from a variable into a constant, with the aim of building an ideological foundation for the Abkhazian nation, easily and naturally transmitted to young generations?  

The only way to do this is to codify the cultural code of the Abkhazian nation, put it on paper in an accessible form, make it the main Abkhazian Book, turn it into a true national ideology, teach it within the family and definitely in school, promote it in art and literature, from top to bottom. Then Apsuara can be transformed from a variable into a constant. A great foundation for this has already been laid thanks to the work of the remarkable and profound Abkhazian philosopher Murat Yagan. However, what I'm talking about requires intensive and strenuous intellectual effort. In this process, Apsuara should not become the sole, but one of the constants, approximately in this order: Homeland, People, Abkhaz Language, Apsuara. These ideological symbols should become national integrating symbols, consolidating the foundation of the Abkhazian nation.  

The Goal of the Abkhazian National Project  

The aim of the Abkhazian national project is the strengthening, prospering and developing of the Abkhazian nation, Abkhaz language, culture, and the transformation of Abkhazia into an economically prosperous country, with a population grouped around the Abkhazian ethnic group, with the Abkhaz language as the main language of the state, whilst carefully preserving the main values of traditional Abkhazian culture, encoded by the complex concept of Apsuara.  

Strategic Goals of the Abkhazian National Project  

1. To achieve demographic strengthening of the Abkhazian ethnic group - to set a goal of having 150,000 Abkhazians in the population of Abkhazia within 30 years. This will require significant financial resources, but without doing this, we shall significantly weaken the chances of the Abkhazian people for survival.  

2. To make the Abkhaz language the main language in all spheres of life in Abkhazian society. Create a society with active Abkhazo-Russian bilingualism.  

3. Preserve and strengthen the most important elements of national culture, the spiritual and ethical values of the Abkhazian people.  

4. Based on the study of world-wide experience and by choosing an optimal model for the socio-economic development of Abkhazia and then through its consistent implementation, make Abkhazia an economically prosperous country.  

5. Fully integrate the multi-ethnic population of Abkhazia into the general Abkhazian project of building an independent state - the Republic of Abkhazia - Apsny.  

18 May 2023, Sukhum.  




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