Tuesday 25 August 2009

openDemocracy: Abkhazia, Georgia, and history: a response

openDemocracy, 25 August 2009

by George Hewitt

An anniversary article on the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 from the perspective of Abkhazia has provoked a vigorous reaction focusing on questions of linguistics, settlement, and current politics. Its author, George Hewitt, responds to some of the points raised.

The article I was invited to contribute to openDemocracy to mark the anniversary of the events of August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has occasioned an exchange of lengthy and sometimes heated comments (see "Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on", 11 August 2009). Some bear on substantive matters of history and linguistics as well as the interpretation of these recent political events; others include personal remarks directed at the author. This article responds to the former, though it begins with a few words on the latter.

When, as the first reactions came in, openDemocracy's deputy editor David Hayes (who commissioned the article) consulted me over possible responses to the more personal comments, I replied that it was best if everything was published exactly as submitted. This is in order that unbiased readers might see for themselves the sort of reaction (including attempts to discredit the author) that any questioning of the standard Georgian position on the Georgia-Abkhazia dispute always evokes and thus reach their own conclusions about (i) which side has the stronger arguments and (ii) whether there is any value in engaging in this kind of debate, when representatives of one side see in a text what they want to see rather than what is actually written there.

I had not intended myself to look at the comments attached to my article, as the content of the negative reactions was entirely predictable. A few individuals did, however, urge me to do so; and a reading of this material (forty-one postings at the time of writing) leads me to offer a few further observations, which gradually ascend from a response to the low currency of gratuitous insinuation to matters of scholarly record and relevance.

Since "Georgia" is a fluid concept, it is problematic to say definitively when I last set foot there. However, since the location of the capital, Tbilisi, is not in doubt, I can state that I have not visited there since the end of 1987 and have absolutely no intention of doing so again. But I was indeed lucky to be "in the right place at the right time": namely, two academic years spent in Soviet Georgia (1975-76; 1979-80) plus various stays there up to the mid-1980s. In these years, the atmosphere was that of a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met, and (in Soviet terms) prosperous society, whose only (if privately expressed) rhetorical venom was directed against its northern overlord - a sentiment, however, never associated with Georgia's then communist party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze, for whom (notoriously) the sun rose from that direction.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Georgia's descent into the maelstrom of nationalism was alarmingly swift and depressing to watch. Sadly, it would appear that, far from learning the lessons and drawing the appropriate conclusions, this fundamental problem has not yet been recognised.

If my being married to an Abkhazian is irrelevant to the discussion, why mention it (though I normally do so myself in conversation in order not to be accused of withholding the fact)? But since it has been raised, a simple fact may be of interest to those who do so - including the poet Tariel Chanturia, who first cast the "aspersion" in his Georgian disquisition of 1989 on the importance of the boudoir in history. This is that my wife's advice in May 1989, when I first proposed contributing to the Georgian-Abkhazian debate, was that I should not become involved, as she accurately foresaw the nature of the reaction and predicted (contrary to my naïve belief) that reason and common sense would not prevail. >>Read more...

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