Stamps have been produced purporting to be from the Republic of Abkhazia, an area in western Georgia that is not recognized as a sovereign state by all but few countries. Most stamps of Abkhazia are believed to be bogus, produced in foreign countries solely for sale to collectors, but more recently Abkhazia has produced stamps that may have legitimate use locally within the borders of the disputed area. They are not recognized by the Universal Postal Union.
Abkhazia is a partially recognized state in the South Caucasus, recognized by most countries as part of Georgia, which views the region as an autonomous republic. It lies on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, south of the Greater Caucasus mountains in northwestern Georgia. It covers 8,665 square kilometres (3,346 square miles) and has a population of around 245,000. Its capital is Sukhumi.
The status of Abkhazia is a central issue of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict and Georgia–Russia relations. The polity is recognized as a state by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. While Georgia lacks control over Abkhazia, the Georgian government and most United Nations member states consider Abkhazia legally part of Georgia, with Georgia maintaining an official government-in-exile.
The region had autonomy within Soviet Georgia at the time when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s. Simmering ethnic tensions between the Abkhaz — the region’s titular ethnicity — and Georgians — the largest single ethnic group at that time — culminated in the 1992–1993 War in Abkhazia, which resulted in Georgia’s loss of control over most of Abkhazia and the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia.
Despite a 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of negotiations, the dispute remains unresolved. The long-term presence of a United Nations Observer Mission and a Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping force failed to prevent the flare-up of violence on several occasions. In August 2008, Abkhaz and Russian forces fought a war against Georgian forces, which led to the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and the termination of the UN mission. On 28 August 2008, the Parliament of Georgia declared Abkhazia a Russian-occupied territory, a position reflected by most United Nations member states.
The Abkhazians call their homeland Аԥсны (Apsny, Aṗsny), popularly etymologized as “a land/country of the soul”, yet literally meaning “a country of mortals (mortal beings)”. It possibly first appeared in the seventh century in an Armenian text as Psin(oun), perhaps referring to the ancient Apsilians. Although the term “Abkhazeti” first appeared in the Georgian annals, giving rise to the name Abkhazia, it was used to denote Abasgia proper and entire Western Georgia within the Kingdom of Georgia. In early Muslim sources, the term “Abkhazia” was generally used in the meaning of Georgia. The Russian Абхазия (Abkhaziya) is adapted from the Georgian აფხაზეთი (Apkhazeti). Abkhazia’s name in most languages are derived directly from the Russian.
The state is formally designated as the “Republic of Abkhazia” or “Apsny”.
Lower Paleolithic hunting-gathering encampments formed the first known settlements on the territory of modern-day Abkhazia. The earliest examples have been unearthed at the sites of Iashkhtva, Gumista, Kelasuri, and Ochamchire. Upper Paleolithic culture settled chiefly the coastline. Mesolithic and Neolithic periods brought larger permanent settlements, and marked the beginning of farming, animal husbandry, and the production of ceramics. The earliest artifacts of megalithic culture appeared in the early 3rd millennium BC and continued into the Bronze Age as the so-called dolmens of Abkhazia, typically consisting of four upright mass stones and a capstone, some of them weighing as much as 50 tonnes. A dolmen from the Eshera archaeological site is the best studied prehistoric monument of this type. The Late Bronze Age saw the development of more advanced bronze implements, and continued into the Iron Age as a part of the Colchian culture (c. 1200-600 BCE), which covered most of what is now western Georgia and part of northeastern Anatolia.
Abkhazia in antiquity
The written history of Abkhazia largely begins with the coming of the Milesian Greeks to the coastal Colchis in the 6th-5th centuries BC. They founded their maritime colonies along the eastern shore of the Black Sea, with Dioscurias being one of the most important principal centers of trade. This city, said to be so named for the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux of classical mythology, is presumed to have subsequently developed into the modern-day Sukhumi. Other notable colonies were Gyenos, Triglitis, and later Pityus, arguably near the modern-day coastal towns of Ochamchire, Gagra, and Pitsunda, respectively.
The peoples of the region were notable for their number and variety, as classical sources testify. Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny appreciate the multitude of languages spoken in Dioscurias and other towns. The mountainous terrain tended to separate and isolate local peoples from one another and encouraged the development of dozens of separate languages and dialects complicating the ethnic makeup of the region. Even the most well-informed contemporary authors are very confused when naming and locating these peoples and provide only very limited information about the geography and population of the hinterland. Furthermore, some classic ethnic names were presumably collective terms and supposed considerable migrations also took place around the region. Various attempts have been made to identify these peoples with the ethnic terms employed by classical authors. Most scholars identify Pliny the Elder’s Apsilae of the 1st century and Arrian’s Abasgoi of the 2nd century with the probable proto-Abkhaz- and Abaza-speakers respectively, while Georgian scholars consider them proto-Kartvelian tribal designations. The identity and origin of other peoples (e.g., Heniochi, Sanigae) dwelling in the area is disputed. Archaeology has seldom been able to make strong connections between the remains of material culture and the opaque names of peoples mentioned by classical writers. Thus, controversies still continue and a series of questions remain open.
The inhabitants of the region engaged in piracy, slave trade and kidnapping people for ransom. Strabo described the habits of Achaei, Zygi, and Heniochi in his Geography as follows:
These people subsist by piracy. Their boats are slender, narrow, light, and capable of holding about five and twenty men, and rarely thirty. The Greeks call them camaræ. … They equip fleets consisting of these camaræ, and being masters of the sea sometimes attack vessels of burden, or invade a territory, or even a city. Sometimes even those who occupy the Bosporus assist them, by furnishing places of shelter for their vessels, and supply them with provision and means for the disposal of their booty. When they return to their own country, not having places suitable for mooring their vessels, they put their camaræ on their shoulders, and carry them up into the forests, among which they live, and where they cultivate a poor soil. When the season arrives for navigation, they bring them down again to the coast. Their habits are the same even in a foreign country, for they are acquainted with wooded tracts, in which, after concealing their camaræ, they wander about on foot day and night, for the purpose of capturing the inhabitants and reducing them to slavery.
According to The Georgian Chronicles, the first inhabitants of what is now Abkhazia and the whole western Georgia were Egrosians, the descendants of Egros son of Togarmah, grandson of Japhet, son of Noah, who came from the land known as Arian-Kartli.
Roman and Early Byzantine era
Along with the rest of Colchis, Abkhazia was conquered by Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus between c. 110 and 63 BC, then taken by the Roman commander Pompey and incorporated into the Roman Empire in AD 61. The Roman rule here was tenuous and according to Josephus a Roman garrison of 3000 hoplites and fleet of 40 vessels could only control the ports. The Greek settlements suffered from the wars, piracy and attacks of local tribes (during one of them Dioskurias and Pityus were sacked in AD 50).
With the downfall of the Roman Empire, the tribes living in the region gained some independence, nominating their rulers who were to be confirmed by Rome. In the 3rd century AD, the Lazi tribe came to dominate most of Colchis, establishing the kingdom of Lazica, locally known as Egrisi. According to Procopius, the Abasgi chieftains were also subdued by the Lazic kings.
Colchis was a scene of the protracted rivalry between the Eastern Roman/Byzantine and Sassanid empires, culminating in the Lazic War from 542 to 562. The war resulted in the decline of Lazica, and the Abasgi in their dense forests won a degree of autonomy under the Byzantine authority. During this era the Byzantines built Sebastopolis in the region. Their land, known to the Byzantines as Abasgia, was a prime source of eunuchs for the empire until Justinian I (527-565) forbid the castration of boys. The people were pagan and worshiped groves and trees until a mission sent by the emperor Justinian I around 550 converted the people to Christianity and built a church. However bishop Stratophiles of Pytius attended the Council of Nicaea as early as 325. Byzantines constructed defensive fortifications that may have partially survived to this day as the Kelasuri Wall.
As the Abasgi grew in relative strength, the name Abasgia came to denote a larger area populated by various ethnic groups including Mingrelian- and Svan-speaking South Caucasian tribes, and subordinated to the Byzantine-appointed princes (Greek: archon, Georgian: eristavi) who resided in Anacopia and were viewed as major champions of the empire’s political and cultural influence in the western Caucasus. The Arabs penetrated the area in the 730s, but did not subdue it; about then the term Abkhazeti (“the land of the Abkhazians”) first appeared in the Georgian annals, giving rise to the name Abkhazia, which is used today in most foreign languages. Through their dynastic intermarriages and alliance with other Georgian princes, the Abasgian dynasty acquired most of Lazica/Egrisi, and in the person of Leo established themselves as “kings of the Abkhazians” in the 780s. With the Khazar help, Leo ousted the Byzantines and expanded his kingdom, transferring his capital to the Georgian city of Kutaisi. Although the nature of this kingdom’s ruling family is still disputed, most scholars agree that the Abkhazian kings were Georgian in culture and language. In order to eliminate the Byzantine religious influence, the dynasty subordinated the local dioceses to the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate of Mtskheta.
The kingdom is frequently referred in modern history writing as the Egrisi-Abkhazian kingdom due to the fact that medieval authors viewed the new monarchy as a successor state of Egrisi and sometimes used the terms interchangeably.
The most prosperous period of the Abkhazian kingdom was between 850 and 950, when it dominated the whole western Georgia and claimed control even of the easternmost Georgian provinces. The terms “Abkhazia” and “Abkhazians” were used in a broad sense during this period – and for some while later – and covered, for all practical purposes, all the population of the kingdom regardless of their ethnicity. In 989, the Bagratid ruler Bagrat III came to power in Abkhazia which he inherited from his mother Guranduxt Anch’abadze. In 1008 Bagrat inherited K’art’li from his father and united the kingdoms of Abkhazia and Georgia into a single Georgian feudal state.
This state reached the apex of its strength and prestige under the queen Tamar (1184–1213). On one occasion, a contemporary Georgian chronicler mentions a people called Apsars. This source explains the sobriquet ‘Lasha’ of Tamar’s son and successor George IV as meaning “enlightenment” in the language of the Apsars. Some modern linguists link this nickname to the modern Abkhaz words a-lasha for “clear” and a-lashara for “light”, identifying the Apsars with the possible ancestors of the modern-day Abkhaz, though the exact identity and location of this tribe is unclear.
Bagrat III of Georgia; of the House of Bagrationi
According to the Georgian chronicles, Queen Tamar granted the lordship over part of Abkhazia to the Georgian princely family of Shervashidze. According to traditional accounts, they were an offshoot of the Shirvanshahs (hence allegedly comes their dynastic name meaning “sons of Shirvanese” in Georgian). The ascendancy of this dynasty (later known also as Chachba by the Abkhaz form of their surname) in Abkhazia would last until the Russian annexation in the 1860s.
The Genoese established their trading factories along the Abkhazian coastline in the 14th century, but they functioned for a short time. The area was relatively spared from the Mongol and Timur’s invasions, which terminated Georgia’s “golden age”. As a result, the kingdom of Georgia fragmentized into several independent or semi-independent entities by the late 15th century. The Principality of Abkhazia was one of them, and was formed around 1463. The Principality of Abkhazia, whereas it acted as an independent state, was officially a vassal of the Kingdom of Imereti, following a treaty signed in 1490 splitting Georgia into three nations. The Abkhazian princes engaged in incessant conflicts with the Mingrelian potentates, their nominal suzerains, and the borders of both principalities fluctuated in the course of these wars. In the following decades, the Abkhazian nobles finally prevailed and expanded their possessions up to the Inguri River, which is today’s southern boundary of the region. Several medieval historians like Vakhushti and a few modern ones claimed that the Kelasuri Wall was built by prince Levan II Dadiani of Mingrelia as a protection against Abkhaz.
In the 1570s, the Ottoman navy occupied the fort of Tskhumi on the Abkhazian coastline, turning it into the Turkish fortress of Suhum-Kale (hence, the modern name of the city of Sukhumi). In 1555, Georgia and the whole South Caucasus became divided between the Ottoman and Safavid Persian empires per the Peace of Amasya, with Abkhazia, along with all of western Georgia, remaining in the hands of the Ottomans. As a result, Abkhazia came under the increasing influence of Turkey and Islam, gradually losing its cultural and religious ties with the rest of Georgia. According to the Soviet historical science, Turkey, after the conquest has aimed at obliterating the material and spiritual culture of Abkhazia and forcibly convert the population to Islam, which led to numerous insurrections (in 1725, 1728, 1733, 1771 and 1806).
Towards the end of the 17th century, the principality of Abkhazia broke up into several fiefdoms, depriving many areas of any centralized authority. The region became a theatre of widespread slave trade and piracy. According to some Georgian scholars (such as Pavle Ingorokva), it was when a number of the Adyghe clansmen migrated from the North Caucasus mountains and blended with the local ethnic elements, significantly changing the region’s demographic situation. In the mid-18th century, the Abkhazians revolted against the Ottoman rule and took hold of Suhum-Kale, but soon the Turks regained the control of the fortress and granted it to a loyal prince of the Shervashidze family.
Russia annexed eastern Georgia in 1800 and took over Mingrelia in 1803. Kelesh Ahmed-Bey Shervashidze, the last pre-Russian ruler of Abkhazia had a long and successful reign. He controlled his nobles, his kinsmen commanded Poti and Batum and his fleet cruised the coast from Anapa and Batum. His invasion of the Principality of Mingrelia in 1802 contributed to Mingrelia becoming a Russian protectorate. Keleshbey died in 1808 and was succeeded by his eldest son Aslan-Bey Shervashidze. Kelesh also had a younger son, Sefer Ali-Bey Shervashidze, who lived in Mingrelia, was or became a Christian and was married to the Mingrellian ruler’s sister. The Russians or Mingrelians claimed that Aslan-Bey had murdered his father. In August 1808, three months after Kelesh’s death, a Mingrelian force failed to take Sukhumi. In February 1810 Russia recognized Sefer-Bey as hereditary prince of Abkhazia. In June of that year a Russian fleet captured Sukhumi and Aslan-Bey fled. Sefer-Bey, who ruled until 1821, was unable to control the countryside, things became disorganized and there were a number of revolts involving Aslan-Bey.
Initially, the Russian control hardly extended beyond Suhum-kale and the Bzyb area, with the rest of the region chiefly dominated by the pro-Turkish Muslim nobility. In a series of conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and the North Caucasian tribes, the Russians acquired possession of the whole Abkhazia in a piecemeal fashion between 1829 and 1842, but their power was not firmly established until 1864, when they managed to abolish the local princely authority. The last prince of Abkhazia, Michael Shervashidze (Chachba), was exiled to Russia where he soon died. The two ensuing Abkhaz revolts in 1866 and 1877, the former precipitated by the heavy taxation and the latter incited by the landing of the Turkish troops, resulted in the next significant change in the region’s demographics. As a result of harsh government reaction allegedly 60% of the Muslim Abkhaz population, although contemporary census reports were not very trustworthy — became Muhajirs, and emigrated to the Ottoman possessions between 1866 and 1878. In 1881, the number of the Abkhaz in the Russian Empire was estimated at only 20,000. Furthermore, a great deal of the population was forcibly displaced to Turkey (Muhajirs) and in 1877 the population of Abkhazia was 78,000, whereas at the end of the same year there were only 46,000 left.
Large areas of the region were left uninhabited and many Armenians, Georgians, Russians and others subsequently migrated to Abkhazia, resettling much of the vacated territory. According to Georgian historians Georgian tribes (Mingrelians and Svans) had populated Abkhazia since the time of the Colchis kingdom. According to the census carried out in 1897 Abkhaz constituted 60-65% of the Sukhumi district’s population (about 100,000; Sukhum district occupied almost the same territory as present day Abkhazia in 1897), the majority of the rest being Georgian. However the Encyclopædia Britannica reported in 1911 that in the Sukhumi district (population at the time 43,000; it did not cover all the territory of present-day Abkhazia in 1911 as some of it had been transferred to Kuban governorate) two-thirds of the population were Mingrelian Georgians and one-third were Abkhaz. Those Abkhaz, who did not convert to Christianity, and who remained in Abkhazia were declared by the Russian government a “refugee population” and deprived of the right to settle in the coastal areas.
Meanwhile, in 1870, bound peasants, including slaves, were liberated in Abkhazia as a part of the Russian serfdom reforms. The peasants got between 3 and 8 ha and had to pay huge redemption payments (the landowners got up to 275 ha); furthermore, according to a contemporary Russian official, peasants were mostly left with rocky mountain slopes and low-lying bogs. The liberation in Abkhazia was more problematic than elsewhere as it failed to take into account fully the distinction between free, partly free and unfree peasants in the Abkhazian society.
This reform triggered the moderate development of capitalism in the region. Tobacco, tea and subtropical crops became more widely grown. Industries (coal, timber) began to develop. Health resorts started to be built. A small town of Gagra, acquired by a German prince Peter of Oldenburg, a member of the Russian royal family, turned to a resort of particular tourist interest early in the 1900s (decade).
After the abolition of the autocephalous status of the Georgian Church (1811) begins the process of Russification and the Abkhaz Church. An attempt to transfer service from Georgian into Slavic, there is also a desire to introduce as an antagonist of the Georgian – Abkhazian (Apsua) identity. Against this trend, actively advocated the advanced Abkhazian society, trying to convince Russian officials that Abkhazia historically, in their culture, religion, etc., is an integral part of Georgia. In 1870, in a memo to deputies of the Abkhazian nobility and Samurzakan (Emhvari B., M. Marchand, Margani T., K. Inal-ipa) to the Chairman of the Tiflis Committee of caste landed for Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky emphasized that ” Abkhazia ancient times was part of the former Georgian kingdom … ” The note provides evidence to support the common historical destiny of the Georgian and Abkhaz peoples, who are, according to the authors, “important witnesses accessories Abkhazia to Georgia” and expressed the hope that they (Abkhazians) are not are “excluded from the overall family of the Georgian people, to which from time immemorial belonged to.”
In 1916, the Tbilisi visited the Abkhazian delegation consisting of M-princes Shervashidze M. Emhvari, A. Inal-ipa, and representatives of the peasantry P. Anchabadze, B. Ezugbaya and A. Chukbar. On behalf of the Abkhaz people, they petitioned for economic and cultural development of the region and raised the question of the transformation of the Sukhumi district into a separate province. “If this is impossible”, told delegates, then in any case do not connect it (Sukhum district) to any other province, except Kutaisi. Equally urgent was the demand of the deputation is not separated from the exarchate of Georgia Sukhumi bishoprics, which has always been an inseparable part of the Georgian Church.
In the Russian revolution of 1905, most Abkhaz remained largely loyal to the Russian rule, while Georgians tended to oppose it. As a reward for their allegiance, tsar Nicholas II officially forgave the Abkhaz for their opposition in the 19th century and removed their status of a “guilty people” in 1907. This split along political divisions led to the rise of mistrust and tensions between the Georgian and Abkhaz communities which would further deepen in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Abkhazia from 1917 to 1921
The Bolshevik coup in October 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War forced the major national forces of South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – to unite into fragile federative structures. Abkhaz leaders created, on November 8, 1917, their own post-revolutionary body, Abkhaz People’s Council (APC), but Abkhazia became embroiled into a chaos of the civil unrest. It was torn between supporters of the short-lived Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus, a pro-Bolshevik faction, a pro-Turkish nobility, and a pro-Georgian Menshevik group.
In March 1918, local Bolsheviks under the leadership of Nestor Lakoba, a close associate of Joseph Stalin, capitalized on agrarian disturbances and, supported by the revolutionary peasant militias, kiaraz, won power in Sukhumi in April 1918. The Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which claimed the region as its part, sanctioned the suppression of the revolt and, on May 17, the National Guard of Georgia ousted the Bolshevik commune in Sukhumi.
Meanwhile, a short-lived Transcaucasian federation came to an end and the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG) was proclaimed on 26 May 1918. On June 8, a delegation of the APC negotiated, in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a union with Georgia, which gave autonomy to Abkhazia. All domestic affairs were to be under the jurisdiction of the APC, while the central government established the office of Minister of Abkhazian Affairs and the post of the Governor-General of Abkhazia. Abkhaz deputies gained three of 28 seats preserved for ethnic minorities in Georgia’s parliament.
The relations between the central and autonomous authorities were soon clouded by the abortive landing, on 27 June 1918, of a Turkish force supported by the Abkhaz nobles, J. Marghan and A. Shervashidze. Georgia responded with the arrest of several Abkhaz leaders and the limitation of the autonomous powers of the APC that precipitated some sympathies from the Abkhaz to the Russian White forces which engaged in the sporadic fighting with the Georgians in the north of Abkhazia. The reaction was even harsher when the Abkhaz officers of the Georgian army, Commissar Marghania and Colonel Chkhotua, staged a failed coup in October 1918. On 10 October, the APC was disbanded and Abkhazia’s autonomy was abrogated for six months. A new Abkhaz People’s Council, elected in February 1919, adopted an act of Abkhazia’s autonomy within the framework of the DRG, which was also supported by the Soviet government. The status was confirmed in the Constitution of Georgia adopted on 21 February 1921, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Georgia.
Despite the 1920 treaty of non-aggression, Soviet Russia’s 11th Red Army invaded Georgia on 11 February 1921, and marched on Tbilisi. Almost simultaneously, 9th (Kuban) Army entered Abkhazia on February 19. Supported by the local pro-Bolshevik guerillas, the Soviet troops took control of most of Abkhazia in a series of battles from February 23 to March 7, and proceeded into the neighboring region of Mingrelia.
On 4 March, Soviet power was established in Sukhumi, with the formation of the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic (Abkhazian SSR), subsequently recognized by the newly established Communist regime of the Georgian SSR on May 21. On December 16, however, Abkhazia signed a special “union treaty” delegating some of its sovereign powers to Soviet Georgia. Abkhazia and Georgia together entered the Transcaucasian SFSR on December 13, 1922 and on 30 December joined the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Abkhazia’s ambiguous status of Union Republic was written into that republic’s April 1, 1925 constitution. Paradoxically, an earlier reference to Abkhazia as an autonomous republic in the 1924 Soviet Constitution remained unratified until 1930 when Abkhazia’s status was reduced to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Georgian SSR. Except for a few nobles, the Abkhaz did not participate in the 1924 August Uprising in Georgia, a last desperate attempt to restore the independence of Georgia from the Soviet Union.
During the Stalin years, a purge was carried out against Communist Party officials and intelligentsia of Abkhaz provenance on the orders of Lavrentiy Beria, then-the Party Secretary in Transcaucasus and himself a native of Abkhazia, in order to break a resistance to forced collectivization of land. The Abkhaz party leader Lakoba suddenly died shortly after his visit to Beria in Tbilisi in December 1936. There was a strong suspicion that he was poisoned by Beria who declared Lakoba an “enemy of the people” posthumously. The purges in Abkhazia were accompanied by the suppression of Abkhaz ethnic culture: the Latin-based Abkhaz alphabet was changed into Georgian and all the native language schools were closed, ethnic Georgians were guaranteed key official positions, many place names were changed to Georgian ones. In the terror of 1937-38, the ruling elite was purged of Abkhaz and by 1952 over 80% of the 228 top party and government officials and enterprise managers were ethnic Georgians; there remained 34 Abkhaz, 7 Russians and 3 Armenians in these positions. Between 1937 and 1953 tens of thousands of peasants from Western Georgia were settled in Abkhazia. In the 1926 Soviet census, the Abkhaz accounted for 26.4% of the region’s population. The demographic engineering of the late Stalin period brought this proportion down to 17—18%. Abkhazia is mountainous and has a shortage of arable land, which made it difficult to send in new settlers. This was one of the reasons why in 1949 the Greek and Turkish minorities were deported from Abkhazia to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics, and Georgians were settled in the formerly Greek and Turkish villages. Abkhazia experienced collectivization in 1936–1938, much later than most of USSR.
Stalin’s five-year plans also resulted in the resettlement of many Russians, Armenians and Georgians into the existing Abkhaz, Georgian, Greek and other minority population to work in the growing agricultural sector. The 2,700-year-old Greek population of Abkhazia was completely deported by Stalin in a single night in 1949 to Central Asia with Georgian immigrants taking over their homes. In 1959 the surviving Greeks were allowed to return. During the 1992-93 war, some 15,000 Greeks fled the turmoil in the region to Greece.
The repression of the Abkhaz and other groups ended after Stalin’s death and Beria’s execution (1953), and Abkhaz were given a greater role in the governance of the republic. As in most of the smaller autonomous republics, the Soviet government encouraged the development of culture and particularly of literature. A new script, based on Cyrillic, was devised for Abkhaz, Abkhaz schools reopened; and administration put largely in the Abkhaz hands. Ethnic quotas were established for certain bureaucratic posts, giving the Abkhaz a degree of political power that was disproportionate to their minority status in the republic. This was interpreted by some as a “divide and rule” policy whereby local elites were given a share in power in exchange for support for the Soviet regime. In Abkhazia as elsewhere, it led to other ethnic groups — in this case, the Georgians — resenting what they saw as unfair discrimination and disregard of the rights of majority, thereby stoking ethnic discord in the republic.
The following three decades were marked by attempts of the Abkhaz Communist elite to make the autonomous structures more Abkhaz, but their efforts constantly met resistance from the Georgians. Abkhaz nationalists attempted on several occasions, most notably in 1978, to convince Moscow to transfer the autonomous republic from Georgian SSR to the Russian SFSR. That year, the Abkhaz organised a series of indoor and outdoor rallies (including an all-ethnic meeting of Abkhaz in Lykhny) in response to the mass demonstrations of Georgians who had succeeded in winning for their language a constitutional status of the official language of the Georgian SSR. Although the Abkhaz request of the secession from Georgia was rejected Moscow and Tbilisi responded with serious economic and cultural concessions, appropriating an extra 500 million rubles (or more) over seven years for the development of infrastructure and cultural projects such as the foundation of the Abkhazian State University (with Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian sectors), a State Folk Ensemble in Sukhumi, and Abkhaz-language television broadcasting. Substantial quotas were also given to ethnic Abkhaz in educational and official positions. For example, by 1990 most of government ministers and regional Communist party department heads were ethnic Abkhaz. Even though these concessions eased tensions only partially they made Abkhazia prosperous even by the standards of Georgia which was one of the wealthiest Soviet republic of that time. The favorable geographic and climatic conditions were successfully exploited to make Abkhazia a destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists, gaining for the region a reputation of “Soviet Riviera.”
The Abkhazian War
As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tension grew between the Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia’s moves towards independence. Many Abkhaz opposed this, fearing that an independent Georgia would lead to the elimination of their autonomy, and argued instead for the establishment of Abkhazia as a separate Soviet republic in its own right. The dispute turned violent on 16 July 1989 in Sukhumi. At least eighteen people were killed and another 137, mostly Georgians, injured when the Soviet Georgian government gave in to Georgian popular demand to transform a Georgian sector of Sukhumi State University into a branch of Tbilisi State University and the Abkhaz nationalists, including armed groups, demonstrated at the building where the entrance examinations were being held. After several days of violence, Soviet troops restored order in the city and blamed rival nationalist paramilitaries for provoking confrontations.
Georgia boycotted the March 17, 1991 all-Union referendum on the renewal of the Soviet Union proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the referendum was held in Abkhazia and 52.3% of the population of Abkhazia (virtually all the non-Georgians) took part, and participants voted by an overwhelming majority (98.6%) in favor of preserving the Union. Most of the non-Georgian population subsequently declined to participate in the March 31 referendum on Georgia’s independence, which was supported by a huge majority of the population of Georgia. Shortly after it Georgia declared independence on 9 April 1991, under the rule of nationalist and former Soviet dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Gamsakhurdia’s rule became unpopular, and that December, the Georgian National Guard, under the command of Tengiz Kitovani, laid siege to the offices of Gamsakhurdia’s government in Tbilisi. After weeks of stalemate, he was forced to resign in January 1992. Gamsakhurdia was replaced as president by Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and architect of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
On 21 February 1992, Georgia’s ruling Military Council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet-era constitution and restoring the 1921 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Many Abkhaz interpreted this as an abolition of their autonomous status. In response, on 23 July 1992, the Abkhazia government effectively declared secession from Georgia, although this gesture went unrecognized by any other country. The Georgian government accused Gamsakhurdia supporters of kidnapping Georgia’s interior minister and holding him captive in Abkhazia. The Georgian government dispatched 3,000 troops to the region, ostensibly to restore order. Heavy fighting between Georgian forces and Abkhazian militia broke out in and around Sukhumi. The Abkhazian authorities rejected the government’s claims, claiming that it was merely a pretext for an invasion. After about a week’s fighting and many casualties on both sides, Georgian government forces managed to take control of most of Abkhazia, and closed down the regional parliament.
The Abkhazians’ military defeat was met with a hostile response by the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, an umbrella group uniting a number of pro-Russian movements in the North Caucasus, Russia (Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians and others). Hundreds of volunteer paramilitaries from Russia (including the then little known Shamil Basayev) joined forces with the Abkhazian separatists to fight the Georgian government forces. Regular Russian forces also reportedly sided with the secessionists. In September, the Abkhaz and Russian paramilitaries mounted a major offensive after breaking a cease-fire, which drove the Georgian forces out of large swathes of the republic. Shevardnadze’s government accused Russia of giving covert military support to the rebels with the aim of “detaching from Georgia its native territory and the Georgia-Russian frontier land”. The year 1992 ended with the rebels in control of much of Abkhazia northwest of Sukhumi.
The conflict remained stalemated until July 1993, following an agreement in Sochi, when the Abkhaz separatist militias launched an abortive attack on Georgian-held Sukhumi. The capital was surrounded and heavily shelled, with Shevardnadze himself trapped in the city.
Although a truce was declared at the end of July, this collapsed after a renewed Abkhaz attack in mid-September. After ten days of heavy fighting, Sukhumi fell on 27 September 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze narrowly escaped death, having vowed to stay in the city no matter what, but he was eventually forced to flee when separatist snipers fired on the hotel where he was residing. Abkhaz, North Caucasians militants and their allies committed one of the most horrific massacres of this war against remaining Georgian civilians in the city known as Sukhumi Massacre. The mass killings and destruction continued for two weeks, leaving thousands dead and missing.
The separatist forces quickly overran the rest of Abkhazia as the Georgian government faced a second threat: an uprising by the supporters of the deposed Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the region of Mingrelia (Samegrelo). In the chaotic aftermath of defeat almost all ethnic Georgian population fled the region by sea or over the mountains escaping a large-scale ethnic cleansing initiated by the victors. Many thousands died — it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 ethnic Georgians and 3,000 ethnic Abkhaz may have perished — and some 250,000 people were forced into exile.
During the war, gross human rights violations were reported on the both sides (see Human Rights Watch report), and the ethnic cleansing committed by the Abkhaz forces and their allies is recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summits in Budapest (1994), Lisbon (1996) and Istanbul (1999).
The economic situation in the republic after war was very hard and it was aggravated by the sanctions imposed in 1994 by the Commonwealth of Independent States. During the 1990s numerous people of all ethnicities left Abkhazia mainly for Russia. Since 1997 Russia effectively dropped these sanctions which tremendously helped republic’s economy. In 1999, Abkhazia officially declared its independence, which was recognized by almost no other nations.
The return of Georgians to Gali district of Abkhazia was halted by the fighting which broke out there in 1998. However, from 40,000 to 60,000 refugees have returned to Gali district since 1998, including persons commuting daily across the ceasefire line and those migrating seasonally in accordance with agricultural cycles.
After several peaceful years tourists again began to visit Abkhazia, however their number is only about a half of the pre-war number.
In 2004 presidential elections were held which caused much controversy when the candidate backed by outgoing president Vladislav Ardzinba and by Russia – Raul Khadjimba – was apparently defeated by Sergey Bagapsh. The tense situation in the republic led to the cancellation of the election results by the Supreme Court. After that the deal was struck between former rivals to run jointly — Bagapsh as a presidential candidate and Khajimba as a vice presidential candidate. They received more than 90% of the votes in the new election.
After the 1992-1993 War the Upper Kodori Valley was the only part of the country that was not controlled by the Abkhazian government. It remained under the formal control of Georgian authorities however it was mainly run by a local strongman Emzar Kvitsiani. As a result of the 2006 Kodori crisis Georgia reasserted its power in the valley. Abkhazians claimed that the infiltration of the territory by Georgian armed units was a violation of the Agreement on the Ceasefire and Disengagement of Forces of May 14, 1994, however Georgia maintained that only police and security forces were employed there. Abkhaz forces occupied Kodori Valley in August 2008 as a result of an operation that coincided with the 2008 South Ossetia War.
August 2008 saw another crisis start as South Ossetia in Georgia started hostilities aimed towards secession. This violence spread somewhat into the Abkhazia region again, with added stress created by the Russian forces massing. Georgia and Russia signed a cease-fire soon after requiring Russia to withdraw.
Meanwhile, the efforts of Russia to isolate Georgian population in Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia continued. On 24 October 2008 the railroad bridge of Shamgon-Tagiloni, connecting the city of Zugdidi in Georgia with the Abkhazian Gali district (populated mainly by Georgians) was destroyed. According to Georgian and French sources it was done by Russian army; Abkhazian sources maintained it was a Georgian diversion. Per Georgian sources on 29 October 2008 Russian forces dismantled another bridge – the one situated between the villages of Orsantia and Otobaia and linking a total of five villages – Otobaia, Pichori, Barghebi, Nabakevi, and Gagida; thus the local population was deprived of the opportunity to move freely in the region.
Flag of Abkhazia
The flag of the Republic of Abkhazia was created in 1991 by V. Gamgia. It was officially adopted on 23 July 1992. The design of the red canton is based on the banner of the medieval Kingdom of Abkhazia. The open right hand means “Hello to friends! Stop to Enemies!”. The seven stars in the canton have since been reinterpreted to correspond to the seven historical regions of the country – Sadzen, Bzyp, Gumaa, Abzhywa, Samurzaqan, Dal-Tsabal and Pskhuy-Aibga.
Abkhazia is ruled by the partially recognized de facto independent Republic of Abkhazia, even though the de jure majority internationally recognized Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia claims to be its legitimate government.
Seven is a number sacred to the Abkhaz and the green and white stripes represent the tolerance that allows Christianity and Islam to cohabit.
Emblem of Abkhazia
The Emblem of the Republic of Abkhazia was adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia on 23 July 1992, after it declared its secession from Georgia.
The emblem of separatist Republic of Abkhazia is a shield divided vertically into white and green. On this are placed devices outlined in gold:
- At the base eight-pointed star, in the upper part of both the white and the green field are set two eight-pointed stars.
- At the centre of the shield is a horseman, flying on the fabulous steed called Arash, and shooting an arrow towards the stars. This scene is from the heroic epic Narts.
Green symbolizes youth and life, while white symbolizes spirituality. The stars represent the sun, as well as the union of the East and West.
Abkhazia released its first set of stamps, four locally-produced definitives, on 25 June 1993.
The German-language Michel catalogue lists Abkazia stamps but the U.S.-based Scott catalogue does not. They are listed on both StampWorld.com (974 stamps from 1993-2010) and Colnect (1993-2010, 2018-2019, and 2021).
For more about the history of Abkhazia stamps, please read “Abkhaz Stamps No Longer A Laughing Matter“, published on ThePhilately.com on 3 January 2009. You can purchase stamps on either delcampe.net or eBay. There doesn’t seem to be an official postal administration source for online sales.
2020 Stamp Programme
The Republic of Abkhazia did not issue any stamps in 2020.
2021 Stamp Programme