by Vahan Ishkhanyan
The Republic of Abkhazia is recognized as Georgia in international diplomacy, but has declared itself to be separate.
The Black Sea is to the west, Russia (Krasnodar) is to the north, Georgia to the east and south. But along its seacoast are scattered a number of Armenian settlements and, throughout the region, you are as likely to hear Armenian spoken as Abkhazian or Russian.
In fact, Armenians represent the second largest population. Some 50-60,000 make their home here. (During Soviet times the population of Abkhazia was 525,000. Official numbers now claim 320,000, but an unpublished census conducted last year found 214,000.)
Until the early 20th century, Abkhazia had been an independent nation. It even survived as a Soviet Republic for the first decade of communist rule. But, as Nagorno Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan by Stalin, so, too, was Abkhazia annexed into Georgia, being reduced from a Soviet socialist republic to an autonomous republic in 1932.
At the end of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia began enlarging its autonomy and intensified its desire to be independent of Georgia. In 1992 Georgian authorities tried to subdue the movement. A war broke out and lasted until 1994, resulting in the de facto independence of Abkhazia.
In 1994, the Commonwealth of Independent States imposed a blockade on Abkhazia. Only children younger than 16 and adults older than 60 were allowed to leave the republic. The effect was a life of misery for Abkhazians, including its Armenian population.
Four years ago, Russia partially opened its border to Abkhazia, allowing some movement that has brought a breath of life.
Now, the people of Abkhazia can ply their trade through the Russian border, though at a hefty price in both taxes and bribes.
Tangerines are the region’s cash crop and the main source of income for families, including the Armenians. Either by wagon or by muscle they are hauled into Russia in hopes that the return of the season will sustain for the year.
While most Armenians are engaged in agriculture, in the southwestern part of Abkhazia they are in the resort business, hosting tourists, mainly from Russia, who are returning to the once-famous destination that was deserted after the war until about two years ago.
Abkhazians are mostly Christian; some Muslim, and a few pagan. Nonetheless, pagan traditions are widespread, including the custom that a rite of manhood is to steal a horse. Many joke, however, that modern times have turned the ritual into car theft.
Armenians like making fun of Abkhazians as idle people. The subtropical nature allows one to live well by working little. The whole year round, villagers gather harvests in their gardens.
There is even an anecdote: An Abkhazian marries an Armenian girl and, the next day, seeing her sitting around, asks why she isn’t working. “Had I wanted to work,” the girl replies, “I’d have married an Armenian.”
About 95 percent of Abkhazian Armenians come from settlements on Turkey’s eastern sea coast. They speak the dialect of the historical region of Hamshen, a tongue hardly recognizable for other Armenians.
“According to the information we have, the first Armenians came to the territory of Abkhazia in 1878,” says Zorik Keshishian, a 70-year-old resident of Tsandripshi. He is writing a book about the history of the Hamshen Armenians. “Abkhazians warmly welcomed Armenians and enabled them to found villages. The first seven families founded the village of Mtsara in the Pitsunda region.”
During the Armenian Genocide in 1915-1923, the major part of the Hamshen Armenians was massacred, while the rest found refuge in Abkhazia and other Russian shores of the Black Sea.
In Soviet times, according to official data, 76,541 Armenians lived in Abkhazia along with 239,872 Georgians, 93,267 Abkhazians and 74,914 Russians.
At the beginning of the 1992 war with Georgia, Armenians were trying to remain neutral. However, the Georgian military detachments started looting the Armenian villages, and forcing residents to leave. Murder and rape were reported on the part of the Georgian army. The Armenians consequently came to favor the Abkhazian side.
“At first, we were trying not to mess around, but then the Georgians exerted so much cruelty against Armenians that we had to back the Abkhazians,” says Artavazd Saretsian, editor of the Sukhumi-based Hamshen newspaper issued in Armenian and Russian. “They would invade the houses and rob and torture the people. In Labra, they seated a married couple on chairs with holes on the seats and burned them. They were raping the women. It was impossible to stay neutral.”
In a few months after war broke out, Armenians raised a battalion named “Baghramian”, numbering 300 people, then a second one.
“Armenians are reserved people, ultimately absorbed in daily routine. I didn’t expect they would fight next to us,” says Anatoli Tarba, “but now I can say that the Armenians are damn good fighters. The first victim of my battalion was an Armenian.”
A total of 1,500 Armenians participated in the war, a quarter of the Abkhazian army. Twenty Armenians were awarded the title of Abkhazian Hero and 242 were killed in battle.
“We are different from the Armenians from Armenia because we have two homelands: one we attained by blood, the other we inherited,” says Galust Trapizonian, one of the three Abkhazian Armenian Members of Parliament (MP).
Not all Armenians feel at home in Abkhazia, however. Second in population (following the departure of Georgians after the war), many also feel themselves second-class.
“Armenians are more subject to oppression than others,” says Petros Palasanian, regional MP of Ochamchira. “The state of the Armenians in the region of Gagra is a lot better. There’s no oppression because they are the majority, while all we have is two villages, plus many people fled after the war.”
There are Armenians in five of the seven regions of Abkhazia. In two, Armenians are the majority.
In Soviet times, there were numerous Armenian officials; the deputy chairman of the ministers’ council was an Armenian. During the war, the top-ranking Armenian official was the vice-chairman of the parliament. Nowadays, deputy village governor is the highest post an Armenian occupies.
Back to old times in Labra
In 1890, several Armenians who had come from Ordu founded the village of Labra, which is one of the Armenian villages located south of Sukhumi, in the region of Ochamchira.
“My grandpa, Grigor Bardzikian, laid the first foundation of this village,” says 80-year-old Arevaluys Kerselian. “This entire site used to be a forest, they felled the trees and settled down here.”
The village still contains traces of war: ruins and rows of machine gun-drilled small holes on walls. Labra was the most damaged Armenian village during the war.
Three heroes of the Abkhazian war live in Labra, including Arevaluys’ son, Smbat Kerselian, the village governor. The tank he captured during the war has been parked ever since on one of the village streets as a trophy of war.
“We lived peacefully on our own. And when the war started, the Georgians invaded, took away five people, my uncle among them,” tells Smbat. “One was killed, and the rest were lost. So, I got engaged in the fight.”
About 150 families remain of the original 650 before the war. The school has been reduced from 11 years to nine and the number of pupils has dwindled from 350 to 48. In the Armenian village of Ochamchira, only 50 families are left from 800 before the war.
Like other families, the Kerselians grow tangerines, blood oranges, persimmons and corn. But tangerines are the most profitable. Last year, Smbat sold two tons across the border in Russia. His profit amounted to 20,000 rubles ($715). It is a fraction compared with Soviet times, when the harvest was more than 11 tons.
Tobacco was the main income source in Labra before the war. The collective farm produced 600 tons of tobacco annually.
“We delivered a ton, and sixty percent was ours,” says villager Khachik Hakobian. “We were very rich before the war; 95 percent of the village had cars. There were people who had two or three cars.” Today only 30 people in the village own cars.
“We breed pigs and cows for eating, but Abkhazians steal half of them,” Arevaluys says, adding that three cows were recently stolen from neighbors. She also says she fears home invasions ¡î a trend that started after the blockade but, now, is a rarity.
Smbat gets excited whenever the villagers complain about Abkhazians. He shouts at his mother: “If you’re so afraid, go and live in Armenia.”
The mother responds: “Why should I leave, my grandpa was buried here, my father as well.”
The family has no connection with Armenia. Smbat’s daughter is in the 9th grade. It is unknown where she will complete the additional two years required for graduation. The nearest Armenian school is 15 miles away.
The girl wants to study medicine and wishes she could attend school in Armenia. But there are many obstacles. She has no relatives to live with in Armenia, nor any practical means for getting there. The railway that once connected Abkhazia with Armenia and beyond has been cut off by the Georgians since the war. Travel by car is dangerous because of highway bandits. A plane ticket from Sukhumi to Yerevan costs $250 and is unaffordable.
The oldest inhabitant of Labra is 91-year-old Artush Depelian who speaks no language but Hamshen Armenian. ”I was born here and not in Yerevan to speak that language,” he says, meaning the eastern Armenian.
The Depelians are among the rare families in which all the members have remained in Abkhazia. Only one of their 11 grandchildren left, for Moscow.
“The shovel and the glass are always in his hands,” says Arshak Depelian, describing his father. Artush always works in the garden, while in winter (from +4¢ª C to +7¢ª C) he works in greenhouses, growing cucumbers and tomatoes. With his son, he takes the harvest to the market in Sukhumi and sells it at 70 rubles (about $2) per kilo.
During breaks, Artush drinks homemade wine. There is a rich reservoir of wine, pink and red, in his cellar.
Artush considers the best times to be the Brezhnev years, times of peace and prosperity.
“What Abkhazians do now is what they used to when the Soviet Union was new, in 1928-30,” the old man says. “They were robbing and stealing. It was getting better and better before the war. Then we came back to the old times.”
Preserving tradition in Mekhadir
The war never reached the village of Mekhadir, in the region of Gagra bordering with Russia. Several miles east of the seashore, settlements extend about 10 miles into the mountains. Villagers here, too, used to cultivate tobacco, but have taken to livestock breeding and growing fruit.
“The first Armenian of this village was my father. My ancestors came here from Turkey in 1891,” says Astghik Muselimian, “Sukhumi was their first refuge. Later my father moved to this place, as then there were lots of moths in the lower areas. Russians have left; there are a couple of houses of Moldavians. The rest are Armenians.”
The population of the village has undergone almost no changes—2,000 people.
Astghik is preparing yoka by the gas stove. It is a dough, a bit thinner than lavash, and is baked in a pan. In the next room hangs a khnotsi, for making butter. Astghik’s mother-in-law, 90-year-old Khatun, swings the khnotsi with her feet.
“I get tired when I do it with hands,” she explains.
The Muselimians are loyal to tradition and do not buy electric implements. “There was an electric khnotsi. I ignored it. You can’t drink the buttermilk of the electric stuff. But the buttermilk of this khnotsi is so sweet,” Khatun says.
All the three elders, Khatun, her son Vladimir and the latter’s wife Astghik, still use other traditional Armenian household implements, such as a board for carding the wool, a spindle, etc.
Vladimir plays a kamancha. His father, who never came back from the World War II, also used to play the kamancha.
“My husband was a good musician; his singing was also so good. Once at a wedding party, he was playing kamancha, and I was playing mandolin. He saw me and fell in love,” Khatun recollects.
Vladimir is a self-taught kamancha player and has been playing since he was seven. There’s also a violin hanging on the wall, and Vladimir plays it like a kamancha, on his knee.
There was a time when the kamancha entertained wedding parties of the Hamshen Armenians and Vladimir was always playing and singing. Now this custom is gone and contemporary instruments have monopolized the entertainment at weddings. Now Vladimir plays with the Tsiatsan Song and Dance Club of the local school (there are several Armenian ethnographic song and dance clubs in Abkhazia). During feasts, Khatun sings to his tune. She used to be the best singer of the village.
“There are homes that haven’t worked but have had fun, and there are homes that haven’t had fun but have worked. This home has both worked and has had fun,” says Harut Hamalian, the chair of the local agro firm (the former collective farm).
Gagra on the rebound
Gagra is home to 16,000 people who enjoy the sea on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other. It was one of the Soviet Union’s finest resort locations.
Galust Trapizonian, co-chair of the newly established Armenian Community in Abkhazia, is one of four Armenians managing rest houses.
“In 2000, very few people came. Last year the city swarmed with them,” he says. “I can say that tourism is becoming a very profitable business.”
Locals and Russian business partners began repairing the hundreds of rest houses a few years ago. Twenty thousand tourists visited in 2002. The number jumped to 120,000 last year and was expected to hit 150,000 this year. Many are drawn here by prices that are a third as much as on the Russian coast, just a short drive away.
Karapet and Alia Ustian charge 120 rubles (about $4) a day and can accommodate up to 18 at their house.
“Mainly rich Russians come here,” Karapet says. “But before, professors, workmen, people of different strata would come to rest and you could never tell a rich man from a poor one.”
In Soviet times, many Armenians were among Karapet’s regular tourists. But not any more.
“We had made friends with the people resting here and every year we were visiting them in Armenia. I wish our old friends came but… no hear, no see,” Karapet continues.
He recalls the Soviet times with nostalgia when 30 people were always relaxing at his place starting from May. An oblong table prepared to accommodate all the guests is still there.
“It stopped after the Soviet Union. But me and my family have never starved: he who works, never starves,” he says, showing his work-hardened hands.
Karapet’s not only ensuring beds for tourists. There’s a vodka distillery in his garage where fire burns on one end and vodka made from grapes grown in his garden drips from a pipe. Around Christmastime he sells tangerines. He also catches and smokes fish, the best in town.
Karapet smokes cigarettes from tobacco he has grown. He cuts it with a tool his grandmother brought from Ordu in 1908.
“We live better than Armenia,” Karapet says. “Such is this land. Nature has given us everything.”
Karapet’s daughter, son and four grandchildren are also in Gagra—nobody has left his family. There’s no reason to leave. They feel good here and have many Abkhazian friends.
“There is pressure in other places, but there’s none here, very little. If you live decently, nobody is going to bother you. Nobody has troubled me during these 60 years,” Karapet says.
Nine out of 20 assembly deputies in Gagra are Armenian and six of 13 villages have Armenians as governors. Valeri Bgamba, Gagra administration chairman, considers it natural that Armenians do not occupy any high posts within the central leadership of Abkhazia.
“All the other nationalities living in Abkhazia have their historical motherlands. And we (Abkhazians) have none but this. Therefore, the Abkhazians lead the statehood of Abkhazia, and that’s the way it should go on until the war is over and our country is recognized. Abkhazians should occupy the most important posts.”
Armenian education vs. practicality
This past school year the Armenian school of Gagra had no first-graders. There’s hope there will be four in the next, and the school will be able to somehow escape closing. Armenians prefer to send their children to Russian schools, as ties with Armenia are cut, and the prospects for further education are better in Russia.
“Every year we visit one Armenian home after another to talk them into sending their kids to Armenian school,” says Khachik Minasian, the chair of the Armenian Community in Abkhazia, a former teacher of the Armenian school in Gagra.
There were 52 Armenian schools in Abkhazia during the Soviet reign. Now there are 37, totaling 2,864 students.
“Last year we failed to find a single child for the first grade,” says Amalya Kapikian, a teacher of Armenian language at Armenian School No. 3. “We missed not a home while visiting Armenian families but they were saying ‘No Armenian, our children must go to a Russian school’.”
To keep the Armenian school going, biology and chemistry and math are taught in Russian. However, Amalya has doubts that offering several subjects in Russian may save the Armenian school.
At certain universities in Armenia, Abkhazian Armenians have the opportunity to get a free education. But nonetheless, they choose Russia, with which they have closer ties.
Even though there’s an Armenian correspondence department at the Sukhumi University young people do not want to work as teachers as the salary is low: 700 rubles (about $25). The salary in Russian schools is higher because there are more schoolchildren. This year the Armenian department of the Sukhumi Humanitarian Vocational school closed. It was the main preparatory for teachers for Armenian schools.
“It is not for these insignificant sums of money that the teachers of Armenian schools work,” says Amalya Kapikian, who has 30 years’ teaching experience. “They stay because they know the school will close down as soon as they leave it. The Armenian schools are the keystone of the Armenian community’s existence. If they close down, we run the risk of assimilation.”
Faith from a kiosk
There’s not a single Armenian Apostolic church in Abkhazia. Armenians attend Russian and Abkhazian Orthodox churches.
Before the war, in 1991, the Saint Resurrection Church opened in the Armenian school of the village of Lechkop near Sukhumi and an Armenian priest, Father Tatev, was sent from Armenia. The church closed a year later when war broke out.
Long ago, in the 1920-30s, there were churches almost in all populated areas. Soviet rule closed and destroyed all of them. Khatun Muselimian remembers the village church where she was baptized.
“The Komsomols (Communist youth organization) ruined the cross. Now there’s no church but I worship the cross, I don’t forget God,” she says.
Arevaluys Karselian also remembers the Labra churches and the priest. That church was destroyed in 1934 when she was 10 years old. Before the war, she baptized her grandchildren in Holy Etchmiadzin. Now she and her fellow villagers visit the Abkhazian Orthodox church in Ochamchira but they understand nothing of the ceremonies, as they are in Abkhazian.
Sometimes the rituals seem foreign, too. At a christening, Arevaluys recalls: “The priest had a barrel half filled with water and dipped the whole head of the kid into it. The child began crying and shouting. I got angry. I wanted to snatch the child out of his hands. I didn’t like that christening.”
Years ago Khachik Minasian addressed a letter to Holy Etchmiadzin, personally to His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians, to ask for help to set up a church in Gagra. On November 15, 1999, Archbishop Nerses Bozabalian answered that the community should apply to the Armenian diocese in Georgia.
“To turn to Georgia for us is the same as to turn to Baku for solving an issue in Karabakh,” Khachik says. Last year, the local Armenians built a church in Gagra on their own. It’s a small building, previously a kiosk, and holds only three people at a time. The building was cleaned up and a cross was put on the top. It has been named Saint Hripsme, like the one near Holy Etchmiadzin.
Uniting to survive
At the end of the 1980s, two organizations, Krunk and Mashtots, were established to organize the activities of Abkhazian Armenians. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) also set up its own structures, which supported Krunk.
The war, plus intricate political differences, divided the Armenian community.
Now it hopes to reunite under the organization of the Armenian Community of Abkhazia. News about the consolidation of the Armenian community aroused hopes in Abkhazian Armenians that their rights will be considered.
“It is unknown whether this is an independent state or a part of Russia or Georgia. And no law functions here,” says Petros Palasanian from Labra. “Who must protect us? We must. We had a separate Krunk and a separate Mashtots. Now it is good we’ll be as one. We’ll solve our problems together.”