Abkhazia: what to know?

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Abkhazia, a de facto independent nation bordering Georgia and Russia, has a long history of occupation and autonomy. After Stalin’s death, ethnic Abkhaz gained more power, leading to resentment from Georgians. Abkhazia declared independence, leading to a war in which many were killed and expelled. Russia eventually recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation in 2008.

Abkhazia is a nation on the eastern side of the Black Sea. It borders Georgia and Russia. It covers approximately 3200 square miles (8400 sq km) and has a population of just under 200,000. The nation is considered de facto independent, with a constitution formally adopted since 1999.
The region has been occupied for millennia and in the 9th century BC was part of a larger Georgian kingdom, Colchis. In the 1st century it became part of the Roman Empire, and was later absorbed by the Byzantine Empire. In the 4th century it began to assert some independence within the Empire and in the 7th century it was declared an autonomous region within Byzantium. In the 10th century the country was subsumed into the larger Georgian kingdom, of which it remained a part until the 16th century.

Abkhazia was briefly independent after the breakup of the Georgian kingdom, before being conquered by the Ottoman Empire. During this era largely converted to Islam and the nobility drifted away from the still Christian Georgian kingship in nearby regions.

Throughout the 19th century, the country was slammed back and forth between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. At various times during this period it was granted different levels of autonomy, sometimes almost completely independent.
After the Russian Revolution, Abkhazia was reunified with Greater Georgia as part of the newly independent Georgian state. The Georgian government continued to give the country much of the same autonomy it enjoyed under various Ottoman and Russian rulers. Stalin later made it an autonomous republic, although it was still under the auspices of the Georgian SSR. At the time, despite an official line of party autonomy, Georgian was established as the official language and mass immigration was encouraged from surrounding Georgia.

After Stalin’s death, ethnic Abkhaz began to receive more powers and freedoms. While in many immediate ways this was good for the Abkhazians, as they saw more direct power, it also generated much resentment from Georgians, who saw Abkhazians being given a role deemed disproportionate in decision-making.

In the run-up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Abkhazians worked against the move towards an independent Georgia, which they felt would put them in a position of weakness. As the split continued, Abkhazia worked towards its own autonomous status. This was largely successful until Eduard Shevardnadze took power and reintroduced the 1921 Constitution of Georgia, which many Abkhazians saw as undermining their autonomy. This led to a backlash in which Abkhazia declared its independence, although the move was ignored by the international community.

War began not long after, and following the defeat of the largely disarmed Abkhaz, the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus Mountains joined the war. Over the next few years many Georgians and Abkhazians were killed. An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Georgians died, some 3,000 Abkhazians and more than 250,000 Georgians expelled from Abkhazia.
In 2004, elections were held in Abkhazia, although it had not yet been recognized by the international community as an independent nation. Violence continued for the next few years and Russian support increased. Russia eventually supported the Abkhaz use of the Russian ruble as a unit of currency and issued Russian passports to the Abkhaz who applied. After the South Ossetian war between Russia and Georgia, a number of Russian troops entered the country and Russia officially recognized it as an independent nation in August 2008.

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