For the better part of three thousand years, the area around the Black Sea has been a crossroads of both the Orient and the Occident. It’s position as a water-based highway between the Near East, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and Asia Minor – and by extension, the Middle East and Balkans – has seen countless numbers of ethnic and religious groups populate fertile, and hotly contested, coastal regions.
The Greeks, Armenians, Scythians, Romans, Huns, Byzantines, Persians, Mongol-Tatars, Ottoman Turks, and Russians have all left their mark, often violently. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as the Russian Empire swallowed up the peoples of what is now the North and South Caucasus, one particular ethnic group – the Circassians, or Cherkess – escaped the genocidal campaign of the tsar’s armies and made their way south into what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
These tribes of Muslim North Caucasians were granted refuge in their new Middle Eastern homes, where they quickly gained fame for their fierce fighting skills and loyalty to their new hosts.
Now, nearly two centuries after fleeing their ancestral homeland and more than six years after the first Syrians arrived as refugees to Abkhazia – an impoverished, long-forgotten northeastern corner of the Black Sea – the Syrian government has made the highly controversial decision to break with international law and recognise the breakaway government of Abkhazia and its separatist ally in the South Caucasus, South Ossetia, as independent states.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long sought international recognition for their self-declared independence from Georgia, with whom both have fought several bloody wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.
The two have long had the backing of their patrons in Moscow, who economically and militarily guarantee their existence. Mountainous South Ossetia, whose population is in the tens-of-thousands, is far less interested in the trappings of proper statehood than their far-larger neighbour on the Black Sea.
The rebel government in the tiny capital Tskhinvali makes no secret that they consider themselves to be the main candidate to be incorporated into Russian Federation and thereby joining their Indo-Iranian ethnic kin in North Ossetia on the other side of the border. Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula has, like Moldova’s unrecognised pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, given the local Ossetian population the hope that one day, they too, will hold a referendum on giving up their self-declared sovereignty in favour of again becoming a loyal subject of Moscow.
In the crumbling Soviet-era promenades and subtropical gardens of the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi, the dream of ‘nationhood’ is far more palatable. The residents of Abkhazia have never shied away from expressing their gratitude to Moscow for the assistance it has provided since local Abkhaz authorities first began agitating for a break from Tbilisi – and by extension, the Georgian SSR – in 1977.
Equally, however, to their success in breaking away from Georgia’s central authority was the role of all the peoples of the North Caucasus – which is inside the Russian Federation – who volunteered to fight on their side during the brutal 1992-93 war against Georgia. Included amongst those scores of North Caucasian volunteers was the infamous Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, who, after successfully capturing the strategic coastal city of Gagra in late 1992 briefly served as Abkhazia’s deputy defence minister and named a national hero after receiving the rebel republic’s highest military honour.
But the people of Abkhazia are keen to be seen as a proper state, and not simply another in a long line of pro-Moscow entities who wish to voluntarily come under the wing of their former imperial masters. The Abkhaz have, in recent years, gone much further than South Ossetia to establish more than just the trappings of a breakaway state, but have begun promoting themselves as an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination and potential landing place for refugees fleeing the never-ending series of wars that continue to engulf the Middle East.
Where once the Abkhaz fled their homeland for the Middle East. It’s against this backdrop that Syria recently stoked the ire of the international community and the Georgian government by following Russia and the Kremlin’s other close allies of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Much like the two breakaway states, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad owes his current existence and whatever future he may have to the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. That gratitude now appears to have manifested itself that firmly places him alongside those who are willing to ignore internationally recognised borders for the purpose of boosting their position with a country that he wholly depends on.
Assad’s move was condemned by the Georgian government, who immediately broke off relations with Damascus. The European Union slammed his decision as another example of his ignoring international law. As for what Syria’s recognition does for the residents of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia – it will amount to very little.
With few prospects of ever reconciling with their former neighbours in Georgia, the two entities will remain in a suspended state of non-existence and continue to struggle to survive whether they long to join Russia, as is the case in South Ossetia, or if their dream is to be the next Montenegro in the way that so many Abkhaz hope for one day.