Overcoming ignorance - how do Abkhaz and Georgian youth view each other?

Author: Natia Chankvetadze
Edition: Fear
Several years ago, I found myself abroad and the only ethnic Georgian in a group of ethnic Abkhaz. A generation ago, that would not have been noteworthy. Ethnic Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz lived together, worked together and married each other.

But since the 1992-1993 war, and its complex repercussions for Georgian-Abkhaz relations, space for the two people to meet and interact has been shrinking. While there are cases of ethnic Abkhaz traveling into Georgian-controlled territory, there are few opportunities for people who were born, and came of age, after the war to meet and interact.

As a result, the majority of Georgian and Abkhaz people do not hear much about each other’s everyday lives. Georgian mainstream media channels mainly report on tragic or sensational developments. Abkhaz and Russian mainstream media do not usually talk about Georgians and Georgia. When they do, the reports are never positive.
A lot of fake information is shared, and we hear many lies.
The first time I found myself in a group with ethnic Abkhaz, I had to face many conflicting emotions. But beyond that, I also found that I was curious about them—what was their daily life like? How did they spend their free time? How did they travel and what challenges did they face at home? 

As a researcher in peace and conflict studies, today I realize that at that time  I was uniquely placed to find the answers to these questions. Not only that but, because of my contacts and friends in Abkhazia, I have had the chance over the last few years to learn what my Abkhaz peers thought about Georgians and Georgia in general. For this reason, I decided to carry out a small experiment, contacting the young professionals I had met at conferences from both sides of the conflict. I asked them all the same questions about their attitudes and opinions about their peers “over there.” 

My pool of respondents was undoubtedly too limited to draw major conclusions as I spoke with three Abkhazians and five Georgians. All respondents are students of different faculties and with different backgrounds. 

Based on this survey and my experience of working with Georgian and Abkhaz counterparts, I realized that the generations raised after the war in Abkhazia have many questions about each other, but very limited space to communicate. There are plenty of signs, however, that both sides are interested in learning more about each other. 
I remember one spring when there was a big flood in Sokhumi. People were walking in the city with inflatable bananas. My friend from Sokhumi sent me a video message taken from her window. I looked through my social network, hoping that some of my Georgian friends would share this story too. Nothing was shared.
More alike than different

Many of the responses I received from both sides were expected. Some ethnic Georgians, like Vakho, a 22 year-old student at Ilia State University in capital Tbilisi, assumed the Abkhaz lived lives that were very similar to his own. 
“I have never met my ethnic Abkhaz counterparts, but I believe they have a regular daily life, they are having fun, studying and taking part in different activities,” he said. 

An ethnic Abkhaz, Adgur, a 20 year-old student from Sukhum/i, told me much the same thing. 
“I do not think that our daily lives are radically different. They probably also study and work, but I think that we had more in common in the past. Now we are developing in different directions.”
Opinions formed by ignorance

Most of what Georgian and Abkhaz youth know about each other comes from hearsay and storytelling. That means history books mainly form their attitudes toward each other, as well as the narratives carried by mainstream media and the often emotional and inadequate speeches made by politicians and public figures. 

Not knowing about each other leads to ignorance, which causes alienation. Therefore, frequently the attitude of Georgian youth towards the Abkhaz can be extreme, endowing the other side with either very good or very negative traits. 

There appears to be a similar situation among the Abkhaz youth. They have many questions about their Georgian peers, including what ethnic Georgians think about Abkhaz people and Abkhazia in general, or what they think about conflict. Despite the fact that talking about politics is not the best way to start a dialogue, “without discussing hard topics, we will not progress,” Adgur told me. 

Unspoken truths

But it seems almost impossible for us to confront social pressure and think critically about a range of conflict-related issues. In my experience, even when Georgians and Abkhazians meet face-to-face, they don’t tend to talk about sensitive issues. 

One of the reasons is internal social pressure. You are afraid that you may accidentally declare the “independence of Abkhazia.” You frequently say "here" and "there", or “this side” and “the other side” of the Enguri River. Abkhazians are also afraid of being perceived to question the "independence of Abkhazia."

But despite the fears around discussing sensitive, conflict-related issues, it seems like some youth on both sides want to have pragmatic conversations.

Ruska, whose family was forced to leave the Abkhaz capital during the war, was expected to think of Abkhazians as “bad” people. Despite her family’s tragedy, however, she still uses every single opportunity to get to know and understand her Abkhazian peers. 

One Abkhaz friend often asked me about a typical Georgian. She wondered if there were any typical behaviors, opinions or attitudes towards specific topics. Quite often, my answers were personal, and I spoke more about good traits than the bad ones.

Milana’s response to my question “what would you tell your Georgian counterpart about your life” underscored the quandary people find themselves in.  “I often wanted to talk about certain stories from my life, what I felt when I was deprived of the possibility of achieving my goals because of Abkhazia’s isolation.”  

While there has not been much opportunity to know each other, our generation has “learned” about each other. Hence, it is much easier for us to have stereotypical opinions, create simplified images of “good“ and “bad“ Abkhaz or Georgian and believe that there is no space for critical thinking and analysis. 

“If I take a look at my friends, other than those interested in conflict issues, there is no place in their lives for Abkhazians and issues related to them,” Elene, a 25 year-old student from Ilia State University, said.  

In Abkhazia, a similar opinion exists, notes Marieta. “I think the reality of Abkhazians has been cut off from Georgians’ daily life.” 

With so many unanswered questions, patriotic emotions and, at times unfounded, opinions about each other’s goals and aspirations grow, and are frequently defined by internal, harsh narratives. 
It is important to be interested in each other's daily lives, challenges and opportunities. It is also important to break down the stereotypes we have. But often we are simply not interested in each other because we do not see the space and opportunity to receive and share information about each other. 
We often forget that education, job, personal and professional development are issues that are nearly universally important for young people. 
When we do not see each other's everyday struggles and challenges, we cannot understand each other’s attitudes and perceptions. 
Ruska thinks that her fellow Abkhazians don’t have a great choice of where to go out with friends, but she is sure that none of them are forced to deal with traffic jams during the rush hour.
Abkhazians also agree that young people living in Tbilisi have much more diverse lives and opportunities.
One Abkhaz friend often asked me about a typical Georgian.
Everyday life that differs from each other 

Others also agreed that as groups, Abkhaz and Georgians were growing apart. For some, there was a sense that ethnic Georgians were better off, had more freedom and more opportunities. 

“I doubt the city [Sukhumi] has proper infrastructure and transport,” noted Ruska, a 28 year- old student from Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film Georgia State University who has met Abkhaz her own age.

“I also think that they do not have enough job opportunities and not as many options for where to go for fun, but I am pretty sure that traffic jams do not bother them during rush hours,” she added.

Giorgi, 22 year-old-student from Tbilisi State University, has never met his ethnic Abkhaz peers, but has tried to get to know them via social media. His impressions from these encounters are that “the everyday life of Georgian and Abkhaz youth is radically different.”

“There are not as many education programs in Sukhumi and they have limited possibilities to leave the region,” he said. 

Zura, 22 year-old-student from Sokhumi State University in Georgia, knows people from Abkhazia but has never met an ethnic Abkhaz. He believes they “are not free to do as they please or express their opinions.”

Ethnic Akhaz Marieta, a 22 year-old student from Sukhum/i, agreed that youth in Tbilisi “have much more opportunities and diverse life, they have a more European and free lifestyle” than youth in Abkhazia.

“Georgian youth are not as conservative, I think, they respect their past, but do not live in it,” noted Milana, 25 year-old student from Sukhum/i
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