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Pro-Independence Scots Have A Friend -- In Abkhazia

The Sukhumi memorial in Kilmarnock, Scotland

The Sukhumi memorial in Kilmarnock, Scotland

SUKHUMI -- You won't see many kilts or blue St. Andrew's flags in the Abkhaz capital. But in a territory with its own emotional claim on independence, support for Scottish statehood is unanimous -- and occasionally very loud.

Lusty cries of "For Scottish independence!" can occasionally be heard in Sukhumi, where Abkhaz are watching intently as voters in Scotland go to the polls on September 18 for a historic referendum on whether to break ties with the United Kingdom, which currently groups England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Enver Chamagua, a Sukhumi resident, says he sees parallels between the Scottish bid for self-determination and Abkhazia's own tumultuous efforts to break away from surrounding Georgia, to which it's been subject, in varying forms, since the ninth century B.C.

"We share certain aspects of history," he says. "They're freedom fighters, just like us. They've fought England for their independence for many centuries."

Abkhazia, which cradles the northwest corner of Georgia, encompassing more than 200 kilometers of Black Sea coastline, has sought to assert its linguistic and ethnic identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A disastrous war in 1992-93 left thousands of Abkhaz and ethnic Georgians dead and many more displaced. Undaunted, Abkhazia declared independence in 1999 following a controversial referendum. Since then, Abkhazia has been recognized by only a handful of states -- among them Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Russia, which had notably used the territory to open a second front with Georgia during the August 2008 war.

Kremlin Largesse

The Abkhaz version of independence is a far cry from the Scottish ideal, which envisions a fully functioning government and control of its own defense, borders, and budget.

Today, by contrast, most of Abkhazia's 240,000 people hold Russian passports; their impoverished region, under economic blockade by Georgia, is almost entirely dependent on Kremlin largesse for survival.

And while the British government has agreed to honor the results of the Scottish vote, Tbilisi has never recognized the Abkhaz referendum or its declared independence, and considers Abkhazia a permanent part of its sovereign territory.

Still, Abkhaz like Georgy Gabuniya are buoyed by a feeling of kinship with Scotland. "We have a Scotland Street in Abkhazia and a Sukhumi Street in Scotland," he says, referring to the relics of a friendship link between Abkhazia and the western Scottish town of Kilmarnock, the site of a stone memorial to the victims of the Georgia-Abkhazia war.

"It's one more reason we support the people there. We have a lot in common. It would be great if independence was something that Scotland and Abkhazia could boast about in common."

Looking With Envy?

Many breakaway regions in the former Soviet space -- from "frozen" territories like Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh to the recently annexed Crimea and the formally autonomous Tatarstan -- may be looking at Scotland with envy as they consider their own fraught attempts at statehood.

Irakli Khintba

Irakli Khintba

Irakli Khintba, the de facto deputy foreign minister for Abkhazia, has spent years participating in the Geneva talks on establishing a peaceful resolution to the continued Georgian-Abkhaz impasse.

He says a "yes" vote for Scottish self-determination -- and the fate of other independence bids in Spain's Catalonia and Basque regions -- might help soften world opinion toward territories like Abkhazia, no matter how rocky their road to sovereignty.

"The right to self-determination is one of the most important trends in contemporary development," he says. "I think that when Europe peacefully changes its borders to create a new state, it's something that should persuade public opinion in the West to take another look at Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other states that have done a lot to qualify for international recognition."

With current predictions for the Scottish vote too close to call, many Abkhaz may be overlooking the fact that their own referendum, which ended with a resounding 98 percent in favor, was conducted by deliberately excluding the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgian residents who were forced to flee their homes after the war. Nor is it certain that a newly independent Scotland would use its newfound powers of self-determination to recognize Abkhazia, as Khintba expressed hope it might.

Ivan Tarba, who heads philosophy and cultural studies at Abkhaz State University, speaks admiringly of Scotland's methodical, democratic path toward freedom. When it comes to Abkhazia, he blames Georgia for failing to provide the territory with a legal solution to its own independence drive.

"Over there, they're at least doing things on the level of international law. As part of the makeup of Georgia, we had no legal rights at all," he says. "It was just a dictatorship here. There, to some degree, any separation of states will be conducted according to democratic principles."

He pauses, then adds, "The sweetest thing is for people to break away peacefully."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Sukhumi by Anaid Gogoryan