On Becoming Citizens of the “Non-Existent”: Document Production and Migration in Abkhazia

About the author(s):

Gehad Abaza’s research interests include forced migration and refugee studies, the anthropology of the state, processes of racialization, the anthropology of war, and memory. Abaza has an MA in Sociology-Anthropology and a BA in Political Science, with a specialization in Middle East Politics from the American University in Cairo.

Layla, a young girl from Damascus, attended both the adult and children’s Russian classes that the Danish Refugee Council offered Syrian-Circassian newcomers to Abkhazia in 2014-2015. One afternoon after class, I walked with her halfway to her new home up the hill tops as she told me her struggles about living in Abkhazia for the past few months. Even though many of the Abkhazians she met in Sukhum, the capital of the small secessionist state, were ?ab?b?n (lovable), still Layla stated, “But I am not Abaza.”

Layla is a part of the Syrian-Circassian community, whose ancestors were expelled from their mountainous homelands by Russian imperial expansion in the 1860s. Though the community includes many ethnic backgrounds from throughout the Caucasus region, including Adyghe, Kabardian and Abkhazian, back in Syria, most self-identified, and were identified, under the umbrella term, Circassian, or Sharkas. In 2013-2014, Abkhazia, a contested state with limited recognition, sponsored the repatriation trips of several hundred Syrians of Circassian descent. In the years that followed, tens of other Syrian-Circassian families followed their community members to the small country on individual self-sponsored trips. However, they still had the option of receiving modest support from the Abkhazian Committee of Repatriation (now the Ministry of Repatriation), in the form of rented apartments, help finding jobs, citizenship, and the possibility of receiving their own house. 

Given the lethal conditions in Syria and the increasingly militarised global migration regimes that left them with few options for refuge, many of the new coming Syrian-Circassians were hopeful about the lands that featured in their great grandparents’ stories. For many, Abkhazia would be a temporary stop until they could go to western Europe. Such was the case for Layla, whose presence in Abkhazia was liminal as she, her mother, and her sister awaited her father’s family reunification paperwork in Western Europe. Having not known when they would leave, Layla and her family went about getting their Abkhazian citizenship as they waited. Layla’s mother was an Abaza, but because she and her sister were considered Kabardian, their Abkhazian citizen process took longer and was more complicated than that of her mother. As we chatted and as I told her about experiences with the Committee of Repatriation, she shared the story of how her mother couldn’t write her surname as “Abaza” on her official documents in Abkhazia. In Abkhazia, the official at the ministry told her, “Everyone is Abaza… Abaza is a nationality, not a surname.” 

Over six months of ethnographic fieldwork I completed in Sukhum, members of the Syrian-Circassian community commented and reflected on the differences that have arisen amongst their community regarding where exactly in the Caucasus they traced their lineage. For example, Farida, a woman in her early twenties, told me that “In Syria, everyone was just sharkas…now, [after coming to Abkhazia], there are differences…differences that weren’t there before… Now there are Abaz?t (Abazas) and other shar?kis (Circassians).” In addition to this renewed emphasis on ethnic distinction, the Syrian-Circassian newcomers often felt alienated from their supposed ethnic kin in Abkhazia. “They still see us as just Syrians,” Judy, another elderly woman said, adding “and if we were to be here for another hundred years, they would see as just Syrians,” rather than as fellow countrymen and women.  

Building the state 

In official Abkhazian ministerial discourse, supporting the repatriation of people of Circassian or Abkhazian descent meant an increase in the demographics of “ethnic Abkhaz” and in the overall population. This, in turn, increases the country’s chances of broader international recognition. The co-patriots, according to ministerial rhetoric, would become a laboring force, hence aiding efforts for economic growth in a country stifled by at least a decade of sanctions. In my research, I argue that passport production and citizenship are an avenue for Abkhazian state-formation that has reified social categories and attached them to material benefits and disadvantages. Abkhazian statehood was performed through the repatriation of Syrian-Circassian and the production of passports for the new coming “returnees”. These processes of document production brought different categories of identification to the fore as more deserving of citizenship. 

After Farida explained to me that, in Syria, “everyone was just sharkas,” I began noticing that as people introduced themselves to me, they often added, “but I am Adyghe” not Abaza. These differences began to matter in peoples’ daily lives, not just when it came to the amount of time spent waiting for documents, but also for access to services. Syrians whose last names are “Abaza” get their Abkhazian ID cards and their Abkhazian passports and nationalities in almost a month while others, had to wait for a few months to a year. For example, despite being largely unrecognised internationally, the Abkhazian passport grants one access to Sochi, Russia where it is cheaper than Abkhazia to buy goods. This politics of waiting pertains to how the struggle for movement and “legal existence” constitute “temporal processes in and through which political subordination is reproduced”. 

The Abkhazian case invites readers to think about passports and identification documents as contentious, and often repressive, through the exclusionary practices or the unequal access to mobility, space, and rights that ensue. While separatist states’ desires and aspirations towards statehood legitimise the modern nation-state system by mimicking the practices of other, broadly recognized states, they also expose the fragility of its very order. A state with limited recognition like Abkhazia still maneuvers within the system that it is locked out of. Though Abkhazia, like other contested states, is shunned from the ‘family of nations’, it reveals how constructed and hallucinatory the modern state-order is. 

Lives that matter, and lives that don’t

Rather than being an anomalous case, Abkhazia teaches us about how legal classifications in/through official document production can have racialising effects. Legal classifications, passports and identification documents (or their lack thereof) become central to peoples’ everyday lives and life chances, particularly for migrants and forcibly displaced populations from the Global South. Even broadly unrecognised documents have affective lives and ensue an aura of necessity, as even “wannabe states” have to produce documents to look like a state or perform statehood.

In Abkhazia, bureaucracy exists not primarily to facilitate subjects’ transactions with the state, but to cripple individuals’ daily prospects, an interlocutor told me. If at any point in someone’s lifetime these papers do not exist, then they may be considered “stateless,” or “illegal,” and illegible to the state, or for citizens of contested states, to the international system. The privileges or detriments that accompany the colour of one’s passport are very much a part of the politics of lives that matter and lives that do not. Narina, who had been in Abkhazia for a few years at the time I spoke to her, pointed out to me that while she appreciated that Abkhazia gave them the nationality and the passport, she wished Syrians could get Russian passports that would allow them to go “anywhere in the world.” Her comment was not about admiration towards Russia, which Narina viewed as an oppressive imperial power, but rather it highlighted the often taken-for-granted fact that people are kept from going “anywhere in the world” due to the repressive politics of which documents they have access to. 

*Research for this article was supported in part by the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies and the Association for Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies.

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