George Hewitt is Professor of Caucasian Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He also holds the special title of honorary consul to Abkhazia in the UK. As an academic and one of Europe’s leading experts on Abkhazia Professor Hewitt holds a unique perspective on the unrecognized state, making him one of the leading voices outside of the Caucasus on the culture, the politics and especially the language of the region.
CEN editor Tom Ana recently contacted Prof. Hewitt to discuss his views on the evet changing situation in the region:
As honorary consul to Abkhazia what does your role entail?
Nothing specific, but for the last 5 years I have had visa-issuing authority. And from time to time I find myself being approached to answer the kind of questions you are putting to me now.
How is your involvement in Abkhazia viewed by the academic world? Is your position viewed as political or controversial in any way?
It’s certainly viewed as controversial in Georgia! I dare say that those who pay attention to what I write on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict (as opposed to what I write about Caucasian linguistics) may think that I am biased, but, since I came to the views that I have been expressing since 1989 on the basis of what I read in Georgian sources, I try whenever possible to support my views with reference to statements made by Georgians themselves, particularly in Georgian, (or by their supporters).
Since you first became involved in Georgia and the Caucasus how have you seen the country change over the year?
I have not set foot in Georgia ‘proper’ since 1987, and so it’s impossible to answer this question on the basis of personal experience. I doubt I would find Tbilisi as appealing as when I knew it after the nationalism that flourished there from c.1989 and Saak’ashvili’s ‘kitschification’.
How have you seen Abkhazia change over the years?
It is not uncommon to hear visitors say that much in Abkhazia is as it was in Soviet times, and one can understand why this should be, when the country has not been exposed to Western influence and investment in the same way as has taken place in most former Soviet lands. But mobile phones and computers have become widespread over the last (let’s say) dozen years. Cars (often top of the range) are numerous, and year on year more buildings go up in Sukhum and Gagra, for example. But MUCH remains to be done (especially in the Ochamchira Region), and renovation/refurbishment of many hotels built in the Soviet era needs to be undertaken. A way should be quickly found to facilitate the integration of the Gal Mingrelians.
Do you think Georgia’s recent government shakeup will have any effects on Abkhazia?
Absolutely none. The majority of the citizenry in Abkhazia have no interest in what happens in Georgia. All they want to hear from Tbilisi is that Abkhazia’s independence is recognised, thereby allowing the two states to move forward to establishing normal, good-neighbourly relations.
What also do you think growing ties to Russia may mean for Abkhazia?
We have to see what the results of the ‘consultation-process’ on the new treaty between the two states will throw up, and how the two governments interact thereafter. There certainly seems to be a good deal of dissatisfaction with the original proposal. The Abkhazians have never wished to become part of Russia, but the West’s blind attitude in support of an outdated definition of Georgian ‘territorial integrity’ over the last quarter of a century has had the inevitable (and, indeed, entirely predictable) consequence of forcing Abkhazia to become ever more tied to Moscow.