Currently, there is a high-profile campaign for the killings, rapes, and displacement of Georgians from Abkhazia to be recognized as a genocide. Tempting as this push for genocide recognition seems in response to the suffering of hundreds of thousands in the early 1990s, going down that route may be unwise.

At face value, the claim seems to deserve support. During the war in Abkhazia, many civilians suffered terribly. That trauma is the point of departure for a new initiative for genocide recognition by a coalition that includes the Liberty Institute, Tabula Magazine, the European Georgia party, and the Abkhaz Assembly, an initiative group that advocates for displaced Georgians.

In early summer 2022, and with reference to the massacres by Russian troops in Ukraine, the coalition created an exhibition titled “Before Bucha there was Abkhazia” which showed horrendous sights: film reels showing a plane with fleeing people in flames; charred bodies; an installation evoking the mass rapes; terrified refugees carrying all that they could salvage and fleeing for their lives; more reels of victims; burning houses; a desperate dog trying to join a ship setting off from the shore. The written accounts, including a recent article in Al-Jazeera, are harrowing. Thousands were killed. One prominent journalist, at first skeptical, commented that the exhibition, “brought up things we could not talk about,” and stated this was a step in the right direction.

Still, in situations when commemoration becomes political it makes sense to analyze the suggested steps closely. The Ethics of the Political Commemoration framework can help assess the proposed genocide recognition. As an approach, this framework draws on established ethical traditions that remain relevant today and applies several criteria to develop a multidimensional perspective on what to do with our past.

Intention of Recognition

The key among these criteria is to examine motivation. What is the intention of this proposed genocide recognition? If it is to “give justice to victims” it is unclear whether recognition of the genocide is anything more than a gesture. The suffering was recognized as “ethnic cleansing” by the OSCE at its 1994 Budapest Summit. On a symbolic level, the suggestion that ethnic cleansing is suffering less substantial than genocide is fraught. It implies a hierarchy that does not exist and should not be created.

As Michael Rothberg, who has grappled with the relationship of one trauma to another, has pointed out, mobilizing history is most convincing if it is done for solidarity rather than to compete or displace other accounts. The victims of what is “only” ethnic cleansing or even an isolated massacre are no less traumatized because it does not constitute genocide. For Georgians, the killing of demonstrators in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989, remains traumatic. One does not need the term genocide to convey how incisive this experience was.

Genocide remains a concept that “breathes politics,” as one observer put it. It is no small irony that Stalin’s diplomats were involved in negotiating the final genocide definition at the United Nations. The official definition excludes the persecution of political or economic classes, thereby also excluding many of the mass killings of the Soviet Union in which millions perished. On the other hand, as Timothy Snyder put it for other contexts, where one looks for one or two genocides, on closer inspection there may be multiple.

Squarely part of the horrors of the early 1990s, hundreds of Ossetians were driven out of villages in Georgia, usually by armed thugs; many were killed. Especially in Kakheti, these Ossetians did not constitute a credible threat, nor were these crimes committed close to an armed conflict. It was an act of wanton crime and violence, not some kind of tragic security dilemma of seeking to preempt survival. For many Ossetians, this displacement is a formative experience in their view of the present, even if it isn’t sensible to call it a genocide. Formal and legal categories, in other words, do little to account for the severity of trauma that people experience. Such traumas are radical ruptures and are almost impossible to put into a sensible, let alone arithmetic, relationship with each other.

If the intention of establishing the claim to genocide is to show up the responsibility of the Russian government for the killings in Abkhazia (instead of framing this as an internecine conflict) this aspect is relevant. Yet at this point, other than fringe groups, who else needs convincing of how brutal the Kremlin can be? One needs to look no further than Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s to understand how viciously the Kremlin treats even its own citizens. (Recently, in an impassioned plea, a Chechen reminded his audience of the intense suffering of his people during the 1944 deportations, in which up to a third of the population perished.) By contrast, some experts of international law have doubts that in the case of Abkhazia the kind of top-down Kremlin “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” can be established in ways that would suffice for a legal case.

Legitimate Authority to Represent

There is a challenge with regard to who speaks for the victims. As it stands, a key pillar of the coalition is European Georgia, a center-right political party with a westward orientation. The petition to get the genocide recognized nationally and internationally is posted on the party’s website. Critics argue that the political angle does diminish the authority and legitimacy of the proposed recognition. A number of Georgian civil society activists have said in a public letter that certain parties “use past tragedies to increase their political capital. Together, they are using the traumas and fears of the Georgian population as a political weapon, which has nothing to do with peace or justice.”

It is good practice that political parties keep an arm’s length from the commemoration of trauma. This principle holds for many reasons, among them that victims should not be in a situation where they can feel that their experiences are conscripted. Parties should be cautious about representing a group of people that is larger and more varied than their organic supporters.

Citizens, of course, are free to support their causes, and people can leave parties to engage in civic life. Moreover, genuine issues can be raised by partisan figures. At the same time, combative political engagement is hard to reconcile with speaking for victims who need genuine and broad-based legitimacy to advocate their cause. (A more focused GoFundMe effort by the Liberty Institute, a partner in the coalition, wants to record the experiences of the victims that previously could not be captured. I have donated, since this appears like a good cause, especially if victims receive some consolation from telling their stories.)

Exiting Circular Loops of Affirmation

There is an even more thorny issue about particular versus universal justice. If the demand is for justice as accountability, as some proponents have suggested, why not start with where people can genuinely be held accountable? Though there are various blankets of silence on the experience of the early 1990s, most people’s understanding is that plenty of crimes were perpetrated by Georgians, often against other Georgians, too — not just in the 1990s, as these things go. To this day, there can be hushed voices when this part of the past is discussed.

Insistence on consistency matters at a time when some Georgians on social media find applause rather than censure for writing about other nationalities as “pigs” or “garbage” and commenting “Burn Them All” on a queue of civilian cars trying to leave Russia. Over and over, the experience seems to be that “victimhood nationalism,” as Jie-Hyun Lim described it in the Asian context, can feed into new cycles of dehumanization. Rhetoric that calls for discrimination and atrocities contrasts sharply, too, with the positive account that Ukraine has offered of its fight, which is framed as a defense of basic humanistic values.

A Debate Beyond Georgia

Finding a suitable way of addressing the past may benefit from a look beyond Georgia’s de facto borders. In this way, the suggested recognition is a debate that concerns not just Georgia. An overview of memory politics by the Center for Baltic and East European Studies in 2020 provided a salutary warning. Looking at the arc from the Baltics across Eastern Europe, including Germany, all the way to the Caucasus, one conclusion seems to be that it is fairly easy to mobilize the genie of traumatic remembrance — and much harder to tether it once it has established itself as all-present in the national discourse.

In some cases, the concept of victimhood can “anchor an absolutist, perhaps even apocalyptic politics”, as Rothberg has pointed out for other contexts. In the CBEES study, a particularly sobering account is offered by the Swedish-American historian Per-Anders Rudling who shows how competing and colliding claims of genocide had contributed to trauma reproduction across Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, rather than identifying ways of moving forward.

Even if one does not share a pneumatic view of history, in which past misdeeds will inexorably push back into the present, the most generative reckoning with regard to the past is mostly with oneself rather than with an ultimately elusive counterpart. This focus on one’s own glasshouse is a central plank of Christian teaching that most atheist thinkers on remembrance have shared. Georgian society cannot change the Kremlin, let alone the G.R.U., but it has reasonable prospects of improving itself.

Towards a More Comprehensive Debate

For Georgia, there are good reasons to focus more on commemoration as a broad and inclusive process, and also with the intention of moving the tone of many debates beyond the acrimony that at this point has become characteristic of much of the country’s public discourse. This does require a more comprehensive and searing debate.

The coalition that initiated the discussion deserves credit for raising these questions with renewed emphasis, as a step for a broader engagement. The time may have come for this discussion. There are some positive developments, including the recent inauguration of the Monument to the Missing. A more rounded approach will also need to include the Abkhaz perspective, as Shota Kincha, a journalist and commentator, has argued. The public letter of Georgian civil society organizations also outlines some main principles of conflict transformation.

One step forward could be to address a major gap: there are ways in which the horrors remain nameless, just as part of the “war in Abkhazia”. Rather than joining this memory into the general category of genocide, a clearer and more consistent name for the entire complex of events and suffering could help have a more consistent conversation, in the same way, that “The Troubles” (to take an example from far away) now are a shorthand under which people discuss the experience of Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s forward.

The broader goal should be to “défataliser l’histoire,” as the Swiss historian Charles Heimberg has put it, and help citizens assert their own moral autonomy, especially in times of violence, hatred, and viciousness that is exacerbated and amplified by social media. This goal – getting people engaged –  does align well with how one of the initiators had described her overall intention in a private conversation. As she put it, the problem is not who is in charge in the country but really how young people in the country see the world. Strengthening a genuine sense of active citizenship is also one of the best ways of countering the Kremlin’s multipronged attempts at subjugation. It is another question whether the primary focus on genocide recognition is the most promising route for that essential endeavor.

Emphasizing Ethics to Move Forward

None of this caution vis-à-vis genocide recognition is to sideline the reality of extensive suffering in the past and the present-day reality of many thousands of ethnic Georgians in the Gali region living under de-facto apartheid. There has still been no accountability for the recent killings of Giga Otkhozoria and Archil Tatunashvili.

Nor is any of this said to claim the final word. This analysis is a perspective from the outside, and from the privileged glasshouse of not having lived through the horrors on that part of the Black Sea coast. Reasonable people can and should disagree on how to commemorate without a demonization of differences. Yet the disagreement is most illuminating, ultimately, if it connects to an explicit ethical framework that helps to reflect on the range of aspects that are at stake and that need to be included to move beyond the “heap of broken images” that T.S. Eliot, writing after the calamitous war, used to describe the fragmentation of much that we value and hold dear.


Hans Gutbrod teaches at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. More on the Ethics of Political Commemoration is available here, and an application of the concept to the debate around the Stalin Museum is here.

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