Autonomous republic in northwestern Georgia; area 8,600 sq km/3,320 sq mi; population (2007 est) 177,000. The region is located between the main range of the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, with a subtropical climate on the latter's shores, and with densely wooded foothills. Most of the population, including that of the capital, Sokhumi, and the cities of Ochamchire and Gagra, is located in the lowland of the coastal area. Industries include the mining of tin and coal, and lumbering and sawmilling, but agriculture, including fruit, tobacco, and tea cultivation, is still the leading occupation. Tourism and health resorts on the coast and on Lake Ritsa are also important.
Abkhazia was inhabited traditionally by Abkhazis, an ethnic group converted from Christianity to Islam in the 17th century. By the 1980s some 17% of the population were Muslims and two-thirds were of Georgian origin. Conflicts in which Abkhazis sought independence from the Georgian republic caused a substantial loss of population from Abkhazia through emigration in the later years of the 20th century.
Abkhazia was part of the ancient province of Colchis, and later belonged to Pontus, Rome, and Byzantium; it became independent in 756 and was merged in the all-Georgian state in 985. It became a separate principality in the 16th century, fell under Turkish rule in 1578, under the Russians in 1810, and was absorbed into Russia in 1864. There were uprisings against Russian rule and many Abkhazians emigrated to Turkey. An autonomous soviet socialist republic was formed in 1921. In 1938–53 Abkhazians were subjected to a policy of assimilation by the Georgian authorities.
From the late 1980s onwards, the region was the scene of secessionist activity on the part of the minority Muslim Abkhazi community, culminating in the republic's declaration of independence in 1992, and the invasion by Georgian troops, who took control in August 1992. However, secessionists subsequently gained control of the northern half of the republic, taking the region's capital, Sokhumi, in October 1993, as well as much of the republic's remaining territory. A UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UN OMIG) was stationed in the country in 1993. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994. Many ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia during the four-year war, which claimed around 3,000 lives. In May 1998 the ceasefire broke down temporarily and renewed fighting led to 20,000 Georgians fleeing the country.
The fight for autonomy In 1989, Abkhazis demanded secession from Georgia and reinstatement as a full Union republic, conflicting with Georgian nationalists' demands for the republic to be incorporated as part of Georgia. The dispute triggered civil unrest in Abkhazia and nationalist demonstrations throughout Georgia. In July 1992 the local parliament unilaterally declared Abkhazia's independence.
The kidnapping of senior Georgian officials the following month provoked an invasion by Georgian troops, who seized the capital and set up an interim government. Georgia claimed that the rebel forces had received Russian military assistance and air support for their campaign. By early September, Russia's president Boris Yeltsin had successfully brokered a ceasefire, but in a surprise October offensive, secessionist guerrillas reclaimed half of Abkhazia, gaining control of all of the region north of the capital, Sokhumi. By October 1993, all but a small area of the republic was in rebel hands, and the capital had fallen. The 12-day offensive in September and October was believed to have created an estimated 70,000 refugees.
A ceasefire was signed in April 1994, providing for 2,500 Russian peacekeepers to be deployed in the region. The parliament adopted a new constitution in November 1994 proclaiming Abkhazian sovereignty, and Vladislav Ardzinba was elected president. In November 1996, elections were held to a separatist Abkhaz parliament, but were condemned as illegal by the Georgian government, which organized a counter-referendum of Abkhazi refugees in Georgia.
In October 1999, the incumbent president of the region, Vladislav Ardzinba, was re-elected unopposed and a referendum on independence drew overwhelming support. President Ardzinba declared Abkhazia to be a sovereign state, but both Georgian President Shevardnadze and the international community condemned the election and referendum as unlawful.
In January 2005, Sergei Bagapsh (prime minister 1997–99 and head of a state-owned power company 2000–04) was elected president. He defeated the Russian-backed prime minister Raul Khadjimba, but, under a power-sharing agreement, Khadjimba became vice-president. Khadjimba resigned in May 2009 ahead of the December 2009 presidential election, but this was won convincingly by Bagpash, with 61% of the vote. In May 2011 Bagpash died and was replaced by his vice-president Alexander Ankyab, a former communist, who went on to win the August 2011 presidential election.
By September 2011, Abkhazia was officially recognized by six UN members: Nauru, Nicaragua, Russia, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Venezuela.