Prague, 27 June, Caucasus Times. In contrast with South Ossetia, Abkhazian constitution includes clear provisions that the status of the Republic, state boundaries and territorial integrity are not subject to referendum. For Abkhazian majority, particularly those who took part in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict, state sovereignty is of the highest value and cannot be questioned. Abkhazian media and social scientists generally avoid this sensitive topic. This is indeed why the Caucasus Times prioritized these questions in the public opinion poll. Once analyzed and published, the findings had a bombshell effect in the Republic. First, because the opinion poll demonstrated that not everyone in Abkhazia was happy with the status quo. More so, one third of the population including Abkhazian, Russian, Armenian and Megrel supported Abkhazia’s accession into Russia as an autonomous region.
According to the latest public opinion poll by Medium Orient (April-May, 2016) which covered 1,000 respondents, 27% of Abkhazian population expressed a preference for autonomous status within Russia. While the majority of the population (45%) supported the current independent status and 16% preferred to see independent Abkhazia as part of the CIS, the high percentage of those favoring Russia over sovereignty is a wake-up call for the republic.
It is worth noting that while 61% of Abkhazians supported independence, only 27% of Armenians and 19% of Russians did so. Even the Megrels whom Abkhazian authorities denied national passports, preferred autonomy (only 33% supported independence). As for other nationalities, 48% of Armenian respondents and 56% Russian nationals opted for Abkhazian autonomy within Russia while only 14% of Abkhazians favored this option.
The findings clearly indicate contrasting preferences of different nationalities with regards to the status of the young Abkhazian state. The highest support of the unification with Russia is detected among Armenian and Russian communities (for detailed results, please see the Excel table attached).
Therefore, Abkhazians are not the only ethnic group that could determine the course of the elections in the Republic. If there is a referendum on accession into Russia, significant percent of the respondents especially among Russian and Armenian communities will vote “yes”.
Prominent pro-Russian trend in Abkhazia that could reverse the state of country’s independence has been news for many Abkhazians. That is why the publication of the poll findings generated heated discussions in social media.
During the field work (public opinion poll) our team faced a number of challenges which are recorded here as lessons learnt for future polling activities.
Conducting public opinion polls in post-conflict regions such as Abkhazia has unique specific aspects. First of all, there are significant discrepancies in the actual demographic data and official government statistics from the State Statistical Committee. In Abkhazia, for instance, demographic constitution of several distant villages has changed (people leaving for the cities) so much that it was difficult to maintain gender and age quota. Thus, villages Azhykhua, Khyshkharypsh, Alakumkhara that were selected by our team in April 2016, became almost deserted.
Second, we came across very negative perceptions of the poll in the context of increased conflict between the opposition and authorities around the opposition’s initiative to carry out a referendum on the current President. In the villages of Gumista and Eshera people refused to participate in the interviews as they didn’t want to be seen as part of the broader political conflict between opposition and authorities.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the armed interethnic conflict in Abkhazia happened over 20 years ago, post-conflict syndrome is still very much a part of the daily life that continues to drive tensions in the region.
During pilot interviews in Sukhum, a number of Abkhazian respondents refused to participate after seeing “Georgia” among the response options to the question “Which of the mentioned below countries should Abkhazia develop relations with?”
Often, Abkhazians refused to respond to questions related to media rankings where Georgian media were enumerated among options.
In Galsky district and Gagry, a lot of households were vacant as their owners only live there seasonally – many Armenians return to Abkhazia only during tourist season. At the same time, a number of Galsky district residents actually reside in Zugdidsky district of Georgia while maintaining Abkhazian citizenship.
Last but not least, we have been able to significantly increase the quality of our field work by leveraging technology and innovation. Today, we conduct polls using electronic questionnaires that are connected to the common database via Internet. Raw data is being sorted and organized automatically. Electronic questionnaires allow us to monitor the quality of the process in real time, listen to the interview recordings online and enhance the monitoring of the process in general. This, in addition to introducing gender and age quota, has allowed to minimize data skewing