How Can Youth Drive Social and Political Changes in Abkhazia?

The information and views expressed in this blog are those of the original article author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Corridors or our project partners.



Youth are often referred to as the future, politically as well as socially. To encourage young people’s participation in political and civic spheres and give them a voice in decision making, most governments establish youth policies. International entities like UNESCO, and smaller, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also instrumental for achieving this goal by promoting civic training, courses, and volunteer programs.


But for youth in places like Abkhazia, where Valeriya Arshaba lives, interest in politics and civic life is low and youth policy and participation are lacking. This trend is alarming to peacebuilders, especially when it is compounded by the patriarchal social hierarchy prevalent in Abkhazian communities. If youth in Abkhazia are not imbued with egalitarian values and a deep sense of responsibility for the future of their home, they won’t be equipped with the skills they need to promote peace or help to develop a prosperous society.


In her article in Corridors Proceedings Vol. III titled, “Youth As a Driving Force in Social and Political Changes in Abkhazia” (103-111), Valeriya Arshaba discusses exactly this conundrum. She outlines the obstacles Abkhazian youth face when it comes to actively participating in public life, how they currently identify themselves in public and civic spheres, and what concrete step could help them become more involved in their society. Her findings, informed by interviews with peers, may help peacebuilders learn the vital importance of youth education in regions influenced by conflict, like Abkhazia.

What Is Identity In Society?


Arshba explains that developing one’s civic and ethnic identity, and therefore one’s place in society, is an essential part of becoming a responsible citizen. Without this development, young people will flounder in a sea of expectations from vocal adults in their community, limited by status quo resistance to new ideas. Some young people who don’t develop their own identities may adopt the beliefs of the adults around them, or remain without opinion in the realms of politics and society. Others may leave their community and find a place where it is easier to make an impact, both on local and national political and societal levels.


In her article, Arshba references two types of identity that are relevant to the Abkhazian youth activism: ethnic and civic. Referring to the Oxford Reference entry, “Ethnic identity” (2021), she explains that ethnic identity centers around traits or attributes that separate an ethnic group from other societal groups, while civic identity is composed of attributes and approaches related to the way one engages with public life. She also highlights that the biggest difference between ethnic identity and civic identity is that the former emphasizes traditions, customs, and history of a specific ethnic group, while the latter focuses on the community at large.


Ethnic identity is important in Abkhazia, as it is home to many different nationalities and groups who wish to preserve and maintain their unique cultures. But civic identity, Valeriya argues, is just as important. “There are historical experiences to be taken into account that are common to the whole population of Abkhazia,” she writes. “These are linked to the coexistence of different nationalities in the same territory” (104).


The coexistence of different nationalities is one of the greatest challenges that Abkhazia faces. Consequently, there is a need to educate youth on how ethnic identity can be enriched by key elements of civic identity and thus become more inclusive. Currently, Abkhazian youth are often subsumed within their ethnic identities and traditions. Many of those traditions, which include attitude and outlook, are “outdated to some extent” (104) says Arshaba. For example, young people may feel pressured to stay silent and not voice their own opinion on political or social issues out of “reverence for elders and secrecy in the presence of adults” (104). This kind of thinking can even go as far as to render expressing one’s opinion as a disrespectful act in and of itself.


Valeriya emphasizes the need for youth to adopt civic identities for themselves because civil societies have the ability to affect change, socially as well as politically. For example, Abkhazia’s civil society consists of two different types of organizations: institutionalized groups (NGOs) and initiative groups. The main characteristics of institutionalized groups are “autonomy and self-organization” (105), while the latter are informal organizations of people, usually experts in a particular field who come together to solve a problem. These groups are essential for encouraging and maintaining community members’ active participation in civil matters.

In 2004, civil society organizations in Abkhazia held workshops for citizens on election observation, which led to the creation of a Supervisory Commission, independent of all political parties, to observe elections. The Supervisory Commission was an important accomplishment in the civic sphere in Abkhazia. But, Arshaba writes, there are too few NGOs to keep up with the long list of civil society tasks that need to be completed. One of the list’s bigger problems is the lack of civic action and the lack of strongly established civic identities. Youth, who may be the answer to this problem, must become interested in society to participate in it. Furthermore, the future of a democracy depends on youth, who “are the political leaders of tomorrow” (106).


In Abkhazia, youth civic interest is low, but in the next section, Arshaba outlines the three types of civic identity that are common among young people in Abkhazia.

Civic Identities of Abkhazian Youth


There are three types of civic identity found in Abkhazia youth: formally active, passively critical, and responsible.


Formally active young people adapt to the established order and participate in official and public events, and work to develop their resumes. Passively critical youth, on the other hand, hardly engage in official events and are not active in politics at all and remain critical and displeased with conditions in their society (107). Finally, responsible youth are those who are dissatisfied with the current state of society and politics, but engage with and work on civic affairs, pushing towards something better.


Adopting a civic identity should be easy, but in Abkhazia, there are obstacles, “such as ignorance of the official Abkhaz language as the state language, a problematic structure of interaction among national communities, and, most importantly, deficiencies in the ideological work of nation building” (107). Facing such challenges, youth may question how their skills and abilities might actually meet the demands and needs of their society, and may become discouraged by a lack of a national support structure for their civic activities.


In addition to the three types of civic identity, there are also three types of environments for developing the activity of Abkhazian youths: “civic (related to NGOs), parastatal (related to governmental organizations), and political (related to different political parties)” (107).


  1. The first typically involves training and courses aimed to educate youth on how to improve society, but young people must approach these with caution. NGOs, despite not being government sponsors, often have their own agendas and may try to manipulate youth to see their point of view on politics.


  1. The second, "parastatal" environment is made up of government agencies and institutions. These groups “define and administer general youth policy,” but in Abkhazia, this environment is not fully developed due to lack of attention and a “unified management system” (108).


  1. The last environment, political, consists of the ruling and opposition parties, which attempt to use youth policies to sway and mobilize youth to their side. “In other words,” says Valeriya, “for the political parties in Abkhazia, youth policy constitutes another way through which to attract public attention, appreciation, and respect” (108).


How to move forward? A youth parliament as a place to foster political inclusion and civic identity of youth.


A population of young people in Abkhazia emerge from these three environments with the capacity to be civically active and politically influential. One way to encourage them even further, the Arshaba argues, is to form an Abkhazian youth parliament. This type of program, which involves youth roleplaying as politicians and having group discussions about current social and political issues, is seen “as a means to reconnect young people with politics, give them a voice in public debates, and ultimately boost the legitimacy of the parliaments themselves as democratic institutions” (109).


In the end, the goal of a youth government program is to increase “civic competencies among young people” (109). Here, among their peers and sometimes consulting official parliamentarians directly, they can learn how to sort out issues and form their own socio-political opinions. This is what Arshaba recommends for Abkhazia.


To discuss the viability of such a youth parliament as a youth policy in Abkhazia, Valeriya interviewed some local politicians and other experts for their perspectives. Some respondents cautioned that to be effective, the idea for such a program would need to come from the youth themselves, lest they not be used as a tool by current political actors (109). Abkhazia’s current Law on Youth Policy, established in 2011, “defines the legal basis for the formation and implementation of state youth policy,” yet there is no clear concept of a youth policy in place, nor is there seemingly any official interest in developing one.


Another respondent who is part of a civic society organization said that Abkhazian youth are “mostly passive” (110). Arshaba describes this passivity as rooted in the conservative and patriarchal tendencies of Abkhazian communities, both which diminish the roles of young people in socio-political or civic activities and prioritize adults’ opinions over that of young people. Young people’s participation in social and political changes in Abkhazia is not a big enough concern for the local authorities, and that the issue deserves more focus. Young people are left on their own, which leaves their civic education and mobilization up to various organizations, some of whom may try to manipulate members to uphold their own private agendas. This as well as the prevalence of ethnic identities often also associated with patriarchy and conservatism, explain the overwhelming passivity of Abkhazian youth when it comes to socio-political activism, in Ashaba's view.


Overcoming these obstacles may be possible. To do it, local authorities as well as international institutions and organizations must come together to provide spaces and opportunities for youth to learn about civic activism and become more involved in their communities.


To read more about Arshaba’s research on young people and sociopolitical engagement in Abkhazia, check out her article in Corridors Proceedings Vol. III.