Abkhazia: from conflict to statehood

Open Democracy 17 July 2012

A bitter post-Soviet war in 1992-93 saw the Black Sea territory of Abkhazia resist invasion from Georgia and establish an independent statehood. But amid non-recognition from all but a handful of countries, and persistent hostility from Georgia, the young republic has faced many challenges in the subsequent two decades. The leading scholar of Abkhazia and advocate of its case, George Hewitt, presents an overview of these twenty years and outlines a scenario for the future.

The small republic of Abkhazia that abuts the north-eastern coast of the Black Sea was forged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 and war with its neighbour Georgia in 1992-93. That war had started on 14 August 1992 when rag-tag if brutal militias, nominally under the control of Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze, crossed the River Ingur, which since the end of the 17th century had formed the border between Abkhazia and Georgia; it effectively came to an end on 30 September 1993 when the last of Tbilisi's incompetent forces were driven from Abkhazian territory by the same route. The upper K’odor valley remained in Georgian hands, but this was recovered by Abkhazian forces in a bloodless operation in August 2008 against the backdrop of Georgia's crushing defeat in the short war with Russia over South Ossetia.

Abkhazians had lived for seven decades inside the Soviet Union, in successive forms of constitutional association with Georgia which had in their eyes permitted an increasing erosion of their autonomy and rights. In March 1990, amid the nationalist mobilisations of 1989-90 that foretold the Soviet Union's demise, the government in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, annulled all Soviet legislation pertaining to Georgia. It simultaneously decided to restore the independent status the country had enjoyed in 1918-21, when it was ruled by local Mensheviks (so-called social democrats); this status had been codified in a 1921 constitution, which however was never promulgated.

Abkhazians responded by arguing that this annulment - which included the Soviet constitution introduced in 1978, during the era of Leonid Brezhnev - left Abkhazia without any properly defined constitutional status of its own - and, most pertinently, any link to Georgia, for the 1978 document was the most recent to define its formal ties to Georgia. Tbilisi had made a unilateral decisionto alter its constitutional relationship with the Soviet Union, namely to withdraw from that state tout court; but it had done so without any regard for Abkhazian interests and wishes, and thus its act was seen in Sukhum, Abkhazia's capital, as effectively one of peremptory, quasi-colonial annexation.

This crucial decision was compounded when in March 1992 the international community recognised Georgia within its Soviet boundaries (i.e. including Abkhazia), but without any guarantee of Abkhazia's own status or autonomy. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had served as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev during the glasnost and perestroika years, had returned from his Moscow retirement in March 1992 to try to restore order out of the violent chaos that was engulfing his homeland. The major states, anxious to bolster their friend's authority, paid little heed to what for them were constitutional niceties - but which for the Abkhazians were literally a matter of life-or-death.

After all, the Georgians’ very own act of abrogation in March 1990 had put the legality of its frontier with Abkhazia in question; so to recognise Georgia was to the Abkhazians a grievous mistake that could endanger their very existence. This fear was confirmed when, four months after recognition, and after Georgia had also been granted membership of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and, most importantly, the United Nations - Georgian forces invaded Abkhazia.

The pivotal year

The Abkhazians' firm hope and expectation was that the community of nations would acknowledge a demand for self-determination that the defence of their homeland was to vindicate. They were to be sorely disappointed, for instead Tbilisi's right to restore (Soviet) Georgia’s territorial integrity in line with the recognition granted in March 1992 was left unchallenged, and Abkhazia regarded as a "breakaway", "renegade" entity.

Even at that stage, there were four anomalies in the situation:

* an illegitimate regime was in power in Tbilisi and central Georgia, which had ousted the erratic but constitutionally elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in January 1992

* even that regime’s writ did not run in all parts of the relevant territory, as a bitter civil war was in progress in the west Georgian region of Mingrelia (Gamsakhurdia’s power-base)

* an additional, intermittent war was being prosecuted in the province of South Ossetia to the north-west

* elections in Georgia were scheduled for October 1992, when the country’s electorate were to have an opportunity to express their opinion and deliver the mandate the new authorities still lacked; but in the event, Shevardnadze's regime gained all the credibility and legitimacy it needed by being recognised, and admitted to international organisations, even before the elections. Within two weeks of Georgia's entry to the United Nations on 31 July 1992, Shevardnadze’s troops crossed the Ingur River.

The unsettled post-war

The years from 1993-2008 presented Abkhazia with many challenges and dangers. Vladislav Ardzinba, by profession a scholar of the Hittite civilisation, had proved to be an inspiring war-leader, and was to serve two terms as Abkhazia's president (1994-99, 1999-2004). In the post-war period, his main task was to steer a course that would preserve and strengthen Abkhazia’s de facto independence in the face of both a belligerent Tbilisi and the sanctions-blockade regime imposed by the international community (including, though this is often forgotten, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin). This responsibility was discharged well by Ardzinba, until a mysterious, progressively debilitating illness forced him to retreat from public view during his second term; he died in 2010.

After the war, a contingent of peacekeepers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - in effect a Russian force - patrolled the demilitarised zone along the Ingur, and there was a small monitoring mission from the United Nations’ Observer Mission in Georgia (Unomig). A set of Georgian-Abkhazian peace accords were signed in Moscow in 1994. But there were frequent acts of terrorism and sabotage throughout the 1990s, mostly in Abkhazia's south-easternmost province of Gal. The perpetrators were largely members of groupings such as the Forest Brothers (under the Mingrelian Davit [Dato] Shengelia), or the White Legion (headed by another Mingrelian, Zurab Samushia).

It became public knowledge that these organisations enjoyed backing from Georgian officialdom; the Georgian journalist Ak’ak’i Mikadze (writing in the Russian-language Vremja on 3 June 1998) even stated the amount of funds being paid to Shengelia and his partisans by Georgia’s internal-affairs and state-security ministries. There was an eruption of full-scale fighting in villages close to the Ingur border in May 1998, when a speedy Abkhazian muster blocked the attempted incursion; and forty deaths occurred on October 2001 when a group of Chechens under Ruslan Gelaev, who had been ferried across from eastern Georgia’s P’ank’isi gorge (undoubtedly with official support) attempted to break out of the upper K’odor valley. Nine of those killed were the passengers and crew of a UN helicopter shot down over the Georgian-controlled part of the valley on 8 October.

This was the last major incident to threaten Abkhazia while Shevardnadze remained at the helm in Tbilisi. He was replaced in late 2003, as a result of yet another unconstitutional ousting - known as the "rose revolution" - by his former protégé, Mikheil (Misha) Saak’ashvili, who following his electoral victory was inaugurated as Georgia's new president in January 2004.

Saak’ashvili promised to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity during his term of office. In July 2006, he sent a contingent of Georgian militia into the upper K’odor valley on the pretext of a "policing operation". By this time, Sergej Bagapsh had become Abkhazia’s president, and his administration responded by breaking off negotiations with the Georgian authorities. They would not, Bagapsh declared, be continued until Saak’ashvili withdrew this military force; signed a non-aggression pact with Sukhum; and either released or made known the fate of Davit Sigua, a Mingrelian who had been abducted from the town of Gal, where he was serving on the regional electoral commission.

Saak’ashvili, far from removing the force, set about investing heavily in the area his troops had occupied: asphalting the main road, laying a small airstrip in the village of Chkhalta, and opening a branch of Zugdidi Bank (including an ATM) in the village of Azhara. All this was aimed at making what he restyled "Upper Abkhazia" into something of a showpiece to contrast with the straitened socio-economic situation existing in the rest of Abkhazia. The appearance of troops so close (albeit via a road that was/is difficult to traverse) to the Abkhazian capital just as the tourist-season was getting underway resulted in relatively few visitors daring to holiday in Sukhum itself, though the northern resorts (Pitsunda, Gagra, New Athos) did not really suffer a decline in numbers.

The five-day war

Saak’ashvili’s aspiration to repair (Soviet) Georgia’s fractured polity had an early success when in May 2004 he re-established central control over the ethnically Georgian province of Ach’ara (Adzharia) abutting Turkey in the south-west. But his first real target was South Ossetia, where his reintegration venture, also in 2004, ended in (entirely foreseeable) failure. The Kremlin’s attitude towards both of Tbilisi’s troublesome states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, had altered since Vladimir Putin’s elevation to the presidency in 1999. An aspect of this was the decision to allow residents of both to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.

As old Soviet documents finally became unextendable (and thus invalid), most Abkhazians and South Ossetians adamantly refused to bend to the international community’s insistence that they should obtain Georgian passports in order to exercise their human right to freedom of international travel; yet without Russian passports, such individuals were (and, indeed, are) effectively denied the possibility of crossing any frontier other than the one their states share with Russia, for Russia at least accepted the internal documents issued in both. Russia’s warming of relations with Sukhum (Abkhazia) and Tskhinval (South Ossetia) thus ran in parallel with ever deteriorating relations with Saak’ashvili’s Georgia.

The Georgia vs Abkhazia / South Ossetia stand-off remained more or less stable, with occasional heightening of tension, until 2008. A number of events began to unsettle the situation. The eventual recognition of Kosovo by many western states, which had been anticipated in 2007 - and whose implications for Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) were the subject of much speculation in mid-2007 in Sukhum - caused huge resentment in Serbia’s ally, Russia.

Then, the United States president George W Bush arrived for the Nato summit in Bucharest (2-4 April 2008) with the confident expectation that Georgia (and Ukraine) would be granted membership. This was rebutted by the more sensible members of the alliance (over predictable support for the proposal from Britain), though a compromise saw the two former Soviet republics offered a "membership action plan" (MAP) to be confirmed at Nato’s next summit in December 2008. The unanswered question was whether membership for Georgia could ever be realistic, given the de facto independent status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which already had significant and growing support from Putin’s Russia. The fear was that the mercurial Georgian president would attempt another push against the territories in order to claim that his country’s (Soviet) borders were restored to central control before Nato’s December gathering.

The Abkhazians knew, and conveyed the fact, that Abkhazia might come under attack in spring 2008. In fact, the late Ronald Asmus, an ardent supporter of Saak’ashvili and Georgia’s entry into Nato, confirmed in his 2010 excursus on the events of August 2008 that such a plan had existed; indeed, it is clear from this work that Condoleezza Rice’s under-secretary for Transcaucasia, Matthew Bryza, the European Union’s representative for the region, Peter Semneby, and the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, were all fully aware of it. No assault occurred; but in May, a special Russian military contingent arrived in Abkhazia to upgrade the railtrack from Sukhum through Ochamchira and onwards to Gal, near the Georgian border; this had lain mostly idle since 1993.

The surge in shelling across the Georgian-South Ossetian divide, which regularly occurred in the summer of each year, seemed in mid-2008 more intense than normal. Then, as the world anticipated the opening of the Olympic games in China, Georgian troops moved against Tskhinval towards midnight (local time) on Thursday 7 August, even though Saak’ashvili had stated in a broadcast to the people of South Ossetia earlier that evening that they were in no danger.

Abkhazians wondered what the fighting in and around South Ossetia, in which Russia became heavily involved within a matter of hours, portended for them. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that a Georgian victory would be swiftly followed by a parallel operation against their republic. And so, at the weekend, Bagapsh ordered a general mobilisation for Monday morning, 11 August. It was decided that now was the time to eject the Georgian military presence from the K’odor valley, which was softened up by bombing in advance of the Abkhazian infantry’s ascent early on Tuesday 12 August.

Russia had brought tanks and other armoured equipment in by sea and air, and, as an exclusively Abkhazian land-force moved up the valley, other Abkhazians joined Russians in a push over the Ingur that brought them to the Mingrelian town of Senak’i, the control-centre for Georgian military actions in western Transcaucasia (some even advanced towards Georgia’s second city of Kutaisi to test the extent and nature of Georgian defences, but - unlike what happened in and around South Ossetia - there was no targeting or pillaging of the local citizenry). Georgian patrol-vessels were sunk in the Mingrelian port of Poti by the Russian navy.

Meanwhile, all military personnel, along with most of the local (Svan) residents, had hastily abandoned the upper K’odor valley, fleeing into neighbouring Svanetia. It came as a tremendous surprise (but welcome relief) to the Abkhazians to find the valley deserted. Mines had, however, been left at strategic points, and these had to be defused. The large amount of ordnance that the Georgians had stored there (for what purpose has never been revealed) was transported down to Sukhum and briefly put on display; its speedy removal from public view was rumoured to have been as a result of a request from the United States, embarrassed by some of the exhibits on display.

At 3 pm (Moscow time) on 26 August, President Dmitry Medvedev - who had taken office in May 2008 - announced in a live transmission from the Kremlin that Russia was prepared to recognise both Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence. The announcement was met within minutes by an eruption of wild celebrations, including much flag-waving and gunfire, which went on into the early hours (though the former president, Vladislav Ardzinba, introduced a note of caution with his remark: "The dreadful times are past; difficult times are now beginning.") The Medvedev-Sarkozy plan, which had brought a formal end to the so-called "five-day August war", had called for a return of Russian forces to their pre-war locations, but the argument now advanced was that the recognised states had the right to reach their own agreements with Russia as to the number and location of military units on their territories. This stance has been maintained to the present, and Russian bases are established in both republics.

The Russian question

Both during and after the fighting of August 2008 the world mostly accepted Saak’ashvili’s view of events, which was energetically propounded by a public-relations machine fronted by Randy Scheunemann, who also worked for Saak’ashvili-devotee Senator John McCain: namely, that Georgia had been the victim of outright Russian aggression, aimed at preserving Moscow's "control" of the two territories and thus frustrating Georgia’s goal of Nato membership. But eventually, especially after the publication at the end of September 2009 of the European Union report into the war by a commission headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, there could no longer be any doubt that the Georgians had initiated hostilities.

But supporters of Saak’ashvili merely switched focus by postulating a different scenario: whilst Saak’ashvili might have launched the assault, he had haplessly fallen into a trap contrived by the Russians, who thus remained ultimately responsible. A far more plausible hypothesis, however, should be considered: that Saak’ashvili, desperate to gain entry into Nato in December 2008, felt he had to attempt to reintegrate Georgia’s lost regions, possibly expecting that, if Russia responded in their defence, America and/or other western backers of Georgia’s pro-western, anti-Russian orientation would come to his rescue. No such rescue was forthcoming. In any event, a new era began with Russia’s recognition on 26 August 2008.

It was a time of euphoria, similar to the end of the 1992-93 war; there was expectation that the path was now open for Abkhazia to proceed to full membership of the international community. Nicaragua granted recognition on 5 September, and established diplomatic relations on 10 September, a day after Russia took this additional step, but the majority opinion throughout the world was as unyielding as it had been hitherto: the principle that (Soviet) Georgia’s frontiers are inviolable has to be upheld, and recognition of the secessionist states is deemed illegitimate. Thus, the mood of ecstasy dissipated, as reality began to dawn.

Some unease also eventually began to be voiced about the nature of some of the agreements that were signed with Russia in the months following the war. Several were finalised in Moscow on 17 September 2008. These - on friendship, coöperation and mutual assistance - envisaged bilateral action in the economic, legal and security fields; dual citizenship was to be recognised, common transportation was to be established, accompanied by development of infrastructure for energy and communications. These agreements were to stand for ten years and be open to quinquennial renewal, though the lease on the military bases (e.g. at Bombora, near Gudauta, in Abkhazia) was to last for forty-nine years.

A further set of accords was signed in March 2009, whereby Abkhazia was promised $68 million from the federal Russian budget. The management and upgrading of Abkhazia’s railways and airport were signed over to Russia for ten years in exchange for loans and investments; moreover, Russia was also granted oil-exploration rights in the Black Sea for five years. Then, on 31 March 2009, Russia was granted powers to protect Abkhazia’s border and guard its coastal waters. Russia’s federal security service (FSB) was to set up a border-control administration along the frontier with Georgia; assistance would be offered to the republics for training specialists in border-control, though in compensation Abkhazia was to provide the administration with premises, airspace and landing-fields. The agreements were to remain effective only until Abkhazia was in a position to form its own border-control bodies.

It was perhaps the leasing of the railway and airport (the largest in the entire Caucasus) along with the transfer of border-security to the FSB that caused the most concern. But Sergej Bagapsh’s response, perhaps never clearly articulated publicly, was that Abkhazia did not have the wherewithal (in terms of materials, expertise, finance and manpower) to conduct all these essential tasks itself; furthermore, whilst similar benefits to Armenia, based on parallel understandings with Russia, were paid for out of Armenia’s budget, Abkhazia was not being required to pay anything.

Stanislav Lakoba is a professional historian who had headed Abkhazia’s security council since the rerun of the contentious presidential election in January 2005. Soon after recognition, he intimated that, given Abkhazia’s new status, it was no longer appropriate for the UN Observer Mission there to retain the words "in Georgia" in its title insofar as its operation within Abkhazia was concerned. He had evidently discussed this with the head of the mission, who foresaw no change. Lakoba’s response was to the point: "In that case, the mission will be told to leave Abkhazia!"

There followed months of diplomacy that failed to reach a semantic compromise satisfactory to all sides. After a Russian veto exercised on Abkhazia’s behalf, the UN had no option but to end its presence - not only in Abkhazia but also in Georgia - from 30 June 2009 (though in practice duties in Abkhazia ceased on 16 June); the mandate of the OSCE was also terminated. This meant that the only foreign observers left in Georgia were those belonging to the EU’s monitoring mission, established in line with the Medvedev-Sarkozy peace-plan, though the authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia refuse to allow them to enter their sovereign territories. The UN presence in Abkhazia had brought some well-paid employment opportunities for local citizens, as well as contributing more widely to the economy, and the closure of the operation thus had unfortunate consequences.

The Georgian reaction to recognition was to formulate a draft law, the final version of which was signed off by Saak’ashvili on 31 October 2009, to impose notional restrictions on various activities within the so-called "occupied territories". The Council of Europe’s Venice commission criticised aspects of the content, and a modest amendment was introduced in February 2010 lifting Georgian objections to the direct delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Georgia had already, in January 2010, published a "state strategy on [the] occupied territories: engagement through coöperation". This caused alarm, especially among international organisations trying to mediate between the various parties, as it aimed to control both activity within the said areas but also the flow of funds thereto. In the main, Georgian machinations are regarded in Abkhazia with disdain as having little or no practical effects on the ground. Some NGOs that work with international partner-organisations, however, wondered how they might affect such partnerships (perhaps to the extent of being summarily wound up).

Any use of the phrase "occupied territories" by any western representative of standing is seized upon and vaunted in Tbilisi. When the US Senate (on 29 July 2011) and the European parliament (on 17 November 2011) passed resolutions defining Abkhazia and South Ossetia in these very terms, they were proclaimed by Saak’ashvili to be "historic documents" laying the foundation for the (re)-establishment of Georgian control, although what their practical relevance (if any) will prove to be remains an open question. A proposer of the EU resolution, Krzysztof Lisek, travelled to Tbilisi in the aftermath, where he was awarded the Order of St. George.

For a short time in the mid-1990s a little passenger-ferry ran between the ports of Sukhum and Trabzon in Turkey. It had been hoped to reopen this route in the wake of recognition, but so far these hopes have not been realised. Though freight has continued to be shipped, Georgia has regularly impounded vessels plying the route and confiscated their cargoes; between 1991-2003, forty Turkish vessels were seized, followed by a further twenty-two in 2004-06.

The most notorious incident occurred in summer 2009, when a Turkish tanker sailing from Trabzon was impounded as soon as it entered international waters in what was clearly an act of international piracy (yet the international community's response was a contrast with that over similar events off the Horn of Africa). After the cargo was confiscated, the captain was jailed for twenty-four years and only freed after high-level intervention by the Turkish government.

It was equally hoped that regular passenger-flights might be reinstated to/from Sukhum airport, for destinations in Turkey and perhaps elsewhere in the middle east as well as Russia, but again none has been instigated to date.

The democratic test

The main event in Abkhazia in 2009 was the presidential election at the end of the year. The previous election of 2004-05 had been surrounded by dispute, with Moscow expressing preference for Raul Khadzhimba, who resigned from the government in May 2009 to run against the incumbent Sergej Bagapsh. After a rerun vote the main rivals came together in a government of national unity with Bagapsh as president and Raul Khadzhimba as his deputy.

Khadzhimba had been Ardzinba’s anointed successor, though Moscow's support of him is thought to have driven more voters to Bagapsh's side. In May 2009, he had resigned from the government to run his campaign. The third candidate was a wealthy businessman, Beslan Butba. The campaign turned rather bitter. There were nationalist accusations that Bagapsh, whose wife (now widow) is Mingrelian, had won thanks to the votes cast by those Mingrelians who had secured voting rights in 2004-05; though he was charged more with bending to Moscow's wishes than to Tbilisi's. The opposition complaints about Bagapsh’s weak stance towards Russia were later tempered by reassurances that Russia should not feel targeted by such criticism; after all, the geopolitical position of Abkhazia and the largely hostile attitude of the world towards it meant that no Abkhazian politician could afford to alienate the Kremlin.

A particularly vocal section of the opposition subsequently focused on two questions: how many of Abkhazia’s remaining Kartvelian (predominantly Mingrelian) population should have voting rights in 2009, and could Abkhazia even afford to tolerate any large-scale Kartvelian presence on its territory? It argued against the common view that the bulk of the Mingrelians in the Gal district had not participated in the 1992-93 war, and claimed that more had actually taken up weapons against the Abkhazians than was/is generally supposed; such being the case, the question was mooted as to why a community that had harboured fighters should be granted residency rights, let alone be allowed to vote for the president (and/or parliament at the time of parliamentary elections).

In the event, no special dispensation (on the model of 2004-05) was made, and the right to vote was restricted to those holding an Abkhazian passport. Such overtly nationalist sentiment raised fears that, if prudence did not prevail, Abkhazia might end up committing the same error as late-Soviet Georgia: namely alienate its own minorities rather than do everything possible to make them feel respected and valued members of a society deserving of their support.

Sergej Bagapsh had had a number of meetings in Russia with Vladimir Putin since becoming president in early 2005, though Putin had never allowed photos to be taken. The Russian premier eventually consented to a flying visit to Sukhum on 12 August 2009, and official cameras recorded his laying of a wreath at the war memorial with Bagapsh at his side. There was also film of his extraordinary meeting with a group of oppositionists, headed by Khadzhimba. At his press conference he acknowledged the obvious fact that the change of Russia’s stance towards Abkhazia, activated while he had still held the Russian presidency, served the strategic interests of Russia. On the morning of the visit, a bomb exploded in the centre of the northern resort of Gagra, killing two people; and as the last meeting of the day was being held, another exploded in Sukhum, this time without casualties.

Despite the apprehensions felt about the post-recognition agreements with Russia and the heat generated during the campaign, the 2009 election passed off peacefully. Bagapsh, who still basked in the glory of having been in office at the time when the process of achieving international recognition began, proved the clear winner without any need for a run-off. His intention, he stated, was to devote his second (and, by the constitution, final) term to widening Abkhazia’s recognition and working towards improving life for the republic’s citizens, free from thoughts about having to contest another election.

In 2009, the London-based NGO Conciliation Resources and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation provided financial backing for the Georgian filmmaker Mamuk’a Kuparadze to produce a documentary - Absence of Will (in Georgian,Nebis Arkona) - for Georgia’s Studia Re. A young man and woman, not old enough to remember the 1992-93 war, were filmed questioning fellow Kartvelians, including such leading figures as Shevardnadze and General Gia Q’arq’arashvili, who had issued a genocidal threat against the Abkhazian nation in the autumn of 1992, about their actions at the time and/or memories of relevant events. This film is possibly the first time when Kartvelians are seen publicly questioning the legitimacy of the actions of the Georgian governmentvis-à-vis Abkhazia and thus represents a very important step forward in learning lessons through the process of self-criticism. The film was presented to selected audiences abroad (including a screening in the British parliament’s Portcullis House).

In the early summer of 2010, with the agreement of Abkhazia's prime minister Sergej Shamba (previously the long-serving foreign minister), Kuparadze was invited to Abkhazia to attend the broadcast of his documentary on Abkhazia's state TV-channel. A live discussion immediately followed the film, and both on this occasion and in later comments the predominant reaction was worryingly negative (not to say hostile). Rather than welcome the admission of wrongs seen in the film, commentators mostly evinced suspicion. The film was condemned as some kind of ruse to deceive the Abkhazians into adopting a less adamant stance against reunification, and even the motives of those who had organised the event in Sukhum (Shamba and representatives of some NGOs) were called into question: did they, it was asked, have the best interests of Abkhazia at heart or were they (especially those who received funding for projects from the west) being called to play the (presumed pro-Georgian) tune of those western organisations who finance joint-projects?

In turn, some saw the hand of political manipulation behind much of the hysterical response. They concluded it was essential to continue work towards reconciliation with neighbouring Georgia at the level of inter-state politics, and to intensify efforts inside Abkhazia to convince local citizens of this need - for this is a precondition for achieving normality in relations with Georgia, which must happen at some point.

The last journey

The majority of the world’s ethnic Abkhazians live as a diaspora-community in Turkey, and there has been a long-standing hope that many of the descendants of the original 19th-century exiles will build their future in the historical homeland, Bagapsh naturally desired to visit this community; Turkey finally agreed in April 2011. The trip was not as successful as it should have been, because of rumour-mongering by members of the opposition in Abkhazia who alleged that Bagapsh’s policy towards Russia equated to betrayal of Abkhazia’s true interests. Bagapsh, thus, had constantly to defend his position in front of members of the community in Turkey.

An even more epoch-making overseas journey was in prospect in 2011. The Oxford Union issued an invitation for Bagapsh to deliver an address, setting out Abkhazian aspirations. This would have been the first visit by an Abkhazian president to a western country. Leading Abkhazians had managed to travel to various western destinations during the 1990s to present their case at conferences or at meetings with civil servants, but since George W. Bush became US president, visas had been refused even to allow Abkhazian representatives (such as foreign-minister Shamba) to express Abkhazia’s viewpoint at the UN; it also often proved (and, indeed, still proves) difficult for Abkhazians travelling on Russian passports to obtain visas to enter certain EU countries (notably Germany).

The fact that Chatham House, the leading foreign-policy think-tank in London, would also have invited Bagapsh to speak makes it reasonably sure that the UK trip would have granted him a visa. But the issue, and the impact of a trip on the British (or European) attitude to Abkhazia, were never to be tested. For as his speech was being finalised, Bagapsh flew to Moscow for a minor operation to correct a smoker’s complaint, and though the operation (in an FSB clinic) evidently went smoothly, complications set in, and he died unexpectedly on 29 May 2011. Vladimir Putin was amongst the mourners on the day of the funeral.

The presidential contest

The unanticipated presidential election was scheduled to coincide with "recognition day" (26 August), with three candidates proposing themselves: vice-president Aleksandr Ankvab, prime minister Sergej Shamba, and Raul Khadzhimba. In advance of the election both Ankvab and Shamba resigned their posts to concentrate on their campaigns, and the parliamentary speaker Nugzar Ashuba became interim president.

The campaign was energetic. The candidates and their running-mates travelled widely across the republic (including to the Mingrelian-dominated Gal district) to hold rallies and meetings; they took part in debates (with one another and/or electors) and gave interviews (in both Abkhaz and Russian) across the media-outlets; each had both a central and regional head-quarters; and a variety of electioneering materials was produced, including on the internet.

Shamba’s headquarters had the air of being the best financed and was a hive of activity throughout the campaign. Khadzhimba, whose running-mate was Svetlana Dzhergenia, widow of ex-president Ardzinba, retained much of the core support he had previously attracted, but since he had failed on two earlier occasions there was a feeling that his campaign was doomed; moreover, despite his personal reputation for integrity, the nature of (some of) his followers alienated a number of voters. Ankvab, who had survived several assassinationattempts since his return to Abkhazian politics from pursuing business interests in Moscow, was renowned for personal austerity and made the eradication of corruption the central plank of his manifesto (which was the last of the three to be prepared for circulation and took the form of a booklet containing a personal address in Abkhaz and Russian to the reader).

The candidates had undertaken to conduct a clean campaign, but it took a negative turn on 15 August, when Shamba (or, as he maintained, members of his team) screened outside the Philharmonic Hall in Sukhum part of a video in which the person who had led Georgian forces into Abkhazia on 14 August 1992, Tengiz K’it’ovani, who now lives in exile in Russia, accused Ankvab (Abkhazia’s interior minister at the time) of having known in advance of Tbilisi’s plans to invade Abkhazia but had done nothing to prevent it.

Ankvab, perhaps surprisingly, declined to respond to the charge. His reason was possibly that he had already vigorously defended himself against a similar charge made in 2003 by Vladislav Ardzinba, arguing that Ardzinba had known as much about Georgian intentions as he did; so that, if any blame was to be applied, it should attach to the then head of the administration, namely Ardzinba himself, who is regarded in Abkhazia as a figure utterly beyond public reproach.

Whoever was responsible for the video incident, the tactic backfired disastrously, for it contravened the average Abkhazian voter’s sense of fair play and, in any case, the intervention of K’it’ovani (of all people) was never likely to prove persuasive in Abkhazia. Many voters are thought promptly to have transferred their allegiance from Shamba, once seen as an urbane foreign minister with good contacts abroad, to Ankvab.

Well over one hundred observers (from such countries as Russia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Nauru, and Fiji) cast supervisory eyes over the proceedings on election-day and expressed themselves fully satisfied. It was possible, not for the first time, to hear the opinion expressed that democracy is more advanced in Abkhazia than in Russia (let alone Georgia). Ballot-boxes were transparent. Internal Abkhazian passports served as registration-cards, and voting-slips were issued only after the passport was checked against the voter-list for that ward, and the passport stamped as proof of voting. Counts were conducted on the spot in full view of officials, observers and individuals peering through windows from the street outside.

Ankvab emerged the clear winner, with 54.86% of the 101,192 votes cast, a turnout that represented 71.92% of those eligible to vote. He quickly set about making changes to personnel, both inside and outside government. Abkhazia soon gained a foreign minister who could claim to have been partly educated in the west, namely Vjacheslav Chirikba. He had previously been an advisor in Bagapsh’s administration and leader of the Abkhazian delegation to the Geneva talks, and had earned his doctorate (in Abkhaz studies) during his years of residence in Leiden.

The big neighbour

In light of the apprehensions raised by the nature of some of the agreements signed with Russia in the wake of recognition, one of the hopes invested in the new administration was that it would release information about several other accords signed by the late president, whose legacy remains to be appropriately evaluated. But, even apart from this, there were already indications of problems affecting aspects of Abkhazia’s relations with Russia.

There has been substantial growth in the number of hotels operating in Sukhum, but a long-standing base for significant numbers of Russian tourists remained the sanatorium-complex known as the Turbaza, which lies alongside a pleasant stretch of the beach in the south-eastern centre of Sukhum Bay. The land belongs to the Abkhazian state, but the complex, which offered employment to many local citizens, was provisioned by the Russian defence ministry. It suddenly closed in advance of the 2011 holiday season on the grounds that a radical refurbishment was needed, thereby reducing the number of tourists and eliminating their contribution to the local economy. This was followed by rumours suggesting murkier reasons to do with wrangles over ownership of this potentially very lucrative site.

Already, during Ardzinba’s presidency, there were arguments over the extent to which the sale of such fundamental state-properties as the five "Stalin dachas" should even be contemplated (never mind actually permitted). A huge stretch of the beach and the adjoining pine-forest in the finest of Abkhazia’s resorts (Pitsunda) have remained in the exclusive control of Russian ministries since Nikita Krushchëv first developed the bay into a tourist-paradise in the 1960s. A state-dacha overlooking Gagra (the so-called "Pearl of the Black Sea") that had fallen derelict has been renovated behind a high fence with sentry-posts, reportedly as a retreat for the head of the Krasnodar region.

Apart from concern over the future of individual locations and what arrangements regarding ownership reveal about the overall nature of Abkhaz-Russian relations, a controversy also blew up prior to Bagapsh’s death over the ownership of the village of Aibga and its surrounding territory along the Abkhaz-Russian border in the area of Krasnaja Poljana, the site of the skiing events for Sochi’s winter Olympics in 2014. The historical dividing-line between Abkhaz-speaking and Ubykh/Circassian-speaking territories ran roughly along the Mzymta River, whereas today Abkhazia’s northern frontier lies to the south of this along the Psou River. Thus, if any irredentist claim were to be made, it might legitimately be expected to come from Abkhazia against Russia. However, this northern region was largely cleared of its native population following Russia’s conquest in 1864.

The village of Aibga today is occupied by a handful of ethnic Russians, and Russia asserted that they would be better catered for under direct Russian rule. The Abkhazian government strongly opposed any transfer of land and attendant control of whatever mineral wealth might lie on or beneath it. A joint commission was established to investigate the matter. The leader of the Abkhazian delegation is toponymist Valerij Kvarchia, who has marshalled weighty documentary evidence to buttress Abkhazia’s right to the area. The matter awaits resolution.

In 2011, the Russian authorities decided to close the pedestrian border-crossing in order to widen it and thus improve the future flow of such traffic; most probably the consequence of lack of forethought rather than any hostile intent to threaten the viability of Abkhazia’s tourist trade. The problem was that, as the work was undertaken during the tourist season, all movement across the border was squeezed into the channel which, for a number of years, had been reserved for vehicular traffic and which has only a narrow pavement running along each side of the bridge. Frustration at the border has been the norm for years, but the queues in 2011 presented a particularly daunting and unappealing prospect.

That said, perhaps the greatest challenge to the traditional source of tourists for Abkhazia (viz. Russia) is the relatively high prices coupled with lowish standards of service and an infrastructure in severe need of upgrading, whose consequence is that Abkhazia has lost out over recent years to such destinations as Turkey and Egypt (to which Russians can easily obtain entry-visas). In many ways, visting Abkhazia is a reminder of life in Soviet times; a phenomenon that an Abkhazian journalist and insightful commentator on the modern scene, Inal Kashig, ascribes not to any emotional attachment among Abkhazians to the Soviet lifestyle but simply to the fact that they have little or no experience of anything different. This is, of course, a direct result of the years of isolation imposed upon the republic during the regime of sanctions and the deliberate shunning by the international community.

For several years, Russia’s attempts to gain membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had been blocked by Georgia, as the latter sought to win concessions with regard to Russia’s "occupation" of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia failed to gain agreement for the posting of its own border-guards on either side of the crossings from Russia into the two republics; but eventually, towards the close of 2011, Russia consented to a Swiss proposal that trade across the frontiers be monitored by an independent and neutral agency. Georgia found this measure acceptable and withdrew its objections to Russian membership of the WTO. Some irritation was expressed in Abkhazia that this could to a degree raise doubts about the absolute nature of Abkhazia’s independence, but at least trade can continue without direct interference, and simultaneously Russia has achieved its long-term goal.

A most important recent event was the visit of Archimandrite Dorofej Dbar of the Orthodox Church of Abkhazia to Istanbul in January 2012, where he was officially received by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Dbar explained in his interview to the Russian-language paper Èkho Moskvy that, when the Georgian bishop left Abkhazia, the priest Vissarion Apliaa, who is now in his 60s, took complete charge of the the Sukhum Eparchy. He failed in his attempt to persuade the Russian Patriarch Aleksej II before the latter’s death at the end of 2008 to sanction the Abkhazian church’s removal from the Georgian church to join that of Russia; when Aleksej’s successor, Kirill I, maintained his predecessor’s stance and dispatched a representative to the monastery in New Athos in 2010, the result was a schism within Abkhazia as a group of younger reformers came together under Dbar, heading what they declared to be a Holy Metropolis.

The ultimate aim is for the Abkhazian church to achieve autocephaly, though, for the time being, the Constantinople Patriarch is merely asked to define the canonical status of the church in Abkhazia, where reconciliation will be a first step towards the further development that might eventually lead to the desired autocephaly.

Khadzhimba, who came bottom of the poll in the 2011 presidential election, remained as head of the "Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia", and was a founder-member of a new opposition grouping called Apsadgjyl (Homeland), designed to be a focus for self-declared "patriots". In this capacity he addressed its opening congress on 19 January 2012. The grouping plans to contest the parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2013. One of its demands is for equal time to be allotted to parties on state TV and radio in the run-up to election-day. Khadzimba himself succeeded in gaining election to the new parliament in the first round of voting. In general, the turnout was low, and only a handful of former deputies won re-election.

The demographic legacy

A census was taken in Abkhazia in February 2011. There had been one in 2003, but the results, though never officially revealed, were deemed to be unreliable. The preliminary figures released on 28 March found the total population to be 242,826, a total revised on 28 December to 240,705. Respondents were able to define their own ethnicity, and the overwhelming majority of the 46,367 Kartvelian residents chose to continue the post-1930 Soviet practice of classifying themselves as "Georgians", even though, as stated above, almost all of them will be Mingrelians.

The main population figures in February 2011 were: Abkhazians - 122,069, "Georgians" - 43,166, Armenians - 41,864, Russians - 22,077, Mingrelians - 3,201,Greeks - 1,380. If these figures are accurate, Abkhazians now represent an absolute majority (at 50.71%). The initial reaction is perhaps that the Abkhazian total looks on the high side, if it is considered that the number of Abkhazians in the whole of Soviet Georgia in 1989 had been 95,853 and that 4% of their number in Abkhazia perished during the 1992-93 war. True, there has been some immigration from the diaspora community (mainly in Turkey), but only the awaited breakdown of the initial figures will demonstrate the balance between natural growth and influx from outside.

It might also be expected that both the Kartvelian and Armenian figures would be higher. There is a certain amount of criss-crossing of the Ingur border by local Mingrelians, with more of them likely to be found in Abkhazia during the summer months when they tend their farms, and this census was taken in winter. It should also be noted that the Greek and Israeli governments mounted rescue-missions to repatriate most members of their respective communities in autumn 1992. Abkhazia’s population today is under half what it was in 1989, and the most glaring difference between then and now clearly concerns the Kartvelian totals.

There has long been controversy about the ethnic composition of Abkhazia, and (without rehashing historical arguments over the Abkhazian vs Kartvelian proportions) it is necessary to say something about the marked reduction in Abkhazia’s Kartvelian population since the 1992-93 war. Many, perhaps most, members of this community chose to support the actions of the Georgian government in resorting to military means to resolve the crisis in Abkhazia that had arisen in the final years of the Soviet Union; a period when Georgia, in the course of pressing for its own independence, became consumed with chauvinist rhetoric that naturally alienated many of the republic’s minorities (Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Daghestanis included).

The fourteen months of bitter warfare cost thousands of lives, and much of Abkhazia's cultural patrimony was targeted for destruction. Sukhum's final recapture from the occupying Georgian forces on 27 September 1993 sparked a mass exodus of the Kartvelian population, concentrated in and around Sukhum and the south-eastern provinces of Gulripsh, Ochamchira and Gal, through fear of reprisals for (real or perceived) collaboration with the invaders. This population movement has been successfully portrayed by the Georgian side as an example of the kind of "ethnic cleansing" that the world was already experiencing in the Balkan maelstrom.

Both the UN Security Council and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organisation (Unpo) sent missions to the region in autumn 1993, and neither found any evidence to substantiate this accusation. Indeed, it is clear from a booklet published in English by the Mingrelian writer Guram Odisharia in 2001, in which he describes the horrors of his flight from his home on the outskirts of Sukhum through the K’odor valley into Svanetia, where many of the Mingrelian refugees were robbed by their fellow-Kartvelian Svans, that the exodus began before any Abkhazian (or allied ) troops arrived and the Abkhazians finally pronounced victory on 30 September.

Thus, whilst the bulk of Abkhazia’s Kartvelians may have ended up outside Abkhazia (primarily in Georgia), they removed themselves and were not forced out by gun-toting Abkhazians in furtherance of some governmental policy ethnically to cleanse the republic, which is surely what the term ethnic cleansing at heart implies. Their presence in miserable living conditions on Georgian soil has been used by the Tbilisi authorities for general propaganda purposes and as a means of attracting large amounts of humanitarian aid. Moreover, their numbers have been greatly exaggerated, for the larger the number claimed, the greater the amount of aid obtained (as late as 2010, President Saak’ashvili was referring to 500,000 expellees from Abkhazia).

Whatever the reason why pre-war Kartvelian residents of Abkhazia have for almost two decades found themselves as refugees in Georgia, their very existence is a stick used by Georgia to charge that Abkhazia cannot claim any kind of democratic legitimacy or valid elections with so many condemned to silence beyond its frontiers. Internally, Abkhazia’s human-rights record is also called into question over such issues as language-use in the Gal district’s schools, for it is often (albeit erroneously) asserted that Georgian is banned as the language of tuition in this Mingrelian community.

The next steps

Most western so-called experts on Georgian-Abkhazian relations have no knowledge of Georgian and are thus unable to utilise Georgian materials, which are crucial for an understanding of the conflicts that have blighted the Georgian scene since the late 1980s (at least); it is also pertinent to ask how many of them had any appreciation of Georgian (let alone Abkhazian) affairs prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. A comprehensive understanding of the history of inter-ethnic relations in the region is also surely necessary to grasp the essentials of the Georgian-Abkhazian (and Georgian-South Ossetian) conflicts and comment meaningfully thereon. Abkhazians too ask why the west seems to become exercised by alleged infringements of exclusively Kartvelian human rights, while ignoring the transgressions committed against the Abkhazians by the Georgian authorities and/or Mingrelia-based terrorist-groups (backed by Tbilisi) over the last two decades; they find here yet another example of the west’s notorious double standards.

The Abkhazians further resent the fact that the international community, led by the UK’s prime minister John Major and foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, precipitately recognised Georgia as soon as Eduard Shevardnadze returned there in spring 1992. This decision effectively gave Tbilisi carte blanche to behave as it wished within Georgia’s then recognised borders. This it did, while virtually all subsequent censure and opprobrium were reserved for the Abkhazian side, which was vilified as compliant puppets of the Kremlin.

Moscow’s actions in August 2008 have been almost universally condemned, but Moscow has its interests in the Caucasus, and it has acted in the way it deems they will best be served; to this extent, it has acted like most states and can hardly be blamed for that. Furthermore, its policy of recognition of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) fully accorded with the aspirations of the local majority-populations. This can be seen as a welcome rectification of the mistake made in recognising Georgia within its Soviet borders in the first place, and should serve as a model for the wider international community. The west’s reluctance to admit the error of 1992, combined with eighteen years of blindly sanctioning the futile policies emanating from Tbilisi, has resulted only in Abkhazia growing ever closer to Russia and in Russia consolidating its influence in the area. When Russia granted recognition, its leadership stated that it wanted its initiative to be followed. It is high time for that to happen.

The Abkhazians' effort to persuade relevant policy-makers of the correctness of this step would in my estimation be advanced if they were to outline their case in a clear, informed, and principled manner. Among the most relevant propositions are these:

* Much of Abkhazia’s housing-stock and infrastructure was destroyed in the war. According to the silence-is-consent principle, an international community which remained largely silent while Georgian forces wrought this devastation shares the blame and thus should now share the burden of making good the damage. Georgia has paid no reparations, and any money available to Abkhazia’s budget will be spent for the benefit of the Abkhazians and other members of the population who supported the Abkhazian cause

* The targets of Tbilisi’s military operations in the war were not only the Abkhazians but all non-Kartvelian members of the population. The relevant non-Kartvelians (especially the Armenians) know this, which is why Abkhazians’ desire for independence is supported by these members of the community, who participate fully in all socio-political activity and enjoy their own language-rights. The main goal of Abkhazia's language-policy is to ensure the survival of Abkhaz, an endangered language, and there is now a legal requirement for all state business to be conducted in Abkhaz (rather than Russian) from 2015. This will present difficulties not only for non-Abkhazians but also for those ethnic Abkhazians who have little or no competence in the mother-tongue, and so all efforts must be directed towards realising this ambitious aim as far as is practically and financially possible

* The Abkhazian government has no objection to Mingrelians returning to/residing in the province of Gal, where, if they wish, they can exercise their rights to have their children educated through the medium of Georgian. In many cases, however, Georgian textbooks in such subjects as history and geography demonstrably pervert the relevant facts relating to Abkhazia, and it is vital that the relevant materials are subject to independent scrutiny to guarantee their accuracy. It is wrong to impose, or try to impose, ethnic categories (in the way that Georgian ethnicity was actually imposed on Mingrelians, Svans and Laz by the central authorities circa 1930), and important to respect the fact that people's sense of their identity can both shift over time and contain plural elements; by the same token, acceptance of the distinction (which Abkhazians tend to make) between Mingrelians and Georgians, and the growth of Mingrelian pride in their particular, historically marginalised, language and culture, could help greatly to reconstruct relations among people scarred by conflict and to reduce the threat of its recurrence

* Once the economy is on a secure footing, the infrastructure restored, and Abkhazia wins recognition from Georgia (including the signing of a non-aggression pact and the establishment of normal, good-neighbourly relations), Abkhazia will undertake to consider the possibility of gradually returning more refugees to areas outside the Gal district. Their integration will need to be carefully managed so that it contributes to Abkhazia's nation-buillding process rather than becomes a source of new division. It is essential, for example, that the refugees become citizens of the Republic of Abkhazia (which of course entails a requirement to respect its laws and constitution). This will both recognise their civic equality and help address any fear among Abkhazia's other ethnic groups that the effort to build a fair and democratic society will be undermined by the mass-return of a refugee-community which could prove susceptible to Georgian manipulation. After all, Abkhazia had a non-Kartvelian majority prior to the start of the war, and in Mikhail Gorbachev’s pre-war referendum of 17 March 1991 an absolute majority of Abkhazia’s electorate had voted not to join Georgia’s drive for independence, fearing the consequences thereof. In the meantime, everything feasible will be done to guarantee the safety of the Gal district’s Mingrelians and to make them feel proud to be citizens of the Republic of Abkhazia

• Abkhazia is open to partnerships with, and investment from, all interested states, but, despite diktats from those seeking to impose some flawed pax Americana et Britannica, there will be no abandoning of the independence so dearly won in the war and maintained during succeeding years of isolation and sanctions.

For years, the view was expressed that the South Ossetian problem would be the easier to resolve. And yet it was the five-day war in/around South Ossetia in August 2008 that led to the "unfreezing" of the so-called frozen Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, when Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev offered them both recognition. Since then, the two young states have usually been harnessed together and treated as a pair. But more observers are expressing the self-evident fact that Abkhazia has by far the greater capacity for sustaining a viable independence. Abkhazia should be given the chance to demonstrate its capacity so to do by exploiting its potential with the full support of the international community, which thus far has manifested only an alarming tendency to sympathise with the aggressor.

--------------

Author's note: I am grateful to Liana Kvarchelia, Asida Lomia and Michael Costello who kindly offered suggestions or commented on the first draft of this article. Any errors remain my own responsibility.

Quick Links

Contact

SOAS, University of London Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG.

  • Tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4332

You are here: Home Articles Abkhazia - Georgia Abkhazia: from conflict to statehood