Prof. George Hewitt

The Transcaucasian conflicts of August 2008: roots and lessons

Global Issues 11, 2009

The events that occurred in or around both South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 7 August 2008 were astonishing in many ways. What could have possessed the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to launch a military assault on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval,1 and its environs as that day was drawing to a close and locals were taking to their beds shortly after he had issued a televised assurance that rising tensions would be peacefully resolved? Why did the United States and British representatives at the United Nations Security Council block in the immediately following hours a request from the Russian delegation that the council issue a press statement demanding a halt to hostilities? Why did much of the Western media allow themselves to be so gullibly beguiled by Georgia’s spin-machine that the Georgian-wrought destruction in Tskhinval was occasionally even presented as the result of Russian bombing of Gori (Stalin’s birthplace), a town which was never directly targeted by Russian forces (though a residential block there was hit, with tragic consequences, when a bomb aimed at a local military installation went astray)?

How did Russia’s response to the killings in South Ossetia and its pre-emptive action in Abkhazia, intended to forestall a similar Georgian assault there, come to be so widely described as the pre-planned invasion of a sovereign neighbour, with the Kremlin consequently being condemned for acting in such a way as to make likely a possible return to the Cold War (if not actually to pose a threat of World War III)? Why was the conflict lazily portrayed as a Russian–Georgian affair? And following the fighting, why was Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia basically dismissed as a land-grab, with little, if any, analysis of what lay behind the decision?

Anyone watching, listening to, or reading the news throughout the month of August 2008 will be familiar with all of the above. Less well-known are the issues that have plagued Georgia’s relations with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia for decades (not to say centuries) and which led to wars in both regions as the Soviet Union collapsed. This article addresses these issues (especially with regard to Abkhazia). 

Tsarist Background 

The first official contacts between Russians and Georgians occurred towards the end of the sixteenth century, as Russia began its drive south. By this stage, the once-powerful medieval Georgian kingdom, in the creation of which at the turn of the first millennium a crucial role had been played by the kingdom of Abkhazia,2 had fragmented following the Mongol depredations of the thirteenth century. One result was that there was then no single state-entity bearing the name “Georgia”. The various minor statelets and principalities in Georgia became prey to incursions by the (Ottoman) Turks in the west and the (Safavid) Persians in the east. And it was the Georgian Erek’le II, ruler of the central kingdom of Kartli and the eastern kingdom of K’akheti, who gave tsarist Russia its first foothold in Transcaucasia when, in a move to gain respite from unwelcome Persian attention, he signed in 1783 the Treaty of Georgievsk with Catherine the Great. Improvements began to be made to the Daryal Pass, which linked the (North) Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz to the Transcaucasus (via Kartli’s capital of Tbilisi, then known as T’pilisi, which is source for the older English version Tiflis). As the Georgian Encyclopaedia of 1985 notes, the pass acquired a greater strategic significance after the formal annexation of Kartli–K’akheti by Russia in 1801, around which time the route was redesignated the “Georgian Military Highway”.

It is important to avoid the mistaken belief that these events of 1783 and 1801 represented a contractual relationship between Russia and (a then non-existent) “Georgia”; the western province of Mingrelia under the Dadiani princes, which traditionally had formed a buffer between Abkhazia and Georgian-speaking territories (for the native language of Mingrelia was Mingrelian, sister to, but not mutually intelligible with, Georgian), came under Russian protection in 1803, followed in 1804 by the western Georgian kingdom of Imereti. Abkhazia was taken under Russian protection on 17 February 1810. However, Abkhazia continued to administer its own affairs until June 1864, one month after the end of the Great Caucasian War, at which point the rule there of the Chachba princely dynasty was abolished and Abkhazia restyled the “Sukhum Military Department”; the south-easternmost province of Samurzaq’ano, largely but not exactly coterminous with today’s Gal(i) District, had come under Russian control in 1845 as a result of Abkhaz–Mingrelian squabbling over rights to the region, the Mingrelians, too, being allowed to look after their own affairs until 1857.

With allies in the Orthodox Ossetians, who occupied the central portion of the North Caucasus, and the Orthodox Kartlians and K’akhetians across the main Caucasian mountain ridge, the tsars sought to win control over the freedom-loving mountain peoples who lived either side of the (North) Ossetians. Immediately to the east were the Chechens and Ingush, relatively recent converts to Islam, and further to the east the various tribes of polyglot Daghestan, where Islam was long established. In the west were the North-West-Caucasian-speaking Circassians, Ubykhs, and Abkhazians, related peoples whose adherence to Islam was shallower and coexisted (certainly among the Abkhazians) with Orthodoxy and elements of paganism. The brutality meted out over decades to the mountaineers by a succession of Russian military commanders, most notoriously by Mikhail Ermolov between 1816 and 1827, has been richly described in several accounts, of which mention may be made of those by John Baddeley (The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, 1908, republished by Curzon Press in 1999) and Lesley Blanch (in the less academically orientated The Sabres of Paradise, 1960). The North-East Caucasus was notionally pacified with the surrender of the resistance leader Imam Shamil in 1859. Thereafter, the whole of Russia’s military might was concentrated against the North-West Caucasian alliance, which yielded to the inevitable on 21 May 1864.

Mass migrations were to decimate the North-West Caucasian peoples and leave but rump populations behind on their native terrain. Reporting from Sukhum on 17 March 1864, British (Vice-) Consul Charles Hamer Dickson reported to Earl Russell in London: “As the Russian troops gain ground on the coast, the natives are not allowed to remain there on any terms, but are compelled either to transfer themselves to the plains of the Kouban or emigrate to Turkey.”3 Most of the Circassians and Abkhazians together with the entire Ubykh nation chose to migrate in what is commonly known in Russian as the maxadzhirstvo (exile). As a result of these population shifts, the majority Circassian and Abkhazian populations today live not in the Caucasus but in diaspora communities based in Turkey; the last fully competent speaker of Ubykh died there in 1992.

The specific consequences for Abkhazia of these tumultuous events were abolition of home rule under the Chachbas, and being placed, as the “Sukhum Military Department”, under the control of the Russian governor-general of Kutaisi (capital of western Georgia’s Imereti province).

In the wake of an 1866 revolt against land reform, twenty thousand Abkhazians underwent their own amhadzhyrra (as this “exile” is known in Abkhaz) when forced to vacate the Dal Valley and Ts’ebelda (in the K’odor Valley). Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–8 and a further uprising, the entire nation was branded “guilty” and forbidden to settle along the coast or live in the towns of Sukhum, Gudauta and Ochamchira. Another reform was introduced in 1868 when the Sukhum Military Department was divided into the regions of Pitsunda (from the town of Gagra to the K’odor Valley) in the north and Ochamchira (from the K’odor to the river Ingur) in the south. In 1883, the Military Department was downgraded and renamed a Military District, which from 1903 to 1906 was made directly subservient to the Russian authorities responsible for the Caucasus (based in Tbilisi). From 1904 to 1917, Gagra and its environs were re-assigned to the Sochi District of the Black Sea Province. Given this history, one might have predicted that the same kind of virulently anti-Russian sentiment would characterise the Abkhazians as has remained potent among the Chechens ever since 1859. But attitudes in Abkhazia were to change. 

The Georgian Factor 

Abkhazia after the purging of its autochthons was well described by the distinguished English alpinist, Douglas Freshfield, in his magnificent Exploration of the Caucasus, where he writes on the theme of “The Solitude of Abkhasia” thus:

What is to be the future of this Earthly Paradise? Its ancient and primaeval inhabitants are gone. They have been exiled for a quarter of a century; their dwellings and their tombs are alike lost in the glorious vegetation that feeds nothing but bears and mosquitoes and fevers. A people that had lived the same life in the same place since the beginning of history has been dispersed and destroyed. The Abkhasians have vanished, leaving behind them no records, and hardly sufficient material for the ethnologist who desires to ascertain to what branch of the world’s ‘families’ they belonged.4

Georgian educationalist Iak’ob Gogebashvili had an answer to the question of what should be done with the depopulated Abkhazia, which he propounded in a series of 1877 newspaper articles entitled vin unda iknes dasaxlebuli apxazetshi? (Who should be settled in Abkhazia?) that were brought together in volume 1 of his collected works, published in 1952. The fact that “Abkhazia will never again be able to see its own children” moved him to ask which group could serve as “colonisers”.5 Gogebashvili argued that, because of the extent of malarial marshes (since drained) “to which the Abkhazians had become acclimatised over many centuries in their own region”, the obvious colonisers were the neighbouring Mingrelians. In addition, they were the most adept of the Kartvelians (viz., Georgians, Mingrelians, Laz and Svans) at adapting to new conditions; there was a shortage of land in Mingrelia; and they had already gained control of commerce in Sukhum and Ochamchira (given the prohibition on living there placed on the Abkhazians).

One could be forgiven for seeing Gogebashvili’s proposal as entirely unobjectionable; after all, if attractive land is vacant, should not someone make use of it? But Gogebashvili’s works contain the seeds of what was to develop into something much more sinister, namely, the questioning of Abkhazian rights to the very territory. Calling the Mingrelians “in every respect the ideal colonisers for Abkhazia”, Gogebashvili in his 1877 articles said that “from the viewpoint of historical rights” they were also “more the legal heirs of the Abkhazians who have emigrated”. He claimed that the Mingrelians, “in the not so distant past”, had held the eastern part of Abkhazia, but “after the taking of Istanbul by the Turks and the Ottomans’ strengthening in the Black Sea, the Abkhazians, with the Turks’ support, expelled the Mingrelians beyond the [river] Ingur and occupied part of what was then Mingrelia’s territory”. It would be no more than “an act of historical fairness”, Gogebashvili argued, to allow the settlement of Abkhazia by the Mingrelians—a restitution of “what was snatched away and its handing over to a people who are the co-religionists of, and faithful towards, Russia”.

The early years of the twentieth century were not exactly calm ones for Abkhazia, and in 1907 L. Voronov published a booklet Abkhazia Is Not Georgia (in Russian) to counter attempts already under way to distort local history. But it was probably during the turbulent years in the wake of the Russian Revolution that Georgia finally replaced Russia as the central object of Abkhazians’ suspicions and fears, a shift in perspective which subsequent Georgian actions have only strengthened. Abkhazians had no sense of belonging to any Georgian entity and chose in September 1917 to enter the Union of the United Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. Shortly afterwards, in November 1917, they established an Abkhazian People’s Council as a legitimate organ of power.

Georgia declared independence on 26 May 1918 and on 11 June signed a treaty with Abkhazia, thereby recognising its non-Georgian status. But thereafter, by a mixture of political intrigue and violence under General Mazniev (Mazniashvili) and his lieutenant, T’ukhareli, Georgia forced Abkhazia into its orbit. In August 1919, Sir Oliver Wardrop, the British representative to Georgia, then under Menshevik rule, sent to the Foreign Office a “Memorandum on the Abkhazian Question” by an Abkhazian officer, one Lieutenant Khasaia, written on 10 June. In it we read:

The Abkhasian nation threatened by Bolshevism concluded a temporary treaty with Georgia on July 11th 1918. This treaty was signed without the knowledge of the majority of members of the Abkhasian People’s Council; when the Abkhasian nation heard of that factitious treaty it criticized and rejected it … Later, during the … elections [to the Abkhazian People’s Council], the most open pressure upon the will of the electors was made and the elections themselves took place under threat of Georgian bayonets … [W]e beg the representatives of Great Britain to inform the British Government that the Abkhasian Nation requests Georgia to lead Georgian troops and [the] Georgian Administration away from Abkhasian territory.6

Georgia’s Menshevik constitution of 1921 mentioned Abkhazia as an autonomy within Georgia without specifying the nature of any state–legal relations between the autonomy and the centre, but, before promulgation, the government collapsed as the Red Army seized control.

Georgian troops applied Georgia’s policy of “fire and sword” also in South Ossetia during this period (1918–21), which witnessed a number of bloodily suppressed uprisings against Menshevik rule. It is, thus, hardly surprising that the newly constituted Soviet Union felt compelled to assign special status to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in recognition of their respective histories. 

The Soviet Years 

The Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed on 31 March 1921 and recognised by Georgia’s Revolutionary Committee on 21 May. On 16 December, Abkhazia and Georgia contracted a treaty of alliance. On 13 December 1922, the Abkhazian SSR entered the Transcaucasian Federation (in treaty-alliance with the Georgian SSR). In February 1931, with the position of Georgia’s most prominent son, Ioseb Besarionis-dze Dzhughashvili (aka Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin), finally unchallengeable in the Kremlin, Abkhazia was reduced to an autonomous republic (ASSR) within Georgia, the status it retained until the Soviet Union’s collapse; Stalin, of course, had been Lenin’s long-serving appointee for nationalities’ policy. Even during the 1920s, steps were taken to play down the importance of Abkhazians within Abkhazia. Daniel Müller’s comprehensive analysis of demographic data shows inter alia how the thirty thousand or so Samurzaq’anoans, the inhabitants of south-eastern Abkhazia, who were designated as Abkhazians in the 1926 Soviet Encyclopaedia, were summarily reclassified as “Kartvelians” in the 1926 census.7 (Note that some time around 1930 all Mingrelians were officially designated as “Georgians”.)

Subsequently, as Stalin’s Terror got under way, it no longer became merely a matter of manipulating the ethnic categorisation of Abkhazia’s established population. Stalin’s Transcaucasian overlord, the Mingrelian Lavrent’i Beria, later notorious as head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, instituted a policy of forced transplantation of mostly Mingrelians into Abkhazia to swamp the native residents. In fact, as the 1952 Georgian editors of the afore-mentioned 1877 work of Gogebashvili unashamedly acknowledge, “Gogebashvili’s ideas on the settlement of Abkhazia’s empty territory by Georgians achieved their actual realisation under the conditions of Soviet power”! The anti-Abkhazian measures, following Beria’s appointment as Stalin’s NKVD chief in 1938, continued under the direction of his successor in Tbilisi, K’andid Chark’viani (father of Mikheil Saakashvili’s first London ambassador). The Abkhazian script (like that of Ossetic in South Ossetia only) was shifted to a Georgian base in 1938; schools teaching in the Abkhazian language were closed in 1945–6 and replaced by schools teaching in Georgian; publishing and broadcasting in Abkhaz in effect ceased.

The Abkhazians only narrowly escaped deportation in the late 1940s. Seemingly to provide an “academic” pretext for such a measure, Georgian literature expert P’avle Ingoroq’va manufactured the fictitious theory, published first in the journal mnatobi “Luminary” (1949–51) and later as part of his book giorgi merchule (1954), that “modern-day” Abkhazians migrated to Abkhazia from the north Caucasus only in the seventeenth century, replacing and taking the name of history’s “true” Abkhazians, who were a Georgian tribe—ergo, Abkhazia is Georgian territory. Though lauded by a range of Georgian academics, otherwise distinguished in their various fields, Ingoroq’va’s absurd hypothesis was bravely condemned by Georgia’s Abkhaz expert, Ketevan Lomtatidze, in the debate that followed the 1954 publication. (The manuscript of giorgi merchule had been handed to the printers in 1951, well before Stalin’s death in 1953.) After Stalin’s demise, his anti-Abkhazian policies were reversed, with a new Abkhaz script devised and schooling and publishing in Abkhaz reintroduced. (Interestingly, Gogebashvili’s 1877 articles were omitted from the 1955 edition of his works.)

Nonetheless, Abkhazians periodically (roughly every decade) mounted demonstrations against their homeland’s subordination to Tbilisi. The most serious of these (prior to the era of the Soviet collapse) occurred in 1978, when 130 intellectuals wrote to the Kremlin to request Abkhazia’s removal from Georgia and its inclusion in the Russian Federation; in one night all Georgian names were painted over on road-signs. Moscow was so alarmed that Georgian party secretary Eduard Shevardnadze was despatched with instructions to cool tempers. This was achieved in part by the establishment of the Abkhazian State University, with its three language sectors: Abkhazian, Russian and Georgian (the largest). However, the 130 intellectuals lost their jobs, and Abkhazia’s status remained unaltered. The Kartvelian (mostly Mingrelian) population in Abkhazia continued to grow, so that by the time of the last Soviet census (1989) Kartvelians outnumbered Abkhazians by 239,872 to 93,267, though they still fell below an absolute majority at 45.7 per cent (Abkhazia’s population includes significant numbers of Armenians and Russians). 

Late- and Post-Soviet Conflict 

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power and encouraged public discussion of grievances through his policy of glasnost, it is hardly surprising that the Abkhazians took the opportunity to reassert their displeasure at their territory’s subordinate status within Georgia. Matters began to turn nasty (and not only for the Abkhazians) when the anti-communist opposition in Tbilisi started sowing the seeds of nationalism in the all-too-fertile Georgian soil. The popular rallying cry of “Georgia for the Georgians” was unhealthy when in 1989 Kartvelians amounted only to 70.1 per cent of Georgia’s population. But, as Ingoroq’va’s ideas were resuscitated and Georgians started to refer to the Abkhazians as apsuebi, not out of respect for the Abkhazians’ self-designation (apswa) but as an insulting suggestion that they were interlopers on the land of the “true” Abkhazians, self-delusionally argued to be a historically Kartvelian tribe, the threat was all too obvious. The fatal clashes in Sukhum and Ochamchira on 15–16 July 1989 over the opening in Sukhum of a branch of Tbilisi University (to rival and undermine the Abkhazian State University established there in 1978) were a foretaste of the bloodshed to come. Soviet troops had to restore order after at least sixteen people were killed and more than one hundred injured in violence between Abkhazians and Georgians.

In the 17 March 1991 referendum called by Gorbachev on the renewal of the Soviet Union, which was boycotted in Georgia proper, Abkhazia’s citizens voted in favour by an absolute majority, which meant that some Kartvelians must have supported preserving the Union. It was clear that the majority of voters within Abkhazia rejected the idea of becoming part of an independent Georgia, and when Georgia gained that independence in the wake of the Soviet collapse in late 1991, the countdown to war began.

The preceding historical background-information indicates two things: (1) nineteenth-century history hardly makes the Abkhazians natural candidates to be the pro-Russian puppets they are often portrayed as being (by Georgians and their Western sympathisers); (2) the Georgians have only themselves to blame for acting over many decades in ways that have induced distrust and resentment among the Abkhazians (and South Ossetians). Georgian apologists prefer to blame the Kremlin for Soviet misdeeds, but the inescapable fact remains that the grossest anti-Abkhazian policies were dictated by a Georgian (Stalin) in what he deemed Georgian interests.

Despite Abkhazian objections to the policies that subordinated them to Tbilisi and that by 1989 had reduced them to a 17.8 per cent minority in their ancestral homeland, on a personal level relations with the Kartvelians living alongside them were good, with many Abkhazians being fluent in Mingrelian (less so in Georgian). Had a wiser course (that of federalisation) been adopted by its anti-communist oppositionists and post-Soviet leadership, Georgia might have carried all its minorities along with it into a peaceful and prosperous independence. But such a dream was never realisable, given the majority’s chauvinist orientation and arrogant assumption that Stalin’s frontiers for Georgia would outlive the larger state he had crafted. Russia needed to do nothing to frustrate Georgian aspirations; the Georgians did that themselves.

Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a Mingrelian, was deposed in a coup in January 1992, and Eduard Shevardnadze was invited home from Moscow to lead the ruling junta. The West had wisely refrained from recognising Georgia under the unstable Gamsakhurdia, who had instigated a war against South Ossetia. But it unwisely rushed to offer recognition as a favour to the former Soviet foreign minister. Stalin’s Georgian borders thus received international approval, although a civil war was raging between Gamsakhurdia’s foes and his supporters in Mingrelia and tensions were rising also inside Abkhazia.

After participating in negotiations to end Gamsakhurdia’s war in South Ossetia via the Dagomys Accords (June 1992), Shevardnadze celebrated Georgia’s accession to the United Nations by launching war against the Abkhazians (14 August). Diaspora Abkhazians and volunteers from the north Caucasus (including Cossacks) rushed to aid the threatened minority, and victory was achieved at the end of September 1993, when most (but not all) of the Kartvelian population fled before troops of the triumphant alliance reached their settlements. The Georgian authorities have done little to improve the lot of the resulting refugees, apart from exploiting them for propaganda purposes (vastly exaggerating their numbers in the process).

Shevardnadze’s political neck was saved by subsequent Russian intervention inside western Georgia to prevent Gamsakhurdia’s forces from marching on Tbilisi and retaking control; this operation by Russia elicited none of the Western squeals of horror occasioned by its actions in August 2008. A formal Abkhazian ceasefire was signed in Moscow in the spring of 1994, when a demilitarised zone along the river Ingur was established and a contingent of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, but essentially Russian) troops assigned to Abkhazia as peace-keepers. At the time, the West was quite happy with such Russian involvement, just as it had been with the creation of a tripartite (Georgian–Ossetian–Russian) force to secure the earlier ceasefire along South Ossetia’s borders. The West’s attention was concentrated on the Balkans in an odd reprise of the situation in the mid-nineteenth century.

The following years (up to, and beyond, Shevardnadze’s ousting by Saakashvili in November 2003) were characterised by:

• charges that the war had actually been between Georgians and Russians (not Abkhazians) and that the Abkhazians were guilty of “aggressive separatism”, whereas events are seen more accurately as Georgian aggressive state-integrationism;

• Georgia’s offer to the Abkhazians, by way of a permanent settlement, of nothing more than “maximal autonomy” (namely, a return to the status quo ante, which had led to war in the first place);

• accusations that Russia was frustrating each step towards resolution, whereas the maximum concession the victorious Abkhazians themselves were prepared to consider was, naturally enough (given that the war imposed upon them had cost the lives of 4 per cent of their people and ruined so much of the country’s infrastructure, for which reparations have yet to be paid), a confederal relationship with Georgia, something that Georgian negotiators rejected;

• introduction of a CIS blockade on Abkhazia and closure of its northern border over the river Psou with Russia to all but holders of Abkhazian documents or Russian passports;

• repeated acts of sabotage and terrorism inside Abkhazia by groups operating out of Mingrelia such as the “Forest Brethren” and the “White Legion”, culminating in May 1998 in a renewed resort to military force by Georgia, successfully repulsed. Terrorist acts were still being perpetrated in the spring of 2008.

Exasperated by all of the above, annoyed at the West’s constant refusal to take seriously their demand to exercise their right to self-determination, and suspecting that they were being punished for having had the effrontery to defeat one of the West’s (then-)darlings, the Abkhazians finally declared formal independence at the end of 1999, when amendments were introduced to the constitution they had promulgated on 26 November 1994. In practice, little changed, and life remained difficult in conditions of isolation and economic stringency. Sukhum’s airport, the largest in the entire Caucasus, stayed idle, and the single-track railway-line, the only such link to Russia for even Georgia and Armenia, was inoperative. Georgia itself, however, was attracting more attention once the export of Caspian oil over its territory came on the agenda.

Prospects for Abkhazia began to brighten when Vladimir Putin during his first term as Russia’s president enabled Abkhazian citizens to apply both for Russian pensions and passports. Those able to afford the latter had renewed possibilities of travel beyond Russia’s frontiers. Perhaps 80 per cent of Abkhazians currently hold such passports, now available more cheaply. 

The Saakashvili Era 

Saakashvili snatched power in November 2003 in the so-called “Rose Revolution”; he subsequently won presidential elections in early 2004, promising to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity within his first term. The West, especially the United States, immediately dropped Shevardnadze and blindly switched allegiance to his usurper. Hopes were high for the new president, whose cabinet was packed with young, Western-orientated, English-speaking ministers like himself. Predictably, the administration of President George W. Bush (so susceptible to anti-Russian Cold War thinking) was smitten, and US investment in Georgia increased, together with military training and the provision of military equipment. It had long been naively assumed that the South Ossetian problem would be easier for Tbilisi to resolve than that of Abkhazia, the larger and better defended of the two disputed territories, and it was not long before Saakashvili started agitating in South Ossetia. Then, in spring 2006, he introduced hundreds of troops, mendaciously described to the outside world as a “police force”, into the Upper K’odor Valley, the only part of Abkhazian territory not taken back into Abkhazian control in September 1993; this rightly caused the Abkhazians to break off all negotiations, as it violated the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

Georgia, despite the nature of its earliest ties with Russia, had long become a byword for anti‑Russianism, and Saakashvili seemed to regard it as part of his mandate to voice such sentiments, taking particular relish in baiting Putin. In these circumstances, it was not surprising that relations between the two states rapidly deteriorated. In 2006, the Russian border with Abkhazia over the river Psou was finally opened to normal traffic.

Meanwhile, another cloud was developing on the horizon. Whether any assurance had been given to Moscow on the reunification of Germany that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would not expand eastwards, membership was eventually granted to a number of former Warsaw Pact states and even to the (former Soviet) Baltic republics. This cannot have pleased the Kremlin, but it is no secret that it particularly resented the suggestion of a yet further NATO advance into Georgia (and the Ukraine). Thus, for President Bush to urge at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008 a proposal to admit these two former Soviet republics was both to ignore a range of persuasive counter-arguments and to provide one more illustration of his administration’s dangerously cavalier approach to international affairs. The proposal should have been summarily rejected, but the insistence of some of NATO’s former eastern bloc members (exercising their own anti-Russian agenda) resulted in a decision to review Georgia and Ukraine’s entry bids at the alliance’s December 2008 summit. The part played in the events of August 2008 by that foolish promise of ultimate membership will long be debated. Since NATO membership is not open to countries with territorial disputes, Abkhazia and South Ossetia nervously wondered what the summer would bring.

Abkhazia announced that evidence of an abandoned Georgian spring offensive had been uncovered, as unmanned military drones (acquired from Israel) started to fly from the Upper K’odor Valley, a further infringement of the ceasefire. On 19 May, a Georgian website carried an article by journalists Ian Carver and Joni Simonishvili entitled, “Georgian War Footing Takes Concrete Form—Literally”; the accompanying photo showed a concrete unloading bay for tanks on a refurbished stretch of the railway line near the river Ingur on the Mingrelian side of the border.

But on 7 August it was the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval that bore the brunt of the attack by Georgia. As stated above, the US and British delegations at the United Nations blocked the call for an immediate ceasefire. Did they do so in the hope that Georgia would achieve a quick victory in South Ossetia, speedily overrun Abkhazia, and thus finally end the stalemate of fifteen to sixteen years of “no peace, no war”, allowing for quick Georgian entry to NATO? Russia eventually reversed Georgian gains in South Ossetia, and decisive Russian and Abkhazian action in the Upper K’odor Valley ejected (amazingly, but mercifully, without resistance) the Georgian troops lodged there. Russia’s destruction of Georgia’s command centres in Gori and Senak’i and its sinking in Poti of the vessels that threatened Abkhazia’s exposed coast were perfectly proper in terms of military logic: Georgia’s capacity to mount further acts of aggression was removed.

A host of Western politicians, UN representatives and NATO spokesmen angrily condemned Russian “aggression”, ignoring the fact that Russia held an international mandate for peace-keeping in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that several of its peace-keepers had been killed in the Georgian assault on the latter territory; it is hard to believe that any Western power would have acted differently from Russia in the same circumstances.

The Gordian Knot of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was then boldly cut by President Dmitry Medvedev’s recognition of their independence on 26 August, a move that immediately brought universal (and noisy) rejoicing in both republics, but which occasioned much indignation among Georgia’s backers, though, as of the start of 2009, the hysteria seems to have evaporated (along with Georgia’s chances of NATO membership). 

Lessons to Be Drawn 

The West made a catastrophic error in deciding in 1991 that no lower entity than a union-republic was worthy of recognition on the break-up of the Soviet Union. Recognising Georgia the following year within its Stalinist borders helped to make hostilities inevitable by sacrificing Abkhazia to Georgian territorial integrity. After Abkhazia’s military victory in 1993, the West pursued a simplistic (not to say retarded) policy of giving unconditional support to virtually every demand by Georgia, which has resulted only in Abkhazia’s being driven ever more firmly into Russia’s embrace—quite the opposite of what was intended. In recent years, the West seems to have believed that if Georgia, as a “beacon of democracy” (a description at which Saakashvili’s many Georgian opponents would baulk), could also be helped to become an economic powerhouse, not only would Georgia’s independence be strengthened, but the Abkhazians and South Ossetians would be weaned away from their attraction to Russia and throw in their lot with Tbilisi for financial benefit. Strangely, here again are nineteenth-century echoes.

On 1 February 1855, a British official, one Jas. Brant, sent a confidential “Memorandum Respecting Georgia” from the Turkish city of Erzeroum to the Foreign Office in London. In it he suggested expulsion of the Russians from Georgia and the establishment of a British-mandated Georgian state to “embrace the Government of the Caucasus, as defined by Russia”. Brant urged that the “first and chief advantage” of this step would be “a material guarantee that Russia shall never be allowed to regain her influence in the East . . . Georgia will soon become the emporium of a vast commerce . . . and the new road thus opened to trade between Europe and Asia would enrich and civilise all the countries through which it would pass”.8But Russia’s consolidation of its position in the Caucasus over the next 136 years (with an interruption in 1917–21), for good or ill, turned the whole region very much into Russia’s back yard. And, for all its anti-Russian clamouring, Georgia was to achieve one of Brant’s aspirations by becoming perhaps the most prosperous, and certainly most attractive, of the Soviet republics.9

Although the Kremlin accepted the loss of the non-Russian Soviet republics with remarkablesang froid, the level of its attachment to this very special part of Russia’s “near-abroad” seems to have been woefully underestimated by those who, like NATO, thought to encroach. No one would argue that Russia’s actions in August 2008 were motivated by pure altruism (what state ever so acts?). A specific set of circumstances existed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia which licensed Russia’s action; there is no compelling reason to suppose that other neighbours need fear similar incursions.

Russia’s acceptance of the reality that neither the Abkhazians nor the South Ossetians would ever consent to a return to rule from Tbilisi (based on a deeper knowledge of the area than possessed by Washington or Whitehall) and its recognition of their independence should be welcomed and emulated so that serious thought can belatedly be given to how the international community acting together (i.e., along with Russia) might improve the lot of the whole Caucasus, needlessly blighted now for two decades and deserving of a brighter future. To do otherwise would amount to continuing the failed policies of the past (including siding with the aggressor).

Is there a lesson in all of the above that the Georgians themselves might profitably learn? We have seen how one bit of Gogebashvili’s 1877 advice was put into practice by Stalin and Beria in the 1930s, when they promoted the settlement of Abkhazia by Georgians. If another precept offered in Gogebashvili’s articles had been followed by Georgia as it strove for independence during both the Menshevik and post-Soviet periods, its goals might have been more successfully achieved: “A state is the stronger and more steadfast to the extent that the well-being of the people entering it stands at a high level, and vice versa.” South Ossetia, which in the long term is likely to unite with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation, and Abkhazia are lost to Georgia. Gogebashvili’s sage counsel should serve as Tbilisi’s future guiding principle regarding the remaining minorities living compactly around Georgia’s borders (such as the Armenians of Dzhavakheti, the Azerbaijanis of Dmanisi-Marneuli, and even the Mingrelians) before the danger arises of those borders shrinking even further.



1. Note that the spelling of the city, and of the Abkhazian capital, Sukhum, is a sensitive issue. The terminal “i” often used in the West for both cities is the Georgian nominative case-ending. Therefore, to use it is (for some unwittingly) to support the Georgian claim to the two territories. Consequently, the South Ossetians and Abkhazians vehemently object to its use, preferring respectively “Tskhinval” and “Sukhum”.

2. For details of early and medieval Abkhazian history, see my “Abkhazia: A Problem of Identity and Ownership”, Central Asian Survey 12, no. 3 (1993), pp. 267–323. (Also available at [].)

3. Dickson’s report was one of a number of “Papers Respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants to Turkey” presented to the House of Commons on 6 June 1864.

4. Douglas Freshfield, The Exploration of the Caucasus (London and New York: Arnold, 1896), p. 211.

5. The 1952 editors of the collected edition felt obliged to gloss this term thus: “Gogebashvili here and below uses the word ‘coloniser’ not in its modern sense but to mean the persons settled there.” Obviously, they saw it as awkward that one of the leading Georgians of the 1870s should describe as “colonisers” Kartvelian settlers on territory that by 1952 had long and strenuously been argued to be Georgian soil.

6. See Anita Burdett, ed., Caucasian Boundaries: Documents and Maps 1802–1946(Cambridge: Archive Editions, 1996), pp. 528–37.

7. Daniel Müller, “Demography: Ethno-Demographic History, 1886–1989”, in The Abkhazians: A Handbook, ed. George Hewitt (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 218‑39.

8. Burdett, ed., Caucasian Boundaries, pp. 91–2.

9. A distinguished Georgian intellectual, while making a toast to my native Great Britain back in the 1980s, alluded to Georgia’s never having been the subject of a “worthy” imperial power, by which I assumed he meant that Georgia would have benefited had it been part of the British (rather than the Russian) Empire.

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