On September 30, 1993 Georgian troops retreated across the Inguri river, leaving behind Abkhazia, one of the richest
provinces of the former Soviet republic whose independence was
regained in April, 1991 as a result of the collapse of the USSR.
Simultaneously with the evacuation of Georgian troops, Abkhazia was abandoned
by almost 80% of its civilian population (Georgians, Greeks, Armenians and
others). This was one of the results of an “unknown war” of 1991-93, that
added one more destabilizing element to the whole bunch of conflicts in the
troubled Caucasus. Another result was the
establishment of a self proclaimed “Republic of Abkhazia”
– an isolated territory under loose control of a violent, non-democratic
regime, officially recognized by no government in the world.
The Abkhazian war posed quite a few questions, the main of which are the
1. How could Apsua-Abkhazians, a tiny ethnic group constituting less than 20%
of the population of Abkhazia, succeed in seceding from Georgia?
2. Which of the regional powers could be interested in the war and breakup of
territorial integrity to such an extent that would allow its direct military
3. What are major international consequences of the war for
This essay is an attempt to answer the above questions.
WHO COULD NEED AN
At the beginning of 1991, it became clear that the USSR (at that moment still the USSR) was going to lose Georgia, Armenia
The establishment of new independent countries in the Caucasus
could be followed by their integration into international economic and
political structures and possibly result in turning the area into one more
sphere of Western influence. In order to prevent such transformation of the
area, which Moscow viewed as its “political backyard”, the government of
Gorbachev took steps in the direction of building up potentially destructive conflict
situations in all three Transcaucasian countries.
The final goal of Moscow
politics was lebanization” of the area that would
lead to total or partial destruction and destabilization of the new states,
making them less attractive for any new friends or allies. Later (after the
collapse of the USSR) the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin was outraged by
the new projects of building new pipeline systems that could connect oil
fields of Central Asia and Azerbaijan to Western Europe through Georgian
territory, by-passing Russian Federation.
One of the ways of turning Georgia
into a “chaotic territory with a flag”(R. Peters)
could be the kindling of some old inter-ethnic conflicts and turning them
into civil wars of “Yugoslavian type”.
The multicultural Georgian province of Abkhazia was chosen to become one of
the zones of inter-ethnic violence and war. In order to go ahead with the new
“destabilization project”, local authorities (still communist-dominated at
that moment), got instructions from Moscow to
start propaganda campaign for the secession from Georgia and creation of a
“sovereign Abkhazian state”. The idea of independence from Georgia was
supported by a considerable part of the Apsua – descendants of a small North
Caucasian tribe whose forefathers moved into Georgia in the 16th -17th
centuries, as well as by some representatives of other non-Georgian
minorities who feared possible development of “Georgian chauvinism”. At the
same time the idea of dismemberment of Georgia was actively opposed by
most Georgians residing both in- and outside Abkhazia.
In order to escalate the conflict,
Russian special services (KGB and after collapse of the USSR - FSB), started
forming and training Apsua paramilitary units, while Russian troops deployed
in Abkhazia, provided them with the best weapons from Russian military
depots. In order to strengthen anti-Georgian forces in Abkhazia, Russian
agents used Pan-Islamic feelings among part of North Caucasian Moslems (who
by that time formed the “Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus”)
and launched a propaganda campaign in North Caucasian subjects of Russian
Federation, aimed at pushing North Caucasians towards helping their
“brethren”(Apsua) to free themselves from Christian Georgia. Since the summer
of 1991, numerous volunteers started coming to Abkhazia from Chechnya, Kabardia, Adyghea and other areas of North
Caucasia. In Abkhazia, the volunteers were organized into new
paramilitary units, armed, trained, paid in cash and promised land and houses
in future “free Abkhazia”.
In their turn, various separatist
groups of North Caucasia (still nominally under Russian rule), supported by
North Caucasian and Apsuan diasporas in the Middle
East and the USA, were planning the creation of an Islamic republic in North
Caucasia. If they succeeded, the new state would be vitally interested in
annexing Abkhazia because that would be an excellent chance for the
landlocked North Caucasia to get access to
the sea. As a result, in addition to weapons, volunteers and money coming
and Russian Caucasus, Apsuan separatism was getting
support in volunteers and cash from North Caucasian diasporas.
On July 23, 1992 the Council of
Abkhazia (which in fact was never democratically elected) declared the
province “a sovereign state”. Two days later The State Council of Georgia declared
the Abkhaz declaration invalid. Two weeks later, 3,000 troops of the Georgian
National Guard under the command of Tengiz Kitovani, were sent to Abkhazia to establish “the rule of
law and order”. On August 14 1992, Apsua separatists and North Caucasian
volunteers launched first attacks against Georgian National Guard. The
skirmishes between Georgian and separatist troops went on until September,
when most Abkhazian territory was put under Georgian control. However in
October 1992, enforced by up to 4,000 Russian troops, the separatists re-took
half of Abkhazia. During their offensive, Russian troops used their best
weapons including tanks, and aircrafts while the Georgian National Guard and
militias were armed predominantly with small arms. In addition, the Georgian
National Guard lacked professionalism and discipline. All these factors, plus
three major attacks launched just after the signing of cease-fire agreements,
resulted in Georgian defeat. It should be mentioned however that officially Russia never declared war on Georgia and
never recognized participation of its troops in the conflict. Even when
accused in bombing civil targets and columns of refugees, Russian defense
minister Pavel Grachev
claimed that Georgians put Russian signs on their airplanes and bombed their
own people. In
January 1993, the government of Georgia addressed the United
nations and asked to deploy international peacekeepers in Abkhazia. Soon
after that desperate plea for help was declined, Russian and separatist
forces launched new offensive and practically surrounded Sukhumi,
the capital city of Abkhazia.
At the end of July 1992, UN delegated the peacekeeping mandate in Abkhazia to
Russian troops, which launched the third and the last “strategic offensive”
that ended up in capture of Sukhumi
(Sept.27) and final expultion of all Georgian
troops out of Abkhazia.
WAR CRIMES AND ATROCITIES
Offensives of Russian, Apsuan and North Caucasian troops in Abkhazia was
accompanied by ethnic cleansing and mass murder of civilians (predominantly
Georgians but also Armenians, Greeks and others). Men, women and children
were executed in the streets, on the roads, inside their own apartments,
houses and back yards. Many people became objects of torture,
children were slowly killed in front of their parents, parents – in front of
their children. Women were raped, often with the elements of sadism. Refugees
recall people being burned to death, disemboweled and dismembered while
still alive. The province lost up to 250,000 or 80% of its pre-war
inhabitants (up to 30,000 slaughtered on the spot, others flee to Georgia, Greece
Those who watched news programs on the TV, recall the commands given by
Russian officers: “Rebyata,
plennykh ne brat!”
(Do not take prisoners alive!). Houses and land owned by Georgians and Greeks
were taken over by the Apsuans, Russians, Chechens
and other newcomers. None of war criminals involved in the above atrocities
was ever brought to justice.
The war of 1992-93 in Abkhazia resulted in the following:
1. A self-proclaimed “Republic
of Abkhazia” was formed
on Georgian territory. Being occupied by Russian “peace-keeping” troops, it
is not controlled by law-enforcement services either of Georgia or Russia, and may serve as a
convenient area for arms-, drug- and terrorists-trafficking.
2. The war resulted in major changes of the ethnic makeup of Abkhazia which
is illegal basing on the Geneva Convention of 1949.
suffered considerable financial, human and moral losses (sociologists mention
the so-called “Abkhazian Syndrome” among many Georgians). Georgian GDP
dropped down to the level of 1960s, discouraged foreign investment, damaged
the infrastructure of the country, drove up prices, caused increase of crime
and unemployment. Due to the consequences of the war combined with
corruption, embezzlement and patronage inherited from the years of communism,
much less stable country than it was before the war. The success of Abkhazian
separatists boosted centrifugal tendencies in other provinces, such as Ajaria, South Ossetia
and Javakhetia. Georgia can not be considered a
“failed state”as represented by Russian propaganda
but it had to go through very hard times and for a while, became a country of
4. In spite of traditional pro-Western orientation of many Georgians (they
believe that they are natural part of Europe
due to their old Christian culture), Georgian government was forced to take a
number of steps towards becoming a part of the Russian sphere of influence.
These steps include Georgia
joining CIS (October 1993) and signing a series of bilateral agreements with Russia,
applying serious limitations on Georgian sovereignty.
5. The war unleashed armed guerilla movement in Abkhazia organized by groups
of local Georgians who believed that armed resistance is the only realistic
way to put the province back under Georgian sovereignty. These armed groups
include “White Legion” and “Forest Brothers”, as well as the armed residents
of Kodori Gorge until recently controlled neither
nor by Abkhazian separatists.
6. Russian tactics before and during the war, resulted in
building up Chechen militants who later formed the bulk of the army of the
self-proclaimed Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria.
Armed units of Chechen veterans of the Abkhazian war caused enormous
casualties on Russian federal troops during the wars in Chechnya
(1995-96 and 1999- ). The war in Chechnya
in its turn, led to the build-up of Islamic guerrilla and terrorist networks
Daghestan and other areas of the Russian Caucasus.
WHY WAS THE SITUATION IN ABKHAZIA UNTIL
RECENTLY LARGELY IGNORED BY THE WEST?
It is hard to disagree that the war in Abkhazia (1992-93)
was to a greater or lesser degree ignored by Western politicians, analysts
and media. The possible reasons for that could be the following:
1. Until recently, most Western governments and politicians believed that
almost all actions of post-communist governments of Russian Federation
should be given active or passive support in order to refrain from “rocking
the boat”. It was believed that any anti-Russian criticism could help the
restoration of communist totalitarianism in that country.
seemed to be “too far” from all the “sensitive” areas of the world. There was
a common belief
that Georgia did not
belong to Europe (or at best, was at the margins of South
Eastern Europe). In any case, it was believed to be much less
important than for example Bosnia
or Kosovo, where ethnic violence happened almost in the center of Europe. On the other hand, it was also believed that Georgia did not belong to the Middle East either, and thus it was neglected by those
interested in that part of the world.
Even if we look at most of the political maps printed in the world
during the last decade of the 20th century, we will probably not
even see Georgia on the
map of Europe. Neither will we see it on the
maps of the Middle East. And on some general
maps of Asia printed at the eve of the 21st century, Georgia
would appear so small that it would be hardly even possible to distinguish it
somewhere between Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Thus among the decision-making circles of the world, it was probably
believed that the events that were
taking place in happening in Georgia in 1992-93, were not important and
deserved little or no attention.
WHY DOES THE SITUATION IN ABKHAZIA
DESERVE MORE ATTENTION?
The situation in Georgia in general and in
Abkhazia in particular, is important for the following reasons:
1. We live in the period of globalization, and any troubled spot on the
surface of the planet may have global economic and political consequences.
2. Georgia like the whole
of the South Caucasus, lies at the crossroads of the
important routes connecting Europe, Asia, Middle East and Russia. Thus any instability in
such an area can influence some or all of the above mentioned four regions
natural resources and relatively well developed infrastructure, as well as
highly qualified and well educated labor force, make it potentially
attractive for possible investors.
WAR IN ABKHAZIA AND THE CHECHEN CONNECTION
Today, it is not a secret that prior and during the war of
1992-93 against Georgia, Moscow was training and supplying Chechen
paramilitary formations , turning them into high class military
professionals. Russian experts and journalists (Masiuk,
Nikitin, Vassilenko, Voronov, ) confirm that for
example ,the infamous warlord Shamil Basayev, who in 1996 orchestrated the capture of Budennovsk and the end of the first Russo-Chechen war
(1995-96), was an agent of Russian special service (FSB) sent with a special
mission to Abkhazia. The above authors confirm that Georgians
who captured Basayev in 1993, had to release him
after Russian defense minister threatened to send aircrafts to bomb Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia). They also stated that Basayev’s connection with FSB was the reason why federal
troops could not capture him until quite recently. Basayev’s
troops, well-known in Abkhazia and Georgia for massacre in the city of Gagra
where they were beside all, playing soccer with the heads of Georgian women
continued receiving training and weapons from the Russian defense ministry
even after the war in Abkhazia when they formed the
core of the Chechen separatist army. It is hard to guess what “projects” they
were trained for (at least this is far beyond the competence of the author of
this essay) before the first Russo-Chechen war (1995-96). However, it is
quite clear that they are a big problem for the Russian Federation today when the
second Russo-Chechen war (1999- ) entered the phase of guerrilla and
counter-guerrilla operations. It is also well known today that these forces
form an important element in the guerrilla and terrorist rings formed by
Osama Bin Laden and his allies.
APPENDIX III: ETHNIC
MAKEUP OF ABKHAZIA
According to 01.01.1979
ESTONIANS, GERMANS, ETC…)
According to 01.01.1992
UKRAINIANS, JEWS, ESTONIANS, GERMANS, ETC…)
According to 01.01.1997 census
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