Ben Fowkes (excerpts from the book ”Ethnicity and Ethnic 
     Conflict in the Post-Communist Woeld” / NY / 2002






Abkhazia (or ‘Abkhazeti’ in Georgian) was an area adjoining the west of Georgia, claimed by the Georgians as part of their country (a claim now disputed by most Abkhazians) and incorporated into Soviet Georgia in 1931 (after ten years of uncertainty about the precise relationship between the two areas). In view of the relevance of these two cases to later ethnic conflicts, we shall examine them in some detail here, dealing first with Nagornyi Karabagh, and then with Abkhazia.

The documents on the process by which Karabagh (including Nagornyi Karabagh, which was its southern, largely Armenian, part) became incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan in the early 1920s demonstrate a considerable degree of incoherence in early Soviet nationality policy. On 30 November 1920, the following solemn declaration was made by Nariman Narimanov, the head of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, and M. D. Guseinov, Azerbaijan's Commissar for Foreign Affairs: ‘With effect from today, the former boundaries between Armenia and Azerbaijan are proclaimed annulled. Nagornyi Karabagh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan are recognized as a constituent part of the Armenian Socialist Republic’ (Galoian and Khudaverdian, 1988: 28).

In the light of future decisions, this looks like a remarkable act of self-abnegation on Narimanov's part: in the interests of national reconciliation he simply handed these long disputed territories to Armenia. This, indeed, is the way Stalin presented it in Pravda a few days later: ‘On December 1st, Soviet Azerbaijan voluntarily renounced its claim to the disputed provinces and proclaimed the handing over of Zangezur, Nakhichevan and Nagornyi Karabagh to Soviet Armenia’ (Stalin, 1947: 414). The decision was confirmed on 12 June 1921 in relation to Nagornyi Karabagh by a vote of the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party, and reconfirmed on 4 July 1921.

By now, however, Narimanov had changed his mind. The vote of 4 July 1921 was very close — four in favour, including Stalin's righthand man in the Caucasus, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, and three against, including the representatives of both Azerbaijan and Georgia. On 5 July, the original decision was overturned, because Ordzhonikidze changed sides, and now Nagornyi Karabagh was included in Azerbaijan, though with the proviso that it would receive a degree of regional autonomy (Chorbajian et al., 1994: 178—9).

It is generally assumed that Stalin was behind this change of heart, and that he had decided it was more important to placate the Azerbaijanis and the Turks, for foreign policy reasons, rather than the Armenians. According to the Armenian Communist leader, Alexander Miasnikian, ‘Azerbaijan said, if Armenia gets Karabagh, we shan't let it have any oil’ (Galoian and Khudaverdian, 1988: 33). Geographical and economic arguments were also advanced, and, indeed, even a quick glance at the map of the region would show how ‘natural’ it looked to include in Azerbaijan what would otherwise be an entirely isolated enclave of Armenian territory (though the same argument applies in reverse to Nakhichevan, which was made part of Azerbaijan although it did not touch that republic at any point).

The future stability of the new arrangement would depend inevitably on how the Azerbaijanis treated this compactly Armenian area in the middle of their republic. As the sequel showed, Nagornyi Karabagh fell victim to one of the normal rules of Soviet nationality policy: where a union republic was set up, the titular nation tended to treat the whole of its national territory as a mini-empire. Moreover, Nagornyi Karabagh was not even an Autonomous Republic (ASSR): it was established in 1923 as an Autonomous District (AO), lower down the scale of Soviet autonomies, with fewer prerogatives. Its borders were drawn deliberately to make sure that it was separated from the territory of the Armenian SSR by an Azerbaijani corridor. For all these reasons, the next sixty years saw a continuous deterioration in the position of Armenian culture and the Armenian language. The Baku authorities' investment decisions bypassed the area, 13 and the local Armenian population began to emigrate in search of better economic opportunities. As a result, the proportion of Armenians in the population of Nagornyi Karabagh fell considerably, from 89.1 per cent in 1926 to 75.9 per cent in 1979 (Galoian and Khudaverdian, 1988: 47).

We now turn to developments in Abkhazia during the same period. Although the region had long been connected intimately with Georgia it was not a foregone conclusion when the Soviet Union was set up that it would be incorporated into that republic. On 31 March 1921 an independent Abkhazian SSR was proclaimed; this status lasted until December 1921, when Abkhazia entered the Georgian SSR, but through a treaty between equals, not as a subordinate territory. In fact, the first constitution of what was still described as the Abkhazian SSR, adopted in 1925, guaranteed the country independence and, just like any other SSR at the time, the right of free exit from both the TSFSR and the Soviet Union. The relevant paragraph was altered under Georgian pressure in 1927 to read: ‘power is exercised subject to treaty relations with the Georgian SSR’ (Beradze and Apakidze, 1991: 94).

A few years later (1931) Abkhazia was incorporated into Georgia as an ASSR. Resistance to this initially was muted. The Abkhazians hoped that their semi-independent status would be preserved. It was not. The big change in policy came in the late 1930s, the turning point being the liquidation in December 1936 of Nestor Lakoba, chair of the Abkhazian Central Executive Committee (Chervonnaya, 1994: 29). After that, the majority of the Abkhazian intelligentsia were eliminated in a series of purges, and the Abkhazian language was phased out of secondary schools; people were still allowed to write in it, but after 1938 they had to use Georgian characters rather than the Latin ones introduced in the 1920s (Comrie, 1981: 33). From 1936 onwards all leading party posts in the area were held by Georgians. The twin processes of Georgian immigration and assimilation of local people into the Georgian nation (‘kartvelianization’) reduced the ethnically Abkhazian proportion of the population of the Abkhaz ASSR drastically (between 1926 and 1959 this fell from 27.8 per cent to 15.1 per cent) (Hewitt, 1999: 466).

But, as elsewhere, policy changes after the death of Stalin allowed some degree of recovery. The Abkhaz proportion of the population rose from 15.1 per cent in 1959 to 17.7 per cent in 1989 (it is now estimated at 20 per cent); the separateness of the Abkhaz language was recognized in 1954, when the Georgian alphabet was replaced by the Cyrillic one; and, in general, the atmosphere became freer. This had an unexpected result: it allowed Abkhazian resentment to come to the surface. This was an indication that a serious problem existed. In response to repeated petitions from Abkhazian intellectuals and party officials (in 1956, 1967 and 1978), Nikita Khrushchev and his successors pursued a rather conciliatory line. The Abkhazians were the only ethnic group able to enforce a compromise on the central power by their protests. The reason was simple: they had a direct line to Moscow, through the fact that the Black Sea coast, where Abkhazia was located, was a favourite holiday destination for Kremlin policy-makers.

The more extreme Abkhazian demands (such as the call for secession from Georgia and the abolition of the Georgian language's official status) were rejected in 1978. But a party commission, headed by I. V. Kapitonov, was sent from Moscow to defuse the situation. The Kapitonov Commission advised a range of conciliatory measures in the areas of education and investment allocations. These were imposed on the Georgian party leadership, thereby ‘defusing a potentially explosive situation’ (Slider, 1985: 65).

The Abkhazians now began to enjoy the fruits of positive discrimination. More and more books were published in Abkhazian. As a result, the Abkhaz language ranked first in the whole of the Soviet Union in terms of book titles per person (the 1988 figures were 4.3 book titles for every 10 000 Abkhazians). An Abkhaz State University was established, TV broadcasts in the language began, and the level of investment in the area was raised. By 1989, Abkhazians held 40 per cent of the seats on local elected bodies and 50 per cent of local executive posts, although they constituted only 17.7 per cent of the population (Chervonnaya, 1994: 34). Abkhazians were appointed as first and second secretaries of the local Communist party, and they were also well represented in other party posts. As the Abkhazian writer, Konstantin Ozgan, concedes, there was ‘over-representation of Abkhazian nationals in some … posts in the autonomous republic’ (he adds, however, that these posts were ‘sinecures’) (Ozgan, 1998: 187).


Abkhaz—Georgian conflict, as we saw earlier, was a constant theme during the Soviet period. Generally speaking, the centre tended to take the Georgian side, but the compromise settlement of the 1970s leaned somewhat more towards the Abkhazians, though certainly not granting any of their constitutional demands. The Soviet authorities hoped that concessions would make it possible for the Abkhaz to reconcile themselves with their position within the Georgian SSR. This did not happen. In fact, neither side was satisfied by the measures of the Brezhnev era. In 1980, a large number of prominent Georgians signed a letter to the 26th CPSU Congress complaining of discrimination against them locally, while the Abkhazians countered that they were now ‘worse off than they had been under Beria’ (the Georgian secret policeman who had run the area in the 1930s) (Lezhava, 1997: 224). 5 Thus a tense situation already existed when the coming of perestroika made it possible for both sides to voice their grievances publicly.

The Georgian nationalists stimulated Abkhazian resentment by calling for the immediate introduction of the Georgian language in every part of Georgia. The Abkhaz had until then shown a strong degree of resistance towards learning that language (only 2 per cent of them knew it in 1970); they preferred Russian (61 per cent spoke it as a second language). 6 Georgian nationalists also demanded the abolition of all autonomous districts (including Abkhazia), because of their alleged incompatibility with Georgian unity, and the recognition of Georgia's special character as a Christian state. One leading Georgian nationalist, Irakli Tsereteli, provocatively wiped out hundreds of years of Abkhazian history with this pronouncement: ‘Those whom we call Abkhazians are not Abkhazians. The Abkhazians were a Georgian tribe. The present Abkhazians are the descendants of Kabardinians and Balkars who came to Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century.’ 7

One man, Vladimir Ardzinba, gained and retained the leading position in the Abkhazian movement. His evident Russian connections have given rise to the suspicion that the movement for Abkhazian independence from Georgia is really a Russian way of making sure that the pleasant seaside resorts by the Black Sea do not fall into Georgian hands. Ardzinba is, or was, a trained Moscow orientalist, specializing in the history of the Hittites. He worked at the Oriental Institute when Yevgenii Primakov (who later became Russian foreign minister) was its director. His eloquent speeches, in Russian rather than Abkhazian, in defence of the rights of small ethnic minorities, first brought him to the notice of the wider Russian public, and there is no doubt that there has been continuing unofficial support from Russia for his movement. Whether Georgian publicists, as well as the respected Russian specialist on ethnic questions, Svetlana Chervonnaya, are right in their claim that the whole Abkhazian movement was Russian-run and Russiandominated is less certain (Chervonnaya, 1994: 58).

The movement for Georgian independence was intertwined fatefully with the Abkhazian question from the beginning. The Abkhazian People's Forum Aidgylara (Unity) was set up in the autumn of 1988 to press for the removal of Abkhazia from Georgian control and its direct subordination to Moscow. It held a rally in March 1989 at which calls were made for Abkhazia to be raised to the status of a union republic. Local Georgians in Gali (a town in the south of Abkhazia) protested immediately, and these anti-Abkhazian protests spread to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The protesters' demands escalated rapidly. They began to call for an independent Georgia. This was too much for the head of the Georgian Communist party, who arranged for Soviet troops to move in on 9 April 1989 and suppress the demonstrations by force. There were at least twenty deaths and hundreds of wounded. The wellnigh unanimous reaction of Georgians was to turn their backs on both the Communist party and the Soviet connection. The repercussions over the rest of the Soviet Union were also very serious: the nascent democratic movement recoiled in horror from the government's actions. It could well be said that the Tbilisi slaughter of 9 April 1989 was the first nail in the coffin of Soviet power.

In the course of the next two years, while the Georgians raced towards independence, the Abkhazians (encouraged by the Soviet authorities) cut their links progressively with Georgia. Abkhazia became independent of Georgia in practice during 1991, thanks to the presence of a strong contingent of Russian troops. (The actual declaration of Abkhazian independence took place on 23 July 1992.) While the Georgian Supreme Soviet was busily constructing a constitution that gave appointed prefects absolute powers over local representative bodies in the regions, thereby in practice abolishing local autonomy (Jones, 1993: 302), 8 the Abkhazians went on quietly consolidating their separate institutions, including a parliament in which they had majority representation. It was partly the Abkhazian issue (alongside other perhaps more vital questions) which led to the overthrow of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was elected in May 1991 on a programme of extreme Georgian nationalism but was criticized for failing to do anything effective to counter Abkhazian separatism when in office. It is something of a paradox that Gamsakhurdia (having been overthrown by the Georgian National Guard on 6 January 1992) subsequently allied with Ardzinba in planning a joint campaign against the Military Council which had taken power in Tbilisi (Chervonnaya, 1994: 52). Shortly afterwards, a degree of political stability was restored to the country, with the return of Eduard Shevardnadze to power (March 1992).

Meanwhile, semi-independent Abkhazia became a safe haven for the Zviadists (the supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia), who seized prominent Georgians, including the vice-president, Alexander Karsadze, as hostages, and held them on Abkhazian territory. 9 Opinions in Moscow were divided over what line to take in this conflict, but on 14 August 1992 Russia finally gave Georgia the green light to invade Abkhazia, ostensibly to free the hostages. According to George Hewitt, Boris Yeltsin ‘knew in advance of Shevardnadze's plan to invade Abkhazia and gave approval by silence afterwards' (Hewitt, 1999: 479).

Nevertheless, the general tendency of Russian policy was to maintain a balance between the two sides. They endeavoured repeatedly to arrange peace deals between Abkhazia and Georgia, and on 27 July 1993 Shevardnadze and Ardzinba signed a Russian-brokered peace agreement in Sochi by which the Russians would send peacekeeping troops while all Georgian forces would quit Abkhazia. With unofficial Russian support behind the scenes (denounced by the Georgian prime minister, Tengiz Segua, as ‘Russia's undeclared war on Georgia’), the Abkhazian forces were able to resist Georgia very effectively. Whereas an Abkhaz assault on Sukhumi, the main town of the region, was defeated on 18 July 1993, before the agreement, by the Georgians, after the agreement the Georgians were defeated. On 27 September 1993, Sukhumi fell to Abkhazian forces, and by October 1993 Georgian troops had been driven out completely.

Shevardnadze blamed Russia for this debacle, accusing Yeltsin of betrayal. He said on 27 September that the plan to occupy Sukhumi ‘was masterminded at Russian military headquarters’. His next move was to use diplomatic means to improve Georgia's position. He brought his country into the CIS and leased some bases to Russian troops (8—9 October 1993). The Russians responded by helping Georgian government forces to defeat the Zviadist rebels (November 1993) and they arranged a further round of peace talks, between 11 and 13 January 1994, which resulted in an agreement on the return of Georgian refugees and the deployment of Russian troops under the auspices of the United Nations to secure a buffer zone. But the agreement did not hold. The Abkhazians withdrew from renewed peace talks on 15 March in protest against Georgia's disbandment of their parliament.

Boris Yeltsin then stepped in and used his good offices to secure a peace agreement between the two sides — the Moscow Agreement of 4 April 1994 — which embodied a large number of Georgian concessions. The concessions were not a result of Russian pressure, however. They were a simple consequence of utter military defeat. The fact was that the Georgian army, which until 1994 was really no more than a collection of personal militias (Jones, 1997: 525), was no match for the combination of North Caucasian volunteers and sympathetic individuals from the Russian military who bore the brunt of the fighting on the other side.

Under the Moscow Agreement, Abkhazia received its own republic, constitution, flag, state emblem and national anthem, although it was not granted independent statehood. Russian troops were to be deployed as peacekeepers. The Abkhazians could vet applications for return from Georgian refugees, 10 on an individual basis, which did not satisfy the Georgians, who had wanted the ‘instant mass return’ of the exiles (Hewitt, 1999: 476). The Russians, for their part, were happy to allow all the Georgian exiles to return, and Shevardnadze and Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister, reached an agreement on 10 July 1995 on this subject; the Abkhazian leader, Vladimir Ardzinba, however, continued to oppose the idea. The Georgians offered autonomy to Abkhazia, but Abkhazia rejected the offer as insufficient; the Russians thereupon signed an agreement with Georgia that ‘Georgia's territorial integrity should be restored’, though not by military force (15 September 1995).

If military force was not to be used, the only other form of pressure the Russians could exert on Abkhazia was economic. When the 18th CIS summit met in Moscow on 19 January 1996 it decided to impose a complete blockade on Abkhazia until it agreed to reunite with Georgia. But economic pressure did not work either, perhaps because the blockade was ineffective. The Abkhazians remained stubbornly independent. In August 1997, Yeltsin announced further proposals for a settlement: Georgia's territorial integrity would be recognized, and Georgian refugees would be allowed to return, while Abkhazia would receive ‘substantial autonomy’. Shevardnadze welcomed these proposals; but Ardzinba rejected them, adding on 14 August that Abkhazia ‘would make no further concessions’.

In January 1998, Shevardnadze proposed a UN peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia similar to the one currently in force at the time of writing in Bosnia-Hercegovina; both Ardzinba and the Russians rejected this, on the grounds that ‘only CIS troops would be acceptable’ as peacekeeping forces. In May 1998, Abkhazia sent troops to drive the Georgians out of the southern town of Gali and the surrounding area; Georgian irregular forces fought back, but 35 000 Georgians were forced to flee. Yeltsin condemned Abkhazia for this invasion on 28 May, the UN joined in on 30 July (by UN Security Council Resolution No. 1187). This was further confirmed on 28 January 1999 by UN Security Council Resolution No. 1225, which expressed concern at the plight of Georgian refugees in the area. This forced the Abkhazians to make some concessions: Georgian refugees began to return to Gali on 1 March 1999. But on the main issue, which was independence, the Abkhazians were not to be moved. On 3 October 1999, a referendum was held in Abkhazia; 97 per cent of those who voted supported independence.

Eduard Shevardnadze, who remains, at the time of writing, the president of Georgia, would no doubt like to end the Abkhazian insurgency by compromise, since military victory seems impossible, but any concession on the vital issue of sovereignty would simply play into the hands of his turbulent opponents within the country. The situation could now be described as a stalemate, patrolled by UNOMIG (United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia), which has its mandate extended at regular, six-month intervals, and by Russian troops, who stand between the Abkhazian and Georgian forces.

Developments in South Ossetia followed a somewhat similar path to those in Abkhazia, and with similar results. The separate status of the South Ossetians was recognized in 1922 when they were granted an Autonomous District (AO) within Georgia — in other words, one rung below the Abkhazians. Georgian nationalists also tended to place them lower, claiming that they were recent immigrants with no right to the land. There was no such place as South Ossetia, said the Georgians: it was in fact ‘Samochablo’, a land named after Machabeli, a medieval Georgian prince. What was most immediately threatening to the South Ossetians, however, was the drive to make Georgian the sole official language: only 14 per cent of them knew Georgian (38 per cent knew Russian).




5 As usual, diametrically opposite positions can be found in the literature on this. As we saw earlier, Darrell Slider took an essentially favourable view of the Brezhnev measures (1985: 65). Svetlana Chervonnaya dismissed Abkhaz complaints as being without foundation (Chervonnaya, 1994: 34). But the English specialist on Abkhazia, George Hewitt, considers that the measures brought ‘no long-lasting improvement’ for the Abkhazians (Hewitt, 1999: 282).


6 Data from Itogi Vsesoiuznoi Perepisi Naseleniia 1970 Goda, vol. 4, table 16.


7 Interview in September 1989, quoted by Chervonnaya (1994: 197, n. 64).


8 See also the revised version of this article (Jones, 1997: 516).


9 Gamsakhurdia also received support from another minority group, the Mingrelians, although this did not prevent his later military defeat and death, which probably took place in December 1993.


10 These refugees, who were expelled from the country after the successful Abkhazian military offensive against Georgia, numbered some 160 000 (300 000 according to the Georgians).Their language (Mingrelian) was different from Georgian, although they did not claim to be a separate nation.


11 The course of events in South Ossetia between 1989 and 1992 has recently been summarized clearly by A. Zverev (1996: 48—54).


12 The Azerbaijanis made up 5.7 per cent of the population of Georgia in 1989. Despite being under some pressure to leave, they have tended to stay where they are. The main ethnically Azerbaijani districts are Marneuli (79 per cent), Bolnissi (60 per cent) and Dmanissi (64 per cent) (Serrano, 1999: 232).







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