Alexei Zverev


     Excerpts from the book ”Contested Borders in the Caucasus

    by Bruno Coppieters (ed.)  © 1996, VUB University Press








Since 1988, Transcaucasia and parts of the North Caucasus have been the scene of turmoil. There have been numerous latent and overt claims and counterclaims concerning national statehood, administrative status, ethnic identity and borders. Never before, since the turbulent period of 1918-21 which followed the fall of the Russian empire, have conflicts raged with such deadly animosity. Old ethnic wounds have reopened, leading in some cases to sustained warfare, in others to ethnic strife punctuated by intermittent clashes.


Geopolitical changes in the region have been one of the main underlying causes of ethnic conflicts. Just as in 1918-21, when the Caucasian conflicts followed the demise of the Russian empire, these have come on the heels of the weakening and then break-up of the USSR. Geopolitics is a function of the vital interests of states and societies. Thus the Warsaw Pact served the purpose of preserving the social system and securing the socio-economic development of the coalition, by repelling the perceived threat from the West. With the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, these interests changed abruptly, and a reorientation of the Eastern bloc's ruling elites to Western-type free-market economies ensued. The weakening of communist control from the Centre put an end to common ideological interests shared between the different national elites. These persuaded public opinion in their countries that a transition to a free-market economy, personal freedom and Western aid could better be ensured by economic and political sovereignty. For the elites of the titular nationalities of the Transcaucasian republics (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), breaking loose from the influence of Moscow became a priority. The federal division of the USSR - in particular, the existence of higher- and lower-ranking administrative units based on ethnic and territorial principles - became an impediment to the titular elites' national projects. These projects manifested themselves in attempts to create (or, in the case of Armenia, which was nearly 90% Armenian-populated by 1988, to consolidate) statehood on an ethnic basis. In Georgia, this national project collided with the separate statehood, language and cultural interests of the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Abkhazian ASSR) and of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (South Ossetian AO). Azerbaijan was confronted with the problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) region, populated mainly by Armenians. In Armenia, the perceived injustice of the international treaties of the early 1920s, which ensured border divisions within the region,(1) reinforced the Armenian determination to hold on to Karabakh, viewed as the only part of historic Armenia outside the republic's borders still populated by an Armenian majority. Thus Karabakh represented both a raison d'Жtre of the Armenian national project and a centre-piece of the Azeri one. It might be added that, in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the national movements did not start out as anti-Soviet, but initially included demands for the Kremlin to ensure the validity of their respective national claims: in the case of Armenia, for the NKAO to be attached to it, and in the case of Azerbaijan, to prevent this. It was the inability of the Kremlin to satisfy these demands that set the movements in both republics on a path of independence.

An institutional vacuum was created as titular nations asserted their rights. The nationalism of larger nationalities found a counterpart in the nationalism of national minorities. National minorities, concerned for their security and survival, mobilized their own populations, tried to ensure exclusive administrative control over their territory and appealed for help to the Centre, to kindred ethnicities across the border and/or to neighbouring republics; they set up paramilitary formations, and expelled "foreign" nationals along with government troops sent to subdue the "rebels".

The Ossetian-Ingushi conflict stands apart from the basic pattern we have just outlined. This is not a case of a national minority struggling to preserve its existing autonomy within a dominant titular nation, but a dispute over parts of the region which have seen repeated border changes and forcible population transfers within them. In other words, it is not a conflict over ethnic status, but a purely territorial dispute.

The interests involved in gaining sovereignty and statehood can submerge socio-economic interests. In Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, no price seemed too high in the national cause. The Georgian president, Gamsakhurdia, isolated his country from the international community; the Azeri president, Elcibey, reoriented his country towards Turkey, risking the loss of the Russian market, while Armenian leaders were willing to endure an oil, gas and transport blockade by Baku for years rather than stop supporting Karabakh. The predominance within national elites of particular groups, such as leaders of military formations, criminal mafias and war profiteers, did little to favour a peaceful solution to ethnic conflicts.

Some regional leaders realized that the price paid for sovereignty had been too high. Shevardnadze and Aliyev stopped ignoring economic and military factors and turned to their traditional partner, Russia. They did so while, at the same time, preserving other, newly-found regional partners and striving to avoid the less palatable elements of their former relationship with their northern neighbour. This new opening up to Russia, together with the political activities of new regional states like Iran and Turkey and the policies of international organizations, have created new possibilities for crisis management in conflicts.

To explain why conflicts break out, geopolitics and socio-economic interests alone are not enough. A salient factor in the conflicts under discussion is the use of history in the service of particular nationalist demands. Thus, in Abkhaz literature, one finds references to the Abkhazian kingdom which existed in the 9th and 10th centuries. This is instrumental to the Abkhazian claim for sovereignty over the region, even though the same kingdom could equally be described as a common Georgian-Abkhazian state, with a predominance of Georgian language and culture. Georgian authors, in turn, stress the allegedly non-Abkhaz character of pre-17th-century Abkhazia to support their case. In a more extreme variant, a similar historical perspective gave rise to the theory of "hosts" (Georgians) and "guests" (all other minorities) on Georgian land. Thus both protagonists use "suitable" historic periods (antiquity and the Middle Ages for the Georgians, the Middle Ages and the Soviet period, when Abkhazia nominally had autonomy, for the Abkhaz). Ossetian politicians impute the decrease in population in South Ossetia during the Soviet era to Georgian policies, forgetting that it was partly due to the resettlement of South Ossetes in the former Ingushi-populated territory (itself a matter of historic dispute with the Russian Cossacks). An influential Armenian writer, Zori Balayan, presents a view of history which furthers Armenian interests by appealing to Russian imperial ambitions and denigrating the legitimate nationhood of Azerbaijan - that "tentative country with tentative Union borders", as he puts it.(2) In Balayan's view, when Russia fought her early 19th-century wars against Iran to annex Eastern Armenia to Russia, Azerbaijan did not exist as a state, nor did the Azeris exist as a nationality (here Balayan is alluding to the relatively late, 20th-century emergence of Azeri national identity, with Azerbaijan, in his opinion, forming part of ancient Armenia). The results of those wars were allegedly legitimized in international treaties "for all time". Thus Russia, according to Balayan, should continue to keep Azerbaijan within its sphere of influence and ward off Turkish influence. If Russia does not, it will be failing to see justice done to the Armenians, its loyal Christian subjects in the past, who had entrusted it with their fate. A reference to Azerbaijan as a formerly Armenian territory, made as it was in the wake of Karabakh Armenian victories in 1993, implicitly carried the message that the Armenians were entitled to annex as much of Azerbaijan as they could. Azerbaijani writers, for their part, have tried to refute the Armenian origins of the ancient inhabitants of Karabakh.

The validity of the right to self-determination, as against the principle of the territorial integrity of states, is a thorny issue, and one which finds no satisfactory solution among the protagonists in the conflicts within the former Soviet Union. Contemporary international law recognizes the right of independence for colonial peoples and annexed territories, but not for parts of such territories, nor for national minorities in internationally recognized states.(3) This is designed to prevent wars between nations whose borders have been demarcated, often disregarding the ethnic composition of the territories in question, by former colonial and imperial powers. Another reason is to safeguard the rights of "minorities within minorities" and protect them from ethnic cleansing. Taken in the ex-Soviet context, the principle of territorial integrity has been invoked primarily by the countries newly admitted to membership of the UN, whose independence has been internationally recognized (Georgia, Azerbaijan) and by autonomous republics whose borders - and not status - are contested (North Ossetia). Georgia and Azerbaijan invoked this principle when they revoked the Soviet-era status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The declarations of independence by the latter group of republics have not been recognized by the international community, although the UN de facto recognizes Abkhazia as a negotiating partner by sponsoring peace talks in Geneva between it and Georgia. The Abkhaz, South Ossetes and Karabakh Armenians, who do not "qualify" for independence according to UN principles, invoke the right to self-determination and consequently seek the support of regional players.

A major factor which will be discussed in this chapter is the position taken at various stages in the conflicts by the Soviet, and later Russian, leaders. For the Soviet authorities, and also under Gorbachev, the main political priority in dealing with events in Armenia and Azerbaijan (as in all the other republics) was to ensure the preservation of Communist Party control. This implied a different attitude to each of the national movements, depending on the degree to which they could be contained by local Party bodies, the relative weight of their respective leaders in Kremlin circles (thus Aliyev's friendship with Brezhnev, and his presence in the Politburo since the Andropov era, meant that Azeri claims would get a better hearing) and the economic leverage the republic in question was able to bring into play. The amount of pressure that could be applied by democrats or hard-liners in Moscow in any given case was also important. Of lesser importance was the intrinsic value attached to such considerations as the legality of ethnic claims and constitutional provisions regarding the rights of individual republics. Thus the Kremlin fought against separatism in Karabakh, where the movement was outside central control and could destabilize the communist regime in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but made no attempt to suppress separatism in Abkhazia, where the national movement was at odds with independence-minded Georgia.

The break-up of the USSR was accompanied by the wholesale plunder of Soviet military equipment by local paramilitary and criminal elements, often with the connivance of corrupt elements in the Soviet military. According to Valeri Simonov - former Chief of Intelligence of the 19th Independent Anti-Aircraft Army, stationed in Georgia until the break-up of the USSR - whereas, before 1992, the Soviet military grouping in Transcaucasia had had enough weapons and ammunition to make a thrust to the Persian Gulf and be able to wage, in autonomous fashion, a month-long full-scale war in that area, by 1993, Russian might in that region was less than 10 per cent of that of the former Transcaucasian Military District.(4)

Russian policies in the region have vacillated between the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of the warring sides and an assertive, interventionist policy, including the use of Russian troops for peacekeeping activities. In the analysis of these conflicts, we shall also deal with the efforts made by all sides to use the interests guiding Soviet and Russian policies (and in some cases, those of other powers as well) to their own advantage.



Ethnic Conflicts in Georgia (1989-1994)


Abkhazia (Apsny, "a Country of the Soul" in the Abkhaz language, Abkhazeti in Georgian), an autonomous republic in Georgia situated on the Black Sea coast, had, as of 1 January 1990, a population of 537,000, of which 44% were Georgians, 17% Abkhaz, 16% Russians and 15% Armenians.(53) The Abkhaz are a people close in language and origin to the North Caucasian peoples of the Adyghe group. Although they lived under Turkish rule from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries and some of them were converted to Islam during that period, there are few Moslems now left in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz population underwent Christianization in the late 19th century, under Russian rule. The territory of the present-day republic was once part of Ancient Rome, Byzantium and Persia. Later, Arabs, Genoese colonists, Turks and Russians sought to control it. Until Abkhazia's absorption by Russia in 1810, Abkhazian rulers were in nominal or effective vassalage or union with various (although often separate) Georgian kingdoms and princedoms. So the historical evidence is ambiguous: both unity with Georgia and autonomy can be argued on historical grounds.



For some reasons, the author did not mention long periods of history during which Abkhazia was integral part of a united Georgian Kingdom or various Georgian states (Ed.)





On 31 March 1921, an independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was proclaimed. Abkhazia kept that status until December 1921, when the SSR Abkhazia joined the Georgian SSR under a Treaty of Union. This status lasted until 1931, when the Abkhazian Republic was incorporated into Georgia as an autonomy (the Abkhazian ASSR). The Georgian side, contradicting Abkhaz claims, denies that these changes of status were made under pressure.




The period of Georgian independence (1918-1921) during which Georgia included Abkhazia, is omitted by the author (Ed.)



Abkhaz authors lay particular emphasis on their people's plight in Stalin's era. Stalinist repression hit Abkhazia like the rest of the USSR, but here it had an additional ethnic colouring, as it was carried out by Georgians. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, a policy of the Georgianization of Abkhazia and its native people was in progress. The tragedy suffered by the Abkhaz during the Russian conquest in the 19th century - the forced emigration to Turkey of the Moslem sector of the Abkhaz population who had inhabited half the Abkhazian territory - was compounded by a Georgian policy, conducted in Stalin's times, of planned resettlement of Georgians into Abkhazia. The Abkhaz intellectuals and party leaders repeatedly (in 1956, 1967 and 1978) petitioned the Centre to separate Abkhazia from Georgia and attach it to Russia. In response to this pressure, the Centre made a number of concessions to the Abkhaz in personnel and cultural policy. Thus, by 1988, Abkhazia had its own radio and TV, which were outside Tbilisi's control. Abkhaz party cadres represented a prominent - and, in Georgian eyes, disproportionate - proportion of the republic's administrative personnel. Nevertheless, the fact that the Abkhaz - a people with two thousand years of recorded history - were reduced by that history to 17% of the republic's population, and were enduring what they viewed as the smouldering enmity of the less tolerant part of the Georgian population towards their national aspirations, was taking its toll. Niko Chavchavadze, a Georgian MP and director of the Institute of Philosophy, writing in 1994, recalled that only a minority of Georgian intellectuals were prepared to take Abkhaz interests into account, as they feared for Georgia's territorial integrity.(54) In 1989, the objective of the Abkhaz separatists, as a first step towards complete independence from Georgia, was to secure a return to the status of Abkhazia prior to 1931.(55)

As of 1989, the autonomous oblast of South Ossetia within Georgia had a population of nearly 100,000, of whom 66.2% were Ossetes and 29% Georgians.(56) Half of the families in the region were of mixed Georgian-Ossetian descent. The Ossetes are descendants of the ancient Alan tribes of Iranian stock. Some of them are Orthodox Christians and some (in certain regions of North Ossetia) are Moslems. On 20 April 1922, after the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO) was formed. Georgian-Ossetian strife dates back to 1918-21, when the Menshevik government of Georgia ruthlessly (the Ossetes say: genocidally) suppressed a Bolshevik-supported South Ossetian insurgency (the Ossetes were largely landless peasants, living on lands owned by Georgian aristocrats). South Ossetian leaders, such as Torez Kulumbegov, claimed that South Ossetia was the only autonomous entity in the USSR whose population was now lower in absolute numbers than before the 1917 revolution.(57) Even if this is an exaggeration (the data available to us for 1897 and 1926 do not bear it out), a Soviet demographic dictionary confirms that the AO's population had decreased in 1984 (98,000 inhabitants) by comparison with 1939 (106,000).(58) The decrease might be explained partly by heavy losses in World War II and partly by the resettlement of South Ossetes (on orders from the Kremlin) on former Ingush lands after the Ingush deportation in 1944. According to Kulumbegov, Ossetes in the AO were barred from entering higher education establishments and restricted in filling administrative posts, a fact the Georgians deny. Georgian writers have claimed that, like the Abkhazian ASSR, the South Ossetian AO had been formed by the Bolsheviks to create permanent sources of tension, so as to enable the Kremlin to control Georgia more easily. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were said to be run on an ethnocratic basis, to the detriment of Georgian national interests.(59) Hence the perceived Georgian need to curtail if not abolish these autonomous entities. The response from the South Ossetes was either to try to secure federal status within Georgia or, failing that, to seek to be reunited with North Ossetia, forming part of Russia.(60)


The 9 April 1989 Tragedy and the Abkhazian Question

On 18 March 1989, an Abkhaz assembly in the village of Lykhny proposed that Abkhazia should secede from Georgia and that the status of a Union republic be restored to it. 30 thousand participants in the Lykhny assembly - including all the party and government leaders of the ASSR, but also five thousand Armenians, Greeks, Russians and even Georgians - signed an appeal published in all local papers on 24 March, stating their position on the causes of the conflict as outlined above.

Georgian outrage at the Abkhaz demands was expressed in unsanctioned meetings organized by "informal movements" across the republic, which combined anti-communist and anti-Soviet slogans with calls to "punish" the Abkhaz and abolish their autonomy. Especially active in these meetings (the 12,000-strong meeting in Gali on 25 March, Leselidze on 1 April, Sukhumi and other cities) was Abkhazia's Georgian population. The long-suppressed Georgian yearning for independence became irrepressible after the violent outcome of the Tbilisi hunger strike and demonstrations of early April 1989. These demonstrations, prompted by the Lykhny meeting, started out under anti-Abkhaz slogans, but quickly acquired a broader, pro-independence character. On 9 April they were brutally dispersed by Soviet (Russian) troops (21 people, mostly girls and old women, were killed with sharpened digging tools and toxic gas).

In Moscow, besides causing loud public outcry, the bloody incident led to lengthy recriminations among the party and military elite over who should take the blame for the event. The debates were especially heated at the first Congress of the USSR People's Deputies (May-June 1989).(61) Gorbachev disclaimed all responsibility, shifting it on the army. The revelations in the liberal Soviet media as well as the findings of the "pro-perestroika" Deputy Anatoli Sobchak's commission of enquiry into the Tbilisi events, made known at the second Congress in December 1989, resulted in a massive "loss of face" by the Soviet hardliners and army leadership implicated in the event.(62) After that, the army was gripped by the so-called "Tbilisi syndrome": an unwillingness to involve itself in internal military ventures of any kind, much less ethnic feuds.

A session of the Georgian Supreme Soviet, held on 17-18 November 1989, officially condemned Soviet Russia's infringement of the Russo-Georgian Treaty of 7 May 1920 in annexing Georgia in February 1921, thus paving the way for the republic's independence. Politically, in the wake of the events of 9 April Georgia was almost left alone by the Union Centre; the latter was quite content to see the republic in the throes of ethnic conflicts. However, there is not enough evidence, in our view, to suggest that the Centre actually engineered these conflicts. At most, it can be said that, as they flared up for local reasons and in pursuance of local interests, the Centre used them to its own advantage.

By the second half of 1989, as news of chauvinistic pronouncements and policies by Georgian politicians became known, a rift appeared between the Georgian nationalists and Russian democrats, after Andrei Sakharov wrote his passage where he described the Union republics (including Georgia) as "minor empires".(63) This drew a storm of protest in Georgian political circles.


Conflicts in Abkhazia: 1989 - End of 1991

The dynamics of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict were influenced by a number of factors: the extreme positions taken by Georgian nationalists in 1989 (no to Abkhazian autonomy); Gamsakhurdia's chauvinism; the Abkhaz leadership's reliance on hardline forces in Russia, and the autonomist movement in the North Caucasus. The situation was further complicated by the break-up of the USSR and the continued instability in Georgia after the fall of Gamsakhurdia (in particular, the Zviadist insurgency in Megrelia and divisions in the Georgian leadership on the subject of Abkhazia).

On 15-16 July 1989, intercommunal violence erupted in the city of Sukhumi over the establishment of a department of Tbilisi State University in the city. The Georgian part of Sukhumi University refused to stay as long as Abkhaz and Russian lecturers remained there. The Abkhaz then attacked a school which was expected to house the Georgian university. At that time, neither side was strong enough to force the issue militarily. The battles between the Georgians and the Abkhaz over the Abkhazian question were relegated to the legislatures of the two republics.

In August 1990, the Georgian Supreme Soviet passed an election law banning regionally-based parties from taking part in elections to the Georgian parliament.(64) This was intended, in part, to prevent the Abkhaz Aydgylara (Unification) movement (the Abkhaz People's Forum) from fielding its candidates. On 25 August 1990, Abkhaz delegates to the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, separately from their Georgian colleagues, passed a Declaration on the Sovereignty of Abkhazia. Justification for the move was provided by the adoption by the Georgian Supreme Soviet, in 1989-1990, of legislation annulling all the treaties concluded by the Soviet Georgian government since February 1921 which had served as a legal foundation for the existence of the Georgian autonomies - those of Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Abkhaz declaration was annulled by the Georgian Supreme Soviet a few days later.

After Gamsakhurdia's Round Table bloc had won the Georgian parliamentary elections in October 1990, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet started on a course of defying Gamsakhurdia's authority. In December 1990, Vladislav Ardzinba, whom the Georgian leaders had accused of fanning Abkhaz separatism and of belonging to the Soyuz Group - a group of hardline deputies to the Soviet parliament - was elected chairman of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet. At the same session, the Abkhazian parliament voted to prepare a draft law on new parliamentary elections.(65)

In March 1991, Gamsakhurdia issued an "Appeal to the Abkhazian People". While professing respect for the age-old friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, he called Ardzinba a "traitor" and a tool in the hands of Moscow. For his part, Ardzinba declared that the Abkhazian parliament still considered Abkhazia part of the USSR, while the newly issued draft of the Union treaty granted equal rights to Union and autonomous republics; finally, the Georgian parliament had enacted a law on the prefects (published on 27 April 1991) which violated Abkhazian constitutional rights.(66)

In defiance of a Georgia-wide ban on its holding imposed by Gamsakhurdia, Abkhazia voted in the referendum on the preservation of the Union, which was held on 17 March 1991. 52.4% of the electorate took part, with a 98.4% "yes" vote.(67) Gamsakhurdia threatened to disband the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet and abolish the Abkhazian autonomy.

In a counter-move, Ardzinba arranged for the redeployment of a Russian airborne assault battalion from the Baltic republics to Sukhumi. The battalion has been quartered in Sukhumi ever since, while Ardzinba has established friendly contacts with the Russian military.(68) A reinforced Russian military presence compelled Gamsakhurdia to make concessions and allow the elections to the Abkhazian parliament to proceed on a quota basis: 28 seats to the Abkhaz, 26 to the Georgians and 11 to all the remaining ethnic groups. The elections were duly held, in two stages, in October-December 1991.



A Prelude to War and the Georgian Invasion of Abkhazia (August - September 1992)




The above title is totally incorrect. No country can “invade” its own territory. During the period described, Abkhazia was officially recognized as an integral part of Georgia and so it remains  nowadays, (Ed.)



As the war was raging in South Ossetia, the Abkhazian leadership sought to reinforce its political and military position. In the new Abkhazian Supreme Soviet - elected on a quota basis - which started to function in early 1992, Georgian deputies complained of discrimination; they expressed concern over Ardzinba's decision to form an Abkhaz-only National Guard. In early May, Georgian deputies began boycotting the sessions of the Abkhazian parliament; in June, they started a campaign of civil disobedience, followed by a Georgian strike in Sukhumi and attempts to set up parallel power structures. That same month, Abkhaz national guardsmen attacked the building of Abkhazia's Ministry of Internal Affairs in Sukhumi, controlled by the Georgian authorities. The minister, Givi Lominadze, was severely beaten. He was replaced by Ardzinba's supporter Alexander Ankvab.(90) This happened on the very day that Yeltsin and Shevardnadze were meeting in Dagomys to decide the question of South Ossetia.



On 23 July 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet ruled (with the Georgian Democratic Abkhazia faction abstaining) that the 1978 constitution of the Abkhazian ASSR was invalid and that, pending the adoption of a new constitution, the 1925 Abkhazian constitution which provided for a treaty relationship with Georgia was in force.(91) The State Council of Georgia declared this decision null and void. In July, Zviadists in Megrelia took a number of high-ranking Georgian officials hostage and kept them in the Georgian-populated Gali Raion of Abkhazia. In addition, they disrupted railway traffic. This was ostensibly the pretext for the Georgian march into Abkhazia which began on 14 August, when Kitovani's tank columns entered Sukhumi, joining battle with the Abkhaz National Guard. According to Georgian reports, the Abkhaz forces were the first to open fire. The Georgian government side later claimed that Ardzinba had been notified in advance of plans to move Georgian troops into Abkhazia to protect the railway and free the hostages (a fact denied by Ardzinba himself).

A cease-fire was negotiated, allowing Russian troops to evacuate holidaymakers and enabling Ardzinba's government to withdraw to Gudauta in the north of Abkhazia; the Georgian forces even withdrew from the centre of Sukhumi as part of the agreement. However, on 18 August Tengiz Kitovani's forces unexpectedly re-entered Sukhumi and captured it. They occupied the Abkhazian parliament and, amid cheers, removed the Abkhaz flag and symbols from the building. An eight-man military council was set up to run the republic's administration. An official Abkhaz publication, the White Book, later listed by name 2,000 Abkhaz and other non-Georgian civilians and military men (Russians, Armenians, North Caucasians and Greeks) killed by the Georgian forces either in battle or as a result of the harsh regime of occupation in Abkhazia, the data cited mainly covering the period from August 1992 until March 1993. The Abkhazian White Book estimated that figure at about 30 per cent of all non-Georgian war losses.(92) The Abkhaz forces continued stubbornly to hold their ground north of the Gumista River and in the blockaded Tkvarcheli, south-east of Sukhumi. Abkhazian public figures and intellectuals accused the Georgians of annihilating peaceful Abkhaz villages, relics of history and culture, museums, art galleries, scientific institutes and archives, and of conducting a policy of terror. Among the objects destroyed was the pantheon of Abkhazian writers and public figures and the Abkhazian Institute of Language, Literature and History in Sukhumi.(93)

Afterwards, in an interview with US newsmen, Shevardnadze admitted that the attack on the Abkhazian parliament "had not been necessary", while his close aide, Sergei Tarasenko, termed Kitovani's actions as stupid and counter-productive.(94) Nevertheless, Shevardnadze chose to back the military campaign in public, declaring over the radio on 17 August: "Now we can say that Georgian authority has been restored throughout the entire territory of the republic".(95)

It could be argued that, just before August 1992, Russia secured the military preponderance of Georgian forces over the Abkhaz ones, which invited the former to go on the offensive in Abkhazia. In autumn 1992, the Abkhaz had only eight tanks and 30 armoured cars, whereas just one Russian division handed over 108 tanks to Georgia.(96) The extent of Russian help to Abkhazian forces can be assessed from the fact that more than 100,000 land mines are estimated to have been planted during the war (earlier, there had been no arms industry or ammunition dumps in Abkhazia). Some of these mines were, of course, planted by the Georgian side, also supplied from Soviet/Russian army dumps.(97)


Tactics of the Two Sides in the Abkhazian War

In the opinion of military professionals, the protagonists in the Abkhazian war had no strategic aims which, once achieved, would enable either side to break the other's resistance. Georgia's aim in the conflict - namely, to defeat the adversary's regime by a war of attrition - was unattainable because the Abkhaz made use of the potential of the North Caucasus (the KGNK) and, by extension, Russia.(98) Likewise, due to their lack of manpower, the Abkhaz could only hope to win a short-term victory. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say that, given the internal disarray in Georgia, the lack of a unified Georgian army and the diplomatic pressure that would be exerted by Russia to prevent a Georgian military comeback after an Abkhaz victory, the Abkhaz did in fact have a chance of success, at least for a time. Clashes with small autonomous armed units rendered the deployment of heavy artillery and armoured vehicles relatively useless. On the tactical plane, the Georgians needed to take control of the only Adler - Gagra - Gudauta - Gali - Zugdidi road and the railway running parallel to it. Another task was to close the mountain passes leading from the North Caucasus. The Georgians also had to keep garrisons along the whole road up to their supply bases in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. The Abkhaz, on the contrary, had to keep the road under their own control and disrupt the enemy's communications with mobile units. On the whole, the Georgians failed to achieve their tactical objectives. The hostilities were marked by positional warfare interrupted by the capture of Gagra and the areas adjoining the Russian border by the Abkhaz forces (October 1992); Abkhaz offensives in March and July 1993, and the complete expulsion of the Georgian forces in late September 1993.



For some reasons, the author did not mention widespread ethnic cleansing, muss murder of ethnic Georgians by the Apsua militants and the expulsion of the majority of Abkhazia’s pre-war population that followed the separatist victory (Ed.)



The North Caucasian Factor

The most immediate support for the Abkhaz cause came from the unofficial anti-Georgian movements in the North Caucasus and their military units. The conflict at once rebounded upon the whole region of the North Caucasus: all North Caucasian republics were swept by meetings called under the slogan "Hands off Abkhazia!". Such meetings were held in North Ossetia, Karachai-Circassia, Kabardino-Balkaria and elsewhere. On 17 August 1992, at a session of its parliament in Grozny, Chechnya, the KGNK (which was to be renamed KNK - Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus - in October 1992) drew up a platform of solidarity with Abkhazia. It was joined by such organizations as the International Circassian Association and the Congress of the Kabardan People. A registration of volunteers started. Each people of the North Caucasus was to form a detachment of 60 to 100 armed men. On 18 August, a session of the KGNK parliament adopted a decision that, if the Georgian troops were not withdrawn from Abkhazia within three days, the Confederation would declare war on Georgia. Three days later, KGNK president Musa Shanibov signed a decree on the start of hostilities on the territory of Abkhazia (which did start) and in Tbilisi (which proved to be bluff).

The confederates began to arrive in Abkhazia via mountain paths. The local authorities, much as they feared uncontrollable mass movements of North Caucasian peoples, could not stop the volunteers, risking a loss of power if they tried to do so. The example of Chechnya, where General Dudaev had taken control after overthrowing the local communist leadership in autumn 1991, was uncomfortably close. What the confederates saw as Russia's collusion with Georgia against Abkhazia infuriated the peoples of the North Caucasus, especially those ethnically related to the Abkhaz (the Kabards, Circassians and Adyghe).

Such a turn of events was extremely unwelcome to the Russian government, which on 18 August issued a statement on the "inadmissibility of intervention in the internal affairs of Georgia". The Russian authorities arrested Shanibov, but riots in late September in Nalchik, the capital of Kabarda, forced them to turn a blind eye when Shanibov escaped arrest and appeared in Nalchik before the crowds. Later he went to fight in Abkhazia. Politically, there were differences between the various Confederate leaders and ethnic groups. While Shanibov leaned towards such Russian nationalist hardliners as Sergei Baburin, the KNK commander in Abkhazia - Shamil Basaev, a Chechen - spoke out against Russian domination in the Caucasus.

Besides the North Caucasian irregulars, the Abkhazian cause was furthered by Cossack elements, often hostile to non-Russian North Caucasians fighting in Abkhazia, especially Chechens. Cossacks patrolled the border between Russia and Georgia and took part in the conflict in support of the Abkhaz for the sake of "Great Russia". Mercenaries and volunteers were active on both sides. On the Abkhaz side, these were the Russian Trans-Dniester guardsmen fresh from the war in Moldova. On the Georgian side, there were the sportswomen snipers from the Baltic states who came to fight for mercenary reasons, and the volunteers from the extreme nationalist Ukrainian UNA-UNSO organization, motivated by anti-Russian feeling.


Russian Policies and the Georgian-Abkhazian War (1992-1993)

Throughout 1992 and 1993, Russia had no single policy with regard to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. It was not clear which would best suit Russian interests - to see Georgia strong and united or weak and dismembered.(99) Andrei Kortunov, Head of the Foreign Policy department of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, described the Russian inconsistencies as follows: "For Russia, the problem is not how to prevent these conflicts or mediate them. It is too late for the former, and the latter may backfire. Russian diplomacy is not mature enough to keep the proper balance between the conflicting sides. It tends to be politically biased and subject to lobbying from ethnic-centered communities".(100)

Still, it was impossible for Russia to keep away from the conflict. Russian garrisons were stationed both in Georgia proper and in the parts of Abkhazia controlled by both sides. Sections of the military were opposed to the line taken by Andrei Kozyrev's Foreign Ministry and to the support accorded Shevardnadze by Yeltsin and Kozyrev. The North Caucasian peoples were watching closely for any sign of a pro-Georgian trend in Russia's actions; in Moscow itself, the issue - as with South Ossetia - became a subject of dispute between Yeltsin and his hardline opponents in parliament. The "dovish" line in Russian policy, under attack from various quarters, could not hide the fact that even official Russian policy was drifting towards a more assertive and paternalistic style in relation to the "near abroad" areas, regarded as the "sphere of Russia's strategic interests" (Grachev's statement in February 1993), while it was claimed that Russia should be granted special powers to settle ethnic conflicts on the territory of the ex-USSR (Yeltsin in March the same year).

Kozyrev's efforts were felt in the attempts at mediation, which led to the talks held on 3 September 1992 between Georgia and Russia (Shevardnadze and Yeltsin) with the participation of Ardzinba. The latter, under pressure from Russia, was compelled to sign a document authorizing the presence of Georgian troops on Abkhazian territory and making no mention of a federal structure in Georgia.(101) The agreement fell through with the Abkhaz capture of Gagra in October 1992, referred to earlier.

The Russian military, on the contrary, were less inclined to pressurize Abkhazia in favour of Shevardnadze. A source knowledgeable about the moods of the Russian generals was quoted as saying that "they don't like Shevardnadze and they are defending their sanatoria in Abkhazia. The war will go on until either Shevardnadze or Ardzinba joins Russia in some form or other. The generals have lost too much with the break-up of the USSR. Where there is hope, they will try to regain it".(102) The Russian officers in Gudauta likewise sympathized with the Abkhaz. Besides their hostile attitude to Shevardnadze, whom they saw as the initiator of the break-up of the Soviet state, they were embittered against the Georgians for the "barbarous" pillage of the property of the Russian forces in Georgia and even the killing of Russian soldiers.(103) Although Grachev had given the Russian commanders a severe warning that they should not conduct military action in Abkhazia, their sympathy for the Abkhaz cause meant that they were always ready to offer the Abkhaz a professional consultation or to draw up a battle plan for them.(104) Incredible as it may seem (although it was in line with a consistent Russian policy of supplying both sides in a conflict), at a time when Russian-supplied warplanes were bombing Georgian-held Sukhumi, other Russian units continued to supply the Georgian Army. On 25 March 1993, at a press conference in the headquarters of the Transcaucasian Military District, Major-General Diukov said that the forces of the district were continuing to hand over weapons to Georgia (one division with full equipment so far) and were planning to turn over to them 34 military cantonments before the end of the year. No agreement on the status of Russian troops in Georgia had been signed by that date.(105)



The Georgian side reported a massive influx of volunteers from Trans-Dniester to Gudauta to reinforce the Abkhazian side.(106) Still, as a result of intensive diplomatic activity, operations to aid besieged Tkvarcheli as well as Sukhumi and to evacuate the refugees got under way in June. On 27 July, the agreement was signed in Sochi by the Georgian, Abkhazian and Russian sides. It provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Georgian army from Abkhazia and mutual demilitarization by the belligerents, to be followed by the "return of a legal government to Sukhumi". What that government would be was still to be agreed by the two sides. The agreement evoked mixed feelings in Georgia: although thousands of Georgian civilians returned to Sukhumi in anticipation of a peaceful life to come, large sections of the public were shocked and demoralized, which enabled Gamsakhurdia to emerge once more as a "saviour of Georgia". A third of the Georgian troops to be withdrawn from Abkhazia went over to the Zviadist side.(107) In late July, Zviadist forces, commanded by Loti Kobalia, briefly took Senaki in Western Georgia, ostensibly to prevent the withdrawal of the Georgian army from Abkhazia. In late August they again took Senaki, Abasha and Khobi. Soon afterwards, the Zviadist faction in the Georgian parliament elected in October 1990 convened in Zugdidi and appealed to Gamsakhurdia to return to Georgia and resume his duties as head of state. Disagreements in the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi led Shevardnadze to tender his resignation on 14 September. With the crowds outside parliament imploring him to stay, Shevardnadze agreed to do so, on condition that parliament be suspended for three months.

After the signing of the Sochi agreement, the Abkhaz side complained that the Georgians had failed to withdraw their heavy weapons. The latter said they were being obstructed by the Zviadists and impeded by a lack of logistics and fuel. To complete the operation, the Georgians had recourse to the Black Sea Fleet. According to Georgian accounts, in September its ships evacuated all Georgian hardware and 80 per cent of Georgian troops from Abkhazia.(108) Russia's Defence Minister Grachev, on the contrary, commented that most of the weapons the Georgians had withdrawn were useless.(109) It appears that the Georgian heavy weapons withdrawn to Poti fell into Zviadist hands, while the Abkhaz weapons were stored near the front line, and on the outbreak of hostilities were quickly handed back to the Abkhaz by Russian army units hostile to Shevardnadze.

After the Zviadists launched another offensive against Georgian government troops near Samtredia (15 September), the Abkhaz felt it was time to act. On 16 September, they launched an all-out attack on the Georgian forces. With the help of free-lance Russian soldiers and North Caucasian volunteers, they drove the Georgian army from Abkhazia, capturing Sukhumi on 27 September. Appeals by Shevardnadze to Russian leaders - calling on Russia, as a guarantor of the Sochi agreement, to restore the status-quo - fell on deaf ears. The fact that the Abkhaz had broken the agreement in starting their offensive drew a sharp, though ineffective, reaction from Russian leaders. On 20 September, the Russian government condemned the Abkhaz actions and imposed economic sanctions on Abkhazia, but Grachev refused to commit his troops to disengaging the two sides. Georgian sources reported massive atrocities against the civilian Georgian population, perpetrated by the Abkhaz and their allies.

Meanwhile, the Zviadist offensive in Megrelia continued. In early October, they captured Poti and Samtredia and blocked all rail traffic and food supplies to Tbilisi. At this juncture, Shevardnadze's regime, fearing a total rout by Kobalia's forces, desperately needed Russian help and made a number of important concessions to Russia. On 8 October, Georgia entered the CIS, a step widely seen as tantamount to entering into the Russian sphere of influence. On 9 October, a Georgian-Russian agreement on the status of Russian troops in Georgia was signed (a leasing of military bases, including Poti). The Russian army was called upon to guard strategic roads in Georgia as Georgian government forces were fighting Kobalia to the north. Since early October, Russian troops had been guarding the Poti-Samtredia-Tbilisi railway and on 3 November took Poti under their control, helping to make the port operational. It took most of October and early November for Georgian government troops to bring Megrelia back under control. Gamsakhurdia lost his life in obscure circumstances in a remote village in Western Georgia on 31 December 1993.


Russian/UN Mediation Efforts

After the capture of Zugdidi (6 November 1993), the Georgian forces again approached the borders of Abkhazia. A new period began. It has been characterized by a Georgian inability to resolve the issue by military means and by Russian efforts to get both sides - Georgia and Abkhazia - involved in direct talks. In the process, Russia put pressure on the belligerents in order to prevent a renewed Georgian march into Abkhazia, on the one hand, and, on the other, to compel the Abkhaz to let the Georgian refugees return home. The mediation effort allowed Russia to increase its influence on both sides and safeguard its own interests. Parallel to the Russian mediation, UN mediation was in progress, as the international community tried to monitor Russia's moves. Both belligerents jockeyed for position, trying to use Russian and UN leverage to vindicate their respective claims, which were hard to reconcile. In the end, a precarious peace managed to be achieved, not without problems for Russia's relations with either side. Abkhazia failed to secure an internationally recognized independent status, including recognition by Russia, with the result that it has been impossible to rebuild the war-ravaged republic, while Georgia has made little progress with constructing a coherent state machinery and a viable economy.

In early November 1993, some Georgian officials, Shevardnadze and Ioseliani among them, were making statements about the possibility of a renewed march into Abkhazia. In Tbilisi, Boris Kakubava, a Georgian MP and leader of the Organization for the Liberation of Abkhazia opposed to Shevardnadze's "conciliationist policies", was forming an expeditionary force composed of Georgian refugees in order to enter Abkhazia. In the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia outside Abkhaz control, clashes were taking place between local Georgian militias, reinforced by detachments of Georgian troops, and the Abkhaz forces. On 9 November, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning against the crossing of the Inguri River by either Georgian or Abkhazian troops.

On 1 December, the first round of talks between Georgia and Abkhazia under UN auspices and with the participation of the CSCE, with Russia as facilitator, ended in Geneva with the signing of a memorandum of understanding. Both sides pledged not to use force or the threat of force for the period of the negotiations, to exchange prisoners and create conditions for the voluntary, safe and swift return of the refugees.(110) The latter clause sounded like an important concession on the part of Abkhazia. After the signing of the 1 December memorandum, Russia partially lifted the sanctions against Abkhazia imposed after its breach of the Sochi Agreement. Subsequent events showed, however, that, on the refugee problem, the memorandum would be honoured by Abkhazia more in the breach than in the observance.

Consultations on the future status of Abkhazia, which ended in Moscow on 21 December, revealed the parties' differing approaches to the issue. The Abkhaz side argued that Abkhazia's status should be determined by a referendum in which the population could choose between the following options: 1) autonomy for Abkhazia within Georgia; 2) confederation in which Abkhazia and Georgia would be equal members; 3) complete independence for Abkhazia. The Georgian side, conscious of the fact that in the absence of Georgian refugees the vote would be slanted in favour of the opposing side, refused to discuss the status of Abkhazia "as long as the policy of genocide continued".

Subsequently, the UN-sponsored talks continued in Geneva, New York and Moscow, the only progress being the absence of hostilities. The Abkhaz side delayed the solution of the refugee problem until Georgian troops were withdrawn from the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian side responded with accusations of genocide.


The Russian-Georgian Treaty of 3 February 1994

On 3 February, President Yeltsin of Russia paid a visit to Tbilisi and signed a Treaty on Friendship, Neighbourliness and Co-operation with Georgia. In addition, 25 intergovernmental agreements were signed, dealing with economic cooperation, science and technology, transport, communications, pensions, etc. The treaty provided for the establishment of five Russian military bases in Georgia and the stationing of Russian border guards along Georgia's borders with Turkey. Russia pledged to aid Georgia in organizing and re-equipping its army after the settlement of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ratification of the treaty by the Russian side was made conditional on the settlement of these conflicts. Russia reiterated its recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity. For Georgia, economic agreements with Russia were especially urgent as the Georgian economy was tottering on the brink of collapse. In 1993, net national product was some 30.3% of that of 1990.(111)

In Russia, the government camp was in favour of the treaty, but the Duma against. The 3 February statement by the Duma objected to the treaty on the grounds that 1) Georgia had unilaterally infringed international agreements on the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict; 2) Georgian aggression against Abkhazia was continuing, and to conclude a treaty with a warring country was to abet aggression; 3) the treaty would provoke negative reactions in the North Caucasus, in Russia as a whole and in all the countries inhabited by the Circassian diaspora; 4) the treaty provided for assistance in the formation of Georgian armed forces, their equipment and the purchase of military hardware and technology, which contravened the law.(112) The statement was signed by all the factions in the Duma, including Russia's Choice, headed by Yegor Gaidar. The Duma's position was supported by the leaders of South Ossetia, the International Circassian Association and Abkhazia, where mass meetings in defence of the republic's sovereignty were held on 31 January 1994. The Abkhazian Supreme Soviet made a statement saying that the Russo-Georgian treaty had no effect on Abkhazia, as the latter was not a part of Georgia.


Diplomatic Moves

10 February 1994 was scheduled in January as the date for starting the return of the refugees. Instead, fresh hostilities erupted. The Abkhaz side accused the Georgians of firing on Abkhaz positions on the Inguri River on 6 February, and of using the process of the return of refugees as an excuse for an armed incursion onto the territory of Abkhazia to instigate guerrilla warfare. The Georgian side denied these charges. In March, the Georgian State Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons reported that 188,970 refugees, some 160,000 of them from Abkhazia, had been officially registered and accommodated in 63 districts of Georgia.(113) The Georgian refugees, grouped near the Inguri, pressed desperately for the right to enter, staging marches and hunger strikes in the months that followed.

The precondition for starting the UN peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia was for the two sides to reach at least a semblance of progress in the talks. As no progress had been made, the Security Council did not deem it possible to deploy peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia. On 10 March, while Shevardnadze was in the United States, the Georgian parliament disbanded the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia and annulled all its decisions. The Abkhazian Supreme Soviet immediately cancelled all plans for the return of the refugees. Shevardnadze considered the Georgian parliament's move a mistake, as it blocked further progress in the negotiations. At the end of March, fighting in Abkhazian Svaneti flared up again. Russia issued an appeal to both sides to resume negotiations.

On 4 April, the Abkhaz and Georgian sides, with Russia's mediation and UN and CSCE participation, signed a quadripartite agreement in Moscow on the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons.(114) The agreement stipulated that immunity from arrest, detainment, imprisonment and criminal prosecution did not apply to those who had perpetrated military crimes, crimes against humanity or serious common crimes. These people, as well as those who had earlier taken part in hostilities and were currently enrolled in military units preparing for military action in Abkhazia, were not eligible to return to Abkhazia. The agreement was bound to evoke opposition in Georgia, as it concerned only Georgian and not Abkhazian war criminals, not to mention the fact that most of the male Georgian population of Abkhazia had been enlisted to take part in the war on the Georgian side, even though not all actually fought. In addition, on 4 April a statement on measures for the solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict was signed.(115) This stipulated that Abkhazia would have its own constitution and legislation as well as its own national anthem, coat of arms and flag. The parties reached an understanding on "powers for common activity" in such fields as foreign policy and foreign trade, border service, customs, etc. This was interpreted by the Abkhaz side as a step towards the recognition of both sides as equal and sovereign subjects delegating powers to each other. "Georgia has in fact recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia," said A. Jergenia, representing Abkhazia at the talks.(116) Shevardnadze and other Georgian leaders later pointed out that, contrary to Abkhaz claims, the statement of 4 April did not speak of Abkhazia as a subject of international law. Nor did it contain any mention of a confederal status for Abkhazia.(117)

On 14 May, the two sides signed another agreement on a ceasefire and the disengagement of troops. Both sides would withdraw 12 km from the front lines along the Inguri River to form a sufficiently wide security zone. The Abkhaz side was to pull its artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles back as far as Sukhumi and the Georgian side to Zugdidi. In addition, the Georgians were to withdraw their troops from the Kodori Gorge and allow their military equipment there to be destroyed. Peacekeeping operations involving a 2,000-strong Russian contingent started on 20 June. However, it was not until the end of August that the first group of Georgian refugees was allowed into Gali Raion.



Russian pressure, exerted on Abkhazia in order to solve the refugee problem, led to a gradual worsening of Russian-Abkhaz relations. In early July, Ardzinba refused to meet Kozyrev during the latter's visit to the conflict zone, bringing sharp criticism from Kozyrev. On 25 August, the Russian peacekeepers set up road-blocks and briefly disarmed the Abkhaz police in Gudauta after a reported shooting at a Russian military sanatorium at a time when Russia's Deputy Defence Minister, General Georgi Kondratyev, was present.(118) In mid-September, the Abkhaz and the Russian peacekeepers were on the brink of open hostilities when General Vasily Yakushev, commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia, promised to allow a mass crossing of Georgian refugees, due to start on 14 September. The Abkhaz mobilized their motorized infantry, tanks and anti-aircraft forces and moved them into the neutral zone. The crossing was cancelled. The crisis ended with a Russian-brokered meeting between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba in the presence of Yeltsin in Novy Afon, Abkhazia, on 16 September. The Georgian opposition criticized Shevardnadze for making this ostensibly peace-loving gesture, which, it said, was actually designed by the Russians to curtail Georgia's capability to conduct independent policy on the eve of the Georgian leader's projected visit to the UN General Assembly.

At the end of October, the joint commission, including representatives of the Russian peacekeepers and UN observers, ascertained the removal of Georgian units from the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian irregulars were disarmed and heavy equipment was destroyed by the Russian peacekeepers. The reasons earlier cited by the Abkhaz side for not allowing at least some refugees back seemed to have lost substance. By late autumn 1994, the Abkhaz had allowed several hundred Georgian families to move into the Gali Raion in addition to an unspecified number (40,000 people according to some accounts) who came there on their own, without any official security guarantees.

On 26 November, the Abkhaz parliament declared Abkhazia independent, a move that precluded any further talks between the Abkhazian and Georgian governments. The declaration was condemned both in Tbilisi and in Moscow. In the wake of events in Chechnya in December, both Abkhazia and Georgia mobilized their troops, and there were fears in Abkhazia that Georgia would use the opportunity presented by Russia's war on Chechnya to act likewise towards its breakaway republic. Sympathy for the Chechens and hostility to the Russian actions were strong in Abkhazia, which lodged an official protest to the Russian government when the latter closed the de facto border with Abkhazia on 20 December to prevent a possible flow of volunteers to Chechnya (as was done also with other stretches of the Russian borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan). In Georgia, the reaction to the Russian invasion of Chechnya, with some exceptions, was positive thanks to the Chechens' aid to the Abkhaz in 1992-93 and to the Zviadists in late 1993. On 21 December, the Chairman of the Federation Council of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Shumeiko, wrote a letter to Yeltsin requesting the recall of the Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia on account of what he called the establishment of bases for Chechen guerrillas in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz authorities denied this. The next day, Shumeiko's statement was denied in a TV interview by General Yakushev, who said there were no Chechen bases in the Kodori Gorge. Other high-ranking Russian commanders also said that no Abkhaz volunteers had been seen in Chechnya. Russia's war against separatism in Chechnya made Abkhazia's position less secure by making it appear that separatism in Abkhazia was equally illegitimate. At the beginning of 1995, this made the Abkhaz leaders more amenable to a negotiated solution of the conflict.




The ethnic territorial division of the USSR functioned as a decorative federal screen, behind which the Kremlin controlled the diverse peoples which comprised the USSR. Civic peace among the various ethnic groups was maintained thanks to the existence of the centrally-controlled apparatus of the Communist Party, which, in turn, controlled the repressive bodies. Repression as a means of dealing with outbreaks of nationalism, and even ethnic conflicts, as well as the propaganda of the "friendship of peoples" of the USSR and consistent steps to co-opt local ethnic bureaucracies in the republics, were a built-in feature of communist rule.

With the arrival of glasnost, the peoples of the USSR seized an opportunity to speak out and vent their pent-up grievances, while violence could not be used so readily by the state. In the Soviet bureaucratic system, ethnic grievances could legitimately be voiced only on the decisions of the corresponding authorities at the level of the different republics, addressed to the Centre. At the same time, by 1988, society lacked adequate means of give and take as well as a democratic political culture. Thus, with glasnost, the conflicting decisions of republican bodies, backed by popular mobilizations, with the party unable to gratify the relevant ethnic groups, not only flouted the communist internationalist doctrine ("friendship of peoples"), but made the party unable to govern. As the party was the cement binding together all of Soviet society and its institutions, the erosion of party rule - caused, in addition to ethnic disputes, by a host of political, economic and social problems - led to the collapse of not just the party, but also the USSR itself. Subsequent experience, especially in the Caucasus, has shown, however, that in a state of "disunion" the peoples of the ex-USSR have had even less chance of reconciling their national demands.