Stephen D. Shenfield

In thispaper* I trace the emergence and evolution of the Georgian—Abkhaz conflictup to the invasion of Abkhazia by Georgian forces on August 14, 1992. I tryto pinpoint the most crucial events and causative factors, and to infer thelikely motives and calculations of the parties to the conflict. Section I isan analytical narrative, subdivided into the following seven periods:

1) Theperiod before the Russian occupation of Abkhazia (up to 1810);

2) Thetsarist period (1810—1917);

3) Theperiod of independent Georgia (1917—1921);

4) Theearly Soviet period (1921—1936);

5) Theperiod of the Stalin--Beria terror (December 1936—1953);

6) Thepost-Stalin period (1953—1985);

7) Theperiod of perestroika and post-Soviet transition (1986—August 1992).

Section IIis devoted to the decision taken in summer 1992 by the State Council ofGeorgia, headed by Shevardnadze, to intervene militarily in Abkhazia: thelikely motives and goals of the Georgian leadership, the direct trigger ofthe decision (if any), and whether and how the decision might have beenaverted by preventive diplomacy. Also considered is the related question ofwhy the intervention occurred during the presidency of Shevardnadze ratherthan during that of Gamsakhurdia.

In SectionIII I share some general reflections concerning the failures of perceptionand calculation on both sides that contributed to the escalation of theconflict to large-scale violence.



1) Theperiod before the Russian occupation of Abkhazia (up to 1810)

Sinceancient times, the Abkhaz have been in the somewhat unusual position ofparticipating simultaneously in two otherwise quite separate systems ofcultural and political interaction.

On the onehand, the Abkhaz are closely related by descent, language, and folk cultureto the Circassian (Adyg) tribes of the Northwest Caucasus. Abkhazia maytherefore be regarded as a southward extension of Circassia, with the landof the Ubykh (prior to their deportation by Russia in the 1860s) serving asa connecting bridge between the two. Although the Abkhaz are now the onlyAdyg-related group remaining on the southern side of the Great CaucasusRange, there is evidence that in prehistoric times a proto-Adyg culturestretched much further to the south, into what is now northern Turkey(Chirikba 1998). The Abkhaz have a broader though less intense linguisticand cultural affinity—reflected, for instance, in the shared heritage of theNart epics—with the “mountain peoples” of the North Caucasus as a whole—thatis, including the Ossets, Nakh (Chechen and Ingush), and native peoples ofDagestan as well as the Adyg. Thus, the Abkhaz are the sole “mountainpeople” of the South Caucasus, tucked into the northwest corner of thatregion, where the mountains meet the sea.

On the otherhand, although Abkhaz was quite unrelated to the languages of the Kartveliangroup that later evolved into modern standard Georgian, the geographicalproximity of the Abkhaz to the Kartvelian (proto-Georgian) tribes,especially to the Megrels (Mingrels) and Svans, led them—or, more precisely,their nobility—to take full part in the culture and politics of the areathat would in time come to be called Georgia. When not under foreign(non-Kartvelian) domination, Abkhazia was one of the dozen or so localprincipalities of this area that closely interacted and often fought withone another, constituting a more or less self-contained states system. TheAbkhaz nobility became integrated not only into the proro-Georgian statessystem, but also into the corresponding proto-Georgian culture, using theproto-Georgian (Kartlian) language for purposes of diplomacy, Christianreligious liturgy, and literature. The bilingualism of the ruling dynastywas reflected in its dual names: Chachba in Abkhaz, Shervashidze inGeorgian. Abkhaz in this period was the unwritten language of the commonpeople.

This dualorientation of the Abkhaz, it seems to me, always contained the potentialfor long-term conflict between the Abkhaz and their Kartvelian neighbors (asdistinct from the wars that all the proto-Georgian principalitiesintermittently waged against one another). If the initiative for Georgia’sunification had come consistently from the eastern kingdoms of Kartli and/orKakheti, then Abkhazia’s cultural and linguistic connections with the NorthCaucasus would have made it a natural focus of resistance to east-Georgiandomination.

This,however, was not how the process of the unification of Georgiadeveloped. In fact, the first state to unite most of what now constitutesGeorgia (plus some areas that are now outside of Georgia) was a product ofthe diplomatic and military “eastern policy” of Abkhazia itself. This state,which lasted from 978 until the Mongol invasions of the mid-13thcentury, was called the Kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians; itsfirst king, Bagrat III, was the son of a Kartlian prince and an Abkhazianprincess (Bgazhba 1998). At this time, the terms “Abkhazia” and “Abkhazians”were used to refer to the whole of the Abkhaz-Kartvelian kingdom and itsinhabitants (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 173). Following the demise of thejoint kingdom, the system of local principalities was restored and remainedin place right up until the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19thcentury.

2) Thetsarist period (1810—1917)

Subjugationand resistance

TsaristRussia annexed the east Georgian principalities of Kartli and Kakheti in1800. The turn of the west Georgian principalities came a few years later.In 1810 Russian vessels in the Black Sea bombarded the fortress at Sukhum(i)1and followed up with a naval landing. Simultaneously, Russian troops enteredAbkhazia from neighboring Megrelia, by this time a client kingdom of Russia.The purpose of the invasion was to enthrone Seferbey, a rebel Abkhaz princewho had taken refuge in Megrelia. Russian historiography, as one mightexpect, characterizes the episode as the “voluntary entry” of Abkhazia intothe Russian state. In fact, virtually all Abkhaz were opposed toincorporation into Russia and continued to recognize Seferbey’s half-brotherAslanbey as the legitimate ruler, despite a Russian-Megrel plot to frame himas a parricide.

Recurrentuprisings against the rule of Russia and its puppet princes were harshlysuppressed, and in the 1850s and 1860s many Abkhaz joined the Circassianstruggle against Russian conquest. In 1864 Russia abolished the formallyautonomous Abkhaz principality and placed Abkhazia under direct militaryadministration. New uprisings followed in 1866, and then again in 1877—78,coinciding with the war between Russia and Turkey, which backed the Abkhazrebels. The suppression of the uprisings was accompanied by the forcibledeportation of much of the Abkhaz population—perhaps as many as 100,000people in all—to the Ottoman Empire, leaving uninhabited large tracts ofland amounting to almost half the area of Abkhazia (Lak’oba 1998; for adetailed study of the deportations, see Dzidzariya 1975). Only after thisdid armed resistance to Russian rule finally come to an end, and the Abkhazstart to accept the absorption of their country into the empire.

What effectdid this long period of resistance and subjugation, lasting two thirds of acentury, have on subsequent relations between Abkhaz and Kartvelians? Duringthis period the Abkhaz still regarded Russia, and not the Kartvelianprincipalities, as their main enemy and tormentor. However, they must haveresented the role played in their conquest by Princess Nina, the ruler ofMegrelia, who had hosted the traitor Seferbey and from whose territory theland invasion had been launched. Moreover, the general in command of theinvading troops, Orbeliani, was a Megrel. This may have planted the seeds oflater enmity between Abkhaz and Megrels, if not between Abkhaz andKartvelians in general.

Emergence ofthe Russia—Georgia—Abkhazia triangle

During thelast few decades of the tsarist period, there occurred a gradualtransformation of what had at the outset been almost exclusively anAbkhaz-Russian confrontation into a primarily Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. Thistransformation accompanied the socioeconomic and political consolidation,under the aegis of tsarist Russia, of the various Kartvelian groups into themodern Georgian nation (Suny 1994). The question at issue was whether or notAbkhazia would form part of the incipient Georgian nation—the very questionthat remains at issue today. Despite the legacy of hostility between them,with respect to this question the Abkhaz and the Russian authorities were tofind themselves on the same side, in opposition to the nascent Georgiannational movement. Thus, relations within the Russia—Georgia—Abkhaziatriangle acquired the basic pattern that they retain to this day.

Nevertheless, at least until the last few years of the tsarist regime, theAbkhaz continued to suffer severe oppression and discrimination. The wholeAbkhaz people was officially labeled “guilty of treason” for collaboratingwith Turkey in the war of 1877—78; only in 1907 was this stigma finallyremoved. Abkhaz were forbidden to live in the three main towns of Abkhazia(Sukhum(i),Gudauta, and Ochamchira) or within seven kilometers of the seashore, andAbkhaz peasants were deprived of their right to personal plots of land(Lak’oba 1985, p. 8). Deportations to Turkey also continued, although on asmaller scale. Meanwhile, people from all over the empire resettled thevacant land that used to belong to the exiled Abkhaz. In 1897 the Abkhazconstituted just over half the population of Abkhazia, and by the early 20thcentury they had been reduced to a minority in their own homeland (Muller1998). Abkhazia had been transformed from a mostly mono-ethnic territoryinto the complex multi-ethnic patchwork it has been ever since.

The growth in anti-Georgian feeling among the Abkhaz inthe late 19th century was connected to the fact that a growingproportion of the new settlers on what the Abkhaz still regarded as “their”lands were Georgians, mainly land-hungry peasants from Megrelia, Guria,Imereti, and other densely populated lowland districts of western Georgia.The tsarist authorities tried to limit Georgian migration into Abkhazia,preferring to resettle the vacated lands with Russians and othernon-Georgians, such as Armenians, Greeks, and Estonians, but progress towardthis goal was slow because newcomers to the region, unlike peasants fromwestern Georgia, found it difficult to adapt to the peculiar natural andclimatic conditions: the low-lying areas were subtropical swamps (laterdrained), while the mountain slopes were hard to cultivate. (Russians,Armenians, and Greeks did, however, settle in considerable numbers in thetowns, forming the bulk of Abkhazia’s urban population.) Paradoxically,therefore, Russia, persecutor of the Abkhaz, assumed the role of theirdefender against Georgian incursions.

Although the migration of peasants from western Georgiainto Abkhazia was a spontaneous response to economic pressures, Abkhazhistorians point out that Georgian publicists encouraged the process andtried to persuade the Russian government to allow it to proceed withoutconstraint. In 1877, for example, the Tiflis Herald published anarticle by Yakob Gogebashvili (1840—1912), who was well known as acampaigner for Georgian-language education, entitled “Who Should Be Settledin Abkhazia?” His answer was: Megrels. Lak’oba remarks bitterly that thearticle appeared at a time “when the Abkhaz were bleeding profusely andforced in masses to leave their homeland.” Those who should have feltsympathy thought only of how to take advantage of others’ misfortune: as theAbkhaz proverb puts it, “a snake bit the one who fell out of the tree”(Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 175). The attitude of individuals likeGogebashvili should be understood in its historical and internationalcontext: the late 19th century was the heyday of colonialism andmembers of “cultured” peoples, with few exceptions, believed that they had anatural right to colonize the lands of less cultured peoples. Georgianstended (and still tend) to regard themselves as more cultured thanAbkhaz.

What developed after 1877 may be understood as a strugglefor the eventual control over Abkhazia between tsarist Russia and theincipient Georgian national movement. The struggle did not yet, as it wouldat a later stage, take the form of a confrontation between Russia andGeorgian nationalists demanding an independent Georgia including Abkhazia.Indeed, the Georgian proto-nationalist publicists of the time made greatplay with the argument that in view of the Georgians’ special loyalty toRussia it was in Russia’s true interest to facilitate expansion of theGeorgian demographic, economic, and cultural presence in Abkhazia. Thereluctance of the Russian authorities to comply with Georgian wishessuggests that they had their doubts concerning the Georgians’ loyalty andsought to impede the development of a Georgian national movement that mightlater take an openly secessionist form.

Language and culture

Another sphere of Russian-Georgian rivalry was thecompetition between Russian and Georgian political, cultural, and religiouselites for influence over the linguistic situation in Abkhazia. Inaccordance with the general policy of Russification pursued by the tsaristregime, the Russian authorities aimed to create in Abkhazia a multi-ethniccommunity that would rely on Russian as its lingua franca. Meanwhile,Georgian cultural activists strove to strengthen the position of theGeorgian language, in Abkhazia as in Georgia proper. A common assumption onthe part of both Russians and Georgians was that Abkhaz, as the unwrittenlanguage of a culturally backward and almost wholly rural people, was doomedto disappear. The only question was which language would replace it—Georgianor Russian (Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, p. 11).

The tsarist authorities were nonetheless prepared totolerate and even facilitate the use of Abkhaz in churches and schools. Thefirst successful attempt to establish a school in Abkhazia had been made atOkum in 1851 by D. A. Mach’avariani, a teacher and priest from westernGeorgia (Dzidzariya 1979, p. 24), and the authorities wanted to thwartefforts to Georgianize the Abkhaz. True, the use in education of all nativenon-Russian languages, Abkhaz included, was severely restricted. Instructionin native languages became possible when Tsar Alexander II introduced aliberal school reform in the 1860s. New instructions issued in 1906--1907,however, confined native-language instruction to the first two years ofelementary school; older children had to be taught in Russian. Nevertheless,teaching in Abkhaz was regarded with greater favor than teaching inGeorgian.

There was a similar dispute over the language to be usedin church services in Abkhazia. This dispute was part and parcel of a widerstruggle between the Georgian and the Russian Orthodox Church for thecontrol of churches in Abkhaz villages.

Thus, it became common for Russian officials to don themantle of protectors and patrons of Abkhaz language and culture. The armygeneral Baron Pyotr K. Uslar was the first Russian to make a serious studyof the Abkhaz language; it was he who, in 1860 or thereabouts, devised thefirst Abkhaz alphabet of 55 characters based on Cyrillic script. In 1865another Russian scholar and military officer, I. A. Bartolomei, composed thefirst Abkhaz reading book for use in schools.

Linked to the growth of Abkhaz-language education was theemergence of a very small Abkhaz intelligentsia, consisting mainly thoughnot exclusively of educators (Dzidzariya 1979). A landmark in this processwas the First Congress of Teachers of Abkhazia, held in Sukhum(i)in 1876. Abkhaz educational and cultural development was set back by the warand uprising of 1877—78 and by the repressions and deportations thatfollowed. Many schools were closed or destroyed. The surviving Abkhazintelligentsia recovered only slowly.

The development of a modern Abkhaz culture and nationalintelligentsia was therefore underway, but the process was still at a veryearly stage at the end of the tsarist era. In March 1917, the Georgianphilologist I. A. Kipshidze would condescendingly remark: “The Abkhazalready have their own literature, religious and secular—true, a very poorone, but deserving of greater attention all the same” (Dzidzariya 1979, p.195). Right up to 1912, Abkhaz-language literature consisted only ofelementary school textbooks (the first arithmetic book, by Foma (Omar)Eshba, was printed in 1907), translations of church prayers, catechism, andhomilies, and a few collections of Abkhaz songs, proverbs, puzzles, and wordgames. Finally, in 1912, there appeared the first work of original Abkhazliterature—a collection of verses by Dyrmit Gulia (1874—1960), who is stillhonored as the Abkhaz national poet. A college to train teachers forAbkhaz-language schools opened in 1915.

[p class="MsoBodyTextIndent3" align="left" style="text-align:left;text-indent:0cm;
line-height:150%]Abkhaz, Georgians, and the revolutionarymovement

Toward the end of the 19th century, somemembers of the new Abkhaz intelligentsia helped to establish the presence ofthe All-Russian revolutionary movement in Abkhazia. When the Russian SocialDemocratic Workers’ Party split into Bolshevik and Menshevik wings in 1903,the majority of the Georgian social democrats aligned themselves with theMensheviks, while most of the Abkhaz social democrats became Bolsheviks.

The Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lak’oba has offeredcontradictory assessments of the relationship that developed between therevolutionary movement and the Abkhaz people as a whole. He argues thatMarxism and class struggle were alien to the Abkhaz mentality, and that theAbkhaz peasants distrusted the revolutionary movement in general and therevolution of 1905—1907 in particular as “Georgian” phenomena. He proceedsto accept at face value the proclamation of April 27, 1907 in which TsarNicholas II annulled the “guilt” of the Abkhaz people in recognition of theloyalty that they had shown to the government (Lak’oba 1998, pp. 85—6). Inhis earlier book on Abkhazia in 1905—1907, however, Lak’oba devotesconsiderable space to the uprisings and rent strikes of the Abkhaz peasantsat this period (Lak’oba 1985, pp. 43, 82-5, 101). In the Abkhaz village ofLykhny, for instance, peasants attacked the building of the villageadministration on February 8, 1907 and burned all the tax and debt recordsthey could find there. It is much more plausible to suppose that the tsarabolished Abkhaz “guilt” and the discrimination that it justified not as areward for good behavior but as a concession to Abkhaz discontent. At thesame time, the urban unrest of 1905, in which Georgian workers played themain role, may have strengthened the anti-Georgian orientation of theauthorities and prompted them to more consistent efforts to win theloyalty of the Abkhaz by posing as their defenders against theGeorgians.

3) Theperiod of independent Georgia (1917—1921)

When Russia imploded in 1917, an independent Georgianstate emerged under Menshevik rule while the central government in Moscowtemporarily disappeared as an actor in the region’s politics. The gradualtransformation of the original Russian-Abkhaz conflict into aGeorgian-Abkhaz conflict thereby reached completion.

In May 1917, Abkhazia joined the North Caucasianrepublics in the Union of Mountain Peoples, later reconstituted as the NorthCaucasian Republic, or the Mountain Republic for short (Lak’oba 1998, pp.89--90). In this way, the majority of members of the politicalrepresentative body of the Abkhaz, the Abkhaz People’s Council (APC), tookan apparent opportunity to be rid of both Russia and Georgia and return tothe ethno-cultural roots of their people. In April and May 1918, ashort-lived Soviet regime existed in Abkhazia (or at least in Sukhum(i)).

On June 8, 1918, a delegation of the APC that was inTbilisi for talks with the Georgian government signed a treaty of union withGeorgia. Abkhaz historians claim that the treaty was invalid because thedelegation had not been empowered to sign it. Ostensibly in order to preventthe possible entry into Abkhazia of Turkish, White Russian, or Bolshevikforces, the Georgian government deployed troops along the coastal strip ofAbkhazia. Although most Abkhaz regarded these troops as a force ofoccupation and abuses were committed against the civilian population, Abkhazpolitical and cultural activity was not suppressed. In fact, important newdevelopments occurred in Abkhaz cultural life: Samson Chanba established anAbkhaz theater and the first newspaper in Abkhaz (Apsny) appearedunder the editorship of Dyrmit Gulia (Pachulina 1976, pp. 31—2).

The Georgian government repeatedly expressed awillingness in principle to allow for some kind of autonomy for Abkhaziawithin Georgia, and the Georgian Constitution of 1921 included a vagueclause making provision for such autonomy in accordance with futurelegislation. That legislation was never adopted because before agreementcould be reached on the matter with the (new) APC the Red Army invadedGeorgia and Abkhazia, opening the era of Soviet rule.

4) Theearly Soviet period (1921—1936)

The period1918—1921 has positive connotations for Georgian nationalists and negativeones for their Abkhaz counterparts. For the early Soviet period the positionis exactly the opposite. Following the entry into Sukhum(i)of the Ninth Red Army in March 1921, Abkhazia was declared a SovietSocialist Republic—that is, a full Union Republic, separate from andco-equal in status with Georgia. While for the Georgians the imposition ofthe Soviet regime meant the loss of precious independence, for the Abkhaz itrepresented if not independence (ultimate power resided in Moscow) then atleast a much greater degree of autonomy than they had enjoyed since 1810.Moreover, predominantly Menshevik Georgia suffered much more intenserepression than Abkhazia with its strong indigenous Bolshevik movement. Upto 10,000 people were executed following an attempted Georgian nationalistuprising in 1924.

Nevertheless, the formal status of Abkhazia within the Soviet Union wasreduced by stages to a level more in keeping with its small size. InDecember 1921, the Abkhaz Bolsheviks who governed Abkhazia concluded, at theurging of Moscow, a “special union treaty” with Georgia. Under the terms ofthis treaty, Abkhazia was no longer separate from Georgia, but it remained aUnion Republic with the autonomy corresponding to that status. In 1925Abkhazia was able to adopt its own constitution.

The 1920sbrought further cultural progress for the Abkhaz. An Abkhaz ScholarlySociety was established in 1922 to study the history and customs ofAbkhazia. In 1924 this society organized in Sukhum(i)the first congress for regional studies of the Black Sea coast and westernCaucasus, attended by 70 delegates from Abkhazia and 105 delegates formother parts of the region. The final session, held under the ancient limetree in the village of Lykhny, a sacred gathering place for the Abkhaz, wasattended by 3,000 people from all over Abkhazia. Ancient religious symbolismwas thereby used to consolidate a modern national consciousness.

Anothernoteworthy development was the creation in Sukhum(i)in 1925 of the Academy of Abkhaz Language and Literature, the firstpresident of which was the Abkhaz educator and People’s Commissar ofEducation of Abkhazia A. M. Chochua. A key role in establishing this academywas played by the prominent Soviet philologist Academician Nikolai Marr,2who had a strong interest in the languages of the Caucasus in general and inthe Abkhaz language in particular (Pachulina 1976, pp. 32—3). In 1930 theacademy was transformed into the Abkhaz Institute of Language, Literature,and History of the Academy of Sciences of the Georgian Soviet SocialistRepublic.3 In the 1980s this institute was to serve as anincubator of the Abkhaz nationalist movement, whose leader VladislavArdzinba was its director for a time.

In 1931,Abkhazia was reduced to the status of an Autonomous Republic within Georgia.In several Abkhaz villages there were mass protests against the abolition ofthe Union Republic, and also against forced collectivization. AlthoughLavrenti Beria, as head of the Georgian OGPU, mobilized a secret policedetachment to suppress the protests, concessions were promised and theprotests brought to an end without bloodshed. The incumbent Abkhazleadership headed by Nest’or Lak’oba, who remained in office for anotherfive years, retained substantial de facto autonomy. By referring to thespecial conditions prevailing in Abkhazia, they were able to haltcollectivization, protect Abkhazia from mass repression, and even distributefinancial allowances to Abkhaz princes and nobles (Lak’oba 1998, pp. 94--5).The tranquility of Abkhazia presented a remarkable contrast with theupheavals in the rest of the Soviet Union during these years.

5) Theperiod of the Stalin--Beria terror (December 1936—1953)

The idyllcame to an abrupt end in December 1936, when Beria—by this time CommunistParty secretary for the whole South Caucasus—summoned Lak’oba to Tbilisi.Beria acquainted Lak’oba with a plan to resettle peasants from westernGeorgia in Abkhazia. Lak’oba refused to implement the plan. The next dayLak’oba died under mysterious circumstances; the condition of the corpsereturned to his family suggested that he had been poisoned, perhaps by Beriapersonally (Lak’oba 1998, p. 95).

Thus began aperiod marked by the de facto elimination of Abkhaz autonomy, a reign ofterror in which most of the Abkhaz political and intellectual eliteperished, and the forcible Georgianization of Abkhazia and of the Abkhaz.Georgianization took two main forms. First, more Georgians were settled inAbkhazia, shifting the ethno-demographic balance further against the Abkhazand breaking up remaining contiguous areas of Abkhaz habitation. Second,public use of the Abkhaz language was progressively restricted: Georgianplace names replaced Abkhaz ones; Abkhaz writing, based since 1926 on theLatin alphabet, was switched to a version of Georgian script; radiobroadcasting in Abkhaz ceased; and after the war Abkhaz was replaced byGeorgian as the language of instruction in schools. The last of thesemeasures left particularly painful memories in the minds of the generationof Abkhaz growing up at that time, for they were beaten if they spoke theirnative language and were forced to cope with a language of which they had noprevious knowledge.

Research inCommunist Party archives has shown that in implementing the policy ofGeorgianization Georgian bureaucrats in Abkhazia acted in general accordancewith the directives of the central leadership in Moscow (Lezhava 1997, pp.116—61). Georgianization in Abkhazia was merely the local application of amuch broader policy aimed at the assimilation of ethnic minorities in allthe Union Republics. True, the Georgian bureaucrats may have gone evenfurther than they were required to. Thus, their instructions stipulated thatteaching was no longer to be carried out in local minority languages likeAbkhaz, but did not prohibit the teaching of such languages as specialsubjects. This loophole was not exploited: teaching of as well as in Abkhazwas suppressed. Nevertheless, responsibility lay primarily with Moscow, notTbilisi. This, however, is not how Abkhaz tended to interpret the matter.They were inclined to blame “the Georgians.” A number of reasons can besuggested for this: the Georgian origin of Stalin and Beria, the simple factthat they were being subjected to Georgianization not Russification, andtheir positive experience in the preceding period, which predisposed themagainst blaming the Soviet system as such.

Thebitterness against Georgians that originated in the late 1940s and early1950s is an important factor underlying the escalation of theAbkhaz-Georgian conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

6) Thepost-Stalin period (1953—1985)

Although asuperficial appearance of interethnic harmony was maintained in thepost-Stalin period, in fact there was constant latent and intermittent opentension in Abkhaz-Georgian relations at all levels—within the rulingparty-state bureaucracy in Abkhazia, in cultural and educationalinstitutions, and among ordinary people. Indicative of the atmosphere wasthe fact that at public meetings the audience would often cheer or hissspeakers, depending on which language they chose to use.4 Thetension took on open expression during the waves of popular Abkhaz protestthat occurred roughly every decade: in 1957, in 1965 and 1967, in 1978, andculminating in the first violent interethnic clashes in 1989.

Besidesthese intermittent bursts of popular protest, numerous attempts were made toprotest through official bureaucratic channels. Petitions setting out Abkhazgrievances against the Georgian leadership flowed in an unending stream fromgroups of Abkhaz intellectuals to top party and state officials in Moscow.5If the official concerned happened to sympathize with the Abkhaz, as somedid, he might send inspectors to Abkhazia to check the accuracy of theallegations on the spot, and as a result pressure might be exerted on theparty leaders in Tbilisi to improve the treatment of the Abkhaz. If theofficial was not sympathetic, he would follow the standard Sovietbureaucratic practice of forwarding complaints to the very authority againstwhom the complaint was directed—in this case, to the Georgian leadersthemselves. The petitioners were then liable to be hauled over the coals for“slander.”

Thesituation of the Abkhaz in the post-Stalin period was never as bad as in thelate Stalin period but never as good as in the early Soviet period. Theworst persecutions of the Abkhaz did not recur, but neither did they regainthe degree of autonomy they had enjoyed de jure up to 1931 or de facto up to1936. Within this broad intermediate range, however, there were significantchanges over time. In particular, the year 1978 marked a major turningpoint. From 1953 until 1978, the Georgian leadership in Tbilisi remained infirm control of Abkhazia and made only token concessions to Abkhazinterests. Educational and media provision in the Abkhaz language was on avery small scale. Even the question of restoring original Abkhaz place namesthat had been Georgianized under Stalin remained unresolved. After 1978, bycontrast, the Abkhaz began to reacquire real autonomy, although thistendency encountered strong resistance both from a large part of theGeorgian political and cultural elite in Tbilisi and from discontentedGeorgians in Abkhazia itself. It was at this period that the Abkhaz won suchprized concessions as television broadcasting in Abkhaz and “their own”university—the Abkhaz State University, formed on the base of the Sukhum(i)Pedagogical Institute. This period also saw a steady rise in the share ofmanagement and government positions in Abkhazia that were occupied by ethnicAbkhaz, to a point well beyond the proportion of Abkhaz in the totalpopulation of the region, giving rise to fears among local Georgians of theemergence of an “ethnocratic regime.”

Whathappened in 1978 to bring about this shift was the third post-Stalin wave ofpopular protest for Abkhaz rights, led by a section of the Abkhaz culturalintelligentsia. The first two waves of protest (in 1957 and in 1965—1967)had yielded minimal results,6 but in 1978 Eduard Shevardnadze, atthat time party leader in Georgia, responded to the protests by publiclyacknowledging the need to correct nationalities policy in Abkhazia. Hepromised the protestors that all their demands would be granted except forone—namely, the demand that Abkhazia be transferred from Georgia to theRussian Federation. And on the whole Shevardnadze kept his promise. Onlylater did he backtrack somewhat, when “Abkhazization” gave rise tocounter-protests by ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia (see below). It should benoted that in 1978 there were also Georgian nationalist protests in Tbilisiagainst a move by Moscow to deprive the Georgian language of itsconstitutional status; Shevardnadze responded in a conciliatory manner tothese protests too and persuaded the central leadership to concede. So bothAbkhaz and Georgians had reason to appreciate him.

Abkhazdiscontent was aroused not only by substantive grievances but also byostensibly scholarly disputes in the field of ethnic history. They wereupset by the appearance in the press of articles in which Georgianhistorians claimed either that the Abkhaz were just another regional varietyof Georgians (like the Megrels or Svans) or—on the contrary—that they were“newcomers” to Georgia who originated to the north of the Great CaucasusRange, implying that they were merely “guests” on Georgian land. (SomeGeorgian historians take the same view of the Ossets. The difference is thatthe Ossets really did migrate to Georgia from the northern slopes.) In 1979,on Shevardnadze’s initiative, a series of meetings was initiated betweenGeorgian and Abkhaz historians in Borzhomi to encourage joint research andthe development of a common historical narrative. Although these meetingsdid lead to the publication of several works on Abkhaz-Georgian relations,they did not achieve the goal set for them. The process remained dependenton the personal support of Shevardnadze, and when Gorbachev called him toMoscow in 1985 to become Soviet foreign minister the meetings came to ahalt. Lezhava believes that Shevardnadze might have managed to preventescalation of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict had be been allowed to remain inGeorgia through the post-Soviet transition (Lezhava 1997, p. 217).

Thepost-1978 shift in the balance of ethnic power in Abkhazia led to acounter-reaction from local ethnic Georgians, who began to resort to thesame means of pressure that had been used to such good effect by the Abkhaz.In 1980, a petition signed by no fewer than 338 “representatives of theGeorgian population” was sent to Shevardnadze and Brezhnev, claiming thatthe new “anti-Georgian policy” had resulted in Abkhaz, many of them corrupt,occupying two thirds of all the nomenklatura positions in Abkhazia. In someplaces, popular protests by ethnic Georgians led to the replacement of newlyinstalled Abkhaz local officials or managers by Georgians. There were alsoinstances of individuals being physically assaulted apparently forethnopolitical motives, although such cases were always publicly tried asnon-political offenses (Lezhava 1997, pp. 220—25).

7) Theperiod of perestroika and post-Soviet transition (1986—August 1992)

Perestroikain Abkhazia

The ethnictensions that the Soviet political system in its pre-perestroika form hadbeen able to muffle and contain (though not resolve) developed more freelyand openly under the liberalized conditions of Gorbachev’s perestroika,especially in its second stage (from 1988 onward). Abkhaz and Georgiannationalist organizations were established, and massive demonstrations withethnopolitical slogans became commonplace.

In December1988 the Popular Forum of Abkhazia “Aidgylara” (the Abkhaz word for“unification”) was set up and soon became the main organizational vehicle ofAbkhaz nationalism, although it brought together not only Abkhazorganizations but also organizations of Russians, Armenians, and othernon-Georgian (and mainly Russian-speaking) groups. Its program demanded aRepublic of Abkhazia, fully separate from Georgia, within a renewed Sovietfederation. This goal was directly opposed to the main aim of all Georgiannationalist parties, which was a united Georgia including Abkhazia outsidethe Soviet Union.7

On March 18,1989, with the support of Abkhaz party and government officials, “Aidgylara”held its first mass public meeting in the village of Lykhny, the traditionalsacred gathering place of the Abkhaz people. A week later, on March 25, inresponse to the Lykhny meeting, Georgian nationalist organizations conveneda mass public meeting of ethnic Georgians in Sukhum(i).Each meeting by one side provoked a counter-meeting by the other side. Theincreasingly tense though as yet non-violent confrontation in Abkhazia alsoserved to heighten nationalist agitation in Georgia as a whole. One of themain demands at the mass Georgian nationalist demonstration in Tbilisi onApril 9, which attracted attention throughout the Soviet Union and the worldwhen its participants were gassed and beaten by shovels wielded by troopsunder the command of General Rodionov, was that Abkhazia should remainwithin Georgia.

Theconfrontation could not be expected to continue for long as such a level ofintensity without spilling over into violence. The first violent clashbetween small groups of Georgians and Abkhaz occurred in Gagra as early asMarch 28 (Lezhava 1997, p. 247). Large-scale violence, however, did noterupt until mid-July.

The eventsof July 1989

Fightingbroke out in Sukhum(i)on July 15. The issue that triggered the clashes was whether theGeorgian-language sector of the Abkhaz State University, which consisted ofthree sectors using Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian, respectively, should beturned into a branch of Tbilisi State University (TSU).8 Thisseems at first sight a purely administrative question of secondaryimportance, for it did not affect the opportunity to study in any of thethree languages. Many Abkhaz, however, feared that the new Georgian-languageinstitution would divert funds from “their” Abkhaz State University andprove to be the first step toward closing it down. Live reporting in themedia, and especially on television, may have further inflamed and spreadthe conflict (Lezhava 1997, p. 286).

The fightingbegan when Abkhaz protestors who were laying siege to a building whereentrance examinations were being held for the TSU branch found themselves inturn surrounded by Georgian counter-protestors. At this site the fightingdid not involve weapons. However, as it spread into the neighboring districtand drew in more people, self-made weapons made their appearance: inparticular, a wooden fence round a local park was pulled apart and used tomake sharpened sticks. When news of the fighting reached other parts ofGeorgia, militias connected to Georgian nationalist organizations began tomake their way into Abkhazia. What began as unorganized brawling betweenmore or less equally matched crowds of local men started to acquire thecharacter of a systematic pogrom conducted by large and well-armed Georgianforces, mostly from outside Abkhazia, against an almost defenseless Abkhazpopulation. Firearms were distributed to Georgian crowds, while Abkhazpassengers were pulled off buses and beaten up or killed. While there were aconsiderable number of deaths and injuries, the intervention of interiorministry troops, flown into Abkhazia from Russia by the central Sovietauthorities, succeeded in restoring order and saving many lives, especiallyby blocking the advance into Abkhazia of more Georgian fighters.9“Aidgylara” declared that what had taken place was “a planned action toannihilate the Abkhaz people” (Lezhava 1997, p. 283).

August 1989– December 1991

In theaftermath of the traumatic events of July 1989, the conflict returned for atime to the level of non-violent political confrontation. On August 25, theSupreme Soviet of Abkhazia (SSA) adopted a declaration of state sovereignty,which the Supreme Soviet of Georgia declared invalid the next day. Thedeclaration brought to a head a growing ethnopolitical division within theAbkhazian legislature, and on August 31 the dissenting minority, consistingmainly but not solely of ethnic Georgian deputies (with some Georgiandeputies remaining in Sukhum(i)),reconvened in the Georgian Institute of Subtropical Agriculture in Tbilisiand declared itself the “real” Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia. Henceforth twoseparate and opposed bodies, one in Sukhum(i)and the other in exile in Tbilisi, would lay claim to the same title.

Anothersignificant development at about the same time was the formation of analliance of ethnopolitical movements called initially the Confederation ofMountain Peoples of the Caucasus. (The word “mountain” was later dropped toallow movements of “non-mountain” peoples to join.) Although “Aidgylara” wasthe only member organization not based in the North Caucasus, theconfederation set up its headquarters in Sukhum(i)and also held its first congress there, on August 26. The congress adopted adeclaration of solidarity with the Abkhaz nationalist cause.10 Atleast some of its supporters conceived of the confederation as a possibleprecursor to a new Mountain Republic of the kind that existed in 1917—1918.Abkhazia would be crucial to such a state as its sole outlet to the opensea. For the Abkhaz national movement, membership in the confederationrepresented a reorientation away from Georgia and toward renewed communitywith ethno-cultural kin in the North Caucasus. The confederation alsorepresented a potential source of support in the event of armed conflictwith Georgia (and when war did come such support was indeed forthcoming). Byhosting the congress and demonstrating to Tbilisi that it had outsidesupport, “Aidgylara” hoped to deter a Georgian invasion.

On November14, 1990, the former Georgian nationalist dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdiabecame chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Georgia. (He won election aspresident of Georgia six months later—on May 26, 1991.) In December 1990Vladislav Ardzinba was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia inSukhum(i).11

BetweenOctober and December 1991 new elections to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia inSukhum(i)took place in several rounds. Gamsakhurdia and Ardzinba had come to a“gentlemen’s agreement” concerning the electoral system to be employed inthese elections, which was based on ethnically defined territorialconstituencies in accordance with pre-assigned ethnic quotas. This meantthat in 28 constituencies only Abkhaz candidates could stand for election,in 26 only Georgians, and in the remaining 11 only members of third ethnicgroups (Russians, Armenians, etc.). This system, which greatly restrictedthe real choices open to voters, was apparently acceptable to both sides ofthe conflict because each side believed that it would be able to form amajority by allying with third-group deputies (Lezhava 1997, p. 328).

As it turnedout, the Abkhaz side was right and the Georgian side wrong in thisexpectation. A few “third group” deputies took the Georgian side, but mostsupported the Abkhaz. One factor in this choice of orientation may have beenthat few members of “third” groups in Abkhazia had (or wanted to acquire) agood knowledge of Georgian, so they did not welcome inclusion in a Georgianstate with Georgian as the sole state language. True, few of them knewAbkhaz either, but Russian—still used by everyone as a lingua franca—wouldalmost certainly retain high status in an independent Abkhazia.12

The finalmonths before the war

The SovietUnion, already much weakened, was formally dissolved at the end of 1991.This event propelled the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict into its final prewarphase.

On thejuridical level, there was a competitive struggle to fill the “legal vacuum”created by abolition of the Soviet Union. This took the form of a “war ofconstitutions” between the parliaments in Tbilisi and Sukhum(i).In February 1992 the Supreme Soviet of Georgia voted to reinstate theconstitution that the independent Georgian republic had adopted in 1921. Inresponse, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia in Sukhum(i)voted on July 23 (three weeks before the outbreak of war) to reinstate theconstitution that the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic had adopted in1925. These steps reflected a highly formalistic approach to politics onboth sides, one that took no account of changes that had occurred since the1920s. Each of the reinstated constitutions was regarded as unacceptable bythe other side: the Georgian constitution of 1921 allowed for the autonomyof Abkhazia in only the vaguest of terms, while the Abkhazian constitutionof 1925 affirmed the separate and equal status of Abkhazia as a Soviet UnionRepublic.

At the sametime, there was a more down-to-earth struggle for control over the formerlySoviet “power structures” on Abkhazian territory. The separation ofAbkhazian economic institutions from their Georgian counterparts had begunin the last few months of 1991. For example, the presidium of the SupremeSoviet of Abkhazia decreed on August 30, 1991 that legislation of theRepublic of Georgia pertaining to banking did not apply to Abkhazia, and inOctober 1991 it established a customs service and a State Committee forForeign Economic and Inter-Republican Ties under its own control. However,only at the end of 1991, after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union,was this process extended from the economic to the military and securityspheres. On December 29, 1991, four days after Gorbachev resigned as thefirst and last Soviet president, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet ofAbkhazia passed a resolution claiming possession and control of all formerlySoviet military forces (including naval forces, civil defense, bordertroops, and internal troops) deployed in Abkhazia. In February 1992, acommission was set up to register citizens of Abkhazia, and strictrestrictions were imposed on the migration to Abkhazia of people from otherparts of Georgia. On March 5, 1992, a law was adopted that re-subordinatedother bodies of state administration, including the Security Committee andthe State Property Committee, to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia(Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, p. 37). A corresponding institutional structurewas formed, including the introduction of a system of compulsory militaryservice modeled on its Soviet counterpart. All these measures pointed to adetermined effort by the Ardzinba leadership to acquire a significantmilitary capability (Chervonnaya 1995, pp. 75—84).

Thus, in thecourse of these first few post-Soviet months the secession of Abkhazia fromGeorgia moved beyond verbal declarations into the sphere of realstate-building. The process proceeded in a fairly smooth manner, with nomore than a few minor skirmishes between Abkhaz and Georgian policeofficers.

It should beborne in mind that the same period witnessed the intra-Georgian civil warbetween the supporters and opponents of Gamsakhurdia (December 1991 –January 1992). Power in Tbilisi was taken by a Military Council, laterreconstituted as a State Council, which in March 1992 invited Shevardnadzeback to the country to become its chairman. The intra-Georgian civil warcontinued in the form of fighting between the new regime and “Zviadista”insurgents in Megrelia, Gamsakhurdia’s home region in western Georgia. Itwas still in progress when Abkhazia was invaded.



Why didShevardnadze and his colleagues on the State Council of Georgia decide tosend military forces into Abkhazia on August 14, 1992? I shall considerfirst the probable aim of the operation, then why it was launched at thisparticular point in time, and finally whether it could have been preventedby diplomatic means.

Georgia’swar aims

According totwo versions of Georgia’s war aims disseminated by the Georgian side, theintended purpose of the invasion was actually more limited than it appearedto be in light of subsequent events. In one version, presented later byShevardnadze in a report to the Georgian parliament, the goal of theoperation was to “ensure security of movement along the railroad connectingRussia with Georgia and Armenia which passes through Abkhazia, thesecurity of the main highways, and the security of objects of strategicimportance” (Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, pp. 38—9). As a rationale this wasnot at all plausible: first, armed train robberies had occurred in westernGeorgia but not on Abkhazian territory; and second, no attempt had been madeto improve security along lines of communication in cooperation with theauthorities in Sukhum(i).

The secondversion was circulated unofficially and seems designed to whitewashShevardnadze at the expense of other members of the State Council. It claimsthat Shevardnadze had intended to conduct a strictly limited operation tofree Georgian officials who had been abducted by Zviadista (i.e.,pro-Gamsakhurdia) insurgents in western Georgia and were being heldsomewhere in the Gali district in southern Abkhazia. Shevardnadze hadallegedly telephoned Ardzinba to forewarn him of the operation and reassurehim that its aims were limited; Ardzinba, for his part, denied that hereceived any such telephone call, nor is it clear whether the hostages werereally being held inside Abkhazia. Unfortunately, the story continues,Georgian defense minister Tengiz Kitovani, who was commanding the operation,had ignored clear instructions from Shevardnadze and proceeded straight toSukhum(i)to suppress the secessionist regime, thereby covering himself with patrioticglory. Shevardnadze had not yet had time to consolidate his position inTbilisi and so was unable to exert effective control over his unrulygenerals.

Thecharacter of the military force mobilized for the operation (as described,for instance, in Billingsley 1998) immediately puts the lie to both theseversions of events. The column of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillerythat crossed the River Inguri into Abkhazia at dawn on August 14 was not thesort of force needed to find and free hostages or to protect lines ofcommunication. Moreover, the thrust north along the coast road to Sukhum(i)was only one prong of a two-pronged operation. Equally important was thesimultaneous amphibious landing near Gagra in the north of Abkhazia, whichcannot possibly have been directed against train robbers orZviadistas.

It makesmore sense to view the operation as an attempted blitzkrieg to restoreGeorgian control over most or all of Abkhazia before the poorly preparedAbkhaz could organize effective resistance. The landing force in the northwas to close the corridor between the sea and the mountains, which at Gagrais only a kilometer wide, so that supplies and reinforcements would not (orso they imagined) be able to reach the Abkhaz forces from Russia, and thenmove south to join up with the northbound column. Like so many otherblitzkriegs in history, this one got bogged down, giving the adversary achance to organize and turn the blitzkrieg into a war of attrition. Theassumption that reinforcements could enter Abkhazia only along the coastalstrip proved mistaken: volunteers from the North Caucasus came through thehigh mountain passes.

It seemsthat Kitovani’s conduct of the operation did thwart Shevardnadze’sintentions in one vital respect. Shevardnadze did hope to spare Sukhum(i)the ravages of war. His instructions, which assumed that Georgian forceswould approach the city simultaneously from the south and from the north,were that they should halt on the outskirts, surround Sukhum(i)but not enter or bombard it. An acceptable settlement would then benegotiated from a position of strength. By bringing the forces coming fromthe south into Sukhum(i),Kitovani was acting against these instructions, but he had a militaryrationale for so doing. Unexpectedly strong Abkhaz resistance had held upthe forces coming from the north, so the original plan to complete theoperation with the encirclement of Sukhum(i)was no longer feasible.

Why August1992?

It is widelyheld that the Georgian military intervention should be understood in thecontext of the “war of constitutions”—specifically, as a reaction to thereinstatement of the Abkhazian constitution of 1925. However, it is hard tosee why this document should have been any more objectionable toGeorgian nationalists than the Declaration of State Sovereignty that theAbkhazian parliament had adopted nearly two years before (on August 25,1990). Both documents rejected Abkhazia’s incorporation into Georgia.13

In myopinion, a much more important factor was the capture by the secessionistauthorities in Sukhum(i)of control over the formerly Soviet “power structures” on Abkhazianterritory. The rapid build-up of an independent Abkhazian militarycapability provided the Georgian leadership with a strong incentive to actagainst the newborn state without too long a delay, while they still had (orthought they had) decisive military superiority.

Nevertheless, there had apparently been no noticeable rise in the level oftension in Abkhazia during the period of the immediate run-up to war. Nospecial preparations had been made to counter an invading Georgian force,and Kitovani’s column was able to proceed completely unimpeded along themain road, meeting resistance for the first time only a few kilometers tothe southeast of Sukhum(i).14On the day of the invasion, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia was scheduled tomeet to discuss a draft treaty of union between Abkhazia and Georgia. It istherefore clear that while the Abkhaz leadership can hardly have beenunaware that there was a general military threat from Georgia, they had noexpectation of its realization in the near future. We may presume that theyviewed the “war of constitutions” as a way of establishing initial positionsfor subsequent bargaining rather than as a prelude to real war. They mayhave been misled by the conciliatory stance towards the Abkhaz thatShevardnadze had adopted in his earlier incarnation as Georgian partysecretary.15

Shevardnadze had returned to Georgia, at the invitationof the junta that had overthrown Gamsakhurdia, in March 1992—only fivemonths earlier. The initiative for the Abkhazian operation may well havecome from Shevardnadze’s military colleagues, especially Kitovani andIoseliani, and Shevardnadze may not have yet felt himself in a strong enoughposition to oppose their wishes. Whether but for this considerationShevardnadze would have vetoed the invasion is hard to judge. Hisinstructions that Georgian forces were not to enter Sukhum(i)suggest that he may have had serious misgivings. Later, moreover, havingachieved a stronger position, he did resist strong pressure for a secondinvasion of Abkhazia—though this time round, of course, he had the benefitof hindsight.

On the other hand, Shevardnadze was perhaps not toounwilling to be persuaded by his colleagues. Although the Abkhazianoperation was not a direct consequence of the war against the Zviadists inneighboring Megrelia, it may well have been seen as a logical next step inthe restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity under the new regime.Probably—and here the condescending Georgian view of the Abkhaz as a smalland backward people no doubt played a part—none of the Georgian leadersanticipated that it would be a costly, prolonged, or indeed particularlydifficult operation. Shevardnadze may even have seen a short and successfulwar against the secessionist regime in Sukhum(i)as a quick means of consolidating his personal authority.

Another motive for invading Abkhazia may have been tostabilize the domestic political situation by uniting Georgians against acommon enemy. In particular, Shevardnadze may have seen the campaign againstthe Abkhaz as a way of ending the Zviadista uprising in Megrelia.

Could war have been prevented?

If thisanalysis of the prewar situation in Abkhazia is correct, it follows that warmight have been prevented by sufficiently active preventive diplomacy on thepart of Russia and/or the West. A starting point for negotiations could havebeen the simultaneous suspension of Abkhazia’s return to the constitution of1925 and Georgia’s return to the constitution of 1921. It is worth notingthat Shevardnadze was not personally associated with the latter step, whichwas taken the month before he came back to Georgia.

While it seems that Russia was not diplomatically engagedin the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the immediate prewar period, promptaction was taken following the outbreak of hostilities. On September 3, lessthan three weeks after the war began, President Yeltsin convenednegotiations in Moscow between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, with theparticipation also of leaders of the republics, territories, and provincesof the Russian North Caucasus.16 At this meeting Yeltsin, backedup by the North Caucasus leaders, showed himself willing to exert strongpressure on the parties, especially on Ardzinba. This suggests that had theRussian government been aware that war was imminent in Abkhazia it mighthave tried to avert it. On the other hand, there is some circumstantialevidence that Yeltsin may have known of the Georgian invasion in advance oreven been complicit in allowing it to happen.

Most effective of all might have been a timely initiativeby the United States and/or its European allies, or a combinedWestern-Russian initiative, with the West primarily responsible for dealingwith Georgia and Russia primarily responsible for dealing with Abkhazia. Oneof the main reasons, if not the main reason, why Shevardnadze was invited inearly 1992 to return to Georgia to chair the State Council was his verypositive image in the West: it was hoped that he would be able to attractconsiderable Western political, economic, and humanitarian support (and sohe did). This gave Western countries powerful means of influencing thedecisions of the Georgian leadership. By recognizing Georgia and admittingit to membership in the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN, all withoutpreconditions of any kind, they squandered the opportunity.

The apparent absence of either Russian or Westernattempts at preventive diplomacy during the crucial eight months between thedissolution of the USSR and the outbreak of hostilities is hard to explainexcept simply as the result of lack of attention to the Georgian-Abkhazianproblem. The strongly destabilizing impact of the end of the Soviet Unionupon an already tense situation should have been predictable. Presumablyboth Russian and Western diplomats and politicians were suffering from asevere case of issue overload at this time: Abkhazia was but one of a dozenor so hot spots in the former Soviet Union simultaneously requiring urgentpreventive action, and by no means the most important from the point of viewof international security (compared, say, with Crimea or the Baltic).

Why Shevardnadze and not Gamsakhurdia?

It may seemanomalous that the invasion of Abkhazia took place under the aegis of the“liberal” Shevardnadze, rather than under that of the “extreme nationalist”Gamsakhurdia. If “even” Gamsakhurdia was able to reach a mutualunderstanding with Ardzinba and his colleagues, then why should this havebeen beyond the ability of the former Soviet foreign minister, renowned forhis role in bringing a much bigger cold war to a safe end?

A large partof the answer lies in the fact that by the time Shevardnadze returned toTbilisi in March 1992 the situation in Abkhazia had already becomeconsiderably worse from the Georgian point of view than it had been underGamsakhurdia. In particular, the separatist regime was by then well on theway to acquiring a military capability. Moreover, in 1992 Shevardnadze wasnot yet in a position to defy the views of his colleagues on the StateCouncil, a number of whom were no less extreme Georgian nationalists thanGamsakhurdia. It is also necessary to bear in mind the limits ofShevardnadze’s “liberalism”: while he always showed a relatively tolerantand sensitive attitude towards ethnic minorities, and advocated a civicrather than ethnic version of nationalism, he was never willing tocontemplate any concession when territorial integrity was at stake. In 1992Abkhazia clearly represented a very serious threat to Georgia’s territorialintegrity; in previous years that threat had been only a potential one.

WouldGamsakhurdia have intervened militarily in Abkhazia had he stayed in powerlonger? Almost certainly, yes. Gamsakhurdia saw Georgia’s territorialintegrity at risk in all the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, includingAjaria and the areas of Armenian and Azerbaijani settlement in the south aswell as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the north. His first priority wasSouth Ossetia and he had the good sense not to get into more than one war ata time; this to a large extent explains why he was willing to come to anunderstanding with Ardzinba. But Abkhazia’s turn would surely have come.



Persistentfailures of perception and calculation on both sides greatly contributed tothe escalation of the conflict and the outbreak of war.

On theGeorgian side, the main perceptual failure was a tendency to underestimatethe Abkhaz as an independent and potentially powerful actor with strong anddeeply rooted fears and grievances. Corresponding to this tendency was acharacteristic preoccupation of Georgians with the conflict between Russiaand Georgia over Abkhazia, obscuring their view of the specificallyAbkhaz-Georgian dimension of the conflict. Even many highly educated andsophisticated Georgians are remarkably ignorant of the history and cultureof the Abkhaz.

Oneinstitution that does valuable work to disseminate knowledge of the Abkhazamong Georgians is the House of the Caucasus in Tbilisi. On my visit I wastold that they run classes on the Abkhaz language, attended mainly by youngGeorgian war refugees from Sukhum(i).One of these young Georgians expressed regret that he and his friends haddeveloped a serious interest in Abkhaz language and culture only after thewar; if they had taken the same interest earlier, there might have been nowar and they would still be living in Sukhum(i).

The Abkhazhad the psychological traits typical of a small people scarred by painfulhistorical and—for the older generation—personal memories. Many Abkhaz whoas politically active adults supported the secessionist movement couldrecall being beaten as children by Georgian teachers for speaking theirnative tongue. Thus, in 1985 three Abkhaz writers wrote of “the times whenAbkhaz children, choking with tears, used to repeat Georgian words theycould not understand under the cudgel of Beria’s ‘educators.’ … We wouldlike to forget that period, but we cannot… In Abkhazia there live andconstantly reminisce people who took part in closing down Abkhaz schools”(Lak’oba 1998, p. 101).

There isalso a historically grounded fear that the Abkhaz might easily follow theirUbykh neighbors into extinction, whether through forced assimilation asunder Stalin or through massacre and deportation as under the tsars.Awareness among the Abkhaz of the fate of the Ubykh was heightened by thepublication of Last of the Departed, a historical novel by BagratShynkwba about the Ubykh deportation (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 169).

Under the “normal” conditions of the post-Stalin period,the fear of a genocidal Georgian reaction to Abkhaz rebellion could in factserve as a motive for caution, since the basic physical and culturalsurvival of the Abkhaz would be ensured by Moscow as long as they did notmake too much trouble. Such, for instance, was the attitude expressed by thelocal party leader V. M. Khintba at a Communist Party meeting in Abkhazia inFebruary 1978. Khintba upbraided activist Abkhaz intellectuals(“provocateurs,” as he called them) for inciting popular unrest: “I am thesecretary of the Abkhaz provincial committee of this people, of my belovedpeople… In 1957 and 1967 during previous waves of unrest a Damocles’ swordhung over us… You are infected with nationalism… So here we are, Abkhaz,displaying our agitation and discontent. But we are few. What will happen ifothers, more numerous than we, rise up in similar agitation? For they toohave their pride. It is not just one people that is discontented” (Abkhazskiepis’ma 1994, pp. 250—51).

But as the prospect drew nearer of the collapse of thefamiliar political environment of the Soviet Union and of the loss of theprotective umbrella of “the Center,” so did the old rationale for cautionlose its force. In July 1989, the assault of the Georgian nationalistmilitias had been halted by the timely intervention of the Center’s internaltroops. What was in store for the Abkhaz once the Georgians had a strongarmy of their own and the Soviet Union was gone? “What way out do we have?Just think about it!”—the newspaper of “Aidgylara” urged its readers on May3, 1990 (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, pp. 176—7). The answer was obvious: whateverthe risks of secession, they had to be taken, for the likely alternative wasgenocide. This fear strengthened the ethnic cohesion of the Abkhaz insupport of the secessionist leadership.

For thebenefit of those inclined to doubt the genuineness of historically ingrainedAbkhaz fears of genocide, revived by the insecurity of a disintegratingSoviet Union, the eloquent concluding lines of an open letter to Gorbachev,written by a delegation of Abkhaz women who in July 1989 had come to Moscowin the vain hope of meeting with the Soviet leader, are illustrative:

“For you, Abkhazia is a resort, a beach; for us, it is a homeland that weare losing. And when your families are evacuated and the holidaymakers flee,our husbands and children, and we together with them, will with yourblessing lay our bones in this land. Only we don’t know whether anyone willremain to whom you can convey your lofty sympathy.

You have exhausted our trust, and we, women of Abkhazia, who came to Moscowand were not allowed to meet with you, were forced to appeal for help tointernational organizations, to leaders of democratic movements, to foreignassociations of peoples of the Caucasus, and to all people of goodwill notto let the small and proud Abkhaz people perish before the eyes of thecivilized world (Abakhazskie pis’ma 1994, pp. 476--7).”


* I wouldlike to thank Professor George Hewitt of the School of Oriental and AfricanStudies of the University of London for his comments on an earlier draft ofthis paper.

1. The maincity of Abkhazia is called Sukhum in Abkhaz and Sukhumi (or Sokhumi) inGeorgian.

2. Marr isbest known in the context of Stalin’s attack on his linguistic theories in1952. Lezhava (1997, pp. 134—5) draws attention to Marr’s activity as aninfluential behind-the-scenes patron of Abkhaz culture and defender of theAbkhaz against Stalin’s repression. He also argues that the polemic betweenMarr and his opponents was no mere scholarly dispute but had definitepolitical implications. It concerned not only linguistics but alsonationalities policy as it impinged on the rights of small peoples like theAbkhaz.

3.Initially the institute was named in honor of the Abkhaz national poet D. I.Gulia. Later it was renamed in honor of Marr. After Marr’s downfall itreverted to its original name.

4. This wasmentioned in complaints voiced at the 1978 plenum of the Abkhazian partycommittee (Abkhazskie pis’ma).

5. Manysuch documents have now been published in the volume of “Abkhaz letters” (Abkhazskiepis’ma). Some petitioners traveled to Moscow to seek audiences with highofficials, not always without success. There were even a few brave souls whosent petitions to Moscow while Stalin was still alive; while their petitionswere rejected, they suffered no further penalty (remarkably enough for thetimes).

6. Althoughthe protestors did not achieve their goals, they were not severely punishedeither. For instance, Abkhaz teachers who had encouraged their students tojoin the protests were not imprisoned, but simply transferred to positionswhere they had less opportunity to influence the younger generation.

7. It wasnot yet self-evident that the Soviet Union would soon cease to exist. Forthe founding documents of “Aidgylara,” see Chapter 2 of Abkhazskii uzel1995.

8. Fordocuments relating to this dispute, see Chapter 4 of Abkhazskii uzel1995. For a personal eyewitness account of the July events, see Popkov 1998or

9. AtOchamchira local defenders, mostly Abkhaz, managed to hold up a column ofvehicles carrying Georgian fighters headed for Sukhumi until Soviet troopsarrived to relieve them. It is worthy of note that local Georgians did notsupport the invaders, and some of them helped their Abkhaz neighbors todefend the town.

10. See Abkhazskii uzel 1995, pp. 328—30.

11.According to Lezhava (1997, pp. 323—4), the Georgian deputies who hadremained in Sukhumi gave their support to Ardzinba without realizing howradical he really was, and his election was followed by a shift in influencefrom a more moderate to a more radical group of Abkhaz politicians. However,some observers do not agree with this interpretation.

12. Analternative proposal envisioned a two-chamber legislature with the lowerchamber elected on the basis of purely territorial constituencies and theupper chamber on the basis of ethnically defined constituencies. Such anarrangement might have given every ethnic bloc effective power of veto,perhaps facilitating resolution of the conflict. For some reasonGamsakhurdia rejected this proposal.

13. Thetext of the Declaration of State Sovereignty is in Abkhazskii uzel(1995, pp. 264—7); the text of the constitution of 1925 is in an appendix toAbkhazskie pis’ma (1994).

14. Thefirst Abkhaz force encountered was a unit of seven internal troops near thevillage of Okhurei in Ochamchira district, 30 kilometers from the border.They were disarmed and interned at Gali. The first effective resistance wasoffered near the villages of Tamysh and Kindgi, southeast of Sukhum, whereby blowing up a bridge over the River Kwdry the Abkhaz forces held up therear end of the Georgian column for a few hours (Shariya 1994, pp. 4—5).

15.According to Anchabadze (1998, p. 138), Shevardnadze’s return to Georgia hadraised hopes in Abkhazia for a more conciliatory Georgian position, butthese hopes were soon disappointed. Nevertheless, such hopes may not havedisappeared completely and may help to explain the lack of war preparednesson the Abkhaz side.

16. For averbatim transcript of the meeting, see Abkhazia: khronika (1992, pp.208—247).


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