|Soviet Abkhazia 1989 Facts and Thoughts, by Viktor Popkov||| Print ||
|Articles - Conflict|
|Wednesday, 15 October 2008 10:03|
In the Darkness
On the Monday [10th July] the Commission of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR finished its work in Sukhum, deciding against the partition of the University on the basis of nationality, and on 15th July something happened.
It was about 10 in the evening. Vadim Viktorovich Bzhania, scientific director of our expedition and Director of the Dept. for the Preservation of Cultural Monuments of the Council of Ministers of the Abkhazian ASSR, had scarcely greeted me when he suddenly stunned me with the words: "It's started! What we were so afraid of has happened -- I don't know whose nerve broke first, but it only took a spark to set off the whole mess into which the policies of the leadership have transformed the population of Abkhazia. We have just been told that fighting has broken out in Sukhum between Abkhazians and Kartvelians, probably involving firearms. I don't know how it will end, but we simply must be there with our people -- there are so few of us."
At first Bzhania did not want to take me with him because of the danger, but I insisted -- only one's own observations can fully guarantee accurate reporting, and certainly not accounts received at second- or third-hand. That is why I shall try to rely on my own impressions in the following remarks, even if this leads to the loss of that completeness which can come from the use of other sources.
It was already dark when we left. From time to time our headlamps picked out little groups of people, evidently trying desperately to get into town too. Besides Bzhania and myself there were four other colleagues in the car. All of them had relatives and friends in town; what was happening to them? what was going on in town? When we were rather more than 10km. from town, the road was blocked. At a narrow gap, left for traffic by a wagon that partly closed the roadway, only a trickle of cars was going through, and the rest were turning back without any arguments. Our car too turned back. As the lads explained, only cars with passengers of Kartvelian nationality were being allowed through. After some discussion of the chances of by-passing the road-block, Bzhania decided in view of the slender chances of success and the extremely alarming situation to go at once and bring out a detachment of our expedition which was working in the Gali area, where the population is predominantly Kartvelian. This was a correct decision, but my need was to get to town. And so, I took leave of my friends, resolved, if there were no better means, to proceed on foot.
Behind the wagon was a State Automobile Inspectorate (GAI) post, where the "sorting out" of the cars was taking place. Actually it looked as if not the bewildered, solitary militia-lieutenant was in charge but rather a group of very determined men. I cannot state the principles according to which they were controlling the flow of cars; it seemed that cars with Abkhazians were no longer trying to approach, but not all the others were allowed through. From snatches of conversation I formed the impression that at all events they were trying not to let through cars containing women and children. No-one paid any attention to a lone pedestrian, and a middle-aged Kartvelian kindly offered me a lift to Sukhum when he realised I was from Ogonëk. We made off along the unusually deserted road, though in one place we had to reduce speed -- a crowd of men with sticks, pieces of wood and even axes had dropped the sides of some carts and were hastily climbing into them. On arrival, we were allowed through freely, but all the same we could not reach the centre of Sukhum as the road was blocked near the Apsnå-cinema. I continued on foot.
The first thing which struck my eye was people carrying automatic weapons. The very sight of the youngsters, mere boys, as I later learned from the militia, dressed in flak-jackets and helmets and carrying aluminium shields in the town, pierced my heart with alarm more powerfully than any words.
I must confess that in Moscow, when thinking about the situation in Tbilisi or other areas where the State has been obliged to resort to force to restrain violence, the postulation that the use of force is inadmissible for the resolution of differences between people had always counted for a great deal with me. In principle this must be correct, though, as I now realise, it takes little account of local circumstances. Brute force is, alas, the only thing to which people, deafened and blinded by their respective pretensions, will pay attention. Force alone, naturally, will not open their eyes, but if people annihilate one another no-one will be left with eyes to open. This is why the leaders of the National Forum of Abkhazia (NFA), in an attempt to forestall such a train of events, turned more than once to the leaders of their own ASSR and of Georgia with a request for the introduction of a curfew. Their pleas, however, went unheeded, or rather it was feared that they might be misinterpreted by public opinion both within and outside the country. Indeed, why should a curfew have been imposed when all was quiet, when nowhere was there physical violence, bloodshed or corpses? But why then should any right-minded man find it preposterous consciously to allow a disease to develop to the point where life can be preserved only at the cost of surgical intervention?!
I passed a lorry loaded with automatics and in 100 metres or so came to a little PAZ-bus, around which a number of men were crowding. They were behaving oddly, cruelly beating the batteries and other parts of the bus with sticks. The bus itself looked as if it had been in an accident; it was all battered, the windows smashed. It transpired that Abkhazians had been riding in it, shooting, so people claimed, at passers-by. They had been stopped, I was told, only by the use of a heavy vehicle. Allegedly as a result, two of those in the bus had been killed. Fortunately, as the major in the cordon of the Internal Forces (IF) put it, no-one who had been shot at with those shot-guns had been seriously hurt. Indeed, one could only be amazed that only two Abkhazians had been killed. If they had really opened fire on Kartvelians where these are at their thickest, it would have been an act of pure madness, a form of suicide.
The bus was opposite the Apsnå-cinema, and the wide square by the cinema was full for the most part with sturdy young men, many stripped to the waist, each having in his hands a stick, a piece of wood or an axe. Beside them there peaceably co-existed along the kerb a thin line of men from militia-units, armed with automatics. Their lieutenant refused to be drawn into conversation, but the IF major explained that, in his view, the Abkhazians were entirely to blame for the situation that had arisen. They had come, he said, in a crowd 10,000 strong and wrecked the Georgian school in which the ill-starred branch of Tbilisi State University (TSU) had taken up residence in order to prepare for the holding there of the entrance-exams on 16th July.
"Come prepared", "planned extremist action", etc... -- fortunately nothing of the sort! I accept full responsibility for this statement, for everything I saw that night bore witness to the very poor, not to say non-existent, organisation of the Abkhazians. For the rest, however, the major was close to the truth. Both the information I obtained from the Muscovite Col. Venjamin Ivanovich Kochergin (of the MVD of the USSR) and the account of the Abkhazian university-teacher Niaz Gindia reveal in the main the same picture as the major as far as the incident at the school is concerned. To see why such a thing happened, let us look first at Gindia's version.
"After the Supreme Soviet Commission had taken their decision about the inadmissibility of the partitioning of the Abkhazian State University (ASU), Enukidze, the Minister of Public Education of Georgia, came out with a proposal for a federal structure for this educational establishment, with two rectors of equal standing and so on..."
Possibly this idea was no better, but in my view it offered, in the current situation, a perfectly reasonable temporary solution. Unfortunately,...
"...but this proposal was rejected as unacceptable. Meanwhile, the branch went on accepting application-forms from school-leavers, and it became known that the first exams were to take place on 16th July. Then, so as to disrupt these, a group of highly excited Abkhazians decided to blockade the building of Georgian School No. 1, having cleared their action neither with the leadership of the NFA nor with those of the ASSR [recall that these events occurred in 1989 when Soviet structures were still in place in Abkhazia, whose First Secretary was Khishba]. That happened on the evening of 14th July. In response, the IF were called out, and they cordoned off the blockaders. News of the event spread all round the town..."
By this time the question of the preservation of the integrity of the University had, for the Abkhazians, long since become not a specific issue but a matter of principle, essentially closely involved with the question of the preservation of their nationality. We can be as surprised as we like at this yoking together of things which seem so heterogeneous, but we have not been in the Abkhazians' shoes; we have not had to suffer the campaign in the Georgian press, which had assigned to the Abkhazians the role of poor adoptive children, who had forgotten the kindness shewn to them; we have not been through the University-affair, which had been dragging on for more than 2 months, an affair full of disgraceful duplicity and unprincipled conduct on the part of the leadership of the ASSR, which decided to make clear its position as opposing in principle the partition of the University on a nationality-basis only on 30th June, by which time the disease was well and truly advanced and people were keeping watch round the clock in the Philharmonia, demanding that a Supreme Soviet Commission should come to investigate. Thus, I personally am not surprised that, when the news of the blockade of the branch spread round the town and beyond...
"...at once the Abkhazians were drawn to it. Very soon a mass of them filled the surrounding streets, enveloping the school, the first ring of blockaders and the cordon.
"At the time when the blockade started there were in the building not more than 50 teachers and students of the Georgian sector. Later, however, some of these decided to leave and were let out unhindered, leaving 12 inside. These were, unquestionably, courageous people who acknowledged their responsibility for the safe-keeping of the school-leavers' documents. It cannot have been easy for them to have remained in such a siege-environment, but obviously they believed in something. They believed, one presumes, in the good sense of the Abkhazians and in the solution to the problem which the leadership of the Republic were bound to find. The Abkhazians too believed in this, especially as a rumour was going the rounds to the effect that Khishba, 1st Secretary of Abkhazia, had promised the 'elders' that, if an acceptable solution had not been found by 4 p.m. on the 15th, he would resign. This deadline had now passed, and the question remained unresolved. Therefore, some time after 5 p.m. Obkom-Secretary Tarkil read to the blockading Abkhazians a statement from the Rector of the TSU to the effect that entrance-exams for the branch would be held in the TSU itself, starting on 20th July..."
This decision, understandably, did not satisfy them. The situation started to get out of control. The besieged were the first to lose their nerve.
"...they started encouraging one another to make a shew of defiance with obscene gestures at the Abkhazians. These became enraged and attacked the school. The result was that the teachers were driven out and the school was wrecked; the safes supposedly containing the school-leavers' documents were removed. But even before this a serious fight had broken out on Rustaveli Prospect, where there had been a confrontation between Abkhazians and Kartvelians waiting for Khishba's promised speech; about 800 were involved, armed with whatever came to hand, and a whole series of incidents ensued..."
I had been observing the consequences of these incidents and their further developments as I walked round Sukhum that night. It was now about 1 a.m. The streets were completely free of cars and people, but, as I emerged onto Lenin St., I saw at the far end, down by Baratashvili Station, a crowd of cars and people; I also heard the occasional shot and burst of automatic fire. These were Abkhazians, armed with sticks and shot-guns and crowding together in expectation of a flank-attack. The forces of public order had made a feint with a dozen officers and MVD men, some armed with automatics. From time to time they fired warning bursts into the air, but there had also been shots fired with hostile intent from the other side of the station, and people had been wounded. On my arrival, they naturally adopted a reserved attitude: what did this Russian want here? But when they found out I was a journalist, they were sympathetic and tried not to expose me to fire unnecessarily. I watched this exchange of shots in the dark for a while then decided to make my way up to the NFA-headquarters, which were not far away on Frunze St., in the building of the Writers' Union. Here too were excited men, all armed. I got in with a group of elderly Abkhazians and went upstairs to the office of Aleksei Gogua, Chairman of the NFA and of the Writers' Union. Gogua was in an obviously depressed state. In the semi-darkness of the room there were a number of men; the atmosphere was one of inconsolability and helplessness before the course of events. The only hope lay in the arrival of aircraft with units of the IF. All the talk was of their defencelessness, of the impossibility of opposing the Kartvelians' automatics with sticks and shot-guns. Furthermore, in the view of the leadership of the NFA, the Kartvelians had beyond doubt at least the tacit support of the MVD men of Kartvelian extraction. Indeed, it is hard to suppose that Kartvelians could move against Kartvelians in defence of Abkhazians. The facts, regrettably, fully justify this fear. Here is a statement taken by me from an old Abkhazian, Chama Gergia of the village of Kutol, on the evening of 17th July. The old man was clearly in a state of shock after what he had been through, and it was hard to hear what he said, but the substance of his account is as follows:
"When I was returning home with my son and 3 nephews, our cars were stopped at Kelasuri (just south of Sukhum) by a crowd of Kartvelians -- about 3,000-4,000 people, old men and women among them, armed with sticks and knives. They made us get out of the car, took our papers and started to threaten us. I was jammed in the crush and immediately lost sight of my son and nephews; the cars vanished too. There were militia-men in the crowd, about 15 of them, officers with automatics. They were watching but not interfering. Suddenly I was amazed to see a familiar face among them -- Col. Andzhaparidze, the senior GAI-officer of Abkhazia."
"You mean he was in uniform?"
"Yes of course, like the rest of the militia. I said to him: 'We have done nothing; tell them to let us go and give us our papers and cars.' Andzhaparidze told them to give us our papers but said that I would get the cars back the next day from the GAI. He said that and vanished somewhere; not only did I not get my papers back but they threatened to 'weed me over' with their knives, and they put me in the cells.
"So where are the authorities when our militia-men are in with the Kartvelians like this, acting in collusion? Why do they stop Abkhazians and lock them up?
"A while later they put another 3 Abkhazians in the cell with me, and 2 more later still. There were 6 of us, and only luck saved us. I speak a bit of Georgian, and I heard them say: 'They're coming, they're coming'. I looked through a crack -- they were hiding their weapons in a hurry. It seemed that Russian soldiers had turned up. As they were going by I shouted: 'Soviet soldiers! Save us, we are innocent in here!' One soldier heard, took a look, and we were let out. We went off with the soldiers, but I didn't see any of those people arrested... Oh, I survived, but it would have been better if they had killed me. What is life to me at my age, when my only son and my nephews are gone?"
I myself had an opportunity of experiencing the attitude of the Kartvelian militia, when I went to the MVD of the Abkhazian ASSR to get information. It all began with them checking my papers and accusing Ogonëk and its editor, Korotich, of discrediting the Kartvelian nation in every issue. I was at first baffled by this but then realised that they were referring to materials on the personality-cult of Stalin and stated that 'Repentance' was an anti-Kartvelian film. They agreed and spent a long time explaining to me that the Kartvelians are on the edge of the islamic world, which for hundreds of years had been trying to swallow them up. They were angry at our Russian interference in their internal affairs and asked whether I should not be at home in Moscow rather than writing articles to stir up nationalist discord.
Yes, of course, I, as a Russian, cannot escape a feeling of guilt for our having tampered with the fate of nations. Yes, we Russians have been the involuntary tools of the imperialist policies of the State, and we ourselves have suffered acutely as a result of such policies, but that was largely through our own fault; how should we not feel shame? But this shame of mine causes me to do all that my ability and strength permit so as to give to all the nationalities of our multi-racial State the opportunity of recovering their loss, so that each of them may receive once more the chance of developing and of expressing itself. This goal requires some mutual rapprochement, and the call to such a rapprochement should not be taken to constitute interference in the sovereign affairs of nationalities. Does not the comfortable position 'Our affairs are our business; you attend to your own problems' fuel inter-ethnic conflict? It gives a chance to the ideologists of nationalities strong in numbers to drug their own people and pursue policies of repression against the less numerous.
To return to the events of 15/16th July. Everyone at the NFA-headquarters was anxiously awaiting the arrival of units of the MVD IF. Outside, shots and bursts of automatic fire were heard from time to time. Inside, I failed to observe any activity pointing in any way to the proper organising-function of a headquarters; even the obtaining of information was treated very casually. In fact, we were completely uninformed, which dampened spirits even more. But at 3 a.m. we heard by telephone that at last a detachment of 400 men had arrived; things became calmer, and I, exhausted by it all, fell asleep on my chair. I awoke at 6.30. The shooting had stopped. I went to Lenin Sq., where thousands of Abkhazians had spent a night of terror by the Government Building. Everyone had a stick, a piece of wood in his hands -- their main means of self-defence against possible attack, against the automatics possessed by the Kartvelian extremists.
At 9 a.m. I. Markolia, Gogua's deputy, urged those present to go home; by 10 a.m. the square was empty.
Apart from a few food-stores, the shops were shut. Public transport was not working.
About 7 p.m. I returned to the Govt. Building, to which the headquarters of the NFA had now been transferred. Very bad news was coming in from Ochamchira, which borders on the mainly Mingrelian-speaking Gali-region. Here the situation had been exacerbated by an attack carried out in West Georgia on a number of IF-detachments, which had given weapons to the extremists, and in Zugdidi prisoners had been set free and armed; the roads of the ASSR were completely closed to Abkhazians, as was a certain part of the town. The 400 men of the IF who had been sent were clearly inadequate to control the situation even in Sukhum, let alone the whole of Abkhazia. On the television, Vremja spoke of 11 dead and 128 injured. Night was drawing on and terror creeping in.
Just after 2 a.m. we were awoken by the arrival of the Spetsnaz soldiers from Moscow. It was a pleasure to see them. At last those who had been so longed for were here to guarantee the safety of dear ones and to save the nation. People smiled as they surrendered their sticks -- their weapons of self-defence -- and went out into the street. At first the order was to go home, but, praise be, a few minutes later, when realisation dawned of what people would be risking if they carried out this order, it was changed, and permission was given after all to spend the night in the Govt. Building.
News kept coming in of fresh outbreaks of violence and even murders. On the evening of 17th Tbilisi radio spoke of 14 dead and 13 seriously injured. Incidents became more frequent of inhabitants of various places being affected by the general atmosphere and starting to threaten their neighbours, unwarrantedly holding up transport. A rumour spread among the Abkhazians that someone was marking their houses and flats, and again by nightfall fear was taking hold. There was no curfew, which could have calmed people somewhat, and the introduction of which in the opinion of both Lt.-Col. Kochergin and the Kartvelian major from the Obkom-security was most necessary. The major told me that a curfew was to be announced at 5 p.m., but that hour passed, as did 10 p.m., and the radio said nothing. After this Gogua went to the Obkom, where he had talks with both Gen.-Col. Ju. Shatalin, commander of the operation, and O. Cherkezia, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR. Shatalin expressed one straightforward view: on arrival he had realised the need for the imposition of a curfew. The decision, however, was not his to take, but depended on the leaders of Georgia. After discussion it emerged that Cherkezia too was in favour, but nevertheless it was only a Special Regime for the Conduct of Citizens that was introduced with effect from 11 p.m. on 18th July. That meant that Abkhazia had to endure another 24 hours of terror, to pay for the indecisiveness of the leadership with a number of lives, many injured, insulted and humiliated, and an uncertain number of disapperances.
On 18th July I decided to visit Gudauta. In the region of the village of Lower Eshera my car was stopped by a large crowd from the village of Gvandra. In the group that stopped us were: Abkhazian L. Agrba, Russian A, Kiselëv, Mingrelian P. Kortava, Armenian S. Keshebian, Greek K. Murzidi, Tatar E. Bijazov. I was particularly delighted that there was a Mingrelian, and I decided to tempt fate and test how far their friendship would go by asking what he thought of the Låkhnå-Declaration, which had caused so much fury amongst the Kartvelians in Georgia proper. "Nothing out of the ordinary," was the reply.
18th July 1989 (Sukhum)
The account of these events given by the Georgian media was not simply biased but, with the inclusion of a huge amount of disinformation, was, frankly, a pack of lies. According to this, what had taken place had been the result of action well planned and prepared by the Abkhazian leadership, directed against the Kartvelians -- action in which the Abkhazians had presented a united front including both ordinary people (acting as blind instruments of the evil will of their leaders) and responsible people in official positions and Party-members. I, therefore, consider it necessary to bring forward the accounts of a number of eye-witnesses who paint quite a different picture. At the same time I must reiterate that to this day I am unaware of a single fact which shakes in any degree the conviction which I formed that very first night of the lack of any semblance of organisation and of any sort of preconceived extremist plans among the Abkhazians. From this it follows that either there really was nothing of the kind or that we have to deal with a thoroughly conspiratorial organisation comprising not only official and unofficial Abkhazian functionaries, but even personnel of the forces of public order of Georgia as well as officers of the IF, who, for some reason, did not report any such 'facts' to me -- and I spoke to them personally -- or to anyone else. In fact, the material published by the Georgian media was in no way based on the reports of official persons or organisations.
I shall begin at the beginning, i.e. with the day of the events described above. In the first half of July there had been a smell of gunpowder in the air all over Abkhazia. The superficially obvious cause of this was the Abkhazian resolve not to permit the legalisation of the partitioning of the University on the basis of nationality. But can it be inferred from the fact that many Abkhazians openly stated that they would not permit the TSU branch entrance-exams to be held that they had plans violently to disrupt these exams by organising all-out violence against the Kartvelians? The Georgian media's reply to this question is "yes", which, without any corroborative evidence, is inadmissible. The mood of the masses is one thing, but the existence of a plot to turn this mood into plans for violent action is quite another. The very suggestion that the Abkhazians should possess plans for full-scale violence sounds quite absurd; even at home in Abkhazia they are today numerically much inferior to the Kartvelians, and in neighbouring Georgia there are several million Kartvelians! One would have to be quite mad deliberately to embark on a course leading to armed conflict under such circumstances.
But perhaps such fanaticism is a feature of the Abkhazian character? Take the episode with the bus, which I described earlier in the words of the IF major -- did they not take just such a suicidal step there, opening fire into a crowd of Kartvelians? Let us see, however, how this incident looks as described by a participant, Abkhazian Edik Lasuria, whose father and uncle were killed in the bus and who was himself beaten unconscious:
"On 15th July at 6 p.m. we were told that officials were coming from Tbilisi to Sukhum to decide the question of the branch. My father and I got dressed and near the centre of Kutol stopped a bus driven by an acquaintance; it was from the Kåndåg poultry-farm and was carrying workers. We went along laughing and chatting."
"Did you have any weapons?"
"None. We reached the White Bridge (Sukhum) and there was a road-block; a red Zhiguli 011, and a blue car on the other side, I don't know the make. There were something like 2,000 people near the Apsnå-cinema, stripped to the waist. A man was standing by a cabin saying something, and everybody was listening to him, except those in the street. When he had finished, the crowd left the square by the cinema and went along the street, up the hill. We had been standing there more than 10 minutes, and three chaps from Tamsh, Mingrelian-speakers, came to find out why the people had assembled. They didn't rejoin the crowd, saying that they could see we were going to be killed and that, if they went back, they'd be killed too.
"So when the crowd from the cinema had gone up the street, the 2 or 3 cars that had been held up in front of us were let through, and four men came to us and asked the driver where he was taking us. One of those who was killed told him to say that he was carrying workers from the poultry-farm. Two of them boarded the bus and looked at us. The driver said in Abkhaz, 'I'll have to use the handle, it won't start'. When he said that, the man by him shouted, 'They're Abkhazians!', and the crowd attacked us. We started to fight. An empty Ikarus-bus was standing nearby, and pistol-fire began to come from it, but not at us -- just up and down; it was frightening. The crowd ran away. Then shot-gun fire started from the crowd -- automatics, pistols, stones and bottles were thrown as well as sharpened weapons..."
'Sharpened weapons' -- not highlighted in Edik's account but worth dwelling on. The point is that home-made weapons of this kind were seen by Maj. Aleksei Grishchenko, Chief of Staff of the 8th Tactical Tbilisi Regiment of the IF, in Kartvelian hands near the cinema at about 6 a.m. on 16th. According to him, they were among the weapons surrendered to the MVD armoury. This is a hard fact, which speaks of work accomplished for a purpose -- it takes time to produce such javelins -- but by Kartvelians, not Abkhazians.
"Then they began to ram the bus with some heavy vehicle. We hadn't so much as a single gun. Someone came on the bus with a sawn-off gun and even let a shot off but was prevented from hitting anyone. By and large they couldn't get a shot at us -- everything was in their way; a fight was going on. We fought for about 15 minutes. They were hitting us with weapons and bottles. I was hit with a spade -- if I saw him again, I would recognise him, an elderly man of about 55, brown hair, 2 protruding front-teeth... They were fighting one another; it was a real mix-up; they were hitting one another. At the time I knew nothing about who was hit or killed.
"Suddenly there was a shot and I was the only left; someone else was being dragged off the bus. That's how it was -- anyone unconscious was dragged off the bus and set upon by the women. They were all local women, wearing indoor-clothes, aprons."
"And what time did all this happen?"
"Must have been 9.30 p.m. Oh, I forgot to say we saw militia-men nearby with automatics. They didn't interfere. While unconscious, my money and papers were taken. They cleaned me up at the hospital and wanted to admit me, but I refused and went to look for my father. At the hospital by Baratashvili militia-men with automatics started to threaten us. At Municipal Hospital No.2 there were some militia, Kartvelians and an Abkhazian in a Zhiguli. They took us to the Republican Hospital, where Meskhi, a young Kartvelian doctor, was in charge. He saw that I was bleeding and told them to put a dressing on it. But at that moment 4 men came in and said, 'Since we failed to kill him out there, let's kill him here'. Meskhi threw them out and let us out by a back-door, taking us to another building and telling us to hide. My younger brother came for me with a militia-man the next day and we found out that our father had been killed. At midday my brothers Gena and Avdik took the bodies of our father Ivan and our uncle Nuria as well as that of one Kobakhia from the village of Beslakhuba, who had been killed at Baratashvili, from the mortuary. At first we thought of taking the bodies out by helicopter, but the Kartvelian pilot said he wouldn't take Abkhazian bodies. On the suggestion of the NFA, we eventually got them out by boat."
Such is the account that I took down in Kutol on 25th July. Of course, it is not possible on the basis of this alone to know who was speaking the truth, the Kartvelian major or Edik Lasuria, but for my own part, as there is a lot of detail in this account which matches what I have seen and heard from others, and by the simple logic of commonsense, Edik's doleful tale evokes much the greater faith. Any public enquiry should also take account of the following.
Vladimir Akakievich Chagava works as a driver of transport-column 1683 of Krasnodar. His Kamaz-lorry has the number 1588KKR. On 11th July, returning from Erevan, he was stopped in the area of Kutaisi, capital of Imereti in West Georgia, between noon and 2 p.m. at a control-despatch point. Apart from the GAI-man, there were 2 others in civilian dress. "When they had looked at my papers, they asked why I wasn't speaking Georgian," says Chagava. "I replied that I was an Abkhazian and that I speak to people I don't know in the all-Union language, Russian. An argument started, and in the end they went so far as to say that 'in a week, in a few days time, all you Abkhazians will be running to Krasnodar, just as the Azerbaydzhanis ran from us in the Marneuli region!'"
It is easy enough to establish, on the basis of the precise evidence he gives of time and place, whether or not what Chagava says is true. But the interesting point is that, according to him, responsible officials of the forces of public order in Georgia, hundreds of kilometres from Abkhazia, were certain of the likelihood of events happening there not long before they did actually occur. It is superfluous to say that the roots of the conviction of the explosion were not identical in those who were in Abkhazia and experienced it all at first hand, and in those who reached the same conclusion at a distance. It is curious that, as its President, Chitanava, reported to the session of the Georgian Council of Ministers, there was an attack on a military depot on 13th July; a sentry was killed and a militia-man injured. All this cannot but urge one to the belief that some plan existed which anticipated such a turn of events in Abkhazia. But neither these facts nor the business of the javelins are yet sufficient for such a straightforward conclusion...
Both in the spring of 1989 and in the period just preceding the recent tragedy, the leaders of the Abkhazian nationality movement made use of correct, purely parliamentary methods in the struggle in which they were engaged. Why, one wonders, is this practice not seen as an unquestionable indication of the lack of any extremist plans on their part? Merely addresses to the Supreme Soviet, speeches at the Conference of Peoples' Deputies, demonstrations, acts of protest several days long in support of their demands for the coming of a commission, but not at the expense of working-hours, and, finally, extremely weak counter-propaganda in the form of practically total absence of any approach to the media -- this is all they had at their disposal. And these methods have brought some success, such as the Supreme Soviet Commission's decision against the partitioning of the University. True, this did not lead to any corresponding change in the position of Tbilisi, but, as long as Georgia is a constituent-republic of the USSR, the last word on a matter involving the interests of one of the nationalities must obviously remain in Moscow. To sum up, neither from the style nor the methods of the NFA nor from the situation itself is it possible to attribute to it extremist plans. And yet one cannot totally exclude the possibility of their existence; who knows, perhaps the sincere plans and methods of the NFA were simply a very deep plot, and its manifest activity merely a smoke-screen?
One could still just about accept such a postulation in the conditions of the very great distrust amongst the Abkhazians which existed prior to, say, 14/15th July. But by 16th July, and more so later, it becomes absolutely untenable, for it is simply not corroborated by the facts of the matter. If they point to anything, it is to something quite different.
July 15th. Disturbed at the mounting crisis, leaders of Abkhazia and Georgia, including Premier Cherkezia, the Secretary of the MVD plus lesser officials from Tbilisi and Moscow assembled in Sukhum. The building of the MVD itself was being guarded by militia-men from Tbilisi and other towns in Georgia. That measures were taken to re-inforce the forces of public order is in itself unremarkable; the question is, did these steps in fact contribute to the strength of these forces? The despatch of militia-units from Georgia rather than cooling the ardour of certain hotheads inflamed it -- they saw in the presence of fellow-Kartvelians partners, albeit silent ones. Nor did it have a soothing effect on the Abkhazians, who saw it as a challenge -- evidence of the determination of the Georgians to guarantee the holding of the exams at the TSU branch. This reduced the effectiveness of the call for restraint from the leaders of the NFA.
Nor, in my view, was it well-considered to re-inforce the militia with men from other parts of Abkhazia: any conflagration would immediately spread throughout Abkhazia, and who would be in the districts to prevent it? Troops from Krasnodar should have been requested, but the leaders in Sukhum shewed nothing but indecision, or I don't know what...
The Georgian school was attacked about 7 p.m., but even before that fighting had started on Rustaveli Prospect. Many believe that it was this and not the provocative gestures of the branch-teachers that served as the incitement to wreck the school; the blockaders were afraid, and not without cause as we shall see, that a full-scale Kartvelian attack might be launched against them.
The actual fighting on Rustaveli started with a harmless incident: some Abkhazians decided to photograph the Kartvelian crowd. It must be said that both sides tried to obtain as much material of this kind as they could, and, as I experienced myself, such action did not always exactly arouse the sympathy of those being photographed! But now, with nerves strained, it evoked a storm of discontent -- the enraged Kartvelians hurled themselves at the Abkhazians' car and beat up the photographer. Naturally, the Abkhazians rushed to his assistance, and the fight was on. At that moment there appeared from somewhere a lorry-load of stones, and everything assumed gigantic proportions. As for the militia in the vicinity, not only did they fail to take any steps to localise the incident, they preferred to vanish as soon as the affair changed from mere confrontation to hand-to-hand fighting!
At the school the militia-cordon did not flee but tried to separate the besieged from the Abkhazians and to ensure their evacuation. They failed to protect only the teacher who had been shouting obscenities, and he was soundly beaten up...
Now it was all over -- the injured removed, the school and nearby streets cleared. Then, in the words of militia-captain Oleg Pilia, "Three MAZs appeared with people stripped to the waist; they were Kartvelians. They broke through the thin cordon of militia, who tried to stop them, and went towards the school. They had explosive devices and guns.."
Information about Kartvelians possessing explosives -- slabs of TNT with detonators, the preparation of which takes time -- is confirmed by the Chief of Staff of the 8th Tbilisi Regiment. Yes, it is fearful to think what might have happened at the school if the Abkhazians, absolutely trusting and unarmed, had not managed to get away in time. Sad though it be, those hot-heads who had decided after the fighting had broken out on Rustaveli that the time had come for positive action and that to delay was dangerous were proved quite right. The unarmed militia could scarcely have protected them -- it was only thanks to their good fortune that they succeeded in defending the MVD.
"The soldiers blocked the road with their shields; but how can one stop heavy vehicles with shields? They had at once to open the MVD armoury and issue AKS automatic rifles held there without stopping to keep records. Anyone wanting one took it -- Kartvelians and Abkhazians alike. With the help of these automatics, they managed to stop the MAZs."
15th-18th July. The bridge over the Ghalidzga
The river Ghalidzga is on the edge of the Ochamchira, itself the centre of the Ochamchira-region. The territory on the other side is still Abkhazia, but the population there is predominantly Mingrelian. There is a mixed population in Ochamchira too. Therefore, on the fateful day the Ghalidzga unexpectedly became a frontier-river.
First Secretary of Ochamchira, Sergei Bagapsh, fully appreciated the potential danger which the regions of West Georgia offered to Abkhazia if aroused; their centre, Zugdidi, had become a focus for nationalistically minded elements. He realised that, if a flood of people in an anti-Abkhazian mood poured over from there, there would be no-one but him to stop them. Before leaving for Sukhum, Bagapsh saw to it that on the bridge there was a GAI-post, which would not let through private cars or other suspicious forms of transport by which Kartvelian informals might get their men into Abkhazia. In case the GAI-forces proved inadequate, Bagapsh foresightedly arranged for a supply of heavy vehicles with which the bridge could be blocked, should need arise.
Daur Vouba of Tqvarchal states: "We decided to stop the stream of traffic crossing from the Gali side around midnight and blocked the road with 2 MAZs and a cart. In about 15 minutes a crowd had formed on the far side; we had about 100 men. At that time no-one thought of the possibility of shooting, and none of us had any weapons..."
Another Tqvarchalian, Genadi Cherigba, takes up the story:
"Soon there were bursts of automatic fire from across the river and shots from automatic rifles and shot-guns. Out of the crowd 2 men came to the bridge -- one of medium height, even short, the other tall and well-built -- and started shouting to their people, 'What are you doing?' But at that moment there was a shot from their crowd, sounded like a shot-gun, and the smaller one fell; the crowd rushed at us. We threw stones, but then I fell, injured in the face and chest by light shot, and was taken to the Raikom. Even before the shooting, a heavy BELAZ came from their side, obviously taken from the Ingur hydro-electric station, and tried to move the dumper-truck. It was pelted with stones, and the driver jumped out, so that the bridge was even more solidly blocked."
Bagapsh returned to Ochamchira in the small hours, soon got his bearing and phoned the 1st Secretary of the Gali region to arrange a meeting at the bridge. But Bagapsh was fired on and withdrew, so the meeting never took place. At 9 a.m. 1st Secretary of the Zugdidi Gorkom, Guram Pipia, phoned Bagapsh with an identical suggestion. This again failed, as Pipia could not get through because of the blockade. Yes, too late did the local Party-chiefs think of this, when they were no longer able to control the situation without outside-help. From West Georgia an avalanche of vehicles was moving towards the Ghalidzga, now mainly occupied by armed men; they were convinced that in Abkhazia the annihilation of Kartvelians was in full swing. Abkhazians too rushed to arms, even at the cost of illegal activity, in order to create an impassable wall to this avalanche. An extraordinary situation was developing, which demanded, many thought, extraordinary steps.
Militia-major Ruslan Ashuba reports: "I was at the bridge at 5 a.m. There was shooting going on; automatic and shot-gun fire was coming from the other side. When I arrived, there were not many people -- about 100. But by 8 a.m. there was a crowd of several thousand on the far side. People were arriving in dumper-trucks. There were wounded on both sides. I wept on seeing it. The militia could not restrain the fighting, and people took defence into their own hands."
But in order to 'take defence into their own hands' they had to arm themselves. Only by returning the shot-guns held in the State Bank was an assault on the militia-station averted. Responsibility for this was accepted by regional Procurator, Valeri Gurdzhua, for which he now stands accused of grossly exceeding his powers. Consider what would have happened had Gurdzhua not exceeded his powers! Fortunately, thanks to his courage this did not happen. But in the regions of West Georgia, which were in any case under no immediate threat, militia-armouries were plundered and a great quantity of military weapons appeared in the hands of the population -- pistols, automatics and carbines, taken from 28 militia-units and SIZOs in Zugdidi; at the same time the prisoners were freed from the latter.
Col. Aleksandr Zubarev reports: "We were called in and took off from Zaporozhe at 7.15 a.m. 16th July, reaching Sukhum at 8.45. From there we moved in 5 helicopters at about 13.30 to 14.00 to the stadium at Ochamchira. We could hear firing and an explosion -- a petrol-tanker had exploded at the bridge. At 5 p.m. we were over Tamsh when we were told by radio to return to Ochamchira as a crowd of a couple of thousand was evidently on the move from the Gali-region. We were told it was 5,000, but in fact it turned out that the crowd was of between 20,000-25,000 from various regions of West Georgia, as far away as Kutaisi."
As regards the appearance of a crowd of 25,000 a few hours after the military took control of the bridge, its size could just be a matter of chance, but I have data to the effect that during the afternoon vehicles which had brought people from Zugdidi were turning back to Gali and heading for other centres of population, allegedly because the main road was blocked. The outcome was that by a certain time, a build-up of living force, as it were, was taking place in the regions along the Ghalidzga, and this crowd was strategically concentrated at the bridge, where the leaders of the extremists considered it expedient. Why did they choose a moment when the military had already arrived?
It is hard to give a straightforward answer to this question, but the following is perfectly admissible as a working-hypothesis: it was an enforced step, caused precisely by the arrival of the military, who, it seems to me, were either not expected or at least not so soon. The original objective of the concentration of the forces from the regions of West Georgia consisted of the establishment not just of a concentration at the bridge, but of a massive armed confrontation which would have spread willy-nilly to the whole Gali-region and which would eventually have led to a serious, almost uncontrollable, destabilisation of the situation in Abkhazia. The arrival of the military spoiled this plan. If they were to open the main road to traffic without delay, then people would be able personally to reassure themselves of the situation in Abkhazia and would calm down. And so, the decision was taken to concentrate at the bridge all those who were emotionally involved, so that this crowd would form an impassible obstacle on the main road. Let this crowd carry on negotiations, preferably for a while; meanwhile the rest...
17th July and following days: Ochamchira-region
Report of Lt.-Col. Vladimir Mikhailovich Lebedev (Leningrad): "I arrived as commander on 17th July. As 1st Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Givi Gumbaridze, and I were discussing our deployment, in rushed a man in a highly excited state, shouting that vehicles with armed men were in the vicinity and that everyone was shooting at one another. The office went into shock. I waited for orders but no decision was taken. Then I said I'd take some men and stop it. Near the village of Lakhuti, we saw the silhouette of a drop-sided lorry, loaded with people. It was interesting that all of them wore white head-bands; their average age must have been 25-27, although one or two were over 35.
"At about 19.00 I was seeing Gumbaridze again for a conference. It had been in progress for about 10 minutes when another alarm was given. Two incidents, in Lakhuti and Merkula, were neutralised."
Thus, while some excited persons were blocking the main road at the bridge, others had been sent along the right bank of the Ghalidzga to stir up trouble. Whatever the truth may be, the brief presence of the groups achieved its nefarious purpose, giving rise to rumours and complicating somewhat relationships between the Abkhazians and the military. The main goal of the military was the surrender of every weapon. But how could these be surrendered when armed groups of Kartvelians were on the loose? Rumours, however, need feeding, and the presence of the military, as the very first day shewed, rendered impossible unopposed raiding by groups of any size. From this the next step to professionalisation is the establishment of small groups, hiding mostly in villages, carrying out assorted attacks from time to time, both conspicuous ones, so as to sustain fear in the Abkhazian section of the population, and quite small ones, so as not to bring themselves to the serious attention of the military. The chess-board pattern of Abkhazian and Kartvelian villages simplified the achievement of such a task. For the formation of these groups declassified elements, including convicts freed from the SIZO in Zugdidi, could be used. Sudden strikes against Abkhazian houses, beatings, but in the main threats and demonstrations of their presence were their modus operandi. As I was told a week ago by the commander of the 8th Tbilisi Regiment, such groups are functioning even today.
In general, I think, if for the time being military forces cannot be dispensed with for the localisation of internal conflicts, it would be as well to define their terms of reference more carefully. For us a few years ago no problem existed in this respect; any gleam of dissatisfaction was extinguished very firmly by brute force, and no-one was troubled at the cost of the use of such methods. Now, however, the fear of this cost brings a timely delay in the use of force, even when failure to use it is fraught with much greater human suffering. Similar problems must exist in other countries too, and perhaps some of them have achieved some success in their resolution; they have had longer to do it than we. One feels that our law-enforcement agencies would have nothing to lose by adopting such experience. Hitherto they have had to try to display, nonetheless, considerable variation and flexibility in dealing with similar situations. Thus, in Abkhazia, it seems to me, as the Abkhazian population no less than the Kartvelian is much given to patrolling and to mutual raids, it would be appropriate here to put the emphasis not so much on unconditional total disarmament -- which is simply unrealistic, as, following the present situation, one can count on the surrender of only the tip of the arms' iceberg, while the submerged part will be retained so that people may have the wherewithall to protect themselves -- as on the taking control of the potential forces of self-defence on both sides, producing a joint, 3-sided controlling body.
But today there is none of this; each side is doing as it pleases. The military are patrolling, observing, responding to signals, the Kartvelian extremists, as ever, are trying to prevent passions cooling, terrorising and tormenting the Abkhazians, while the latter are coming ever closer to taking counter-measures.
You will have realised by now that I have reached a simple conclusion: what has happened is by no means just the result of lack of reflection or short-sightedness on the part of the leaders of Georgia and Abkhazia. Above all else there is the feeling that some hand is guiding the process, quite consciously and thoroughly, in the direction that its owner wishes it to go. I could not have said that, knowing only of the javelins or armed groups, or of the fight on the Ghalidzga, but the whole series of facts points incontestably to such a conclusion. Unfortunately, I myself have not the means of bringing the owner of this dark hand into the light of day, but I shall try to indicate the forces which have an interest in the existence of the 'dark man', and which give him support.
(Tamsh, 12th September 1989)
Who was to blame?
'The situation in the ASSR remains tense' -- this is the usual sentence with which the communiqués of the temporary press-centre of the MVD of the USSR in Abkhazia and the press-centre of the MVD of the Abkhazian ASSR begin. And indeed it is so, although it is not terribly obvious from a superficial sidelong glance on what such a disturbing conclusion is based. Trains run, buses run, shops open, coffee steams in coffee-shops, young men flirt, weaving around the very small number of female tourists. According to the officers of the militia and IF-units, the main source of tension is the huge quantity of arms in the hands of the population, filched from the ravaged IF-units (mainly in the regions of West Georgia), arms-dealers, armouries etc... or left over from the days of World War II.
This weaponry is dangerous, and even more so when it is in the hands of men who are blinded by hatred and fears, men under the influence of emotion rather than reason, and therefore vulnerable to anyone who can direct these emotions. As, however, we can see in Nagorno-Karabagh, such blinded men can do a lot of damage even without arms. Therefore, the existence of weaponry in Abkhazia and the surrounding areas, although it definitely aggravates the situation here, in itself does not at all cause tension; it would thus be wrong to withdraw the emergency-measures introduced here on such formal criteria as the return to the authorities of stolen weapons and the surrender of licensed shot-guns. A lot of responsible people, however, support such desires and simplifications.
But perhaps I am dramatising this excessively; the very fact that all this weaponry in the hands of the population has so far, fortunately, not led to massive bloodshed is evidence that reason has not yet lost its restraining power. Yes, between 15th and 17th of July emotions ran high, but then the calming effect of the military, it seemed, made people, if not feel ashamed of themselves and their conduct, for they will all produce their excuses, at least feel horror for all that happened, for neighbour raising his hand against neighbour, fellow-countrymen against fellow-countrymen, nationality against nationality.
I am writing these lines in an Abkhazian village, shortly after returning from a tour of villages in the regions adjoining Abkhazia (Mingrelia and Upper Svanetia), and so I feel I can form an opinion of the moods and thoughts which govern the lives of local people. 'We want to live in peace,' they all aver. 'What happened was madness.' 'We live side by side.' 'We are bound together not just by ties of neighbourliness but of blood. If not every family, certainly every clan has its blood-connections with an Abkhazian (or correspondingly Kartvelian) clan. We ordinary folk could have done without what has happened.' 'We ordinary people should get on with tilling the soil and earning our bread.' 'This has all been stirred up by the authorities -- it is their little game.'
But at the same time the Abkhazians are convinced that, whatever anyone says, it was the Kartvelians who started it, acting as the tools of those who hope, with their assistance, to 'realise their anti-Soviet ambitions for the foundation of a single indivisible Georgia outside the USSR' and hope to pull off almost a 'Fascist putsch' -- 'look at Leninskoe Znamja (19th July) to see them mock the statues of our leaders; they do not even spare Lenin'. The Kartvelians are convinced that the Abkhazians are to blame, whose politicians had filled them with ideas about their special rights to land, who had obtained 'by the stupidity, or rather the anti-nationalistic policies first of Russia and then of the Soviet State, an entirely bogus Abkhazian autonomy...'
So as to give you some idea of the consequences of these policies for Abkhazia, allow me to quote from the book of Z.V. Anchabadze The Ethnic History of the Abkhazian People (Sukhum, 1976): "...The migratory-movement began immediately after the unification of Abkhazia with Russia... N. Marr wrote on this point, '[Abkhazia] was depopulated even in its central ethnographical region. Thus, all that was left of the Gumista-region (now the regions of Sukhum and Gulripsh) were a few delapidated farmyards with fruit-trees, not a single Abkhazian, not a word of the language...' After the end of the Russo-Turkish war the Tsarist authorities beset the Abkhazians with cruel repressions... designating the vast majority of the Abkhazians as a 'guilty population', forbidden to live in the coastal area or less than 20 versts from Sukhum. The Abkhazians were designated 'temporary inhabitants' in their own land and for the least anti-governmental activity were threatened with evacuation from their homeland to the last man. The lands left by the Abkhazian chieftains started to be given out by the Tsarist government to military and civil administrators, who used them for colonalisation, which, in the 80s and 90s, took on a widespread character. At the same period the movement from neighbouring regions, mainly Mingrelia, of peasants who had lost their land increased... In 1903 the Georgian social reformer T. Sakhokia writes: ' Anyone who travelled here (i.e. in Abkhazia) 20 years ago will not believe how this country has changed in so short a time. The ethnic structure of the inhabitants has become mixed. You will hear Russian, Georgian, Greek, Armenian... Everything here has become confused' (pp.85-7). At the census of 1939 the population of the Abkhazian ASSR was made up of the following nationalities: Abkhazians 56,200, Georgians [sc. Kartvelians] 92,000, Russians 60,200, Armenians 49,700, Greeks 34,600, Ukrainians 8,600, Jews 2,000, Others 8,600 (p.136). According to the data of the 1970 census, nationalities more than 1,000 strong are listed as follows: Georgians [sc. Kartvelians] 199,534, Russians 92,889, Abkhazians 77,276, Armenians 72,850, Greeks 13,144, Ukrainians 11,955, Jews 4,372, Belorussians 1,901, Estonians 1,834, Tatars 1,738, Ossetes 1,214. Abkhazians amounted to 15.9% of the total population of the ASSR" (p.162).
Thus, we see the tragic result of the truly anti-nationalistic policies of Tsarist Russia and, sad to say, of our State too, which has led to the historical land of the Abkhazians being usurped by other people. The title 'autonomous' has not so much resisted this process as merely masked it, permitting it to take place in the name of the Abkhazian people themselves. Naturally, under the current system of the formation of elective governmental bodies, the Abkhazians are more and more excluded from these, which means from the control of the fate of their land, and this cannot fail, sadly, to be reflected in the culture of their nationality, the very existence of which must be in jeopardy. It may be said that I am becoming unnecessarily excited; one need only glance at the percentage of Abkhazians among the leaders of the workers to realise that they are not really so very constrained. I fully admit that this percentage is in fact higher than the Abkhazians might expect on a pro rata basis among the other nationalities, but it is regrettable rather than cheering, for it indicates what is in fact the command-mechanism of promotion, which replaces the elective mechanism. Nor do the Abkhazians derive any benefit from this, for it is not they who decide which of them is to rule, and these Abkhazian leaders do not have the interests of their people at heart. This is a common failing. Frankly, I find it bitter and laughable when cultural activists or leaders of the unofficial parties quote such percentages in speaking of the repressed state of their people. It is another matter that with the development of democratic means of governing society, with the realisation of tendencies to the growth of the economic and political independence of republics, including ASSRs, these figures will certainly carry weight; then, I am sure, they will really start shouting. Yes, the draft-programme of the CPSU for nationality-questions may well be satisfactory from the point of view of those nationalities which are a majority within their administrative boundaries, but little will change in the situation of those who constitute minorities when the pre-eminence of another people starts to shew in what was formerly their territory.
Vladimir Kvanchiani of the Svan village Latali: "For centuries we have been living side by side. Now the Abkhazians have started to demand much from Georgia. They want their own Republic, as though the Kartvelians were their worst enemies. It has been nearly 5 years since they started displaying hostility to the Kartvelians. Now the Abkhazians hate those Kartvelian experts who write that the lands on which the Abkhazians live are ancient Kartvelian lands. The experts know better who lived where, and where they live now. There has never been hostility between the Svans and the Abkhazians, but now the Svans are in the same position as the rest of Georgia. We have been in Sukhum just as long as the Abkhazians themselves."
I had another doleful conversation with some young Kartvelian archaeologists working in Svanetia -- all the more doleful for me as I already knew them from previous collaboration. I respect and like them, but, when we met recently, we hardly understood one another. They sincerely believed in the aggressiveness of the Abkhazians (although they had never been in Abkhazia!) and in the fact that they had no business raising the question of secession from Georgia; this autonomy was, they said, nonsense, since one could equally justify Armenian or any other autonomy in Abkhazia.
When I was in Zugdidi, demonstrations were still taking place there. The basic demands at these were the disarmament of Abkhazian extremists and the punishment of the guilty. In Abkhazia demonstrations are now prohibited, but people make their wishes known in meetings with Party- and military leaders. The main thrust of Abkhazian demands consists of the strengthening of law and order, including measures which will render impossible disinformation and the incitement of discord between nationalities by the media, an end to the repression of Abkhazian personnel. The Kartvelian hunger-strikers in the village of Ilori, near Ochamchira, insisted on the replacement of the 'extremist leaders' of their region. The same was demanded by activist strikers from a number of works in this region. These demands were basically met: the Raikom-office was effectively replaced including all its secretaries; a new chairman of the Raispolkom was chosen; the elected chief of militia and the procurator were replaced. And all this when the ordinary people, Abkhazian and Kartvelian alike, consider that the region has been very fortunate in having Sergei Bagapsh as head of the Raikom; under him the region has improved economically, become more orderly, and the town of Ochamchira itself had been transformed. Zurab Partsvania, post-graduate at the Tbilisi Polytechnic, told me: "Though we have nothing personally against Bagapsh and some of the other regional leaders, after what has happened none of the leadership has any right to stay here." When I asked whether he considered that this principle ought to apply to the leaders of other regions, including those of Georgia, such as Zugdidi, Zurab replied that this was of course so, but that it was the concern of those who lived there.
Even today in Ochamchira someone keeps constantly putting out flags of Independent Georgia (1918-21), with which the Abkhazians connect the dramatic events of the bloody repression of their own independence. I have seen these flags flying over literally all the village-soviets in the Gali region, whereas the Abkhazian villages are decorated with slogans demanding the recognition of the status of their Socialist Republic of 1921-31, together with an occasional flag of that Republic.
If Tengiz Shanava, 2nd Secretary of the Zugdidi Gorkom, is persuaded that the cause of what happened lies in the unreasonable demands of unofficial Abkhazian organisations concerning the establishment of the branch of the TSU, which aroused in the final analysis the aggressiveness of the Abkhazians, including the Abkhazian leaders, Guram Pipia, 1st Secretary, said that he was unable to specify the causes of what happened and that one could only rely on official information. Shanava does this too, quoting in support of his arguments the figures published by the Republican paper The Communist, which shew that the Kartvelians suffered significantly more than the Abkhazians -- it is odd that the MVD of the USSR press-centre make no analysis on a nationality-basis so as not to cause a deterioration in the atmosphere, and the information given is published with an acknowledgement to some vague 'reliable sources'. The Abkhazians interpret these figures as proof that the Kartvelians were the attacking side, for the attackers are bound to suffer greater losses. Shanava produced as proof of his point of view an interview with the Procurator of Georgia, Vakhtang Razmadze, in which he more or less accused the leaders of the Gudauta and Ochamchira regions of acquiring and issuing weapons. This statement, even if the facts it contains were true, is to say the least out of place, and in no way helps the normalisation of the position, to say nothing of the well-known principle, especially applicable to members of the law-enforcement agencies, according to which guilt may only be determined by a court. Furthermore, information at my disposal leaves practically no room for the possibility of the delivery of weapons to Ochamchira by boat. People, local inhabitants who had been trapped in Sukhum by the events, were taken out by boat, really because the roads were blocked by the conflicting sides, but this was done, of course, in close liaison with the frontier-guards; people were not embarked in secret but publicly, right outside the Raikom, so that, if there had been any weapons, they would naturally have been seen and confiscated, but there were none. They derive from Razmadze's interview.
However, whatever the cause, only Abkhazia and the adjacent regions of West Georgia are actually oversaturated with arms. This is, of course, potentially dangerous, but on the other hand the presence of these weapons has until now offered a barrier of sorts to the outbreak of open confrontation; people have to be strongly motivated before they will engage in a fight in which there is the possibility of the use of firearms. The presence of units of the MVD of the USSR and the state of emergency work in the same way. Such forceful factors, not in themselves constructive, do not of themselves encourage the opening of dialogue, but at least they inhibit the outbreak of physical violence and the flowing of streams of blood, which would in no time at all erupt into flames of mutual hatred. But hatred can be born of things which seem much less offensive. Let us take as an example the Georgian newspaper Young Communist (29th July). This is what the writer Revaz Mishveladze writes: "Georgia stands on the brink of a real catastrophe -- of extirpation. What devil ruled our minds, when we yielded up our land, gained inch by inch over the centuries, defended and soaked with our blood, to every homeless beggar that has come down from the fringes of the Caucasus, to tribes that have neither history nor culture? We must make every effort to raise the percentage of Kartvelians in the population of Georgia (currently 61%) to 95%. The remaining 5% must consist of only those who know Georgian, who have a proper respect for Georgia, who have been brought up under the influence of the Georgian national phenomenon. We must persuade other nationalities, who are multiplying suspiciously in the land of David the Builder, that ideal conditions for the development of their personalities are to be found only in their homelands. Apart from a peaceful announcement to that effect, it is possible to bring the law to bear upon those guests who eventually prove obdurate and slow to leave. The law will state clearly that land will be taken at once from those who have illegally possessed it, that any buildings erected there will be demolished without compensation... A few days ago a delegation from Georgia (which included the 1st Secretary of the Qvareli Raikom) spent 8 hours in nervous conversation with the leaders of Daghestan, trying to reach agreement on the return to their fatherland of part of the Lezgians [actually Avars -- editor]. Finally, after reminding them of their patriotic duty, of the possibility of actual danger, we succeeded in partially accomplishing our mission.
"Thus there lie before Georgia 2 urgent tasks: 1. To rescue the national organism of Georgia, i.e. the demographic regularisation of Georgia; 2. The attainment of the independence of Georgia. i.e. the restoration of the status quo of May 26th 1918."
The writer R. Mishveladze has every right to think whatever he likes; he is a man of emotion, not of learning [he is both a writer and a professor at TSU -- editor], and he may not even understand that salvation for a nation lies not in the achievement of statehood, which puts it in an exclusive position with regard to other nations, but in the formation of conditions which will allow it to live at peace with others. For the former gives birth to hatred and the threat of destruction, whereas the latter brings forth love and the possibility of harmonious development of national culture. This latter can be achieved only in a social order of the democratic type.
Will Kartvelians become any happier by driving all other nationalities out of Georgia? It seems to Mishveladze that they will, and that is his affair, but it seems otherwise to the vast majority. Not without reason has such a policy, closely akin as it is to genocide, been condemned by world-opinion, which, by the way, has at the same time re-inforced the right of any man to choose freely where he will live, and by the laws of our country, which forbid the incitement of inter-nationality discord, to which, without fail, such ideas must lead. These laws, morover, have not been repealed, and therefore, it would appear, the publication of so nationalist, chauvinistic an article must evoke an appropriate reaction if not, indeed, in those who bear responsibility for the publication of the paper, then at all events in those whose duty it is to ensure that the law is obeyed and to exact retribution for its infringement. Neither the one nor the other, however, has occurred, despite the tragedy in Abkhazia. What is this? -- an oversight? fear of the informals, who have so taken possession of public opinion? or an attempt to shape public opinion at all levels? A long series of pieces in the Georgian media close in spirit to the article quoted above inclines one to the latter view. It is particularly annoying that even the most recent events in Abkhazia have not brought about, even temporarily, the cessation of the spreading of this drug. On July 26th Dawn of the East devoted more than half a column to the history of the mutual relationships of Democratic Georgia and the League of Nations. On the 27th, alongside a lengthy article on the subject of whether the establishment of Soviet power in Georgia should be regarded as the result of annexation or of the 'export of a political system', appeared the interview with the Procurator of Georgia, Razmadze, in which the transporting of armed men from Gudauta to Ochamchira was 'confirmed'. Between the 28th and 30th, the same organ devoted 4 (!) columns to an analysis by Kartvelian experts of the Abkhazian Letter, addressed by 60 leading protagonists of Abkhazian culture to the Presidium of the XIXth All-Union Party Congress... Objections may be raised: "Why nowadays when the veils are parting a little over the secret, may a Party-organ not provide space for subjects which are unquestionably of vital interest and stimulate the nation?" But why touch upon these topics at the very moment when relationships between Kartvelians and Abkhazians are at breaking-point? Why choose this particular time to embark on an exchange of views with Abkhazian cultural activists, to reveal the alleged imprecisions and distortions that they have tolerated without, however, having any effect on much that is really alarming in the ASSR by way of economic development, the structure of the national economy, the ecological and demographic positions, which is what has evoked so clear-cut a position for them? I am not saying that they were right in seeking a way out of the condition in which Abkhazia found itself; history is good for understanding tendencies in the development of society, for acquiring wisdom, but not at all as a source of ready-made examples to follow in building the future. For that reason I cannot comprehend the Abkhazian demand to return to the 1921-31 position, any more than I understand the idealisation of the status of Democratic Georgia. What the Kartvelian and Abkhazian experts would find it worthwhile talking about is the joint-problems of their nations, how to resolve them by joint-efforts, rather than exchanging blows in public and compounding the problems even more. But no, another organ of the Georgian CP, the paper National Education, devoted 4 of its columns on 30th July to an analysis of the history of the mutual relationships between Georgia and Abkhazia from the 1890s to February 1931, when Abkhazia ceased to be a treaty-republic and became merely an autonomous republic within Georgia. Leaving aside the wholly inappropriate time chosen for its publication, the piece is frankly biased. What is the value, for example, of the authors' insistence that "the Constitution of Democratic Georgia, confirmed by the Constituent Assembly on Feb 21st 1921, provided a just solution to the Abkhazian question"? -- and this when, according to facts quoted in the same article, the delegation from the National Soviet of Abkhazia was present only as an observer! The status of the Abkhazian Soviet Treaty Republic of 1921, it turns out, "played into the hands of the extreme nationalists and created, contrary to the interests of the 2 nations, preconditions for the deterioration of their fraternal historical links, which might on the one hand have been to the advantage of chauvinistic circles in Russia, and on the other hand might have favoured the pan-Turkic tendencies of Turkey". One may speculate, if such were the consequences of the truncated equality that existed between Georgia and Abkhazia in the 1920s, to whose advantage was the unjust position in which Abkhazia found itself in the 1930s? Yes, all nationalities suffered from the policies of those years, but Georgian children, as distinct from Abkhazian, always nevertheless were educated in their native language, and Georgia was not covered deliberately with Russian villages, as Abkhazia was with Kartvelian villages in the 1940s! So if I were in the shoes of the Kartvelian experts, I would be reluctant to hold that out as an example of equality. But then what else can be expected from a Russian chauvinist like me?!
On 13th August writer Akaki Gelovani writes in the same paper: "It is surprising that on this occasion the minority displayed ferocity before an overwhelming majority... thanks to their weapons, their cunningly contrived plan and the protection of the authorities! It all started, as is well-known, with a surprise armed attack, long-suppressed malice burst into flame, and then the attackers tried to blame those whom they had attacked (while themselves disappearing in good time)... Those injured and mutilated by illicitly acquired Turkish automatics and rifles and by iron bars begged for help..." That is to say, he is writing total falsehood, as I can testify as an eye-witness. This is further borne out by the staff of the prokuratura of Georgia and the men of the Republican MVD -- there were neither cunningly contrived Abkhazian plans, nor surprise armed attacks, nor Turkish automatics or rifles. And by the time this article was published a whole month had elapsed since the events, so that the editorial staff had had sufficient time to learn how to distinguish truth from malicious invention, to try, if not to see everything through the eyes of its own staff, at least to take an interest in the competent sources of information. I was told, for example, at the h.q. of the Ochamchira regions tactical group that every time a gang was disarmed, there were in it Kartvelians who were not local but who had come from elsewhere. This answers the question who was threatening whom. But I do not exclude the possibility that elsewhere things were different. The main point is, I am very much afraid, that if this criminal line is maintained by the Georgian press, if furthermore -- God forbid -- it is supported by some decisions of a provocative sort -- routine ones, to do with the TSU branch and the like -- or provocative acts such as strikes, demonstrations, waving of banners, then we shall see after all armed groups amongst the Abkhazians. But perhaps this is what someone is trying to achieve? It is an unpleasant thought, but how else does one explain the impunity with which the media are fanning the flame of inter-ethnic discord, and those decisions, by no means the best possible, taken by the leadership of the Republic in connection with events in Abkhazia.
How has 1st Secretary of the Abkhazian Obkom V.F. Khishba remained in his post? It seems to me that he is untouched either because there is a fear that he might focus attention on the role of the Central Cte. of the Georgian CP in the situation that arose, which, broadly considering the undistinguished political background of the 1st Secretary seems less than likely, or because he was suitable for the policy which the Central Cte. of the GCP was, and still is, following. One can form an opinion of the nature of this policy from the publications of the Republican Party-press, excerpts from which I have already set before you. Leaving alone the obedient Abkhazian Khishba, Gumbaridze is strengthening the bureau of the Abkhazian Obkom with such strong leaders as the Secretary of the Central Cte. of the GCP, G.A. Anchabadze, who has become Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and Doctor of Economics L. Ja. Khaburzania, who was formerly for a long time Head of the Economics Dept. of the Central Cte. of the GCP and had now been appointed 2nd Secretary of the Abkhazian Obkom. Thus, the present membership of the bureau is not only, one assumes, satisfactory in terms of obedience, but also has a certain potential for the initiative sought by Tbilisi. One of the first decisions of this organ, a decision which stirred up the whole ASSR and caused the strike of miners in Tqvarchal, belongs entirely to him. On 3rd August the bureau of the Abkhazian Obkom decided to suspend from duty all Heads of Depts of Internal Affairs, and at the same time to suspend Maj.-Gen. M.A. Chulkov, Minister of Internal Affairs. This decision is naturally restricted to the boundaries of the ASSR, but the great part of the weapons had been stolen outside it, where 28 internal affairs' units had been robbed together with the SIZO in Zugdidi. The objection of the Abkhazian section of the population to this decision is therefore quite understandable, as it seemed to them clearly repressive and discriminatory. Apprehension arose among the people that they were being deprived of the few on whom they could count for protection, and secondly, that this was a continuation of the policy of flushing out non-corrupt officials at all levels.
Not long ago I learned in the Republican prokuratura that, if all the events stirred up in the Abkhazian ASSR by the happenings of July are scrutinised in their mutual relationship, then what happened outside the boundaries of the ASSR -- the suspiciously easy theft of weaponry from MVD units, attacks on sentries and armouries, the 'taking' of the SIZO in Zugdidi, inflammatory speeches at demonstrations, the use of State vehicles for the transporting of armed men to the river Ghalidzga, etc... -- all this had been taking place in isolation, as if it were nothing to do with the events in Abkhazia. This, surely, greatly complicates the task of unravelling the account of the possible preparation for the events, of their deliberate precipitation from the regions of West Georgia. Of special interest in this connection is the investigation of the episode of the freeing of persons in the Zugdidi SIZO. I have succeeded in meeting 6 of their number. Broadly speaking, their accounts, while differing in detail, present one and the same picture of what took place at Zugdidi. The fullest account was given by 'G', who is serving a 6-year sentence:
"At about 9 a.m. on 16th July there was a noise outside the fence and women crying 'We are being attacked!'; the netting was broken where we exercised. The entrance-door to the corridor was smashed and they rushed in. They started to break down the door with crowbars and tools. I heard no shots. The doors were now unlocked. We all went out into the yard. I personally saw the Governor of the prison in the yard. He was standing there looking pale, and people were talking to him roughly, demanding weapons. He went upstairs, the rest followed him. They found weapons themselves, downstairs, next-door to the duty-room. I didn't see anyone in the towers. No-one could have climbed the fence there, it's double, with a 3-metre gap and electrified. I went out into the street. I saw them pulling out pistols, automatics, holding 2 or 3 magazines each. The duty-officer was standing there in his vest; the guard-commander was in sports-kit. And there were cars there, about 500. Almost all the prisoners drove off in cars. Some with pistols or automatics on dumper-trucks. I saw 3 KAMAZs and 2 MAZs with about 20 people in each, armed with automatics and pistols, many with 2 magazines. Among them there were no prisoners I knew. I got a lift to the village of Chkhortoli. On the hill beyond there were about 3,000 people with cars, arguing whether to go on or stay there. We stayed; there was a car with automatics; I saw 7 or 8."
Rather than leave the investigation in the hands of the Georgian prokuratura, I think that a special Supreme Soviet USSR commission should work in close contact with the local investigative agencies and that alongside it there should be a joint-Abkhazian-Kartvelian commission from the Supreme Soviets of these Republics. This is the first essential.
Secondly, of course, there is need for a political evaluation both of what happened as a whole, with analysis of causes and of the position of the Central Cte. of the Georgian CP and the actions of the leading figures of the Republics, for it was these actions, or, more exactly, this lack of action, which in fact brought about the tragedy of 15th July. As I see it, the leaders of Abkhazia and Georgia, in the first place the politicians, that is to say the Party-leaders insofar as we are dealing with a moral and political catastrophe rather than an economic one, must be appropriately punished and, without question, replaced. As far as the other high-ranking persons are concerned, measures must be taken in accordance with their actions and misdemeanours, but until the degree of their responsibility is established they should be temporarily suspended from duty. The same precaution should be taken with regard to responsible persons at regional level in the Abkhazian ASSR as well as in West Georgia.
In my view, 3 days should have been sufficient for this. But already more than ten times 3 days have passed, and there has still been no political assessment. Silence, as everyone knows, is a mark of consent, of approval. It poses a great threat to the stabilisation of the position in Abkhazia and perhaps in the whole of Georgia. Under present circumstances it is by no means impossible for these appeals to nationalist sentiment, which today are being used to further the mercenary aims of what we might call anti-perestroika forces, tomorrow to escape their control and definitely to take the form of a fascist putsch. It would do no harm for the Central Cte. of the CPSU to consider this possibility.
Third and finally. Considering that the formation of a team of leaders of the Abkhazian ASSR may, under the conditions that have developed, lead to dissatisfaction and agitation on one side or other, it appears necessary to introduce here a system of government analogous to that in Nagorno-Karabagh, for the period required for the formulation and implementation of new principles of national structure in our State.
Unfortunately, each of us can only do what he is cut out for, whatever his abilities can achieve, and my artistic abilities are by no means great enough for me to venture to give a full account of the horror of the inter-ethnic conflict of which I was a witness. I do not flatter myself that the reader will necessarily have much energy to spare more than a sidelong glance at this notice of the relevant events. Present-day inhabitants of Moscow, when they discuss the events in Abkhazia, just shrug their shoulders in incomprehension of the 'imaginary fears' of the Abkhazians and Kartvelians. Alternatively, they are filled with indignation: "What do they want to start trouble for? These people were living peacefully, it seemed, and now things have gone to pot -- that's where perestroika gets you! No soap, no tea, rising crime-rate, trouble everywhere, somebody always wanting something, and now we can't even go down south for a bit of a quiet holiday!" But, my dear inhabitants of Moscow and Kamchatka, if we do not realise that the problems of Abkhazia and Moldavia and the other unquiet areas are genuine, and that these problems are ours, even if this is not yet terribly obvious, and if we do not try to solve them by our joint-efforts to everybody's satisfaction, then it will not be long before a trip to the corner-shop becomes a risky business, let alone going off to the south, and our worthy neighbour assumes the appearance of a suspicious character, an enemy of the nation and of our families.
I am addressing in the first instance the inhabitants of my own country, but I would do as well to address the people of England, America, Japan and India, as the problems of Abkhazia, Belfast, the Negroes of Harlem, the Japanese Ainu and so on are not merely the problems of one region or another, one ethnic group, one country or another, but to no lesser degree are the shared problems of us all; they will only be solved by the united action of all.
At the moment there are strikes in Abkhazia; the Abkhazians are demanding the transmission to the central authorities of information regarding the investigation, objecting to the introduction of a temporary form of government in the ASSR with direct control from Moscow, protesting against the introduction of Georgian as official language in Abkhazia. The Kartvelians are insisting on the release of those who, in their opinion without cause, are isolated from society in connection with the events of July, raising the question of depriving Abkhazia of the status of an autonomous republic... Both sides are sincerely convinced that right is on their side and that their demands are just.
I think that considerable assistance has been given to the Kartvelians' confidence by a speech in Tbilisi by Shevardnadze, Member of the Politburo USSR and Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he, on behalf of Comrade Gorbachev, expressed satisfaction at the way in which the new government of Georgia (i.e. the one that came to power after 9th April) was dealing with the complex problems before it, including that of restoring the loss of faith in the Party and that of dialogue with unofficial organisations. True, in the end Shevardnadze stressed the need to acknowledge such realities as the irreversible tendency of a given people, however small it might be, to fight to the end for its culture and its preservation. I fear, however, that, taking into account the first part of Shevardnadze's speech, this call was not understood as a call for a more tactfully worded, sober approach to the fulfilment of the strategic wishes of the Georgian unofficial organisations, some indication of the nature of which the reader has had the opportunity to gain from quotations from the Georgian press, and by tacit support for which the 'new' Kartvelian leadership is endeavouring in fact to regain 'lost confidence'. This procedure, as I have written, is fraught with deplorable consequences, with the threat of the Fascisisation of Kartvelian society.
But I pin my hope on Reason. Georgia has given no few lucid minds to Mankind, and I hope that her spiritual potential will be sufficient to produce today likewise the thinkers that she needs with lucid intellects, thinkers in whose breasts there beat good and manly hearts, hearts that will rather burst than accept and rejoice in the humiliation of anyone, which will never be able to call such demands just, as place whole peoples in the position of importunate strangers, demands which are shameful for the Kartvelian people too, for they attribute to that worthy people with its ancient culture chauvinistic characteristics which it possesses no more than any other nation. True, there have unfortunately been moments in the history of many nations when they have fallen prey to a greater or lesser extent to stupefying chauvinistic ambitions. This has happened to the French, the Germans, the Chinese; we Russians too have not been entirely unaffected, as a glance at our 'Pamjat' will shew. But these nations have always had brave men, capable of cleansing the national atmosphere of these fumes. I am certain that the Kartvelian people will find them too.
As for the Abkhazians, sincerely as I sympathise with their struggle, I would wish them one thing: not to grow bitter, not to believe in their exclusive qualities as a persecuted nation, a nation for which the only chance of salvation lies in confrontation with all others. Nevertheless, I understand that it is easy to wish things for others and much harder to remain true to oneself, when one is sucked into the whirlpool of events; it is often impossible to get out without a reliable boat. Effective Rights of Nations should become, in my view, such a boat for every people and nation, and it is the duty of Society to launch it without delay.
Tamsh, 13th September 1989
Viktor Alekseevich Popkov