In the discourse surrounding national independence and the legacies of territories embroiled in geopolitical strife, the narratives of Kosovo and Abkhazia have often been juxtaposed. This analysis seeks to address misconceptions and provide a nuanced perspective on the historical and contemporary contexts of both regions, incorporating insights from historical experts to ensure accuracy and fairness.
We extend our gratitude to Sir Noel Malcolm for his invaluable comments and suggestions regarding the information on Kosovo, which have significantly contributed to the accuracy and depth of our analysis.
Kosovo: Understanding Its Complex History
Contrary to claims that Kosovo lacked historical sovereignty prior to its recent declaration of independence, the region's past is marked by significant periods of self-rule and cultural development. Historical evidence counters the notion that Kosovo was merely a "recent creation" or solely a "historical territory of Serbia."
Early Settlements and Medieval Sovereignty
Serbian settlement in the Balkans began in the early 7th century, but their dominion over Kosovo was not established until the early 13th century. This challenges the assertion that Kosovo was the cradle of Serbian civilization. For about 250 years, until the mid-15th century, Kosovo was under Serbian rule. However, this period represents less than a third of the time from the Serbs' arrival in the region to the Ottoman conquest, suggesting that the connection between medieval Serbia and modern-day Serbia, as it pertains to Kosovo, is not as direct as often portrayed.
Ottoman Era and Beyond
Kosovo remained under Ottoman rule for more than 450 years, a tenure longer than its period under Serbian governance. The majority of its inhabitants were Albanian, contrary to claims of their recent immigration from Albania. This demographic reality underscores a complex history of sovereignty and cultural identity, further complicated by Kosovo's incorporation into the Yugoslav federation post-1912, not as a Serbian entity, but as part of a larger Balkan conglomerate.
The Titoist Constitution and Kosovo's Status
The 1974 Constitution of Yugoslavia granted Kosovo a status nearly equivalent to that of the six republics, with extensive autonomy, including its own parliament, government, and other symbols of statehood. This legal framework contradicts the assertion that Kosovo was merely a province without the right to self-determination. The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s created a context in which Kosovo, like other federal units, had the potential to assert independence, a right supported by the absence of a constitutional prohibition against such a move.
International Recognition and Legal Status
The International Court of Justice's 2010 advisory opinion affirmed that Kosovo's declaration of independence did not violate international law. This conclusion challenges the notion that Kosovo's statehood is illegitimate or that its independence is a breach of international norms. Instead, Kosovo's path to independence, marked by a struggle for human rights and self-determination, aligns with principles recognised in international law.
Abkhazia: A Historical Overview
Abkhazia's history is a tapestry of cultural richness, strategic importance, and tumultuous political developments. Situated at the eastern end of the Black Sea, within the ancient region known as Colchis, Abkhazia has been a crossroads of civilisations, empires, and cultures throughout millennia.
Early Development and Greek Influence
In the 6th century B.C., the Greeks established trading posts in what is now Abkhazia, capitalising on its strategic location. The most notable of these was Dioscurias, modern-day Sukhum, which evolved into a thriving trade center, underscoring the region's early significance in cross-regional commerce.
The Kingdom of Abkhazia
Between 780 and 978, the Kingdom of Abkhazia emerged as a powerful entity, extending its influence over much of present-day Western Georgia. This period marked the zenith of Abkhazian political and cultural autonomy in the region.
Union with Georgian-speaking Regions
The subsequent era, from 978 to the 13th century, saw Abkhazia united with Georgian-speaking regions under a kingdom ruled by monarchs bearing the title 'Sovereign of the Abkhazians and Georgians'. This union represented a significant chapter in the shared history of the Georgian and Abkhazian peoples, highlighting a complex interweaving of dynastic and cultural ties.
Since the very beginnings of the two states, Abkhazia and Georgia have been separate countries with different languages and cultures. In only two periods have they been together: first, from 10th-13th century, when Abkhazia, as a result of dynastic inheritance, is united with Georgian-speaking regions in the mediaeval kingdom whose rulers carried the title 'Sovereign of the Abkhazians and Georgians'; second, in the period 1931 to 1991, Abkhazia was part of the Georgian SSR (both together as parts of the administrative structure of the USSR; Abkhazia was NOT at this time part of an independent Georgian polity).
Ottoman Invasion and Resistance
In 1578, the Ottoman Empire invaded Abkhazia, initiating centuries of conflict. Throughout the 18th century, in alliance with Georgia, Abkhazia made valiant efforts to repel the Ottoman forces, demonstrating the region's resilience and desire for sovereignty.
Annexation by the Russian Empire
The Caucasus region, including Abkhazia, was engulfed in prolonged conflict until 1864, when Abkhazia became the last Caucasian principality to be annexed by the Russian Empire. The harshness of Russian rule led to significant Abkhazian emigration, profoundly altering the demographic landscape.
In the period of 1917-1918, Abkhazia was part of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus. On 9 February 1918, the Abkhazian National Congress signed a treaty with the Georgian National Congress, which represented the Special Transcaucasian Committee. At the time of the signing, Georgia was de facto under the control of the Transcaucasian Commissariat, while Abkhazia was a part of the confederative Mountain Republic. This treaty recognised an “indivisible Abkhazia within frontiers stretching from the River Ingur to River Mzymta (later to Psou River)”. However, this did not stop the Georgian Democratic Republic that was declared in May 1918 from sending troops to “meet the Bolshevik menace” in June 1918 with German backing. During this era, the Mensheviks, having taken control of Georgia's government, annexed Abkhazia through a blend of political tactics and military force, specifically using General Mazniashvili’s troops' 'fire and sword' approach.
In 1921, the Soviet Socialist Republics of Abkhazia and Georgia were established, with Abkhazia being incorporated into the Georgian federation by mandate on May 21, following their declarations of independence in March. Despite this incorporation, a treaty signed on December 16 of the same year ensured close cooperation between the two, without compromising Abkhazia's sovereignty, which was governed by the laws of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic and the USSR rather than Georgia's constitution. This arrangement allowed Abkhazia the formal right to secede independently from both the Transcaucasian Federation and the USSR.
However, the situation changed dramatically in 1931 when, under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, Abkhazia's status was downgraded to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Georgia, marking a significant reduction in its political stature. This decision, unique in the context of Soviet administrative changes, led to the implementation of policies aimed at Georgianization, significantly impacting Abkhazia's autonomy and ethnic identity.
The decisive blow came in 1931 when Stalin and Beria downgraded Abkhazia to an autonomous republic within Georgia, marking the start of the Stalin-Beria terror. This period saw enforced Georgianisation, the persecution of intellectuals, and the closure of Abkhaz institutions, significantly impacting Abkhaz cultural and linguistic heritage.
The cases of Kosovo and Abkhazia illustrate the complexities of national identity, sovereignty, and the right to self-determination. Misconceptions and oversimplifications serve neither the interests of those advocating for Kosovo nor Abkhazia. A more accurate understanding of their histories, grounded in factual evidence and legal principles, offers a basis for informed discussion and analysis.
This revised analysis, incorporating the corrections and insights provided by historical expertise, underscores the importance of nuanced perspectives in evaluating the self-determination and independence of regions with contested sovereignties. It is hoped that this more balanced account will contribute positively to the discourse on Kosovo and Abkhazia, moving beyond geopolitical narratives to a more informed understanding of their unique and shared challenges.