Estonian Orientalist Linnart Mäll and his role in activities of the UNPO during the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, by Aivar Jürgenson
Senior Research Fellow in School of Humanities, Tallinn University. Estonia; Senior Research Fellow in Literature Museum, Estonia.
On September 8, 1992, Linnart Mäll (1938-2010), an orientalist and head of the Laboratory of Oriental Studies of the University of Tartu, started his course "History of Indian Religions". I was a history student at the University of Tartu and took notes during the lecture. In the first lecture, Mäll described India's cultural and ethnic diversity and predicted the imminent political collapse of the Indian state, because there are nations who would rather be separate. However, it was typical of Mäll's lectures that he loved to expand the topics and to compare different phenomena and regions. In this lecture, Mäll also looked comparatively at US regions and predicted the imminent secession of California and, in the long run, the emergence of independent Native American states. As we can see, quite utopian thoughts but as we know, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and many of its successors became independent, which may have inspired Mäll's bold predictions. Such themes and visions reflected well Linnart Mäll's sympathy and strong support for oppressed and deprived nations.
As a leading figure in the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), he visited the fact finding missions in crisis areas and participated in international conferences dedicated to conflict resolution. When the Georgian-Abkhaz war broke out, he told in an interview to the Estonian newspaper „Postimees“: "I have no doubt that the fight will result in the fall of Shevardnadze and the liberation of the entire Caucasus."
The UN, the CSCE, later the OSCE, and many other organizations were involved in the fact finding and peace mediation missions in the Georgian-Abkhazian war (1992-1993), among them UNPO, one of the leaders and founders of which was Linnart Mäll. As we know, the UNPO unites indigenous nations whose right to self-determination is more or less restricted and are therefore unable to be members of the UN or to participate in the discussions concerning them in the international arena. Since its inception, the organization has sought to provide the oppressed or silenced nations of the world the opportunity to address the international community.
Linnart Mäll and the Estonian city of Tartu played an important role at the inception of the UNPO. The UNPO Preparatory Committee was established at a meeting held in Tartu on 5-6 September 1990. At this meeting, Linnart Mäll became the chairman of the UNPO Preparatory Committee. At the UNPO Founding Assembly in The Hague on 11 February 1991, the representatives of 15 nations signed a treaty establishing the organisation. Linnart Mäll was elected as the Chairman of UNPO and Michael C. van Walt van Praag, a Dutch lawyer and Adviser to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, as Secretary General. Separate regional coordination centres were set up as UNPO institutions in the early 1990s. One of these was the Tartu Coordination Office, which coordinated UNPO´s activities in the Eastern European and North Asian regions, including the former Soviet Union.
When on August 14 1992 Georgian troops entered the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Georgian-Abkhazian war broke up, UNPO began actively gathering and disseminating information about the conflict. It is worth emphasizing that Georgia and Abkhazia were both members of UNPO. While Georgia was a founding member of the UNPO, Abkhazia officially became a member in August 1991 at the II General Assembly of the UNPO (as did Kosovo, for example).
After the Georgian forces had occupied much of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, the Chairman of the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet, invited Linnart Mäll, the UNPO Chairman, to come to the crisis area on a peace mission. One of the initiators of the visit was Dzhokhar Dudayev, the President of the Chechen Republic. It is also worth mentioning the interpersonal relations that existed at the time, i.e. Mäll knew Ardzinba from the 1970s, when both had studied at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies and Dudayev was a familiar person for Mäll from the time when Dudayev was the commander of the heavy bomber division in Tartu (1987-1990). Dudayev also tried to mediate a meeting between Mäll and Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. However, Shevardnadze ignored Dudayev's attempts at mediation and refused to meet with Mäll, or to guarantee his security if he flew by helicopter over the territory of Georgia. In the end, Mäll did not go to Abkhazia for security reasons. Thus, in essence, the peace mediation mission failed, but Mäll received important information about the background of the conflict.
This information he needed in the next trip to the conflict area which took place from 31 October to 8 November 1992, when Mäll was a member of an official UNPO mission. The other members of the mission were Michael van Walt van Praag from UNPO, as well as Lord David Ennals, a member of the House of Lords and former British Foreign Secretary, Margery Farrar, a member of the US Congress, and Alvaro Pinto Scholtbach, a member of the Dutch Parliament. This mission was also helped by Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who invited the members of the mission to Chechnya, where they met with Dudayev and other leading politicians in the Chechen Republic, as well as with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the legitimate President of Georgia, who had sought refuge in Chechnya at the time. In Abkhazia, great emphasis was placed on meetings with both Abkhazian and Georgian refugees, prisoners of war and the residents of various settlements. The UNPO mission highlighted the serious incidents of violence perpetrated by Georgian forces in Abkhazia, in particular against the Abkhazians.
+ Correspondence between Abkhazia and UNPO (Linnart Mäll Archive)
+ Lord David Ennals: Georgian troops guilty of atrocities - November 1992
In further UNPO activities related to the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict the UNPO Tartu Coordination Office began to play an increasing role. When a UNPO regional meeting was held in Pärnu, Estonia from 1-3 June 1993, with the participation of sixteen delegations, Georgia's aggression against Abkhazia was condemned and the rights of Abkhazians clearly supported. It is also worth noting that, at the same meeting, the leadership of the Russian Federation was called upon to recognise the right of the Chechen people for self-determination. In the eyes of UNPO, both the Chechens and the Abkhazians fought fairly for their independence, and the hegemony demands of the larger neighbours of both nations, i.e. Georgia and Russia, equally deserved condemnation.
The UNPO continued to support Abkhazia after the Abkhaz–Georgian war. The next UNPO regional meeting was held on 26-29 November 1993 in Estonian town of Pühajärve. An appeal to the Russian president Boris Yeltsin was composed, which called on him to end the economic blockade on Abkhazia, which Russia had begun in support of Georgia. And because Abkhazia had a well-founded fear that a war might break out again, the UNPO called on Yeltsin to stop providing military equipment to Georgia and not to use its army to fight Abkhazia. Taras Shamba, who represented Abkhazia at the meeting at Pühajärve, gave an overview of the recently ended Georgian-Abkhazian war in an interview to the Estonian newspaper Eesti Aeg, emphasizing Russia's support for Georgians, but also highlighting the role of North Caucasus volunteers as allies of Abkhazia. In the interview, Shamba also pointed out that many international peace mediators represent Georgia's interests and wish to impose on Abkhazia autonomy as part of Georgia.
Shamba later published an article in the Estonian newspaper Postimees, in which he invited Estonians who had left Abkhazia during the war to return to their homes. By that time, Abkhazia had appealed to the Greek, Israeli and Estonian governments to help the Greeks, Jews and Estonians who had evacuated to return to Abkhazia. Shamba also expressed hope, which has not been fulfilled to date: "We take into account that Estonia will soon recognize the Republic of Abkhazia diplomatically as well."
An excerpt from the Estonian newspaper Kodumaa [Homeland] 6 July 1996.
"ERO [UNPO -ed] calls on Estonia to recognise the Abkhazian state. Linnart Mäll, deputy secretary-general of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (ERO), said that the Abkhazian state undoubtedly exists, as it controls its own territory." "Estonia could be the first to recognise Abkhazia, after which other countries would do the same. This step would be particularly meaningful for Estonia, especially because many Estonians live in Abkhazia, who are essentially the indigenous people of this land and loyal to their country," noted Mäll."
Shamba's statement may seem provocative today, but in the early 1990s, the principles of recognition of states had not been clearly fixed in Estonian political discourse. Although the international community had generally agreed that political entities attempting to leave the former Soviet republics would not be recognized, this was not clearly stated. In any case, a year earlier, on October 11, 1992, the UNPO Tartu Coordination Office had turned to the Estonian Parliament with an appeal, the third paragraph of which proposed to recognize as a subject of international law countries that had declared their national independence and to support nations that strive for self-determination and independence. As a representative of the Estonians, the appeal was signed by Linnart Mäll. Later a member of Estonian Parliament Jaanus Raidal, a person closely related to Mäll, presented a draft declaration “Support for the self-determination aspirations of the peoples of the former Soviet Union” with 26 signatures. According to the project, the Parliament of Estonia should have express support for the aspiration of all peoples of that region to realise their inalienable right for self-determination. On the proposal of the Speaker of the Estonian Parliament Ülo Nugis, the draft was voted out of the agenda. Linnart Mäll reacted painfully to the vote, saying it was a blow to many discriminated nations. Outraged, he promised to do everything possible to ensure that the decision of the Parliament was not announced outside Estonia. He later reiterated this idea in an article, stating that during his visit to Chechnya he did not talk about the decision of the Parliament, because as an Estonian he was ashamed.
+ Report of a UNPO mission to Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Northern Caucasus (November 1992).
+ UNPO: Human Rights Report Mission Abkhazia 1992-1994
+ Selected FBIS Reports on Chechen War & Abkhazia
On 19 May 1993, on the initiative of the UNPO, a softer draft petition “For the Protection of Indigenous Peoples' Rights in the Territory of the Former USSR” was submitted to the Estonian Parliament. It stated: "The Parliament supports the protection of human rights and self-determination efforts of the Yoked Peoples in the Territory of the Former Soviet Union." However, on 25 November 1993, a day before the start of the UNPO Pühajärve meeting, the draft was excluded from the agenda of the Parliament.
It is possible that the information about the vote was not quickly reached by the participants of the UNPO meeting, which would explain the aforementioned statement of Taras Shamba. However, there is no reason to consider the statement of Shamba itself too curious, considering Linnart Mäll's lobbying in UNPO. Encouraging Estonian state officials to recognize the peoples of Russia was undeniably one of his goals at the time. Later, when it was clear that his efforts would not succeed, he stated with regret: "Estonia was the biggest loser in terms of the policy of non-recognition of small peoples. In the early 1990s, he played down the chance to become the leader of small nations.”
At the UNPO General Assembly from 20 to 26 January 1995 it was emphasised that UNPO missions to the region in 1992 and 1993 proved Georgia's abuses against the UNPO's core principles, incl. against the Abkhazia’s right for self-determination and the fundamental rights of Abkhazians. In this context, the General Assembly adopted a resolution to suspend Georgia's supporting member status in the UNPO.
A great deal of UNPO’s relations with Abkhazia focused on providing the young country with legal advice on drafting their legislation. In 1995 and 1996, the UNPO Tartu Coordination Office led by Linnart Mäll advised Abkhazian representatives on legislative issues and Russian translations of the legal acts of the Republic of Estonia were sent to the mission of the Republic of Abkhazia in Moscow as examples for the Abkhazian laws that were being drafted.
Linnart Mäll and his personal contacts
UNPO's support for Abkhazia in the 1990s was based on the UNPO's statutory positions. The organisation of specific events, mediation of contacts and formulation of appeals was mainly organised by the UNPO Tartu Coordination Office and its director Linnart Mäll. In this regard, Mäll's previous contacts played a significant role. Linnart Mäll became acquainted with Vladislav Ardzinba, the leader of the Abkhaz resistance, and later, the head of the Abkhaz state, during Mäll’s time at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and later, when he defended his dissertation. While Mäll was a well-known Buddhologist, Ardzinba's field of research was the ancient Hatti culture in Asia Minor. He was a postgraduate student at the same institution and also worked there for many years after graduation. Since the Hatti language is considered to be related to the Abkhazian-Adyghe languages, i.e. he sought explanations for the origins of the Abkhazians in the ancient cultures of Asia Minor.
Also important were Linnart Mäll's good relations with Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had previously served in the Soviet military in Tartu, which was also the home city of Mäll. The Mäll and Dudayev families were also friends. At the same time, friendly relations existed between Dudayev and Ardzinba, who were allied in the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. The Chechens played a significant role in the UNPO's activities during the Abkhaz–Georgian conflict. Dudayev helped organise Linnart Mäll's visit to the crisis area in August 1992 and the UNPO mission to Abkhazia in the autumn of the same year. In addition to Dudayev, a UNPO visit to Georgia was also organised by Dudayev`s Special Representative Zelimhan Jandarbiyev. He was the same man, who had visited Dudayev in Tartu in the spring of 1991 and invited him to lead the national movement in Chechnya. Dudayev supported the Abkhazian struggle against the Georgians, but when Russia launched hostilities in Chechnya in December 1994, this was fiercly criticised by V. Ardzinba, the Abkhazian leader, and he offered to mediate peace with the Kremlin. Needless to say, Dudayev's success in the First Chechen War was based on a professional army, one of the most important parts of which was the so-called “Abkhaz” battalion, i.e. Chechen fighters hardened in the war against the Georgian aggressor in Abkhazia. In the Chechen War, Abkhazians also fought against the Russians on the Chechen side.
While Linnart Mäll had excellent relations with the leaders of Abkhazia and Chechnya, Mäll treated the Georgian leader Shevardnadze with undisguised contempt, which probably did not help the UNPO conduct impartial mediation. In one interview, Mäll describes Shevardnadze as a “cunning, cold and cruel fox.” It is difficult to say whether this assessment may have been due to Georgia's aggression in Abkhazia or something else. Linnart Mäll had a negative attitude towards the communist partocracy, which Shevardnadze had represented during the Soviet era. Mäll was caught in the gears of the Communist machinery during the Soviet era, when, in 1973, he lost his job as a senior lecturer in the Department of General History of Tartu State University for political reasons. Mäll’s connections with Moscow dissidents dated back to his early years in Moscow, his contempt for those who toadied to the Soviet authorities. In the early 1990s, in addition to UNPO, Mäll was also a leading figure in many Estonian social and political organisations. The Estonian writer Arvo Valton calls Mäll “a great scientist and truth-seeker, an uncompromising Estonian patriot and someone who showed compassion to all the world's distressed nations”. Ivar Tröner, publisher of Mäll’s writings, calls him a “humanist-visionary” and patriot.
As an Estonian patriot, Mäll was very knowledgeable about the struggle of other small indigenous peoples for survival and political self-determination. He has stated the following: “Nationality is of great value. I would say that the longer the human history lasts, the more nationalism will become a universal value.” Or also, “If the nineteenth century was the age of great powers, if the twentieth century is the age of states, then the next century will be the age of peoples. A time will come when every nation can develop its own culture and cultivate its own language.” The following excerpt from one of Mäll’s interviews conveys the same spirit: “If, in the last century, there was a widespread belief that national cultures must disappear in order for a unified human civilisation to develop, and both the United States and later the Soviet Union strove so hard to achieve this, then it has now become clear throughout the world that it is only through national identity that universal values can be expressed. A totally homogeneous culture is impossible if only because this would become very boring.”
It is not only a patriot who is speaking these lines, but also an empathetic person who perceives the common ground with the patriots of other countries, further, we meet here an optimistic visionary, in whose eyes ethnic cohesion is the optimal form of human organisation. Against this background, he predicted the disintegration of political colossuses, such as the United States and India, and the emergence of smaller national entities based thereupon. He called Russia, as one of the largest colonial empires of the modern age, an unnatural formation, and predicted that the entire Caucasus would become free. He supported the Chechens in their fight against the Russian imperialism and the Tibetans against the Chinese imperialism. In 1991, Mäll invited Dalai Lama to visit Estonia. China’s anger was ignored although there was a danger that it could harm Estonia's foreign policy and economic interests. Linnart Mäll's international activities were largely focused on supporting the right of peoples for self-determination. For Linnart Mäll, it made no difference whether the empire was big or small – he was criticised those who stood in the way of peoples’ rights to self-determination. As I have experienced many times in Abkhazia, Linnart Mäll is still warmly remembered there.
First published on Abkhazia.co.uk