Audi alteram partem

On the 20th anniversary of the start of Georgia’s war against Abkhazia, by Stanislav Lakoba

Georgian - Abkhaz War

[Regarding] the former Minister of Defence of Georgia: on the war and the situation concerning Abkhazia (1992-1993 years).

At one time, the poet Nikolaj Glazkov very aptly said of the twentieth century:

I gaze at the world from under the table,
The twentieth century - the century of the extraordinary.
A century of interest to the historian for the same reason
That it is sorrowful for anyone living it!

So today one remembers the events of what is already in the past, the 20th century, when on the space of the former Soviet Union there broke out wars, conflicts, and clashes ... One of the bloodiest events of the century was the war unleashed by Georgia against Abkhazia. The Tbilisi authorities have tried to blame the leadership of our country for what happened. Shevardnadze from the start began inventing various reasons, versions, causes for why the State Council’s troops invaded Abkhazia, hinting that his Defence Minister, T. Kitovani, was to blame for this. However, the testimones of many Georgian military and political activists speak of the beginning of the war as the private initiative principally of Shevardnadze. Sufficiently weighty grounds have been adduced in the reminiscences of such generals as Z. Mamulashvili, G. Lominadze and others, which have been repeatedly cited by Abkhazian politicians and historians.

Well, in 2006, it came to my knowledge that there had been published in Tbilisi as something like a "samizdat"-publication with a miserly print-run a small booklet entitled "Notes of a commando-commissar". The author was one of the closest people to Shevardnadze, General Levan Sharashenidze, who from January to May 1992 headed the Ministry of Defence of Georgia. During this period, he repeatedly travelled to Sukhum and held negotiations with Vladislav Ardzinba. The memoirs of General L. Sharashenidze can be described as a precious source, since he places concentrates totally on this military adventure and names the main culprit of the war unleashed in 1992. Here's what he wrote about the events on the eve of the invasion:

"... E. A. Shevardnadze during this period did not once meet V. G. Ardzinba, although he had agreed to a meeting, even after his arrival in Tbilisi. I had several meetings with Ardzinba, and I confirm this as well as the fact that the Abkhazian leadership at that time endorsed the return of Eduard Shevardnadze to Georgia and held out some hopes in it. In any case, Shevardnadze himself could and should have held negotiations with the Abkhazian leadership, [but] for some reason he extemporised and made his meeting dependent on certain conditions. During this period, May-June 1992, I met Ardzinba four times and certify the accuracy of all of the above. After each meeting, I debriefed Shevardnadze in great detail, including on the readiness of Ardzinba to meet him." [1]

Apparently, such a minister-peacemaker was not what those times required, and he was replaced in May 1992 by the criminal Tengiz Kitovani. It is obvious that Shevardnadze, with his delusions of grandeur, had made his choice of scenario -- a military solution to the Abkhazian problem. At the same time, he even so still feared the reaction of Moscow, as he wished, figuratively speaking, to enter into Abkhazia, without entering the CIS. And Georgia’s joining the CIS was the main condition for the return of Shevardnadze to Tbilisi, where he could go back, with the military and political support of the Kremlin. As head of the State Council of Georgia, Shevardnadze began to manoeuvre and drag out the question of joining the CIS. His then-deputy, Dzh. Ioseliani, in response to the obstinacy of his boss with regard to the CIS, prophetically remarked:

"If Moscow sneezes, we get double pneumonia. What are you up to?" Shevardnadze replied: "First it’s necessary to deal with Abkhazia". [2] It is interesting to note that the opinion L. Sharashenidze on the invasion of Abkhazia was essentially confirmed by the Georgian historian Z. Papaskiri. He criticizes the actions of Eduard Shevardnadze in sending troops to Abkhazia, where "the situation was extremely tense" and "the Georgian government should have acted with maximum caution." Later Z. Papaskiri writes:

"What do we have in mind? In our opinion, the Head of State should not have been content with just telephone-conversations with Ardzinba. He should himself have gone to Sukhum, met him in person and received from him ... formal approval for the introduction of units of the Republic of Georgia into Abkhazia. Unfortunately, however, none of this was done; clearly, Shevardnadze’s political instincts let him down, and he did not take what was, of course, by the standards of those times, such an extraordinary step." [3]

His laconic assessment of the war-events is given by General L. Sharashenidze thus: "The entry into Abkhazia began on 14 August,” he writes, “but E. A. Shevardnadze, a politician and diplomat of such a high standing, who arrived [sc. in Tbilisi] on 7 March, was unable, during more than five months, to prevent the war. This unprepared, not properly provisioned entry was, of course, undertaken with the consent of Eduard Shevardnadze, from which he later distanced himself." [4]

All these adventurous activities of Shevardnadze were a reflection of other, deeper geopolitical processes, which General L. Sharashenidze mentions in passing. The main issue for Georgia in early 1992, continued to be the issue of joining the CIS. It was a sort of a test for Shevardnadze. Of course, he promised Moscow positively to solve the problem, and, on 7 March 1992, he arrived in Tbilisi. This was preceded by important events.

In January and February the Minister of Defence of Georgia, L. Sharashenidze, twice met Shevardnadze in Moscow. By this time in Russia and Georgia the choice had already been made in his favour. Thus, on 14 February 1992 there took place in Minsk the second meeting between the heads of state and governments of the CIS countries. The Georgian delegation was headed by L. Sharashenidze, who overnight agreed the text of his speech by phone with Shevardnadze. "He approved it and asked that after the summit I travel to Moscow to meet him," writes the then-Minister of Defence. In his 3-minute speech in Minsk, L. Sharashenidze, in part, declared:

"The question of Georgia's entry into the CIS will be decided by parliament upon its election.

“I want to report that we are restoring good relations with the Transcaucasian Military District troops on the territory of Georgia. We have removed from them the status of a force of occupation. Naturally, we reserve the right to participate in the discussion of all matters relating to the Army and the Black Sea Fleet.

“We would request in the future an invitation to meetings of the CIS for the relevant leaders of Georgia by way of observers." [5]

It should be noted that the representatives of Georgia wittingly or unwittingly misled the Russian leadership and talked about the participation of leaders of Georgia in the CIS only as observers. On his return from Minsk, L. Sharashenidze met Shevardnadze in Moscow and reported to him in detail on the summit of the CIS. Then another meeting was scheduled where the question of his return to Georgia was to be decided. [6]

In February 1992, in parallel with the summit of the CIS, there arrived in Sukhum a detachment of the National Guard of Georgia, under the command of Captain G. Karkarashvili, accompanied by several armoured vehicles. The Supreme Council of Abkhazia (including Georgian deputies, supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia) almost unanimously demanded that this detachment leave the territory of the republic forthwith. The anger of the government and multi-ethnic population of Abkhazia was caused in particular by the transfer of weapons and several units of the BMP Assault Battalion Airborne-troops of Russia, which had been placed in Sukhum (in the district of Majak [Lighthouse]) shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. [7]

Today it is clear that all this took place against the background of the Minsk summit of the CIS, and the Russian leadership decided to show Georgia some "carrot" in the form of several BMPs.

Under the February agreements, on 2 March in Moscow there were very important meetings with Shevardnadze. The negotiations were carried out by Defence Minister L. Sharashenidze and T. Kitovani, a member of the Military Council of Georgia, who, along with Prime Minister T. Sigua and unlike Dzh. Ioseliani, were not eager to invite the ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR to Georgia as head of state. However, the situation changed after a five-hour conversation between Shevardnadze and Kitovani. Then a two-hour interview took place with the Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the CIS, E. Shaposhnikov, and the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Vladimir Lukin. Another meeting was held with the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia, E. Primakov. To all these people Shevardnadze gave a firm promise to join the CIS in the near future. In fact, this was the main condition lay down by the Russian leadership on Shevardnadze.

A participant in these important negotiations in Moscow on 2 March 1992, Georgian Defence Minister L. Sharashenidze disappointedly later noted:

"These talks foreshadowed many positive changes in Russian-Georgian relations. Unfortunately, the reality turned out to be different.

“On 7 March, E. A. Shevardnadze arrived in Tbilisi. On arrival, he stressed in his statements that Georgia would follow a pro-Western course, that the emphasis in foreign policy would be, above all, predicated on a strategic partnership with the United States, and that Georgia would not join the CIS. It is not hard to imagine what kind of reaction this had in Russia and the other CIS countries," [8] L.Sharashenidze rightly concludes.

In late March 1992, the Minister of Defence of Georgia met in the Kremlin the vice-president of Russia, A. Rutskim, and then Navy Commander Col. Gen. E. Podkolzinym; however, the promise to help in the construction of the Georgian armed forces was suspended. The question of entry into the CIS remained open.

Georgia sought to obtain the necessary weapons, but, by the Tashkent Agreement of 15 May 1992, only members of the CIS had the right to a military quota. For this reason and because of the continuing war in South Ossetia, Tbilisi authorities could not qualify for 220 tanks, artillery systems, combat aircraft and helicopters. After the Dagomys meeting and the decision on the cessation of hostilities in South Ossetia, as well as the "Communiqué" of 24 June 1992 [9], Yeltsin and Shevardnadze agreed on further cooperation. As a result of the "Dagomys Accord", the Russian leadership proceeded to violate the Tashkent Agreement and, by way of an exception, provided Georgia with tanks, aircraft and other weapons. The process of transferring the military equipment and ammunition was completed in late July-early August 1992. Shevardnadze once again assured Yeltsin that he would enter the CIS, as over a matter of 2 or 3 days he would solve the problem of Abkhazia "with little blood."

Yeltsin supported Georgia's leader until 25 September 1992. On this day, Eduard Shevardnadze at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York asked for help from the West, blaming Russia. This speech and his insulting remarks with reference to the Abkhazians confused many in the hall of the UN. Yeltsin was annoyed and in his circle, not without malice, noted: "Shevardnadze imagines himself president of a great power but in fact does not even head a banana republic ..." [10]

On the same day, 25 September, the oppositional Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation adopted a resolution "On the situation in the North Caucasus in connection with the events in Abkhazia," in which it demanded the immediate withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia and restoration of the legitimate government.

From New York Shevardnadze flew to Moscow, but Yeltsin received him very coldly. The Russian leadership were convinced that the Tbilisi leader had no intention of joining the CIS. Failure to evaluate properly this important geopolitical factor led to the realisation by Yeltsin and Defence Minister P. Grachëv that Shevardnadze and Kitovani were only trying to take advantage of Russian military support. Thus, from the end of September 1992, the position of the Russian élite towards Tbilisi was not that simple.

After the defeat of the Georgian troops in Gagra in October 1992, the Abkhazian authorities took control of the north-western border with Russia at the R. Psou. The situation at this time changed radically. The Georgian State Council adopted a resolution "On the transition to active military operations in Abkhazia." In this regard, two months after the war began, on 22 October, General Sharashenidze sent Shevardnadze a detailed note and proposals on the military question. [11] He warned the head of Georgia of the consequences that might occur as a result of taking hasty and not properly assessed measures. I will not detail the nature of this interesting note with its realistic view of the new balance of power, I shall note only that the author says: "Today, the situation has changed in favour of the enemy," and for him "there is being created an offensive group." He speaks of the possible encirclement of Sukhum and a strike on Ochamchira. "The forces of the Georgian side are scattered formations, hastily equipped and there is no unified command," remarked Sharashenidze. He suggests: "To abandon the planned offensive in the next 2-3 days in the direction of Gudauta and Tkvarchal, and to focus on the defence of Sukhum". Among the various recommendations, there are also some that are quite unexpected, with an environmental slant, "together with scientists from the Georgian Technical University and other research-centres, urgently to prepare the use of directed explosions, [with the aim of] creating artificial mud-flows in the valleys (in the case of necessity)."

As a result, notes L. Sharashenidze, though scheduled for the end of October 1992, the "large-scale offensive was rejected", and also never implemented were the proposed measures.

As is well-known, on 27 July 1993, a ceasefire-agreement was signed in Sochi. Sharashenidze participated in the meeting in the capacity of chief military adviser to the Ministry of Defence of Georgia. "I would like to draw attention to the fact,” he wrote, “that Shevardnadze then missed a great opportunity to use Russian troops to prevent the loss of Abkhazia". [12]

About what kind of chance in July 1993 was general L. Sharashenidze speaking?

It turns out that the Russian side then offered to keep in Sukhum two Russian divisions, transfer the headquarters of the Joint Control Commission from Sochi to Sukhum and to bring into the city a reinforced battalion with 30 BMPs.

According to the general, these were real actions that could have saved Sukhum. However, the Georgian side rejected the proposals. "Shevardnadze should not have allowed this," concludes L. Sharashenidze. [13]

The next tragic mistake by Shevardnadze the general considered to be the events of the second half of September 1993. Judging by this eloquent testimony, it is evident that Abkhazia at that time was on the verge of some disaster. Behind our backs, outright trading was going on: Georgia was again invited to join the CIS in exchange for Abkhazia. The covert struggle and hidden agendas of the great powers only by a miracle failed to produce the desired results. Objective circumstances were above some subjective aspirations. However, judge for yourselves. I cite almost in full the testimony of the eyewitness of those tumultuous events:

"And one of his (Shevardnadze’s – S. L.) big mistakes was this,” L. Sharashenidze notes. “On 16 September, Defence Minister G. Karkarashvili and I were in Moscow with Russian Defence Minister P. S. Grachëv. The meeting went well. Grachëv promised weapons, equipment, and high-level cooperation in the implementation by the Abkhazian side of the ceasefire-conditions. Karkarashvili in the evening flew to Tbilisi, but I stayed in Moscow to prepare with Colonel-General Galkin the position on the status of the Russian troops in Georgia. By this time I had been appointed Deputy Defence Minister for relations with the Russian Army.

“On 17 September, the Abkhazian side treacherously violated the Sochi armistice-agreement,” continues Sharashenidze, “and started military operations in the direction of Ochamchira, and, one day later, in the direction of Sukhum too ...

“Shevardnadze called Moscow and asked me to contact P. S. Grachëv in order for him to take measures and stop the Abkhazian side. On this day, Grachëv was in hospital, but later in the evening, with the head of the Main Operations Directorate, he flew to Adler, where, on 18 September, he had a meeting with Shevardnadze, Minister of Defence G. Karkarashvili, and Minister of Security I. Batiashvili, at which Grachëv proposed to introduce into Georgia two airborne-paratroop divisions, the Pskov and the Tula, introducing one of them later to Azerbaijan – they had the agreement of the Azerbaijani side.

“To this proposal G. Karkarashvili reacted very painfully by saying that this would be a new occupation of Georgia, and he would resign, but Shevardnadze was silent, thus refusing to consent to the deployment of Russian troops. P. S. Grachëv told me so himself in the presence of the Chief of the General Staff M. P. Kolesnikov, upon his return from Adler,” notes Sharashenidze. “…I immediately called Shevardnadze and told him about this; he told me to fly immediately to Sukhum with our prepared project for the status of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus.

“Late at night on 19 September, I flew to the besieged city, where in the suburbs street-battles were underway. There was no unified authority ...

“I went to E. A. Shevardnadze after midnight and told him about the project on the status of Russian troops in Georgia that had been agreed with the Russian side and asked him to accept the proposal of P. S. Grachëv for introduing into Georgia two divisions and also entry into the CIS. ‘Let’s wait a couple of days,’ Shevardnadze replied.

“Three days passed, and, on 23 September, Shevardnadze announces his agreement to introduce the paratroop-divisions into Abkhazia and requests an urgent call to P. S. Grachëv to tell him about this. ‘But regarding entry into the CIS, let’s wait a little bit,’ Shevardnadze told me.

“It was late, and we didn’t succeed in calling Grachëv; I went to the chief of the General Staff M. P. Kolesnikov, who, after listening to me, said: ‘The train has departed – we cannot move a single soldier anywhere,’ as, on 21 September, the well-known events at the White House had begun (the confrontation between Khasbulatov and Yeltsin) ... Thus was missed another chance not to lose Abkhazia and thousands of lives.

“On the 24th, with the agreement of Shevardnadze on the project for the status of Russian troops in Georgia, I flew to Moscow and, on the same day, met the Chief of the General Staff M. P. Kolesnikov and handed him a letter addressed to P. S. Grachëv." [14]

In this letter of 24 September, General L. Sharashenidze, on behalf of E. Shevardnadze, asked the Minister of Defence for Russia to return to the earlier plan of 17 September 1993 that had been rejected by Tbilisi and to begin its urgent implementation by the Russian army in order to stop the ‘bloodshed in Abkhazia’. [15]

However, the train had in actuality already departed.

Despite this, E. Shevardnadze, on 26 September 1993, addressed a letter to Boris Yeltsin, V. Chernomyrdin, and P. Grachëv. In it, for the first time, the head of Georgia openly declares his readiness to join the CIS. Interestingly, this historical document was sent from Sukhum, where Shevardnadze found himself at the time as a political hostage. Having fallen into a trap and being in a real nightmare, he could not have dreamed that, like a prisoner, he would be pleading with the Russian government to save not only Georgia but also his own life.

"In Sukhum a catastrophic situation has been created; there is a real the danger of the town falling,” declares Shevardnadze the day before the liberation of the capital of Abkhazia. “There are hand-to-hand battles in the streets; hundreds of innocent people are being killed.

“The only salvation now lies in the immediate involvement by way of peacekeeping troops of part of the paratroops stationed in Georgia.

“This seems the only way to prevent an even greater tragedy. Speed of action is everything -- tomorrow will be too late, because today, in these hours and minutes, the fate of the country is being decided.

“Based on the above, I earnestly beseech you, Boris, to save Georgia.

“I am telling you, if this now has any meaning, that I have taken the decision on Georgia’s entry into the Commonwealth of Independent States. We agree on the introduction into the conflict-zone of the military units proposed by General Pavel Grachëv at the meeting in Sochi.

“I ask you to take the decision without delay. This is the last hope of myself and of my people.

“With respect and hope,

“E. Shevardnadze."

But there was no reaction to these sobs.

There is no doubt that the events and the outcome of the war would have been totally different, if Georgia from the beginning (from February-March 1992) had entered the CIS.

Contrary to the various plans and circumstances, Abkhazia emerged victorious from this unequal battle. Good luck and chance both smiled on us: the Abkhazian offensive (16-30 September 1993) almost exactly coincided with the Russian crisis (21 September–4 October), which ended in Moscow with tank-fire unleashed upon the parliament. Thus, Russia was experiencing its own developing problems, and, in this turmoil, when Yeltsin was fighting for power, he had no time for Shevardnadze, who was suffering the most genuine misfortune in besieged Sukhum. [16]

Caught in a bind already after the defeat in Abkhazia, Shevardnadze flew to Moscow. On 8 October 1993, Yeltsin had a meeting with the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The next day, 9 October, Georgia joined the CIS, Russia and Georgia signing an agreement on Russian military bases in Georgia, including Poti. The Russian army took control of the Samtredia-Poti-Tbilisi stretch of the railway. [17]

"That which we did not do in a timely manner,” lamented Sharashenidze, “we did after losing thousands of people and our territorial integrity". [18]

Abkhazia thus gained de facto independence, and Georgia at the time returned to the Russian sphere of influence.

It would be wrong to assume that E. Shevardnadze did not understand the consequences of his obstinacy on the issue of the CIS. Of course, as a politician, he deliberately chose to take that risk.The question is, why? Because Shevardnadze had long been tied through serious obligations to the government of the United States, which took the decision to return him to Georgia, having enlisted the support of Moscow. Of such stratagems the ingenuous General L. Sharashenidze apparently had no idea. In this regard, attention is drawn to another eloquent but little known fact. It turns out that, already in February 1992, in the very month that Sharashenidze spoke at the Minsk CIS summit, Shevardnadze immediately left for the United States. During this visit, he signed with the company "Brock Group Ltd" a protocol on the strategic concept of the economic revival of Georgia, including expansion of the network of oil-terminals on the Black Sea, the reconstruction of the sea-ports of Poti and Batumi, the transformation of Batumi airport into an international terminal ... [19]

Worthy of particular note is the fact that, at that time, Shevardnadze was not the head of Georgia [with the authority] to be signing any documents at all, let alone one on a protocol of international order, but, behind the scenes, the world had already reached its own solution to this problem. The ex-Minister of the Soviet Union was able to secure the political and diplomatic support of Washington. Thus did Shevardnadze become involved in the great western game around the newly discovered rich deposits of oil in Azerbaijan. This was the prelude to the laying of the future Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which bypassed Russia and slotted into the strategic plans of the West – to gain direct access to Caspian energy-reserves, which was for the first time officially announced in 1994.

Such far-reaching goals, of course, did not fit the Russian project (to tie Georgia in to the CIS). This is despite the fact that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker declared: Russia's policy in the early 90's followed the lead of U.S. foreign policy. However, the administration of Boris Yeltsin, under pressure from patriotic forces, sometimes allowed itself some obstinacy, especially in the matter of its Near Abroad. Shevardnadze did not consider this and relied excessively on the United States and the West in general, not wishing to reckon with the Russian factor. Such demonstrative behaviour irritated both Yeltsin, the military, and Parliament. As a result, the over-confidence of Shevardnadze was punished, and Georgia suffered a collapse ...

As for the coups d'etat in Azerbaijan and Georgia against elected presidents Elchibey and Gamsakhurdia, it was as if they had been unnoticed by the international community. These coups, according to Belgian researchers Eric Remacle and Olivier Paye, “were simply acceptable for the great powers, and especially for Russia". [20]

In this connection, the saying of the ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia is of interest. "You could say,” he declared, “that in Georgia the military coup was effected from across the ocean with the personal involvement of Baker and with the blessing of Bush". [21]

The Russian leadership did not at that time remain on the sidelines, placing military-technical and financial support in the hands of the rebels [22], and standing behind them in the wings with his American friends was Shevardnadze. He rendered them great services relating primarily to the collapse of the Soviet Union, unjustified deference at the time of the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of Germany, hasty withdrawal of Soviet troops, transfer to the Americans of 50 thousand square kilometers of an area of the Bering Sea rich in biological and energy-resources, etc. That is why Western leaders welcomed the return of Shevardnadze to Tbilisi. Georgia immediately emerged from international isolation when more than 30 countries over a short period recognised it as an independent republic, whilst the U.S. and Canada were willing to provide large loans. Moreover, despite the ongoing war in South Ossetia, Georgia, on 24 March 1992, was admitted to the CSCE (now OSCE), and, on 31 July, two weeks before the war against Abkhazia, the United Nations. As can be seen from these examples, a cynical policy of "double standards" by the leading Western countries found its own vivid expression.


[1] L. Sharashenidze “Notes of a Commando-Commissioner”. Tbilisi. 2006. p.76-77.
[2] Panorama of Latvia. 1999. 9 October. Number 236, S. Lakoba “Abkhazia de facto or Georgia de jure?”. Sapporo. 2001. p.25.
[3] Z. Papaskiri “Abkhazia: a history without falsification”. Tbilisi. 2009. p.419-420.
[4] L. Sharashenidze “Notes ...”, p.76.
[5] L. Sharashenidze p.71-74
[6] Ibid. p.74
[7] S. Lakoba ‘East and West, between the hammer and the anvil’. See: “Republic of Abkhazia”. 1992.29 February.
[8] L. Sharashenidze p.74-75.
[9] ‘Free Georgia’. 1992. 27 June; S. Lakoba “Abkhazia - de facto ...”, p.23-25.
[10] ‘Tomorrow’. 2000. 39. p.5.
[11] L. Sharashenidze p.77-82.
[12] Ibid. p.83.
[13] p.87
[14] p.87-89.
[15] p.90-91.
[16] S. Lakoba “Abkhazia - de facto ...”, p.78.
[17] Ibid. p.83.
[18] L. Sharashenidze p.92.
[19] S. Chervonnaya “Abkhazia - 1992: Post-Communist Vendée”. Moscow. 1993.
[20] “Contested Borders in the Caucasus”. Moscow. 1996. p.116.
[21] ‘Free Georgia’. 1992. 1 December.
[22] O. Vasiliev “Georgia as a model of post-communist transformation”. Moscow. 1993. p.11.

This article was published by ApsnyPress and is translated from Russian. [К 20-летию начала войны Грузии против АбхазииСтанислав Лакоба]




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