Audi alteram partem

Role of Western structures in settlement of Abkhaz conflict, by Sergei Shamba

Sergei M. Shamba, doctor of science in history, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Abkhazia.

Sukhum, April 7, 2002

One of the most important factors that influence the development of political processes in the Caucasus, in particular in Abkhazia is the geographical one. It is on the strength of this circumstance that Abkhazia has for centuries been involved in processes leading to conflicts of many great powers' geopolitical aspirations. Greece, Persia, Rome, Byzantium, Iran, Turkey and Russia were the key players on this arena. While in the XIX cent. it was Turkey and Russia that fought for influence in the area, as soon as in the early XX cent. German and British troops arrived in Abkhazia. After the Russian Empire disintegrated in 1917, both Georgia and Abkhazia embarked on the path of shaping independent states. At the same time, Turkey and Germany stepped up their activity. In the words of General Anton Denikin, "mortal fear of a Turkish invasion" urged the Transcaucasian republics to federate. By that time, Germany had acquired a strategic vision of Georgia.

The German general and politician Erich Ludendorff noted: "A protectorate of Georgia allowed us to gain access to resources of the Caucasus and its railways going through Tiflis, which was independent on Turkey. We could not trust Turkey as to this. We could not count on Baku oil, unless we obtained it by ourselves (1)." Leon Trotsky wrote the "vassal union with Germany for a while provided Georgia with serious guarantees of inviolability, because Germany used the Brest-Lithuanian loop to bind Soviet Russia; besides, its ruin seemed inevitable (2)."

Using Germany's military support, the Georgian army in June 1918 invaded Abkhazia. Carl Erich Bechhofer, a British researcher who in 1919-20 visited the Caucasus, wrote: "The 'Free and Independent Social-Democratic State of Georgia' will remain in my memory forever as a classic example of an imperialistic 'small nation', both in the matter of external territorial seizure and in bureaucratic tyranny within the country. Its chauvinism passes all bounds. (3)." Despite that a Marxist government was in power in Georgia, even Klara Zetkin wrote none of the tsar's generals raged so ruthlessly when conquering the Caucasus as General Mazniashvili in Abkhazia. The 1918 November revolution in Germany stripped Georgia of support from the Triple Alliance. The Entente states did not acknowledge Georgia's statehood. Unlike the Germans, the English treated Tiflis unceremoniously and at once produced tough claims to the Georgian government, including some with regard to the invaded Abkhazia (4). "The very first Englishman," reminisced Zhordania, Georgia's Prime Minister, "to appear before me on behalf of the English command was General Brightford. The general arrived at a government meeting. He entered as a sergeant, rude and ill-bred, emerged as the ruler. We had a dispute. He told us menacingly, 'You are not going to rule here for long!' - and he left (5)."

Arrested by Georgia's occupation force, Abkhaz political figures were released from the Tiflis prison on demand of the English General Thomson, allied forces commander in the Caucasus (6). Al this time, from 1918 to 1921, national liberation war was underway in Abkhazia. This struggle received support from the Allied Army that demanded the Georgian government should change its policy with regard to the invaded Abkhazia. In February 1919, General Denikin reported to his English allies, Generals Walker and Milne, he had been addressed by some "official representatives of the Abkhaz people" who highlighted in detail the tragic situation in Abkhazia after the Georgian invasion. In connection with the situation in Abkhazia, Denikin demanded: "1) Abkhazia should immediately be proclaimed neutral; 2) Georgian troops should be removed beyond the river Ingur; 3) Georgian administration should be removed from Abkhazia; 4) Abkhaz authorities, elected freely, should be entrusted with keeping order (7)." In his memoirs, Leon Trotsky writes that when Denikin took away Abkhazia from Georgia, "the Mensheviks [Georgia's ruling party - S. Sh.] complained of Denikin to Walker and of Walker to Gunderson - in both cases with equal success (8)." The Bolsheviks, too, at first supported Abkhazia's independence fight. Even Stalin at the moment talked about the "heroic Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast that unanimously rebelled against the black gangs of the Tiflis government and took up arms to protect Sukhum from them (9)."

In early 1921, with the support of the Red Army the Bolsheviks came to power in all Transcaucasian republics, including Abkhazia. On May 21, 1921, Georgia's supreme government body acknowledged Abkhazia's independence adopting the "Declaration of the Independence of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia by the Revolutionary Committee of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Georgia." A year had hardly passed when Stalin began to press Abkhazia's leadership to become part of Georgia. However, only in ten years when he had reached absolute power Stalin was able, without considering the people's opinion, to make Abkhazia part of Georgia as an autonomous republic. The Abkhaz became the only people in the USSR that dared mass riots for political considerations in 1931, 1947, 1956, 1967, 1978, 1980 and 1991, demanding recovery of the status of a union republic.

Right after the break-up of the USSR in December 1991, serious internal trouble arose in the independent republics of Transcaucasia. In Georgia this led to a military coup followed by civil war. Apparently, Eduard Shevardnadze stood behind the organizers of the coup. Bruno Coppieters, Associate Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel ("Free University Brussels", the Netherlands), believes that in spite of taking over the first president, recently elected by a nationwide vote, the coup leaders hoped Shevardnadze would ensure them international recognition and domestic legitimacy. "The Western governments approved of this step," he writes, "in spite of the democratic legitimacy of the deposed president, Gamsakhurdia, and their usual appeals for observing formal procedures in democratic societies. They hoped Shevardnadze would be able to put an end to cruel ethnic conflicts underway in the country; restore law and order; and choose the path of market reforms. In March 1992, Georgia joined the OSCE and in July of the same year it became a full member of the UN (10)."

The Belgian researchers Eric Remacle and Olivier Paye also think the Security Council did not take coercive measures against the military coups in Georgia and Azerbaijan on the basis of Chapter VII, because the "the coups against Gamsakhurdia and Elcibey were simply acceptable to the great powers, and especially to Russia (11)." Gamsakhurdia said the "coup was carried out from overseas with Baker being personally involved and with the blessing of Bush (12)."

As is known, not only pragmatism rules politics. Many political actions are taken under the influence of accidental conditions and emotions. Such is also the incredible rise of the first secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia to the post of USSR Foreign Minister right in the era of great change. This circumstance, in turn, made him the "unitor of Germany." As we can see, this was of rather great importance for the West's subsequent policies with regard to both Georgia and settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. After the coup, Shevardnadze goes back to Georgia. And as soon as in April 1992 when chaos and destruction still reigned in Georgia, Germany's Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited the country. This was the first politician at such a high level to visit Georgia. As Shevardnadze said about it: "Others were yet just hesitating: to establish or not diplomatic relations with us, and in what format, when he arrived personally, brought an ambassador, inaugurated the embassy and there gave assurances he would bring a long-term credit (13)." Georgia receives its first credit - 70 million ECUs from the European Union and 100 million marks from Germany. On June 26, 1993, in Berlin, Germany, Eduard Shevardnadze was solemnly handed the Emanuel Kant Prize for "special accomplishments in the cause of strengthening peace in Europe". The same moment, Georgia's government troops quelled the riots of President Gamsakhurdia's supporters in Mingrelia and invaded Abkhazia. War was launched to destroy the nation, its cultural heritage. The Georgian army commander Karkarashvili openly said he was ready to destroy "all the 90,000 Abkhaz." During 13 months of war he was able to destroy only 3,000 Abkhaz. Later, Eduard Shevardnadze will call this general "noble knight." All appeals of the Abkhaz leadership and public to authoritative international organizations received no response that time. Only in autumn of 1993 when the Abkhaz army began to free its occupied territories and Shevardnadze's ruin became obvious, demands of ceasing the offensive flooded in from everywhere. On September 30, 1993, the Abkhaz army ceased its offensive at the river Ingur that separated Abkhazia from Georgia. The parties sat to the negotiating table.

In March 2002, at a reception in honor of Shevardnadze at the State Chancellery, Mr. Genscher will say: "I want to come to every Georgian, greet him and say: he who united Germany was Georgian, the German people will never forget it (14)." Despite unprecedented political, financial, humanitarian and military aid, Georgia was never able to solve any of its problems. Mr. Klaus-Helge Donath rightly remarks in Die Tageszeitung newspaper, "Georgia is ranked among those states political analysts call 'failing state.' It is a country that has not been able to develop efficient political structures. Western politicians spare the Caucasian state. There is but the only reason for this: the personality of Eduard Shevardnadze (15)."

No doubt, Shevardnadze did not fail to make use of support he was provided by both the West and Russia for attracting them to his side in settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. It should be admitted he was a success. This outcome was predetermined though. Many political analysts note in connection with this that no such pressure is exerted on one of the parties in any of the extant similar conflicts as it takes place in respect of Abkhazia. Professor Coppieters also indicates the negative consequences of such policy: "Georgia's attempts to benefit from the Western states being involved in the conflict and the lack of impartiality in the West's approach to it only raised the level of distrust surviving in relations between Georgia and Abkhazia (16)."

By April of 1994, within the scope of the Geneva negotiation process under the aegis of the UN, with Russia's assistance and the OSCE involved, the parties in conflict achieved a whole series of important arrangements providing for them not to resume hostilities. The most significant of them is the Declaration on Measures for a Political Settlement of the Georgian/Abkhaz Conflict which ascertained the absence of state-legal relations between Abkhazia and Georgia. This is the legal assessment of the document given by the UN Secretary-General in his report at the General Assembly on May 3, 1994 (8/19947529), as well as in the Proposals for political and legal elements for a comprehensive settlement of the Georgian/Abkhaz conflict (Annex II to the report of May 3, 1994). They say: "Abkhazia will be a subject with sovereign rights within the framework of a union State to be established as a result of negotiations after issues in dispute have been settled. The name of the union State will be determined by the parties in the course of further negotiations. The parties acknowledge the territorial integrity of the union State, created as indicated above, within the borders of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic on 21 December 1991." From the standpoint of the Abkhaz party, the UN suggested creating a new union state and then to finalize its name. The same view is expressed by experts from the international NGO Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (LAWASIA); they provided the following legal assessment: "As can be seen from the Declaration, the Parties achieved an understanding of joint action in the areas of foreign policy, border and customs service, energy, transport, communication, ecology and human rights. These areas of government activity can only belong to a sovereign state. The parties in conflict thereby recognized each other as having such." On this basis, one can maintain that, by signing the Statement, not only the Georgian party, but also the UN, Russia and the OSCE recognized Abkhazia as having the corresponding authority.

The peace-making process that at first was developing quite successfully later on came to a dead end. Enjoying unconditional support from all the parties involved in the negotiation process, Georgia substantially toughened its position. Considering that the substance of political disagreement between Georgia and Abkhazia consists in different approaches to two fundamental international legal norms - a people's "right of self-determination" and "territorial integrity of the state," the position of the key participants in the peace-making process can hardly be called "equidistant," because from the very beginning they proceed from the priority of the second principle.

Policies of the West, primarily the USA, with respect to the newly-established Georgian state was at first cautious in order not to provoke Russia to take aggressive action in its neighborhood. In the meantime, Russia was carrying out its strategic withdrawal from Central Europe, whereas on its southern borders it ran up against radical transformation of the security situation. During his visit to Moscow in 1994, Clinton compared Russia's stabilizing role on its borders to US policy in Panama and Grenada (17).

Currently, the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is going through a stage when it is grading into a problem of an entirely different level. A new alignment of forces is being shaped in the Caucasus. From the start of the XXI cent., US interests in the region are becoming more and more clearly determined. The well-known American political analyst Ariel Cohen quite distinctly expressed American approaches to settlement of conflicts in the Caucasus. First and foremost, they are determined by interest in Caspian energy resources and the wish to isolate Transcaucasia from Russia's influence and to support interests of its key partners - Turkey and Israel. US strategic interests aimed at ensuring the independence and territorial integrity of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are also considered in this light. Cohen thinks it necessary to make it clear to Moscow that any further support to separatism will mean the end of American aid (18).

Robert Bruce Ware, a professor from Illinois, thinks Georgia can become a strategically important sentry post of the US not only because of its proximity to hotspots in the Middle East and Middle Asia but also because it would be the key point in the series of American bases that presently surround Russia. Besides, American troops would get to a region from where they could guard the important route that serves to transport oil from Caspian fields to Western markets and goes through Georgia. Combined with new opportunities for an alternative route through Afghanistan and Pakistan, this could help oust its current rivals, Russia and China, from competition for Caspian oil (19).

After September 11, 2001, Abkhazia positively evaluated the course of the military campaign against terrorism, because in the post-war years Abkhazia was constantly subject to attacks of Georgian militants whose actions were unambiguously assessed as terrorism. There was hope, too, that Tbilisi that used both Georgian and international (what was confirmed by the events of the autumn of 2001) terrorists would finally have to give up supporting bandits. However, subsequent events gave serious reasons to doubt it. The public opinion in Abkhazia views participation of American military experts in training 1,500-2,000 Georgian soldiers as a "threat." In light of this, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria expressed concerns connected with the possibility of using well-trained and armed units of the Georgian army against them. Such concerns are not ungrounded, considering that the Georgian army's military doctrine defines the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity as the priority. These concerns grew stronger because of statements by a number of Georgian politicians that there are international terrorists in Abkhazia. On March 21, 2002, the Georgian parliament passed a resolution saying there is a need to inform the international community that Abkhazia is a source terrorism and extremism and that it creates a threat in the region. In Abkhazia such statements were perceived as a propagandistic campaign to prepare the public opinion for the beginning of military action against Abkhazia on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Thus, hopes began to decline that Shevardnadze would no longer be able to make use of gaps between the two powers and that the pragmatic union of the US and Russia would bring stability to the Caucasus. Concerns expressed by various political circles in Russia about US military presence in Georgia once again displayed the complexity of political games in the Caucasus. A New York Times editorial warns, not without good reason: "This is a treacherous place for American advisers to go, not only because of Georgia's chronic turbulence but also because of Russian sensitivities regarding the region (20)."

Two conditions prompt the public opinion in Abkhazia to consider interests of potential players in the region: a general feeling of the threat that military action will be resumed; and an understanding acquired in the past decade that the West cannot be completely relied upon in the process of state building. The Abkhaz society's attitude to the West took shape in the context of a noticeably different vision of the outer world. As far as the US and Western Europe are concerned, this attitude was based on different planes and comprised several, not absolutely identical, assessments: the assessment of current relations between the West and Georgia; the attitude to humanitarian programs in Abkhazia financed by the West; and the attitude to nations. The idea that policies should be implemented "without looking back at the West" enjoys the biggest support of Abkhazia's population. The overwhelming majority of people come to back this policy after news that Western professionals train Georgian troops. At the same time, this does not mean isolation from the West.



(1) Denikin A.I., Essays of Russian Time of Trouble. V. 3. Berlin, 1924. pp. 46-47. Quoted from Lakoba S., A Response to Historians from Tbilisi. Sokhumi, 2001, p. 29.

(2) Trotsky L.D. Works. V. 12. Moscow, 1925. p. 231. Quoted from Lakoba S., ibid.

(3) Bechoffer C. E. In Denikin's Russia and Caucasus, 1919- 1920. London. 1921. p. 14. Quoted from Lakoba S., opus cit., p. 44.

(4) Lakoba S., opus cit., p. 61.

(5) Quoted from Lakoba S., ibid.

(6) ) Lakoba S., opus cit., p. 62.

(7) Denikin-Yudenich-Wrangel. P. 96-97. Quoted from Lakoba S., opus cit., p. 66.

(8) Trotsky L.D., Opus cit. Quoted from Lakoba S., ibid.

(9) Pravda, May 23, 1918.

(10) Coppieters B., The West's Security Policy and the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict // Looking for Alternatives for Georgia and Abkhazia. Moscow, 1999. pp. 19-20.

(11) Paye O., Remacle E., UN and CSCE Policies in Transcaucasia in: Bruno Coppieters (ed.). Contested Borders in the Caucasus. P.116. Quoted from Lakoba S., Abkhazia - De Facto or Georgia De Jure? Supporo, Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, 2001. p. 19.

(12) Svobodnaya Gruziya, December 1, 1992.

(13) Ibid. March 16, 2002.

14 Ibid.

(15) Die Tageszeitung, February 28, 2002.

(16) Coppieters B., Opus cit., p. 71.

(17) See: Coppieters B., Opus cit., pp. 25-26; Garnett Sherman, Russia's Illusory Ambitions // Foreign Affairs. Vol.76, ?2. March/April 1997. P. 61-76; Ekedahl, Cardyn McGiffert and Goodman Melvin A., The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze, London: Hurst&Company, 1997. P. 277.

(18) Cohen A., Conflicts in Caucasus Threaten US Interests // Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 28, 1998.

(19) Ware R., Why American troops are needed in Georgia? // The Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2002.

20 Tread Carefully in the Caucasus // NYT, March 4, 2002.




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