Audi alteram partem

Abkhazia is Abkhazia, by Stanislav Lakoba

A Georgian armored vehicle drives down a road. July, 1993. Sukhum, Abkhazia

A Georgian armored vehicle drives down a road. July, 1993. Sukhum, Abkhazia

Stanislav Lakoba 
Minister of Security in Abkhazia, former speaker of Abkhazian Parliament
A Report At A London Conference On North Caucasus and Abkhazia 23th April, 1993

Central Asian Survey, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 97–105, 1995

I had a different beginning for my report, but here in London I was reminded of an Abkhazian saying: «A raven saw a man with a gun and thought ‘If he is wise, he won’t shoot at me, and if he is a fool, he will miss me’.»

We are fully aware that we are hostages in a cruel political game, and the current re-division of the world is slicing our very flesh. We are simple victims of the policy of ‘Divide and Rule’, of ‘stick and, sometimes, carrot’.

«What is the situation of Abkhazia today? What is your status? Have you defined it?» - these are the questions constantly put to us by shrewd politicians. The only precise answer we can give is that we are in a state of war that has quite simply been forced upon us.

Abkhazia today resembles the surrealistic paintings of Dali: pictures of a 100 year-old husband and wife being shot at point-blank range, of Georgian SU-25 fighters of Russian make dropping cluster-bombs on a funeral procession in Kutol, of a brother being killed while following his brother’s coffin so that two coffins have to be interred while fighter-planes are still overhead, of helicopters firing at the beaches in Sukhum on a summer’s day, of tanks destroying villages, of soldiers killing little girls, burning families, slaying the wounded and cutting prisoners of war to pieces...

When people today describe the status of Abkhazia, they use such phrases as: ‘between heaven and earth’, ‘between East and West’, ‘between the hammer and the anvil’, ‘between...’ - this borderline-situation correctly describes our position.

We are lost somewhere between life and death - to be or not to be, because defeat in this war is tantamount to the annihilation of a whole nation. We have proved to be a very ‘inconvenient’ people, but despite our small numbers it is not so easy to do away with us right away. Perhaps this too is our fault!

Georgian and some Russian politicians do not try to conceal their annoyance at ‘unruly’ Abkhazians, who as far back as in the 19th century were officially declared ‘a guilty nation’ for their repeated uprisings in defence of their freedom and honour. Today we are impeding friendly relations between Georgia and Russia, for, let us say, ‘sticking in the throat’. In other words, we are guilty because we are still existing. Our mountains and rivers, lakes and sea, forests and springs were divided long ago. However, we stubbornly repeat: «We are Abkhazians.»

Is it really true that being part of the world-community we Abkhazians, numbering about 100,000 in Abkhazia itself, are doing harm to this community. Is it possible that if mankind, having already lost in the 19th century our brothers the Ubykhs, is now to lose us Abkhazians at the close of the 20th century, it will become somehow richer in the 3rd millennium A.D.?!

The fact is that people are being exterminated and the world is keeping silent... Well, almost - for such news-agencies as Reuters, AP, the BBC, whenever they refer to us, our standard epithets are ‘separatists’ and ‘rebels’... How is it that we are separatists when we are actually not separating from anybody or attacking anybody? Are there any resolutions of the Abkhazian Parliament adopted before August 14 1992 (or even several months afterwards) which have declared secession from Georgia? There is not one! In fact, it was the Abkhazian side that suggested building our relations with Georgia on an agreed, federative basis. Therefore, it was the Abkhazian side which came out with proposals that would preserve the unity of Georgia. The response was the despatch to Abkhazia of tanks, fighter-bombers and guardsmen armed to the teeth...

We are being forced into a separatist-position by the actual separatists reigning in Tbilisi who are busy destroying their own country. They have cast their country, the unity of which was supported by the bayonets of the Stalinist Soviet Empire, back to the feudal division of the Middle Ages. The so-called separatists from Adjaria, Mingrelia, Kakhetia (not to mention Abkhazia and Ossetia) are taking up an all-round defensive position against the central power in Tbilisi. The question is: «Why are there so many ‘separatists’ in Georgia?» Russia appealed to her former autonomies to conclude a federative treaty. Russia raised the status of autonomies and many regions, including those in the North Caucasus, to the level of republics. No obstacles were put in the way of the elections of presidents in these republics or of the adoption of their national flags and other state-symbols.

In our case the situation was quite the reverse. We were putting forward proposals, trying to build bridges, but we were rejected and told: «Who are you? You should not even have autonomy, being so few!» This was and remains the only argument against us. So, we ‘separatists’, having been driven into a corner, have started to resist simply in order to survive, to save our women, children and old people. Try driving even a little creature into a corner - will that too be a separatist? We have a proverb: «He who fell from the tree was bitten by a snake».

In his speeches on Georgian radio on 7-8 December 1992 the leader of Georgia openly called for the possible annihilation of the Abkhazians. He said: «The fate of Georgia, her way to freedom and independence, is being decided in Abkhazia today. That is why I have called on every citizen of Georgia to make his contribution to this fight for freedom and independence. I repeat - I have taken this decision against my will and my own beliefs. I know this is not right, but there is no other way.» Then he said: «This war should not be a long one. The world believes us, and we should not let it down. We are for peace, and we must end this war as soon as possible. By the 3rd millennium Georgia will be the happiest country in the world.» Freedom and independence for their own people and dictatorship and open chauvinism towards other peoples - this is the double standard that underlies the Georgian policy in Abkhazia.

It is not by chance that in 1989 after the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict Academician Sakharov in one of his last articles called Georgia a ‘mini-empire’ (Ogonёk 1989, 31). Later, describing the relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia, he wrote: «I tend to justify the Abkhazian position. I think we should regard with special attention the problems of small peoples: freedom and rights of big nations should not be exercised at the expense of small ones» (Znamja, 1991, No.10, p.69).

The question of territorial integrity that has been so often raised lately is actually associated not with Georgia proper but with the former minor Soviet Empire, i.e. with the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, into which on February 19, 1931, the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia (1921-1931) was included as an autonomy under Stalin’s dictat. As for the so-called Abkhazian ‘separatists’, they respect the territorial integrity of Georgia in her original ethnic borders, while the territory from the river Ingur upto the river Psou is considered to belong to the Republic of Abkhazia after the break-up of the USSR and the liquidation fo the Georgian SSR.

The violation of the sovereign rights of Abkhazia was painful for the ethnic identity, of which Abkhazians are very conscious. the reduction of the status of Abkhazia to that of an autonomous republic within Georgia (the Abkhazian ASSR) caused within a week a national meeting of Abkhazians that lasted for many days (18- 26 February 1931). The meeting expressed its distrust of the government. That was the first mass-protest of the Abkhazian people in defence of their statehood and their rights during Soviet rule. Abkhazians seem to be the only people who in the worst times of totalitarianism repeatedly came out against the policy of Stalin-Beria and their successors. Mass-protests and demonstrations took place in 1957, 1967, 1978, 1989.

In the 20th century the leading circles in Georgia made several attempts to annex Abkhazia. First, in June 1918-March 1921, when the Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia and occupied part of its territory. This is one of the darkest periods in Abkhaz-Georgian relations within the living memory of many Abkhazians. The imperial nature of the Georgian Democratic Republic of that period was noted by Bechhofer. In his book In Denikin’s Russia, which was published in Britain in 1920, he writes: «I shall always recall the free and independent social-democratic state of Georgia as a classic example of an imperialistic small nation as regards the annexation of territories beyond its borders and the bureaucratic tyranny inside the country. Its chauvinism exceeds all limits.» The second attempt to annex Abkhazia was made in February 1931 and it was actually implemented after Nestor Lakoba, Prime Minister of Abkhazia, had died -- he was poisoned by Beria in Tbilisi in December 1936. This policy continued from 1937 to 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death).

The war unleashed on 14 August 1992 is the 3rd attempt to annex Abkhazia. On the very first day of aggression the Georgian military said to the Abkhazians whom they arrested: «This is the end of Abkhazia. All the remaining Abkhazians will do what the Georgians tell them.» This was documented by the Abkhazian Public Prosecutor’s office on 24 February 1993. Shevardnadze is accomplishing what Zhordania, Stalin and Beria began...

It is interesting to note that the current Georgian leadership itself did everything to tear Abkhazia away. Backed by the Russian armed forces, they organised a coup in Tbilisi. In February 1992 the Military Council of Georgia abrogated the Constitution of the Georgian SSR of 1978 and re-instated the Constitution of February 21, 1921, in which Abkhazia is not specifed as a subject of state-legal relations. Considering that the Constitution of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic of 1978 was adopted in conformity with the Constitution of the Georgian SSR of 1978, and the Constitution of the USSR of 1977, the abrogation of the latter deprived the Constitution of the Abkhazian ASSR of its legal basis. To overcome the legal vacuum in relations between the two republics, on July 23, 1992, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia resolved to re-instate the Constitution of Abkhazia of 1925. Abkhazia at that time was united with Georgia by a ‘special Union treaty’.

For years Georgia and Abkhazia had fixed territories and borders - for 300 years the river Ingur divided Abkhazia and Georgia. When speaking of the borders of Georgia or of any other republic of the former USSR it is not correct to regard the admission of these republics to the UN as an argument in favour of the international-legal recognition of their territories and borders, because by the time of the break-up of the USSR the territories and borders of national-state entities were of an administrative internal political nature , NOT international borders. They were established by the imperialist communist regime and merely divided administrative regions of the former USSR NOT sovereign republics. The very fact of Georgia\s admission to the UN deserves special attention. This international organisation was joined by a state in which the leaders had come to power as a result of a military coup. The conclusion suggests itself that it is Shevardnadze NOT Georgia who has been admitted to the UN!

The recognition of the borders of the former union-republics is done with no regard for international law or for the rights and interests of the peoples living in these territories who are denied any chance to express their free will, and even against their wishes through violence. Moreover, by the time the former USSR republics were admitted to the UN many had adopted Declarations on state-sovereignty. Their admission to the UN was carried out in violation of the Declaration on national and state-sovereignty of many peoples, the Abkhazians among them, whose statehood lasted for 12 centuries.

Regrettably, we have to say that the UN and certain circles in the West are actually attempting to preserve the Stalinist pattern of dividing peoples into ranks. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the former union-republics are recognised while the autonomous ones are not. Is this not a clear manifestation of double standards?

However that may be, blood is being shed in the former USSR. For 8 months already the Georgian troops that invaded the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia as a result of the ‘Dagomys Deal’ between the leaders of Russia and Georgia have been using against the civilian population bombers, tanks, artillery, Grad and Hurricane launchers, cluster -bombs banned by international conventions but handed over to the Tbilisi leadership by the Command of the Transcaucasian Military District with the consent of Moscow.

The people of Abkhazia are being subjected to physical genocide: on Georgian occupied territories ethnic cleansing is taking place. The aim is to georgianise Abkhazia and make it part of a Georgian unitary, mono-ethnic state. In the territories captured by the Georgian troops the Abkhazian, Armenian, Russian, and Greek population is being systematically persecuted, ousted or killed. Hundreds of them are being subjected to torture or humiliation. Since the beginning of the war about 1,000 people from the Abkhazian side have been killed (i.e. every hundredth person), and more than 3,000 have been wounded; almost half of the population of the republic have become refugees. The eastern part of Abkhazia, the blockaded town of Tqvarchal and the whole Ochamchiran region are in an extemely difficult situation today. Seven Abkhazian villages (Kəndəgh, Tamsh, Adzjəbzha, Merkula, Mokva, Beslakhuba, Kutol) have been burned down. The villagers are cut off from the outside-world and are experiencing shortages of food. However, they are desperately resisting the far greater numbers of the enemy-forces. Today you will not find Abkhazians in Ochamchira; they have been either expelled or killed. The Tbilisi authorities did their utmost to transform the political conflict into an ethno-political one. Having sent in their troops, they gradually got the local Georgians (so-called, for they are largely Mingrelians) involved in this war. One cannot help recalling the statement made by the Georgian general Qarqarashvili, whom Shevardnadze called ‘a true knight’. He said that he was ready to sacrifice 100,000 Georgians in order to annihilate the 97,000 Abkhazian population (women, children and old people, of course, included).

The purposeful destruction of the historical and cultural centres and monuments of the Abkhazian people resulted in the burning down of the Archives, Institutes, Libraries and Theatres. The Museum and Art Gallery have been plundered. The University and Institutions carrying Abkhazian names were put in the hands of looters. Invaluable manuscripts, historic documentation, folklore and linguistic records perished in the flames. Every possible thing is being done to deprive the Abkhazian people of their history. Meanwhile, the Georgian mass-media succeeded in circulating in the West the myth of an Abkhazian Islamic fundamentalism that allegedly threatens the world! Anyone who studies the Caucasus knows very well that the Abkhazians are tolerant towards all religions. They officially adopted Christianity in the VIth century - it had been spreading along the Black Sea coast even earlier. As for Islam, it started to penetrate into this region only in the XVI-XVIIth centuries; however it was not widely adopted. In the XIXth century there were several wooden mosques in Abkhazia. Today there are NONE. At the same time there are mosques in Moscow, St. Petersburg and in the centre of Tbilisi. Some Georgians seem to have forgotten that Georgia has been connected with the islamic world and culture since the VIIIth century: from the VIIIth to the XIth century an Arab Emir of the Tbilisi Emirate ruled in Georgia’s capital, and the Georgian king, David the Builder, had inscriptions on coins in Arabic. They also seem to have failed to notice the fact that Georgian muslims outnumber the entire Abkhazian population!

When the plans for a Blitz-krieg were frustrated and the Georgian leadership failed to suppress Abkhazia, Shevardnadze started to send out appeals to the UN, CSCE and other international organisations complaining about Abkhazians (i.e. about those who were the subject of aggression)! As it appeared, we had no right even to defend ourselves. Some journalists and analysts called it ‘sheer madness’, cynically labelling our resistance as self-genocide. Thus, in a recent interview for Nezavisimaja Gazeta , where the Georgian lobby is strongly represented, Deputy of the Georgian Parliament, Ada Marshania, said: «Of course, it was a crime to bring in the troops to Abkhazia under this or that pretext. On the other hand, it was sheer madness to counter the attack. In any case, the Georgian side should have shown more generosity and circumspection and thought over every step.» She added: «I believe the State Council did not know what it was doing and did not think about all the consequences. The majority of the members of the State Council were not informed about the real situation. There was a double game here. It was a criminal mistake and a political one» (Nez. Gaz., 1993, 10 April).

The Parliament of Abkhazia and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, V. Ardzinba, sent 12 appeals to the UN hoping that they would be heard. As it appeared, our appeals for help further aggravated our extremely difficult situation. Several missions of the UN and CSCE that visited Abkhazia at the invitation of Tbilisi took a pro-Georgian position, giving priority to the principle of the so-called territorial integrity of the former Georgian SSR over that of human rights and the right of people to self-determination.

As is well known, Georgia insisted on the problems of Georgia and Abkhazia being discussed in the Security Council. Ardzinba sent an open letter to the Secretary General of the UN, in which he expressed his readiness to present the Abkhazian point of view at a Security Council meeting. According to Article 32 of Chapter Five of the UN Charter, a representative of the Republic of Abkhazia has the right to take part in such discussions. To our regret, this constructive proposal on the part of the Abkhazians remains unanswered to the present day.

We are conscious of the fact that the war with Georgia, which has a population that exceeds the number of Abkhazians 40-fold, is disastrous for us. But we have simply no choice. A possible way out of the situation is the withdrawal of all Georgian troops from Abkhazia, and only after that the introduction of peacekeeping forces. There will be no winners in this war. Sartre once said: «When you learn about the details of a victory, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the victory and the defeat!.» At this point it is possible to consider several ways to achieve a peaceful to this military conflict:

1. If before the armed aggression of Georgia against Abkhazia on 14 August 1992 the Abkhazian people and the Parliament of Abkhazia expressed their desire to have federative relations with Georgia, and this desire was voiced in the draft-treaty published on the initiative of the Abkhazian side before the war, then today, after the atrocities and the bloodshed, we can only talk about confederative ties with Georgia at best. There are, however, very few supporters of this idea on either side.

2. Very popular among the multi-ethnic inhabitants of our Republic and among many deputies is the idea of Abkhazia as a neutral state, a kind of ‘Caucasian Switzerland’. We are a country situated at the juncture of East and West with a good communication-system: sea-ports, railway-lines, airports, and highways (including those via the mountains to the North Caucasus).

Abkhazia can also become a gateway to the Middle East. Such a state would be in the interests of Russia, the West and Turkey. As long ago as 1919 the English Military Command and General Denikin demanded the immediate declaration of Abkhazia as a neutral state and the withdrawal of Georgian troops beyond the river Ingur.

3. Abkhazia sees her future in such a community as the Caucasian Confederation, the predecessor of which is the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus, an influential and authoritative organisation that was established in August 1989 in Sukhum. It unites today 16 ethnic groups living in the area from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

Not long ago on 5 April 1993 the participants of the advisory conference in Pitsunda signed a document under the title: «Agreement on concluding a treaty on friendship and coo peration between the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus and the Cossacks of the South of Russia». This document provides for ‘the creation of guarantees of collective security in case there is danger of the use of force against the CPC and the Cossacks’. On 1 May 1993 a Congress of Peoples of the South of Russia, North Caucasus and Abkhazia is to ratify the above-agreement.

The people of Abkhazia will never forget the first days of the war when Abkhazia was completely isolated from the outside-world and only volunteers from the Confederation came through the mountains to help us. Thanks to them, we could stand up to the enemy in this unequal war. Today the situation in Abkhazia is different. It was only after the whole North Caucasus rose in support of Abkhazia that Russia changed her attitude towards Abkhazians. At the beginning of the war Shevardnadze doubted that the Confederation would assist us. He called the Confederation ‘a paper-tiger’ and was proved wrong.

Musa Shanibov, President of the Confederation, in his speech on 14 February 1993 said: «The peoples of the Caucasus and other small peoples of the former Soviet Union see their own destiny in the fate of Abkhazia. The fight of Caucasian peoples for the freedom of Abkhazia is actually the struggle for their own freedom. That is why the best representatives of the Caucasus are in Abkhazia today.»

For many centuries Abkhazia had formed a single whole with the North Caucasian world in linguistic, ethnic, cultural, political and economic respects. This to a great extent concerns the ties between Abkhazians and the peoples who are closely related to them, the Adyghes, Kabardians, Cherkess, Ubykhs and Abazinians. Abkhazian people also have long traditional ties with the south of Russia, specifically the Cossacks who, with their original culture are close both to Russia and to the Caucasus. In 1917 Abkhazia was a full member of ‘The Union of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus’ and of ‘The South East Union of Cossacks, Mountain Peoples and the Free Peoples of the Steppes’.

At that time the striving of the Abkhazians for self-determination was realised in their joining the Mountain Republic, which was declared on 11 May 1918. Alongside Abkhazia, Daghestan, Chechnia, Kabardia, Adygheia, Ossetia and other regions became member-states of the Republic. Lord Curzon showed great interest at that time towards the Mountain Republic. In half a month the Peoples of the Caucasus will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Mountain Republic as an important event in our history and political life.

It is quite obvious today that it was the Mountain Republic of 1918-1919 that served as basis of the modern Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus. The prestige and influence of the latter is increasing every day.

Meanwhile, the war in Abkhazia becomes more violent. The Georgian soldiers are killing civilians. Russia at the same time is negotiating an agreement with Georgia. Under various pretexts, including incidents when Russian military bases in Georgia come under armed attacks, weapons, ammunition and military equipment are still being handed over to Georgia. The question of the RussianGeorgian border is also being considered.

Thus, in February 1993, Shevardnadze publicly stated that one of the aims for concluding a treaty with Russia was to have from her as many armaments as possible. And Kitovani, Minister of Defence, complained: «We are ready to become an outpost for Russia in the Caucasus.» To become one, Georgia has to be a strong state. At the same time Russia did not transfer even the 10% of military technology due to us. The North Caucasus, people of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Mingrelia and the so far peaceful Adjaria feel concerned about such action and statements.

In violation of the Resolutions of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation of 25 September and 25 December 1992 the military equipment is regularly being handed over to Georgia. At the end of March Major-General Boris Dyakov, assistant-commander of the Transcaucasian Military Forces, gave out the information that «one division has gone over to the Georgian armed forces and by the end of the year 34 military camps are supposed to be given to the Georgian side» (Nez. Gaz., 1993, 25 March).

The impression that Georgia wants to withdraw the Russian troops from its territory seems to be incorrect. On the contrary, the leading circles of Georgia are afraid of losing their support. As Shevardnadze stated at the end of last year, the Georgian borders would be unprotected if the Russian troops left Georgia. This was confirmed by Deputy Ada Marshania, who pointed out that the Russian troops should be withdrawn from Abkhazia, but not from the rest of Georgia, that actually has no army of her own to protect her borders.

The question of withdrawing the Russian troops from Abkhazia was raised in the talks in Sochi. We can only guess what was being said behind closed doors! The Abkhazian representative was not admitted, even as an observer. This is another attempt to decide our future behind our backs.

At the present time Georgia is the main destabilising factor for the political situation in the North Caucasus and southern Russia. That is why some of the statements of the analytical review of 22nd January 1993 made by the president‘s information-service , seem strange . It says: «To hold power Shevardnadze needs more serious support on the part of Russia. Not only economic and spiritual ties connect Russia and Georgia. Geopolitical and military realities push them towards each other.»

It is obvious that certain circles in Russia would not like to realise that de facto Georgia has already disintegrated. And the longer Moscow is going to cling to Tbilisi the more rapidly will it be losing its position in the North Caucasus.

As for our own position, we could note the following - today some people say that Abkhazia is Russia, others that it is Georgia, while the fact is that Abkhazia is Abkhazia. And at the end of the century we want to preserve our own identity, our own face for the simple reason that it is ours, even if somebody else may not find it appealing.




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