Audi alteram partem

JRL - The Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict: Past, Present, Future

JRL (Johnson's Russia List) RESEARCH & ANALYTICAL SUPPLEMENT ~ JRL 8226 Issue No. 24 • May 2004

Editor: Stephen D. Shenfield

Introducing the issue 
Historical synopsis


1. The Rose Revolution and the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict: Light at the End of the Tunnel?
    By Rachel Clogg, Conciliation Resources (London) 
2. Press Release from Conciliation Resources 
3. Russia's policy toward Abkhazia By Irina Isakova, independent analyst (London)


4. How Far Back Does the Conflict Go? 
5. Lorik Marshania: On the Other Side 
6. The Peace Train


This issue is devoted to one of the bitterest ethnopolitical conflicts in the former USSR, that between Georgia and the Abkhaz separatist movement. Since the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93 a stalemate has prevailed. No progress toward a political settlement has been detectable.

What brings the issue again to the fore at this point in time is a change in leadership on both sides. Last November the "Rose Revolution" swept Shevardnadze out of power in Tbilisi and in January President Mikheil Saakashvili was inaugurated. Within a few months Abkhazia too will have a new president. The arrival of new leaders naturally inspires hope that a real peace process may finally get underway. Rachel Clogg of the British conflict mediation NGO Conciliation Resources (CR) analyzes what grounds there may be for such hope. I am also including a press release from CR about the latest in the series of unofficial Georgian-Abkhaz dialogues that they have organized.

We cannot of course ignore Russia's continuing role in Georgian as well as Abkhazian affairs. Independent analyst Irina Isakova discusses the approach that the Russian government is taking toward a settlement of the conflict.

In designing this issue I faced a dilemma. The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, like many others, cannot be understood without knowledge of its historical roots. A logical approach would therefore have been to devote the first part of the issue to historical pieces and the second to current prospects. But I realized that current prospects are the primary concern for many people and that should go first. So the first part is on current prospects while the historical pieces (prepared by me) are in the second part. However, I did decide to open the issue with a highly condensed synopsis of the historical background. This will help orient those readers who are not already familiar with that background.

One small point of explanation. The name of the capital city of Abkhazia is Sukhumi in Georgian and Sukhum in Abkhaz. The choice of one form rather than the other marks you as a sympathizer of the corresponding side. As a compromise I add the final i but place it in brackets: Sukhum(i).

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The first united Georgian state was created in the year 978: the Kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians. It disintegrated when the Mongols conquered the region about the year 1150.

For several centuries Georgia was divided among a dozen or so warring local principalities, including Abkhazia and neighboring Mingrelia.

Eastern Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1800. Abkhazia was annexed in 1810 with the help of Mingrelian troops and a puppet prince installed.

Armed Abkhaz resistance to Russian rule was finally crushed at the time of the Russo-Turkish war of 1878. Mass deportations of Abkhaz to Turkey followed, leaving almost half of Abkhazia uninhabited. The empty lands were resettled by Russians, Armenians, and Greeks from other parts of the empire and by land-hungry peasants from Mingrelia.

In 1918, after the Russian revolution, Georgia acquired independence. In 1921 it was occupied by the Red Army and forcibly incorporated into the USSR.

During the early years of Soviet rule, Abkhazia and Georgia were separate and equal union republics. In 1931 Abkhazia was forced to join Georgia, but it retained some autonomy until 1936, when Abkhaz leader Lakoba was poisoned by Georgian party boss Beria.

From 1937 until Stalin's death in 1953 Abkhazia was subjected to forced Georgianization. More Georgians were settled in Abkhazia and Abkhaz children were punished for speaking their native language.

In the post-Stalin period Abkhaz rights were partly restored. Relations between Georgians and Abkhaz remained tense at all levels of society. There were waves of popular Abkhaz protest in 1957, 1965, 1967, and 1978.

The 1978 protests led to substantial concessions by Georgian party leader Shevardnadze. More Abkhaz were appointed to leading positions, television broadcasts in Abkhaz began, and an Abkhaz State University was established. This in turn led to counter-protests by Georgians.

Perestroika created conditions for the rapid growth of both Georgian and Abkhaz nationalist movements. The Popular Forum of Abkhazia was formed in December 1988 under the leadership of Ardzinba and became the main vehicle of Abkhaz separatism. In the late 1980s frequent rival mass meetings and demonstrations raised tensions higher and higher.

The first violent clashes between Georgians and Abkhaz occurred in Gagra (northern Abkhazia) in March 1989. The first large-scale clashes followed in July in Sukhum(i), sparked by a dispute over the reorganization of the Abkhaz State University. As Georgian nationalist militias entered Abkhazia, an emerging anti-Abkhaz pogrom was halted by the intervention of Soviet interior ministry troops from Russia.

The Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia (SSA) adopted a declaration of state sovereignty. Pro-Georgian deputies left for Tbilisi, where they constituted a rival SSA in exile.

Between August 1991 and March 1992, as the Soviet Union unraveled, the SSA asserted control over economic, security, and other government institutions in Abkhazia. However, the Abkhaz leadership reached a deal with Georgian president Gamsakhurdia. In late 1991 new elections to the SSA were held on the basis of ethnic quotas.

In December 1991 Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in an intra-Georgian civil war. The new military junta in Tbilisi invited Shevardnadze to return to head the State Council. He did so in March 1992.

The scene was now set for war. Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia from sea and land on August 14, 1992. Sukhum(i) was occupied and the separatist leadership retreated to Gudauta.

With aid from Chechen and other sympathizers from the North Caucasus as well as the Russian military, the Abkhaz separatists eventually gained the upper hand. They expelled the last Georgian forces from Abkhazia in September 1993. Virtually the entire Georgian population of Abkhazia fled with them and became refugees.

A peacekeeping force of Russian troops (formally under CIS control) was deployed in a border zone along the River Inguri. UN observers were sent to monitor their activity.

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Rachel Clogg 
Associate Manager, Caucasus Programme 
Conciliation Resources (
173 Upper St, London N1 1RG 
Tel. +44 207 359 7728 ext 225

Over ten years have passed since the signing of a ceasefire that marked an end to large-scale hostilities in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Yet a lasting peace settlement remains a distant prospect, and ongoing conflict continues profoundly to affect political and economic development in the region. Large numbers of people, many of whom are displaced, continue to live a precarious existence. Positions remain intransigent, insecurity and lack of trust continue to underpin attitudes, and belligerent rhetoric reinforces a conflict dynamic that leaves little room for engagement with the other side, let alone compromise.

In spite of this, it is unhelpful to talk of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict as Œfrozen¹. The fragile status quo has been subject to constant fluctuations in tension, including major outbreaks of violence in 1998 and 2001 that threatened to trigger a resumption of hostilities. And, particularly over the last year, the region has witnessed dramatic political fluidity has inevitable implications for the peace process. While there has been slow progress in the official negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, a new dynamism has been evident on the part of the international community recently. As yet, there has been little to suggest readiness on the part of the political leaderships in Georgia and Abkhazia, for different reasons, to engage anew with the basic issues that underlie the conflict or and take the risks necessary to create fresh possibilities in the peace process. To what extent do recent political changes in the region now allow for this?

Georgia -­ how rosy the aftermath?

In November 2003, though few would have predicted it, President Shevardnadze exited the political stage in Georgia amid scenes of widespread public support for change. If the public were largely mobilized around disillusionment in Shevardnadze¹s leadership, his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili, was quick to make capital from this. The figurehead of the so-called Rose Revolution, he was elected as Georgia¹s third post-independence president in January 2004 with a resounding majority from a high turnout. The wave of optimism and sense of popular empowerment following the November events has carried over into an endorsement of his agenda for change.

These are early days to judge whether Saakashvili will live up to the expectations of his fellow citizens, and indeed of many in the international community. Without doubt he has a serious reform agenda, and he has been proactive in setting out to prove that Georgia is serious about democratization and reviving the economy and public service provision. Yet the new president and his National Movement were ill-prepared for such a sudden rise to power. There are few signs of a comprehensive strategy on the part of the new government, which is predominantly young and inexperienced. And crucially, the myriad problems that led to such widespread dissatisfaction with Shevardnadze remain.

The first major test to Saakashvili¹s leadership has been the situation in Ajara. This predominantly Muslim region on the southeast Black Sea coast was for years semi-independent of Tbilisi under its charismatic autocrat Aslan Abashidze. In an attempt to assert his authority, Saakashvili confronted Abashidze head on, challenging his control over the electoral process in Ajara. Saakashvili stated in no uncertain terms that Œin case of a threat to Georgia¹s territorial integrity, we will use force without hesitation.¹ He appealed to parliament for authorization to disarm Œillegal armed groups,¹ leading to speculation about possible military intervention. In the event, Abashidze relinquished his control and left for Russia, and serious violence was averted.

The stand-off is illustrative of Saakashvili¹s leadership style. He projects the image of a strong leader backed by a loyal army and with Georgian unity at the heart of his political agenda. This image is certainly in keeping with the steps that Saakashvili has taken to shore up presidential power since his election. With surprisingly little consultation he has introduced constitutional changes that ensure the president a disproportionate degree of power and greatly diminish parliament¹s role. He has also postponed local elections until 2005 and preserved a system whereby heads of local government are appointed by the president, arguing the need for a temporary consolidation of central control. The results of the March parliamentary elections, in which the National Movement won the majority of seats, fuel fears that democratic institutions are growing weaker under Saakashvili. His approach to the corruption issue has also been telling. While decisive and bold in tackling this much-needed reform, Saakashvili has been willing to turn a blind eye to the rule of law: a number of prominent officials have been arrested in the glare of media publicity and with little regard for due process.

An emotive and populist politician, who tends to be swayed by what his audience would like to hear, Saakashvili has been liberal with his promises. As the dust settles following the euphoria of last November, many are now beginning to ask whether he can deliver. Hardly surprisingly, cracks are appearing between Saakashvili and his prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, and the parliamentary election turnout may indicate that public support is beginning to wane. Certainly, the new president faces an uphill struggle in addressing the challenges of governing Georgia, and the next six months will be crucial in determining the direction his leadership will take.

Abkhazia ­- end of an era

The government of Abkhazia has been keeping a watchful eye on the developments in Tbilisi and sizing up the new president. Shevardnadze¹s departure and the avoidance of major instability and violence in Tbilisi were greeted with relief but also wariness. Shevardnadze was a known quantity; Saakashvili is far from predictable.

Adding to this sense of nervousness is the anticipation of significant internal political change in Abkhazia, which though unrecognized by the international community has now enjoyed de facto independence for ten years. This autumn, presidential elections will mark the end of Vladislav Ardzinba¹s term in office and the first change in the Abkhaz leadership since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a region in which personalities continue to dominate politics, the succession will be key in determining Abkhazia¹s future direction.

In anticipation of the election, political debate has grown increasingly vibrant over the last year. A change of government in 2003 brought a number of younger politicians to the fore. Yet tensions within the executive, exacerbated by the president¹s chronic ill-health, have led to a degree of paralysis in the system of governance. Demands that Ardzinba step down were largely articulated by Amtsakhara, one of the larger political movements. These have now abated, and it is likely he will serve out his term.

Tensions between the executive and legislative branches of power have also become more evident as parliament seeks to assert its power. In February this year a law was finally passed on a mechanism for amending the constitution. This had essentially been vetoed by the president for some time ­- and may have a significant impact on the forthcoming election campaign. One element of the presidential election law currently being debated involves a clause in the constitution requiring any candidate to have been resident in Abkhazia for five years preceding the election. If the restriction is removed, this would open the way for candidates from among the Moscow diaspora and would widen the race. Also controversial has been debate on a draft language law. As in Georgia, there are tensions between promoting an ethno-national agenda (particularly in the face of the perceived threat to Abkhaz language and identity) and democratic reform. Since a significant proportion of the population is non-Abkhaz speaking (including many of the large Armenian community in Abkhazia), talk of introducing wider use of the language has prompted fierce debate.

Candidates for president will be formally announced when the election date is set later this month. Eight to ten individuals are currently in the running, though the number may decrease with the emergence of a new political movement, United Abkhazia, that brings together several potential candidates with the aim of fielding only one of them. Others that may put forward candidates include Aitaira, the first explicitly oppositional movement with a liberal-democratic reform agenda; Akhiatsa, a broadly centrist movement; and Amtsakhara, a movement that initially grew out of a concern for the social rights of ex-combatants.

The intense political debates of recent years have been taking place against the backdrop of ever closer relations with Russia. In spite of the fact that many feel uncomfortable doing so, significant numbers of the current population of Abkhazia have taken Russian passports in order to be able to travel to Russia and beyond. Increasingly, in spite of official Russian support for the CIS trade restrictions, Abkhazia has been drawn further into Russia¹s economic orbit. Abkhazia's infrastructure is weak, the majority of the population have no sources of income, and Russian investment has been welcomed. There are politicians and public figures who argue that perpetual isolation is dangerous for Abkhazia and that it is necessary to build a state worthy of the respect of the international community. Yet because of its unrecognized status Abkhazia has few ties apart from its link with Russia. The CIS peacekeeping force that patrols the ceasefire zone is made up entirely of Russian Federation soldiers. To many (though by no means all) in Abkhazia, Russia is perceived as the one source of military and economic security to which they can appeal. Recently there have again been calls for associative status with Russia in order to institutionalize the link.

This only fuels Georgia¹s fears that Abkhazia is drifting further from its sphere of influence and suspicions that the Abkhaz are necessary to Russia as a means of leverage on Georgia. Saakashvili has shown himself willing to try to engage in a more constructive relationship with Russia, which will in the long run be important for Georgia. Yet Russia is unlikely to relinquish its influence over Abkhazia in the near future. Russia will hardly recognize Abkhazia's independence (nor would any other internationally recognized state unless Georgia took the lead). Neither, however, is Russia likely to strike a deal with Georgia that would lead to a renewal of bloodshed and instability in Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, most people on both sides of the conflict are weary of the ongoing instability, economic hardship, and restricted opportunities of the last decade. The status quo plays into the hands of the various criminal groups that have a vested interest in its preservation. And there is a sense among many Abkhaz that their aspirations are met better by the current situation than by any alternatives they could envisage. But time is on the side of neither Georgia nor Abkhazia. If widespread emigration, infrastructural demise, and social disintegration continue neither will be able to shape the sort of communities and societies they ultimately want to create.

Whither the peace process?

Saakashvili has been preoccupied since coming to power with pursuing a number of key issues put on the agenda by the election, state finances and the struggle against corruption among them. He has made relatively little explicit reference to the conflict with Abkhazia, and it certainly has not been high on the agenda thus far. Saakashvili would be wise to keep it that way until the autumn. The issue of Abkhazia¹s relationship with Georgia is extremely sensitive, and few Abkhaz politicians will be willing to engage with it in the run-up to the presidential election.

Thus far, what little has been said in public is not indicative of a change in attitude in Tbilisi. For years the Georgian approach has been one of isolating Abkhazia, using trade restrictions and economic pressure and threatening rhetoric and occasionally behavior to attempt to force the Abkhaz into compliance. The situation in Ajara is hardly comparable with that in Abkhazia, but examples of heavy-handed and coercive behavior and Saakashvili¹s emphasis on Georgia¹s national unity and the restoration of its territorial integrity deliver an implicit message. At times this has been made more explicit. For instance, at a ceremony to posthumously honor Zhiuli Shartava, the Georgian civilian head of the government in Sukhum(i) at the end of the war, Saakashvili spoke of the likelihood of blood being spilt to re-establish Georgia¹s territorial integrity. A politician fond of symbolism, elements of Saakashvili¹s behavior can certainly be read as provocative. Thus at a recent meeting in western Georgia with Georgian refugees from Abkhazia he handed one of them his wristwatch and proclaimed that by the time the watch battery ran down in two years they would be back home.

So the Abkhaz see little in Georgian behavior that would encourage closer relations. If anything, Abkhaz mistrust of the Georgian leadership is greater now than it was under Shevardnadze. Georgia is seen to have significant US backing in the form of $64 million in grants and the ongoing Train and Equip program that provides military hardware and training. While this is not intended for use against Abkhazia, Abkhaz fears of renewed aggression or precipitous action are tangible.

However, it is too early to discount the possibility that the Georgian government may find a way to break out of the vicious circle. Some challenging commentators on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict have been elected into the new Georgian parliament, and some figures in the new administration have a more open view on Abkhazia than was the case under Shevardnadze. The replacement of Tamaz Nadareishvili as leader of the government in exile of the Georgian refugees from Abkhazia and debate about refugee representation in the Georgian parliament are also perhaps signs of positive change. From now on all of Tbilisi¹s efforts in regard to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict will be coordinated in one ministry under Giorgi Khaindrava, State Minister for Conflict Resolution, and the indications are that the new government is working on its strategy. There are also perhaps some grounds for hope in Saakashvili¹s inconsistency. Very recently, in the midst of speculation over violence in Ajara, Saakashvili reiterated hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The first real test of the new government¹s approach to Abkhazia will be in response to the election. It remains to be seen whether Saakashvili will capitalize on the high degree of public support he enjoys to engage his fellow citizens in discussion of possible concessions and encourage them to re-think Georgia's approach to the conflict. With Abkhazia's presidential race still wide open, it is hard to predict what Abkhazian policy will be this autumn. Certainly in the near future it is unlikely there will be any fundamental shift in Abkhazia's position with regard to Georgia, nor will Abkhaz aspirations change. Yet if the leadership in Sukhum(i) were to see evidence of consistent, trustworthy, and reliable behavior on the part of the Georgian authorities and a preparedness to exclude the use of force, that could be highly challenging to them. It would place the ball firmly back in Abkhazia's court.

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The thirteenth dialogue workshop in an ongoing series on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and peace process took place in Berlin from 7-11 May 2004, bringing together government officials, politicians and public figures from both sides of the conflict. These workshops provide a forum for participants to discuss and analyse opportunities and obstacles in the peace process in an environment that encourages creative thinking, realism and mutual respect. As an informal and non-official process no decisions are taken.

Political events in Georgia over the past six months, from the "Rose Revolution", through the election of President Mikheil Saakishvili to the departure from office of Aslan Abashidze formed an important part of discussions. Likewise the Georgian participants were eager to hear from the Abkhazian participants about recent developments in Abkhazia and in particular about the process for conducting the presidential election in Abkhazia that is expected to take place in October 2004, and its possible outcome. The participants recognised that the integrity of the democratic process in Abkhazia is of considerable importance, notwithstanding the fact that the election is not recognised by the international community or the Government of Georgia. All acknowledged that the new leaderships on both sides will have the opportunity to impact more on the negotiations process but that any new approach will need to be sensitive to what is publicly acceptable.

In discussing the current and prospective political situation it was evident that there are often misunderstandings between the parties. The participants were challenged to think about whether or not statements and actions by politicians and public figures are always perceived as intended by the other side.

Participants explored the commitment of the two sides to their stated positions ­ that of territorial integrity on the part of Georgia and that of recognition of independence on the part of the Abkhazians ­ and whether they can articulate their positions in a way that better incorporates the aspirations of the other party. Those taking part in the seminar examined options for the future and the importance of a framework for negotiations that satisfies the needs of the parties to the conflict.

In exploring these issues the participants were mindful of important recent international developments such as the conduct of the war in Iraq and the referendum on the territorial arrangement of Cyprus.

The workshop was characterized by a constructive exchange. It is hoped that this will contribute to a culture of dialogue and understanding between the respective communities.

The Abkhaz participants in the workshop were Arzadin Agrba, Laura Avidzba, Beslan Kubrava, Leonid Lakerbaia, Garik Samanba and Alkhas Tkhagushev. The Georgian participants were David Berdzenishvili, Giga Bokeria, Archil Chitava, Zurab Jguburia, Giorgii Khaindrava, Konstantin Kublashvili, and Paata Zakareishvili. Everyone took part in their individual capacity, not representing any organization or institution.

The workshop was organized by the Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management (Berlin) and Conciliation Resources (London), two international non-governmental organizations that have worked in the Caucasus for a number of years and with experience facilitating similar processes in other regions of the world. Facilitation was by Clem McCartney, Jonathan Cohen, Oliver Wolleh and Rachel Clogg.

The workshop was funded by the Swiss Federal Department for Foreign Affairs and the United Kingdom Global Conflict Prevention Pool.

Jonathan Cohen (Conciliation Resources) 13 May 2004

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Irina Isakova 
Independent analyst (London) 
<This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Russia's strategic interests in Abkhazia are focused on two sets of issues related to regional security and economic development. The economic issues are connected primarily though not exclusively with economic development plans for Russia's Southern Federal District.

Russia's overall approach

Since the very beginning, Russia has never changed its official position on the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict or its support for the territorial integrity of Georgia. Representatives of the Russian Federation at the highest level have constantly expressed their hope for a peaceful political settlement of this regional conflict. In several international forums Russia has promoted a policy of engagement with Abkhazia in the context of normalization of relations within the wider Caucasian region. Russia has always stressed that the problems of the North and South Caucasus need to be tackled jointly in order to reach long-term stability in the region. This was and is an essential difference between Russia's approach to this regional problem and that of its Western partners.

However, taking into consideration the role of external factors and players (neighboring states and international institutions) in the Georgian-Abkhaz settlement, Russian policy makers assert the importance of addressing the issues within an even wider regional context. For instance, General Andrei Nikolayev, who was formerly chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee and commander in chief of Border Troops, stated some time ago in his capacity as a parliamentarian that the situation in Abkhaz -Georgian relations should be viewed as part of developments within several overlapping regional security complexes, such as the Caucasus and Caspian regions and the regions around the Caspian and Black Sea basins, where demands for stability of energy and resource supplies, regional security, proper governance and antiterrorist cooperation came together.

Following the 'Rose Revolution' of November 2003, the presidential and parliamentary elections of early 2004, and the establishment of a new system of governance, tensions have recently started to rise once again in Georgia. This has drawn the attention of the international community to the importance of reaching a settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili came to power with the mission of reunifying Georgia. On many occasions he has confirmed his determination to bring Abkhazia under Tbilisi's control. Abkhazia proclaimed independence from Georgia in 1994 and has not participated in any recent Georgian elections or other political events.

The new tensions have reconfirmed Russia's approach to this regional conflict and its intention to comply with the solutions provided within the United Nations framework. On April 4-6, 2004 UN Secretary-General Koffi Annan visited Moscow, accompanied by special representative of the UN Secretary-General for a Georgian-Abkhaz settlement Heidi Tagliavini. They held intensive talks on the developments in the region.

The basics

As restated in March 2004, "it is in Russia's interest to have a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Georgia." On March 23, 2004 Alexander Yakovenko, official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, publicly stated that Russia was in favor of the territorial integrity of Georgia and that all issues at dispute should be settled by legal and peaceful means. However, one should bear in mind that Moscow, understanding the aspirations of the Abkhaz, does not exclude the possibility that the conflict might be resolved by setting up some kind of federal or confederal system of government in Georgia. At this stage such ideas are not shared by the new authorities in Tbilisi.

On January 30, 2004 the UN Security Council confirmed its decision to extend the UN mandate for the peacekeeping force in Abkhazia for six months up to July 31, 2004. The majority of peacekeeping units consist of Russian servicemen. The role and mission of Russian peacekeepers have been supported by the international community, for instance at recent meetings of the G-8. However, with the new Georgian government proclaiming an agenda of unification, by force if necessary, of the Georgian regions, there is a spreading perception in Georgia that reunification with Abkhazia might be easier if Ukrainian peacekeepers were to replace the Russian soldiers in the UN contingent. According to Vano Merabishvili, the newly appointed Georgian security chief, "it is a question of neutral peacekeeping forces that will not violate the obligations they have assumed, and a guarantee of the resolution of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian problems. Ukraine's participation could change a great deal both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia." The Russian official response was given by Yuri Balyevsky, first deputy chief of the General Staff, during talks with the then Georgian foreign minister Tedo Japaridze on his visit to Moscow in January 2004. Balyevsky pointed out that the Russian peacekeepers had demonstrated their impartiality more than once. He did not exclude the engagement of other CIS peacekeepers in the conflict area, but he emphasized that this would be expedient only if it was a matter of reinforcing or partly replacing the Russian peacekeepers, not of withdrawing them altogether. (1)

Russia and Georgia have confirmed their commitment to the so-called Sochi Accords of 2003, which stress the importance of resolving the conflict by political means only. They also undertook to maintain the three-sided format of the settlement talks that were initiated by Russia in March 2003. The Russian position was strengthen by the appeal of Abkhazian political parties and NGOs to the Russian parliament to return to the issue of establishing associated membership status for Abkhazia in the Russian Federation. The official letter was sent to State Duma speaker Boris Grizlov on February 9, 2004. Continued Georgia-Abkhaz negotiations within the UN framework also complemented other negotiations on the dispute. On February 10, the UN's Geneva office resumed consultations on a Georgian-Abkhaz settlement. Russia is taking a very active part in these talks.

A message of deterrence

Affirming its policy of not intervening in internal Georgian conflicts, Moscow has expressed the hope that a peaceful and legally acceptable resolution of the political crisis in Georgia will be found. As for Ajaria, Russia issued an indirect warning that forcible removal of its leadership was unacceptable. Russian president Vladimir Putin also publicly stated that there was no military solution to the conflict between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and that all conflicts in the region had to be resolved by political means.

The Russian forces deployed in Georgia -- the 12th military base in the Ajarian capital Batumi and the 62nd military base in nearby Akhalkalaki (2) -- did not take sides during the political stand-off between Tbilisi and Batumi during the period of the parliamentary elections of March 2004. This was so despite increasing concerns expressed by both Ajarian and Abkhazian leaders that Tbilisi might initiate their forcible removal just before or after the elections. On March 30, Vladislav Ardzinba, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, ordered the Abkhazian army and militia to prepare to rebuff an anticipated attack on Abkhazia. Tensions rose further on April 1 when President Saakashvili ordered his military units to stand ready to disarm any unauthorized military formations on the territory of Georgia (within the country's boundaries of 1991).

Earlier, Russian military experts had enumerated publicly a range of likely options for Tbilisi in the event that it decided to take military action against the separatist region. One option was an invasion of Abkhazia from the Black Sea.

During the Moscow summit of February 2004, Russia reaffirmed the agreements it had reached with Tbilisi concerning its non-intervention in Georgia's internal affairs. At the same time, it sent a clear message that it was strongly opposed to any Georgian military intervention in either Ajaria or Abkhazia. Ships of the Russian Black See Fleet together with other branches of the Russian armed forces took part in spring exercises in international waters off the Georgian coast. Some Russian bases located on foreign territory, including the one at Akhalkalaki, contributed to command-and-control exercises that were held concurrently. The exercises took place between March 22 and 27. No exercises were held on Georgia's election day, but the Black Sea Fleet resumed exercises in April.

The message to Tbilisi was intended to be clear, transparent, and in a form that did not violate any international legal norms. Russia's intention was also to prevent a possible blockade of the Abkhazian coast by the Georgian coast guard with potential political or practical assistance from Turkey and the US.

Addressing security concerns

The priority interest of the Russian government has always been to prevent spillover effects from Chechnya to other regions of the country as well as to prevent any attempts of support from abroad to the Chechen separatists. This consideration applies to other regional conflicts, including the one between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Cooperation between the Russian and Georgian security services in joint border control and the exchange of operational information between the two countries' border guards were considered exceptionally important results of the normalization of bilateral relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. This was to affect developments in Abkhazia as well.

Russia also acted as mediator between Georgia and Abkhazia in the talks on regional security that were resumed after militant Chechen intrusions into Abkhazian territory from Georgia in autumn 2003. According to Abkhazian sources, the military formation of the Chechen warlord Gelayev contained some representatives of the Georgian special forces. The talks took place in late January 2004 under the supervision of the UN mission with observers from the CIS peacekeeping headquarters. The discussion focused on security measures in the Gali district. The January meeting was part of the second round of talks, the first round having taken place in October 2003 soon after border incidents in the district. (3) This framework was an important element of Russian bilateral agreements with Georgia. The sides confirmed their intention to strengthen antiterrorist cooperation and prevent use of their territory by terrorists fleeing Russian military operations as well as by others trying to use Georgian territory as a corridor into Chechnya.

Addressing a meeting in Essentukhi (Stavropol region) of heads of regional offices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia's Southern Federal District on March 24, President Putin stressed the necessity of improving interdepartmental cooperation, and especially cooperation with the security services of neighboring CIS states, in dealing with new security challenges in the region.

Among Russia's natural concerns is the preservation of the military- strategic balance in the region. Russian officials welcomed the promise of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, made after his election, that no other foreign bases would be allowed in after the Russian bases were withdrawn from Georgia.

Originally Russia had four bases in Georgia. Two of them (in Gudauta, Abkhazia, and the airbase at Vasiani) were closed in accordance with the requirements of the CFE (4) Adaptation Treaty. The base at Gudauta has been converted into a deployment facility for the Russian peacekeepers as part of the UN stabilization mission in Abkhazia. The status and redeployment of forces in the remaining two bases, at Batumi and Akhalkalaki, are to be renegotiated bilaterally between Russia and Georgia.

Addressing minds and souls

In November 2003, the Russian Orthodox Church hosted a meeting in Moscow of the religious leaders of the four countries of the Caucasian region -- Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. They issued an appeal to their followers to resolve their differences by peaceful political means and to uphold religious tolerance. The four clerics met with President Putin, who expressed his wholehearted support of their initiative. As the result, an Interfaith Council was set up.

Economic programs

Interregional cooperation has always been regarded as an important factor of regional economic development and stability. Russia's Southern Federal District borders on Abkhazia. The federal economic development program for the FD for the period up to 2006 includes plans for developing local business, with an emphasis on transregional infrastructure projects to boost the economy and tourism and facilitate the transportation of energy and other resources from the Caspian region to Europe and from Europe to the South and the Mediterranean.

The special border-crossing regime that has been established between Russia and Abkhazia reflects the existing reality that the majority of Abkhazians have dual nationality. It is believed that in between 50 and 80 percent of Abkhazia's population hold Russian passports.

Russia believes that the main issues for the region, and especially for Abkhazia, are:

* the return of refugees 
* the implementation of joint economic programs 
* the reopening of transregional rail communications 
* reconstruction of the Inguri power station that supplies energy to both Abkhazia and Georgia

Importance is attached to maintenance of Russia's border crossing into Abkhazia and the reopening of the railway line from the Russian border to Sukhum(i).

On March 24-25, 2004 President Putin attended the first Public Forum of Peoples of the Caucasus and South Russia (the regions belonging to the RF Southern Federal District). Issues of economic development and investment were discussed. This forum was initiated by Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia and one of the local leaders who is respected and trusted by Putin. North Ossetia borders another rebellious Georgian region - South Ossetia, which declared independence from Georgia in 1991. As in the case of Abkhazia, a large proportion of the population of South Ossetia have taken Russian citizenship.

This meeting could be seen as consistent with the interests of Saakashvili's government in increasing Russian investment in Georgia. To some extent, the local initiative of the bordering regions of the Southern Federal District was regarded by the Kremlin as a good opportunity to create conditions for business contacts at the local level. It also served to convey the intention of the Georgian president, expressed during his meeting with the business community in Moscow in February 2004, to provide presidential security guarantees for Russian investment in Georgia. The initiative was also seen as a response at the regional level to the decision of the EU to establish a program for the South Caucasus and Russia. The main purpose of the initiative in respect to the South Caucasus was to prevent the formation of an isolated South Caucasus economic union and provide better conditions for Russia¹s integration into this new alliance. This task, according to Russian policy expert Sergei Mikheyev, was given priority in view of its economic, geo-economic, and geopolitical importance.

Instead of a conclusion

Andrei Kokoshin, former deputy minister of defense and head of the Defense Council and currently head of one of the committees of the State Duma, has pointed out that the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia cannot be resolved without Russia's participation. On January 8, 2004, in an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Kokoshin stated that "Russian reaction to the developments in the region will be extremely sensitive and cautious, but it will respond to the policy and actions of the Georgian government. The mistake of the former Georgian leadership was its over-reliance on the Western countries in dealing with this problem. Russia is a superpower with its own interests in the Caucasus, which it will never abandon. All those in Georgia who are concerned with issues of stabilization and security should remember this."


(1) RIA Novosti, January 8, 2004.

(2) Akhalkalaki is in the south Georgian region of Javakheti, which borders on Ajaria.

(3) Gali is the southernmost of the five districts that comprise Abkhazia. It lies just to the north of the Georgian-Abkhazian border zone along the River Inguri, where the CIS peacekeepers are deployed.

(4) CFE is the Agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe under the auspices of the OSCE.

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As with most ethnopolitical conflicts, there are conflicting approaches to determining the origins of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Some observers project the conflict back into a distant past. Others deny its "primordial" nature and emphasize the crucial roles played by specific political decisions in the period of instability immediately prior to the outbreak of war (in this case 1987-92), the individuals who took these decisions, and pure chance. (1)

Perhaps the "roots" of the conflict should not be traced too far back, but one important structural precondition of conflict has been present since ancient times. Throughout recorded history, Abkhazia's links with other parts of the Caucasus have pointed in two directions.

The closest ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties of the Abkhaz have always been with the native mountain peoples of the North Caucasus, and especially with the Circassian tribes of the northwest Caucasus, rather than with the neighboring Kartvelian tribes of the South Caucasus that merged to form the Georgian nation. (2) At the same time, Abkhazia and the proto-Georgian principalities have constituted a single inter-state system of diplomacy and warfare, and their nobilities gradually came to share a single literary and liturgical "high culture" based on the Kartvelian (Georgian) language. The Abkhaz nobility participated both in the emerging "high culture" of the proto-Georgian nobility and in the oral "low culture" of their Abkhaz subjects.

Some potential for tension and conflict was surely always inherent in this situation, even if this potential was not realized for many centuries. One pertinent circumstance is the fact that the first state to unite most of what is now Georgia, the Kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians, was set up in 978 on the initiative of the Abkhaz nobility and had its center in Abkhazia. The precedent created by this kingdom is that of a united Georgia including Abkhazia. However, it is also that of a Georgia in which the status of Abkhazians -- despite their smaller numbers -- is equal to or higher than that of Kartvelians. Thus there was scope for conflict over relative status within a single state.

A new but structurally similar precedent was set by the status that Abkhazia enjoyed within the Soviet Union in the pre-Stalin period. Up to 1925 Abkhazia was separate from Georgia and had equal status with Georgia as a union republic. Between 1925 and 1931 Abkhazia was formally united with Georgia but retained equal status. It is notable that before the outbreak of war in 1992 the Abkhaz leadership took the Constitution of 1925 as a confederal model of relations between Abkhazia and Georgia.

As historians frequently point out, the roots of the conflict are not to be found in relations among Georgia's principalities in the centuries preceding the Russian conquest because the numerous wars between Abkhazia and neighboring proto-Georgian states were dynastic in character, not ethnic conflicts in the modern sense. Mingrelia was often at war with Abkhazia, but it was also often at war with other neighboring principalities such as Imereti.

The events that led up to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict can, however, be traced back to the divergent reactions of the Abkhaz and the proto-Georgians to Russian conquest.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the proto-Georgian princes accepted incorporation into the Russian Empire more or less voluntarily. They regarded loss of sovereignty, which they wrongly expected to be only partial, as a price they had to pay for Russian protection against Turkish and Persian invasion.

Abkhazia, protected by its isolated geographical position, had no such need of protection. Its royal family held out against Russia until 1810, when Russian troops invaded by land from neighboring Mingrelia and also landed on the Abkhazian coast following bombardment of the Sukhum(i) fortress from the Black Sea. The Russians installed as their puppet Seferbey, a rebel Abkhaz prince who had taken refuge in Mingrelia, but almost all Abkhaz continued to regard Seferbey's half-brother Aslanbey as the legitimate ruler. The independent Abkhaz mountain communities led repeated popular uprisings against Russian rule. These culminated in the uprising of 1877-78, which coincided with the Russo-Turkish war, with Turkey backing the Abkhaz rebels.

Mass deportations of Abkhaz to Turkey followed, leaving almost half of Abkhazia uninhabited. The empty lands were resettled by Russians, Armenians, and Greeks from other parts of the empire, but mainly by land-hungry peasants from Mingrelia. Georgian publicists at the time encouraged this migration, seeing Abkhazia as an area of Georgian colonization and an integral part of a future independent Georgia. Thus the Abkhaz came to blame not only the Russians but also the Georgians for their plight; over time they came to see the Georgians not the Russians as their main enemies.

In the 20th century, this pattern was repeated with the forced Georgianization of Abkhazia under Stalin. The central Soviet authorities in Moscow were ultimately responsible for Abkhaz suffering in this period, just as the tsarist government had been the cause of Abkhaz suffering before the revolution. But the policy was one of Georgianization not Russification, Moscow acted through Tbilisi, and the key individuals who imposed the policy -- Stalin and Beria -- happened to be ethnic Georgians. For all these reasons, the Abkhaz blamed the Georgians, not the Russians or the Soviet regime as such.


(1) The conflicting approaches are closely connected to different sociological theories concerning the nature and origin of ethnic identity.

A longer unpublished essay of mine on the origins of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is available on request.

(2) Some Georgian nationalists explain this by supposing that the Abkhaz are a North Caucasian people who migrated to the southern side of the Great Caucasus Range. According to an alternative explanation, the Abkhaz, like all other North Caucasian peoples, came originally from what is now northern Turkey, but unlike the other peoples never crossed to the northern side of the range.

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Source: Lorik Marshania, Pravda o tragedii Abkhazii [The Truth About the Tragedy of Abkhazia] (Tbilisi: Samshoblo, 1998)

These often moving reminiscences come from the pen of Lorik Marshania, the most prominent of a handful of Abkhaz political figures who took a public stand against the drift toward a separate ethnic Abkhaz state and remained loyal to the ideal of a united multiethnic Georgia.

By professional training Marshania is an economic planner and an expert in subtropical agriculture. In the 1970s and 1980s he rose to occupy several prominent posts in the party and government bureaucracy of Abkhazia and Georgia. (1) He campaigned as a candidate in the elections to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia in late 1991, but was forced to stand down as a result of the deal struck between Ardzinba and Gamsakhurdia (see synopsis).

Following the Georgian capture of Sukhum(i) in August 1992, Marshania worked in the Council of Ministers of Abkhazia that the Georgian administration re-established in the city. In January 1993 he set up a Committee for the Salvation of Abkhazia within the Council of Ministers. When Sukhum(i) fell to the separatist forces in September 1993, he was among those evacuated on board a Russian ship. Since then he has lived in exile in Tbilisi with his daughter, who shares his political outlook.

The existence of people like Marshania highlights the distinction between an ethnic conflict in the strict sense and an ethnopolitical conflict. Ethnopolitical conflicts pit ethnic groups against one another not directly but through their mobilization behind specific ethnopolitical programs. However powerful such mobilization may be, there are always individuals who remain indifferent or hostile to the program supported by the dominant section of their own ethnic group. Just as there are Jews like myself who sympathize with the Palestinian cause, there were Georgians who threw in their lot with the Abkhaz separatists and Abkhaz who fought for a united Georgia. (2)

These people are excoriated as "traitors to their own people" but they have their own well-thought-out conception of their people's real interests and indeed believe that they are the true patriots. Thus in his open letter to Ardzinba (pp. 48-9), Marshania charges that if the Abkhaz are at risk of genocide -- a staple theme of separatist rhetoric -- then their own nationalist leaders are above all to blame for the situation.

But how could such people emerge in a society as ethnically polarized as late Soviet Abkhazia? In fact, even in a society that seems highly polarized there may be pockets of ethnic harmony ("micro-milieus" to use the jargon of Soviet sociology). According to Marshania, such a pocket of harmony was created in 1972-76 within the apparatus of the Council of Ministers of Abkhazia under the influence of two charismatic Georgians who chaired it in that period, Boris Gigiberia and Shota Tatarashvili (p. 53).

Another example comes to mind. In July 1989 the town of Ochamchira in southern Abkhazia came under siege from Georgian nationalist militias who had entered Abkhazia from other parts of Georgia. The town's Georgian residents gave no aid to the attackers. Some remained passive and others fought side by side with their Abkhaz neighbors. Their local identity as Ochamchirans took precedence over ethnopolitical loyalty.

But you do not escape moral dilemmas by going over to the other side of an ethnopolitical conflict, because there are always intolerant fanatics on the other side as well. When Georgian forces under the command of the warlords Ioseliani and Kitovani occupied Sukhum(i) in August 1992, many Abkhaz suspected of disloyalty to Georgia were arrested and killed. Marshania tells how he intervened to save the life of an arrested Abkhaz writer by vouching for his loyalty, but the man then went over to the separatists and wrote blistering condemnations of Marshania. What rank ingratitude! (3) But if Marshania advised the warlords concerning who was loyal among the Abkhaz and who disloyal, then I suspect that he was responsible not only for saving some but also for dooming others.


(1) He was successively first deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of Abkhazia, secretary of the Abkhaz province party committee, deputy head of the agriculture department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Georgia, and rector of the Institute of Management of the National Economy under the Council of Ministers of Georgia.

(2) The number of individuals who take PUBLIC stands against the dominant politicians of their own group is small, but as Marshania points out in regard to the Abkhaz (pp. 35-6) there are many more who agree with them IN PRIVATE while fearing to speak out in public. Marshania points out that many of the Abkhaz now living in exile in Russia are highly critical of the separatist regime.

(3) However, he may not have known that it was Marshania who had secured his release.

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On a visit to Georgia in March 1995, I learned about a remarkable episode in the Georgian-Abkhaz war that is not mentioned in any historical account of which I am aware: the women's "peace train" that set out for Abkhazia from Tbilisi in the summer of 1993. (1) There can be few precedents of such direct action against war in the history of war resistance. My account here is based mainly on an interview with one of the organizers of the peace train, the Georgian actress Guranda Gabunia, who at that time was vice-chair of the "White Scarf" movement. (2)

I should first explain the "white scarf" concept. I was told of an ancient Georgian custom according to which a woman could oblige two fighting men to desist by throwing her white headscarf on the ground between them. This custom had fallen into disuse but its memory was preserved in folklore. The "White Scarf" movement was an attempt to revive the custom and use it to stop the war in Abkhazia.

Later inquiry showed that the custom is by no means limited to Georgia. It is widespread among peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the Chechen war there were women who threw white scarves in the path of Russian soldiers, who did not however understand the meaning of the gesture. My colleague Irina Isakova told me that she had met a woman who claimed to have averted a pogrom in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province at the time of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes of 1990 by kneeling on the road before an advancing mob and throwing down her headscarf. The custom may have its origin in the belief that a woman's uncovered hair possesses magical powers.

It was the cinematographer Keti Dolidze who first had the idea of hiring a train to take women in white headscarves to Sukhum(i). Many women felt that traditional charitable activities like collecting money to aid war victims were not enough and support for the project grew rapidly. The organizers hoped that the venture would not prove too dangerous: there was a lull in the fighting at the time the project was launched -- and who would shoot at unarmed women? But if necessary they intended to "stand between the brothers" and throw down their scarves in accordance with custom.

The peace train had the support not only of "White Scarf" but also of members of the more "respectable" Women's Society of the City of Tbilisi, which unlike "White Scarf" had the blessing of the Patriarch of the Georgian Church. They sought the Patriarch's blessing for the peace train and were upset not to get it, although this did not lead them to withdraw their support.

30,000 women gathered at the station in Tbilisi to see off the peace train, which was packed full of women in white headscarves. They also took with them provisions, medical supplies, and money.

"Women of all ethnic origins signed up for the journey: Georgians and Mingrelians, Russians and Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Jews and Kurds, Ossets and Abkhaz. There were many members of the intelligentsia, many ordinary women too. There were women of all ages: mothers went to find and bring home their sons, (3) sisters their brothers, daughters their fathers, even grandmothers their grandsons. At every station along the way, more women joined us or handed us money, gold, jewelry, food, and letters for their menfolk. Never have I experienced such a feeling of unity. It will remain with me my whole life."

But as the train proceeded on its way the fighting in Abkhazia resumed. The final Abkhaz offensive was now underway. Sukhum(i) came under heavy bombardment and changed hands for the last time. When the peace train reached Ochamchira, its passengers found the town in flames and a tank and artillery battle in progress.

"We swore at the soldiers, (4) but there was nothing we could do except leave the money and supplies we had brought at the local hospital. After half an hour those of us who were still alive and able to walk headed back for the train. I recall old women going tranquilly to their deaths, clutching letters for their grandsons."

The train retreated, keeping just ahead of the advancing front. We passed through Gali district and entered Mingrelia. There the train was held hostage for 14 hours by Zviadistas (armed supporters of ex-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia --SS). They had positioned two trains to block our way. They wanted to kill us and blow up the train. We sent representatives to talk with them. We said that we were not politicians, we were just women and did not mean any harm. It would shame them to kill us. Finally they relented and let us return to Tbilisi.

We were very moved to receive a letter from Shevardnadze. He had written it while in hiding in Sukhum(i). (5)

For two months after my return, I just sat at home staring at the floor, barely able to speak, sunk deep in depression."


(1) On my return to the US, I tried to get an article about the peace train published. "Progressive" magazine expressed interest but was not willing to publish an article without accompanying photographs. Unfortunately I had none to offer.

(2) I also met some other women who had been involved. Their accounts were consistent with Gabunia's, although they added certain details.

(3) Like the mothers' movement in the first Chechen war.

(4) This appears to have been a modern innovation rather than part of the original custom.

(5) Before Sukhum(i) fell in September 1993, Shevardnadze and prominent officials of the Georgian administration in the city, including Marshania, were evacuated on board a Russian ship.

Source: JRL




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