Review: SVANTE E. CORNELL, Small Nations and Great Powers. A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, by George Hewitt

SVANTE E. CORNELL Small Nations and Great Powers. A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus. Curzon Press, Caucasus World, 480 pp., 2001. ISBN 0 7007 11627. £50.

Cornell sets himself the challenge of presenting all relevant aspects of the conflicts that have recently so scarred (or threaten to disfigure further) the former Soviet territories in the Caucasus (principally, Nagorno-Karabagh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechenia). A myriad of sources has been consulted, though the unreliability of some is perhaps not fully recognised. The author anchors an inner triangle of competing rights affecting the Transcaucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia within the sea of age-old and ongoing geopolitical rivalries between the regional powers of Russia, Turkey and Iran (plus an increasingly involved America). His account of the history and actuality of differing aspirations and interests and of how the attitudes and policies of some of the larger players can shift with changing circumstances is full of important observations and comments that anyone new to the area would do well to ponder. Especially pleasing is the positive assessment of the role of the Assembly/Confederation of (Mountain) Peoples of the Caucasus before the outbreak of war in Chechenia and the call for it to be revived. One also needs to reflect on the fear that internationalising of conflicts might hamper their ultimate resolution.

A careful proofing by a native English speaker would have picked up numerous phrasal infelicities (and the typos). There are two glaring and several incidental factual errors: on p.262 a misplaced comma in the source has led to the Cherkess being assigned along with the Adyghes to the group of Western Circassian speakers -- they and the Kabardians are Eastern Circassians; Archi does not belong to the Dido(ic) (or Tsez(ic)) family of Daghestanian languages (p.436) but to the Lezgic. Note also: the dates for Vakht’ang VI [sic] are 1703-24 and for Erek’le II 1762-98 (p.34); Ach’ara (Ajaria) is just like Nakhchivan in being an autonomy whose titular nationality is identical with that of the central state, for Ajars are ethnically Georgians (p.77); I suspect Cornell's source should have written BC in assigning the Ossetians' arrival in the Caucasus to the 6th century 'AD' (p.252); Sergo Ordzhonik’idze shot himself, and the N. Ossetian capital became Dzaudzhikau in 1944 (p.433).

It remains to observe that this volume's value is greatly reduced by an absolute travesty of reality in the treatment afforded to Abkhazia. I have had to say this so often over more than a decade that I am seriously tempted to suggest that any Westerner who feels the urge to comment on this particular issue should first learn Georgian so that what Georgians say about their relationship with the Abkhazians in their own language can be properly assessed, as it undeniably must be. Only then perhaps will there be better appreciation that, just as the meddling hand of Moscow is unnecessary in Daghestan because 'the Dag[h]estani leadership and its policies are by themselves [sic -- GH] sufficient to fuel widespread opposition' (p.281), so in the case of the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute one needs to look no further than Georgian attitudes and behaviour towards this particular minority to understand the reasons for Abkhazian suspicions. And the conflict did not start brewing (p.347) after the troubles in South Ossetia had quietened down (July 1992) but had its proximate cause in the events of 1989 (see Viktor Popkov's article in another Curzon volume 'The Abkhazians', which I edited in 1998); these fatal clashes, moreover, arose as a direct result of the rampant Georgian chauvinism that exploded during perestojka under the leadership of the late Mingrelians Merab K’ost’ava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, no friends to the Abkhazians.

Why is it essential to know Georgian? Let Yuri Voronov, assassinated in Sukhum in 1995, explain in reference to Georgian historian Mariam Lordkipanidze's trilingual booklet 'The Abkhazians and Abkhazia': 'At first glance the Georgian, Russian and English texts of this new monograph are identical. However, a closer reading reveals that the author makes allowances for the specifics of the reader. That which is given in the Georgian version is modified in the Russian, whilst that which is absent from the first two is included in the English version. For example, the excursus designed for the English into the demography of the XIXth century contains the assertion that out of the 68,773 inhabitants of Abkhazia in 1886 Georgians constituted 34,806 and Abkhazians 28,320, although in reality the village-by-village census of 1886 gives a different picture -- 58,963 Abkhazians versus 4,166 Mingrelians and other Kartvelians' (see p.264 of Lincom Europa's 1992 'Caucasian Perspectives', edited by myself). This has directly bearing, as Cornell quotes virtually the identical mistaken figures for 1886 (p.156), 'informing' his readers that most Samurzaq’anoans (essentially the residents of today's Gal District) 'must be thought to have been Mingrelians'; he fails to say anything about the huge controversy surrounding this group's then-ethnicity but can have no excuse for not knowing about it, since he elsewhere quotes from the article where I discuss the point (Central Asian Survey 1993). And surely no debate of Abkhazia's demography can sensibly proceed without reference to the investigation carried out by Daniel Müller for inclusion in the above-mentioned 'The Abkhazians' (1998).

Since there is overwhelming evidence that not even the bulk of Georgians' fellow-Kartvelian Mingrelians were conversant with Georgian even as late as the late 1920s, by what possible stretch of the imagination can one argue that Georgian was ever the second language of the Abkhazians (p.146)? Cornell stresses (p.155) that the Abkhazians were not deported during or after World War II but neglects to add that the only reason for this was that (Georgian) Stalin and (Mingrelian) Beria thought they had done enough to 'georgianise' the Abkhazians by importing thousands of Mingrelians and banning teaching of, and publishing in, Abkhaz. Approving Jürgen Gerber's remark (p.156) that, compared with the North Caucasus, 'the Abkhaz had incomparably larger opportunities to keep their language and culture', Cornell forgets that this was only because, after Stalin's death, Abkhaz schools were reopened and publishing revived to compensate for the preceding two decades' harsh repression, whereas the North Caucasus seems to have then fallen into cultural apathy.

Early in its independence Tbilisi abrogated all Soviet legislation, reinstating its Menshevik constitution. This left Abkhazia in a constitutional limbo, for Abkhazia's consitutional arrangements were left undefined. This anomalous situation was rectified by the temporary restitution of Abkhazia's 1925 constitution, which, far from underscoring any secessionist move, indicated the Abkhazians' willingness to continue cooperation with Georgia, as Abkhazia's early Soviet status was as a treaty-republic with Georgia. Despite numerous erroneous statements to the contrary, Abkhazia did not formally declare independence until 12 October 1999. And this was in large measure the result of frustration at continuing bad faith on the part of Tbilisi in post-war negotiations. Pace Cornell (p.192), it has not been the Abkhazians who have refused to compromise -- one might say that after their military victory, they were fully entitled to declare independence at once (September 1993), and yet they continued to pursue federative possibilities, whilst all that Georgia has offered is a return to the status quo ante bellum (some compromise from Georgia!). After protracted talks and constant last-minute revisions by Georgia a Protocol was ready for presidential signing in summer 1997, and yet at the last minute Tbilisi (not Sukhum) refused (Abkhazian Foreign Ministry Document 325, 25 Dec 1997). Such petty obstructionism continues, for in February 2001 Georgia's UN Ambassador, P’et’re Chkheidze, refused to sign two draft-documents, claiming them 'unacceptable for the government of Georgia' -- as the respected commentator, Liz Fuller, noted in her Radio Liberty report (4.5, 2 Feb 2001): 'Chkheidze's criticism is surprising as the versions of both drafts currently under discussion were proposed by the Georgian side'...

It would be naive to imagine that Russia would not take advantage of events, and there can be no doubt that some assistance was given to the Abkhazians during the war, but Cornell neglects to mention also that: there is circumstantial evidence that Yeltsin knew and approved of Georgia's invasion of Abkhazia on 14 August 1992 -- indeed, to my mind, the only convincing explanation for the madness of igniting war in the sensitive ethnic mix that was pre-war Abkhazia is that it was a calculated risk by Shevardnadze, then engulfed in civil war in Mingrelia, in the hope of persuading his Zviadist opponents to unite against the Abkhazian 'common enemy', a blunder that has haunted his Georgian bailiwick to the present day; whatever weapons the Abkhazians acquired they either had to buy with money provided by Abkhazian businessmen in Moscow or the diaspora (and no-one has ever had problems obtaining weaponry across the former USSR) or simply acquired from their incompetent foe; whilst individual Russians did offer assistance to Abkhazia (after all, every Russian well knows in what contempt they are held by Georgians), there was no formal recruiting and dispositioning of army-units (see Dodge Billingsley's discussion in 'The Abkhazians'), as there was of Ukrainian units on the Georgian side; in the final stages of the war Russian planes bombed Abkhazian positions; Shevardnadze owes his life to the Abkhazians, who might easily not have responded to Yeltsin's plea that he be granted safe conduct out of Sukhum, once it was recaptured.

Undoubtedly there will have been regrettable instances of revenge-taking once legitimate control was reestablished in the Abkhazian capital, and the Kartvelian population, which decided to join the flight of their rag-bag forces, may have had good cause for alarm. However, there was no policy to instigate ethnic cleansing, and, if the republic ended up denuded of most of its earlier Kartvelian residents, it does not follow that this was the result of implementing any such policy -- the 2nd UNPO report on Abkhazia makes it clear that the majority fled before the arrival of the Abkhazians and their North Caucasian allies (Central Asian Survey 1995, p.138); the phenomonon was, thus, one of ethnic self-cleansing -- to style it anything else is an abuse of language. Cornell also gives the Abkhazians no credit for allowing thousands of refugees to return unregistered, largely to Gal. As for their renewed (temporary) flight in May 1998, this was a natural consequence of the equally understandable operation to flush out terrorists, harboured in local houses near to the Mingrelian border -- why Cornell chooses to absolve the Georgian state from any responsibility for training these paramilitaries is perplexing when visitors to Zugdidi often conclude that their widely known training-camps could hardly function without such support. Indeed Georgian journalist Ak’ak’i Mikadze detailed in 'Vremja' (June 1998) Georgian ministerial funding for these killers, perfect justification for entry to the Council of Europe in these days of abandoned standards...

Enough has been said to cast doubt on Cornell's 'facts' and thus his basic interpretation of the Abkhazian problem, thereby encouraging readers to consult better informed sources if they wish properly to understand the essentials of this far from straightforward issue. That said, I wholly endorse the opinion that Georgia is a classic case for federal restructuring but disagree that it should be of the asymmetric variety (p.196). Cornell is also persuasive in proposing, on the basis of his consideration of Nagorno-Karabagh, 'the establishment of a free-trade zone incorporating the two republics [Armenia & Azerbaijan -- GH]. Ideal[l]y, this would also include Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia' (p.138) -- note the implicit recognition of South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence. Indeed, might not the resurrection of a Transcaucasian Federation be a more radical but in the longer term viable way to cut so many regional Gordian knots that seem unpickable under Transcaucasia's present configuration? But the depressing lack of vision characterising largely mediocre power-brokers within and beyond the Caucasus compels one to agree with Cornell that the outlook remains gloomy.





Articles & Opinion


Abkhaz World

Follow Us