Chapter 5: Georgia-Abkhazia

by Evgeny M. Kozhokin*


The dissolution of the Russian empire in 1917 lead to the declaration of Georgia's independence in May 1918. Following the establishment of Soviet Rule in the trans-Caucasus, Abkhazia was declared an Independent Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1921. By December 1921, Abkhazia signed a treaty of federation with Georgia. In February 1931, it became an autonomous republic of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Throughout the Soviet period, Abkhazian political elites had been dissatisfied with their position vis-à-vis Georgia. From their perspective, all major political, administrative, and economic decisions pertaining to the region were made in Tbilisi--beyond their direct control. This anxiety was compounded by an unfavorable demographic trend in Abkhazia. Specifically, the Georgian population in the region was growing at a faster rate than the Abkhazian (in 1959, Georgians made up 39.1 percent of the population; in 1979--43.9 percent, whereas in 1989--45.7 percent). The government in Tbilisi denied that this demographic trend was the product of a deliberate Georgian policy directed towards the assimilation of Abkhazia. Rather, it claimed that this process was the result of the economic needs of the republic, especially the demand for tourism and highly trained Georgian construction workers.

A major outburst of Abkhazian separatism occurred in 1989, touched off by the Georgian government's efforts to establish a branch of the Georgian State University in Sukhumi further exacerbated the situation (this branch was to replace the Georgian department of the Abkhazian university). As a result, Georgian and Abkhazian students clashed in the first round of what became ongoing hostilities between the different nationalist groups. A large-scale conflict was avoided at that time thanks only to the introduction of a "state of emergency" (a special regime for the `citizens' behavior) in Abkhazia.

The ouster of Georgian President Gamsakhurdia in early 1992 directly fueled the Abkhazian separatist cause. Abkhazian Supreme Soviet Chairman Vladislav Ardzinba capitalized on the confusion in Tbilisi to promote the republic's de facto independence. Numerous Georgian laws were nullified in Abkhazia; all local enterprises and organizations, including military and police units, were placed under regional jurisdiction; and a special regiment of internal troops was created and placed under the command of the Presidium of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet. Finally, in July 1992, the 1978 Constitution was repealed and replaced by the long-dormant 1925 Constitution that declared Abkhazia a sovereign republic with only alliance commitments to commitments to Georgia.[1]

In response to this declaration of independence, the Georgian government deployed troops in Abkhazia. The Georgian military occupied all of the major cities of Abkhazia, including the capital, Sukhumi, forcing the Abkhazian leadership, headed by Ardzinba, to retreat to the regional center of Gudauta. After these initial advances, however, the Georgian assault on Abkhazia bogged down. Over the next year, the Abkhazians, who received substantial political and military assistance from volunteers from the Confederation of the Mountain People of the Caucasus (CMPC) and at least some assistance from local Russian military units,[2] were able to launch a counteroffensive and gradually re-establish control over "their" republic up to the Russian-Georgian border.

Due to the brutal persecution that accompanied this counteroffensive, most Georgians (about 240,000) left Abkhazia as refugees.

Russian Policy Toward the Georgian-Abkhazian War

Moscow's policy toward the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict was shaped by the dynamics of Russian domestic politics and was, therefore, far from uniform or consistent. While President Yeltsin declared his support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, the Parliament, with its Communist-patriotic majority, tried by all means to stimulate the Abkhazian separatist forces. (It is not by coincidence that the statement on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, issued by the Russia Supreme Soviet on September 25, 1992, made no reference to recognition of Georgia's territorial unity.) The Supreme Soviet leadership considered the Abkhazian separatist movement a convenient tool with which to pressure the Georgian government to bring Georgia into the CIS and agree to a permanent Russian military presence in Georgia; and, to pressure Yeltsin himself to shift his policy in the direction of neo-imperial "statehood." As we shall see, however, the Supreme Soviet was far from monolithic, and even the Executive Branch had no common point of view. This was demonstrated, for example, by a much-discussed February 23, 1993 television appearance by Russian Defense Minister Grachev, during which he claimed that Russian troops could not withdraw from Abkhazia and Adzharia because "Russia would lose the exit to the Black Sea" as a result.

After Georgian troops were dispatched to Abkhazia on August 14, 1992, the Russian government attempted to bring both sides to the negotiating table. As a result, both sides agreed to stop all fighting and troop movements by August 31, and to continued high level meetings in Moscow on October 3. Before this agreement could be tested in practice, however, the Russian Supreme Soviet dispatched a delegation to Gudauta to meet with Ardzinba, thereby expressing what was widely perceived as support for the Abkhazian separatists--an impression that was strengthened by the statements of Sergei Babwin, one of the leaders of the anti-Yeltsin opposition, who, though not an official member of the delegation, joined it unofficially, and made no secret of his pro-Abkhazian sentiments. A far more evenhanded message was conveyed by a second parliamentary delegation which was dispatched immediately after the first and which visited Tbilisi as well as Gudauta. However, even this delegation, which was headed by First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet S.A. Filatov, and included the present author, seemed insufficiently neutral in Georgian eyes. It probably came as welcome news, therefore, when Yeltsin inserted himself directly into the process by inviting Shevardnadze and Arbindza to meet with him in Moscow on September 3.

Although Yeltsin utilized this meeting to chastise Shevardnadze for deploying heavy weapons against the Abkhazian separatists and for showing insufficient understanding of Abkhazia's grievances, he also made it clear that he favored the preservation of a single Georgian state and had no interest in encouraging or abetting its violent dismemberment. Furthermore, he made it clear to Ardzinba that the Abkhazian separatists could not count on Russian support. As a result, he was able to persuade both Shevardnadze and Ardzinba to sign a tripartite agreement calling for an immediate cease-fire; a prompt exchange of prisoners of war; restoration of freedom of movement for goods, services, and people; the early restoration of functioning governmental bodies in Abkhazia; and the creation of a tripartite commission to jump-start the "restoration of security in the region." While this agreement failed to address many important specifics and was certain to take time to implement, it was a promising first step in what Yeltsin viewed as a genuine effort to broker a just peace and a stable political settlement in a region in which Russia had vital interests but no imperial ambitions. As quickly became apparent, however, Yeltsin's parliamentary opponents had no intention of allowing Yeltsin to prescribe Russia's policy in the "near abroad"--least of all at a time when the Russian constitution still contained Soviet provisions that vested ultimate authority for foreign and security policy in the Supreme Soviet.

On September 25, 1992, the Supreme Soviet adopted a series of resolutions condemning the Georgian government for trying "to solve the complex problems of inter-ethnic relations by violent means," demanding the immediate withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia, and proposing a contingent of Russian peace-keeping forces be deployed in Abkhazia "to ensure the safety of the civil population and protect railroads and industrial plants." In addition, the Supreme Soviet called on Yeltsin to immediately suspend all arms transfers to Georgia from the local Russian military garrisons and abrogate all pending Russian arms sales. Moreover, it proposed that Yeltsin broker a new round of negotiations between the Georgian and Abkhazian leaders, thereby implicitly repudiating the agreement that Yeltsin had brokered only three weeks before.

Upon learning of the Supreme Soviet's action, Shevardnadze professed to have no "serious concern [about such] . . . statements and resolutions because they constitute only recommendations, whereas the decisions of Russia's president are binding." To his dismay (though probably not to his complete surprise), however, Shevardnadze soon discovered that Yeltsin himself was prepared to bend, if not to bow, to parliamentary pressure when he found it politically expedient to do so. Following an October 1992 Abkhazian offensive that blatantly violated the aforementioned tripartite agreement, Yeltsin phoned Shevardnadze and warned him that Tbilisi's failure to uphold this agreement would compel Moscow to take all necessary measures to secure Russia's interests. Shevardnadze's protest that it was the Abkhazians who had violated the agreement seemed to fall on deaf ears, as did his charge that the Abkhazians had acted in response to what was virtually an invitation from the Russian Supreme Soviet and with the direct support of local Russian military commanders.

As they came to understand that Yeltsin and his government were fully prepared to "tilt" in pro-Abkhaz direction when it served their purposes, Shevardnadze and his government increasingly began to entertain and voice suspicions that local Russian military commanders were by no means acting entirely on their own initiative in supporting the Abkhazians. In December 1992, for example, Shevardnadze gave an interview to Izvestiya in which he asked:

"Why are Russian `peace-keeping troops operating on Georgian territory' now that the Soviet military district to which these troops were formerly subordinate no longer exists? Who authorizes their actions and what kinds of actions are authorized?"[3]
Soon thereafter, moreover, Georgian authorities launched a diplomatic and public relations campaign in which Moscow was clearly held responsible for what was accurately described as a purposeful and purposefully one-sided military intervention on behalf of Abkhazian separation. Thus, the Georgian government minced no words in blaming Moscow when Russian planes bombed Sukhumi in February 1993,[4] or when a Russian army unit participated in an Abkhazian attack on Sukhumi a month later.

The Russian government not only flatly rejected these charges (claiming, for example, that the planes that bombed Sukhumi were actually bombers that the Georgians had acquired and painted with Russian markings in an effort to discredit the Russian armed forces), but accused the Georgians of regularly conducting violent raids on Russian military depots and barracks--raids that led it to "reserve the right to take all necessary steps to protect the lives and dignity of Russian soldiers and their families." At the same time, it activated its efforts to broker what it considered an acceptable cease-fire agreement and settlement in Abkhazia, culminating with a July 5, 1993 announcement by Foreign Minister Kozyrev that "Moscow had developed a policy to guarantee the end of bloodshed in Abkhazia" and was prepared to use "intense pressure, including economic sanctions" to see that that policy was accepted and implemented.

Faced with this threat, as well as with an unwinnable and deteriorating situation on the ground, the Georgian government felt it had no choice but to sign the so-called Sachi Agreement (an "Agreement On a Cease-Fire in Abkhazia and On a Mechanism To Ensure Its Observance"). Signed on July 27, 1993, this agreement envisioned a cease-fire and a moratorium on the use of force; the creation of a trilateral Georgian-Abkhazian-Russian control group to monitor and enforce the cease-fire; the stationing of international observers and peace-keeping forces in consultation with the Secretary General and Security Council of the U.N. (according to Russian officials, the subsequent delay in the arrival of the international peacekeepers to the region made violations of the agreement inevitable). Moreover, the document called for the withdrawal of all Georgian and Abkhazian military units from the combat zone after 10-15 days; and, among other provisions, an immediate renewal of negotiations to prepare a final settlement of the conflict.

Within a matter of weeks (mid-September), however, Abkhazian forces launched a massive and successful offensive to capture Sukhumi. Although Moscow officials decried this latest Abkhazian act of seeming defiance and even imposed limited economic sanctions, it reneged on an initial offer to deploy Russian troops to separate the combatants on the transparently unconvincing grounds that riots in Sukhumi made deployments impossible. In fact, there is reason to believe that this offer (which Shevardnadze initially rejected as a thinly-veiled attempt by Moscow to occupy Georgian territory, but accepted two days later when it was clear that Georgian troops were being routed) was withdrawn in order to enable the victorious Abkhazians not only to capture Sukhumi but to reoccupy all of Abkhazia, and advance to the Inguri River (the Russian-Georgian border). Indeed, Shevardnadze was almost certainly on solid ground when he subsequently accused Moscow of instigating the Abkhazian attack and may well have been justified in claiming that Moscow actually organized and coordinated the offensive and ensured its success by opening the Russian border to allow unimpeded entry to Russian mercenaries and armaments. Despite angry Russian denials and counter-charges, Shevardnadze was looking for a scapegoat to blame for the failure of the Georgian army, these charges are entirely plausible and quite consistent with the available evidence.

Despite his conviction that Russia "had sold out the Georgian people" by supporting the Abkhaz separatists, Shevardnadze had but to try to make the most of the new situation with which he was confronted. Now that the Abkhazian separatists had defeated the Georgian army on the ground, his highest priority was to prevent them from translating their military triumph into political independence. As a result, he had no choice except to try to reach an accommodation with Russia in the hope that it would use its leverage to ensure the preservation of a reasonable semblance of a single Georgian state.

By way of down payment on the price Russia was sure to exact, Shevardnadze agreed in December 1993 to enroll Georgia in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Furthermore, he agreed that a third party peace-keeping force should be deployed in Abkhazia, where Georgian and Abkhazian forces (including Georgian forces that Tbilisi admitted or claimed it could not control) continued to engage in periodic skirmishes, and where ruthless "ethnic cleansing" by Abkhazian authorities continued to generate large flows of Georgian refugees. And, in February 1994, he even endorsed a joint Russian-Georgian petition to the U.N. in which he agreed to the deployment of Russian troops as part of an international peace-keeping force under U.N. auspices. Unlike Moscow, however, which favored an essentially Russian operation conducted with the blessings of the U.N., Tbilisi was hoping against hope that the Western countries would support and participate in a truly multinational operation in which any Russian presence would be heavily diluted.

Despite the enormous respect and sympathy he enjoyed in the West in general, and the United States in particular, Shevardnadze quickly discovered that the idea of Western participation in a peace-keeping operation in Abkhazia was a non-starter. Britain and France made it clear that they were opposed to any intervention in a complicated ethnic conflict on the territory of the former USSR, while President Clinton indicated that the United States would support a U.N. decision to deploy an international peace-keeping force but would not allow U.S. troops to participate. Furthermore, President Clinton initially qualified his promise of support for a U.N. peace-keeping force by insisting that no Russian troops participate--a position that made the entire question moot since Russia was certain to veto any U.N. deployment from which its troops were largely or entirely excluded.

Following the failure of his March 1994 demarches on Eastern capitals, Shevardnadze had little choice but to do what he had warned his Western interlocutors he would have to do--namely, invite Russia to intervene unilaterally or to take the lead in a CIS-sponsored peace-keeping operation (an alternative that both he and Yeltsin preferred for purely symbolic reasons). Because he was now almost entirely at Russia's mercy, moreover, he had little choice but to agree to drop his long-standing insistence that peacekeepers be deployed largely along the state border between Russia and Georgia (i.e., the border between Russia and Abkhazia) rather than along the internal border between (ethnic) Georgia and Abkhazia--as the Abkhazians had long insisted and as Russia now demanded.[5] Accordingly, he bit the bullet and on May 10, 1994 joined Ardzinba in asking the Council of Leaders of the CIS to deploy peace-keeping forces on the only terms available--terms that were spelled out in an agreement that was signed on May 14 and resulted, after a delay caused by unexpected political infighting in the Russian Parliament, in the deployment of 3,000 Russian troops (five battalions) along both sides of the Inguri River, the dividing line between Abkhazia and (ethnic) Georgia.

According to the May 14 agreements, this initial deployment of Russian troops was supposed to be supplemented in the fall of 1994 by the deployment of troops from other CIS countries. However, this second deployment, which would in any event have been purely symbolic, never occurred. The need for the (weak) cover of international legitimacy it would have provided was eliminated in July 1994 when the U.N. suddenly endorsed Russia's intervention as a U.N. peace-keeping operation--an endorsement that was the direct result of a Russian threat to veto a U.N. endorsement of the planned U.S. intervention in Haiti.

Peacekeeping in Practice

Since the deployments of Russia's peacekeepers, Georgian and Abkhazian forces have not engaged in hostile military actions. In this sense, the peace-keeping mission has been an unqualified success. However, little progress has been made toward a political settlement that would enable the peacekeepers to withdraw.

One issue holding up such a settlement is the return to their homes in Abkhazia of ethnic Georgian refugees. Although some 40,000 refugees have returned to their homes, an estimated 60,000 are still awaiting "repatriation," and neither Russian nor U.N. efforts to speed the process have succeeded in overcoming Abkhazian obstructionism and resistance. Indeed, the Abkhazian authorities have not even lived up to their commitment to allow the organized return of 200 refugees per week. In Georgian eyes, this is the result of Russia's unwillingness to apply sufficient pressure, but the return of refugees is always an extremely problematic and complicated process, as the example of Bosnia, among others, clearly attests.

Another outstanding issue, and one that is far more intractable, is Abkhazia's ultimate political status. Under pressure from both Russia and the West, Tbilisi has finally dropped its stubborn and counterproductive insistence that Georgia be a unitary state--a post-Soviet demand that was the single most important cause of the Abkhazian separatist insurgency. Similarly, the Abkhazian leadership has dropped its demand for Abkhazian independence--a demand that Russia never officially endorsed and for which, in the aftermath of Chechnya, it no longer has any sympathy. To date, however, the Abkhazians have refused to accept Tbilisi's proposal to create a Georgian federation, and Tbilisi has rejected the loose conferral relationship proposed by the Abkhazians.

Whether, how, and when these issues will eventually be resolved is by no means certain. Judging by recent indications, however, there is some likelihood that continued Russian pressure will ultimately produce a settlement whereby the Abkhazians accept membership in a Georgian Federation in return for Georgian concessions on such matters as the formation of an Abkhazian military, and whereby the Abkhazians agree to permit the return of refugees to areas in Abkhazia that were inhabited largely by ethnic Georgians (e.g., the Galsky region) in return for Tbilisi's agreement to resettle most refugees from other areas in Georgia proper. If such a settlement is reached, Russia's intervention in Georgia may well be viewed by everyone concerned as an impressive success, despite the many controversies with which it has been surrounded.

[*] This chapter has been heavily edited by both editors of this volume. In the process, numerous quotations from official Russian denials of Georgian charges of Russian military, economic, and political pressure on Georgia have been shortened or eliminated for reasons of both expository and analytical clarity. English- and Russian-language copies of the original text are available from the author or the editors on request.

Evgeny M. Kozhokin is director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies. He earlier served as deputy chairman of the Security Affairs Committee of the Russian Supreme Soviet.

[1] The History of Abkhazia Gudauta, 1993, pp. 331-332.

[2] Not only Georgian sources testify to the fact that Russian military units, stationed in Abkhazia, were providing military support to the Ardzinba's regime. As example, Mr. V. Simonov, the former military intelligence commander of the 19th separate anti-aircraft defense army that was positioned in trans-Caucasus, cites particular instances of such help. According to his data, by August 14, 1992, the Abkhazians had already received, without any fighting, the armaments of the 643rd anti-aircraft missile regiment (about one thousand submachine guns, 18 machine-guns, half a million of cartridges, etc.). Also, according to Simonov, even before the Georgian troops were brought into Abkhazia), Abkhazians received several armored vehicles, machine-guns, hundreds of grenades and around 50,000 cartridges from the armaments of the Battalion of the Airport-Technical Supply in Gudauta. According to the estimate of this author, altogether during the war, Abkhazian forces spent no less than 1,000 railway cars of military supplies, most of which were received from the Russian supplies. (Absolutely Secret, No. 8, 1994, p. 3.) According to the opinion of the Stockholm International Institute of Peace experts, "the technical supply support provided by the Russian armed forces was crucial for the success of the Abkhazian party." (International Security and Disarmament, Annual Edition of CIPRI, 1994, p. 108.)

[3] Izvesteya, December 21, 1993.

[4] Diplomatic Bulletin, Nos. 7-8, April 1993, p. 59. This claim was exposed as groundless on March 18, 1993, when the Georgians shot down a Russian war plane over Sukhumi. The pilot was a Russian Majo--a regular officer from a Russian air force unit stationed in Abkhazia.

[5] How much Shevardnadze was at Moscow's mercy is indicated by his agreement in February 1994 to the establishment of three Russian military bases on Georgian territory.

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