Abkhazia: land in limbo

George Hewitt
9 October 2006

Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili introduced John McCain, leader of a senatorial delegation to Tbilisi in September 2006, as "the next president of the United States", a compliment repaid by McCain's styling the Georgian people America's "best friends". As the senators bade Georgia farewell some days later, they expressed the hope that the peoples of the two territories which have maintained a precarious immunity from Tbilisi's grasp since the conflicts of the early 1990s would "soon learn what it means to live in freedom".

In offering this view of Abkhazia (which the senators did not visit) and South Ossetia (which they did), leading figures in Washington demonstrate (once again) an abiding ignorance of the cause they proclaim. A month later, the Abkhazians in particular are left to muse on the political calculations behind such visits: and on how far the current crisis threatening their small republic might owe something to stage-management by a US administration working closely with the tyro politicians who head the government of the Georgia from which the Abkhazians broke away in the 1992-93 war.

George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Among his many works are "Peoples of the Caucasus" (in Felipe Fernández-Armesto, ed., Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994) and (as editor) The Abkhazians, a handbook (Routledge, 1998)

Also by George Hewitt in openDemocracy:

"Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil"
(27 November 2003)

To explain why Abkhazians may think in this way, and to understand how they see their present situation and future, a return to this earlier period is essential. At the end of September 1993, as the Georgian-Abkhazian war ended with the flight of the Georgian fighters and many of the largely Mingrelian population who sympathised with Tbilisi's claim to the territory, the Abkhazians never re-established control over a part of their homeland. This was the upper Kodor (Kodori) valley, repopulated in the latter half of the 19th century (after the migration to Ottoman areas of the native population) by another Georgian-related people called Svans, who expanded from their own valleys in Georgia.

Some informed observers believe that the Russians then planned (under a proposal of then defence minister Pavel Grachev, which in the event was rejected by then leader of the Georgian state council, Eduard Shevardnadze) to make permanent the de facto partition of Abkhazia at the Gumista river, just north of the capital Sukhum (Sukhumi). To further this aim, it is alleged that the Russians threatened to bomb the Abkhazians if they continued up the Kodor towards the Klukhor pass, in case this might spread unrest among the residents of Russia's north Caucasian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia (Russians had already reportedly bombed the village of Eshera, behind the Abkhazians' frontline, as the latter began their final push against the Georgians). The valley, thus, remained notionally under Tbilisi's control - though, like Georgia's own Svanetia region, it mostly remained a law unto itself.

The Abkhaz-Georgia war was officially terminated by the Moscow accords of 1994, which provided for a demilitarised zone along the Ingur river to be supervised by Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - essentially Russian - peacekeeping troops; with the United Nations, through its observer mission (Unomig), exercising effective oversight. The zone was frequently breached by violent groups (the Forest Brethren and the White Legion) operating out of Mingrelia and financed by the Georgian government, which infiltrated Abkhazia's Gal (Gali) district to commit murder and sabotage.

In May 1998, renewed conflagration was narrowly avoided as the Abkhazians destroyed the bridgehead being built in some border villages. In 2001, a group of Chechen marauders mysteriously made their way into the valley from eastern Georgia (plainly with the connivance of then-president Eduard Shevardnadze's government) to create brief mayhem in some Armenian villages before their expulsion.

In July 2006, cross-border militarism was reactivated and hundreds of regular Georgian troops were installed in the valley on the pretext of executing a "policing operation" to rid the area of the corruption practised by local leader Emzar Kvitsiani. In addition, Saakashvili is relocating there the members of the so-called "Abkhazian government-in-exile" from the relative luxury of their sinecure existence in Tbilisi.

This whole operation was condemned by the Georgian NGO, the Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre. From a hideout, Kvitsiani produced a video declaring guerrilla war against the interlopers, the Svans not at all fancying the idea of Mingrelians being imported to govern them.

A murky affair

Three questions immediately occur with reference to events in the Kodor:

  • if Russia is, as Tbilisi repeatedly asserts, fully behind Abkhazia's secession, why did the CIS/Russian peacekeepers neither act to block the Georgian troops' entry nor, at the very least, inform the Abkhazians of it? (Unomig provided this crucial information)
  • why has no western government or politician condemned this manifest infringement of the 1994 accords?
  • what is the true purpose of the Georgian military presence just fifty kilometers from Sukhum? (After all, the idea that the most corrupt of the Soviet Union's former republics is now, after the three local wars and years of lawlessness in the 1990s, so law-abiding that the only pocket riddled with corruption is the upper Kodor valley is risible).

The Abkhazians, irritated by the proximity of foreign troops, initially viewed the matter with alarm, writing much about the possible imminence of war, but they have restrained themselves from responding to provocation, aware that any such move would immediately bring down on their heads the international condemnation that the Georgians have largely escaped.

They also know that tanks are no use under the two metres of snow that blanket Svanetia for much of the year; they have not controlled this valley for fourteen years, and so in reality little has changed. A frontal assault into Gal, as unleashed by Shevardnadze on 14 August 1992, would be entirely different, but they calculate that the puppeteers in Washington are not so reckless as to dance their marionettes onto this dangerous stage.

A state in suspension

Abkhazia, present problems notwithstanding, is making slow progress towards building a future for its population - consisting of roughly equal numbers of Abkhazians, Mingrelians, Armenians and Russians. Each year more enterprises open, more buildings appear or are renovated (though ugly ruins still scar the main battlegrounds of Sukhum and the Ochamchira district), transport-links improve (though again the needs of Ochamchira town continue to be ignored), and virtually anything can be bought in Sukhum's shops and thriving market, as long as the customer has cash. But there's the rub.

Levels of (Russian) tourism to Abkhazia in 2005 were said to be virtually back to Soviet levels, but one sensed this summer that numbers were down, especially in Sukhum, probably through fear of hostilities. The Georgian military presence has, thus, perhaps achieved one goal in damaging Abkhazia's fragile economy. For the first time in ten years westerners can again cross freely from Russia into Abkhazia - all that is needed is a permit from Abkhazia's foreign ministry and, if return to Russia is desired, a double/multiple-entry Russian visa.

Will this encourage investors to visit and assess for themselves (free from Georgian pressure) the huge potential of this small Caucasian paradise? Apart from coastal pearls like Gagra and Pitsunda or mountain-jewels like Lake Ritsa, the airport at Dranda has the longest runway in Transcaucasia, and surveys indicate that Ochamchira could provide the best deep-water port in the whole western Caucasus. But the detritus of war remains: climbing the path to the small church of Basil the Martyr in the neighbourhood of the working Monastery of St John Chrysostom at Kaman, we were reminded by a Halo Trust operative not to stray over the white ribbon demarcating a minefield.

Once Turkey ceased to accept Abkhazian passports and the ferry service linking Sukhum with Trabzon was suspended in 1996, Abkhazians found themselves unable to travel abroad - most for emotional reasons refused to obtain Georgian passports. Russia stepped into the breach, and 80% reportedly already possess Russian documents, with which they travel freely.

Also in openDemocracy on Caucasian fractures :

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution" (4 December 2003 )

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?"
(2 August 2006)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover’s revenge"
(6 October 2006)

Georgians complain that, with Russians using their disposable income to buy property in Abkhazia, this territory is gradually being absorbed into Russia. And there is much excitement (vs worry in Tbilisi) over what precedent will be set by the likely recognition of Kosovo. If Abkhazia's initial Soviet status as a union-republic had not been downgraded by Stalin (February 1931) to that of an "autonomous republic" within Georgia, Abkhazia would have joined the community of independent nations upon the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991.

All Georgia has offered Abkhazia after losing its attempt at aggressive territorial integrationism in 1992-93 is a return to the status quo ante. Not a single Abkhazian endorses this option, which would be universally seen - if it were within the pale of rational discussion - as capitulation.

Meanwhile, many of the most vocal advocates of the Georgian national cause are still wont to portray Georgians exclusively as history's victims, which leads them - as in their dispute with the Abkhazians - never to take responsibility for their own actions and to lay the blame elsewhere (usually on Russia).

It is true that the conflict's end was painful for many thousands of residents of Abkhazia who fled to Georgia in the moment of defeat at the end of the 1992-93 war. It was also the jingoistic rhetoric emanating from Tbilisi (voiced by political leaders, media outlets, and scholars, questioning the Abkhazians' historical rights to their homeland and threatening their expulsion) which had precipitated the conflict. A full accounting of the war and its aftermath must take this origin into account.

Moreover, a number of trends in the years since the conflict settled into a cold (and frequently interrupted) peace - intermittent demonstrations by Georgia of military muscle, a tendency to demagogic outburst (not least from Mikheil Saakashvili himself), and the promulgation in school textbooks of the imaginative theory that the Abkhazians are relatively recent settlers on historical, "Georgian" soil - suggest to the Abkhazians (and many others) that little if anything has changed.

Whilst no Abkhazian would risk again placing the nation's survival in Georgian hands, many have reservations about growing association with Russia. But what alternative has the international community's insistence on restoration of (Soviet) Georgia's territorial integrity left them? It is time to realise that universal recognition of Abkhazia's independence is the best guarantee for Transcaucasian prosperity in toto, greater readiness to accommodate more refugees, and a reduction in Russian influence in the region - all western aspirations that western policies themselves currently frustrate.

Just as Vladimir Putin quipped at George W Bush that Russia has no interest in mimicking the "democracy" being built in Iraq, so the Abkhazians could legitimately remind John McCain and his fellow senators that they understand too well what his best friends' "freedom" truly means even to consider re-embracing it.

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