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Chapter I (part 3/4)


Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994

Alexei Zverev

Chapter I consists of 4 parts (1,2,3,4) + notes

3. Ethnic Conflicts in Georgia (1989-1994)

Abkhazia (Apsny, "a Country of the Soul" in the Abkhaz language, Abkhazeti in Georgian), an autonomous republic in Georgia situated on the Black Sea coast, had, as of 1 January 1990, a population of 537,000, of which 44% were Georgians, 17% Abkhaz, 16% Russians and 15% Armenians.(53) The Abkhaz are a people close in language and origin to the North Caucasian peoples of the Adyghe group. Although they lived under Turkish rule from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries and some of them were converted to Islam during that period, there are few Moslems now left in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz population underwent Christianization in the late 19th century, under Russian rule. The territory of the present-day republic was once part of Ancient Rome, Byzantium and Persia. Later, Arabs, Genoese colonists, Turks and Russians sought to control it. Until Abkhazia's absorption by Russia in 1810, Abkhazian rulers were in nominal or effective vassalage or union with various (although often separate) Georgian kingdoms and princedoms. So the historical evidence is ambiguous: both unity with Georgia and autonomy can be argued on historical grounds.

On 31 March 1921, an independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was proclaimed. Abkhazia kept that status until December 1921, when the SSR Abkhazia joined the Georgian SSR under a Treaty of Union. This status lasted until 1931, when the Abkhazian Republic was incorporated into Georgia as an autonomy (the Abkhazian ASSR). The Georgian side, contradicting Abkhaz claims, denies that these changes of status were made under pressure.

Abkhaz authors lay particular emphasis on their people's plight in Stalin's era. Stalinist repression hit Abkhazia like the rest of the USSR, but here it had an additional ethnic colouring, as it was carried out by Georgians. From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, a policy of the Georgianization of Abkhazia and its native people was in progress. The tragedy suffered by the Abkhaz during the Russian conquest in the 19th century - the forced emigration to Turkey of the Moslem sector of the Abkhaz population who had inhabited half the Abkhazian territory - was compounded by a Georgian policy, conducted in Stalin's times, of planned resettlement of Georgians into Abkhazia. The Abkhaz intellectuals and party leaders repeatedly (in 1956, 1967 and 1978) petitioned the Centre to separate Abkhazia from Georgia and attach it to Russia. In response to this pressure, the Centre made a number of concessions to the Abkhaz in personnel and cultural policy. Thus, by 1988, Abkhazia had its own radio and TV, which were outside Tbilisi's control. Abkhaz party cadres represented a prominent - and, in Georgian eyes, disproportionate - proportion of the republic's administrative personnel. Nevertheless, the fact that the Abkhaz - a people with two thousand years of recorded history - were reduced by that history to 17% of the republic's population, and were enduring what they viewed as the smouldering enmity of the less tolerant part of the Georgian population towards their national aspirations, was taking its toll. Niko Chavchavadze, a Georgian MP and director of the Institute of Philosophy, writing in 1994, recalled that only a minority of Georgian intellectuals were prepared to take Abkhaz interests into account, as they feared for Georgia's territorial integrity.(54) In 1989, the objective of the Abkhaz separatists, as a first step towards complete independence from Georgia, was to secure a return to the status of Abkhazia prior to 1931.(55)

As of 1989, the autonomous oblast of South Ossetia within Georgia had a population of nearly 100,000, of whom 66.2% were Ossetes and 29% Georgians.(56) Half of the families in the region were of mixed Georgian-Ossetian descent. The Ossetes are descendants of the ancient Alan tribes of Iranian stock. Some of them are Orthodox Christians and some (in certain regions of North Ossetia) are Moslems. On 20 April 1922, after the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO) was formed. Georgian-Ossetian strife dates back to 1918-21, when the Menshevik government of Georgia ruthlessly (the Ossetes say: genocidally) suppressed a Bolshevik-supported South Ossetian insurgency (the Ossetes were largely landless peasants, living on lands owned by Georgian aristocrats). South Ossetian leaders, such as Torez Kulumbegov, claimed that South Ossetia was the only autonomous entity in the USSR whose population was now lower in absolute numbers than before the 1917 revolution.(57) Even if this is an exaggeration (the data available to us for 1897 and 1926 do not bear it out), a Soviet demographic dictionary confirms that the AO's population had decreased in 1984 (98,000 inhabitants) by comparison with 1939 (106,000).(58) The decrease might be explained partly by heavy losses in World War II and partly by the resettlement of South Ossetes (on orders from the Kremlin) on former Ingush lands after the Ingush deportation in 1944. According to Kulumbegov, Ossetes in the AO were barred from entering higher education establishments and restricted in filling administrative posts, a fact the Georgians deny. Georgian writers have claimed that, like the Abkhazian ASSR, the South Ossetian AO had been formed by the Bolsheviks to create permanent sources of tension, so as to enable the Kremlin to control Georgia more easily. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were said to be run on an ethnocratic basis, to the detriment of Georgian national interests.(59) Hence the perceived Georgian need to curtail if not abolish these autonomous entities. The response from the South Ossetes was either to try to secure federal status within Georgia or, failing that, to seek to be reunited with North Ossetia, forming part of Russia.(60)

The 9 April 1989 Tragedy and the Abkhazian Question

On 18 March 1989, an Abkhaz assembly in the village of Lykhny proposed that Abkhazia should secede from Georgia and that the status of a Union republic be restored to it. 30 thousand participants in the Lykhny assembly - including all the party and government leaders of the ASSR, but also five thousand Armenians, Greeks, Russians and even Georgians - signed an appeal published in all local papers on 24 March, stating their position on the causes of the conflict as outlined above.

Georgian outrage at the Abkhaz demands was expressed in unsanctioned meetings organized by "informal movements" across the republic, which combined anti-communist and anti-Soviet slogans with calls to "punish" the Abkhaz and abolish their autonomy. Especially active in these meetings (the 12,000-strong meeting in Gali on 25 March, Leselidze on 1 April, Sukhumi and other cities) was Abkhazia's Georgian population. The long-suppressed Georgian yearning for independence became irrepressible after the violent outcome of the Tbilisi hunger strike and demonstrations of early April 1989. These demonstrations, prompted by the Lykhny meeting, started out under anti-Abkhaz slogans, but quickly acquired a broader, pro-independence character. On 9 April they were brutally dispersed by Soviet (Russian) troops (21 people, mostly girls and old women, were killed with sharpened digging tools and toxic gas).

In Moscow, besides causing loud public outcry, the bloody incident led to lengthy recriminations among the party and military elite over who should take the blame for the event. The debates were especially heated at the first Congress of the USSR People's Deputies (May-June 1989).(61) Gorbachev disclaimed all responsibility, shifting it on the army. The revelations in the liberal Soviet media as well as the findings of the "pro-perestroika" Deputy Anatoli Sobchak's commission of enquiry into the Tbilisi events, made known at the second Congress in December 1989, resulted in a massive "loss of face" by the Soviet hardliners and army leadership implicated in the event.(62) After that, the army was gripped by the so-called "Tbilisi syndrome": an unwillingness to involve itself in internal military ventures of any kind, much less ethnic feuds.

A session of the Georgian Supreme Soviet, held on 17-18 November 1989, officially condemned Soviet Russia's infringement of the Russo-Georgian Treaty of 7 May 1920 in annexing Georgia in February 1921, thus paving the way for the republic's independence. Politically, in the wake of the events of 9 April Georgia was almost left alone by the Union Centre; the latter was quite content to see the republic in the throes of ethnic conflicts. However, there is not enough evidence, in our view, to suggest that the Centre actually engineered these conflicts. At most, it can be said that, as they flared up for local reasons and in pursuance of local interests, the Centre used them to its own advantage.

By the second half of 1989, as news of chauvinistic pronouncements and policies by Georgian politicians became known, a rift appeared between the Georgian nationalists and Russian democrats, after Andrei Sakharov wrote his passage where he described the Union republics (including Georgia) as "minor empires".(63) This drew a storm of protest in Georgian political circles.

Conflicts in Abkhazia: 1989 - End of 1991

The dynamics of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict were influenced by a number of factors: the extreme positions taken by Georgian nationalists in 1989 (no to Abkhazian autonomy); Gamsakhurdia's chauvinism; the Abkhaz leadership's reliance on hardline forces in Russia, and the autonomist movement in the North Caucasus. The situation was further complicated by the break-up of the USSR and the continued instability in Georgia after the fall of Gamsakhurdia (in particular, the Zviadist insurgency in Megrelia and divisions in the Georgian leadership on the subject of Abkhazia).

On 15-16 July 1989, intercommunal violence erupted in the city of Sukhumi over the establishment of a department of Tbilisi State University in the city. The Georgian part of Sukhumi University refused to stay as long as Abkhaz and Russian lecturers remained there. The Abkhaz then attacked a school which was expected to house the Georgian university. At that time, neither side was strong enough to force the issue militarily. The battles between the Georgians and the Abkhaz over the Abkhazian question were relegated to the legislatures of the two republics.

In August 1990, the Georgian Supreme Soviet passed an election law banning regionally-based parties from taking part in elections to the Georgian parliament.(64) This was intended, in part, to prevent the Abkhaz Aydgylara (Unification) movement (the Abkhaz People's Forum) from fielding its candidates. On 25 August 1990, Abkhaz delegates to the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, separately from their Georgian colleagues, passed a Declaration on the Sovereignty of Abkhazia. Justification for the move was provided by the adoption by the Georgian Supreme Soviet, in 1989-1990, of legislation annulling all the treaties concluded by the Soviet Georgian government since February 1921 which had served as a legal foundation for the existence of the Georgian autonomies - those of Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Abkhaz declaration was annulled by the Georgian Supreme Soviet a few days later.

After Gamsakhurdia's Round Table bloc had won the Georgian parliamentary elections in October 1990, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet started on a course of defying Gamsakhurdia's authority. In December 1990, Vladislav Ardzinba, whom the Georgian leaders had accused of fanning Abkhaz separatism and of belonging to the Soyuz Group - a group of hardline deputies to the Soviet parliament - was elected chairman of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet. At the same session, the Abkhazian parliament voted to prepare a draft law on new parliamentary elections.(65)

In March 1991, Gamsakhurdia issued an "Appeal to the Abkhazian People". While professing respect for the age-old friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, he called Ardzinba a "traitor" and a tool in the hands of Moscow. For his part, Ardzinba declared that the Abkhazian parliament still considered Abkhazia part of the USSR, while the newly issued draft of the Union treaty granted equal rights to Union and autonomous republics; finally, the Georgian parliament had enacted a law on the prefects (published on 27 April 1991) which violated Abkhazian constitutional rights.(66)

In defiance of a Georgia-wide ban on its holding imposed by Gamsakhurdia, Abkhazia voted in the referendum on the preservation of the Union, which was held on 17 March 1991. 52.4% of the electorate took part, with a 98.4% "yes" vote.(67) Gamsakhurdia threatened to disband the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet and abolish the Abkhazian autonomy.

In a counter-move, Ardzinba arranged for the redeployment of a Russian airborne assault battalion from the Baltic republics to Sukhumi. The battalion has been quartered in Sukhumi ever since, while Ardzinba has established friendly contacts with the Russian military.(68) A reinforced Russian military presence compelled Gamsakhurdia to make concessions and allow the elections to the Abkhazian parliament to proceed on a quota basis: 28 seats to the Abkhaz, 26 to the Georgians and 11 to all the remaining ethnic groups. The elections were duly held, in two stages, in October-December 1991.

Conflicts in South Ossetia, 1989-92

In contrast to Abkhazia - whose autonomous status was only briefly challenged in Georgia in 1989, while the Abkhaz were mostly considered to be an autochtonous people - the Ossetes were regarded as relative newcomers to Georgian land and their claims were, in Georgian eyes, even less valid than those of the Abkhaz. Even the term "South Ossetia" has been "wiped out" of Georgian publications and replaced with "Samachablo" (Land of the Machabeli, from the name of the Georgian feudal family which allegedly ruled it), Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli) or, later, the Tskhinvali region.(69) South Ossetia's geographical position (a mountainous region surrounded on three sides by Georgian settlements) made the Ossetes more vulnerable than the Abkhaz in the event of hostilities.

Conflicts in South Ossetia became a political issue as a result of an attempt by the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet to upgrade the status of the AO. On 10 November 1989, it approved a decision to transform the AO into the South Ossetian ASSR, which would form part of Georgia. In a day, the Georgian parliament revoked the South Ossetian parliament's decision. The first stage of the conflict lasted from November 1989 to January 1990, and started with a march of more than 20,000 Georgians to Tskhinvali, organized on 23 November 1989 by Gamsakhurdia and the Georgian CP leader, Givi Gumbaridze, "to defend the Georgian population". The marchers were prevented from entering the town by the armoured cars of the Soviet Ministry of the Interior. Some of the Georgian paramilitary troops stayed in nearby Georgian villages, engaging in clashes with the Ossetian population. The first blood was spilt. Talks between Gamsakhurdia and his Ossetian counterpart, General Kim Tsagolov, brought no result. Gamsakhurdia was quoted as saying to Tsagolov: "I shall bring a 200,000-strong army. Not a single Ossete will remain in the land of Samachablo. I demand that the Soviet flags be removed!"(70) The conflict stabilized in 1990, largely thanks to differences within the Georgian national movement. A number of parties that later formed the National Congress (e.g., Giorgi Chanturia's National Democratic Party of Georgia, the NDPG) criticized the role played by the parties allied to Gamsakhurdia in ethnic crises. An Ossetian source quotes Chanturia as saying: "It was a great mistake to go to Tskhinvali, and a double one to return".(71)

On 26 April 1990, the USSR Supreme Soviet passed a law providing for a notable enhancement of the rights of Soviet autonomies. By so doing, the Centre encouraged the autonomies to fight for their sovereignty against the majority in some multinational Union republics striving for independence (Moldova, Georgia). But instead of giving the autonomies effective protection, it merely played them against the nationalistic currents in those republics, thus paving the way for political and military interference in their affairs by the Kremlin.(72)

The August 1990 ban preventing regional parties from running for election for the Georgian parliament, mentioned above in connection with Abkhazia, was likewise aimed at preventing South Ossetia's Adamon Nykhas (Popular Assembly) movement from taking part in the Georgian election. The South Ossetian Oblast Soviet countered the move by declaring the oblast the South Ossetian Soviet Democratic Republic (YuOSDR) and appealing to Moscow to recognize it as an independent subject of the Soviet federation.(73) South Ossetia boycotted the October elections to the Georgian parliament.

After Gamsakhurdia's Round Table bloc won the elections in Georgia in October 1990, he declared that the autonomies in Georgia would be preserved. Nevertheless, on 9 December 1990 elections were held to the Supreme Soviet of the YuOSDR. On 11 December, the Supreme Soviet of Georgia reneged on the earlier promise and adopted a law abolishing the South Ossetian autonomy. The next day, the Kremlin imposed a state of emergency in the Ossetian-populated districts of South Ossetia. Chanturia described Gamsakhurdia's decision to abolish the South Ossetian autonomy as politically unjustified and premature until Georgia became fully independent, as the Kremlin might use it to foment national discord.(74) Still in December 1990, Georgia started a blockade of South Ossetia which lasted until the end of July 1992. During the night of 6 January, Georgian police and paramilitary, Alsatians on the leash, entered Tskhinvali and carried out violent reprisals against the defenceless population, supposedly in search of arms. On 7 January, Gorbachev issued a decree repealing both the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet's decision to proclaim a secessionist republic and its Georgian counterpart's abolition of the South Ossetian autonomy. He ordered the two sides to withdraw all military formations - except those of the USSR Ministry of the Interior - from South Ossetia within three days.(75) The Georgian Supreme Soviet defied the order, and nothing happened. On 16 January, Rafik Nishanov, President of the Chamber of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Soviet, paid a visit to Georgia. The result appeared to be a compromise between the higher Soviet and Georgian authorities: Georgia was supposed to acknowledge that its police was subordinated to the Soviet Ministry of the Interior, in return for an opportunity to deal with South Ossetia as it saw fit. That, in Ossetian eyes, signalled a go-ahead for more terror. The presence of Georgian policemen in Tskhinvali continued until early February 1991 when, by agreement with the South Ossetian authorities, they withdrew from the blockaded city.

On 29 January 1991, the chair of the Supreme Soviet of South Ossetia, Torez Kulumbegov, was arrested in the presence of Russian officers during talks with Georgian authorities. The South Ossetian public was angry that the central government took no steps to ensure his liberation. In a Tbilisi jail, Kulumbegov was kept together with Mkhedrioni leader Jaba Ioseliani, arrested by Gamsakhurdia in February 1991.(76) The YuOSDR took part in the all-Union referendum of 17 March 1991 on the fate of the Union, boycotted by Georgia, and ignored the Georgian referendum on independence held on 31 March of the same year. At the Union referendum, South Ossetes voted 99 per cent in favour of keeping the Union, hoping that such a vote would induce the Centre to take measures to protect them. As a result, Georgian atrocities only increased. Ossetes began to be expelled from their villages which, they said, were pillaged and burned with people still in them. Conversely, the Georgian public was indignant over instances of Ossetian atrocities, such as the burning alive of four Georgian peasants on 18 March 1991. About 10,000 Georgian civilians took refuge from the war in the inner regions of Georgia. The Kremlin showed no willingness to intervene, preoccupied as it was with other "hot spots" of the disintegrating Soviet Union and with political rivalries in Moscow. The fighting on the Georgian side was mostly done by Vazha Adamia's Merab Kostava Society, allied to Gamsakhurdia. Most of its membership consisted of Georgian residents of South Ossetia. They were opposed by Ossetian self-defence forces.

After Gamsakhurdia's fall, the Military Council of Georgia released Torez Kulumbegov from prison at the beginning of 1992. This served as an invitation to dialogue to the South Ossetian leaders. The latter, however, chose not to pursue a line of compromise. In a referendum held in South Ossetia on 19 January 1992, boycotted by local Georgians, more than 90% of those taking part voted to join Russia. The referendum had been initiated by a group of South Ossetian deputies favouring the line of the former party chief, Anatoli Chekhoev, that armed struggle was the only way out. The North Ossetian authorities disagreed with the move as unrealistic.(77) Among the Russian experts, it evoked a mixed, generally negative reaction. Galina Starovoytova, then adviser to President Yeltsin on the question of nationalities and a champion of minority rights, while admitting that it made things difficult for Russia, still tended to see the South Ossetian referendum ("the people's choice") as a precedent for the solution of such problems for the world community at large.(78) Political scientists Emile Pain and Arkadi Popov, on the contrary, considered the referendum as morally reprehensible (an attempt to take advantage of the turmoil in Georgia), legally dubious (conducted under martial law and not following the correct procedure) and politically ineffective (if Russia supported it, it would be criticized by the ex-Soviet republics who suspected Russia of wanting to violate their territorial integrity; if it did not, the referendum would be met with reproaches from Russian hard-liners defending the "rights of the Russian-speaking population" in the "near abroad").(79)

South Ossetia refused to enter into negotiations with the new regime in Georgia until it pulled Georgian troops out of the region and lifted the blockade. There was a certain lessening of combat activity in the early months of 1992, explained by the fact that Mkhedrioni and the National Guard had their hands tied in Megrelia and parts of Abkhazia, fighting the Zviadists. In mid-April, however, Georgian artillery started daily missile attacks on the residential quarters of Tskhinvali.(80) A first cease-fire was agreed in Tskhinvali on 13 May, only to break down a few days later. On 20 May 1992, unidentified gunmen (Ossetes had no doubt that they were Georgians) massacred a busload of Ossetian refugees fleeing Tskhinvali near the Georgian village of Kekhvi. All political contact was broken off and North Ossetia cut the pipeline supplying Georgia with Russian gas.(81) A new cease-fire in early June again broke down within a few days. Two important factors then intervened to change the situation. One was the North Ossetian factor. Another was the increasingly important role played by the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. As the influx of refugees from South Ossetia and the inner regions of Georgia grew, North Ossetia was forced to intervene, pressing the Russian leadership to take steps towards the resolution of the conflict. The North Ossetian leader, Akhsarbek Galazov, disagreed with the "radical tendency" among South Ossetian leaders (Head of Government Oleg Teziev and First Deputy Chairman of Parliament Alan Chochiev) and generally acted to defuse the conflict.

The Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (KGNK), set up at the third Congress of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus on 1-2 November 1991 (chairman: Musa Shanibov) and successor to the Assembly of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (AGNK), acted as an unofficial parliament of peoples of the North Caucasus and had its military formations drawn from the KGNK member republics. On 13 June 1992, Shanibov brought an Abkhaz KGNK battalion to Vladikavkaz, intending to send it to fight on the side of South Ossetia. Galazov refused to let it travel on to Tskhinvali.(82) A further development of the conflict (as later in Abkhazia) would threaten the involvement of the peoples of the North Caucasus and destabilization throughout the whole region.

Towards the middle of June 1992, Russia was on the brink of war with Georgia for South Ossetia. A number of Russian leaders, including RF Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar, made strongly-worded statements on Georgian behaviour in South Ossetia. Khasbulatov warned that if Georgia did not stop the bloodshed, the Russian parliament would consider granting South Ossetia's request to join Russia, while Rutskoi telephoned Shevardnadze and threatened to bomb Tbilisi.(83) The less warlike elements in the Russian elite pointed out that besides the principle of self-determination (invoked by South Ossetia), a principle of minimization of human suffering also had to be taken into account: they argued that the suffering could only be increased if, in retaliation for Georgia's "inhuman" siege of Tskhinvali, Russia launched an all-out war against Georgia.(84)

On 22 June 1992, Yeltsin and Shevardnadze met in Dagomys and, with North and South Ossetian representatives, signed the Sochi agreement on a cease-fire and the deployment of joint Russian, Georgian and Ossetian peacekeeping forces. These were moved into the region on 14 July and the agreement has held since. The South Ossetian demand for the establishment of treaty relations between South Ossetia and Georgia was not accepted, though the Ossetian-populated districts have remained out of bounds for Georgia. The question of the status of South Ossetia has not been solved to this day.

The overall consequences of the war were devastating: according to Olga Vasilyeva, 93 villages (mostly Ossetian) were completely burned down; most of the thousand Ossetes killed in the war were civilians, only 100 among them members of the South Ossetian self-defence forces.(85) The number of South Ossetian refugees to North Ossetia varies according to different sources. While some writers, like Vasilyeva, have cited a figure of up to 100,000 (presumably including those expelled from the inner regions of Georgia - there were 160,000 Ossetes in the whole of Georgia in 1979), a Russian general, Alexander Kotenkov, then head of the provisional administration in the zone of the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, estimated their number at 30,000 in March 1993, plus another 7,000 Ossetes who became refugees from the Prigorodny Raion of North Ossetia during the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in autumn 1992.(86) A traveller to the region speaks of 40,000 Ossetes now remaining in South Ossetia plus up to 7,000 from the inner regions of Georgia. Part of this population periodically migrates from Tskhinvali to Vladikavkaz and back.(87)

Since July 1992, little has changed in South Ossetia, a land that seems to have been forgotten by the outside world: no ties with Georgia, and hence no supplies from there; almost no attempt made (for lack of financial resources) to rebuild what has been destroyed in the war; factories idle, with the population engaged in subsistence farming. In September 1993, Ludvig Chibirov, a colleague of North Ossetian leader Galazov, became Chairman of the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet, later renamed State Nykhas (Council of Elders); elections to that body held in March 1994 gave the South Ossetian Communist Party 19 seats out of 36.(88) In October 1994, Shevardnadze admitted that the conflict in South Ossetia had been the grossest mistake of the former Georgian leadership, and diplomatic efforts to solve the refugee problem were stepped up by the Georgian and South Ossetian sides.(89)

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© 1996, VUB University Press