Home | Order Information | Contents

Chapter I (part 4/4)


Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994

Alexei Zverev

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

4. A Prelude to War and the Georgian Invasion of Abkhazia (August - September 1992)

As the war was raging in South Ossetia, the Abkhazian leadership sought to reinforce its political and military position. In the new Abkhazian Supreme Soviet - elected on a quota basis - which started to function in early 1992, Georgian deputies complained of discrimination; they expressed concern over Ardzinba's decision to form an Abkhaz-only National Guard. In early May, Georgian deputies began boycotting the sessions of the Abkhazian parliament; in June, they started a campaign of civil disobedience, followed by a Georgian strike in Sukhumi and attempts to set up parallel power structures. That same month, Abkhaz national guardsmen attacked the building of Abkhazia's Ministry of Internal Affairs in Sukhumi, controlled by the Georgian authorities. The minister, Givi Lominadze, was severely beaten. He was replaced by Ardzinba's supporter Alexander Ankvab.(90) This happened on the very day that Yeltsin and Shevardnadze were meeting in Dagomys to decide the question of South Ossetia.

On 23 July 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet ruled (with the Georgian Democratic Abkhazia faction abstaining) that the 1978 constitution of the Abkhazian ASSR was invalid and that, pending the adoption of a new constitution, the 1925 Abkhazian constitution which provided for a treaty relationship with Georgia was in force.(91) The State Council of Georgia declared this decision null and void. In July, Zviadists in Megrelia took a number of high-ranking Georgian officials hostage and kept them in the Georgian-populated Gali Raion of Abkhazia. In addition, they disrupted railway traffic. This was ostensibly the pretext for the Georgian march into Abkhazia which began on 14 August, when Kitovani's tank columns entered Sukhumi, joining battle with the Abkhaz National Guard. According to Georgian reports, the Abkhaz forces were the first to open fire. The Georgian government side later claimed that Ardzinba had been notified in advance of plans to move Georgian troops into Abkhazia to protect the railway and free the hostages (a fact denied by Ardzinba himself).

A cease-fire was negotiated, allowing Russian troops to evacuate holidaymakers and enabling Ardzinba's government to withdraw to Gudauta in the north of Abkhazia; the Georgian forces even withdrew from the centre of Sukhumi as part of the agreement. However, on 18 August Tengiz Kitovani's forces unexpectedly re-entered Sukhumi and captured it. They occupied the Abkhazian parliament and, amid cheers, removed the Abkhaz flag and symbols from the building. An eight-man military council was set up to run the republic's administration. An official Abkhaz publication, the White Book, later listed by name 2,000 Abkhaz and other non-Georgian civilians and military men (Russians, Armenians, North Caucasians and Greeks) killed by the Georgian forces either in battle or as a result of the harsh regime of occupation in Abkhazia, the data cited mainly covering the period from August 1992 until March 1993. The Abkhazian White Book estimated that figure at about 30 per cent of all non-Georgian war losses.(92) The Abkhaz forces continued stubbornly to hold their ground north of the Gumista River and in the blockaded Tkvarcheli, south-east of Sukhumi. Abkhazian public figures and intellectuals accused the Georgians of annihilating peaceful Abkhaz villages, relics of history and culture, museums, art galleries, scientific institutes and archives, and of conducting a policy of terror. Among the objects destroyed was the pantheon of Abkhazian writers and public figures and the Abkhazian Institute of Language, Literature and History in Sukhumi.(93)

Afterwards, in an interview with US newsmen, Shevardnadze admitted that the attack on the Abkhazian parliament "had not been necessary", while his close aide, Sergei Tarasenko, termed Kitovani's actions as stupid and counter-productive.(94) Nevertheless, Shevardnadze chose to back the military campaign in public, declaring over the radio on 17 August: "Now we can say that Georgian authority has been restored throughout the entire territory of the republic".(95)

It could be argued that, just before August 1992, Russia secured the military preponderance of Georgian forces over the Abkhaz ones, which invited the former to go on the offensive in Abkhazia. In autumn 1992, the Abkhaz had only eight tanks and 30 armoured cars, whereas just one Russian division handed over 108 tanks to Georgia.(96) The extent of Russian help to Abkhazian forces can be assessed from the fact that more than 100,000 land mines are estimated to have been planted during the war (earlier, there had been no arms industry or ammunition dumps in Abkhazia). Some of these mines were, of course, planted by the Georgian side, also supplied from Soviet/Russian army dumps.(97)

Tactics of the Two Sides in the Abkhazian War

In the opinion of military professionals, the protagonists in the Abkhazian war had no strategic aims which, once achieved, would enable either side to break the other's resistance. Georgia's aim in the conflict - namely, to defeat the adversary's regime by a war of attrition - was unattainable because the Abkhaz made use of the potential of the North Caucasus (the KGNK) and, by extension, Russia.(98) Likewise, due to their lack of manpower, the Abkhaz could only hope to win a short-term victory. With the benefit of hindsight, one could say that, given the internal disarray in Georgia, the lack of a unified Georgian army and the diplomatic pressure that would be exerted by Russia to prevent a Georgian military comeback after an Abkhaz victory, the Abkhaz did in fact have a chance of success, at least for a time. Clashes with small autonomous armed units rendered the deployment of heavy artillery and armoured vehicles relatively useless. On the tactical plane, the Georgians needed to take control of the only Adler - Gagra - Gudauta - Gali - Zugdidi road and the railway running parallel to it. Another task was to close the mountain passes leading from the North Caucasus. The Georgians also had to keep garrisons along the whole road up to their supply bases in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. The Abkhaz, on the contrary, had to keep the road under their own control and disrupt the enemy's communications with mobile units. On the whole, the Georgians failed to achieve their tactical objectives. The hostilities were marked by positional warfare interrupted by the capture of Gagra and the areas adjoining the Russian border by the Abkhaz forces (October 1992); Abkhaz offensives in March and July 1993, and the complete expulsion of the Georgian forces in late September 1993.

The North Caucasian Factor

The most immediate support for the Abkhaz cause came from the unofficial anti-Georgian movements in the North Caucasus and their military units. The conflict at once rebounded upon the whole region of the North Caucasus: all North Caucasian republics were swept by meetings called under the slogan "Hands off Abkhazia!". Such meetings were held in North Ossetia, Karachai-Circassia, Kabardino-Balkaria and elsewhere. On 17 August 1992, at a session of its parliament in Grozny, Chechnya, the KGNK (which was to be renamed KNK - Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus - in October 1992) drew up a platform of solidarity with Abkhazia. It was joined by such organizations as the International Circassian Association and the Congress of the Kabardan People. A registration of volunteers started. Each people of the North Caucasus was to form a detachment of 60 to 100 armed men. On 18 August, a session of the KGNK parliament adopted a decision that, if the Georgian troops were not withdrawn from Abkhazia within three days, the Confederation would declare war on Georgia. Three days later, KGNK president Musa Shanibov signed a decree on the start of hostilities on the territory of Abkhazia (which did start) and in Tbilisi (which proved to be bluff).

The confederates began to arrive in Abkhazia via mountain paths. The local authorities, much as they feared uncontrollable mass movements of North Caucasian peoples, could not stop the volunteers, risking a loss of power if they tried to do so. The example of Chechnya, where General Dudaev had taken control after overthrowing the local communist leadership in autumn 1991, was uncomfortably close. What the confederates saw as Russia's collusion with Georgia against Abkhazia infuriated the peoples of the North Caucasus, especially those ethnically related to the Abkhaz (the Kabards, Circassians and Adyghe).

Such a turn of events was extremely unwelcome to the Russian government, which on 18 August issued a statement on the "inadmissibility of intervention in the internal affairs of Georgia". The Russian authorities arrested Shanibov, but riots in late September in Nalchik, the capital of Kabarda, forced them to turn a blind eye when Shanibov escaped arrest and appeared in Nalchik before the crowds. Later he went to fight in Abkhazia. Politically, there were differences between the various Confederate leaders and ethnic groups. While Shanibov leaned towards such Russian nationalist hardliners as Sergei Baburin, the KNK commander in Abkhazia - Shamil Basaev, a Chechen - spoke out against Russian domination in the Caucasus.

Besides the North Caucasian irregulars, the Abkhazian cause was furthered by Cossack elements, often hostile to non-Russian North Caucasians fighting in Abkhazia, especially Chechens. Cossacks patrolled the border between Russia and Georgia and took part in the conflict in support of the Abkhaz for the sake of "Great Russia". Mercenaries and volunteers were active on both sides. On the Abkhaz side, these were the Russian Trans-Dniester guardsmen fresh from the war in Moldova. On the Georgian side, there were the sportswomen snipers from the Baltic states who came to fight for mercenary reasons, and the volunteers from the extreme nationalist Ukrainian UNA-UNSO organization, motivated by anti-Russian feeling.

Russian Policies and the Georgian-Abkhazian War (1992-1993)

Throughout 1992 and 1993, Russia had no single policy with regard to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. It was not clear which would best suit Russian interests - to see Georgia strong and united or weak and dismembered.(99) Andrei Kortunov, Head of the Foreign Policy department of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, described the Russian inconsistencies as follows: "For Russia, the problem is not how to prevent these conflicts or mediate them. It is too late for the former, and the latter may backfire. Russian diplomacy is not mature enough to keep the proper balance between the conflicting sides. It tends to be politically biased and subject to lobbying from ethnic-centered communities".(100)

Still, it was impossible for Russia to keep away from the conflict. Russian garrisons were stationed both in Georgia proper and in the parts of Abkhazia controlled by both sides. Sections of the military were opposed to the line taken by Andrei Kozyrev's Foreign Ministry and to the support accorded Shevardnadze by Yeltsin and Kozyrev. The North Caucasian peoples were watching closely for any sign of a pro-Georgian trend in Russia's actions; in Moscow itself, the issue - as with South Ossetia - became a subject of dispute between Yeltsin and his hardline opponents in parliament. The "dovish" line in Russian policy, under attack from various quarters, could not hide the fact that even official Russian policy was drifting towards a more assertive and paternalistic style in relation to the "near abroad" areas, regarded as the "sphere of Russia's strategic interests" (Grachev's statement in February 1993), while it was claimed that Russia should be granted special powers to settle ethnic conflicts on the territory of the ex-USSR (Yeltsin in March the same year).

Kozyrev's efforts were felt in the attempts at mediation, which led to the talks held on 3 September 1992 between Georgia and Russia (Shevardnadze and Yeltsin) with the participation of Ardzinba. The latter, under pressure from Russia, was compelled to sign a document authorizing the presence of Georgian troops on Abkhazian territory and making no mention of a federal structure in Georgia.(101) The agreement fell through with the Abkhaz capture of Gagra in October 1992, referred to earlier.

The Russian military, on the contrary, were less inclined to pressurize Abkhazia in favour of Shevardnadze. A source knowledgeable about the moods of the Russian generals was quoted as saying that "they don't like Shevardnadze and they are defending their sanatoria in Abkhazia. The war will go on until either Shevardnadze or Ardzinba joins Russia in some form or other. The generals have lost too much with the break-up of the USSR. Where there is hope, they will try to regain it".(102) The Russian officers in Gudauta likewise sympathized with the Abkhaz. Besides their hostile attitude to Shevardnadze, whom they saw as the initiator of the break-up of the Soviet state, they were embittered against the Georgians for the "barbarous" pillage of the property of the Russian forces in Georgia and even the killing of Russian soldiers.(103) Although Grachev had given the Russian commanders a severe warning that they should not conduct military action in Abkhazia, their sympathy for the Abkhaz cause meant that they were always ready to offer the Abkhaz a professional consultation or to draw up a battle plan for them.(104) Incredible as it may seem (although it was in line with a consistent Russian policy of supplying both sides in a conflict), at a time when Russian-supplied warplanes were bombing Georgian-held Sukhumi, other Russian units continued to supply the Georgian Army. On 25 March 1993, at a press conference in the headquarters of the Transcaucasian Military District, Major-General Diukov said that the forces of the district were continuing to hand over weapons to Georgia (one division with full equipment so far) and were planning to turn over to them 34 military cantonments before the end of the year. No agreement on the status of Russian troops in Georgia had been signed by that date.(105)

The Georgian side reported a massive influx of volunteers from Trans-Dniester to Gudauta to reinforce the Abkhazian side.(106) Still, as a result of intensive diplomatic activity, operations to aid besieged Tkvarcheli as well as Sukhumi and to evacuate the refugees got under way in June. On 27 July, the agreement was signed in Sochi by the Georgian, Abkhazian and Russian sides. It provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Georgian army from Abkhazia and mutual demilitarization by the belligerents, to be followed by the "return of a legal government to Sukhumi". What that government would be was still to be agreed by the two sides. The agreement evoked mixed feelings in Georgia: although thousands of Georgian civilians returned to Sukhumi in anticipation of a peaceful life to come, large sections of the public were shocked and demoralized, which enabled Gamsakhurdia to emerge once more as a "saviour of Georgia". A third of the Georgian troops to be withdrawn from Abkhazia went over to the Zviadist side.(107) In late July, Zviadist forces, commanded by Loti Kobalia, briefly took Senaki in Western Georgia, ostensibly to prevent the withdrawal of the Georgian army from Abkhazia. In late August they again took Senaki, Abasha and Khobi. Soon afterwards, the Zviadist faction in the Georgian parliament elected in October 1990 convened in Zugdidi and appealed to Gamsakhurdia to return to Georgia and resume his duties as head of state. Disagreements in the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi led Shevardnadze to tender his resignation on 14 September. With the crowds outside parliament imploring him to stay, Shevardnadze agreed to do so, on condition that parliament be suspended for three months.

After the signing of the Sochi agreement, the Abkhaz side complained that the Georgians had failed to withdraw their heavy weapons. The latter said they were being obstructed by the Zviadists and impeded by a lack of logistics and fuel. To complete the operation, the Georgians had recourse to the Black Sea Fleet. According to Georgian accounts, in September its ships evacuated all Georgian hardware and 80 per cent of Georgian troops from Abkhazia.(108) Russia's Defence Minister Grachev, on the contrary, commented that most of the weapons the Georgians had withdrawn were useless.(109) It appears that the Georgian heavy weapons withdrawn to Poti fell into Zviadist hands, while the Abkhaz weapons were stored near the front line, and on the outbreak of hostilities were quickly handed back to the Abkhaz by Russian army units hostile to Shevardnadze.

After the Zviadists launched another offensive against Georgian government troops near Samtredia (15 September), the Abkhaz felt it was time to act. On 16 September, they launched an all-out attack on the Georgian forces. With the help of free-lance Russian soldiers and North Caucasian volunteers, they drove the Georgian army from Abkhazia, capturing Sukhumi on 27 September. Appeals by Shevardnadze to Russian leaders - calling on Russia, as a guarantor of the Sochi agreement, to restore the status-quo - fell on deaf ears. The fact that the Abkhaz had broken the agreement in starting their offensive drew a sharp, though ineffective, reaction from Russian leaders. On 20 September, the Russian government condemned the Abkhaz actions and imposed economic sanctions on Abkhazia, but Grachev refused to commit his troops to disengaging the two sides. Georgian sources reported massive atrocities against the civilian Georgian population, perpetrated by the Abkhaz and their allies.

Meanwhile, the Zviadist offensive in Megrelia continued. In early October, they captured Poti and Samtredia and blocked all rail traffic and food supplies to Tbilisi. At this juncture, Shevardnadze's regime, fearing a total rout by Kobalia's forces, desperately needed Russian help and made a number of important concessions to Russia. On 8 October, Georgia entered the CIS, a step widely seen as tantamount to entering into the Russian sphere of influence. On 9 October, a Georgian-Russian agreement on the status of Russian troops in Georgia was signed (a leasing of military bases, including Poti). The Russian army was called upon to guard strategic roads in Georgia as Georgian government forces were fighting Kobalia to the north. Since early October, Russian troops had been guarding the Poti-Samtredia-Tbilisi railway and on 3 November took Poti under their control, helping to make the port operational. It took most of October and early November for Georgian government troops to bring Megrelia back under control. Gamsakhurdia lost his life in obscure circumstances in a remote village in Western Georgia on 31 December 1993.

Russian/UN Mediation Efforts

After the capture of Zugdidi (6 November 1993), the Georgian forces again approached the borders of Abkhazia. A new period began. It has been characterized by a Georgian inability to resolve the issue by military means and by Russian efforts to get both sides - Georgia and Abkhazia - involved in direct talks. In the process, Russia put pressure on the belligerents in order to prevent a renewed Georgian march into Abkhazia, on the one hand, and, on the other, to compel the Abkhaz to let the Georgian refugees return home. The mediation effort allowed Russia to increase its influence on both sides and safeguard its own interests. Parallel to the Russian mediation, UN mediation was in progress, as the international community tried to monitor Russia's moves. Both belligerents jockeyed for position, trying to use Russian and UN leverage to vindicate their respective claims, which were hard to reconcile. In the end, a precarious peace managed to be achieved, not without problems for Russia's relations with either side. Abkhazia failed to secure an internationally recognized independent status, including recognition by Russia, with the result that it has been impossible to rebuild the war-ravaged republic, while Georgia has made little progress with constructing a coherent state machinery and a viable economy.

In early November 1993, some Georgian officials, Shevardnadze and Ioseliani among them, were making statements about the possibility of a renewed march into Abkhazia. In Tbilisi, Boris Kakubava, a Georgian MP and leader of the Organization for the Liberation of Abkhazia opposed to Shevardnadze's "conciliationist policies", was forming an expeditionary force composed of Georgian refugees in order to enter Abkhazia. In the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia outside Abkhaz control, clashes were taking place between local Georgian militias, reinforced by detachments of Georgian troops, and the Abkhaz forces. On 9 November, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning against the crossing of the Inguri River by either Georgian or Abkhazian troops.

On 1 December, the first round of talks between Georgia and Abkhazia under UN auspices and with the participation of the CSCE, with Russia as facilitator, ended in Geneva with the signing of a memorandum of understanding. Both sides pledged not to use force or the threat of force for the period of the negotiations, to exchange prisoners and create conditions for the voluntary, safe and swift return of the refugees.(110) The latter clause sounded like an important concession on the part of Abkhazia. After the signing of the 1 December memorandum, Russia partially lifted the sanctions against Abkhazia imposed after its breach of the Sochi Agreement. Subsequent events showed, however, that, on the refugee problem, the memorandum would be honoured by Abkhazia more in the breach than in the observance.

Consultations on the future status of Abkhazia, which ended in Moscow on 21 December, revealed the parties' differing approaches to the issue. The Abkhaz side argued that Abkhazia's status should be determined by a referendum in which the population could choose between the following options: 1) autonomy for Abkhazia within Georgia; 2) confederation in which Abkhazia and Georgia would be equal members; 3) complete independence for Abkhazia. The Georgian side, conscious of the fact that in the absence of Georgian refugees the vote would be slanted in favour of the opposing side, refused to discuss the status of Abkhazia "as long as the policy of genocide continued".

Subsequently, the UN-sponsored talks continued in Geneva, New York and Moscow, the only progress being the absence of hostilities. The Abkhaz side delayed the solution of the refugee problem until Georgian troops were withdrawn from the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian side responded with accusations of genocide.

The Russian-Georgian Treaty of 3 February 1994

On 3 February, President Yeltsin of Russia paid a visit to Tbilisi and signed a Treaty on Friendship, Neighbourliness and Co-operation with Georgia. In addition, 25 intergovernmental agreements were signed, dealing with economic cooperation, science and technology, transport, communications, pensions, etc. The treaty provided for the establishment of five Russian military bases in Georgia and the stationing of Russian border guards along Georgia's borders with Turkey. Russia pledged to aid Georgia in organizing and re-equipping its army after the settlement of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ratification of the treaty by the Russian side was made conditional on the settlement of these conflicts. Russia reiterated its recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity. For Georgia, economic agreements with Russia were especially urgent as the Georgian economy was tottering on the brink of collapse. In 1993, net national product was some 30.3% of that of 1990.(111)

In Russia, the government camp was in favour of the treaty, but the Duma against. The 3 February statement by the Duma objected to the treaty on the grounds that 1) Georgia had unilaterally infringed international agreements on the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict; 2) Georgian aggression against Abkhazia was continuing, and to conclude a treaty with a warring country was to abet aggression; 3) the treaty would provoke negative reactions in the North Caucasus, in Russia as a whole and in all the countries inhabited by the Circassian diaspora; 4) the treaty provided for assistance in the formation of Georgian armed forces, their equipment and the purchase of military hardware and technology, which contravened the law.(112) The statement was signed by all the factions in the Duma, including Russia's Choice, headed by Yegor Gaidar. The Duma's position was supported by the leaders of South Ossetia, the International Circassian Association and Abkhazia, where mass meetings in defence of the republic's sovereignty were held on 31 January 1994. The Abkhazian Supreme Soviet made a statement saying that the Russo-Georgian treaty had no effect on Abkhazia, as the latter was not a part of Georgia.

Diplomatic Moves

10 February 1994 was scheduled in January as the date for starting the return of the refugees. Instead, fresh hostilities erupted. The Abkhaz side accused the Georgians of firing on Abkhaz positions on the Inguri River on 6 February, and of using the process of the return of refugees as an excuse for an armed incursion onto the territory of Abkhazia to instigate guerrilla warfare. The Georgian side denied these charges. In March, the Georgian State Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons reported that 188,970 refugees, some 160,000 of them from Abkhazia, had been officially registered and accommodated in 63 districts of Georgia.(113) The Georgian refugees, grouped near the Inguri, pressed desperately for the right to enter, staging marches and hunger strikes in the months that followed.

The precondition for starting the UN peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia was for the two sides to reach at least a semblance of progress in the talks. As no progress had been made, the Security Council did not deem it possible to deploy peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia. On 10 March, while Shevardnadze was in the United States, the Georgian parliament disbanded the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia and annulled all its decisions. The Abkhazian Supreme Soviet immediately cancelled all plans for the return of the refugees. Shevardnadze considered the Georgian parliament's move a mistake, as it blocked further progress in the negotiations. At the end of March, fighting in Abkhazian Svaneti flared up again. Russia issued an appeal to both sides to resume negotiations.

On 4 April, the Abkhaz and Georgian sides, with Russia's mediation and UN and CSCE participation, signed a quadripartite agreement in Moscow on the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons.(114) The agreement stipulated that immunity from arrest, detainment, imprisonment and criminal prosecution did not apply to those who had perpetrated military crimes, crimes against humanity or serious common crimes. These people, as well as those who had earlier taken part in hostilities and were currently enrolled in military units preparing for military action in Abkhazia, were not eligible to return to Abkhazia. The agreement was bound to evoke opposition in Georgia, as it concerned only Georgian and not Abkhazian war criminals, not to mention the fact that most of the male Georgian population of Abkhazia had been enlisted to take part in the war on the Georgian side, even though not all actually fought. In addition, on 4 April a statement on measures for the solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict was signed.(115) This stipulated that Abkhazia would have its own constitution and legislation as well as its own national anthem, coat of arms and flag. The parties reached an understanding on "powers for common activity" in such fields as foreign policy and foreign trade, border service, customs, etc. This was interpreted by the Abkhaz side as a step towards the recognition of both sides as equal and sovereign subjects delegating powers to each other. "Georgia has in fact recognized the sovereignty of Abkhazia," said A. Jergenia, representing Abkhazia at the talks.(116) Shevardnadze and other Georgian leaders later pointed out that, contrary to Abkhaz claims, the statement of 4 April did not speak of Abkhazia as a subject of international law. Nor did it contain any mention of a confederal status for Abkhazia.(117)

On 14 May, the two sides signed another agreement on a ceasefire and the disengagement of troops. Both sides would withdraw 12 km from the front lines along the Inguri River to form a sufficiently wide security zone. The Abkhaz side was to pull its artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles back as far as Sukhumi and the Georgian side to Zugdidi. In addition, the Georgians were to withdraw their troops from the Kodori Gorge and allow their military equipment there to be destroyed. Peacekeeping operations involving a 2,000-strong Russian contingent started on 20 June. However, it was not until the end of August that the first group of Georgian refugees was allowed into Gali Raion.

Russian pressure, exerted on Abkhazia in order to solve the refugee problem, led to a gradual worsening of Russian-Abkhaz relations. In early July, Ardzinba refused to meet Kozyrev during the latter's visit to the conflict zone, bringing sharp criticism from Kozyrev. On 25 August, the Russian peacekeepers set up road-blocks and briefly disarmed the Abkhaz police in Gudauta after a reported shooting at a Russian military sanatorium at a time when Russia's Deputy Defence Minister, General Georgi Kondratyev, was present.(118) In mid-September, the Abkhaz and the Russian peacekeepers were on the brink of open hostilities when General Vasily Yakushev, commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia, promised to allow a mass crossing of Georgian refugees, due to start on 14 September. The Abkhaz mobilized their motorized infantry, tanks and anti-aircraft forces and moved them into the neutral zone. The crossing was cancelled. The crisis ended with a Russian-brokered meeting between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba in the presence of Yeltsin in Novy Afon, Abkhazia, on 16 September. The Georgian opposition criticized Shevardnadze for making this ostensibly peace-loving gesture, which, it said, was actually designed by the Russians to curtail Georgia's capability to conduct independent policy on the eve of the Georgian leader's projected visit to the UN General Assembly.

At the end of October, the joint commission, including representatives of the Russian peacekeepers and UN observers, ascertained the removal of Georgian units from the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian irregulars were disarmed and heavy equipment was destroyed by the Russian peacekeepers. The reasons earlier cited by the Abkhaz side for not allowing at least some refugees back seemed to have lost substance. By late autumn 1994, the Abkhaz had allowed several hundred Georgian families to move into the Gali Raion in addition to an unspecified number (40,000 people according to some accounts) who came there on their own, without any official security guarantees.

On 26 November, the Abkhaz parliament declared Abkhazia independent, a move that precluded any further talks between the Abkhazian and Georgian governments. The declaration was condemned both in Tbilisi and in Moscow. In the wake of events in Chechnya in December, both Abkhazia and Georgia mobilized their troops, and there were fears in Abkhazia that Georgia would use the opportunity presented by Russia's war on Chechnya to act likewise towards its breakaway republic. Sympathy for the Chechens and hostility to the Russian actions were strong in Abkhazia, which lodged an official protest to the Russian government when the latter closed the de facto border with Abkhazia on 20 December to prevent a possible flow of volunteers to Chechnya (as was done also with other stretches of the Russian borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan). In Georgia, the reaction to the Russian invasion of Chechnya, with some exceptions, was positive thanks to the Chechens' aid to the Abkhaz in 1992-93 and to the Zviadists in late 1993. On 21 December, the Chairman of the Federation Council of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Shumeiko, wrote a letter to Yeltsin requesting the recall of the Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia on account of what he called the establishment of bases for Chechen guerrillas in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz authorities denied this. The next day, Shumeiko's statement was denied in a TV interview by General Yakushev, who said there were no Chechen bases in the Kodori Gorge. Other high-ranking Russian commanders also said that no Abkhaz volunteers had been seen in Chechnya. Russia's war against separatism in Chechnya made Abkhazia's position less secure by making it appear that separatism in Abkhazia was equally illegitimate. At the beginning of 1995, this made the Abkhaz leaders more amenable to a negotiated solution of the conflict.

  • The Ingushi-Ossetian Conflict
  • The conflict between the two peoples of the North Caucasus - the Ingush and the Ossetes - over the Prigorodny Raion of North Ossetia and the city of Vladikavkaz was generated by the forced deportation in 1944, on Stalin's orders, of the Ingush from the lands they had hitherto occupied, and the settlement of the Ossetes in their place. It is further linked to the consequences of Tsarist Russia's colonial policy and the vagaries of administrative divisions in the region in Soviet times. Additional factors complicating the situation have been the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia (which prompted a minimum of 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia and the inner regions of Georgia to settle in North Ossetia, including in the disputed region) and the virtual independence of Chechnya from Russia, as a result of which the Ingush found themselves at the end of 1991 without an administration or legal status.

    The continuity of Ingush settlement in the area was broken for the first time in the mid-19th century, when the Tsarist government expelled these people from what is now the Prigorodny Raion. Russian troops destroyed all the Ingush settlements south of Vladikavkaz, adjoining the strategically important Military Georgian Road, and installed Cossack settlements in their place. Some of the Ingush of what is now the Prigorodny Raion were driven into the mountains, others emigrated to Turkey. Contemporary Ossetian publications stress that there was not a single Ingush resident in Vladikavkaz from the middle of the 19th century until the early 1920s. After their victory in the Civil War, the Bolsheviks allowed the Ingush to resettle in the disputed region, displacing the Cossacks. With the reappearance of the Cossacks on the political arena in the 1990s, the "Cossack factor" has been used in the contemporary regional balance of forces by the Ossetian side, although some Cossacks are on good terms with the Ingush.

    After a brief spell as part of the Bolshevik-created Mountain Republic (1920-24), the Ingush were granted their national republic, which lasted until 1933. In the meantime, the city of Vladikavkaz was proclaimed a dual capital of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, as it was vital for the economic and cultural development of both republics. 1933 saw changes in their administrative status which the Ingush regarded as detrimental: the Ingush ASSR was merged with the Chechen ASSR to become the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic. Vladikavkaz (renamed Orjonikidze in 1932 - the old name was not restored until 1990) was transferred to the sole jurisdiction of North Ossetia. In Ingush eyes, this meant the loss both of national, autonomous statehood and of a capital to stronger neighbours: the Chechens and the Ossetes. Losing the capital was all the more depressing to the Ingush as they had no other city to replace it: Nazran (in Checheno-Ingushetia), the second largest Ingush settlement, was, and still remains, little more than a village.

    On 7 March 1944, the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a classified decree liquidating the Checheno-Ingush ASSR and providing for repressive measures against the Chechens and the Ingush. The reason advanced for such a step was that many of the latter had allegedly committed "treason at the front" and "had not been engaged in honest labour for a considerable time".(119) The Ingush, like the other "punished peoples" of the USSR, were deported (permanently, as specified in a further decree of 1948) to outlying regions of the USSR and threatened with severe punishment if they left their places of exile. Part of the territory of Checheno-Ingushetia populated by the Ingush prior to deportation was incorporated into the North Ossetian ASSR and, together with the Prigorodny Raion and the formerly Ingush-populated part of Orjonikidze, settled (as the Ossetes now stress, forcibly and against their will) by the Ossetian population.

    The restraints on free movement by the deportees were partially lifted by a classified decree by the USSR Supreme Soviet on 16 July 1956. The lifting of legal restraints did not entail a return of property confiscated during the deportation, nor did it provide for the deportees' resettlement in the places they had left. A classified letter from the Council of Ministers of North Ossetia in 1956 expressly forbade the sale or renting of houses to the Ingush returning from exile and annulled deeds of sale if they had been made before that time. On 9 January 1957, another decree by the USSR Supreme Soviet repealed the decree of 7 March 1944 on the liquidation of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, hence restoring the republics' pre-1944 borders. In 1956-57, most of the Chechens and Ingush returned to their native places, while the Ossetes had to leave their homes and jobs in former Ingushetia (again under duress, as they emphasize). However, the corresponding decree promulgated in North Ossetia did not list the territory of the Prigorodny Raion or the Ingush part of Vladikavkaz among the territories to be reattached to the Checheno-Ingush ASSR.(120)

    Why were the Ossetes opposed to the Ingush recovery of and settlement in the disputed region? Economically, the Prigorodny Raion is the main source of food for the capital of North Ossetia. To counter the threat, the Ossetian leadership persuaded the Centre to adopt laws restraining the right of "new arrivals" to settle in the raion, arguing its overpopulation. Thus, on 5 March 1982, the USSR Council of Ministers restricted the issuing of residence permits (propiska) for those people who were newly arriving in the Prigorodny Raion for permanent residence.(121) In the period after 1956, the area was increasingly settled with Ossetes from South Ossetia (22,000 settlers in 1956-59 alone).(122) According to Ingush claims, by the end of 1988 only 400 Ingush had received legal permission to reside in the Prigorodny Raion. By 1990, their number had reached 17,500, out of a population of 40,000. Prior to 1944, the population of the raion was said to number 34,000 (including 31,000 Ingush). The Ingush put the total population of Vladikavkaz at 310,000 in 1990 (48.5% of them Ossetes, 37.3% Russians and 4.8% Ingush).(123) The Ossetian sources paint a different picture. According to them, 2,254 Ingush were deported from Orjonikidze in 1944; as of 1990, they numbered 14,461 in the city; the corresponding figures for the whole of Prigorodny Raion plus Vladikavkaz were 26,019 in 1944 and 32,782 in 1990. Ossetian government sources claim that all the deported Ingush and their close and distant relatives had been reinstated in their former places of residence and all the proper living conditions secured for them.(124)

    During the perestroika years, there was mounting pressure from the Ingush and other "punished peoples" for their rights to be restored. The many Ingush who had become "illegal residents", and had to give bribes for their residence permits, now wanted to legalize their homes. The period when the Ingush possessed their own republic (1924-33), in their view, had given them the best opportunities for developing their economy and culture. Hence the demand for a return of the Prigorodny Raion.

    In 1989-92, the Ingush put forward their demands at four many-thousand-strong pan-national meetings, at two Congresses of People's Deputies of Ingushetia, at the first Congress of Small Peoples, held in Moscow in October 1990, at two congresses of Peoples - victims of repression, held in Moscow and Nalchik in 1991 and 1992 and, finally, at the all-Ingushi referendum held at the end of 1991. Ossetian sources report that Ingush armed bands in the period were threatening Ossetian families with reprisals, ordering them to leave their homes and committing multiple acts of burglary and murder. In the opinion of Haji-Murat Ibrahimbeili, Chairman of the Committee on Interethnic Accord of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus (KNK), the Ingush demands for the return of the Prigorodny Raion were just, but the Ingushi leaders were to blame for "expressing these demands in a frankly rude manner, whipping up hysteria at mass meetings in the months preceding the catastrophe, and initiating the formation of forward-based armed detachments in the territory of the Prigorodny Raion".(125) Meanwhile, on taking power in autumn 1991, General Dudaev of Chechnya immediately proceeded to set up separate Chechen administrative bodies in the territory inhabited by the Chechens. Thus Ingushetia was left in a political vacuum, as the Ingush republic took longer to organize. The Ingush had no wish to secede from Russia, hoping that the latter would solve their territorial problem. The possibility of creating a separate Ingush republic within the Russian Federation brought the territorial issue immediately to the fore.

    Soviet and Russian Policies on the Ingush Question

    What was the reaction from the leading Soviet/Russian bodies to the Ingushi mass mobilization, and how far did the decisions adopted by the former influence the situation? In trying to unravel the issue of the legal rehabilitation of peoples deported in Stalin's era, the people representing the highest legislative bodies of the USSR and the RSFSR seemed to vie with one other in trying to show that each of them was "a better democrat" than their counterparts, in order to garner support from the ethnic groups concerned. In addition, the various legislative acts ran counter to each other and served only to exacerbate ethnic tension in the region.

    As early as 14 November 1989, the second Congress of the USSR People's Deputies adopted a declaration by the USSR Supreme Soviet 'On the Recognition as Illegal and Criminal of All Acts Against the Peoples who have Suffered Forced Resettlement, and on Safeguarding their Rights'. The declaration failed to address the question of territorial rehabilitation for the "punished peoples". In its turn, the RSFSR Congress of People's Deputies passed a resolution "On the Victims of Political Repression in the RSFSR", on 11 December 1990. This provided for the "working out and adoption of legislative acts on the rehabilitation and full redressing of the rights of repressed peoples and citizens of the RSFSR". The provisions of these documents were never fully put into practice. On 26 March 1990, in response to appeals from the Ingush population, the Soviet of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Soviet set up a commission which came to the conclusion that the Ingush demands for the restitution of the Prigorodny Raion, and some other territories that had formed part of Checheno-Ingushetia prior to 1944, were well founded. In less than a month, a brawl between the Ingush and Ossetian residents of one of the villages in the disputed region led the Soviet authorities to impose a state of emergency in the whole region and in Vladikavkaz.

    On 26 April 1991, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet adopted a law "On the Rehabilitation of Peoples who have Suffered Repression". Article 3 of the law provided for the "restoration of territorial integrity" as it had existed before deportation and compensation for damage caused by the state. Para. 6 stipulated the "implementation of legal and organizational measures" to restore the previous borders. The law, signed by Boris Yeltsin, then Chairman of Russia's parliament, was later criticized by political scientists and politicians, as it contravened Russia's constitution, which stated that the borders of the republics inside the Russian Federation could not be changed without the consent of the relevant subjects of the Federation. The same principle was enshrined in the Federative Treaty signed by the republics and regions of Russia in March 1992. Later, the Russian parliament ruled to impose a moratorium on border changes in the Russian Federation until the year 1995. However, during his 1991 presidential election campaign, Yeltsin had promised the Ingush to settle their problem by the end of that year, a pledge that was not honoured. The virtual secession of Chechnya from Russia prompted Russian lawmakers to legislate on the creation of a separate Ingush Republic. But the corresponding law adopted by the RF Supreme Soviet on 4 June 1992 neither laid down the borders of the republic, nor set up its administrative bodies. On 26 October 1992, the Russian parliament's leadership recommended a mixed Ossetian-Ingush committee to work out a negotiated solution to the crisis. It was then that the conflict (with Ossetian provocation?) moved into its acute phase.

    The Tragedy of October-November 1992

    Prior to October 1992, the Ossetian leadership effected a massive arms build-up, far exceeding the amount of arms the Ingush could accumulate.(126) According to Irina Dementieva's comprehensive account, events unfolded as follows. In late October, an Ossetian armoured car ran over a little Ingush girl. In a day, an Ossetian militiaman had killed two more Ingush men. He was released without trial by the Ossetian authorities. A crowd of angry Ingush residents gathered, and in a clash with Ossetian militia another three Ingush and two militiamen were killed. In response, on 24 October a joint session of three Ingush Raion Soviets passed a decision to block the entrances and exits to all Ingush-populated settlements in the Prigorodny Raion, to call up volunteers for self-defence units and to subordinate them to the Ingushi authorities and militia. Thus the Ossetian authorities were presented with a casus belli. They warned that the Ingush barricades were to be removed and all weapons handed in, or force would be used. All attempts made by an Ingushi representative to reach Yeltsin by phone failed. On 30 October, the Ossetes killed two more Ingush and shelled the Ingush quarters of two villages. On hearing about these events the following morning, a crowd of Ingush from Ingushetia itself advanced on the Prigorodny Raion, capturing an Ossetian militia guardpost at Chermen and some heavy weapons, and engaging in arson, burglaries and hostage-taking. With the help of their compatriots from the Prigorodny Raion, they quickly took control of all the Ingush settlements, chasing away their Ossetian neighbours, and started an all-out offensive against Vladikavkaz.

    The Russian government dispatched troops to the raion, who repulsed the Ingushi attackers, killing many civilians. Acting behind their backs, Ossetian units destroyed Ingush homes, torturing and killing the civilian population and driving almost all Ingush residents to Ingushetia. In late 1992, the Ingush authorities put the number of fugitives at 70,000 (65,000 refugees registered by the Russian Federal Migration Service).(127) The Russian Provisional Administration for the conflict zone had data showing that the total number of those killed was over 600 (171 Ossetes, 419 Ingush, 60 others). 3,397 houses were burned and destroyed (about 3,000 of them belonging to the Ingush).(128) There are grounds for believing that the object of the operation on the Russian side was not so much to punish the Ingush as to provoke General Dudaev of Chechnya into sending military aid to the Ingush, thus giving them an opportunity to destroy the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic. On 10 November, Russian troops occupied the whole of Ingushetia and stood across from the undemarcated border with Chechnya. But Dudaev proclaimed neutrality, blocking the border with oil tanks and declaring a state of emergency in his republic. The next day, acting Premier Yegor Gaidar signed an agreement with the Chechen and Ingush representatives that Russian troops would be pulled out.

    Aftermath of the Conflict

    For the two years since autumn 1992, the uprooted Ingush residents of the Prigorodny Raion have been living in caravans in Ingushetia, unable to return home. During this period, the people in the hotbed of the conflict have been living under a Provisional Administration appointed from Moscow, which has so far succeeded in freezing, though not solving, the conflict. Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, elected in January 1993, seems to have persuaded his people not to press the territorial issue for the duration of the Russian moratorium on border changes until 1995. The main Ingush demand at present is the return of the refugees.

    Despite the regularly prolonged state of emergency in the conflict zone, between December 1992 and January 1994, 167 Ingush houses and 107 Ossetian ones were blown up.(129) Both sides continue to keep their military formations - "legal" in North Ossetia and "illegal" in Ingushetia. Those Ingush who dare to return to their homes in the district face attacks by Ossetian gunmen.

    On 13 December 1993, President Yeltsin issued a decree allowing the return of Ingush refugees to four villages of the Prigorodny Raion. Russia proposed a condominium between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in the disputed region. This proposal was contained in the Russian government's resolution of 3 February 1994 on measures to implement the presidential decree mentioned above. The territory of the four settlements where the Ingush are to be resettled is to be legally constituted as an autonomous district.(130) On 2-3 April 1994, an Ingush-Ossetian agreement on implementing Yeltsin's decree was reached. The Ossetian leaders demanded: a) an official condemnation ("political evaluation") of the Ingush aggression; b) the trial of the (Ingush) initiators of the conflict; c) that the disputed region within North Ossetia be firmly secured; d) the demarcation of the borders with Ingushetia. The main thesis of the Ossetian leaders is that it is impossible for the Ossetes and the Ingush to live together. The question of Ingush resettlement should, in their view, be linked to the resettlement of South Ossetian refugees and put to the Ossetian people in a referendum, while those who would like to come should be vetted to check their "criminal record" during the events of autumn 1992. The Ingush side favours direct rule from Moscow in the disputed zone, hoping that "pro-Ossetian" leanings in the Russian leadership will give way to "pro-Ingush" ones.

    December 1994 and the war in Chechnya meant more victims for the Ingush people, who opposed the passage of Russian troops to Chechnya through their republic. Some of the Ingush have fought on the Chechen side, and about 60,000 refugees from Chechnya had found refuge in Ingushetia by January 1995. The implications of Yeltsin's aggression in Chechnya for the stability of Russian rule in the North Caucasus have yet to be seen. The seeds of hate sown by the military oppression of North Caucasian peoples may bear bitter fruit in the future, leading to outcomes unforeseen by the planners in the Kremlin.

    5. Conclusion

    The ethnic territorial division of the USSR functioned as a decorative federal screen, behind which the Kremlin controlled the diverse peoples which comprised the USSR. Civic peace among the various ethnic groups was maintained thanks to the existence of the centrally-controlled apparatus of the Communist Party, which, in turn, controlled the repressive bodies. Repression as a means of dealing with outbreaks of nationalism, and even ethnic conflicts, as well as the propaganda of the "friendship of peoples" of the USSR and consistent steps to co-opt local ethnic bureaucracies in the republics, were a built-in feature of communist rule.

    With the arrival of glasnost, the peoples of the USSR seized an opportunity to speak out and vent their pent-up grievances, while violence could not be used so readily by the state. In the Soviet bureaucratic system, ethnic grievances could legitimately be voiced only on the decisions of the corresponding authorities at the level of the different republics, addressed to the Centre. At the same time, by 1988, society lacked adequate means of give and take as well as a democratic political culture. Thus, with glasnost, the conflicting decisions of republican bodies, backed by popular mobilizations, with the party unable to gratify the relevant ethnic groups, not only flouted the communist internationalist doctrine ("friendship of peoples"), but made the party unable to govern. As the party was the cement binding together all of Soviet society and its institutions, the erosion of party rule - caused, in addition to ethnic disputes, by a host of political, economic and social problems - led to the collapse of not just the party, but also the USSR itself. Subsequent experience, especially in the Caucasus, has shown, however, that in a state of "disunion" the peoples of the ex-USSR have had even less chance of reconciling their national demands.

    Continue or go back to the contents page.

    Contested Borders in the Caucasus, by Bruno Coppieters (ed.)
    © 1996, VUB University Press