Geogians and
Abkhazians

Chapter 2 Part 2

The Conflict in Abkhazia: National Projects and Political Circumstances


Ghia Nodia

This chapter consists of 3 parts (1, 2, 3, and notes)

Possible Scenarios for Conflict Development

I have taken all this time to describe both parties' different ways of viewing the political status of Abkhazia because I wanted to demonstrate two points. First, I wanted to show why it was that, once the cultural and political elites of both peoples felt free to express their visions (which started to happen around 1988), they would inevitably clash, and since it was these political visions of sovereignty that commanded human minds, there were grounds for a serious conflict. On the other hand, however, I do not think that this conflict was doomed to have the bloody consequences it did.

The conflict was unavoidable because each side had a radically different answer to the fundamental question: "What is Abkhazia?" For the Georgians, the answer was clear: "Abkhazia is Georgia". This was a slogan carried by demonstrators in March and April of 1989 when, for the first time during perestroika, the issue of Abkhazia became the subject of mass politics. It meant: "Abkhazia is an inseparable part of Georgia, just like any other historical Georgian province - Kakhety, Imerety, Samegrelo, etc." For the Abkhaz side it was equally clear that this answer was wrong. "Abkhazia is Abkhazia" - this is how Stanislav Lakoba, of the secessionist fraction of the Abkhazian parliament, entitled one of his articles published in the West.[13] It should be pointed out that, during the war, this was not the only Abkhaz answer: another influential representative of the Abkhaz nationalist movement, Zurab Achba, published an article in the Russian press entitled "Abkhazia is Russia". This was a clear attempt to attract Russian support and it may not have expressed the true feelings of the Abkhaz, but still, it was possible for a prominent Abkhaz nationalist to say this in print. At any rate, the bottom line was the same in both cases: "Abkhazia is not Georgia". This was a fundamental conflict, and though one could fantasize about how the history of Georgia or the Caucasus might have developed were it not for the Russian involvement, at the time the problem could not be explained away simply as a Kremlin conspiracy, or even as a clash between the selfish Georgian and Abkhaz "ethnocracies". The conflict was between the views of the overwhelming majority of Georgians and Abkhaz. It was the kind of issue on which it would be very difficult to reach a compromise. It was enough for the radicals on both sides to make the self-fulfilling prophecy that the problem could only be solved by bringing the prevailing power (Russian, Georgian or whatever) into the equation, rather than through agreement and compromise.

Still, I believe that if my above description of national projects is correct there was considerable space for compromise. Yes, the Abkhaz saw the Georgians as enemy number one. But they were not insisting on full independence. The basic Abkhaz concern was their fear of extinction as a separate ethnic community (the "Ubykh scenario"). Georgians could have taken this as a starting point in their attitude. A large majority of the Georgian elite recognizes the "autochthonous" status of the Abkhaz on their territory (a very powerful category in Caucasian politics - however illiberal and "non-constructivist" this may sound to many outsiders): it is widely accepted that the Abkhaz are the only ethnic group in Georgia (save for the Georgians themselves) who have no other homeland, so that it is legitimate for them to have some sort of special territorial and political arrangement which would guarantee the preservation of their identity. As I said, the constitution of the independent Georgia, adopted in 1921, also provided for that status. In the middle of the recent war, the Georgian parliament adopted a law which proclaimed the Abkhaz language to be the second state language on the territory of Abkhazia, and future new immigrants were to be given the option of studying either Georgian or Abkhaz in order to obtain citizenship.

Presumably, this contradicts a "pure" idea of the nation-state: if the Abkhaz are a separate nation, why not let them have their own independent nation-state? If Abkhazia is a legitimate part of Georgia, how come the Abkhaz are non-Georgians? Georgians usually appeal to the above-mentioned age-old tradition of political and cultural unity, and to the fact that ethnic Georgians have always lived in Abkhazia alongside the Abkhaz. Of course there were more radical anti-Abkhaz sentiments as well, including calls for abolishing Abkhaz autonomy, but never - even during the war - did they become official policy.[14] To account for this inconsistency - and justify more radical claims - a different theory was invoked, based on the work of the Georgian historian Pavle Ingoroqua. According to this theory, the "real" or historical Abkhaz were a Georgian tribe, while in the 17th and 18th centuries Adighean tribes (known to themselves as the Apsua) resettled from the North Caucasus, assimilated the "real" Abkhaz and stole their name. This theory was never shared by the majority of Georgian historians, but in the course of the conflict it was widely propagated by such radical nationalist leaders as Akaki Bakradze, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and others. The theory made everything very simple: as Gamsakhurdia said at rallies, the Abkhaz claims to self-determination were justified, but the territory was wrong: let them return to the North Caucasus and we will support their struggle there (as, later, Gamsakhurdia actually did support the Chechen bid for self-determination). In this way, the very existence of the Abkhaz autonomy was delegitimized.

This approach was frequently repeated by radical leaders and was often presented by the Abkhaz elites as the only Georgian position. Many Georgian leaders, however, did not take this attitude too seriously themselves, but thought it wise to adopt it in order to counter the claims made by the Abkhaz radicals. Gamsakhurdia himself frequently adjusted his assessment of Abkhaz history to the changing political situation.

On the Abkhaz side, strong anti-Georgian feelings certainly constituted a very important factor. But since they were mostly rooted in the recollection of the recent Soviet past, there was always a possibility of convincing the Abkhaz (however difficult this might be) that Stalin and Beria's policy had nothing to do with the will of the Georgian people. Anti-Georgian feelings among the Abkhaz were not countered by proportionate anti-Abkhaz feelings among Georgians, because the role of enemy had been taken by Russia, and Georgians felt threatened not by the Abkhaz per se, but by the prospect of the Abkhaz issue being used against them by Russia. Fewer than 100,000 ethnic Abkhaz could not on their own be considered a serious security threat to Georgia (at least, this was what Georgians thought), and introducing particular arrangements guaranteeing special rights for the Abkhaz as an ethnic community, as well as corresponding political status for Abkhazia as a territory - with the Abkhaz giving up their pro-Russian tendencies in return - would be quite acceptable to the Georgian public. It would probably cause some discontent among ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, but a clear and firm stance by the Tbilisi government could take care of that.

Georgian willingness to accept special status and privileges for the Abkhaz was influenced by the fact that, in the Soviet Union, Abkhazian autonomy in practice meant not "Abkhazianization" but Russification. There was no conflict between the Abkhaz and Georgian languages in Abkhazia, it was Georgian and Russian that were really competing. In the late seventies, the Abkhaz university was opened in Sukhumi in response to Abkhaz demands, with Abkhaz and Georgian departments. The Abkhaz department, however, was really a Russian-language university (save for a few courses in humanities), while the Georgian department was Georgian-language. Not much Abkhaz was taught in secondary schools or other colleges either. Thus, to the extent that Georgians saw the problem in the context of relations with Russia, the "Abkhazianization of Abkhazia" - in so far as it would reduce the cultural predominance of Russian - would be an acceptable scenario to moderate nationalists.

There were projects to help the Abkhaz "Abkhazianize" by translating and publishing Abkhaz-language textbooks, etc. The more radically anti-Georgian Abkhaz saw in this a Georgian trick to alienate the Abkhaz from their Russian allies. With some reason, probably - but in that case, what was the real Abkhaz project? Of course, the Abkhaz were free to choose Russification as their national project, but then all the talk about their fear of an "Ubykh scenario" would lose credibility. The Georgians did seem to have a point here.

On the Abkhaz side, this compromise would have been difficult to accept, since the image of "Georgian imperialism" seemed deep-rooted enough. Certain tensions would have run for a long time. But, however much the Abkhaz might have resented the fact of Georgian plurality on Abkhaz territory as a result of the Georgian "imperial policy", it was now a reality they would have had to accept. It was not difficult to calculate that relying too much on Russian help was not necessarily wise. And, if the real issue was to obtain guarantees that a separate Abkhaz ethnic identity would be preserved, then the Georgian argument that the Abkhaz would hardly be safer as part of Russia than part of Georgia was quite plausible: the fate of the Abkhaz' ethnic brethren in the northern Caucasus, as well as the fate of the Abkhaz themselves in the 19th century, were all too obvious evidence of this. Of course, there were many symbolical issues related to words: the Abkhaz happened to hate the word "autonomy", and the Georgians found it hard to comprehend how a "republic" could contain another "republic". But a certain amount of political cunning could have helped overcome these obstacles, so that a face-saving compromise could still have been achieved without any unravelling of the basics of each side's national project. It would not have been easy, and even in the best possible conditions it would probably have taken a long time to arrive at some kind of "finally acceptable" model - but interim solutions in the course of negotiations could have been even more important, because they would have stressed the possibility of a compromise between both parties.

Of course, this imagined scenario would have required a very big and problematic "if": the assumption of prudence, patience, rationality and sensitivity on the part of those directly involved in the conflict. The powerful third party (the Soviet "Centre", later Russia) would also have had to refrain obligingly from any attempt to manipulate the conflict in its own (real or imagined) interest. None of these preconditions was present, however. Indeed, it would require explanation if the new players, freshly emerging from political nothingness, actually had displayed such qualities.

Why the War?

I emphasize these factors to make my main point: the emergence of nationalism - that is, the idea of the nation-state - as the universal model of state-building, is in general responsible for the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But why this conflict eventually led to ethnic violence is a different story, and one that requires different explananda.

These explanatory factors may be divided into two major categories: one set may be grouped under the heading of "political immaturity" or "lack of political skills"; the other would come under "specific circumstances". I will start with some of the features under the first heading (in a list which makes no claim to being exhaustive):

1. Giving precedence to ethno-historical rather than democratic legitimacy. Both sides sincerely believed in the fairness of their respective claims, founding them on their visions of history (which I have tried to outline roughly above). Although ethno-demographic changes had occurred following "illegitimate" acts of conquest or imperial conspiracy, the interests of the real people who might be living on a specific territory as a result of this policy, but who could not be held responsible for it, were easily discounted. This was the Georgian attitude to the Ossetians, who, thanks to the Soviet policy, had become a majority in the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and especially its capital Tskhinvali. The Abkhaz viewed the Georgians living in Abkhazia in the same way. The Abkhaz problem has become an issue of mass politics in Georgia since February 1989, when the ethnic Abkhaz population of Abkhazia gathered in the village of Lykhny to declare their demand for separation from Georgia and inclusion in the Russian federation. It was taken for granted that the wish of the Abkhaz ethnic community could be presented as the wish of Abkhazia because, whatever the current ethno-demographic situation, the historical rights of the Abkhaz community should take precedence over the will of the total population of the territory called "Abkhazia". Later, the Abkhaz leaders started to emphasize the multi-ethnic character of their national movement, but in reality this multi-ethnicism was a (reasonably successful) attempt to forge an "everybody against the Georgians" coalition.

Of course, Georgian nationalists, especially in Gamsakhurdia's era, were not exactly sensitive to minority issues either. According to many accounts, "Georgia for the Georgians" was Gamsakhurdia's slogan, though this in fact is not true - I personally never saw this kind of slogan at his rallies, nor have I seen anybody quoting any source on this - but it probably did express his true attitude. It is easy to find plenty of downright racist quotations from the Georgian press of that period. The difference here, however, is that at least Georgian nationalists could refer to the democratic legitimacy of majority rule in this case, which the Abkhaz could not.

2. The revolutionary, confrontational mood of early nationalistic movements. In its style, the Georgian nationalist movement was probably the most radical in the former Soviet Union, at least among the movements at Union Republic level. This radicalism was targeted primarily against the imperial "centre", not ethnic minorities. It implied a symbolic rejection of cooperation with the "occupying forces", and hence a refusal to take part in the "Soviet" elections. "Compromise", and even more so "concession", or even "realism", were dirty words, semantically associated with "cowardice" at best, at worst with "betrayal". Even though some Georgian nationalists did want to cut deals with rebellious minorities, they found it difficult to overcome this attitude and sell any compromise solutions to their supporters. Nor were the Abkhaz immune from this glorification of radicalism.

3. Simplistic approach: single enemy image as the exclusive point of reference. The world view professed by mass nationalism on its heroic-revolutionary stage is usually very simple: everything is reduced to the confrontation "our enemy versus us". For Georgians, therefore, the Abkhaz problem did not exist in its own right: it was merely a corollary to the problem "Empire vs. Georgia". Whenever the Abkhaz raised any claims that were not acceptable, they were to be treated merely as puppets willing to be manipulated by the Russians. The fact that the Abkhaz did in fact seek an alliance with Russia lent credibility to this image. But it would have been in the Georgian interest to win over or "seduce" the Abkhaz by proposing them a better deal, rather than portraying their claims as inspired by Russia in the first place. However, the art of political seduction was not something the Georgian radicals had mastered - or even thought it necessary to learn. Many Abkhaz, in turn, seemed blinded by the single enemy image of "Georgian imperialism" or "Georgian fascism" and made little effort to look beyond it.

4. Lack of will to take responsibility for the problem, expressing itself in appeals to the third party. Simplistic images of the world promoted by radical nationalist ideologues are the result not only of their simple-mindedness, but of their reluctance to take responsibility for real problems. Using the Russian conspiracy theory to explain away the very existence of the Abkhaz problem and portraying Abkhaz nationalists as nothing more than Russian puppets was a way of avoiding reality. But, for obvious reasons, the refusal to face a problem dramatically reduces the chances of solving it. After the end of the war, the Georgian government changed its policy, trying to deal with the Abkhaz problem through cooperation with Russia; this in principle implied greater political pragmatism (the necessity to reach some compromise with the Russian power was acknowledged), but the old pattern of avoiding the problem still continued. The deal with Russia, as seen by the ruling part of the Georgian political elite, may be summarized as follows: we will accept the disgrace of giving up substantial elements of our sovereignty, but you solve the Abkhaz problem for us. Georgians did not seem to think too much about how, specifically, this would happen: if the Russians were able to create the mess in the first place, they should know how to clean it up.

The Abkhaz did not have the luxury of blaming the Georgian problem on somebody else: "Georgian fascism" was an evil in itself and they had to deal with it. But they also found it difficult to accept that they had to deal with it on their own. Many steps taken by the Abkhaz government, especially before the war, were reckless and obviously provocative to the Georgians, and it is hard to imagine that they would have been able to take them without the hope of Russian help.[15] Arguably, their gamble paid off, but there were no guarantees of this in the beginning, even though what was at stake was the very physical existence of the Abkhaz nation.

5. Anti-political mood and lack of confidence. This factor may be regarded as the base from which all the above may be deduced - though it is not easy sum it up briefly. While expressing their readiness to fight and make sacrifices in order to achieve independence, Georgians were at the same time deeply sceptical about government (even if it was their own). An anti-political attitude is hardly confined to the Caucasus, and it is far beyond the scope of this paper to judge how much this is the Zeitgeist of our times or how much the alienation of the people from politics is the legacy of Communist totalitarianism. It is clear, though, that recent Georgian history presents numerous examples of this trend. In the military domain, it was expressed by the total inability to build a viable regular army, so that the outcome of the war - and the fate of the country - depended on the enthusiasm and political preferences of irregular voluntary groups, which it was hardly possible to control. With an "army" like this, any military operation would soon degenerate into a spree of abuse, looting and also ethnic violence - as was the case in many post-Communist countries.

The deficit of political confidence stemming from lack of experience in managing one's own affairs is another possible explanation for the same phenomenon. The Georgians were fervent nationalists, but at the same time not overly confident in their ability to build a state and pursue their objectives through consistent political work oriented towards long-term objectives. This lack of confidence showed itself, especially at the first stage of the independence movement, in the propensity to impulsive and theatrical actions rather than systematic efforts. In this, Georgia presents a stark contrast to the Baltic states, whose people showed a much greater capacity for organization and orderly political action. A higher political culture in a normative sense - whether to be explained by different civic culture in general or by the more recent experience of political independence - may account for the success of Baltic political elites in preventing their "ethnic conflicts" with the Russian population from degenerating into violence.

It must be pointed out that, under traditions and circumstances which foster anti-political sentiments, the smaller group in the conflict - which feels that its very existence is threatened (Abkhaz, Chechens, Kosovo Albanians, etc.) - has paradoxical advantages: in the absence of state-political traditions and the respect for formal order and discipline that comes with them, ethnic solidarity and a siege mentality fill the gap.

Nevertheless, these factors, based on the communist legacy or political culture, should not be treated as constants. On both sides, neither the political elite nor the public was fully devoid of common sense, and they could also learn from political experience. Georgian nationalists understood quite clearly from the very beginning that internal conflicts in Georgia diminished the chances of their movement in its fight with Moscow for independence, and at least some factions within it tried to avoid direct confrontation with minority separatist movements and/or tried to find some compromise with them - albeit not always skilfully enough. Some politicians, like Gamsakhurdia, willingly played the ethnic card because it brought political dividends. But other leaders sharply criticized him for that and even pointed to his methods of arousing ethnic sentiments as proof that he was a "Moscow agent".

But when the same Gamsakhurdia actually became leader of Georgia, he grew much more pragmatic. Shortly before the elections of 1990 he even reversed his demand for the abolition of the South Ossetian Autonomy, although (unlike in the case of Abkhazia) most of the Georgian public did not regard this autonomy as legitimate. Here it proved to be too late: the Ossetians held elections just a few days after the Georgian ones and proclaimed their independence, so Gamsakhurdia could think of nothing better than to abolish Ossetian autonomy, thereby exacerbating hostilities in the region. But with Abkhazia he was much more cautious. Once in power, he never questioned the Abkhaz right to autonomy and, in 1991, actually did reach a compromise with the Abkhaz leaders, making concessions which were quite substantial from the Georgian perspective. This agreement was based on an electoral law which introduced de facto ethnic quotas. The Abkhaz ethnic community (17% of the population) received 28 seats in the 65-seat Abkhaz parliament, while ethnic Georgians (46%) took 26 seats. The rest of the population, i.e., 37%, were represented by the 11 remaining seats only. A two-thirds majority was required for making decisions on constitutional issues, which meant that agreement between the two communities was necessary. This system was introduced for the parliamentary elections in the autumn of 1992.

This agreement later proved not to work, and was hardly viable in the long run. In Georgian society especially, it was later very strongly criticized as an "apartheid law". But the fact was that the Georgians and the Abkhaz, represented by such strongly nationalist leaders as Gamsakhurdia and Ardzinba, did reach this compromise, and they did so without any direct external pressure or third-party mediators (perhaps it was precisely the mess in Moscow after the August putsch that allowed them to do this). The agreement was based on exactly the same political principles as the ones outlined above: the Abkhazian side agreed to have its fate resolved within the framework of the Georgian state, while Tbilisi recognized the special rights of the Abkhaz as the only ethnic minority in Georgia that was "autochthonous" and had no other homeland elsewhere. Nobody was completely happy about the arrangement, but this can be said of all political compromises. The ethnic Georgian community in Abkhazia had a particularly strong reason to be unhappy as they were under-represented.

If Abkhazia, with its ethnic demography of 1991, had been a really independent country, this Lebanese-type arrangement would probably have led sooner or later to a similar conflict between ethnic communities seeking a re-distribution of quotas for government office. But Abkhazia was not, and in the event of "normal" developments in Georgia proper, there would have been no need to unravel this agreement. The central government in Tbilisi, which had a clear interest in stability in one of its provinces and in legitimizing the agreement it had itself signed, could have played the game of limiting the discontent of the ethnic Georgian community in Abkhazia, thereby eventually gaining greater trust from the ethnic Abkhaz community. Once the first tide of particularly intense nationalism were over, the government would have been able to afford this kind of game.

To be sure, this rosy scenario can no longer be checked (while this author is exposed to possible accusations of "unscientific" fantasizing). Objections may be raised that the fragile 1991 agreement was doomed to end in a bloody clash anyway. Although not a fan of political arrangements based on ethnic quotas, I still think that the symbolism of having reached an agreement was in itself very important, and could provide a solid basis for further work - though this would be difficult work. But the reality was that the developments in Georgia were far from "normal" (and this was what I meant by "special political circumstances"). As a result of the December-January coup of 1991-92 the authoritarian, allegedly mentally unstable and obviously politically incapable President Gamsakhurdia was deposed by a strange coalition of nationalist military insurgents, liberal democrats and Communist nomenklatura. This led to a long period of political uncertainty and disorder in the country. A couple of month after the coup, the former Communist leader of Georgia and former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze, was invited to help put Georgia straight. He was reasonably successful, but it took a good deal of time and, amongst other things, it cost him Abkhazia.

Whatever the reasons for the Georgian turmoil,[16] it endangered the volatile political balance in Abkhazia as well as in relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. There were several reasons for and aspects to this:

1. The new Georgian authorities had no interest in promoting the legitimacy of the Georgian-Abkhaz agreement reached by Gamsakhurdia. The delegitimization of Gamsakhurdia was the most urgent political task facing the new authorities, and since the ousted president was accusing Shevardnadze of being Moscow's man, Shevardnadze's supporters had to counter these accusations by showing that it was Gamsakhurdia who was not really ardent enough about safeguarding Georgian national interests. The Georgian-Abkhaz agreement, which discriminated against ethnic Georgians on the "apartheid" basis, was the obvious target. It was not officially said that the agreement should not actually be honoured, and the new government was not at all more anti-Abkhaz or anti-minority than the previous one (quite the reverse, it also accused Gamsakhurdia of "parochial fascism" and wanted its minority policy to be much more liberal and citizenship-oriented), but the criticism of the agreement in fact eroded the basis of its legitimacy.

2. While Gamsakhurdia's credibility as a nationalist leader had allowed him to make concessions such as those in the Abkhaz case, the legitimacy of the new Georgian authorities was founded on a much narrower base, especially before new elections were held in October 1992. Moreover, though Shevardnadze was the national leader, he did not really control the government or, especially, the armed formations. So the new government could not make any important decisions on Abkhazia, much less reach important compromises, as it was afraid of jeopardizing the fragile pro-Shevardnadze coalition.

3. Most of the ethnic Georgian population in Abkhazia supported Gamsakhurdia rather than Shevardnadze. Moreover, several districts adjacent to Abkhazia were actually controlled by pro-Gamsakhurdia groups openly hostile to the new government (the population of these districts, as well as most ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, are Megrelians, which is a distinct sub-ethnic group in Georgia to which Gamsakhurdia also belonged and which was more supportive of him). This, naturally, seriously diminished the chances the Tbilisi government had of making an impact on Abkhazia and, on the contrary, gave the ethnic Abkhaz faction in the Abkhaz government more room to manoeuvre. The Georgian faction in the parliament, though for the most part loyal to Tbilisi, was also confused and did not know how to deal with the situation. The Abkhazian parliament divided into two factions, pro-Abkhaz and pro-Georgian (34 and 31 MPs respectively, after the third-party deputies chose to join one of the two ethnic factions), each one unwilling to cooperate.

4. The open challenge to the Georgian-Abkhaz agreement came, however, not from the Georgian but from the Abkhaz side. Apparently, the ethnic Abkhaz faction of the Abkhazian leadership, under Ardzinba, saw a window of opportunity in the breakdown of authority and legitimacy in Georgia. Georgia was weak and divided, its new government lacked both popular and formal legitimacy, and Abkhazia was separated from the territory under the control of the Georgian authorities by what the Abkhaz strategists called the "Megrelian pillow" (regions controlled by pro-Gamsakhurdia forces). They also felt that they had to seize their chance while they had it, because the situation in Georgia could eventually improve. The ethnic Abkhaz faction, with its small majority, decided to forget the agreement and ignore the ethnic Georgian faction in the Abkhaz parliament altogether (the latter's leadership displayed no political skills and could not think of anything better to do than to boycott sessions - but it did not have too many options anyway). The ethnic Georgian Minister of the Interior was forcibly removed from office and replaced by an ethnic Abkhaz (the distribution of major positions in the executive had also been part of the agreement). In July came the most provocative decision: the ethnic Abkhaz faction of Abkhazian parliament, using its slim majority, restored a 1925 constitution for Abkhazia, according to which it was not part of Georgia (the text adopted was actually a draft that had been rejected in 1925, but this is a detail). The legal pretext for this was the fact that in February 1992 the Georgian Military Council formally restored the powers granted under the 1921 constitution, thereby allegedly abolishing Abkhaz autonomy. The decision taken by the Georgian military authorities was certainly not very far-sighted: it was designed to appease radical nationalist groups who wanted symbolically to emphasize legal continuity with the Georgian Republic of 1918-21, but this constitution did also make provision for Abkhaz autonomy. The declaration by the Military Council also stipulated that the 1921 Constitution was reinvoked "without changing existing borders or territorial/administrative arrangements (the status of the Abkhazian and Ajarian autonomous Republics)". In any case, by taking this step the ethnic Abkhaz faction brought on the final collapse of the Georgian-Abkhaz agreement of 1991, the essence of which was that the Abkhazian parliament could make no constitutional changes by a simple majority, i.e., without the consent of the two communal factions (the arcane Abkhaz justification for this step was that it was only adopting a new constitution, not restoring the old one, that called for a two-thirds majority).

This open rebuttal of the 1991 agreement by the ethnic Abkhaz faction implied a de facto restoration of the concept that the historical right of the ethnic Abkhaz community took precedence over the democratic rights of the current Abkhaz population. It amounted to a latent declaration of war on the Georgian community in Abkhazia and on Tbilisi, and significantly strengthened the position of those factions in the Georgian leadership who believed that military methods were best in dealing with Ardzinba. This is not to imply that starting the war was a good idea on the Georgian side, but simply that an extremely dangerous gamble by Ardzinba's government lent an important element of legitimacy to the Georgian military effort.

To what extent can one say that Ardzinba deliberately tried to provoke a violent reaction from the Georgian side? One can find some logic to such provocation if it is remembered that the pre-war ethnic and demographic situation in Abkhazia - i.e., the fact that the ethnic Georgian population outnumbered the Abkhaz by about two and a half to one - was something that concerned Abkhaz nationalists more than anything else, and was considered to be the most dangerous legacy of "Georgian imperialism". War was the only way to change that. If post-communist ethnic wars are about ethnic cleansing, then in this case it was the Abkhaz side that needed it (in the South Ossetian case, according to the same logic, it was the Georgian side that needed the change in the ethno-demographic balance, and hence had a vested interest in starting the war). An assurance of military help from Russia would make the project look promising. If Ardzinba really believed that the Georgians were as inherently genocidal a tribe as he often portrays them, then living together with the Georgian plurality was certainly a bleak perspective for his people. This makes a desperate gamble, which would bring neither final victory nor final destruction, psychologically understandable.

However, a really confident answer to this question would require a much more thorough knowledge of the situation in Abkhazia and the mood of the Abkhaz leadership before the war. My preliminary hypothesis is based on my observation of other post-communist leaders: a clear and coherent calculation of different possible scenarios resulting from their actions is not one of their more striking characteristics. The theory of rational choice is not necessarily applicable here. The crisis in Georgia may have created a mood of "now or never" among the ethnic Abkhaz leadership, and their actions seem to have been quite compatible with this mood. Instinctively, they may have been driven to the violent outcome, which is not the same as saying that they had a clear and coldly calculated plan to provoke a war.


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Georgians and Abkhazians. The Search for a Peace Settlement
© August 1998, Vrije Universiteit Brussel