Geogians and
Abkhazians

Chapter 5

Georgia and Abkhazia: The Hard Road to Agreement


Yuri Anchabadze

It is a truism that any war is concluded with a peace. However, the long-awaited peace does not come all at once. An end to military action does not mean that the parties are immediately ready to use political methods to settle the problems that could not be resolved on the field of battle. It takes time, sometimes a considerable period, before the parties can rid themselves of the inertia of confrontational thinking and make the transition from a categorical refusal to accept the enemy's position, the highest degree of this (refusal) being war, to a dialogue based on a sober understanding of the opportunities for alternative solutions and mutual compromises.

Any social conflict, including inter-ethnic conflicts, has its own specific features, so the logic of its occurrence and pattern of development cannot be entirely explained by reference to general principles. The parties' route to peace is equally individualistic. It often fails to fit into the expected framework, because considerations of logic and expediency frequently give way to completely different arguments, governed on the one hand by the desire (normal in behind-the-scenes diplomacy) to outsmart the other party, to obtain unilateral political advantages, to consolidate the results of the war or, conversely, to modify them, and the like. At the same time different priorities shape the parties' "peace" strategy. These priorities are governed to a considerable extent by certain constants in the mass historical and ethno-social consciousness, acting as a prism through which a particular ethnic group scrutinises the prehistory of the conflict, the war and its results, as well as the desired outlines of the future peace. Considerations of this kind do not always find verbal expression at the official level. Often, however, it is their dominant influence that really bars the way to peace and agreement. The clashes in the four-year-long Georgian-Abkhazian peace dialogue provide a great opportunity for tracing this extremely specific and peculiar phenomenon, which persists as a background to the negotiating process.

The parties' assessment of the historical experience of Abkhazian-Georgian relationships is a vital factor in the range of public moods connected with the war. To the Abkhazians this experience is entirely negative. Its principal landmarks are seen in the context of "Georgia's 100-year war against Abkhazia",[1] and its main element is seen to be a constant drive by Georgia to absorb Abkhazia politically, demographically and ethnically. The historical memory of the Abkhazians still puts the sources of confrontation in the pre-revolutionary period, but the view is that the full offensive by Georgia against Abkhazia came during the Soviet years, reaching its high point during the Stalinist period. This period has been the source of many extremely painful memories in the recent history of the Abkhazians, particularly the successive reductions in the legal status of Abkhazia (a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921, and an Autonomous Republic as part of the Georgian SSR in 1931), the repressive policy of Georgianization implemented from the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1950s, the large-scale colonization of Abkhazian lands during the same period by settlers from Georgia, and the concept of ethnic identity of Abkhazians and Georgians officially approved as a "scientific truth".

During the post-Stalinist period the most offensive forms of Georgianization were eliminated. However, the purely formal nature of the autonomous republic's powers, the petty dependence of the local government upon the centre in Tbilisi, which in a number of cases could foist certain decisions upon Sukhum, remained as irritants in Georgian-Abkhazian relations. The situation became explosive several times, in 1957, 1964, 1967 and 1987, and in July 1989 there were bloody inter-ethnic clashes with losses on both sides.

Anti-Georgian sentiments in Abkhazia received a fresh impetus in the recent post-war years and were directly linked to political processes in Georgia itself, where ethnocratic, unitary and chauvinist tendencies were developing to an ever-increasing extent. These trends had been fairly apparent under the last communist rulers, and reached their full flowering under the Gamsakhurdia regime, where the view that there should be no autonomous ethnic groupings in an independent and sovereign Georgia was openly expressed. The accession to power of Eduard Shevardnadze, who was extremely unpopular in Abkhazia, and the subsequent new wave of political and ideological confrontation between Sukhum and Tbilisi fixed the idea of Georgia's immemorial hostility to Abkhazia in Abkhazian public consciousness, thus reinforcing the pressure to keep some distance between the two.

At the same time Georgian public consciousness was being shaped by two factors. Importance is attached to the view that Abkhazia has been a constituent part of Georgia since time immemorial and historically has always belonged to Georgia, so that the prospect of independent and individual development for Abkhazia is seen as nonsense, an infringement of the inalienable territorial rights of the Republic of Georgia. Up to the present, historical arguments have played a vital part in official Tbilisi ideology, and there have been repeated statements at the highest level that "there is not a single inch of non-Georgian land in Georgia", that "Georgia will yield its historic lands to no-one" and so on.

There is also another widespread myth - that Georgia has some kind of paternalist role in relation to the Abkhazians. The view is that the Abkhazians, who have had very favourable conditions for social and cultural development in the Georgian Republic, have been able to retain their ethnic personality (again thanks to the single-minded solicitude of the Georgians), unlike the Caucasian peoples in the Russian autonomous republics, which have allegedly been totally Russified. Therefore the idea persists in the Georgian public consciousness that the Abkhazians are "ungrateful" and are trying to separate from Georgia illegally.

Each party thus bases its view of future peaceful coexistence upon its own firmly fixed historical and ethno-cultural ideas of their past experience of Georgian-Abkhazian relations, the negative features of which must be eliminated - it is thought that there is no need for talk, as each party interprets the negative features in its own way.

The lack of unity of views on what essentially took place in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 is another important factor that makes it difficult to achieve consensus. To the Abkhazians, the events of those years were an inter-state war between Georgia and Abkhazia. Right at the start of military action, on 15 September 1992, the Praesidium of the Abkhazian Supreme Council passed an ordinance declaring that "the armed attack by the forces of the Georgian State Council on Abkhazia on 14 August 1992 and the occupation of part of its territory" was "an act of aggression against the Republic of Abkhazia".[2] Later the idea of a patriotic war of liberation waged by the Abkhazian people against the Georgian invaders took root in the Abkhazian national consciousness.

For a long time the Georgian side could not define these events precisely, and still cannot do so. The first official assessments of the situation were heard on the third day of military action. On 17 August 1992 the Georgian State Council issued a statement that the events in Abkhazia signified "a revision of the existing frontiers of Georgia and the severance of part of its territory" and also "an attempt to complete the process of usurpation of power and to set up a monoethnic dictatorship". The State Council used these factors to justify the necessity for sending troops into Abkhazia, declaring its resolve "to snuff out the conflict at the very beginning".[3]

However, it proved to be impossible to snuff out the conflict, either at the very beginning or much later. The clashes involving Georgian and Abkhazian units at the end of August and in September took on the features of large-scale military action which it became increasingly difficult to identify with the concept of "conflict". As a result the concept of war made its appearance in the official Tbilisi lexicon, and in time the propaganda machine began to interpret it as "the struggle for the territorial integrity of Georgia". However, even in the early stages of military action Eduard Shevardnadze coined a "stronger" definition, declaring in one of his interviews that what was happening was "aggression by international terrorism against a sovereign state".[4] After the defeat of the Georgian forces near Gagry at the beginning of October 1992, the concept of "aggression" became an integral part of Georgian propagandist clichés and official statements. Thus it was claimed in a letter dated 2 October 1992 from the State Committee to Dr. Boutros Ghali, the UN Secretary General, that "Georgian forces have been the subject of blatant aggression".[5] Even today there is much talk in Georgia of "aggression", foreign intervention and the like.

The parties' evaluations of the practical results of the war naturally differ. In the Abkhazian view the war ended with the expulsion of the Georgians from the republic, the liberation of the motherland and victory in a just Patriotic War in which the Abkhazian people defended their right to self-determination as a national state. The Georgians were deeply wounded by the military defeat and by the de facto establishment of Abkhazian sovereignty. In regarding the war as aggression, the Georgian side evaluates its results in the same terms; in particular it speaks of the annexation of part of the territory of Georgia. Incidentally this concept was also formulated in the initial stages of the military action. Thus Aleksandr Kavsadze, who held an important government post at the time, identified the situation that developed after the Gagry defeat and the Georgians' forced withdrawal from the Gagry bridgehead as the de facto annexation of part of the territory of the Georgian Republic.[6] One of the recent Georgian political statements - made on 18 April 1997 by the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in exile - also refers to an "occupied historic region, Georgian from time immemorial".[7]

Though differing on many points of detail, the Georgian and Abkhazian evaluations of the war are similar in one respect - in denying that the conflict was ethnic in nature. Both Tbilisi and Sukhum insist that the sources of mutual conflict were political, and in a sense this is true. However, conflicts between political elites carried over into the collective consciousness cannot fail to excite feelings of ethnic hostility. In this case, aggravated by the losses and sacrifices in the war, these feelings have led to strengthening of negative emotions: persistent mutual loathing in which everything on the opposite ethnic side is seen as hostile, hateful and indefensible by any moral law, so that liquidation and destruction are permissible.

In the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, these features - typical of any war - took the form of mutual atrocities and vandalism . In a special statement by the Committee on Human Rights and International Relations the Georgian side made veiled references to atrocities against the enemy, in particular the torture of hostages and prisoners, "raids on the peaceful population"[8] (this euphemism covered stealing and looting), etc. and in a number of manifestations of "ethnic" war and the burning in Sukhum on 22 October 1992 of the Abkhazian State Archive and the Institute for Language, Literature and History. These could obviously have no military importance, so their destruction should be seen as an attempt to damage the enemy's spiritual heritage. At about the same time something similar was happening in the Balkans, where throughout 1992 Serbian artillery was systematically destroying Dubrovnik. Here also there was no military necessity for the destruction of this magnificent monument of pan-Slav culture. In the words of Professor Ivo Bonaca, an ethnic Croat, the aim was "to inflict serious injury upon the most intimate parts of the Croatian national consciousness".[9] Manifestations of ethnic intolerance were also characteristic of the Abkhazians. As they squeezed the Georgian forces at the end of September 1993 the advancing Abkhazian units totally destroyed Georgian villages, the inhabitants of which had abandoned their homes by that time and had fled into Georgia proper.

At present the psychological aims of both peoples have not changed; allowance should therefore be made for the fact that the road to a true peace may be made harder by yet another factor - acute mutual antipathy between Georgians and Abkhazians. Today extremely negative, low and pejorative images and assessments of each other prevail in the collective consciousness. The period of political and ideological confrontation, then the war, have altered the traditional assessments, making them unambiguously negative. The Georgian example is particularly striking in is respect. Georgians as a whole had a fairly high opinion of Abkhazians, who were seen as a nation with a rich traditional culture, which in some respects was a point of reference for Georgian culture. "Brought up (well) like an Abkhazian" - this Megrelian saying is clear evidence of the recognition of Abkhazian cultural standards as the ideal for the local Caucasian ethno-cultural milieu. The heroic status and idealization of the Abkhazian were also features of Georgian classical literature, particularly in the works of Akakii Tsereteli and Konstantin Gamsakhurdia.

With the onset of the conflict, however, the traditional stereotypes began to change; positive characteristics gave way to negative ones, and high opinions were pushed out by disparaging and sharply negative descriptions. Abkhazians were viewed in the Georgian collective consciousness as some kind of wild, uncivilised and uncultured people without their own ethno-cultural potential and incapable of self-development or of achieving high cultural standards. An extremely negative view was taken of the role of Abkhazians in the history of Georgia. In line with the views of certain Georgian academics, extensively popularised at the time, Abkhazians were seen as relatively recent migrants from the mountainous regions of the North-Western Caucasus who had resettled in traditional Georgian lands as the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth, in part driving out and in part assimilating the aboriginal Georgian population residing there.

The widespread idea that the Abkhazians were in general Muslims, a negative feature in the collective consciousness of Georgians, was also incorrect. The following sentence trotted out in "Svobodnaya Gruziya" by one of the most severe critics of Vladislav Ardzinba, is typical in is respect: "What more can be expected of a man who said many years ago: I am a Muslim and will do all I can to link myself to the Muslim world".[10] Apparently affiliation to one of the three world religions - Islam - is in itself an unworthy act, and a person desiring it is capable of only the basest acts.

In addition to the ideas that the Abkhazians were in general Muslims, they were seen as an extensively Russified people, also a completely negative feature in the collective consciousness of Georgians. The main arguments in support of the Russification of the Abkhazians are the high percentage of people (in particular when compared with Georgians) who have no command of the mother tongue but are Russophone, the absence of secondary and higher education in the Abkhazian language and political gravitation towards Russia.

The gravitation of Abkhazia towards Russia does indeed occur, and in this case it probably cannot be denied that the free bilingualism of the Abkhazians gives them a good grasp of the basic parameters of Russian culture. This naturally stimulated post-Soviet integration aspirations, and accordingly a lack of knowledge of the Georgian language meant that Georgian culture was closed to Abkhazians; other things being equal, this would always act as a factor for disintegration.

Nonetheless the principal factors in the Russian orientation of Abkhazians are historical and political, not elements of culture and everyday life, the more so because the "Russification" of the Abkhazians is no more than a myth. The reduction in the active area of the Abkhazian language did not entail erosion of the people's ethnic consciousness or a transition to Russian standards of culture and lifestyle; in that event it might have been possible to say that the Abkhazians had been Russified.

However this reality, obvious to any unbiased observer, is ignored by the Georgian side. This "Russification" of the Abkhazians is explained in Tbilisi as a conscious effort by Kremlin politicians to detach Abkhazians from Georgians, to replace the allegedly historical Georgian orientation typical of Abkhazians by a Russian orientation and in so doing secure a Russian presence in the Georgian land of Abkhazia.

This constant in the contemporary public consciousness of Georgians is part of a broader stratum of contemporary public attitudes linked with Russian-Georgian relations, their historical context and present prospects that ultimately shaped Georgians' negative views of Russia and Russians. These ideas spring from beliefs that relations with Russia have been to Georgia's detriment. Thus Georgians take the view that their country has been annexed by Russia twice - first in 1801, when the emperor Alexander I, having deposed the Bagrationi dynasty, abolished the Kartli-Kakhetian kingdom by bringing it into the administrative and territorial system of the Russian Empire, and for the second time in 1921, when the forces of Soviet Russia invaded the territory of the Georgian democratic republic, overthrew its government and put the local communists in power. The view of the history of the 70-year Soviet regime is particularly emotional. This period is seen in an exclusively negative light, as a time of social and cultural regression due to the single-minded suppression of the Georgian people's national aspirations and encroachment upon its ethnic rights.

In these circumstances the idea that the Russians have a secret dislike of Georgia dies hard. These negative tendencies in the Soviet history of Georgia referred to above are linked to the concealed Georgiophobia of the Russians, at times hating the freedom-loving Georgian people, who have tried repeatedly to cast off the shackles of the Soviet empire. Even Eduard Shevardnadze has expressed this constant feature of Georgian consciousness. In his appeal to Boris Yeltsin during the struggle for Sukhum accusing him of failing to help, the President of Georgia wrote: "What is our offence in the eyes of Russia and the world? Is it not that many times in the history of the Georgian people we have desired freedom and independence for ourselves?". On the whole this matches the widely held Georgian view of the "sacrificial" nature of their history, of the casualties suffered by the Georgian people during those years and of Russia's constant plots against Georgia.

It is important to recognise that on the whole the Abkhazian problem is also seen in Georgia through the prism of a Russian complex. All the difficulties in Georgian-Abkhazian relations are seen as the result of Russian intrigues. The very formation of a national Soviet state system for the Abkhazians in 1921 is regarded as part of a cunning Russian plan to weaken Georgia, to inject the germs of future separatism into its unitary state body. The birth of the Abkhazian national movement in the 1960s was not seen as independent either. The widely held view in Georgia was that Abkhazia had very favourable conditions for social, economic and cultural development as part of the Georgian SSR, not to be compared with the oppressed state of other Soviet autonomous regions, particularly in the Russian Federation. Accordingly the Abkhazians had no grounds for dissatisfaction, and the periodic Abkhazian disturbances aimed at taking Abkhazia out of Georgia were again said to be the result of Kremlin plots. G. Nodia drew attention to this feature of the Georgian social consciousness, observing that the Ossetians and the Abkhazians "were seen not as fighting for their own rights, but as siding with "them" (the Kremlin) against "us" (Georgia)".[11] The view still prevails in Georgia that all the political shocks that the republic has suffered in recent years, including the conflicts in Abkhazia (and in South Ossetia), have been inspired by some "third force", which is usually taken to mean Russia and its secret agents.

This constant feature of Georgian social consciousness was also apparent in assessing the course and results of the 1992-1993 war and its causes. It was obvious to many in Georgia from the very beginning that the war in Abkhazia had been plotted and planned in the offices of the Kremlin. Academician A. Bakradze, a very distinguished figure in contemporary Georgian culture, asserted that "we (i.e. the Georgians: author) know what a cunning plan the Russian government thought up against Georgia. It is to Russia's advantage to create a Karabakh situation in Abkhazia..."[12] The Gagry defeat of the Georgian forces provided fresh grounds for allegations of Russian involvement in the conflict. A letter from the Georgian State Council to Manfred Wūrner stated that "the conspiracy between the Abkhazian separatists and reactionary forces in Russia is quite obvious".[13] Eduard Shevardnadze has repeatedly supported this position by declaring, for example, that "powerful imperialist and fundamentalist forces" were behind the Abkhazian separatists.[14] The statement by the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in exile already quoted is even more specific. It states that our neighbour, the Russian Federation, inspired the conflict and today land Georgian from time immemorial is occupied under its direct control and with the participation of its reactionary forces.[15] However, it is not quite clear what is meant by "reactionary forces", because definitions differ and they are referred to somewhat vaguely, sometimes as the Russian generals, sometimes as communist opposition circles, sometimes as a chauvinist great power and sometimes all of these.

It is obvious that the persistent efforts to make Russia the sole culprit cloak a desire by the Georgian side to justify its defeat in the war, the more so because the Georgian public eagerly accepts this version. The general background of anti-Russian feeling in Georgia also makes this version easier to believe. However, such a position is of necessity an obstacle on the way to peaceful mutual understanding, because it reduces the possibility of the Georgians properly assessing their own role and the errors that led to an escalation in the tragic events of 1992-1993; the opportunities for a rational diplomatic strategy are reduced accordingly.

The principal issue at the present stage of negotiations is the future of political relations between Georgia and Abkhazia. The parties' views on this issue are diametrically opposed. The Georgian public consciousness is finding it difficult to adjust to the idea of a federal arrangement. Eduard Shevardnadze's former statement to the effect that Georgia is not ready for this reflects the substance of the matter very clearly. In any event, even several years ago few in Georgia could tolerate the thought that future development for Georgia was possible outside a unitary state and political organization. Thus an analysis of the programmes of Georgian political parties going to the polls in October 1992 shows that most of them saw Georgia either as a unitary state or, if the autonomous regions were allowed to exist, these should be under strict control by the central authority.

Eduard Shevardnadze's position was no less clear. When addressing parliament on 17 November 1992 he rejected the idea of federal links between Georgia and Abkhazia, declaring that the Georgian authorities were "prepared to consider only defining the legal status of the Abkhazian autonomous region".[16] According to Shevardnadze this was the only thing that the Abkhazians could rely on as part of Georgia. The tone of the debate on the agreement of 4 April 1994 in the Georgian parliament is highly symptomatic also. The agreement was severely criticised by the legislators because, in the opinion of most of them, it undermined the unitary foundations of the Georgian state, dooming it to a federal, and what is more to a confederative, system.

Meanwhile the idea of federalization as a possible way of settling the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, though not without its difficulties, is nevertheless gaining ground in Georgia. Many Georgians already understand that a classic unitary approach can hardly form a basis for the internal arrangements of the state. Georgia regards the latter as a meaningful compromise. However, it is difficult to understand how realistic outlines for a future federal union are viewed in Tbilisi.

Very highly placed Georgian public servants, including Eduard Shevardnadze, have declared repeatedly that Abkhazia would be given the widest possible powers of autonomous self-government as part of Georgia, taking into account world experience and appropriate legal standards. Abkhazia's rights to its own constitution, national emblem, flag, national anthem and so on are offered as the attributes of independence.

Certain other nuances in the Georgian position are very striking, in particular the previous statement that Georgia would give Abkhazia the same powers that Russia would grant to Chechnya. This position, stated by Eduard Shevardnadze at the height of the military action in Chechnya, reflected his belief both in a final victory by the federal centre over the forces of Chechen separatism and in a firm approach by Moscow to post-war relations between the Centre and Chechnya. For obvious reasons, the present situation in Russian-Chechen relations makes it inconvenient to refer to Chechen status as a prototype for the future legal position of Abkhazia. That is why rhetoric on this topic has disappeared from the official Georgian vocabulary.

The leaders of Abkhazia have already cast off the romanticism of the first few months after the victory, when Sukhum was counting on final separation from Georgia, complete independence and international legal status. Today Abkhazia has been forced to agree to the possibility of coexistence with Georgia as part of a kind of unified (common) state, which will thus restore the Soviet frontiers of the Georgian SSR.

At the same time the model for the internal state system proposed in Tbilisi will not be accepted in Abkhazia, in particular any versions whereby Abkhazia joins Georgia as an autonomous entity but an administrative tie is retained in relations between Sukhum and Tbilisi. Promises that Abkhazia will be granted extensive autonomous rights, including the right to a constitution, an anthem, an emblem, a flag and so on sound like no more than empty words, especially in the light of the historical parallels: during the previous autonomous period as part of Georgia the Abkhazians already had most of the attributes in the list, but this did not save Georgian-Abkhazian relations from difficulties and conflicts. In addition, they are convinced in Abkhazia that the Tbilisi government will never implement the promised "extensive rights" in practice. However, above all the view in Sukhum is that the Georgian proposals do not take today's realities into account, in particular the war and its results.

In the end Abkhazia is prepared to build its relationships with Georgia within the framework of a union state only on the basis of equality, and the view in Sukhum is that this principle should be the foundation of the future state system. Accordingly Sukhum is refusing to grant Tbilisi any exclusive powers, agreeing only on joint jurisdiction in such areas as foreign policy, defence, finance, the frontier and customs service and some others.

The diplomatic activity in the summer of 1997, culminating in the sensational meeting in Tbilisi on 14 August between Eduard Shevardnadze and Vladislav Ardzinba, gave rise to hopes of an important breakthrough on the way to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. However, these hopes proved to be unjustified. Both sides suspended the movement that had just begun and the Russian mediator, who had embarked upon his task so eagerly and purposefully, unexpectedly withdrew into the shadows and the negotiating process reverted to its usual sluggish state. On the whole the diplomatic commotion in the summer did more harm than good; not only did it end inconclusively, it also gave the parties fresh grounds for distrusting each other. Now much greater diplomatic efforts, or some extraordinary event forcing them into realistic arrangements, are needed before Shevardnadze and Ardzinba can meet again at the negotiating table. As a result the parties' positions have remained substantially unchanged, and in particular Tbilisi has again attempted to intensify its activities along the lines already approved. Thus Shevardnadze again observed, at the meeting of heads of CIS countries in October 1997 in Kishinev, that Russia's peacekeeping efforts were ineffective and called upon President Yeltsin to step up blockade sanctions against Abkhazia and to take more decisive action to ensure the return of Georgian refugees.

Russia's peacekeeping strategy is certainly in need of modification, because at present it is extremely ambiguous. While today the Russian peacekeeping contingent on the River Ingur is the sole guarantee that military action will not be renewed on the line of Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation, the blockade sanctions against Abkhazia applied by the frontier forces on the other frontier on the River Psou serve to fuel the smouldering conflict, because it is obvious that a blockade is one of the most effective measures in the arsenal of war, but not of peace.

Meanwhile Russia's peacekeeping potential can show itself, not in trying to suffocate one of the parties to the conflict by a blockade and not by attempts to impose a particular peace agreement on the parties, but by guiding Tbilisi and Sukhum to a direct, independent and unassisted dialogue with each other. Of course, appropriate conditions must be created for this, and the first step should be the complete lifting of the blockade on Abkhazia without reservations and with no preconditions. There can be no normal dialogue while one party to the conflict is awaiting the final suffocation of the other, and the latter is preparing itself for a fresh tightening of blockade sanctions against it or a possible invasion from across the river. However, as soon as the parties understand that from now on they themselves have to solve their problems, together, without looking to third forces for help or hostility, when clearly the machinery for achieving peace must be commensurate with their own resources and capabilities, they will be able to demonstrate political will and begin a realistic search for the road to peace.



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