Geogians and

Chapter 6 Part 1

The Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict in a Regional Context

Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi
This chapter consists of 2 parts (1, 2, and notes)

In March 1996 a meeting of Georgian and Abkhaz intellectuals was organized in Moscow. In the ensuing common declaration, signed among others by Yuri Anchabadze, one of the co-editors of this volume, several ideas were put forward, with which I would fully agree:

"It is of no use to accuse one another, trying to find out who actually started the violence (...) Dialogue should be sought instead."

"Prior to discussing the issue of the future legal status of Abkhazia, it is necessary to develop a system of social and political guarantees that can secure peace in Abkhazia and a just settlement of the conflict."

"It is necessary to secure the return of all refugees to Abkhazia."

Unfortunately, mutual accusations and the abuse of tendentiously selected historic factography to prove a particular viewpoint still remain typical of the Abkhazian-Georgian dialogue. The reader of this volume may judge if its contributors have succeeded in escaping this form of unproductive polemics.

The Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict from a Comparative Regional Perspective

The post-cold war world, with its numerous conflicts emerging against the background of competing globalization and de-globalization trends, is confronted with the problem of how to reduce intra-regional confrontation and promote a co-operative model. It is therefore necessary to develop precise definitions, criteria and indicators for determining the nature, role and influence of the main factors contributing both to conflicts and to effective co-operation.

Widespread inter-ethnic confrontation and conflict are relatively new phenomena in the former Soviet Union. Governments are experiencing difficulty in maintaining the forms of co-existence that were customary in the Soviet past and in designing strategies to facilitate co-existence and co-operation. There is no guarantee that the political support and commitment needed to formulate and follow a sustainable strategy will be forthcoming. In a situation in which the national and international institutions that should take responsibility for co-ordinating the regional co-operation process are not working properly, or are even absent, it is essential to build partnerships, devise flexible strategies and build a consensus around co-operation priorities.

Since the end of the 1980s, ethno-territorial conflicts have become the most noticeable aspect of the new political reality in the Caucasus, ruining stability, development prospects and even elementary economic self-sufficiency. There are five zones where wars and mass violence have erupted in the region during this period: Karabakh, Tskhinvali (South Ossetia), Abkhazia, Ossetia-Ingushetia and Chechnya.

The high concentration of conflicts in the Caucasus is often ascribed to the Russian secret service, to military or political forces fomenting antagonism, or to the particular cultures of the peoples inhabiting this region, supposedly characterized by intolerance and aggressiveness. All three explanations are unsatisfactory. The inability of ethnic groups to coexist should be seen as the result of failed institutional regulations rather than inborn qualities or geopolitical factors. This does not mean that an analysis of the roots of conflict in the Caucasus should overlook the role of external manipulation (the "hidden hand" factor) or its relation to (specific) internal "spontaneous" players in the region. It is not easy to determine to what extent an analysis of the conflicts may show them to be due to primarily intrinsic, spontaneous causes or, on the contrary, the result of deliberate external decisions, in particular in a situation where there are no empirical data on the genesis of the conflicts. It is also of the utmost importance to identify the real interests of the opposing population groups, interests which differ both from the declared goals and from the particular interests of the political élites. Nor should the specific nature of the Caucasian context be either underestimated or overestimated, in particular Caucasian cultural traditions and the geostrategic importance of the region. Some aspects of the Caucasian context, which are worth considering separately, are presented below:

Territorial Factor, Boundaries and Geography

All conflicts, as they involve an attempt to change the political status of a particular territory, are essentially territorial in nature. All Caucasian conflicts are - in more up-to-date terminology - sovereignty conflicts. The sacred value ascribed to territory and homeland can be observed world-wide, but has particular consequences in the Caucasus, with its extremely diversified population, its vague notion of ethnic rights on a particular territory, and the persistence of the Soviet legacy (including the legacy of arbitrarily drawn borders, of forced migrations and of the myth of the titular nation). In such circumstances, conflicts on boundaries and territories tend to be rather explosive.

The availability of an external border and access to other states or areas populated by ethnically proximate people, or having an outlet to the sea, is of the utmost importance to the Caucasian peoples. It was no coincidence that one of the most sensitive aspects of the Karabakh problem was the absence of any such external border (hence the claim on the Lachin corridor). Likewise, it was significant that the Confederation of the Caucasian Peoples[1] chose Sukhumi as its capital, due to its seaside location. Russia too perceives an outlet to the sea as a very sensitive issue, especially since the dramatic shrinking of its Black Sea coastline. In so far as all the conflicts in the Caucasus are, in one way or another, linked to the traumatic loss of imperial power by Russia, this Russian perception has great importance for the region as a whole.

Russia and the Question of External Manipulation

Many analysts, especially those from the region itself, tend to ascribe all problems and deficiencies in the policies of Caucasian governments and movements to the "Russian factor". A critique of this position does not mean that this factor should be underestimated. Russia is indeed actively involved in all the conflicts here, not only through its peace-keepers or paratroopers, but also through the arms trade (it sells weaponry to all sides in a conflict, though it is selective as to quality and quantity), through manipulative activities involving economic levers, or through the activities of its military and intelligence services. As Olivier Roy writes: "In the early 1990s Moscow had actively encouraged conflicts in the Caucasus while presenting itself as an honest broker between the combatants."[2] As a rule, Russian policies are inconsistent and contradictory, but they possess incomparably greater resources than any of the local forces. All conflicts in the Caucasus are connected with the presence of Russian troops, whether these are actively participating (Chechnya, Abkhazia), performing the role of peace-keepers (Ossetia, Abkhazia), or acting as trainers and advisors (Karabakh). Greater sympathy among the Russian military and political establishments for one of the fighting sides is apparent in each of these conflicts (the retreat from Chechnya and the absence of peace-keepers in Karabakh constitute exceptions in this respect).

The North Caucasians well remember the 1991 visit by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the region, when he promised the Ingush assistance in the conflict with the Ossetians concerning the Prigorodny district, and when, in a second speech, he promised the Ossetians to defend them against Ingush ambitions. Not only did the very creation of the Ingush republic (without even delimiting its borders) contravene the Russian Constitution, but it was seemingly designed specifically by one of the interest groups in power to be a source of permanent tension, although hardly beneficial to Russian national interests. Such a prevalence of short-term group or individual interests over long-term strategic interests, although not unfamiliar elsewhere, dominates the political scene in the post-Soviet world. In the case of Russia, this contradiction is even more complicated by post-imperial nostalgia. Another specific illustration of Russian inconsistencies and contradictory policies was the arrest, in the early stages of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, of the leader of the Confederation of the Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus, Musa Shanibov, a former professor of Scientific Communism - allegedly for organizing military and terrorist activities on Georgian territory. The attempt to repress the Confederation turned this little-known local politician into a popular regional figure; there were certain signs (such as the clumsy way in which he was arrested and then released) that these consequences were calculated in advance, even if counter-productive to other policies.

On the one hand, the Chechen war demonstrated the possibility of successful opposition to the Russian state machinery, and hence served as an example to radical separatists; on the other, however, it demonstrated the readiness of the Russian State to deploy immense resources to suppress such separatist movements by force. In the consciousness of the Caucasian people, Chechnya pointed to the real anti-Caucasian aggressors, and shifted previously anti-Georgian sentiments northwards. At the same time, many Georgian politicians hoped that the Chechen war would lead to a change in the Russian attitude towards the Abkhazian problem. But Russia's unwillingness or inability to resolve the Abkhaz conflict betrayed these hopes.

The Russian policy towards one or other of the ethnic groups is also a very important factor. With the exception of the Chechens, who were themselves involved in a war with Russia, all the parties involved in the Caucasian conflicts tried to solicit Russia's support, usually appealing to that country as an arbiter. Such an appeal aimed to enforce their own position in the conflict or in its settlement. Political support to Russia or to the Russian government, in the form of electoral support (for instance in North Ossetia and Ingushetia) or in the form of military bases (for instance from the Georgian side in the Abkhazian conflict), are offered in exchange for a favourable attitude from the arbiter. Such political calculations by the local élites reflect their lack of confidence in their own power. By appealing to an external arbiter they are showing their lack of any sense of responsibility for the conflicts in which they are involved. Their appeal for Russian support also shows that they overestimate Russia's potential to solve the conflicts in the Caucasus. Russia is still perceived as an external arbiter, a father-figure, whose force is decisive in the final outcome of this game. Although it could initially have played a decisive role in these conflicts, it now seems, however, to be not only unwilling but also unable to resolve them.

Demographic Balance

All the conflicts are characterized by radical demographic changes in the period before the eruption of the conflict (peaceful migration, forced deportations under Stalin) and during the conflict itself (refugees, ethnic cleansing). These demographic changes lead to perceptions of a threat and an acute sense of insecurity. An ethnic group - or its élites - may fear that a weakening of its demographic position could, in the long run, radically alter the balance of power and the redistribution of available resources to its disadvantage. Such perceptions, even if they are not confirmed by the use of force by the party whose increasing demographic potential is feared, may lead to "preventive action" and hence to violent conflict.

Demography is an important, sometimes even a decisive, issue in the effort by the traditional political élites to preserve their privileged position by increasing the "weight" of their respective ethnic group. The case of the Western Caucasian peoples - who experienced severe demographic losses after the end of the great Caucasian War in 1864, when Muslims from the Caucasus were either expelled by force or voluntarily emigrated to Turkey - is notable in this respect. The Abkhazian leadership, for instance, is attempting to attract members of their own diaspora in Turkey and the Middle East to return and repopulate the country. >Patterns in Argumentation on Territorial Claims and Popular Myths

The Soviet heritage - including the loose definition of the borders between federal units, the arbitrary attribution of territorial and political status to the so-called titular nations and the Stalinist ideological tradition on the nationality question (definition of "nationality", hierarchical distinction between "people" and "ethnos", etc.) - is present in all the conflicts. Symbolic acts and statements as well as all sorts of national myths are inflated in the first stage of the conflicts, while the present stage is characterized by the gradually diminishing significance of these symbolic acts, statements and myths. All parties in the conflict had and have a pragmatic - some may even say cynical - approach to universal democratic norms and international law, appealing to those norms and provisions that they find useful for themselves and ignoring others. Double standards are commonplace. As Tim Potier stated recently: "The government and people of Georgia should not be blamed for 'claiming' what international law says is rightfully theirs. If the Abkhaz were in their position, they would be doing exactly the same."[3]

The demand for exclusive rights to a specific territory by one ethnic group or another is often linked to the demand for "autochthonous" status, while only "guest" status is attributed to other groups. Such claims are generally based on an arbitrary use of historical facts. Some Georgian scholars have argued, for instance, that the Abkhazians came to Abkhazia from the North Caucasian mountains only recently. This, it is argued, is proved by the lack of an Abkhazian word for "sea". The Abkhazian scientists in turn have selected other arguments from the scant historical information available to argue that, on the contrary, it is the Georgians who should be regarded as newcomers to a region that was part of the Abkhazian Kingdom in the Middle Ages. In the same vein, Armenians claim historical rights to Karabakh, although most sources show that the Caucasian Albanians inhabited the region. Azeri sources claim that most of the Armenians in this region are descendants of the Armenian migrants from Iran and Turkey who came to Karabakh during the 19th century, after the Russian military victories. The Azeris claim to be the descendants and heirs of the Christian Albanian population, and thus the real autochthonous inhabitants of Karabakh.

Some political claims are easier to substantiate with historical facts than others. Thus it is easily proved that there were next to no Ossetians among the population of Tskhinvali until the 1920s, or that the Ingush actually did inhabit the right bank of the Terek river before their forced deportation to Central Asia at the end of the second world war, when the territory was offered to the Ossetians (supposedly more loyal to the Soviet regime). In cases like these, the opposing party may indeed find it difficult to substantiate its political claims using historical material. The legitimacy of the whole argument based on the difference between autochthonous and immigrant peoples may also be rejected by such a party, which then tries to legitimize its political claims by a relatively more recent historic past, for example, along the following lines: "Those who are currently occupying a territory should have all the rights to it" - as in the case of the Magyars who settled in Hungary some centuries ago, or the Turks, who have occupied Constantinople since the 15th century. In both types of legitimization, history is manipulated for political reasons. The impact of such historical arguments on the public consciousness of all the ethnic groups living in the Caucasus is a strong a strong factor in the generation of conflicts.

A vaguely defined right to self-determination is the main argument in all the disputes mentioned above, with the sole exception of the Ingush-Ossetian conflict. In the case of Abkhazia, this right conflicts with the democratic principle of majority rule, but in South Ossetia, where the Ossetians constitute a majority, it does not. This is yet another demonstration of the instrumental use of historical, demographic and legal arguments in various conflicts.

Different Levels of Ethnic Identity and Religion

Different levels may be distinguished in the ethnic self-identification of the Caucasian peoples. The Ingush and the Chechens consider that they have very distinct identities, but at the same time they stress their ethnic affinity (their languages belong to the Vainakh, or Nakh, group). They also regard themselves as Caucasians, and are ready in some cases to prove this latter identity by political or even military action. Likewise, the Abkhazians and the Circassians set great store by their ethnic proximity, as well as their Caucasian identity. The barbaric neologism currently popular in Russia, "a person of Caucasian nationality" - which reflects the general repressive, anti-Caucasian mood in that country - effectively strengthens this common identity.

Peoples who speak Turkic and Indo-European languages also have to define their place within the framework of this common Caucasian identity. Not only peoples like the above-mentioned Circassians, but also Balkars, Ossetians and Kumyks should be taken into account. These, however, are far less active in the pan-Caucasian integration processes (e.g. in the Confederation of Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus).

Another feature peculiar to the conflicts mentioned above is that they all take place between groups belonging to markedly different linguistic families (Slavic Russians/Kartvelian Georgians/Iranian Ossetians/Turkic Azeris/Vainakh Ingush and Chechens, Abkhazians of the Adygho-Abkhaz group, and Armenians). Linguistically related ethnic groups support each other, as in the case of the Ingush and Chechens, or the Abkhaz and Adyghes. This is one of the reasons why ethnogenetic theories and myths play a much greater role in the Caucasus, while the religious factor is secondary, contrary to places like the former Yugoslavia where the ethnic conflicts take place between groups that are closely related linguistically but are denominationally distinct.

The role of the religious factor in the Caucasian conflicts is commonly overestimated. Although in some cases (e.g. Chechnya, with its strong Islamic networks) religion may play a significant role, local political élites generally display a rather pragmatic manipulative attitude towards it. After his return to Georgia, Shevardnadze lost no time in getting baptized - by the more Orthodox name of Giorgi. The Abkhaz president Ardzinba promised to build a mosque in order to placate the religious feelings of his more devoted Muslim Abkhazian compatriots in Turkey. The population, meanwhile, has to a great extent lost its initial interest in religious ceremonies, revived after perestroika. Religious symbols may, however, become more powerful during a prolonged military action against opponents of a different religious creed. This happened in Chechnya, where there is a still significant Sufi tradition and where the historical memory of the 19th century jihad against the Russians is still very much alive. Now many Chechens support the introduction of shariat principles into penitentiary practice, though they may often be unable to demonstrate a basic knowledge of its fundamental principles.

Economic Factors

The economic interests of Russian and Caucasian states and the volume of resources that they are ready to deploy in order to achieve particular political goals need to be assessed in detail. Among these, the economic interests and resources of various élites and groups - such as the arms and drug dealers, oil companies and multinationals - have to be taken into account, together with the economic significance of decisions taken by the state administration. All these factors imply significant capital flows. The war in Chechnya has enriched some of the military, while the resources allocated to the rehabilitation of the economy have fed those economic players who were able to control this decision politically. Pipeline policies and the future redistribution of the oil-generated profits is a dominant factor in the Russian policies in Karabakh and Chechnya, and may play an increasingly important role in the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict. Russia seems to be persisting in its manipulation of ethno-territorial conflicts in order to secure its strategic economic (oil) interests.

The Time Perspective, Concepts of the Future and the Basic Interests of the Population

None of the opposing sides has any feasible, realistic proposal, which may be considered a sound basis for conflict settlement, to offer the other side. Russia has no compromise to offer either, and until recently seemed not to be interested in sustainable settlements. In most cases a conflict is seen as a zero-sum game, in which the perception of both the possible negative consequences of certain factors or events for the interests of each party (in particular as regards the demographic balance between different populations on the disputed territory, or the overall balance of power), as well as possible positive consequences for the interests of the opposing party in the conflict, are largely exaggerated.

A population's safety, prosperity and participation in governance could be described as its basic needs. This is quite a simple definition. It is, however, not easy to discuss the means of securing such basic needs. So in the case of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, for instance, it is evident that there is no rapid solution leading to their return - to northern Abkhazia in particular - that would give them sufficient security guarantees and at the same time ensure democratic governance in Abkhazia. Only a more complex, stage by stage process can lead to a compromise acceptable to both sides. As in many other cases of conflict between "formal" democracy and "ethnic" demography, the only possible solution - albeit a slow one - involves a basic democratization process accompanied by very cautious demographic policies, linked to complete procedural transparency and an ongoing process of negotiation.

New Trend in Georgia's Political Orientation

The failure of the assassination attempt on Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995 led to new geopolitical initiatives and trends in the Caucasus. Igor Giorgadze, the Georgian State Security Minister and son of the leader of the Communist party - the main rival of Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens - escaped to Moscow on a Russian military plane, after having been accused of masterminding the assassination attempt. Shevardnadze exploited to the full this opportunity to get rid of the strongmen dominating the political scene. He scored a clear-cut political victory over all his rivals. But even more important was the reorientation of the country towards the West rather than towards Russia.

Despite the Russian military bases in Georgia, the presence of Russian border guards at the Georgian border with Turkey and Russian peace-keepers in the two zones of conflict (Tskhinvali and Abkhazia), this reorientation of foreign policy became evident at the end of 1996. It was encouraged by Russian failures in Chechnya and the change in Western attitudes to the region. The latter were caused not only by the immensely important factor of Caspian oil, but also by the general shift in Western priorities after the partial resolution of the Bosnian crisis and the general disappointment in Russia's democratization process, revealed most explicitly by the acceleration of the NATO enlargement to the East.

The doubling of Western investments in the Georgian economy during the last two months of 1996 reflected the emergence of a new situation. The rising power of the West in the region - at least in the minds of the Georgian people - contrasts with the waning power of Russia. Russia is tempted to use the CIS in order to re-establish its control over former Soviet republics, but it avoids too strong an integration, fearing an influx of non-Slavic people into Russia - fears heightened by a lower birth rate among the Slavic population than among Muslim minorities. It is confronted by catastrophically diminishing resources and organizational abilities. Georgian public opinion perceives Russian policies - in particular the policy of "divide and rule" - as being a serious threat to the country's security. The potential economic or strategic benefit of any Georgian-Russian co-operation is seen as far less important than this type of threat.

Although the visit by the NATO Secretary-General, Solana, to the southern states of the CIS sparked a harsh reaction from some Moscow politicians, it may to an extent be considered merely symbolic - in line with the still prevailing tendency to substitute demonstrative actions for real policies towards the NIS. It may also be seen as an expression of the change in balance of forces involved in the region. In his speech delivered on 11 February 1997, in Tbilisi, Mr Solana stressed the new role of Georgia and the Caucasus:

My visit today should be understood as a sign of the value that we at NATO attach to our relationship with Georgia. We want to continue and deepen that relationship. Indeed, the opportunities for co-operation with NATO are almost endless. On NATO's side, we would enthusiastically welcome the growing involvement of Georgia across the whole range of our co-operation programmes. Georgia's geographical position may be far from Brussels, but its concerns and interests are far from remote. The Caucasus is an important region for Europe, and there is great social and economic potential to be realized, once underlying security issues have been resolved peacefully and in accordance with OSCE values and commitments. Europe cannot be fully secure, or realize its own full potential, if the Caucasus countries are left out of the European security equation.[4]

The emergence of close co-operation between Ukraine and Azerbaijan, believed to be brokered by Shevardnadze, indicates that forms of integration of CIS countries that are not Moscow-centred have some chance of success. This alliance, with implicit Turkish participation, is a distinct alternative to the traditional CIS process of regionalism which failed to go beyond declamatory policies or to substantiate Russia's aspiration to be a superpower. The issues at stake in Azeri-Georgian-Ukrainian co-operation are obvious: a way of counterbalancing Russia's dominance, in particular in relation to the energy and economic security of the participating states.

An activation of Turkish-Georgian relations followed this process. On 28 February 1997, a delegation of Turkish Mejlis visited Georgia. The head of the delegation, Mr. Hatin-oglu, stressed Turkey's interest in facilitating the peaceful settlement of the Abkhazian problem, categorically supporting Georgia's territorial integrity and emphasising Turkey's desire to oppose the Russian scenario there. President Shevardnadze expressed his agreement with the Turkish viewpoint: "I think it is time for more active Turkish participation in the settlement of the Abkhaz conflict and other conflicts in the Caucasian region". He also stressed the importance of the new railway linking Turkey with Georgia.[5]

On 15 March, Georgian Defence Minister Nadibaidze was sent by Shevardnadze on a personal assignment to the Ingush capital Nazran. This was one of the steps in implementing the "Peaceful Caucasus Initiative", promoted by Shevardnadze since the 1996 meeting with Yeltsin and other Caucasian leaders in Kislovodsk. In Nazran, Nadibaidze met the Ingush President Aushev and the Chechen leader Maskhadov. Nadibaidze reported that both North-Caucasian leaders had supported the Peaceful Caucasus Initiative and had expressed their readiness for more active co-operation. They had both allegedly agreed that Abkhazia should remain part of Georgia, and acknowledged that the Chechen participation in the Georgian-Abkhaz war had been a mistake, Dudaev's mistake. Aushev and Maskhadov called the deployment of Russian border troops on the border between Georgia and the North Caucasus superfluous, while Nadibaidze stated that Georgia was opposed to the deployment of Russian troops on the Georgian side of their common border.[6]

The next important event with strong internal implications for Georgian foreign policy was the meeting of the CIS leaders in Moscow, on 28 March 1997. Georgia was seeking progress with the deadlocked Abkhazian problem, and hoped to achieve several goals, among them the redeployment of Russian peace-keepers in an extended security zone in the Gali region, which would facilitate the return of some 100,000 Georgian refugees to this district. Such a return would significantly relieve the domestic political and economic strain of the refugee question. In Moscow, the Georgian side received symbolic support for its perception of the conflict, which was expressed in the Resolution of the Council of Heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (Moscow, 28 March 1997) on the Development of the Conflict Resolution Process in Abkhazia, Georgia:

"The Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States, recalling the Declaration of the Lisbon summit of the Heads of the OSCE member states (December 1996) that condemns "ethnic cleansing, resulting in the mass extermination and forcible expulsion of the predominantly Georgian population of Abkhazia", as well as "actions hindering the return of refugees and displaced persons", condemned in its turn "the position of the Abkhazian side, hindering the reaching of agreements on the political settlement of the conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia, and the return, in safety and dignity, of refugees and displaced persons to the places of their permanent residence..."[7]

In a sense, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has been one of the most powerful of the factors that mobilized opposition among Georgians to dependence on Russia. Especially in the long term, it has had a decisive influence on the determination of foreign policy priorities. Russia seems to have lost substantial political resources through this conflict by reinforcing an anti-Russian attitude in public opinion and among the political establishment in Georgia. At the same time, Georgia's pro-Western orientation may lead to exaggerated expectations of Western support - the West may very well sacrifice the interests of small nations for the sake of stability in the Eurasian heartland. The Georgian government was particularly concerned about the possibility that Russia's consent to the eastward expansion of NATO would be obtained in exchange for American agreement to Russian influence in the Caucasus.

The Abkhazians, who were used for a long time as Russia's strongest lever of influence on Georgia, also seem more and more reluctant to be used in this way by Moscow. The Abkhazian and Georgian sides are already trying to start negotiating with each other without mediators. It is astonishing to observe how, already, the first meetings between the leaders of the two sides have been able to change the post-war stereotypes and enemy images among their respective populations, who have suddenly discovered that reality has other colours besides just black and white. Georgians were surprised to hear rational - if unacceptable - arguments from Ardzinba and other Abkhaz representatives, after several years of an exclusively negative perception of the Abkhaz leadership.

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