Roots of the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz Armed Conflict
The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Abkhazia
Many researchers and analysts are becoming increasingly interested in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and the resulting influx of large quantities of armaments and ammunition into the area. We believe that, in order to better understand the current state of Georgian-Abkhaz relations, one must learn about the background of the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
The Rise of Ethnic Self-Awareness in the Late 1980s
The first independent public organizations and political parties appeared in the USSR in 1988. Researchers believe that, in the days of perestroika, the Georgian national movement returned to the very paradigm of the national state system that had evolved after the collapse of the Russian empire. This was especially true for the ethnic minorities of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The election program of the Merab Kostava Society declared: "The All-Georgian Merab Kostava Society finds the settlement of Georgian families in houses purchased from non-Georgians in regions with an acute demographic situation (author's italics) to be one of the most practical ways of speedily amending the demographic situation.1" The election program of the Party of Georgian State and National Unity (a "pro-democracy" party) went as far as to suggest restricting the number of children "non-native" families were allowed to have to two.
The determination of Georgian unofficial associations (later incorporated into government institutions) to secede from the USSR and their attitude towards minorities were creating an explosive situation. At that time, the Abkhaz national-liberation movement received a new stimulus. The Aidgylara (Unification) People's Forum of Abkhazia was founded in Sukhumi on December 13, 1988. Abkhaz authorities and the forum's leaders expressly appealed to the entire multiethnic population of Abkhazia to struggle for their civil rights. The notion of a united people of Abkhazia emerged, taking the struggle for independence beyond narrow ethnic limits. Many of the non-Abkhaz signed the Lykhny address in 1988.
"In the future, Abkhaz leaders emphasized the multiethnic nature of their national movement, but the true objective of this multiethnicity was the relatively successful attempt to form the coalition 'everyone against the Georgians'.2" Outnumbered by Georgians within the republic, the Abkhaz were interested in finding allies among the Russian-speakers.
In the decades before the armed conflict, Russians were gradually ousted from the land and from the administrative and intellectual spheres. The trend intensified in the 1960s-1980s, when the Russian population of Abkhazia shrank by more than 12,000, and especially after the events of July 1989, when a strange combination of anti-Sovietism and Russophobia started playing an increasingly important role in Georgia.
With the signs of the impending war becoming clearer, Russians as well as members of other ethnic groups in Abkhazia had to unite and develop protective institutions. The Sukhumi Society of Internationalists became the first such organization. Later, the Slavic House started representing the interests of the majority of the Russians in Abkhazia and acted as an umbrella for the cultural organizations of ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Bulgarians etc. December 1991 saw the founding meeting of the Association of Cossacks living in Abkhazia, which was attended by representatives of Abkhaz and Georgian public and political associations. The Association declared as its main objective the revival of self-awareness and the strengthening of peace and stability in the region. Its charter described it as a public patriotic association linked with the Kuban Cossack Rada but observing the legal acts of Abkhazia, since it operated on Abkhaz territory. This paved the way for the revival and strengthening of Abkhaz-Cossack relations, which played a big role during the Georgian aggression against Abkhazia. Later, Georgian associations that failed to take the revival of the Cossack community seriously invited the Cossacks to join the local branch of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary organization .
A founding father of the Krunk (Crane) Armenian cultural and charitable society attributed the formation of the society to dissatisfaction with the discrimination against the Armenian community in social, legal and other public spheres. In 1989, activists from the movement visited Armenia, where they were received by Armenian religious leader Catholicos Vazgen I and established ties with the Dashnaktsutyun association of political parties. The Armenian society held its founding congress in January 1990 and invited 350 delegates from all regions of Abkhazia and 150 guests from other republics of the Soviet Union.
At first, Georgians underestimated the importance of Krunk, which closely cooperated with Aidgylara, the Slavic House, and other non-Georgian associations. Later, the actions of Georgian troops gave a powerful incentive to the growth of self-awareness among most of the Armenians in Abkhazia. For instance, after the village of Labra, which had a predominantly Armenian population, was destroyed, the Armenians of Abkhazia formed two battalions, named after Marshal Baghramyan3.
The developments of July 1989 proved crucial not only to the Georgian and Abkhaz national movements but also to non-Georgian communities in Abkhazia. They made their final decision after the troops of the Georgian State Council invaded Abkhazia.
After making fruitless appeals to Moscow, Aidgylara increased contacts with associations that were emerging in the North Caucasus. The rapprochement was sealed in August 1989, in Sukhumi, when the Assembly of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus was formed at the First Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus. The congress was attended by delegates of public organizations and activist groups from the Adygeyan autonomous district, the Karachayevo-Cherkessian autonomous district, the Kabardino-Balkarian autonomous republic, the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic and Abkhazia. The Assembly sought to pool the efforts of the mountain peoples of the Caucasus to fundamentally transform political, social and economic life in the country4. On November 4, 1989 the third session of the Coordinating Council of the Assembly was held in Nalchik. The situation in Abkhazia, described as extremely tense, was at the top of the agenda. The leaders of the Georgian Popular Front were invited, and informed that the Abkhaz people were not alone in their struggle for independence, and that, if necessary, they would receive broad support. The Assembly was later renamed the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. As Georgian-Abkhaz relations became more problematic, it made numerous statements supporting the Abkhaz in their struggle for self-determination.
The leadership of Aidgylara also tried to establish working relations with Georgian political associations in Abkhazia. "An Abkhaz public forum held on May 28, 1990 demanded the replacement of the entire Communist Party and government leadership in Abkhazia. Chairman of the Aidgylara Popular Front S. Shamba implied that seeking support on the issue from Georgian opposition parties was an option. Shamba's statement prompted a negative reaction of Round Table - Free Georgia, which basically rejected possible dialogue with the Abkhaz.5"
Unlike the Abkhaz national movement, Georgian radicals almost entirely ignored the public and political associations of the North Caucasian. "In the late 1980s, the Georgian political elite clearly dissociated itself from the newly formed national movements of the peoples of the Caucasus. Neither contacts nor even basic dialogue were established with Aidgylara, Adyge Khase, or the ethnic organizations of Balkars, Chechens or Cossacks.6" Georgia did not take the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus seriously, calling it a paper tiger.
As a result, the Abkhaz managed to portray themselves as being oppressed and win public opinion. "The success of the separatists in the armed conflict was largely a result of the diplomatic victories of their leaders. They won over representatives of the North Caucasian peoples and convinced the Russian public of their pro-Russian orientation.7"
And yet, Georgia's position in the North Caucasus was still strong. The Ingush refused to get involved in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict altogether and, "had the Georgian side been a little more active, the flow of Chechen volunteers to Gudauta would have been much weaker.8"
Georgian-Abkhaz Relations in the Early 1990s: Conflict Evolves into War
We should note that some Western and Russian analysts studying relations between Georgia and Abkhazia during the period in question regard the movement for the self-determination of Abkhazia as the main cause of the armed confrontation. "Prompted by the determination of the Abkhaz autonomy to change its status, the conflict, which started out quite peacefully (on March 18, 1989), entered a stage of armed opposition and military-political confrontation between Georgians and the Abkhaz, in which the demands for the equality of the Abkhaz culture and language played a subordinate role.9" Conflicts which result in armed confrontation, usually do not stem from demands for self-determination, but from the unequal position of a certain population group (groups), the rights of which are regularly violated.
Declaration of Sovereignty of Abkhazia
Let's take a look at the political situation in the USSR that directly influenced the relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia during the period in question. On June 12, 1990 the First Congress of People's Deputies of the RFSR10 adopted a declaration of the sovereignty of the Russian Federation. The declaration contained a provision on the need to expand the rights of autonomous territories (republics, regions, districts). The law on Russia's sovereignty not only sped up the adoption of similar acts in other Soviet republics, but also encouraged the strengthening of the self-awareness of ethnic groups in Russia itself. A statement Boris Yeltsin made during his working tours of Russia was frequently quoted: "Take as much sovereignty as you can digest…11"
In their efforts to resist the separatism of republics, Moscow authorities adopted a number of legislative acts, including the USSR law "On the division of power between the USSR and federation members." Attitudes to Mikhail Gorbachev's political move differ. Some believed that it threatened the territorial integrity of Soviet republics, while others praised it, considering membership in the USSR as an equal member of the federation to be the only acceptable form of statehood.
The Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic also adopted a number of documents aimed at separation from the Soviet Union. On July 26, 1990 the Presidium of the Georgian Supreme Soviet passed a resolution on the formation of a commission to look into the status of the Abkhaz autonomous republic. It linked the commission's formation to "legal guarantees for protecting the state system of Abkhazia," although a June 20, 1990 resolution of the Georgian Supreme Soviet had declared null and void "all acts abolishing political and other institutions of the Democratic Republic of Georgia…12" Thus, autonomous republics were automatically abolished and Georgia became a unitary state.
The leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia retaliated. A working group was formed to prepare for an emergency session of the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet and compile all the necessary materials. Georgian deputies, who acted as the parliamentary opposition, tried to boycott the session by sending an appeal to the speakers of the Georgian and Abkhaz Supreme Soviets. Nevertheless, on August 25, 1990 the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty13.
The Presidium of the Georgian Supreme Soviet responded instantly and, on August 26, passed a resolution declaring null and void the August 25 decisions of the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet and its declaration of sovereignty. In turn, Aidgylara issued a statement proclaiming that the resolution of the Georgian Supreme Soviet had no legal force.
The theory that, by adopting the 1990 declaration, Abkhazia proclaimed its secession from Georgia is a predictable misunderstanding. The declaration of sovereignty adopted by the Abkhaz parliament in 1990 was meant to protect the federal status of the republic from being ignored or cancelled by Tbilisi. Abkhazia approved the act after other former autonomous republics of the Soviet Union adopted similar acts, and in none of those cases did the declarations mean separation from the parent state14.
Abkhazia and the Gamsakhurdia Regime
The Round Table - Free Georgia coalition won the October 1990 election to the Georgian Supreme Soviet with 53.94% of the vote. Elections failed in 6 out Abkhazia's 12 electoral districts. About 40% of the electorate in Abkhazia voted. Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected Chairman of the Georgian Supreme Soviet on November 14, 1990. After the election, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared a transitional period for the restoration of Georgian independence.
After the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decided to hold a referendum on preserving the Soviet Union as a federation of equal sovereign republics, the Georgian Supreme Soviet scheduled its own referendum on the subject (author's italics) of the restoration of the independence of Georgia for March 31, 1991. There was only one question on the ballot: "Do you agree that independence should be restored on the basis of the Independence Act of May 26, 1918?15 "
Shortly before the referendums, on March 16, 1991, Gamsakhurdia gave a television address in which he declared: "The future of the non-Georgian population, its life in Georgia tomorrow, fully depends on whether it takes part in the [Moscow-organized] referendum tomorrow, and whether it takes part in the upcoming referendum on March 31…16 "
Map 1. Georgia
Source: Small Arms Survey, 2002.
The split in the Georgian national movement forced Gamsakhurdia to take certain steps to establish contacts with the Abkhaz and conduct a number of consultations with representatives of the Abkhaz popular movement17. Gamsakhurdia's representatives also met with the leaders of Aidgylara in advance of the October-December 1991 elections to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia.
The Abkhaz side proposed a two-houses parliament, the upper house of which would be elected according to the majoritarian system, and the lower house composed of equal numbers of representatives from key ethnic groups in Abkhazia. The Georgian side rejected the proposal in fear of creating a precedent18. In the process of negotiations, the sides arrived at a compromise: elections were held on the basis of ethnic quotas suggested by Gamsakhurdia: 28 seats for the Abkhaz, 26 for Georgians and 11 for other ethnic groups. The main reason why the Georgian side agreed to the compromise was Gamsakhurdia's determination to concentrate his efforts on the war that was beginning in South Ossetia. It would have been difficult for the Georgian government to wage wars against several adversaries simultaneously. We may assume that Gamsakhurdia decided to postpone the settlement of the Abkhaz problem19.
Once Gamsakhurdia began having trouble at his position (he was elected Georgian President on May 26, 1991), he had to change his stance towards Abkhazia even more. In 1991, his representatives met with the leaders of Aidgylara in Sukhumi, and the Abkhaz side was invited to begin negotiations on the establishment of a single federal state. Gamsakhurdia suggested that it could be called the Georgian-Abkhaz or the Abkhaz-Georgian Federation, following the model of Czechoslovakia.
The initiative was never carried out, since Gamsakhurdia was overthrown and a civil war broke out in Georgia. When Eduard Shevardnadze came to power (until the October 1992 elections, his status was not legitimate), relations between Georgia and Abkhazia deteriorated. Georgian criticism of the agreement on elections to the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet - an compromise agreement reached after lengthy negotiations - grew more intense.
Georgian-Abkhaz Relations After the Rise of Shevardnadze
After Gamsakhurdia's flight, a special inter-party commission was set up in Tbilisi to work out the key principles of relations with Abkhazia. In February 1992, a concept was developed and commission members held several meetings with the Abkhaz leadership in Sukhumi. Commission members found their mission very significant: "We have reason to hope that Georgia's new leadership will reconsider Tbilisi's official policy towards autonomous regions.20 "
The Abkhaz side proposed to remain within Georgia on a federal basis, distributing power between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Its initial demands were the removal of the word "autonomy" from the name of the state and the recognition of new national symbols. The commission members found the conditions set by the Abkhaz side acceptable and submitted them for discussion to the Georgian Consultative Council, later renamed the State Council. The Council, however, voted against the proposals, missing its opportunity to find a political solution to the problem.
In February 1992, the Georgian Military Council issued a declaration that recognized as unchanged "the international legal acts and the supremacy of the February 21, 1921 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia and its effectiveness with due account to present-day realities and without changing the existing borders or national state system of the Republic of Georgia (with the present status of Abkhazia and Ajaria).21"
Despite the remark about the status of Abkhazia, the February 21, 1921 Constitution did not guarantee Abkhazia's statehood, since Abkhazia had been occupied by Georgian troops at that time. The declaration of the Military Council overlooked the Abkhaz position.
After the war with Abkhazia, Georgia tried to deny the February, 1992 restoration of the 1921 Constitution: "There is a declaration of the Georgian Military Council. Think for yourself, how could a Military Council, an illegitimate provisional body that existed for merely two months after the December-January coup, adopt or restore any constitution?22 " In the meanwhile, the illegitimacy of the Military Council did not prevent the international community from recognizing Shevardnadze, whom it had invited.
In February 1992, the Georgian State Council launched the first military action, regarded in Abkhazia as preliminary reconnaissance. A Georgian National Guard unit led by
G. Karkarashvili (a former Soviet Army captain, later a brigadier general and defense minister of Georgia) arrived in Sukhumi. The formal pretext for sending the formation into Abkhazia was the struggle against Gamsakhurdia's supporters. The presence of a Georgian military unit on Abkhaz territory was marked by unlawful actions against the local population. When the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet demanded the unit's withdrawal, the Georgian Military Council recalled it. As the Georgian troops were leaving Abkhazia, they came under fire from unidentified persons in the area of Agudzera. The trailing vehicle with ammunition was destroyed. Most likely, Gamsakhurdia's supporters, known as the Zviadists, were responsible for the attack. There was no immediate response, but the Georgian authorities now had pretext for using force to settle their difference s with Abkhazia.
In May of 1992, the Georgian faction of the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet, which was fully controlled by Tbilisi, began boycotting parliamentary sessions, forming parallel government bodies and setting up illegal armed units. A congress of Georgian public representatives was convened in Sukhumi on May 9, 1992, and the National Unity Council was established. Its first concrete action was the formation of the Sukhumi motorized battalion, deployed in Sukhumi since May 19, 1992. The newly formed Mkhedrioni paramilitary groups in Gagra and Sukhumi were also subordinated to the Council23.
In the summer of 1992, Taras Shamba, an Abkhaz lawyer, drafted proposals for an agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia, which the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet was supposed to discuss. However, the Georgian military intervention foiled the plans24.
The Dagomys Meeting
On June 24, 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in Dagomys, on the Russian Black Sea coast. After the meeting they signed an "Agreement on the principles of settling the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia."
At the same meeting, Yeltsin promised to support Shevardnadze on the issue of Abkhazia. A communique was signed confirming the "Dagomys conspiracy." It noted that the sides had discussed "the entire set of Georgian-Russian relations, paying due attention to issues that could cause complications between the Republic of Georgia and the Russian Federation." The document also contained a provision that later allowed Shevardnadze to launch military operations in Abkhazia. It said: "The law enforcement bodies of Georgia and Russia will resolutely stop the activities of unlawful military, paramilitary and unauthorized units and groups in the territories under their jurisdiction.25"
At the Dagomys meeting, Russia recognized the independence of Georgia - naturally, according to the territorial boundaries Georgia named. We can be fairly certain that Yeltsin and Shevardnadze discussed the timing of the military operation against Abkhazia at the meeting. This is implied by the choice of date when the Georgian invasion of Abkhazia was launched - Friday. It seems that the "Abkhaz question" was supposed to be solved over the weekend. Georgia needed the June 24 Agreement for several reasons: first of all, the end of the war in South Ossetia would speed up the recognition of Georgia by the international community; secondly, it made arms transfers under the Tashkent Accord possible.
The first transfer of Russian armaments and armored vehicles to Georgia took place in February 1992, in Abkhazia, when a Russian airborne battalion stationed in Sukhumi handed over several armored personnel carriers (APCs) and some small arms to Karkarashvili's national guards.
During the distribution of Soviet army property, Tbilisi received a total of 12 helicopters, over 350 tanks and armored vehicles, over 3,000 automobiles, 15 units of air defense ground equipment, over 400 field artillery guns, 49 mortars, over 47,000 pieces of small arms, and over 230 railcars' worth of ammunition.26
"By the time Georgia attacked Abkhazia, it had at its disposal… 108 tanks, 88 APCs and other vehicles, as well as 33 artillery guns and 4,000 pieces of small arms. Through various means, Georgian rebels had captured 10 tanks, 604 automobiles and other military hardware since 1990.27" Russia's transfer of arms to the Georgian State Council, which had risen to power in an armed coup and won the support of the Russian president, ruled out a dialogue with the Abkhaz side and made the war practically inevitable. One can say that, right before August 1992, Russia gave Georgian troops overwhelming military superiority over the Abkhaz, encouraging them to launch an offensive. In the fall of 1992, Sukhumi was armed with merely eight tanks and 30 APCs28.
On July 31, 1992 Georgia became the 179th member of the United Nations (earlier, in March of 1992, it was accepted into the OSCE). This event also had a notable impact on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, contributing strongly to its evolution into the 1992-1993 war.
Disregard for the interests of the Abkhaz and the lack of analysis on the pre-war political situation in Georgia and Abkhazia allowed Tbilisi to blame Sukhumi for provoking the Georgian State Council to use force against it. "The open rejection of the 1991 agreement by the Abkhaz faction showed that the Abkhaz ethnic community preferred historical law over the democratic rights of the current population of Abkhazia. It was a latent declaration of war against the Georgian community in Abkhazia and Tbilisi. It also significantly strengthened the positions of those in the Georgian leadership who believed that it was best to use force in dealing with Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba.29"
1 Tekhnologii etnicheskoi mobilizatsii. Iz istorii stanovleniya gruzinskoy gosudarsvennosti (1987-1993), Moscow, 2000, p. 263.
2 Bruno Coppiters, Gruziny i Abkhazy. Put k primireniyu, Moscow, p. 75.
3 From the author's conversation with Albert Topolyan, Minister for Youth Affairs, Sports and Tourism of Abkhazia on 02.08.2002.
4 The charter of the Assembly of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. Yedininiye. 25.10.1989.
5 Labirint Abkhazii, Tbilisi, 2000, p. 55.
6 "Kuda podevalas kavkazskaya politika Gruzii", Kavkazskiy aktsent, 2002.
7 Tsentralnaya Aziya i Kavkaz, No. 4, p. 191.
9 Dina Malysheva, "Fenomen etnoseparatizma na Kavkaze i mirovoi opyt", Tsentralnaya Aziya i Kavkaz, No. 3 (4), 1999
10 Name of Russia inside the Soviet Union - Russian Federative Socialist Republics.
11 "Vstrechi v Bashkirii, rabochaya poyezdka B.N. Yeltsina po Rossii", Sovetskaya Rossiya, 14.08.1990.
12 Regionalnye konflikty v Gruzii - Yugoosetinskaya avtonomnaya oblast, Abkhazskaya ASSR (1989-2001). Collection of political and legal acts. Tbilisi, 2002, pp. 228-229.
13 Bruno Coppiters, Federalizm i konflikt na Kavkaze, No. 2, 2002.
14 Bruno Coppiters, Gruziny i Abkhazy. Put k primireniyu, Moscow, p. 75.
15 Regionalnye konflikty v Gruzii - Yugoosetinskaya avtonomnaya oblast, Abkhazskaya ASSR (1989-2001). Collection of political and legal acts. Tbilisi, 2002, p. 249.
16 Stanislav Lakoba, Abkhazia de facto ili Gruziya de jure? (O politike Rossii v Abkhazii v postsovetskiy period, 1991-2000 gg.), pp. 9-10.
17 Rol neofitsialnoi diplomatii v mirotvorcheskom protsesse. Materialy gruzino-Abkhazskoi konferentsii. March 1999, Sochi. Irvine, 1999, p.18.
18 S.M. Shamba, "K voprosu o pravovom, istoricheskom i moralnom obosnovanii prava Abkhazii na nezavisimost", Natsionalnyie interesy, Moscow, 2000, No. 1, p. 21.
19 Bruno Coppiters, Federalizm i konflikt na Kavkaze, No. 2, 2002, p. 24.
20 Rol neofitsialnoi diplomatii v mirotvorcheskom protsesse. Materialy gruzino-Abkhazskoi konferentssii. March 1999, Sochi. Irvine, 1999, p.20.
21 Regionalnye konflikty v Gruzii - Yugoosetinskaya avtonomnaya oblast, Abkhazskaya ASSR (1989-2001). Collection of political and legal acts. Tbilisi, 2002, p. 270.
22 Mezhdunarodnyi opyt uregulirovaniya etnopoliticheskikh konfliktov, Kazan, 1996, pp. 117-118.
23 Labirint Abkhazii, Tbilisi, 2000.
24 Bruno Coppiters, Federalizm i konflikt na Kavkaze, No. 2, 2002, 27.
25 Stanislav Lakoba, Abkhazia de facto ili Gruziya de jure? (O politike Rossii v Abkhazii v postsovetskiy period, 1991-2000 gg.), p. 17.
26 Interfax, 02.07.2002, www. Sakartvelo.ru.
27 Respublika Abkhazia, 1-3.10.1992.
28 Spornye granitsy na Kavkaze, Moscow, 1996, p. 56.
29 Bruno Coppiters, Gruziny i Abkhazy. Put k primireniyu, Moscow, p. 46.