Comments on ‘Georgia: a report’ by International Alert, by George Hewitt - January 1993

sinte muoti go˚o, utole rek da?

‘Why do you need light, if you are blind?’ (Mingrelian proverb)

Comments on

‘Georgia: a report’ by International Alert

This is a deeply flawed (not to say totally unprofessional) and indeed dishonest document, a fact that should be brought to the attention of all who read it. It is flawed because the duty of such a commission should be to form an objective judgment on the basis of its background-research and its discussions with both parties as to where the truth actually lies among the various (counter-)claims and not merely anecdotally to repeat, as is often the case here, the claims themselves in the context of a one-sided running-commentary. It is dishonest insofar as, after largely disparaging the Abkhazian leadership (in terms of its ‘academic’ nature, lack of administrative experience, and ‘poor’ grasp of international law), it proceeds actually to advocate two courses of action which have formed the very fundamentals of Abkhazian desiderata from the beginning, namely that (i) Abkhazia be awarded the status of a full republic within Georgia, and (ii) Abkhazia enter into federal (?confederal) relations with Georgia. The 1925 constitution of Abkhazia, restored on 23 July 1992 (though nowhere mentioned in this document), effectively realised BOTH these recommendations. As the commission-members well know (or should know, if they bothered to read the materials I personally supplied and for which I am thanked at the back of this report, from which I totally dissociate myself), negotiations on the form of the new confederative relations were in progress on the very day that Shevardnadze sent in his forces. Yet readers will search in vain for any word of condemnation of that calculated act, as a result of which hundreds have died and continue to die, while the world largely ignores the suffering and certainly seeks to put no pressure on Shevardnadze to mend his ways. That pressure will come when visitors to Tbilisi make the effort to look beneath the surface-hospitality and examine the depth of racism that infuses this society. Only then will there be a true understanding of the nature of the various ethnic disputes that scar this country, any long-term resolution of which must be preceded by the Kartvelians restraining (it is too much to hope that it will be relinquished) the notion that their racial superiority gives them a right to (mis)behave within their internationally recognised borders at will.

Specific observations:

p.1: whilst Gamsakhurdia certainly shares some blame for the situation in Abkhazia, the decision to send in troops and start the killing was Shevardnadze’s (Independent 24-IX-92), a fact totally ignored by IA. On what precise evidence does the commission agree that ‘Russians’ have encouraged the Abkhazian leaders to make uncompromising demands, and who exactly are these ‘Russians’? President Ardzinba’s first name is Vladislav.

p.3: NO political solution to the problem of S. Ossetia has been found. The two Ossetias remain determined to unite, and my sources report that fighting is likely soon to resume there too. To anyone familiar with the situation in Georgia (especially Abkhazia) there is no irony whatsoever that this ‘major’ minority’s self-assertion should be causing so much trouble, and for all their disingenuous surprise the Kartvelians (especially Shevardnadze) knew full well that this would be the case.

p.4: of course, ancient history cannot resolve today’s conflicts, but it is essential to know local history in order to understand today’s tragedy. Clearly the commission-members feel they have a superior grasp of historical detail when they patronisingly dismiss the claims of both sides -- both sides cannot be right, and so the commission should reveal the basis why they ‘are inclined to believe’ what they do. Ubykhs and Abazin(ian)s are NOT Circassian sub-groups (if indeed such is the claim); they are distinct peoples related both to the Abkhazians and to the Circassians. In the XIXth century the Ubykhs lived ON THEIR OWN TERRITORY, around today’s Sochi; the Abazinians, who speak a dialect of Abkhaz, had all left today’s Abkhazia for the Northern Caucasus before the XIXth century; the Circassians lived to the north of the Ubykhs and in the NW Caucasus ON THEIR OWN TERRITORY; and so, who are these travellers who talk of Ubykhs & Abazinians (& possibly Circassians) in Abkhazia? Even if true, what conclusion does the commission think we should draw from these ‘reports’?! If the Abkhaz coast was considered by the Russians as traditionally under Georgian suzerainty, why was Abkhazia (capital Sukhum) absorbed separately from Mingrelia (capital Zugdidi) or even (truly Georgian) Imereti (whose capital is Kutaisi), and why were her rulers granted a charter by Tsar Aleksandr promising that they would rule in perpetuity over the Abkhazian lands (albeit under Russian protection)? If the commission are reluctant to accept as valid any information from a Russian source, let us quote from the valuable corpus left to us by the German traveller Johannes Güldenstädt in his Peregrinatio Georgica from the end of the XVIIIth century; he is quite unequivocal in describing the boundaries of Georgia: Dadurch gränzt es [Georgien] in Norden von O. in W. mit Lesgien oder Lesgistan, Kistetien, Oßetien, Basiania und NW. liegt ihm [Mingrelia] der mingrelische Distrikt Odischi, (der sich längst dem schwarzen Meere an dem westl. Fusse des Gebürges bis zum Enguri erstre[c]kt, durch den es von Abchaseti geschieden) gegen Swaneti... How convenient that Beria-Mgeladze-Chark’viani (not one of whom is mentioned in this report) can be absolved by fiat of IA from their role in deliberately disrupting the present demography of Abkhazia by the explanation that it arose through ‘economic development’! However, it is a relief to see that IA does acknowledge Abkhazia to be Abkhazian land. Why does the commission suppose Abkhazian intellectuals feared their language would succumb specifically to Georgian? If it’s a question of a ‘developed and dynamic culture’ always assimilating the cultural minnow, why should these intellectuals have expected any happier fate from pitting Abkhaz against Russian? Cannot IA recognise that there might just conceivably be a more compelling motive for wanting to distance Georgian influence from the region? Had Georgian racism relented under Shevardnadze’s illegitimate State Council (March-October 1992), there might be some justification to the statement that ‘the present Abkhaz case...predates the collapse of the USSR’; there was in fact no difference whatsoever in the attitude to the Abkhazians through Soviet 1988-91, Zviadist 1991-1992 & Eduardian 1992, which is why it is totally erroneous to seek explanations (?excuses for the present regime) only in Soviet times.

p.5: see D. Slider Central Asian Survey (1985) for the facts of economic discrimination directed from Tbilisi. Abkhazians don’t use Georgian for the simple reason that in the main they don’t know it; the fact that Abkhaz is the language of tuition in Abkhaz schools only to grade 5 follows directly from it being one of the Soviet Young Written Languages -- can IA name any other YWL that is used for more than 4 grades? The largest sector of Sukhum’s university was always (1979-89) Georgian, where Georgian was freely used. The remark about Georgians readily using English, whilst Abkhazians have to resort to Russian is cheap in its imputation and unworthy of this commission’s undertaking.

p.6: ‘In response to a question from a BBC correspondent in Moscow on 6 Jan Achba emphasised that Abkhazia had not adopted a single resolution or legal act to the effect that Abkhazia secedes from the Republic of Georgia. The Abkhazian leadership is ready to negotiate the legal status of the Republic of Abkhazia within Georgia. However, the policy of the Georgian leaders and the war against the people of Abkhazia may result in a different course being adopted’ (Fax 7 Jan 1993). If the commission can lay such store on the individual pronouncements of one Abkhazian, would they please provide us with a critique of all the contradictory statements made by Shevardnadze about Abkhazia since 14 Aug 1992? In any case, I am sure the Abkhazians themselves will explain the true value of Achba’s so-called ‘interview’ in Den’. The Abkhazian leadership may be academics without a training in economics (many may judge this to be a distinct advantage, of course!), but, if you take the trouble to compare their leadership of Abkhazia with the persistently provocative behaviour of the various leaders in Tbilisi since 1989 (yes, including the present one with his willingness to resort to the kalashnikov), I maintain that the wisdom is entirely on the Abkhazian side (even if one would not necessarily agree with every single initiative taken). Ardzinba certainly gives more weight to the international principle of self-determination than he does to the inviolability of borders; since both these (somewhat contradictory) principles exist in international law, he might reasonably ask: ‘If the law is an ass, what pray is international law?’

p.7: it is precisely because of Abkhazia’s rich potential that the Kartvelians are so strenuous in laying claim to it and unwilling to countenance it being controlled by anyone else! The commission presumes too much when charging the Abkhazian leadership with ignoring an economic bonanza for its peoples -- for some years the Abkhazians have been cultivating ties with Turkish businessmen (usually of Abkhazian descent) with the specific purpose of developing the region’s economy in terms of the inward flow of hard currency, and when I was in the office of the University Rector in July, he proudly announced that Abkhazia had just received its first dollar-income from port-duties! Don’t the commission recognise that, when your people’s very physical survival is in danger, it might seem something of a luxury to sit back and debate economic issues with visiting Westerners who can only spare you 48 hours of their time? It is probably as impermissible to label the Circassians (sc. within the Caucasus) as muslims as it is to use this label for the Abkhazians (thankfully recognised by IA). Of course no Abkhazian would claim his language to be Turkic -- it isn’t, so why waste time stating the obvious?

p.8: if it was not the aim of the Kartvelians to provoke open warfare and yet war resulted from their forces entering Abkhazia, why have they not been pulled out long ago in order to restore the peace the leaders in Tbilisi evidently so sincerely desire? Notice that no mention is made of freeing kidnapped ministers as motive for this military adventure, and compare this with what Shevardnadze was saying at the time. The railroad was in no danger in Abkhazia -- it was Zviadist Mingrelians (a people nowhere mentioned in this report) who were blowing up the line (& kidnapping ministers) IN MINGRELIA. How comforting to learn that Georgian soldiers are brave and patriotic! -- this remark is TOTALLY irrelevant and by itself is sufficient to point to the tendentious nature of this document. When your aim is merely to disrupt life, kill as many of your ethnic foes as possible in the hope that they’ll leave their territory so that it can be yours, do you really need a strategy? I am so pleased to hear that the commission (the guest) does not seek to berate or chastise Chairman Shevardnadze (the host) -- that would never do, would it?! The October elections demonstrate exactly what all Soviet elections demonstrated -- if you have one candidate, he will win... In looking for an improvement in Kartvelian military organisation, is the commission suggesting that we can look forward to more efficient slaughter among Georgia’s ethnic minorities as a result?

p.10: the reporting by the Georgian mass-media of the conflicts with Abkhazians, Azerbaydzhanis (in S. Georgia in 1989) and S. Ossetians has been nothing but exaggerated, inflammatory, unbalanced, partisan, and inaccurate since 1989! I have to say that I have not found this on the Abkhazian side (and I think I have probably read¶listened to more than the commission-members, particularly from the Georgian-language media). What on earth are these ‘arbitrary and contentious historical claims and allegations of Georgian brutality’? Since IA is unable to confirm any case of mass-extermination of Kartvelians in Gagra (as opposed to the UNPO mission, which clearly denies that any took place), why raise the spectre that it might be true by mentioning it?

p.11: does the commission seriously believe that a people who are 18% on their own territory would be so foolish as even to contemplate the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-Abkhazians from Abkhazia? Again, the mere repetition of these absurdities lends them an auror of reality and gives comfort to the Kartvelian side, which is irresponsible, though evidently an aim of the report. In contradistinction to the widespread Kartvelian cries of ‘Georgia for the Georgians!’ from the late 80s, I ask the commission to name me one source (let alone one political party) that has ever advocated a policy of ‘Abkhazia for the Abkhazians’.

p.12: though no specific referendum has been possible in Abkhazia, the overall majority from the total electorate in Abkhazia on 17 March 1991 in favour of staying within Gorbache/v’s new Union rather than join (a racist) Georgia cannot be ignored and should remind observers that the Abkhazians have been working with all the non-Kartvelian nationalities of Abkhazia in pursuance of their aims since 1989 -- would this war have gone on so long if it was a simple case of 18% vs 82% of the population of the region?! The fact of the Kartvelian vs The Rest split is particularly well delineated in the UNPO report. I wonder where this Abkhazian majority is that favours inclusion (sc. other than of a confederative nature) within Georgia -- it exists, like much else, solely in Georgian propaganda.

p.13: to suppose that Adzharia, inhabited by purely ethnic Georgians who happen to be largely muslim, has at least as much potential as Abkhazia to become a locus of contentiousness betrays total ignorance of the realities of Georgia. The only reason why trouble ever threatened during Gamsakhurdia’s time was his stupid suggestion that the muslim Adzharians should be weaned off islam to rejoin the christian Georgian fold; his notion of abolishing local autonomy also created resistance from some with local privileges.

p.14: to adopt this report’s penchant for irrelevant and tendentious asides for a moment, some might suppose the association of the words ‘sincere commitment’ with the name of Shevardnadze was a horrendous oxymoron! Suggesting that the Abkhazian leaders would be wise to take account of the (surely soon to crumble) international reputation of Shevardnadze sounds awfully like a threat. What exacerbation of the Abkhazian problem could be worse than resorting to the tank, and whose decision was that?! The commission seems to forget that Shevardnadze returned to Georgia before anyone resorted to armed conflict and the he was the one who sent in the troops. Note also that UNPO’s president, Dr. van Walt, after visiting Abkhazia at the request of Ardzinba, sent letters to both Ardzinba and Shevardnadze on 14 July 1992 offering mediation and inviting them to negotiations in The Hague. Georgia’s position is extremely weak, with 30% of the population being non-Kartvelian and the whole country riven with splits from the top down; of the 4 million Kartvelians maybe 1 million Mingrelians could conceivably cause severe problems -- not unreasonably they rather object to being slaughtered left-right-and-centre by Ioseliani’s Mkhedrioni! If the country’s legal & diplomatic position remains strong, this is a matter for the international community (not the internal population), and it is precisely that community whose overhasty recognition of one man’s smile (in my long-held & oft repeated opinion) bears much of the responsibility for the present bloodshed, since it surely gave the hotheads in Tbilisi grounds for supposing that they could do as they wished, as indeed they are. There is no doubt at all that the non-elite Abkhazians will follow their leaders until this issue is finally settled -- to suppose otherwise is Kartvelian inspired wishful thinking. Which Russian extremists are the Abkhazians accused of following?

p.15: the impression is given that Georgia was a united country until the tsars came along and divided it; this is nonsense -- there was no single Georgian state from the appearance of the Mongols in the XIIIth century until the Mensheviks seized power (as well as Abkhazia!) after the Revolution. And so the commission mind-bogglingly advocates as its own part-solution the wholly Abkhazian position of (con)federation based on negotiation... It is not the Abkhazians who could best serve their people’s interests by examining this possibility, it is the Kartvelians to whom this advice is to be addressed, with an additional severe condemnation for starting a war to sabotage those very negotiations and frustrate the (con)federative solution... Withdrawal of Kartvelian troops to the Ingur should have been specified, as in the UNPO document.

p.17: who are these Russian citizens causing trouble in Abkhazia? If reference is to the North Caucasian Confederation members, their intention is not to remain Russian citizens much longer themselves!

There is no mention here of the North Caucasian Confederation in connection with its crucial role in the affairs of Abkhazia -- it only merits a mention in connection with Russia’s involvement in the Caucasus. Whilst it may be convenient for Western commentators to forget (or avoid having to learn) that Abkhazia represents the south-westernmost reaches of a territory inhabited by North Caucasians until the great expulsions of 1864, the North Caucasians are not going to forget the dangers threatening their Abkhazian kin from a re-emergent, post-Soviet, Georgian chauvinism. This fact cannot be ignored in discussions of the Abkhazo-Kartvelian conflict.

The authors of ‘Georgia on the path to democracy...’ (stress added) might like to consider the implications of the article appended to these comments, which I have translated from Georgian for their benefit.

In an equally lamentable (if journalistic) paean to Shevardnadze put out by BBC 2 on 8 Dec 1992, American Ambassador to Georgia, Kent Brown, made the following comment: ‘I would put my money on Mr Shevardnadze. I think no matter where he was or in what position, I would put my money on him, because I respect him greatly just as a human being and as a strategic thinker.’ I would suggest that any diplomat who holds (let alone publicly expresses) such adulatory views about any contemporary politician is unfit to hold an ambassadorial posting. In like vein, part of, if not the entire, membership of IA’s commission to Georgia should have been disbarred from inclusion by virtue of their pre-disposed position, redolent throughout this sorry document.

Fw`umfhf f7fqfhf vfhbjeg> f,pbf fehf [mfy0jeg ‘To do damage is easy, to do good is difficult’ (Abkhazian proverb).




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