Charisma and complications: the legacy of Abkhazia’s founding father, by Sergey Markedonov


With the death of Vladislav Ardzinba, Abkhazia’s first president, a period of post-Soviet upheaval passes further into history. Sergei Markedonov considers Ardzinba’s achievements in the wider context of the Caucasus

Vladislav Ardzinba died in Moscow on 4 March 2010, taking from us another representative of the generation which moved into the political limelight at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s.

It would be hard to imagine a specialist or a politician today who would be able to evaluate the life of Abkhazia’s first president sine ira ac studio (without anger or bias). There are many reasons for this, both objective and subjective. Firstly, researchers have access mostly to published sources (media, periodicals, memoirs, pamphlets, photographs and video footage).  Until there is unfettered access to archive material, all our information about the activities of Ardzinba, his opponents, outright enemies and supporters will be fragmented.  Without serious work in the archives it will be difficult to clear up the numerous puzzles in the history of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and the creation of Abkhazia’s de facto independence.

But the problem has not only to do with the lack of documentation. Vladislav Ardzinba emerged as a politician in the extremely complicated and contradictory circumstances surrounding the break-up of the Soviet Union and the formation of new nation states.  Alexei Malashenko, the Russian oriental specialist, correctly notes that “the convulsions of the USSR, the rapid, and in a sense illogical, appearance of new, fragile states and the increasing general nervousness and aggression produced a pleiad of extraordinary politicians, people able to think out of the box, with some claims to charisma and a predilection for adventure”.

This description clearly contains the beginnings of a political portrait of Vladislav Ardzinba.  His star was in the ascendant at the same time as other «unconventional thinkers»: Zviyad Gamzakhurdia, Abulfaz Elchibei, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Mircha Druk, Vitautas Landsbergis, Fauzia Bairoamova, Dzhokhar Dudayev, Igor Smirnov and many others.  They may often have been in opposing groups (Ardzinba vs Gamzakhurdia, Druk vs Smirnov and Elchibei vs Ter-Petrosyan), but they were united by their game.  Some of these people hung onto the sinking Soviet ship until the very last, as did Igor Smirnov and, to a certain extent, Ardzinba himself. While others were making frantic efforts to sink it (like Zviyad Gamzakhurdia or Vitautas Landsbergis). But their perceptions were dictated by life and their view of the political and economic agenda, rather than by edicts from the Politburo.

Many representatives of this generation had had brilliant educations, usually in the humanities.  Those who couldn't boast a knowledge of foreign languages or world literature were outstanding orators (beside the tongue-tied members of the Politburo, anyone who spoke clearly look like a Cicero), ready to «go to the people» and speak at meetings attended by many thousands of people. They didn't have to stick to what their speech writers had told them and, indeed, many were themselves masterly at wielding the pen:  they said what was on their mind. Sometimes, looking at the results of their actions, you catch yourself thinking that it'd have been better if their frankness and plain speaking had been rather less impressive and their decisiveness a bit more sparing and cautious.  But at the end of the 80s it was not caution and good measure that was in demand, it was clear-thinking radicals who would overthrow the dogmas and basic principles which had been in place for so long. In their own country these idoloclasts became idols themselves, but neighbouring countries regarded them as bitter enemies.

So when today we speak of Ardzinba as a person, we should bear in mind the «angle» of the person assessing his achievements. In Abkhazia, where he was born, even his critics regard him as the founding father of independent statehood, while at the same time understanding that this statehood is to a large extent founded on the support of Russia.  Kosovan independence was also not just the result of Albanian-Kosovan aspirations to political independence from Serbia. In Kosovo today the figure of Ibragim Rugova is regarded as sacred, although in his lifetime the Albanian intellectual was on very difficult terms with today's Kosovan leaders.  For Georgia Ardzinba became the symbol of forced exile.  In Abkhazia his significance may already be compared with that of Jozef Pilsudski for the Poles or Giuseppe Garibaldi for the Italians.  In Georgia the first president of Abkhazia is more likely to be compared to Eduard Benes, who «cleansed» Sudetenland and other territories of Czechoslovakia at that time of Germans, the «undesirable element».  Or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who solved the «Greek problem» for Turkey.

Like many other representatives of the perestroika period «new political wave», Ardzinba had two biographies.  He would have been unlikely to attract the attention of historians before 1988.  He followed a path that was typical for a Soviet academic who was a member of the «nationals» i.e. non-Russians.  He was a self-made man with a solid academic background - his subject was the history and culture of ancient Asia Minor, rather than collectivisation or the structure of the party. He had a good knowledge of foreign languages and European manners.  But this «European» had very close ties with his native «soil», like many other first-generation town dwellers.

Vladislav Ardzinba was born on 14 May 1945 in the village of Lower Eshera (Sukhumi district).  For the rest of his life he tried to prove to others, and to himself, that he had not abandoned his roots.  He became a post-graduate at the Oriential Studies Institute in Moscow and for the next twenty years he lived and worked far away from Abkhazia in a Moscow academic institution.  In 1987 the future doctor of science was appointed head of the section of Oriental ideology and culture.  In 1985 he defended his thesis on «Ancient Anatolian Myth and Ritual» at Tbilisi State University.

But none of this prevented Ardzinba from returning to his roots in 1988 to become head of the Dmitri Gulin Abkhazian Research Institute for Literature, History and Language.  At that time the post of director of a leading humanities academic research institute in a national or autonomous republic was politically significant.  The tradition handed down from Soviet times means that even today in republics within the Russian Federation a similar position holds considerable weight.  The director of a humanities research institute was not just part of the republican nomenclature.  By default he became one of the main interpreters of national history, and ideologues.  Only the Regional (or Republican)  Party Committee Secretary for Ideology was more important.

In 1988 he moved from academe into politics and his «second biography» began.  Alexei Malashenko thinks that every politician «has leadership aspirations and believes he's acting in the interests of the nation.  But, to paraphrase what was said in the film We'll live till Monday, it's all a question of what you call a majority».That partly sums up Ardzinba’s legacy, but there’s a good deal more to it than that.

Unlike many other «new wave» politicians, he managed not only to seize power, but also to hang on to it. He was not the victim of a military coup, as was Zviyad Gamzakhurdia, the first president of Georgia, who had to flee his country in January 1992.  He was not deposed, unlike Albufaz Elchibey, who fell victim to a many-layered operation set up by Heydar Aliyev, the grand master of intrigue.  He was not removed from power by a «soft» behind the scenes coup, as was Levon Ter-Petrosyan. He didn't overstay his welcome in power either, as did his colleague Igor Smirnov in the Pridnestroviye, though illness played a part here, as had to leave politics after he had a stroke. But none of this obscures the fact that Ardzinba lived to see the transfer of power from one Abkhazian president to another.

De facto “independent” Abkhazia issues now its own number plates for local vehicles.

His successor was not a politician whom he trusted: in 2004 he upheld the candidature of the former prime minister, Raoul Khadzhimba. In his lifetime Ardzinba saw his main aim triumphantly achieved: the beginning of Abkhazia's international legitimisation process.  It may be that Abkhazia is currently only recognised by Russia and, with some qualifications and nuances, two Latin American republics and the tiny Oceanic state of Nauru. But the process has to be seen as ongoing. Before August 2008 not even these recognitions existed, comic though they may seem to many. Today Abkhazia is further than ever away from Georgia: in the recent presidential elections in Abkhazia the «Georgian factor» was used very selectively by the candidates, probably more through inertia.

Can we yet sketch out an ideological portrait of Ardzinba?  After he entered politics in 1988 he views evolved dramatically.  In 1989 he became a deputy in the USSR Supreme Soviet. It's no exaggeration to say that this year was pivotal for both Abkhazia and Georgia: nationalist discourse became supremely important in both countries. A gathering of thousands took place on 18 March 1989 in the village of Lykhna (Gudauty district of the Abkhaz Autonmous Soviet Republic). An appeal was submitted to the General Secretary of the USSR Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, to grant Abkhazia the status of a Union Republic and establish there a «special form of government» of the type operating in Nagorny Karabakh.

On 9 April there was a massive demonstration in Tbilisi with anti-Abkhazian and anti-Ossetian slogans bandied about at the same time as the anti-Soviet sentiments.  The demonstration was broken up by soldiers from the Transcaucasus Military District, but it united the Georgian party apparatchiks and the anti-communist dissidents. The ensuing march (campaign) on Tskhinvali on 23 November 1989 saw supporters of «furious Zviyad» marching beside the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Givi Gumbaridze, united by their belief (or not) in a «bright future», but also by the national idea. But in 1989, and right up to the dissolution of the USSR, Ardzinba in his rhetoric and slogans talked of «proleterian internationalism», appealing to people  to remain true to «Lenin's national policies» in order to act as a counterweight to Stalin's excesses.

In his significant speech at the first Congress of USSR People's Deputies on 1 June 1989 the future president of Abkhazia declared that: «We must return to the first principles of Soviet power, to the Leninist resolution of the national question, which is founded on the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia.  The decision to set up a committee of deputies to study the situation in the Abkhaz ASSR will bring some peace to people and give them back their belief in the triumph of justice».

But there were more profound aspirations behind Ardzinba's rhetoric of 1989-91.  These were linked with the fate of the «mighty and powerful» Soviet Union. In March 1991 the Abkhaz people voted in the referendum on the preservation of the USSR. To pique the Georgians, who had started celebrating the memorable years of the first Georgian Republic (1918-21), the Abkhaz started making a point of marking Soviet holidays like 4 March, the date Soviet power was established in Abkhazia.  But this was all motivated by a desire to have central government and its resources as allies in the struggle with Georgia.  The Abkhazian journlalist Vitalii Sharia correctly noted that «this was not because Abkhazians were so keen on communist ideology but, as they say, for political reasons. At that time Georgia was straining to leave the USSR and the Soviet communist party was trying to stop them. Abkhaz people didn't want to go with Georgia and inclined towards the still-communist centre. That's about the size of it».

So it was hardly by chance that, after the dissolution of the USSR, the Abkhazian leaders (beginning with Ardzinba) increasingly frequently quoted the saying of the outstanding human rights activist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov, that Georgia is a «small empire».  The idea of Abkhazia as a nation which had been subjected to particularly refined repressions by the «Stalinist-Beria regime» subsequently appeared in all the history textbooks of post-war Abkhazia. After the Georgian-Abkhazian armed conflict in Sukhumi there was a complete renaming of anything to do with the «small empire».  Andrei Sakharov Street appeared in the centre of town, though this has not prevented it from peacefully co-existing with 4 March Street.

Soviet slogans, quotes from Andrei Sakaharov and fragments from the Declaration of Human Rights were for Ardzinba all part of the battle for Abkhazia and its image of itself. First Deputy Chairman of the Duma Committee for Relations with the CIS Konstantin Zatulin knew Ardzinba well.  He has said that «where Abkhazia was concerned Ardzinba recognised no authorities».  This in his opinion explains the complicated and contradictory personal relationship between Ardzinba and his fellow-countryman, the world-famous writer Fazil Iskander. «They both loved their country but were unable to agree. For Iskander nothing was more important than freedom, for Ardzinba nothing was more important than the freedom of Abkhazia». Very true.  Actually for Ardzinba the question of freedom was extremely important, but his understanding of it (and, incidentally, not only his, but of many of the new wave perestroika politicians) was peculiar to him. It was a concept of collective freedom, rather than the freedom of one person or citizen living in Abkhazia;  it was freedom for the Abkhaz people. In the battle for this freedom Ardzinba was at the head of his republic during the 14-month military conflict with Georgia. He also guided his country through the blockade which lasted for many years.  It should be noted in passing that Russia's position vis a vis Abkhazia at that time was far from unambiguous.

Unofficially from the beginning of 1994, and officially from 1996, Russia and Georgia together effectively initiated tough social and economic sanctions against Abkhazia.  When Moscow was confronted with the Chechen separatist challenge, it initially supported Tbilisi's intentions to re-establish Georgia's territorial integrity. In 1997 the then Foreign Minister of Russia, Evgenii Primakov (even today not a very popular figure in Abkhazia) proposed a formula of a «common state» and tried to convince Sukhumi of the importance of accepting it. But Russian diplomacy changed its tack after the Georgian unilateral attempts (without considering Russian interests) to change the status quo by force and «unfreeze the conflict» (May 1998 Gali district and October 2001 Kodor Gorge). In 1999-2000 Moscow considerably relaxed the sanctions against Abkhazia, though they were completely lifted only in March 2008.

In sum Abkhazia paid a high price in the battle for collective freedom. The Georgian population had to beat a hasty retreat from their homes in Abkhazia. Ardzinba was left with an Abkhazia without Georgians or Georgian jurisdiction.  But he also inherited a republic devastated by war and deprived of its habitual ethnic «division of labour». “The region had such excellent start-up possibilities after the dissolution of the USSR,” as Caucasus specialist Andrei Yepifantsev commented. “It is located in perhaps the best climate zone of the former USSR and, apart from its geographical location, has a subtropical climate, the sea, minerals and quite a few industrial enterprises.  At that time its economy was almost totally destroyed.  A considerable portion of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the war with Georgia and the ensuing blockade imposed by Tbilisi and Moscow, but the fact remains that in the post-Soviet times the Abkhaz lost almost everything it was possible to lose.”

But this was about more than the economy. Unlike Nagorny Karabakh, Akbhazia is not ethnically homogeneous.  Even after the armed conflict with Georgia, there are about 50-55,000 Megrelis living in the Gali district, most of whom still do not have Abkhazian citizenship and are not integrated into the society. The relationship between the two main ethnic communities, the Abkhaz and Armenians is also complicated. The economic weight of the Armenian community is a factor that cannot be ignored, especially if you bear in mind their military support during the conflict with Georgia. But the constitution stipulates that only an Abkhaz citizen may be president. This complicates things considerably:  what exactly do we mean by inter-ethnic harmonisation, when this time it's not the Abkhaz, but other peoples, who complain of ethnic discrimination?

Vladislav Ardzinba achieved a great deal during his lifetime.  Abkhazia is  independent and known worldwide (there was a UN Mission there for a long time and today the Abkhazian Delegation is one of the participants in the Geneva South Caucasus Talks) and has begun on a process leading to international legitimisation. At the same time ethnic cleansing, the ethnocractic system of government, the military devastation, the lengthy blockade, secession from Georgia and growing dependence on Russia will sooner or later inevitably raise the problem of the price that has been paid for this solution. Not in Georgia, Russia or in the West, but inside Abkhazia.

For the time being all we can say is that we have lost one of the bright lights of the perestroika and post-Soviet times, which were characterised by difficult transformations, conflicts and standoffs, the death of the old and birth of the new. It was always going to be difficult to fight for one collective freedom without attacking another, to defend the rights of one group without destroying those of another.

These are unfortunately the costs of forming new nation states. And not only in Eurasia.  As the intellectuals in the newly (since 1991) independent states complete the process of forging their political identitites, they will be able to evaluate the events of 15 or 20 years ago more objectively and properly. It cannot be ruled out that Russian and Georgian politicians and their Abkhaz and Ossetian colleagues will bring out more than one many-volume monograph or collection of archive material with recognition of mistakes by all parties. The Czechs and Germans are already doing this, as are the Germans and Poles, the Hungarians and Rumanians and the Greeks and the Turks.

About the author: Candidate of Historical Sciences, heads the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, Moscow

Source: openDemocracy




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