Professor Emeritus of Russian history, Penn State University
Most Americans have never heard of Abkhazia; if they have, the response is 'O yes, that's one of the territories Russia has taken over from Georgia.' Even some Russians will say, 'O yes, that's ours again.' They are both wrong. Abkhazia is a small nation striving to maintain its independence. But does it matter to us, Americans? Our policy matters vitally to Abkhazians, because their status and destiny will be affected by American policies. It matters indirectly to the United States; affecting our stance toward Russia and the scope of collaboration on a host of international issues that affect our security.
Abkhazia is a small but ancient nation in northwest Transcaucasia bordering on the Eastern shore of the Black Sea. It was mostly independent in the course of its long history, though involved in varying degrees of intimacy with peoples who make up the Georgian nation. Beginning in 1810, it was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire. It was absorbed unwillingly into Georgia during the years first of independent Georgia (1919-21) and then of Soviet domination. High mountains, some of the snow-topped throughout the summer, run down to the coastal beaches. Located not far from the site of the next winter Olympics, Abkhazia was once the playground of the Soviet Union. It is populated, like its neighbors, by rugged mountain people adept at trading and fighting, with memorable traditions of folk literature and art.
Georgia deems Abkhazia and another neighbor South Ossetia mere break-aways, not entitled to the right of self-determination. The remarks that follow challenge the justice and wisdom of Georgia's claims and of our policies. Like most Americans, I was sympathetic to Georgia's demands for rights and then independence from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I was not aware that Georgia denied the same rights to national minorities within its proclaimed borders.
Our support of Georgia's claims clouds the future of these nations. Last July when President Obama was in Moscow, he affirmed our intention of inviting Georgia into NATO and our backing for the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. A fine democratic sounding phrase, good stand-up words. Their meaning, however, varies depending upon time and place. I'm loath to think of our president's words serving as a façade for the suppression or even the possible destruction of a small nation striving to preserve its own language and culture, its very identity. Playing such a role is no more suitable for America than the practice of torture.
Gentle reader; forgive an historical digression at this point. Seventy or so distinct nations or ethnic groups populate the Caucasus. Both Georgian and Abkhazian scholars claim that their respective nations, or at least proto-nations emerged, in antiquity and gained mention in the chronicles of Greek travelers, and each denies such status for the other. It is impossible for me to disentangle and draw a conclusion as to the rival claims about priority of settlement in the region of present day Abkhazia and the claims of predominance. The rival contentions rest upon arcane philological arguments and slippery archeological evidence, which are beyond my ken. I assume that they are both correct and incorrect in approximately equal degree.
It is clear that Georgia possessed the more highly developed culture in the early period of modern history; that is, Georgians possessed a literary language. An alphabet for Abkhazian was devised only late in the nineteenth century. Not that this gives Georgia primacy in any objective sense, but it probably accounts for Georgians' sense of superiority over other nations in the region. I do not mean superiority in a racial sense, rather a feeling of being more advanced with respect to European standards, which had a felt presence in the region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Again, this feeling is not racial but a sense of leadership on the part of Georgia.
Certain historical facts are, I believe, beyond dispute. Georgia and Abkhazia entered the Russian Empire under similar conditions and promptings military pressure from the north and south from the Russian Empire and from the Ottoman Empire. They both preferred alignment with and even subordination to their coreligionists in the north. At that time a significant proportion of the population followed Islam, and these would have made up the majority of those who left or were expelled in 1864 and again after the Russo-Turkish War of 1977-78. Georgia's entry began in 1801 and required a few years for realization as there was no unified Georgian state at the time and different provinces came under Russian protection at different times. In 1810 Abkhazia entered. A major point here is that they entered as separate and distinct sovereign entities. Abkhazia was a self-administered province, a Principality in fact, until full incorporation in 1864 when the last Abkhazian prince was expelled.
Both Abkhazia and Georgia lost their autonomy as the Russian Empire became more centralized and its bureaucracy asserted greater authority. Russia fell into the channel of industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wherever it occurs, this ordeal proves painful. It produces new wealth and new opportunities for work and for cultural endeavors. New ideologies emerge, such as nationalism, liberalism and socialism. New forms of impoverishment and oppression move into the foreground, which combine with these ideologies and provide soil for revolutionary movements. Some of these tendencies in Russia became well known in the West. The plight of the Russian peasants came to the world's attention in part because of the writings of Leo Tolstoy, especially his tracts such as The Kingdom of God is Within You. The sufferings of Russian Jews became known thanks to the large-scale emigration to Western Europe and to the United States. The world at large remained ignorant of the sufferings of the Abkhazians, who were stigmatized as a guilty nation following the 1866 Lykhny uprising against Russia's proposed land reform. The label was not removed until 1907.
The Imperial Russian government took full control of Abkhazia in 1864. Rebellion and then large-scale emigration and expulsion of Abkhazians to the Ottoman Empire ensued. More followed in1877. The Abkhazian diaspora numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the nineteenth century. The surviving population was banned from the cities on the Black Sea coast and banished to the mountains. Among the long-term results of this was the enlargement of the Christian component of the population at the expense of the Muslim minority. It should be noted that Abkhazia, like Armenia and Georgia, were among the earliest nations to convert to Christianity. There is evidence of a Jewish community in Abkhazia as early as the 11th century. Jews resided peacefully in Abkhazia until the demise of the Soviet Union provided opportunity for emigration. Abkhazia and Georgia are perhaps unique in for their respectful attitude toward Jews and for the absence of anti-Semitism. It is perhaps of special interest that a thriving pagan community is part of the Abkhazian mix. These pagans are not outcasts in remote forests with long beards, cultivating strange herbs, but modern folks, in modern garb and professions, who exercise the duties of citizenship even as they practice ancient family-centered rites.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the downfall of the Imperial Government headed by the Tsars and then in the overthrow of the democratic Provisional Government, which replaced it. The Communist Party headed by Lenin came to power in November of that year. The next year Abkhazia set up a government of its own, but the Georgian government centered in Tiblisi, its capital, quickly overthrew it. It immediately, prorogued the Abkhazian National Assembly. The Georgian government lasted only until 1920 when the Red Army of the Soviet Communist Government conquered the Caucasus region. Soviet Abkhazia and Soviet Georgia were incorporated into Soviet Union in1922 as components of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation. There is a measure of ambiguity as to the status of Abkhazia. Was it constitutionally equal to Georgia or not? Legal scholars on both sides will dispute this matter into the foreseeable future. To me it is a secondary matter; the aspirations of the citizens are foremost. All traces of juridical ambiguity were removed in 1931 when Stalin, himself a Georgian, reduced the status of Abkhazia, making it a mere region within Georgia an Autonomous Republic within the Union Republic of Georgia, to employ the terminology of the Soviet constitution. Needless to say, the Abkhazian people had no voice in this matter.
There is more than a little irony in the fact that it was Stalin who fixed the 'sacred' borders,' which presumably define the territorial integrity of Georgia that our President pledged to uphold. They are not based on tradition, nor are they the result of any democratic procedures. Lavrentia Beria, an Abkhazian-born Mingrelian, and a devoted son of the Georgian nation, served as Stalin's chief of the secret police, which eventually came to be known as the KGB. Beria was ruthless everywhere, but especially so in Abkhazia. Large-scale immigration of Georgians and Beria's fellow-Mingrelians, some of it forcible, it is claimed, and of Russians and Armenians into Abkhazia ensued, making the Abkhazians a minority within their own territory.
After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia claimed possession of all territories within those borders established by Stalin. Abkhazia proposed a confederation with Georgia. I know far less about the situation in South Ossetia, but I understand that, in the immediate post-Soviet period, opinion there was divided as to its future arrangements. There was (and remains) strong sentiment for unification with their countrymen within the Russian federation, the North Ossetians. At the same time one of the leaders proposed confederation with Georgia. North Ossetia after all was on the other side of the mountains, was how he put it, and, like the South Ossetians, the Georgians were Christians.
The first president of independent Georgia, Zvid Gamsakhurdia proclaimed that no such entity as an Abkhazian nation ever existed. Eduard Shevardnadze followed him in the office of president. He was popular in the West, especially in Great Britain, America and Germany, where he was remembered as the Foreign Minister and close associate of Gorbachev, the reformer of the Soviet Union at which time the Berlin wall came down and Germany was reunited. He was able to win full diplomatic recognition, which quickly entailed a Georgian seat in the United Nations and special partnership with the European Union. Like Gamsakhurdia, he championed the cause of Georgia against Abkhazia, and it was shortly after his return to Georgia in March 1992 that the war in Abkhazia began on August 14. Thanks to its own courageous struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia enjoyed considerable popularity in the West.
As Georgia moved closer to independence from the Soviet Union in the course of Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1990s, Abkhazians felt and feared further curtailment of their cultural liberties. In 1989 rioting broke out in Sukhum, capital of Abkhazia, resulting from Georgia's policy of seeking to set up in Sukhum a branch of Tiblisi State University, which was deemed to a fatal threat to the viability of Abkhazia's own university. Blood was shed on both sides. As in the Balkans, people who had lived side by side for centuries began killing each other. Georgian emigration began at this time. In 1992, just after it had been awarded a seat in the UN, and without warning, Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia. Armed helicopters opened fire on public beaches as tanks rolled into Sukhum. The war was ugly, not as bad as in the Balkans, but cruel on both sides. No prisoners. In 1993, the Abkhazians drove the Georgians out of their county, aided by fighters of various ethnic groups in the North Caucasus. The war resulted in the ethnic cleansing as a large number of Mingrelians and Georgians, resident in Abkhazia, who felt their best interest lay in flight into Georgia. About one hundred ninety thousand people fled the fighting, mostly Georgians but also Russians, Jews and Greeks (the latter two being evacuated by Israel and Greece). About sixty thousand have returned and been resettled. These events bring o mind almost wistfully the break-up of Czechoslovakia -- some tears but not a drop of blood.
Especially important for the Abkhazian cause were the Russian-hating Chechens, among the world's most ferocious and able warriors. They warned the Abkhazians that if the Russians came to their aid, they would go over to the Georgian side. And in fact the Russian position during the war was ambiguous. In 1999, Abkhazia finally declared it s independence, frustrated by failed negotiations with Georgia; it has been recognized, however, only by Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Russia has assumed a hostile, even provocative, stance toward Georgia since the war ended. Boris Yeltsin had taken a rather pro-Georgian line; Vladimir Putin, his successor, reversed this. Abkhazia possesses valuable natural resources and has vast potential as a recreation area. Russians have returned to Sukhum for vacations, but in fewer numbers than in the past. Unemployment is extensive, and foreign investment is greatly needed. Its future is clouded; its dependence upon Russia is great and growing.
A 'Rose Revolution,' evidently backed by the United States, overthrew the Shevardnadze government in Georgia in 1993. Mikheil Saakashvili, who had attended Columbia University law school and who had high standing with the American government, was elected President early in 2004. Georgia, proud of its independence, was destitute after the break up of the Soviet Union. And remained in a largely poor state, even though there had been significant Western (especially American) investment to bring Caspian oil westwards through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Instead, however, of nurturing the economy, Saakashvili set about restoring the 'territorial integrity' of his nation. This, along with what he assumed was at least tacit American support, plus Russian hostility, constitutes the background of the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 and the subsequent Russian reaction, clearly an over-reaction (from a political if not military perspective), which resulted in Russian occupation of portions of Georgia. Over-reaction is normal once boots are on the ground and tanks begin to roll, and the neutralizing of the military camps in Gori (for South Ossetia) and Senaki (for Abkhazia) were militarily quite logical.
Some say that Abkhazia is fated to be a province either of Russia or of Georgia, but to my mind or to anyone with a sense of Abkhazian national feeling, its history and its stubborn willingness to fight, this is not an obvious conclusion. If true, however, it does make a difference which country will possess or dominate Abkhazia. If Georgia, then Abkhazian nationhood is very likely doomed. Georgia has shown a persistent unwillingness to grant rights or to respect Abkhazian national identity, having, in the dark years of Stalin and Beria, abolished the use of its alphabet, the teaching of the language in schools, as well as broadcasting and publications. During the war in 1992, Georgian forces destroyed the Abkhazian national library and burned the national archives, repository of the national memory. Such action bespeaks a policy of cultural genocide.
If incorporated into Russia, Abkhazia would have its political rights curbed, but it would retain cultural independence. The simple fact is that Russia is a multi-national state. National minorities have mustered support under Putin, even as he has curbed the political rights of citizens. More to the point, it is unlikely that Russia would incorporate Abkhazia into its territory. It would be more useful to retain it as a friendly but weak and dependent nation on its border. That is the sort of neighbor all great powers fancy. That also is the status Russia would want for Georgia.
Perhaps I've persuaded my reader of the validity of Abkhazia's case for self-determination. "Justice is a fine principle, and Abkhazia has as much right to independence as does Georgia or even our own country," the reader may respond. "How does this affect America's global position?" such a reader may ask. The prevailing view is that American interest is best served by arresting Russian influence in the North Caucasus and including the Republic of Georgia in NATO. I think this conclusion is unwarranted for the following reasons.
For public opinion, including, it seems, all American policy makers, Abkhazia's drive for national self-determination is a mere contrivance of Russia, a means to establish an outpost in North West Transcaucasia and perhaps to destabilize the entire region as a prelude to reestablishment of the borders of the Soviet Union. So long as Russia has a sensible government and not one composed of the extreme nationalists ranting in the streets, such a policy is not in sight. Russia is too dependent on the outside world. It is, of course, asserting its presence and influence in the Caucasus, which is one of the components in the mix in the Caucasus; it is not, however, the sole determinant. It is difficult to see how Russian conquest of Georgia or its incorporation of Abkhazia would advance its interests. Both or either would stick like bones in the throat. Such actions would thoroughly alienate Russia from the West and preclude economic cooperation. Relations with China and India would be greatly impaired. Russia's goal more likely, as suggested above, is the establishment of friendly or weak neighbors on its borders. That is the traditional concern of a great power. One might say it is the universal and normal goal of great powers. It is a law of history, if there is any such thing.
Historical analogies are usually misleading, but not always. Russia and Great Britain had been the principle supporters, for better or worse, of the status quo in Europe from 1815 to 1853. Then Russia lost the Crimean War. In the Treaty of Paris in 1856 extremely harsh terms were imposed upon her, most notably the Black Sea clauses. These prohibited Russia from building fortifications on her Black-Seat coast. It was without precedent to command a great power as to how or where she could fortify and defend her own territory. Russia's great power status was either done with or at risk. She then became a revisionist power using every opportunity to overthrow the status quo. This provided the setting for Bismarck and Cavour to re-make Central Europe. For better or for worse the unifications of Germany and Italy occurred in this interval, before Russia was able to disavow the Black Sea clauses in 1871. Russia's status anxieties and its compelling drive for recognition as a great power (its neurotic over-reaction if one can employ such terminology in international politics) is a distinct factor in current world politics.
What are American interests in the Caucasus? I suggest that they are minimal, stability first of all. Decency would require opposition to a Russian attempt to re-conquer Georgia, resistance up to the point of, but excluding, military action. In the meantime our meddling -- the sending of military advisors and armaments to Georgia -- is mischievous. NATO was conceived as a defensive alliance, excluding nations with territorial claims against another nation. Our presence has allowed Georgia to mobilize the support that persuaded Saakashvili to launch the invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. Even if it is not true, as is often suggested, that Vice-President Cheney winked at Saakashvili's plans, our mere presence emboldened him. It is difficult to imagine the Georgian invasion without his conviction that our power was behind him.
In the meantime it is relevant to be mindful of the limitations of American power and of the extent of our worldwide commitments. We are engaged in two wars, and the folly of our war in Iraq revealed that our manpower is restricted and that many of our advanced weapons are irrelevant. The rising economic power of China and India also prompt caution on our part. In the meantime our internal divisions have deepened and hardened.
What are our interests with respect to Russia? Certainly not to impede the purposes of Russia in all cases, nor to encircle and confine it, to cast it into a revisionist role. Russia is prickly and cantankerous, and disappointing to us and to many of its citizens in its internal development; it has not been aggressive, however, since the Soviet Union ended; Georgians, Ukrainians, Poles and others would disagree in loud voice, but it is difficult to point to actual aggression in international relations. To dispute this point with arguments that Ukrainians, for example, would raise would take us too far afield. We share with Russia many objectives, securing of the safety of its nuclear weapons to begin with and reducing their number. Between us we possess ninety five percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Curbing nuclear proliferation, with specific reference to Iran and North Korea, is a shared interest. As is opposition to terrorism and concern with global warming. That Russia possesses thirty percent of the world's natural gas reserves and a large proportion of its petroleum reserves, and that it sits upon a vast power grid that supplies our allies in Europe with energy should be kept in mind. Thus our common interests should mold our policies in the direction of reconciliation whenever possible. Our policies under President Bush tended to encourage strident nationalism (to the detriment of democratic development) in Russia and to push it in the direction of China.
Clever diplomats should be able to devise some means of conflict resolution in the area. In the long run, the most just solution would be for the United Nations to hold referendums that would give voice to the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Let us push in that direction.