Russia has officially recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The extremely difficult 15-year-long period in the lives of the two Republics, during which they had to exist as unrecognized states, is over. Now their international status has changed fundamentally. Another no less obvious circumstance is that after Russia’s recognition of the two new countries the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no longer regional – for years to come, they are going to play an important role in the politics of global powers.
The past two decades were the epoch of extreme hardships for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The disintegration of the USSR revived old problems that could otherwise seem long forgotten. In fact, history repeated itself – Georgians made the first attempt to put into practice the notion that they were entitled to “their historical territories” after the demise of the Russian Empire. At that time Georgia was home to an extremely ethnically diverse population, Georgians (plus Mingrelians and Svans) accounting for just 64.8% of the total. This circumstance alone should have provided sufficient motivation for a cautious stance in the country’s national policy. Though the leaders of the Georgian First Republic did not go far enough to proclaim the slogan “Georgia for Georgians!”, their treatment of ethnic minorities was as harsh as in the present-day Georgia.
This is an account of the situation in the Georgian First Republic ruled by Saakashvili’s ideological antecedents: “Nationalism in particularly wild forms is actively cultivated in Georgia. Armenians are not allowed to speak Armenian in the parliament… There has been incessant struggle against Ajaria’s leaning towards autonomy. Ossetians are persecuted terribly and deported. There is severe ethnic strife in Abkhazia. At times the Georgian nationalism is simply ridiculous. A school history textbook claims that in the antiquity Georgia was the country with the highest culture and that Greece borrowed its culture from Georgia. Even small children are taught to despise Armenians, etc.” (N. Mesheryakov. “In the Menshevik Paradise. The impressions from a trip to Georgia”. Sukhumi, 1991).
In November, 1917 a congress of the Abkhazian people decided to join the North-Caucasian Mountain Republic, but amidst the Civil War and using the German army’s support Georgia did manage to gain control over Abkhazia and even claimed the entire Black Sea coast up to the mouth of the Kuban River (alleging that the territory used to belong to Georgia in the XI-XIII centuries). Georgia started to implement its nationalist policy in Abkhazia. Georgian was proclaimed the official language in which all official transactions and school instruction had to be performed, the Georgian population started to pour into the Republic en masse, etc. The policy aggravated by endless pillage by the Georgian army angered the Abkhazian population (including the local Mingrelians). As a result, when the Soviet rule was established in Abkhazia in March, 1921, it was welcomed by the population mainly as the salvation from the Georgian tyranny and occupation.
Abkhazia had the status of an autonomous Republic in 1921-1931 and entered a union with Georgia on the basis of a special union treaty. In February, 1931, its status was reduced to that of an autonomous Republic incorporated into Georgia. A tragic epoch in the history of Abkhazia began in the mid-1930ies when it was subjected to enforced Georgianization including the physical extermination of the Abkhazian peasantry and intelligentsia and a ban on the Abkhazian language and culture.
The Georgian lobby lost its positions in the Soviet leadership following the death of J. Stalin. Under pressure from Moscow, which made certain efforts to protect small peoples, the Georgian Republic’s administration had to abandon some of the particularly gross forms of national oppression, but shifted its tactic to moving the Georgian population to the regions traditionally populated by minorities hoping to eventually absorb them. By the late 1980ies, the share of Abkhazians in the Republic’s 525,000 population shrank to 18% while that of Georgians rose to 45%.
As the crisis in the USSR unraveled in the late1980ies, the conflict between Georgians and Abkhazians began to surface in increasingly acute forms. The Georgian nationalist movement sought independence from the USSR and openly proclaimed the goal of creating a mono-ethnic Georgian state “in its historical borders”. Abkhazians actively opposed the Georgian separatism and demanded to incorporate Abkhazia into Russia’s Krasnodar province.
In 1989-1991 Georgia was plagued by a series of ethnic conflicts which Georgian radicals blamed on Moscow. The reality was that the escalating tensions between nations were due to the unacceptability of the pressure mounted by Georgians on others and of their demands to abolish all autonomies and even to regulate the birth rate among the non-Georgian population in order to limit its growth. Upon the ascension of ultra-radical Z. Gamsakhurdia to presidency in Georgia in 1990 the idea of turning it into a mono-ethnic country became officially adopted. The autonomy of South Ossetia was eliminated and the non-Georgian population of the Republic was subjected to intense persecution – Avars, Russian religious minorities, Lezgins, and the few Meskhetian Turks who managed to return to their historical homeland were expelled.
In Abkhazia, the standoff between Georgians and Abkhazians continued in the legislative sphere after the 1989 massive clashes between them. Espousing a return to the 1918-1921 independent Republic, Georgia annulled all of the Soviet-era legislation, including the union treaty between Abkhazia and Georgia (1921) and the act which established Abkhazia’s autonomy within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (1931).
The Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia responded by the 1990 Declaration of the Sovereignty of the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. According to the document, Abkhazia became a sovereign socialist country exercising fully the authority over its entire territory excluding the rights voluntarily delegated to the USSR and the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the framework of the corresponding treaties.
While the “legislative war” during which Georgia abolished every piece of legislation promulgated by Abkhazia continued, the authority in the ethnically divided Republic remained paralyzed and the situation was increasingly spinning out of Georgia’s control.
Another escalation took place in Abkhazia following the ouster of Georgian President Gamsakhurdia. The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia culminated in the 1992-1993 war as the Abkhazians’ attempts to ensure their national and physical survival collided with Georgia’s efforts to create a mono-ethnic state in totally artificial borders.
The war which went on for over a year entailed tremendous fatalities and devastations. The death toll reached 20,000 and the damage suffered by the Abkhazian economy was estimated at $11.5 bn.
The ethnic composition of the population in the region changed as a result of the war. Local Georgians mostly supported Georgia’s military campaign (only the Mingrelians in the Gali region remained markedly neutral). The rest of the population (including Russians, Armenians, Greeks, etc.), which used to be neutral prior to the hostilities, for the most part sided with Abkhazia. Thus, in 1992 the events in Abkhazia spanned beyond the confines of a conflict between two nations – Georgians and Abkhazians - and evolved into one between the Georgian authority and the entire ethnically diverse population of the Republic.
Having won the 1992-1993 war, the local leadership consolidated control over the entire Abkhazia except for the territorially small but strategically important Kodori Gorge. Following the May 14, 1994 Moscow Agreement, a collective CIS peacekeeping force was deployed in the region which was in practice entirely manned by Russians. The peacekeepers were to separate the warring sides, to prevent the resumption of the fighting, and to create the condition for the return of refugees to the Gali region. According to an addendum to the peacekeeping mandate, the Russian force was to counter the sabotage activity in the security zone jointly with the Abkhazian law-enforcement agencies.
Since 1994, the Russian peacekeepers served as the backbone of the stability in the region by preventing any large-scale military activity. A certain normalization of the relations between Georgians and Abkhazians was evident during the first years of the Russian peacekeeping mission. Most of the Gali region’s population (up to 80,000 people) returned to their residences and the Georgian population began to return to other parts of Abkhazia. The stabilization was lost as a result of the attempt to regain the Gali region by force which Georgia made in May, 1998, and the animosity between the two nations started to grow.
Abkhazia’s geopolitical importance increased after the Rose Revolution in Georgia which practically established direct US control over the Georgian government. Georgia became a country with limited sovereignty and a pawn in the fluid global geopolitical dynamics. Largely due to the Georgian leadership’s renouncing independence in domestic and international politics, the prospects for the future of Georgia and the whole Caucasus now depend on the politics of the forces based outside the region, primarily the US.
In the unipolar world which emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union, practically the entire globe became the zone of interests of the only superpower. The Caucasus is among the priorities of the US politics. At the same time, the Caucasus is one of Russia’s vulnerabilities – it has been a source of threats Russia had to confront for two decades. Not surprisingly, the interests of Russia and the US collide in the region with particular intensity, and the opposition has led to an unprecedentedly low level of the relations between Russia and Georgia.
The consequences of Tbilisi’s failed aggression for Georgia are truly catastrophic. Russia’s recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is the natural result of the politics pursued by Georgian President Saakashvili and all of his predecessors form the Georgian Mensheviks to E. Shevardnadze. This step, enormously important for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and not too difficult for Russia, will play a definitive role in the system of global international relations for years to come.
Source: Strategic Cultural Foundation