In my review of Svante Cornell’s Small Nations and Great Powers. A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (Curzon Press, 2001) I included the following: ‘[T]his volume's value is greatly reduced by an absolute travesty of reality in the treatment afforded to Abkhazia. I have had to say this so often over more than a decade that I am seriously tempted to suggest that any Westerner who feels the urge to comment on this particular issue should first learn Georgian so that what Georgians say about their relationship with the Abkhazians in their own language can be properly assessed... Only then perhaps will there be better appreciation that, just as the meddling hand of Moscow is unnecessary in Daghestan because “the Dag[h]estani leadership and its policies are by themselves [sic — GH] sufficient to fuel widespread opposition” (p.281), so in the case of the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute one needs to look no further than Georgian attitudes and behaviour towards this particular minority to understand the reasons for Abkhazian suspicions. And the conflict did not start brewing (p.347) after the troubles in South Ossetia had quietened down (July 1992) but had its proximate cause in the events of 1989 (see Viktor Popkov's article in another Curzon volume The Abkhazians, which I edited in 1998); these fatal clashes, moreover, arose as a direct result of the rampant Georgian chauvinism that exploded during perestrojka under the leadership of the late Mingrelians Merab K’ost’ava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, no friends to the Abkhazians.’ Sadly, to judge by the same author’s article (Russia Shuts Out the International Community) in The Daily Telegraph (16 June 2009), he is no better informed today about Abkhazian affairs than he was in 2001.
South Ossetia was effectively lost to Georgian control when the war begun in the region by Georgia’s first post-communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ended with the Dagomys Agreement in June 1992, according to which Russia was assigned a role in ensuring that the parties to the confict adhered to the Agreement. Though mired in civil war in Gamsakhurdia’s home-province of Mingrelia, after a military junta had ousted him from the presidency, the leader of the then so-called State Council, Eduard Shevardnadze, secured recognition for Georgia along with membership of the IMF, World Bank and the UN for Georgia, membership of which august body Shevardnadze celebrated by initiating his own war against the Abkhazians on 14 August 1992. His adventurism ended in humiliating failure, and Abkhazia too was lost to Tbilisi’s control from 30 September 1993. Again, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was charged with patrolling the demilitarised zone along the River Ingur according to the terms of the 1994 Moscow Agreement, which effectively meant that Russian troops would take on these duties. The international community did not object to this arrangement, nor did it object to the presence of Russian forces inside Georgia proper, as they helped to quell the Zviadist threats to march on the Georgian capital and thus secured Shevardnadze in office.
Contrary to various misinformed reports, Abkhazia did not declare independence from Georgia either before, during, or upon its victory in, the war. Throughout years of negotiations, Abkhazia was willing to contemplate making a concession and to enter confederal relations with Georgia. And let it not be forgotten that for most of the 1990s, especially when Shevardnadze-protegé Andrej Kozyrev served as Boris Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister, Russia’s policy was by no means pro-Abkhazian, a CIS-blockade being imposed along Abkhazia’s River Psou border with Russia. But let us see what I had to say on this matter in my earlier review: ‘Abkhazia did not formally declare independence until 12 October 1999. And this was in large measure the result of frustration at continuing bad faith on the part of Tbilisi in post-war negotiations. Pace Cornell (p.192), it has not been the Abkhazians who have refused to compromise — one might say that after their military victory, they were fully entitled to declare independence at once (September 1993), and yet they continued to pursue federative possibilities, whilst all that Georgia has offered is a return to the status quo ante bellum (some compromise from Georgia!). After protracted talks and constant last-minute revisions by Georgia a Protocol was ready for presidential signing in summer 1997, and yet at the last minute Tbilisi (not Sukhum) refused (Abkhazian Foreign Ministry Document 325, 25 Dec 1997). Such petty obstructionism continues, for in February 2001 Georgia's UN Ambassador, P’et’re Chkheidze, refused to sign two draft-documents, claiming them “unacceptable for the government of Georgia” — as the respected commentator, Liz Fuller, noted in her Radio Liberty report (4.5, 2 Feb 2001): “Chkheidze's criticism is surprising as the versions of both drafts currently under discussion were proposed by the Georgian side”.’
In 1998 Georgia undertook a further military adventure to win back Abkhazia, but it was successfully repelled; again, this met with no condemnation from the international community. When Mikheil Saak’ashvili ousted his former patron in November 2003, the support that Shevardnadze had enjoyed from his Western friends was immediately transferred to his usurper, who promised that during his first presidential term, secured in a ballot in spring 2004, he would return both S. Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control. Though he illegally introduced troops into the one part of Abkhazia never taken back into Abkhazian control in 1993, the Upper K’odor Valley, and then relocated the so-called Abkhazian Government-in-Exile there, he failed to achieve his goal. But, after NATO’s questionable decision at Bucharest in April 2008 to consider a Membership Action Plan for Georgia (and The Ukraine) at its December meeting, it was always likely that something would happen with regard to the two disputed territories before that meeting, and it was rumoured that an attack on Abkhazia was envisaged in May, but nothing transpired. It was, however, Saak’ashvili, and, of course, there is no doubt about this, who did eventually resort to military action when he sent his forces into action in S. Ossetia late on 7th August. The results are well known. Russia responded to put an end to Georgian action inside S. Ossetia and to rule out a further round of hostilities by destroying military equipment at the nearby-base in Gori. In Abkhazia, the opportunity was taken to remove the troops from the K’odor Valley, where the huge store of (US, Ukrainian and Israeli) munitions that Saak’ashvili had secreted there (for what purpose has never been explained) was discovered, and the potential threat to Abkhazia was neutralised by the sacking of the military base in Senak’i and the sinking of naval vessels in the Mingrelian port of Poti. In the wake of all this activity, which brought a wealth of international condemnation of Russia but hardly a whisper against Saak’ashvili’s aggression that had occasioned the response, Russia’s President Medvedev recognised both Abkhazia and S. Ossetia as independent states at 3pm Moscow time on 26 August.
Within days of this decision, a member of the Abkhazian government held a meeting with the head of the UN Mission based at Aitar in Sukhum. He asked when the UN would be changing their title, for it was absolutely out of the question for the Mission to remain on Abkhazian soil, if it insisted on being styled the United Nations’ Observer Mission IN GEORGIA (UNOMIG). The ending on 16 June 2009 of the Mission’s 16-year mandate with the exercise of Russia’s veto at the UN in New York was the logical outcome of the international community’s obstinate refusal to recognise the new political realities and to insist on no change of name. Abkhazia has no objection to the UN base remaining at Aitar but NOT under the rubric of a UN Mission IN GEORGIA. Because of its ill-considered recognition of Georgia within its Soviet borders in 1992, the international community bears a huge responsibility for the bloodshed that subsequently took place in Abkhazia from 14 August 1992 and sporadically at various moments in S. Ossetia too. By lamely supporting Georgian territorial integrity, refusing to condemn Georgian actions in the two regions, and pursuing a policy of political and economic isolation for almost two decades in seeking to ‘persuade’ the Abkhazians and the S. Ossetians that it is in their interests to re-accept Georgian domination, the international community has achieved precisely the opposite, namely deep suspicion of, and resentment towards, the West and ever closer ties with Russia, hardly a glorious triumph for Western diplomacy.
Russia’s policy towards Abkhazia eventually changed under Vladimir Putin, who allowed citizens of both regions to acquire Russian passports, a move which inter alia restored the right of local residents to travel outside their home-territories (after the expiry of their Soviet documents and their adamant refusal to consider applying for Georgian passports), and eventually lifted the CIS blockade. But what is one to make of the following allegation from Cornell? ‘Moscow may have recognized them as independent states, but effectively treats them as its own provinces, appointing and removing government ministers at will.’ Readers should be reminded that the last time Moscow tried to exercise influence in this regard in Abkhazia, namely in the 2004 presidential elections, when Moscow clearly favoured the then acting-president, Raoul Khadzhimba, the electorate responded by voting the present incumbent, Sergei Bagapsh, into power.
Russia, certainly with its own interests in mind, has wisely chosen to correct the mistake it made in recognising Georgia within its Soviet borders when the USSR disintegrated. The international community, which has largely backed Georgia’s unremittingly belligerent posture (and actions) since 1992, should realise the futility of its present stance, follow Russia, and recognise Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, which is the only way that Georgia too will be forced to stop fantasising about regaining lost territories and accommodate itself to the facts on the ground. Only then will it be possible to start building a prosperous future for the region. Whilst S. Ossetia might eventually merge with N. Ossetia (inside the Russian Federation), which is the logical conclusion for such a small, land-locked piece of land, Abkhazia has no desire for anything other than independence. With full recognition, the economy in this republic, which is so blessed by Nature, will quickly take off — it possesses the airport with the longest runway (with no adjacent mountains) in the entire Caucasus and offers potentially the best deep-water port (at Ochamchira) on the Black Sea’s eastern coast. Furthermore, it is only under such conditions of successful independence that more of the Kartvelian (Mingrelian, Svan and Georgian) refugees, who fled into Georgia in the final days of the war, are ever likely again to step foot there.
This is the message that should be fed into policy-making in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, not the stale, Cold War-centred, opinions flowing from the pen of Cornell (and many others).