Abkhazia 1989-2019, by George Hewitt
Special to AbkhazWorld
Emeritus Professor of Caucasian languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a fellow of the British Academy.
On 14 August Abkhazians will commemorate the 27th anniversary of the invasion of their country by fighters loosed upon them by Eduard Shevardnadze. This one-time Party-Boss of Georgia (1972-85), later (1985-91) Soviet Foreign Minister, and, as he held this post when the Berlin Wall fell (1989), darling of the West, at that time headed the so-called State Council, which was the nearest thing Georgia could claim to have for a government after the coup against, and overthrow of, the legally elected but extreme nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia early that year (1992). The military incursion was supposedly to secure the railway-line that connected Georgia with Russia, but actually its aim was to thwart moves by the Abkhazians to avoid being consigned to domination by Tbilisi following the disintegration of the USSR (1991) into its constitutent union-republics, of which Georgia (incorporating the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia) was one. The bitterly fought 13-month war that followed should have been entirely predictable to any Soviet-watchers or policy-makers around the world who cared to keep developments in Georgia under scrutiny. But, with the collapse of the USSR, Western attention was focused on the closer horrors developing in the republics of Yugoslavia. One outcome was the lack of attention given to the situation on the ground in (especially Western) Georgia and the consequential poorly judged decision by UK Premier John Major and his Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to lead the EU into not only recognising Georgia WITHIN ITS SOVIET BORDERS (borders which were already fractured and which effectively no longer exist) but establishing diplomatic relations with it shortly after Shevardnadze’s return to his homeland in the spring. Thereafter Georgia swiftly gained membership of the World Bank and, most importantly, the UN, which meant that all international instruments for influencing events in a positive way were cast aside. Thus it was that within days of Georgia becoming a UN member-state, Abkhazia witnessed tanks and troops cross the River Ingur on their way to the capital (Sukhum) and Georgian fighter-planes strafing Sukhum’s beaches. The British government of the day and others, whose knee-jerk reaction to Shevardnadze’s reappearance in the Caucasus, must, therefore, bear much of the responsibility for the mayhem (and bloodshed) in Abkhazia that was unleashed that fateful day of the 14th of August 1992…
As intimated above, the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-93 had a history — so much so indeed that a monograph is required to explain it (see my Discordant Neighbours: a Reassessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian Conflicts, Brill, 2013). Here we can limit our purview to 1989, for the weekend of 15-16 July 1989 saw the first fatal clashes between the two communities and, in a sense, set in train a series of events that culminated in open warfare three years later.
The eruption of chauvinistic outpourings that so disfigured Georgian society from mid- to late 1988 were directed not only externally towards Russia but, perhaps more worryingly, internally towards the republic’s various non-Kartvelian minorities (‘Kartvelians’ being Georgians, Mingrelians, Svans and the Laz, most of which last ethnos live in Turkey). So it was hardly surprising that, after decades of sensitivities in the relationship between Georgians and Abkhazians, the various outrageous charges emanating from Tbilisi that appeared across the media and in a series of hostile demonstrations mounted by the nationalists should have motivated the Abkhazians to respond by publishing rebuttals to Georgian distortions across a range of topics such as their history, their ethnicity, their religion, the status and rights of their language, etc… The proximate cause of the July killings was the attempt to undermine Abkhazia’s State University by establishing a branch (Filial) of Tbilisi State University in Sukhum, a move that the Abkhazians were determined to prevent, coming under pre-planned attack while surrounding the building due to house the Filial in order to frustrate the enrolment-process on Monday 17 July. But the ultimate cause was the atmosphere of hostility that had been stoked by the Georgian nationalists for at least 12 months. And one of the most distasteful aspects of the charges laid against the Abkhazians was that they were not the ‘true’ Abkhazians of history (see for Zviad Gamsakhurdia making this absurd claim on the steps of the Parliament building in Tbilisi).
An ‘Abkhazian people’ [apxazi eri] never existed historically. The term ‘Abkhazia’ [apxazeti] was the name for Western Georgia — a Western Georgian name, and ‘Abkhazians’ [apxazebi] were Western Georgians, which is to say that the ‘Abkhazian people’ were a Georgian people, a Western Georgian people. But the ancient, christian ‘Abkhazian people’, the ‘Georgian Abkhazians’, no longer exist. However, the term ‘Abkhazian’ [apxazi] is wrongly used to refer to the tribe who call themselves Apswaa. The Apswaa, or [in Georgian] the ‘Apsarni’, these are a tribe of the North Caucasian or Adyghean [or Circassian] race. We are not opposed to the self-designation of any tribe or group of tribes, if it desires to behave as a people, especially if today it can demonstrate certain features, except that this should be on its historical territory, namely the North Caucasus. APPLAUSE. If this tribe or tribes will acknowledge this, we’ll stand by them, on condition of their establishment of the historical justice whereby they concede to us our land and take up residence in the place from where they came here.
This belief, widespread even today, was frequently buttressed in Georgian demonstrations with the rallying-cry of ‘Georgia for the Georgians’. A dangerous climate was being created whereby the Abkhazians (together with other minorities) had a justified existential fear that their future in Georgia (especially if it secured its independence from Moscow, as happened in 1991) could not be guaranteed. Although it was only on 29 July that the writer Revaz Mishveladze published his popular idea that Georgia could tolerate only 5% of non-Georgians (recte non-Kartvelians) — recall that in the very last Soviet census (1989) ‘Georgians’ (recte Kartvelians) accounted for only 70.1% of Georgia’s population — one may well appreciate the danger which ALL the republic’s minorities felt was threatening them.
And so, why is one justified in viewing this specific aspect of Georgian nationalism as holding relevance today? In an article published on 7 August 2019 (available at: https://oc-media.org/opinion-georgia-s-government-is-failing-to-take-on-right-wing-extremism/), Sasha Delemenchuk and Agit Mirzoev wrote the following: “The current standard-bearer of the older generation of the extreme-right in Georgia is the group known as Georgian March. Georgian March made its first major public appearance on 14 July 2017, staging a march along Tbilisi’s Aghmashenebeli Avenue, a large commercial thoroughfare well known for its multi-ethnic character. During the demonstration, the leaders of Georgian March demanded the deportation of migrants from Georgia and a tightening of the country’s immigration policy. As they marched they chanted: ‘Georgia for Georgians!’”
The message is clear: the sentiment in the rallying-cry is alive and well among segments of Georgian society. Ever since the Russo-Georgian 5-day war of August 2008, after which Moscow recognised the independence of Abkhazia (and S. Ossetia) on 26 August that year, Tbilisi has claimed that 20% of its territory is under Russian ‘occupation’ (because Russia has troops stationed in the two young Transcaucasian republics). This refrain hs been repeated time and again over the years in various fora when demands are ritualistically made on the Kremlin to reverse its recognition and withdraw its forces so that Georgia’s ‘territorial integrity’ within its Soviet frontiers can be re-established. This call most recently came from the UN ambassadors of seven countries (USA, UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Estonia; see https://www.rferl.org/a/us-europe-urge-russia-withdraw-georgian-territory/30100826.html) when they marked the 11th anniversary of the 2008 war.
Emotions were stirred once again on 19 June 2019 when Russian Duma-member Sergej Gavrilov chose to address colleagues at the 26th General Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy from the Speaker’s chair in the Georgian Parliament. Since then demonstrations have been taking place in Tbilisi and elsewhere with banners protesting about Russian occupation of ‘Georgian’ territories. The fact that such protests occurred close to Abkhazia led to the Abkhazian authorities closing the border at the crossing-point in Gal in order to guard against incursions.
Even this minor excursion along a small path of recent Caucasian history surely allows for the drawing of a simple lesson: if significant elements of the atmosphere that conditioned the hatred and blood-letting in 1989, 1992-93, May 1998 (when Georgians broke across the Ingur, sparking fierce engagements in some of the local villages in an attempt to initiate the recapturing of Abkhazia), and 2008 still thrive today, then no matter how alluring Georgia might seem to the West with its aspirations to join NATO and the EU, allied to its age-old anti-Russianism in an era of rabid Russophobia, these tokens make it no less of a threat to the Abkhazians than it was at the time of the incidents touched upon above and being commemorated this month and/or year.
Those with the power to influence events should pause to reflect on what happened in 1989 and remember that their responsibilities in the region ought not to end with offering support just to the Georgians, for therein lie the seeds of future conflicts. And if the well-being of Georgia is truly a priority for them, they should further recognise that it is in Georgia’s best interests to resolve the crises in Abkhazia and S. Ossetia by offering recognition and moving speedily to establishing good-neighbourly relations for the benefit of ALL the ethnic groups in the region, be these Georgians, Abkhazians, Mingrelians, Svans, Laz, Armenians, Greeks, Ossetians, Russians, etc… Following such a course would shew true friendship for Georgia and the Georgians, not to mention the benefits that would finally flow for the Abkhazians after 30 years of strife.