Volunteer-movement and the Circassian factor during the Patriotic War of the people of Abkhazia in 1992-1993 – historical and political significance, by Aslanbek Mirzoev
This article has been written in Russian and is translated into English. First published on Abkhazia.co.uk
Candidate of Historical Sciences, Senior Researcher in the Department of Mediaeval and Modern History of the Department of History of the Institute for Humanitarian Research of the Kabardino-Balkarian Scientific Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was a former Circassian volunteer from Kabarda.
The mass volunteer-movement in support of the Abkhazian people has no analogues in the post-Soviet space in the recent history of the 20th century.
The Georgian-Abkhazian military conflict (14 August 1992 – 30 September 1993), officially called in Abkhazia "The Patriotic War of the People of Abkhazia", and "The Georgian-Abkhazian War" among the public of the republics of the North Caucasus, was one of the largest in the post-Soviet space [1, p. 3].
The cause of the war was an attempt by the leadership of Georgia to create a national-unitary state by abolishing two of the autonomous entities that were part of it, namely the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia and the Autonomous Region of South Ossetia. The policy of Georgia received support from the United States and a number of Western European states, in which the actions of the State Council of Georgia in relation to the Republic of Abkhazia were considered as an internal affair of Georgia [1, p. 3].
Before the start of the Georgian army’s incursion into Abkhazia, Russian-Georgian negotiations took place on 24 June 1992 in Dagomys, where Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze signed an agreement on the creation of peace-keeping forces in South Ossetia and the freezing of the conflict. There were other tacit agreements behind Abkhazia’s back. According to this agreement:
a) Georgia agreed to join the CIS, but in return Russia had to turn a blind eye to the invasion of the Georgian armed forces into Abkhazia;
b) Georgia received a large amount of military equipment from the Transcaucasian Military District [2, p. 28].
On 14 August 1992, the Abkhazian people found themselves facing a national catastrophe that threatened not only the loss of national statehood but also their very physical existence. This was the fate that was predicted for them in many political and intellectual circles around the world, who were aware of the correlation of the capabilities of the warring parties, but at the same time underestimated the strength of the spirit of the small Abkhazian people and did not expect strong support from the peoples of the Caucasus [3, p. 3].
The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict went far beyond the borders of Transcaucasia. Citizens and organisations were drawn into it from the Russian Federation, the CIS states, the USA, the countries of Europe, the Middle East, all countries in which the large Abkhaz-Adyghean diaspora is accommodated.
The aggression of the troops of the State Council of Georgia against Abkhazia provoked protests in many regions of Russia. In defence of the people of Abkhazia, the peoples of the North Caucasus spoke out, and above all, representatives of the ethnic group closely related to the Abkhazians, namely the Circassians [aka Adygheans, though in the North Caucasus West Circassians are rather known as ‘Adyghes’, whilst the East Circassians, such as Kabardians and Besleneys, are generally termed Cherkess(ians), though the self-designation of ALL Circassians is A:dygha – Trans.], both those living in the Russian Federation as well as representatives of the large Circassian foreign diaspora [1, p. 3].
On the first day of the war, 14 August 1992, the President of the International Circassian Association (ICA), Yuri Khamzatovich Kalmykov, made an appeal with "a petition to the Adyghe and Abaza peoples, to all the peoples of the North Caucasus, the Cossacks of the South of Russia to announce a call for volunteers to protect the fraternal Abkhazian people" [4, p. 16–17]. Immediately in the city of Nalchik, where at that time the headquarters of the International Circassian Association was located, there was convened the Council of the Adyghe Khase and the Congress of the Kabardian People (KKN), at which decisions were made to assist the leadership of Abkhazia. On the same day, representatives of the KKN and Adyghe Khase met with the President of the KBR V.M. Kokov, where he was presented with demands: to give the opportunity to read the appeal of the President of the ICA Yuri Kalmykov on republican television, to make a statement on behalf of the republican authorities to the President of the Russian Federation B.N. Yeltsin, to provide a helicopter for the first group of volunteers to fly to Abkhazia, headed by the chairman of the Defence Committee of the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (KGNK), Colonel of the Reserve of the USSR Air Force Sultan A. Sosnaliev. Valery M. Kokov agreed to all these measures and on the same day, 14 August 1992, the announcer of the Kabardino-Balkarian radio, a member of the KKN, Ali Pshigotyzhev, read out the address of the President of the ICA Yuri Kalmykov to the Circassian and Abaza people, to all the peoples of the North Caucasus, the Cossacks of the South of Russia [informant Khatazhukov Valerij Nazirovich, born in 1956, in the village of Shordakovo, Zolskij district, KBR]. The registration of volunteers for the helicopter-flight was begun. While the issue with the helicopter was being resolved, night fell, and the flight was rescheduled. In order not to waste time, it was decided to leave by bus. On 14 August at 23.00, the first group of volunteers, representatives of the KKN and Adyghe Khase, headed by S.A. Sosnaliev, left the building of the Congress of the Kabardian People on a tourist-bus. Having passed the territory controlled by the Georgian troops, on 15 August at 17:15 the group arrived in the city of Gudauta, where S.A. Sosnaliev took control of the Headquarters of Defence of the People's Militia [informant Kushkhov Mukhamed Ismailovich, born in 1938, in the village of Zalukokuazhe, Zolskij district of the KBR].
It should be noted that the statement of the President of the International Circassian Association Yuri Kalmykov was made even before the official appeal of the leadership of the Republic of Abkhazia to the leaders and peoples of the North Caucasus with a request for immediate assistance.
Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba issued a statement on 16 August 1992, addressed to "Parliaments, presidents, peoples of the world", which contained a request "to urgently put pressure on the State Council of Georgia and its head, Shevardnadze, to force him to withdraw troops and equipment from the territory of sovereign Abkhazia, to stop the bloodshed and robberies, and to send humanitarian aid to Abkhazia” [1, p. 12]. The leadership of Abkhazia also turned to the leaders and peoples of the North Caucasus with a request for immediate assistance [1, p. 12]. In an appeal to the leadership and peoples of Kabardino-Balkaria 15 dated August 1992, the following was noted: “In the hour of mortal danger, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia asks the President of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic and the fraternal peoples of Kabardino-Balkaria for help by all available means” [1, p. 12].
On 18 August 1992, in the Chechen Republic, in the city of Grozny (where the Central Headquarters of the KGNK was located), the 10th extraordinary expanded session of the KGNK parliament was held. The resolution adopted by the 10th session strongly protests against the policy of the State Council of Georgia and the Russian leadership in Abkhazia. The resolution also contains fundamental points: “In the event of the continuation of the occupation of Abkhazia, to declare the start of military operations by the KGNK against Georgia, with all the ensuing consequences. To support the initiatives of the International Circassian Association and other national movements and parties in the region to start the formation of volunteer-units to protect the just cause of the Abkhazian people and send armed units of the KGNK to Abkhazia” [1, p. 13].
From the very beginning of the war, Nalchik and Grozny were the collection-points for volunteers. Armed detachments of volunteers were already leaving from Grozny.
The contradictions in the Russian political élite and the confrontation that began between the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation and President Boris Yeltsin allowed in the first days of the war armed detachments of volunteers from the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the Chechen Republic - Ichkeria, the Republic of Adyghea, and the Karachay-Cherkess republics to arrive in Abkhazia literally a few days after the aggression of the Georgian State Council.
It was then, in the most difficult period, from the 15th to the end of August 1992, that several international detachments of North Caucasian volunteers came to Abkhazia – on 15 August: Kabardian group under the command of Sultan Sosnaliev; on 15 August: the second group of Kabardian volunteers, who flew by helicopter to Adler and managed to pass through the cordons of Georgian troops in the villages of Leselidze and Gantiadi; on 22 August: two Chechen detachments under the command of Shamil Basaev and Khamzat Khankarov, one Kabardian detachment under the command of Ibragim Yaganov, one detachment of Circassians from Adyghea under the command of Adam Huade, 1 detachment of Circassians and Abazins from Karachay-Cherkessia under the command of Mukhamed Kilba (all armed groups); on 22 August: an armed group of Kabardian volunteers (30 people under the command of Aslan Iritov), who took off by helicopter from the Kanzhal mountain-plateau in the KBR to the Damkhurts Pass; on 27 August: an armed detachment under the command of Ruslan Gelaev from Chechens, Kabardians, Adyghes and Circassians.
Dzhokhar Dudayev welcomes Shamil Basaev's Abkhazia Battalion.
It was important that they were armed volunteers, since the Abkhazian militias had few weapons. On the first day of the war, Georgian troops had captured in the barracks, along with weapons, a significant part of the so-called "Abkhazian Guard" (Separate Regiment of the Internal Troops of the Republic of Abkhazia). It was also important that it was timely assistance – if the Georgian army, which entered the city of Sukhum and became consumed with sacking the city, had not lose a few days but had immediately developed an offensive against Gudauta, the situation could have been different. With the help of the armed detachments of the North Caucasian volunteers who arrived in the first days of the war, the Abkhazian militia reliably secured defences immediately behind the city of Sukhum on the River Gumista. When already on 31 August/1 September the Georgians came to their senses and attempted a tank-breakthrough in the direction of Eshera, the Abkhazian militia, together with the North Caucasian volunteers, successfully repulsed it, and from then until the end of the war, the Georgians did not attempt any breakthrough in this direction. It was important that the North Caucasian volunteers were armed with anti-tank weapons – grenade-launchers; they also carried across the passes with them air-defence systems (MANPADS), anti-tank mines, and ammunition left in warehouses by the Russian army during the withdrawal from the Chechen Republic. Abkhazian militias in the first days of the war were mainly armed with small arms.
In order to imagine the role of volunteers in the Patriotic War in Abkhazia, one must have a clear idea of the situation that had developed in the republic by the beginning of the aggression of the Georgian State Council on 14 August 1992.
On 14 August 1992, the troops of the State Council of Georgia invaded the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia and launched Operation Sword, which envisaged the conquest of the territory of Abkhazia within a few days. The number of the invading group of Georgia was 2,000, with 60 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, as well as artillery installations and air-cover. Georgian troops crossed the border at the River Ingur, capturing the towns of Gal and Ochamchira, and entered the capital of Abkhazia, the city of Sukhum. On 15 August, Georgian troops landed in the village of Gantiadi (in Abkhaz, Tsandripsh) and captured the north-western regions adjacent to the border with Russia. As a result of the hostilities, the Georgian troops, having broken the resistance of the few detachments of the Abkhazian militia and home-guard, captured the city of Sukhum on 18 August, and the city of Gagra on 19 August [1, p. 11].
The Abkhazians and other nationalities of the republic found themselves surrounded in a small area from the River Gumista (in the South) to the village of Colchida (in the west). The leadership of the republic, headed by V.G. Ardzinba, left the city of Sukhum after its occupation and moved to the town of Gudauta, which became the centre of the national liberation war of the Abkhazian people. The problem was that Abkhazia was not ready for such an unfolding of events. What could the Abkhazians put up in opposition to the well-armed Georgian military which consisted of several thousands. It took time to form combat-ready units, but there simply was no time [2, p. 58].
Among some officials and former party-workers could be observed a mood of capitulation, whilst some were on the verge of poorly concealed panic. Some deputies of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia considered resistance to be inexpedient and called for capitulation [1, p. 49]. Nevertheless, the leadership of the Republic of Abkhazia took urgent measures to repel the aggression. On 14 August, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia adopted a resolution on the mobilisation of the Republic’s population aged 18 to 40 inclusive and sending them for regimental deployment as internal troops. The leader of the nation Vladislav Ardzinba and his associates, like the main part of the Abkhazian people, were firm in their intention to defend the independence of the country. When, literally on the second day of the Georgian aggression, the Chairman of the Defence Committee of the KGNK, Colonel Sultan Sosnaliev with his small group, and after him several armed detachments of North Caucasian volunteers miraculously broke through into Abkhazia, this was of great moral and political importance, for the morale of the Abkhazian nation thereby received powerful reinforcement [2, p. 53].
S.A. Sosnaliev launched activities for the immediate formation of the people's militia and actually took command. The People's Militia Defence Headquarters (SHONO) was created.
Particularly strong moral and psychological shock was experienced by Georgian soldiers against the backdrop of their euphoria after the capture and several days of looting of the Abkhazian capital as victors, after the counter-attack of detachments of North Caucasian volunteers on the night of 25-25 August both in the village of Achadara (by a combined group of Chechens under Shamil Basaev and Circassians under Adam Khuade) and in the area of the city of Gagra on Mount Mamzyshkha (by two Kabardian groups under the command of Ibragim Yaganov and Aslan Iritov) [1, p. 52–53].
In the most difficult and decisive minutes and days of the war, the Abkhazian people received the necessary military support from the peoples of the North Caucasus. The plans of the Georgian command for an easy victory in a short-term war were frustrated [1, p. four].
In the first stage of the war, the role played by several hundred North Caucasian volunteers was significant. It was they who ensured a change in the public mood of a part of society, and shifting the initial feelings of panic among certain bureaucratic circles in the direction of confidence in final victory [2, p. ten].
The most massive volunteer-movement took place in the Chechen and Kabardino-Balkarian Republics. More than 1,000 volunteers from Chechenia and about 700-800 from Kabardino-Balkaria went through the war in Abkhazia. These are the data of V. Pachulia, colonel of the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Abkhazia, Candidate of Historical Sciences, former employee of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia [2, p. 54]. True, volunteers relieved one another and, at any one time, there were no more than 600–800 of them in Abkhazia. The exact number, for example, of Kabardian volunteers who took part in the Georgian-Abkhazian war has not been established. According to the Union of Abkhazian Volunteers of the KBR, over 1,500 Circassian volunteers from the KBR passed through Abkhazia. In addition to the Kabardians, among the volunteers from the KBR there were nine Russians and three Balkars [1, p. 80].
The North Caucasian volunteers arrived in Abkhazia on subsequent days as well. Some groups made their way through the passes, others on boats. Volunteers also arrived in Abkhazia from the Abkhazian and Circassian diasporas of Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
It is rather difficult to establish the exact number of North Caucasian volunteers in those days. It was constantly changing. They would leave Abkhazia injured and and having carried out various assignments. New groups of volunteers would arrive regularly. By the end of August, the total number of North Caucasian volunteers was approximately 800. Of these, over 200 were Kabardians, over 200 were Chechens, over 200 were Adyghes, about 50 were South Ossetians, about 50 were Abazins, Karachays and Cherkess(ians), about 50 were foreign Abkhazians and Circassians. There were also Ingush, representatives of the peoples of Daghestan, and others [1, p. 51]. Volunteers from the Don, Terek and Kuban Cossacks, from different regions of Russia also arrived in Abkhazia.
Speaking about the motivation of volunteers, it should be noted that the vast majority of them went to Abkhazia not for the purpose of material enrichment, but out of a sense of justice – "at the call of the heart", as they say. Kabardians, Adyghes, Circassians and Abazins arrived to help the ethnically related Abkhazian people. Chechens, South Ossetians and representatives of other peoples of the North Caucasus – out of solidarity with a small neighbouring people, an ally in the KGNK [Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus]. During the period under review, among the peoples of the North Caucasus, the ideas of Caucasian solidarity and the organisation reflecting these ideas, represented by the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, were quite popular. Supporters of the KGNK viewed the attack on Abkhazia by Georgian State Council troops as an attack on the Confederation itself. Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks, as well as Russian volunteers, arrived to help the Russian population of Abkhazia [1, p. 52].
“Abkhazian brothers! Hold firm, we Circassians are with you. Here are Armenian guys, Chechens, and everyone supports us. We have an open heart. There is mutual understanding between us volunteers; we listen to each other,” were the first words of Gena Kardanov when giving an interview to Abkhazian television during the war. On 13 April 1993, the commander of the “Kabarda” battle-group, Vladimir Kardanov, better known among his family and friends as Gena, died in battle.
In the first three weeks from the beginning of the war, with the help of North Caucasian volunteers, the Abkhazian militia managed seriously to cool the ardour and excitement of the Georgian units. The command of the troops of the State Council of Georgia at first did not perceive the North Caucasian volunteers to be any serious force [1, p. 54]. The head of the State Council of Georgia, E. Shevardnadze, called the KGNK a “paper tiger”, and the commander of the Georgian troops, G. Karkarashvili, in his infamous television address (25 August 1992) stated: “I can immediately assure especially the supporters of Mr. Ardzinba, those separatists who, under the name of some "Highlander Union" want to harass civilians ... they will find a mass-grave here" [1, p. 55]. However, after the very first battles, the Georgian command came to appreciate the North Caucasian volunteers and began to seek their withdrawal from the territory of Abkhazia.
Volunteers took part in virtually all the military operations of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia from the beginning to the end of the war, but they played a particularly important role in the initial stage, when the Abkhazian army was just being formed. The contribution of volunteer formations in major offensive operations of the Abkhazian army until January 1992 was at least 50 percent.
North Caucasian volunteers took an active part in the battles on the Gumista front in August 1992, and, in October 1992, in the liberation of the city of Gagra and the western regions of Abkhazia.
With the onset of cold weather, the season of storms, the blockade of the territory controlled by the leadership of Abkhazia could lead to catastrophic consequences. Maritime communication with Russian ports became more difficult, and communication with the North Caucasus through mountain-passes became impossible. There was a threat of economic “strangulation” of Abkhazia’s blockaded territory [1, p. 55]. In this situation, the leadership of the Republic of Abkhazia made a decision – to proceed with the liberation of the city of Gagra and the regions adjacent to the Russian border (the north-western regions of the Republic of Abkhazia).
By 17:30 on 3 October, Gagra was liberated. The losses on the Georgian side amounted to: several hundred soldiers and officers killed, whilst over 100 soldiers were taken prisoner. On the Abkhazian side, 24 fighters were killed. Abkhazian militia units seized a significant quantity of weapons, ammunition and 20 armoured vehicles [1, p. 58]. The tens of armoured vehicles and the hundreds of small-arms weapons obtained during this operation as trophies made it possible to equip the emerging units of the Abkhazian army.
On 4 October, the Abkhazian international militia continued its offensive in the direction of the Russian border. On 6 October, at 6:40 am, the state-flag of the Republic of Abkhazia and the flag of the KGNK were raised on the border with Russia. The north-western part of Abkhazia had been liberated from the occupying troops [1, p. 58].
The liberation of the north-western regions of Abkhazia was of great strategic and political importance. This was the first large-scale victory of the Abkhaz-North Caucasian militia over the regular Georgian army, which destroyed the plans and forecasts of the State Council of Georgia for an easy and rapid victory [1, p. 59–60]. The unblocking of the territory and the access to the Russian border made it possible to transport humanitarian cargo freely from the republics of the North Caucasus to Abkhazia, which had previously been delivered by boat from Sochi. Now automobile-convoys could deliver food to Abkhazia in large quantities across the Russian-Abkhazian border. The food-problem was by that time very serious. V. Ardzinba had to think about how to feed not only the Abkhazian army, but also the large number of refugees from the regions occupied by the Georgian army. In the eastern regions of Abkhazia, by the winter of 1992-1993, there was already famine and an acute shortage of food. If not for the successful July and September operations of the Abkhazian army, which ended in victory, there was even the question of evacuating the civilian population from Eastern Abkhazia.
North Caucasian volunteers dominated in the divisions of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia which carried out the Shroma operation on 3-4 November 1992 [1, p. 61].
Although this operation was not successful for the Abkhaz-North Caucasian militia, the losses sustained in it by the Georgian army, despite the fact that they were the defenders, were twice the losses of the attackers (56 against 26).
Such was the result of the first stage of the war, in which the formations of the North Caucasian volunteers played a huge role [2, p. 61].
The second stage of the war was fundamentally different from the first both in terms of the role and the number of Abkhazian combat-units in the liberation of their homeland. At that time (from the autumn of 1992), the formation of the RA Armed Forces was completed on the basis of the people's volunteer-corps. They were created according to the system of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union [2, p. 61–62]. On 11 October 1992, the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff of the Republic of Abkhazia were established by a Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia. The ministry was headed by Colonel Vladimir Arshba. Colonel Sultan Sosnaliev was appointed First Deputy Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff of the RA Armed Forces.
It was in the first stage that volunteers from the North Caucasus, primarily from Chechenia and the KBR, played an important role. In the second stage, the factors of the North Caucasian volunteer-movement and its political "core" in the person of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus receded into secondary roles, although they were still of considerable importance [2, p. 65].
The policy of the Federal Centre and the republican authorities in the North Caucasus in relation to the activities of the Congress of the Kabardian people, the International Circassian Association, the Adyghe Khase of the KBR, the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus - public organisations that acted as organisers of the volunteer-movement can be divided into two stages. If the leadership of the Chechen Republic, in the person of Dzhokhar Dudaev, like the Chechen people, unambiguously supported the liberation-movement of the Abkhazian people, then the policy of other leaders of the republics of the North Caucasus from the very beginning was ambivalent. Some of them (in particular, Aslan Dzharimov, the leader of the Republic of Adyghea) warned Boris Yeltsin against unilateral support for Tbilisi. In general, they were facing difficult circumstances: on the one hand, the position and demand of the Kremlin, which were distinguished by their pro-Georgian orientation; and on the other hand, a sufficiently powerful movement "from below" in support of the Abkhazians in their republics. On the one hand, they had to manoeuvre between public expectations and demands to provide real assistance to Abkhazia, and on the other hand, to pursue a policy that would not greatly irritate Moscow. In such a situation, the only thing they could do without prejudice to their political careers was the provision of humanitarian aid to Abkhazia, which in fact was done throughout the war [2, p. 50].
Georgia demanded the withdrawal of volunteers. The Russian leadership also demanded from V.G. Ardzinba the withdrawal of volunteers from the territory of Abkhazia in exchange for the promise of a political settlement of the conflict.
By the beginning of September 1992, a rather acute situation had developed in the KBR. Kabardian public organisations and state-authorities characterised the events in Abkhazia as an aggression of the State Council of Georgia against the Republic of Abkhazia. In this their positions coincided. The position of the authorities of the KBR was to make efforts to resolve the situation in Abkhazia by peaceful means, to provide its people with all kinds of political and moral support, as well as humanitarian assistance. The positions of the Kabardian public organisations and the leadership of the KBR diverged on one of the main issues – and that was the formation of volunteer-detachments to be sent to Abkhazia to the places of hostilities. The position of the Kabardian public organisations was that the Abkhazian people were on the verge of physical annihilation and sending volunteers to Abkhazia was the most effective help to be given to the people of Abkhazia. The leadership of the KBR in this matter took a negative position, agreeing with the leadership of the Russian Federation [1, p. 23].
On 27 August 1992, an emergency-session of the Supreme Council of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic was held, dedicated to the situation in the Republic of Abkhazia. Among the proposed measures for the peaceful settlement of the conflict and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the Abkhazian people, the resolution of the Supreme Council of the KBR contained a requirement for socio-political organisations and national movements to "stop illegal actions in acquiring weapons, campaigning and forming volunteer-detachments" [1, p. 20].
At the emergency-session of the Supreme Council of the KBR, a deputy-group was formed consisting of deputies of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation M.Sh. Mamkhegova, F.A. Kharaev and deputy of the Supreme Council of the KBR K.A. Murzakanov to be sent to the area of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict on a peacekeeping mission. In Georgia, the deputies were received by E.A. Shevardnadze, who demanded putting a stop to the sending of volunteers to Abkhazia. The representatives of the Supreme Council of the KBR replied that they had nothing to do with the volunteer-movement [1, p. 21].
The press-service of the President of the KBR issued a statement noting that the President of the KBR and the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the KBR condemned the solution of problems by force of arms and adhered to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of a sovereign state by armed means [1, p. 21]. The statement also says that the position of the Government of the KBR was to provide the people of Abkhazia with political and moral support as well as humanitarian assistance. The following statement by the press-service of the President of the KBR (dated 4 September 1992) noted: “... the government, the authorities in the KBR firmly adhere to the position of a peaceful settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and oppose the sending of volunteers to Abkhazia ... The Government of the KBR ... will carry out the decision of the Supreme Council of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic and will continue to provide political, moral and humanitarian support to Abkhazia" [1, p. 22].
The prosecutor's office of the KBR issued a sharp statement against Kabardian public organisations, accusing the leadership of the KKN of violating a number of laws and destabilising the situation in the republic [1, p. 22].
Prosecutor of the KBR E.G. Denisov turned to the Chairman of the KKN Yuri Kalmykov with a presentation in which he qualified as illegal actions conducted in support of the people of Abkhazia (viz. blocking the Rostov-Baku highway, rallies, etc.). The prosecutor suggested to the chairman of the KKN, Yuri Kalmykov “to take measures to stop the illegal actions of the KKN executive committee when organising actions in support of the Abkhazian people in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, to carry out this work within the framework established by the current legislation” [1, p. 22]. The prosecutor also said that the prosecutor's office instructed the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the KBR to conduct a thorough investigation to identify specific perpetrators and bring them to justice [1, p. 22].
The Ministry of Justice of the KBR also stated that “the activity of public associations aimed at creating formations with the aim of providing military assistance to Abkhazia is illegal. They will be held fully responsible for the dangerous consequences of such actions” [1, p. 22].
On 3 September 1992, a meeting was held between the President of the Russian Federation B.N. Yeltsin and the leaders of the republics, territories and regions of the North Caucasus. At this meeting, a decision was taken on the need to introduce a state of emergency in the North Caucasus region and to transfer internal troops from other regions of the Russian Federation in connection with the explosive situation. With regard to the Georgian-Abkhazian military conflict, the participants in the meeting proposed a plan, the essence of which was that Russia should take on a mission of mediation. The first step was to ensure the cessation of hostilities and to introduce peacekeeping forces into Abkhazia. The second stage was the organisation of negotiations between the parties in order to develop conditions for peace and an acceptable status for Abkhazia within Georgia [1, p. 25].
On the same day, a meeting was held between the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba and leaders of the republics, territories and regions of the North Caucasus. Its final document called for cessation of fire on both sides and of any use of force, starting from 12:00 on 1 September 1992, as well as the creation of a commission for control and inspection from representatives appointed by the authorities of Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia. The following tasks were entrusted to the commission: disarmament, disbandment and removal from Abkhazia of illegal armed formations and groups, as well as the prevention of their entering Abkhazia. The document enshrined the provision of the territorial integrity of Georgia [1, p. 26].
The leadership of the Russian Federation took a number of measures to resolve the situation in the North Caucasus, connected with the events in Abkhazia. Under the Security Council of the Russian Federation, a special Commission was formed to resolve the situation in the North Caucasus, and especially on the border with Abkhazia. Already by 19 August the border-guards of the Novorossijsk border-detachment began to serve on the Russian side of the Psou River, blocking the border between Russia and Abkhazia. Additional contingents of troops were transferred to the North Caucasus. The border with Abkhazia was strengthened by units of the internal troops (VV), whose tasks included preventing groups of North Caucasian volunteers from crossing into Abkhazia.
The transfer of additional contingents of troops to the North Caucasus and the strengthening of the border with Abkhazia, which complicated the ties of the North Caucasian public organisations with this republic, caused a sharp reaction from the KGNK. The leaders of the KGNK stated that, if the authorities tried to resist the formation of volunteer-detachments by military force, “then military operations will be deployed here ...” [1, p. 26].
The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria acquired an "explosive" character. The entry of a significant contingent of internal troops and special police units (OMON) was perceived by a part of the population as a measure of the federal authorities to counter the movement in support of the people of Abkhazia.
On 12 September 1992, at a meeting of the KKN, a resolution “On the Socio-political Aituation in the KBR” was adopted. The resolution says that the KKN considered the introduction of special-forces’ battalions into the territory of the republic unreasonable and qualified their actions as "insulting the dignity of citizens". It is noted that the KKN demanded the withdrawal of all special-purpose battalions of internal troops from the territory of the republic.
On 24 September 1992 in Nalchik near Government House there began an indefinite rally organised by Kabardian public organisations. The rally was attended by thousands of residents of the KBR (mainly Kabardian settlements) and representatives of neighbouring republics. The protesters demanded of the leadership of the republic the release of the arrested President of KGNK Musa (Yuri) Shanibov and appearances on air of the KKN and Adyghe Khase. Attempts by law-enforcement agencies to disperse the protesters were unsuccessful. On 26 and 27 September, in a number of districts of the city of Nalchik, protesters clashed with units of the internal troops (VV) and special police units (OMON), who used tear-gas and then firearms. There were wounded on both sides. The transfer of army-units to the KBR continued. In Nalchik, in Government House, the special "Alpha" forces of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation were located. Supporters of the Kabardian national movement blocked roads and the airport in Nalchik. As the situation worsened, the number of protesters increased [1, p. 28]. They put forward demands: to withdraw units of the VV riot-police and OMON special forces from the territory of the KBR; to remove the president of the KBR V.M. Kokov; to dissolve the Supreme Council of the KBR; to re-elect the Central Election Commission of the KBR; to launch a campaign to collect signatures to terminate the Federative Treaty of the KBR with the Russian Federation, etc. The rally in Nalchik was supported in neighbouring republics. Rallies demanding the release of the president of the KGNK began in Cherkessk and Maykop [1, p. 29].
The situation was becoming critical. Only as a result of long and extremely difficult negotiations between the leadership of the KBR and Kabardian public organisations on 1 October 1992 was an agreement was reached providing for the termination of the open-ended rally, the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the KBR before 1 December 1992, and the withdrawal of units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and special forces from the territory of the republic. In those days, the KBR was on the verge of civil war. The situation was saved by Yuri Kalmykov, authoritative public figure, scholar and later appointed Minister of Justice of Russia. He played the role of mediator and a kind of "lightning rod", thereby saving the face of both the authorities and the leaders of the opposition. The inevitable managed to be avoided [2, p. 51]. The rally did not disperse until Yu.M. Shanibov was released on 27 September and arrived in Nalchik, where he addressed the protesters.
The agreement between the authorities of the KBR and the opposition was that the authorities should provide humanitarian and political support to Abkhazia and turn a blind eye to the activities of the opposition in terms of organising a volunteer-movement. President of the KGNK Confederation and leader of the KKN Musa Shanibov himself left the republic in the autumn of 1992 and went to Abkhazia, where he continued his political activities, leading the KGNK. On 4 October, the open-ended rally in Nalchik dispersed.
The rallies and demonstrations consisting of many thousands that took place in August-September 1992 in the republics of the North Caucasus, especially the protests in Nalchik, which were accompanied by clashes with internal troops and which exacerbated the situation to the limit, demonstrated to the leadership of Georgia and the world-community the determination of the North Caucasian peoples to provide real assistance to the victims of aggression, namely the people of Abkhazia [1, p. 29]. In general, the KBR, along with the Chechen Republic, remained throughout the war one of the main rear bases, serving a humanitarian role and as a centre for organising the volunteer-movement.
From that time, the authorities no longer tried to impede the volunteer-movement or to aggravate relations with national public organisations. Every time when there was an aggravation of the military-political situation through the fault of Georgia, the ICA [International Circassian Association] reserved the right to appeal to the Circassian people with a request to mobilise volunteers. Thus, in response to the mobilisation of the population announced in Georgia, the ICA Executive Committee at its meeting on 10 November 1992 in Maykop issued a declaration: “The International Circassian Association considers it necessary to warn that, in the event of a repeated escalation of military operations by Georgia in Abkhazia, it will be forced to re-announce the formation of volunteer-detachments and provide the fraternal Abkhazian people with all the assistance they need” [5, p. 32].
A barbaric action in Abkhazia produced a wide public outcry in the KBR: on 14 December 1992, Georgian units shot down a Russian helicopter with a surface-to-air missile – it was carrying out a humanitarian mission to evacuate refugees, sick, wounded, women and children from the besieged city of Tkvarchal. As a result, 58 people died, including 13 women and 20 children. Among the dead were three Kabardian volunteers who were taking part in the evacuation of the refugees. A funeral-meeting was held in Nalchik [1, p. 31].
At a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation on 24 December 1992 V.Zh. Mastafov, a deputy from the KBR, made a speech on behalf of a group of deputies of the North Caucasian republics as well as of the leaders of the Republic of Abkhazia. Addressing the President of the Russian Federation B.N. Yeltsin, he noted that the foreign Circassian (Adyghe) and Abkhazian diasporas were providing assistance to the people of Abkhazia, including sending volunteers to participate in hostilities as part of the Armed Forces of Abkhazia. He also stated: “And it is quite natural that inaction on the part of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation has provoked a new wave of mobilisation of compatriot-volunteers not only from Turkey but also from the republics of the North Caucasus, ready to fight for the just cause of the Abkhazians. Literally the other day, after the tragedy with the Russian helicopter, I received information from the leadership of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adyghea and Karachay-Cherkessia that mobilisation of volunteers has begun again in these republics” [1, p. 31].
On 27 February 1993, a meeting of representatives of the national-democratic movements, public and socio-political organisations of the republics, territories and regions of the North Caucasus was held in Nalchik, dedicated to the situation in Abkhazia. The meeting was attended by 66 organisations of the North Caucasus region. Documents were adopted at the meeting – a resolution, a statement, an appeal to the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin and Chairman of the RF Armed Forces Ruslan Khasbulatov, UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali. They contained a call to stop the war in Abkhazia, cut off economic ties with Georgia, recognise the independence of Abkhazia, etc. The resolution of the meeting contained the following fundamental points:
- " Recognise the entry of the Armed Forces of Georgia into the territory of Abkhazia as an act of military aggression on the part of the Republic of Georgia against Abkhazia, and the actions carried out by them in the occupied territory as genocide of the Abkhazian people.
- “Two. Demand the immediate withdrawal of Georgian troops, without any conditions, from the territory of Abkhazia. Otherwise, the peoples of the North Caucasus will consider themselves obliged to expand their assistance, including military assistance, to the fraternal Abkhazian people” [1, p. 32].
In connection with the aggravation of the situation in Abkhazia and the special measures taken by the leadership of Georgia in March 1993, ICA President Yuri Kalmykov sent a telegram to Eduard Shevardnadze, to whom it was stated in particular: “It has become known from the mass-media that in connection with the aggravation of the situation in Abkhazia, a general mobilisation of reservists in Georgia is expected. The ICA Executive Committee considers this measure to be an error and extremely dangerous. If it is implemented, the ICA will be forced to appeal to the entire Circassian (Adyghe) people, including the five millionth Circassian diaspora, to stand up for the fraternal Abkhazian people in order to save them from genocide” [1, p. 33].
On 27 July 1993, a ceasefire-agreement in Abkhazia was signed in Sochi. The document, signed by representatives of the leadership of Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia, provided for the withdrawal from the territory of Abkhazia of Georgian troops and armed formations, groups and individuals located in the conflict-zone within 10-15 days from the date of the ceasefire.
It was also planned to use international observers and peacekeeping forces in the conflict-zone [1, p. 35].
However, the truce did not last long. Fulfilling the Sochi Agreement, on 17 August 1993, the leadership of the Republic of Abkhazia sent groups of North Caucasian volunteers to their homeland. At the same time, according to the RA Ministry of Defence, the Georgian leadership left more than 80% of its military equipment in the occupied territory of Abkhazia and continued to import ammunition. Officers and soldiers of the Georgian Armed Forces were re-registered as police- and commandant-officers. During August, the Georgian side repeatedly violated the terms of the truce and opened fire on Abkhazian positions. These actions were regarded by the Abkhazian side as a demonstration of the unwillingness of the Georgian leadership to implement the Sochi agreement [1, p. 35].
On 14 September 1993, on the initiative of the KKN and Adyghe Khase, a press-conference was held in Nalchik with the participation of representatives of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Abkhazia and representatives of the leadership of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic. A joint-statement of the Executive Committee of the KKN and Adyghe Khase was announced, which contained an appeal to the President of the Russian Federation B.N. Yeltsin - "to take all necessary measures to ensure that Georgia fulfils its obligations" [1, p. 36–37].
The statement notes: “The Kabardian people and their valiant sons will never leave our Abkhazian brothers in trouble. If hostilities resume due to the fault of the Georgian side, then the volunteer-movement in Kabardino-Balkaria will take on an even wider scope. The KKN and Adyghe Khase will appeal to all socio-political and national-patriotic movements of the North Caucasus with an appeal to resume the volunteer-movement and the provision of humanitarian assistance in Abkhazia" [1, p. 37].
In the then-current impasse, the leadership of the Republic of Abkhazia was forced to resume the fight against the occupying forces. At dawn on 16 September 1993, units of the armed forces of the Republic of Abkhazia went on the offensive [1, p. 37].
On the initiative of the KKN and Adyghe Khase, on 20 September an open-ended rally began in Nalchik in support of the people of Abkhazia fighting aggression. [1, p. 38]. Volunteers went to Abkhazia after taking part in the rally. During the week, about 150 volunteers went to the places of hostilities.
The participants of the open-ended rally also adopted a resolution (21 September 1993). The resolution contained calls: to the peoples of the KBR, to the heads of regional and city-organisations and enterprises, calling on them to strengthen the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of Abkhazia; and to all volunteers "regarding an immediate return to Abkhazia and continuation of the armed struggle against the Georgian fascists to the bitter end" [1, p. 38].
The open-ended rally in Nalchik and other actions in support of the people of Abkhazia, which took place in the KBR and other republics of the North Caucasus, ended after 27 September 1993, when a message was received about the victory of the armed forces of the Republic of Abkhazia over the troops of the aggressor [1, p. 39].
The mass volunteer movement in support of the Abkhazian people has no analogues across the post-Soviet space in the recent history of the 20thcentury.
Among the factors that determined the mass-character and strength of the volunteer-movement are:
- The volunteer-movement did not emerge out of nothing; its appearance was facilitated by the huge preparatory work of public organisations (Ajdgylara of the Republic of Abkhazia, Adyghe Khase of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the Republic of Adyghea, the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, the Congress of the Kabardian People, the International Circassian Association, the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus ) and specific individuals (Musa Shanibov, Yusup Soslanbekov, Issa Arsamikov, Gennadi Alamia, Guram Gumba, Khamzat Khankarov, Denga Khalidov, Ruslan Gvashev, Amin Zekhov, Ibragim Naurzhanov, etc.) in the pre-war period (from 1989 to 1992).
- The justice of the struggle of the Abkhazian people against aggression and the imperial, unitary policy of the Georgian state became the moral and psychological basis for the participation of volunteers in the war. The concepts of truth and justice inherent in the mentality of the North Caucasian peoples became one of the motives for participation in the war. The youth of the Caucasus, and the volunteers, according to statistical data, were mainly young people, marked by a keenly felt sense of justice. At the same time, they did not feel hatred or enmity towards Georgia and Georgians. The ancient history of the Caucasus, its customs and traditions created a certain archetype and specific phenomena within social life – the functions of protecting national honour and dignity, speaking out against the arbitrariness of the strong over the weak.
- The desire of the North Caucasian peoples for national independence, the spirit of freedom they have preserved, is also a factor in the mass-participation in these events. The freedom and independence of the Abkhazian people was considered by the leaders and active participants in the national movements of the North Caucasus to be an important precedent that could later become a model and example of the independent existence and state-building of the small peoples of the North Caucasus.
- The phenomenon of the role of the individual in history played an important role. The personalities of Vladislav Ardzinba and Yuri Kalmykov were accepted and recognised as national leaders of the Abkhazian and Circassian peoples. No less important was the role of the personal qualities of Sultan Sosnaliev and Yuri (Musa) Shanibov, the former as a military leader, the latter as a politician and ideologist.
- The absence of a confessional orientation in this war ensured the support and participation in it of volunteers not only of the North Caucasian peoples, but also representatives of the Cossacks, Russian and other peoples from different regions of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.
The massive nature of the volunteer-movement in the North Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation forced both the leadership of these republics and the political leadership of the Russian Federation to change their attitude towards the conflict.
The prolongation of the war in the conditions of limited human, military-technical, material-, and food-resources of Abkhazia, coupled with a significant superiority of Georgia according to these indicess, and also coupled with a complete blockade of Abkhazia by Russia, could have rendered the outcome of this conflict different. The broad and powerful (political, material, military) support of the peoples of the North Caucasus, primarily the Circassian and Chechen ethnic groups in the Caucasus, as well as the Abkhaz-Adyghe diaspora, in the form of organising the volunteer-movement did not allow the then-Russian leadership to blockade Abkhazia, leaving the Abkhazian people face to face with the aggressor. There was a real threat, if not of the defeat of Abkhazia in the war then of the freezing of this conflict for many years, with the occupation of the eastern regions of the republic, in line with the Cypriot scenario.
A frozen, unresolved conflict would have allowed the Russian Federation to keep Georgia in its sphere of influence and prevent its withdrawal from the CIS. In this regard, military victory by either side did not seem expedient.
Volunteer-detachments played an important role in the first period of the war. This made it possible during that time (from August to November 1992) to create a fully fledged Abkhazian army. In the offensive operations carried out during that period, the proportion of volunteer-detachments was at least half.
Right up to the present time, there is no consensus among scholars and the public of the republics of the North Caucasus regarding the significance of the assistance provided by the peoples of the North Caucasus to the people of Abkhazia in the fight against aggression. Supporters of the skeptical approach argue that this assistance was not significant and could not influence the course of events in Abkhazia. Supporters of the opposite point of view believe that the fate of Abkhazia was largely decided in the North Caucasus [1, p. 90].
In this matter, one should take into account the opinions of both the participants in the events – the volunteers and representatives of the leadership of Abkhazia. According to the results of a 2008 survey conducted in the KBR, the question: “How significant was the political, moral and humanitarian support for Abkhazia from the KBR and other North Caucasian republics?”, 96% of the combatants answered that without this support Abkhazia would not have been able to repel the aggression, whilst 4% found it difficult to answer. Regarding the significance of the participation of North Caucasian volunteers in hostilities, 95% of respondents noted that without the participation of North Caucasian volunteers, the people of Abkhazia would have been defeated, and 5% indicated that the participation of North Caucasian volunteers in military operations hastened the victory of the people of Abkhazia [1, p. 91].
At the same time, all the interviewed volunteers noted that the victory in the war was undoubtedly won by the people of Abkhazia. The political and moral support provided to Abkhazia by the peoples of the North Caucasus, as well as the participation of North Caucasian volunteers in hostilities, hastened the victory of the people of Abkhazia [1, p. 91].
Lieutenant General S.A. Sosnaliev believed: “The role of the North Caucasian volunteers in the victory of the people of Abkhazia was significant, and especially in moral and psychological terms. Their very appearance in Abkhazia helped raise the spirit of the Abkhazian militia. No less important was the political and humanitarian aid to the people of Abkhazia, which came from the republics of the North Caucasus” [1, p. 91].
The position of the Abkhazian leadership on this issue was expressed by the President of the Republic of Abkhazia Vladislav Ardzinba in his report at the II World Congress of the Abkhaz-Abazinian (Abaza) people on 24–27 July 1994: “The reaction to the events in Abkhazia in the North Caucasus broke through the information-blockade and contributed to a change in official Russia’s attitude towards us. But this help was not only moral, although the thousands-strong rallies in Nalchik, the broadcasting of the meetings of the parliament of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, the speeches of its leaders ..., the leaders of other social movements of the Caucasus and the South of Russia instilled courage and faith in the defenders of Abkhazia; but it was also direct – in the form of the participation of volunteers, representatives of the peoples of the North Caucasus, the South of Russia – Cossacks, Russians ... We are rightfully proud of the heroism and courage of the entire multinational people of Abkhazia, but the dedication and feat of our volunteer-brethren should be doubly and triply appreciated. Many of them entered the land of Abkhazia for the first time but fought for it as well as they would have done for their homeland" [1, p. 91–92].
In summation, it should be noted that there can be no doubt that the victory in the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993 was won by the people of Abkhazia. Without exaggerating or underestimating the importance of the participation of the North Caucasian volunteers in the hostilities as part of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia, one can agree with the above point of view that it was really timely and effective and that it contributed to the victory of the people of Abkhazia. The very fact of the North Caucasian volunteers’ non-compulsory and disinterested participation in the hostilities in order to assist the numerically small people of Abkhazia who were being subjected to aggression, coupled with the nobility and heroism they displayed, is a striking phenomenon in the recent history of the Caucasus [1, p. 92].
- Kushkhabiev, A.V.: Kabardian volunteers in the Georgian-Abkhazian war 1992–1993. Nalchik. Publishing-house of M. and V. Kotljarov. 2008.
- Khalidov D.Sh.: The North Caucasus in the Patriotic War of Abkhazia (1992–1993). Sukhum. 2014.
- Khagba L.R.: Their Souls are Melting over the Mountains... An Essay on the Volunteers of the North Caucasus, Participants in the Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-1993. Sukhum, 2013.
- Keshtov T.M., Tsulaja G.V. (Compilers): Volunteers in the Patriotic War of Abkhazia (1992–1993). Documents and Materials. Sukhum. 2014.
- I[nternational] C[ircassian] A[ssociation] 1991–2011. Collection of Documents. Nalchik. Tetragraf. 2011.
First published on Abkhazia.co.uk