Audi alteram partem

Origins and Evolutions of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, by Stephen D. Shenfield

Eduard Shevardnadze (left) and Vladislav Ardzinba - Georgian - Abkhaz Conflict

Eduard Shevardnadze (left) and Vladislav Ardzinba

In this paper* I trace the emergence and evolution of the Georgian—Abkhaz conflict up to the invasion of Abkhazia by Georgian forces on August 14, 1992. I try to pinpoint the most crucial events and causative factors, and to infer the likely motives and calculations of the parties to the conflict.

Section I is an analytical narrative, subdivided into the following seven periods: 

1) The period before the Russian occupation of Abkhazia (up to 1810);
2) The tsarist period (1810—1917);
3) The period of independent Georgia (1917—1921);
4) The early Soviet period (1921—1936);
5) The period of the Stalin--Beria terror (December 1936—1953);
6) The post-Stalin period (1953—1985);
7) The period of perestroika and post-Soviet transition (1986—August 1992).

Section II is devoted to the decision taken in summer 1992 by the State Council of Georgia, headed by Shevardnadze, to intervene militarily in Abkhazia: the likely motives and goals of the Georgian leadership, the direct trigger of the decision (if any), and whether and how the decision might have been averted by preventive diplomacy. Also considered is the related question of why the intervention occurred during the presidency of Shevardnadze rather than during that of Gamsakhurdia.

In Section III I share some general reflections concerning the failures of perception and calculation on both sides that contributed to the escalation of the conflict to large-scale violence.



1) The period before the Russian occupation of Abkhazia (up to 1810)

Since ancient times, the Abkhaz have been in the somewhat unusual position of participating simultaneously in two otherwise quite separate systems of cultural and political interaction.

On the one hand, the Abkhaz are closely related by descent, language, and folk culture to the Circassian (Adyg) tribes of the Northwest Caucasus. Abkhazia may therefore be regarded as a southward extension of Circassia, with the land of the Ubykh (prior to their deportation by Russia in the 1860s) serving as a connecting bridge between the two. Although the Abkhaz are now the only Adyg-related group remaining on the southern side of the Great Caucasus Range, there is evidence that in prehistoric times a proto-Adyg culture stretched much further to the south, into what is now northern Turkey (Chirikba 1998). The Abkhaz have a broader though less intense linguistic and cultural affinity—reflected, for instance, in the shared heritage of the Nart epics—with the “mountain peoples” of the North Caucasus as a whole—that is, including the Ossets, Nakh (Chechen and Ingush), and native peoples of Dagestan as well as the Adyg. Thus, the Abkhaz are the sole “mountain people” of the South Caucasus, tucked into the northwest corner of that region, where the mountains meet the sea.

On the other hand, although Abkhaz was quite unrelated to the languages of the Kartvelian group that later evolved into modern standard Georgian, the geographical proximity of the Abkhaz to the Kartvelian (proto-Georgian) tribes, especially to the Megrels (Mingrels) and Svans, led them—or, more precisely, their nobility—to take full part in the culture and politics of the area that would in time come to be called Georgia. When not under foreign (non-Kartvelian) domination, Abkhazia was one of the dozen or so local principalities of this area that closely interacted and often fought with one another, constituting a more or less self-contained states system. The Abkhaz nobility became integrated not only into the proro-Georgian states system, but also into the corresponding proto-Georgian culture, using the proto-Georgian (Kartlian) language for purposes of diplomacy, Christian religious liturgy, and literature. The bilingualism of the ruling dynasty was reflected in its dual names: Chachba in Abkhaz, Shervashidze in Georgian. Abkhaz in this period was the unwritten language of the common people.

This dual orientation of the Abkhaz, it seems to me, always contained the potential for long-term conflict between the Abkhaz and their Kartvelian neighbors (as distinct from the wars that all the proto-Georgian principalities intermittently waged against one another). If the initiative for Georgia’s unification had come consistently from the eastern kingdoms of Kartli and/or Kakheti, then Abkhazia’s cultural and linguistic connections with the North Caucasus would have made it a natural focus of resistance to east-Georgian domination.

This, however, was not how the process of the unification of Georgia developed. In fact, the first state to unite most of what now constitutes Georgia (plus some areas that are now outside of Georgia) was a product of the diplomatic and military “eastern policy” of Abkhazia itself. This state, which lasted from 978 until the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century, was called the Kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians; its first king, Bagrat III, was the son of a Kartlian prince and an Abkhazian princess (Bgazhba 1998). At this time, the terms “Abkhazia” and “Abkhazians” were used to refer to the whole of the Abkhaz-Kartvelian kingdom and its inhabitants (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 173). Following the demise of the joint kingdom, the system of local principalities was restored and remained in place right up until the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.

2) The tsarist period (1810—1917)

Subjugation and resistance

Tsarist Russia annexed the east Georgian principalities of Kartli and Kakheti in 1800. The turn of the west Georgian principalities came a few years later. In 1810 Russian vessels in the Black Sea bombarded the fortress at Sukhum(i)1 and followed up with a naval landing. Simultaneously, Russian troops entered Abkhazia from neighboring Megrelia, by this time a client kingdom of Russia. The purpose of the invasion was to enthrone Seferbey, a rebel Abkhaz prince who had taken refuge in Megrelia. Russian historiography, as one might expect, characterizes the episode as the “voluntary entry” of Abkhazia into the Russian state. In fact, virtually all Abkhaz were opposed to incorporation into Russia and continued to recognize Seferbey’s half-brother Aslanbey as the legitimate ruler, despite a Russian-Megrel plot to frame him as a parricide.

Recurrent uprisings against the rule of Russia and its puppet princes were harshly suppressed, and in the 1850s and 1860s many Abkhaz joined the Circassian struggle against Russian conquest. In 1864 Russia abolished the formally autonomous Abkhaz principality and placed Abkhazia under direct military administration. New uprisings followed in 1866, and then again in 1877—78, coinciding with the war between Russia and Turkey, which backed the Abkhaz rebels. The suppression of the uprisings was accompanied by the forcible deportation of much of the Abkhaz population—perhaps as many as 100,000 people in all—to the Ottoman Empire, leaving uninhabited large tracts of land amounting to almost half the area of Abkhazia (Lak’oba 1998; for a detailed study of the deportations, see Dzidzariya 1975). Only after this did armed resistance to Russian rule finally come to an end, and the Abkhaz start to accept the absorption of their country into the empire.

What effect did this long period of resistance and subjugation, lasting two thirds of a century, have on subsequent relations between Abkhaz and Kartvelians? During this period the Abkhaz still regarded Russia, and not the Kartvelian principalities, as their main enemy and tormentor. However, they must have resented the role played in their conquest by Princess Nina, the ruler of Megrelia, who had hosted the traitor Seferbey and from whose territory the land invasion had been launched. Moreover, the general in command of the invading troops, Orbeliani, was a Megrel. This may have planted the seeds of later enmity between Abkhaz and Megrels, if not between Abkhaz and Kartvelians in general.

Emergence of the Russia—Georgia—Abkhazia triangle

During the last few decades of the tsarist period, there occurred a gradual transformation of what had at the outset been almost exclusively an Abkhaz-Russian confrontation into a primarily Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. This transformation accompanied the socioeconomic and political consolidation, under the aegis of tsarist Russia, of the various Kartvelian groups into the modern Georgian nation (Suny 1994). The question at issue was whether or not Abkhazia would form part of the incipient Georgian nation—the very question that remains at issue today. Despite the legacy of hostility between them, with respect to this question the Abkhaz and the Russian authorities were to find themselves on the same side, in opposition to the nascent Georgian national movement. Thus, relations within the Russia—Georgia—Abkhazia triangle acquired the basic pattern that they retain to this day.

Nevertheless, at least until the last few years of the tsarist regime, the Abkhaz continued to suffer severe oppression and discrimination. The whole Abkhaz people was officially labeled “guilty of treason” for collaborating with Turkey in the war of 1877—78; only in 1907 was this stigma finally removed. Abkhaz were forbidden to live in the three main towns of Abkhazia (Sukhum(i), Gudauta, and Ochamchira) or within seven kilometers of the seashore, and Abkhaz peasants were deprived of their right to personal plots of land (Lak’oba 1985, p. 8). Deportations to Turkey also continued, although on a smaller scale. Meanwhile, people from all over the empire resettled the vacant land that used to belong to the exiled Abkhaz. In 1897 the Abkhaz constituted just over half the population of Abkhazia, and by the early 20th century they had been reduced to a minority in their own homeland (Muller 1998). Abkhazia had been transformed from a mostly mono-ethnic territory into the complex multi-ethnic patchwork it has been ever since.

The growth in anti-Georgian feeling among the Abkhaz in the late 19th century was connected to the fact that a growing proportion of the new settlers on what the Abkhaz still regarded as “their” lands were Georgians, mainly land-hungry peasants from Megrelia, Guria, Imereti, and other densely populated lowland districts of western Georgia. The tsarist authorities tried to limit Georgian migration into Abkhazia, preferring to resettle the vacated lands with Russians and other non-Georgians, such as Armenians, Greeks, and Estonians, but progress toward this goal was slow because newcomers to the region, unlike peasants from western Georgia, found it difficult to adapt to the peculiar natural and climatic conditions: the low-lying areas were subtropical swamps (later drained), while the mountain slopes were hard to cultivate. (Russians, Armenians, and Greeks did, however, settle in considerable numbers in the towns, forming the bulk of Abkhazia’s urban population.) Paradoxically, therefore, Russia, persecutor of the Abkhaz, assumed the role of their defender against Georgian incursions.

Although the migration of peasants from western Georgia into Abkhazia was a spontaneous response to economic pressures, Abkhaz historians point out that Georgian publicists encouraged the process and tried to persuade the Russian government to allow it to proceed without constraint. In 1877, for example, the Tiflis Herald published an article by Yakob Gogebashvili (1840—1912), who was well known as a campaigner for Georgian-language education, entitled “Who Should Be Settled in Abkhazia?” His answer was: Megrels. Lak’oba remarks bitterly that the article appeared at a time “when the Abkhaz were bleeding profusely and forced in masses to leave their homeland.” Those who should have felt sympathy thought only of how to take advantage of others’ misfortune: as the Abkhaz proverb puts it, “a snake bit the one who fell out of the tree” (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 175). The attitude of individuals like Gogebashvili should be understood in its historical and international context: the late 19th century was the heyday of colonialism and members of “cultured” peoples, with few exceptions, believed that they had a natural right to colonize the lands of less cultured peoples. Georgians tended (and still tend) to regard themselves as more cultured than Abkhaz.

What developed after 1877 may be understood as a struggle for the eventual control over Abkhazia between tsarist Russia and the incipient Georgian national movement. The struggle did not yet, as it would at a later stage, take the form of a confrontation between Russia and Georgian nationalists demanding an independent Georgia including Abkhazia. Indeed, the Georgian proto-nationalist publicists of the time made great play with the argument that in view of the Georgians’ special loyalty to Russia it was in Russia’s true interest to facilitate expansion of the Georgian demographic, economic, and cultural presence in Abkhazia. The reluctance of the Russian authorities to comply with Georgian wishes suggests that they had their doubts concerning the Georgians’ loyalty and sought to impede the development of a Georgian national movement that might later take an openly secessionist form.

Language and culture

Another sphere of Russian-Georgian rivalry was the competition between Russian and Georgian political, cultural, and religious elites for influence over the linguistic situation in Abkhazia. In accordance with the general policy of Russification pursued by the tsarist regime, the Russian authorities aimed to create in Abkhazia a multi-ethnic community that would rely on Russian as its lingua franca. Meanwhile, Georgian cultural activists strove to strengthen the position of the Georgian language, in Abkhazia as in Georgia proper. A common assumption on the part of both Russians and Georgians was that Abkhaz, as the unwritten language of a culturally backward and almost wholly rural people, was doomed to disappear. The only question was which language would replace it—Georgian or Russian (Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, p. 11).

The tsarist authorities were nonetheless prepared to tolerate and even facilitate the use of Abkhaz in churches and schools. The first successful attempt to establish a school in Abkhazia had been made at Okum in 1851 by D. A. Mach’avariani, a teacher and priest from western Georgia (Dzidzariya 1979, p. 24), and the authorities wanted to thwart efforts to Georgianize the Abkhaz. True, the use in education of all native non-Russian languages, Abkhaz included, was severely restricted. Instruction in native languages became possible when Tsar Alexander II introduced a liberal school reform in the 1860s. New instructions issued in 1906--1907, however, confined native-language instruction to the first two years of elementary school; older children had to be taught in Russian. Nevertheless, teaching in Abkhaz was regarded with greater favor than teaching in Georgian.

There was a similar dispute over the language to be used in church services in Abkhazia. This dispute was part and parcel of a wider struggle between the Georgian and the Russian Orthodox Church for the control of churches in Abkhaz villages.

Thus, it became common for Russian officials to don the mantle of protectors and patrons of Abkhaz language and culture. The army general Baron Pyotr K. Uslar was the first Russian to make a serious study of the Abkhaz language; it was he who, in 1860 or thereabouts, devised the first Abkhaz alphabet of 55 characters based on Cyrillic script. In 1865 another Russian scholar and military officer, I. A. Bartolomei, composed the first Abkhaz reading book for use in schools.

Linked to the growth of Abkhaz-language education was the emergence of a very small Abkhaz intelligentsia, consisting mainly though not exclusively of educators (Dzidzariya 1979). A landmark in this process was the First Congress of Teachers of Abkhazia, held in Sukhum(i) in 1876. Abkhaz educational and cultural development was set back by the war and uprising of 1877—78 and by the repressions and deportations that followed. Many schools were closed or destroyed. The surviving Abkhaz intelligentsia recovered only slowly.

The development of a modern Abkhaz culture and national intelligentsia was therefore underway, but the process was still at a very early stage at the end of the tsarist era. In March 1917, the Georgian philologist I. A. Kipshidze would condescendingly remark: “The Abkhaz already have their own literature, religious and secular—true, a very poor one, but deserving of greater attention all the same” (Dzidzariya 1979, p. 195). Right up to 1912, Abkhaz-language literature consisted only of elementary school textbooks (the first arithmetic book, by Foma (Omar) Eshba, was printed in 1907), translations of church prayers, catechism, and homilies, and a few collections of Abkhaz songs, proverbs, puzzles, and word games. Finally, in 1912, there appeared the first work of original Abkhaz literature—a collection of verses by Dyrmit Gulia (1874—1960), who is still honored as the Abkhaz national poet. A college to train teachers for Abkhaz-language schools opened in 1915.

+ JRL - The Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict: Past, Present, Future (May, 2004)
+ The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953, by Stephen D. Shenfield
+ Reflections on the history of Georgian and Abkhaz identity, by Stephen Shenfield
+ The roots of the conflict, by Bruno Coppieters
+ Abkhazia: a problem of identity and ownership, by George B. Hewitt - Central Asian Survey

Abkhaz, Georgians, and the revolutionary movement

Toward the end of the 19th century, some members of the new Abkhaz intelligentsia helped to establish the presence of the All-Russian revolutionary movement in Abkhazia. When the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party split into Bolshevik and Menshevik wings in 1903, the majority of the Georgian social democrats aligned themselves with the Mensheviks, while most of the Abkhaz social democrats became Bolsheviks.

The Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lak’oba has offered contradictory assessments of the relationship that developed between the revolutionary movement and the Abkhaz people as a whole. He argues that Marxism and class struggle were alien to the Abkhaz mentality, and that the Abkhaz peasants distrusted the revolutionary movement in general and the revolution of 1905—1907 in particular as “Georgian” phenomena. He proceeds to accept at face value the proclamation of April 27, 1907 in which Tsar Nicholas II annulled the “guilt” of the Abkhaz people in recognition of the loyalty that they had shown to the government (Lak’oba 1998, pp. 85—6). In his earlier book on Abkhazia in 1905—1907, however, Lak’oba devotes considerable space to the uprisings and rent strikes of the Abkhaz peasants at this period (Lak’oba 1985, pp. 43, 82-5, 101). In the Abkhaz village of Lykhny, for instance, peasants attacked the building of the village administration on February 8, 1907 and burned all the tax and debt records they could find there. It is much more plausible to suppose that the tsar abolished Abkhaz “guilt” and the discrimination that it justified not as a reward for good behavior but as a concession to Abkhaz discontent. At the same time, the urban unrest of 1905, in which Georgian workers played the main role, may have strengthened the anti-Georgian orientation of the authorities and prompted them to more consistent efforts to win the loyalty of the Abkhaz by posing as their defenders against the Georgians.

3) The period of independent Georgia (1917—1921)

When Russia imploded in 1917, an independent Georgian state emerged under Menshevik rule while the central government in Moscow temporarily disappeared as an actor in the region’s politics. The gradual transformation of the original Russian-Abkhaz conflict into a Georgian-Abkhaz conflict thereby reached completion.

In May 1917, Abkhazia joined the North Caucasian republics in the Union of Mountain Peoples, later reconstituted as the North Caucasian Republic, or the Mountain Republic for short (Lak’oba 1998, pp. 89--90). In this way, the majority of members of the political representative body of the Abkhaz, the Abkhaz People’s Council (APC), took an apparent opportunity to be rid of both Russia and Georgia and return to the ethno-cultural roots of their people. In April and May 1918, a short-lived Soviet regime existed in Abkhazia (or at least in Sukhum(i)).

On June 8, 1918, a delegation of the APC that was in Tbilisi for talks with the Georgian government signed a treaty of union with Georgia. Abkhaz historians claim that the treaty was invalid because the delegation had not been empowered to sign it. Ostensibly in order to prevent the possible entry into Abkhazia of Turkish, White Russian, or Bolshevik forces, the Georgian government deployed troops along the coastal strip of Abkhazia. Although most Abkhaz regarded these troops as a force of occupation and abuses were committed against the civilian population, Abkhaz political and cultural activity was not suppressed. In fact, important new developments occurred in Abkhaz cultural life: Samson Chanba established an Abkhaz theater and the first newspaper in Abkhaz (Apsny) appeared under the editorship of Dyrmit Gulia (Pachulina 1976, pp. 31—2).

The Georgian government repeatedly expressed a willingness in principle to allow for some kind of autonomy for Abkhazia within Georgia, and the Georgian Constitution of 1921 included a vague clause making provision for such autonomy in accordance with future legislation. That legislation was never adopted because before agreement could be reached on the matter with the (new) APC the Red Army invaded Georgia and Abkhazia, opening the era of Soviet rule.

4) The early Soviet period (1921—1936)

The period 1918—1921 has positive connotations for Georgian nationalists and negative ones for their Abkhaz counterparts. For the early Soviet period the position is exactly the opposite. Following the entry into Sukhum(i) of the Ninth Red Army in March 1921, Abkhazia was declared a Soviet Socialist Republic—that is, a full Union Republic, separate from and co-equal in status with Georgia. While for the Georgians the imposition of the Soviet regime meant the loss of precious independence, for the Abkhaz it represented if not independence (ultimate power resided in Moscow) then at least a much greater degree of autonomy than they had enjoyed since 1810. Moreover, predominantly Menshevik Georgia suffered much more intense repression than Abkhazia with its strong indigenous Bolshevik movement. Up to 10,000 people were executed following an attempted Georgian nationalist uprising in 1924.

Nevertheless, the formal status of Abkhazia within the Soviet Union was reduced by stages to a level more in keeping with its small size. In December 1921, the Abkhaz Bolsheviks who governed Abkhazia concluded, at the urging of Moscow, a “special union treaty” with Georgia. Under the terms of this treaty, Abkhazia was no longer separate from Georgia, but it remained a Union Republic with the autonomy corresponding to that status. In 1925 Abkhazia was able to adopt its own constitution.

The 1920s brought further cultural progress for the Abkhaz. An Abkhaz Scholarly Society was established in 1922 to study the history and customs of Abkhazia. In 1924 this society organized in Sukhum(i) the first congress for regional studies of the Black Sea coast and western Caucasus, attended by 70 delegates from Abkhazia and 105 delegates form other parts of the region. The final session, held under the ancient lime tree in the village of Lykhny, a sacred gathering place for the Abkhaz, was attended by 3,000 people from all over Abkhazia. Ancient religious symbolism was thereby used to consolidate a modern national consciousness.

Another noteworthy development was the creation in Sukhum(i) in 1925 of the Academy of Abkhaz Language and Literature, the first president of which was the Abkhaz educator and People’s Commissar of Education of Abkhazia A. M. Chochua. A key role in establishing this academy was played by the prominent Soviet philologist Academician Nikolai Marr,2 who had a strong interest in the languages of the Caucasus in general and in the Abkhaz language in particular (Pachulina 1976, pp. 32—3). In 1930 the academy was transformed into the Abkhaz Institute of Language, Literature, and History of the Academy of Sciences of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.3 In the 1980s this institute was to serve as an incubator of the Abkhaz nationalist movement, whose leader Vladislav Ardzinba was its director for a time.

In 1931, Abkhazia was reduced to the status of an Autonomous Republic within Georgia. In several Abkhaz villages there were mass protests against the abolition of the Union Republic, and also against forced collectivization. Although Lavrenti Beria, as head of the Georgian OGPU, mobilized a secret police detachment to suppress the protests, concessions were promised and the protests brought to an end without bloodshed. The incumbent Abkhaz leadership headed by Nest’or Lak’oba, who remained in office for another five years, retained substantial de facto autonomy. By referring to the special conditions prevailing in Abkhazia, they were able to halt collectivization, protect Abkhazia from mass repression, and even distribute financial allowances to Abkhaz princes and nobles (Lak’oba 1998, pp. 94--5). The tranquility of Abkhazia presented a remarkable contrast with the upheavals in the rest of the Soviet Union during these years.

5) The period of the Stalin--Beria terror (December 1936—1953)

The idyll came to an abrupt end in December 1936, when Beria—by this time Communist Party secretary for the whole South Caucasus—summoned Lak’oba to Tbilisi. Beria acquainted Lak’oba with a plan to resettle peasants from western Georgia in Abkhazia. Lak’oba refused to implement the plan. The next day Lak’oba died under mysterious circumstances; the condition of the corpse returned to his family suggested that he had been poisoned, perhaps by Beria personally (Lak’oba 1998, p. 95).

Thus began a period marked by the de facto elimination of Abkhaz autonomy, a reign of terror in which most of the Abkhaz political and intellectual elite perished, and the forcible Georgianization of Abkhazia and of the Abkhaz. Georgianization took two main forms. First, more Georgians were settled in Abkhazia, shifting the ethno-demographic balance further against the Abkhaz and breaking up remaining contiguous areas of Abkhaz habitation. Second, public use of the Abkhaz language was progressively restricted: Georgian place names replaced Abkhaz ones; Abkhaz writing, based since 1926 on the Latin alphabet, was switched to a version of Georgian script; radio broadcasting in Abkhaz ceased; and after the war Abkhaz was replaced by Georgian as the language of instruction in schools. The last of these measures left particularly painful memories in the minds of the generation of Abkhaz growing up at that time, for they were beaten if they spoke their native language and were forced to cope with a language of which they had no previous knowledge.

Research in Communist Party archives has shown that in implementing the policy of Georgianization Georgian bureaucrats in Abkhazia acted in general accordance with the directives of the central leadership in Moscow (Lezhava 1997, pp. 116—61). Georgianization in Abkhazia was merely the local application of a much broader policy aimed at the assimilation of ethnic minorities in all the Union Republics. True, the Georgian bureaucrats may have gone even further than they were required to. Thus, their instructions stipulated that teaching was no longer to be carried out in local minority languages like Abkhaz, but did not prohibit the teaching of such languages as special subjects. This loophole was not exploited: teaching of as well as in Abkhaz was suppressed. Nevertheless, responsibility lay primarily with Moscow, not Tbilisi. This, however, is not how Abkhaz tended to interpret the matter. They were inclined to blame “the Georgians.” A number of reasons can be suggested for this: the Georgian origin of Stalin and Beria, the simple fact that they were being subjected to Georgianization not Russification, and their positive experience in the preceding period, which predisposed them against blaming the Soviet system as such.

The bitterness against Georgians that originated in the late 1940s and early 1950s is an important factor underlying the escalation of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

6) The post-Stalin period (1953—1985)

Although a superficial appearance of interethnic harmony was maintained in the post-Stalin period, in fact there was constant latent and intermittent open tension in Abkhaz-Georgian relations at all levels—within the ruling party-state bureaucracy in Abkhazia, in cultural and educational institutions, and among ordinary people. Indicative of the atmosphere was the fact that at public meetings the audience would often cheer or hiss speakers, depending on which language they chose to use.4 The tension took on open expression during the waves of popular Abkhaz protest that occurred roughly every decade: in 1957, in 1965 and 1967, in 1978, and culminating in the first violent interethnic clashes in 1989.

Besides these intermittent bursts of popular protest, numerous attempts were made to protest through official bureaucratic channels. Petitions setting out Abkhaz grievances against the Georgian leadership flowed in an unending stream from groups of Abkhaz intellectuals to top party and state officials in Moscow.5 If the official concerned happened to sympathize with the Abkhaz, as some did, he might send inspectors to Abkhazia to check the accuracy of the allegations on the spot, and as a result pressure might be exerted on the party leaders in Tbilisi to improve the treatment of the Abkhaz. If the official was not sympathetic, he would follow the standard Soviet bureaucratic practice of forwarding complaints to the very authority against whom the complaint was directed—in this case, to the Georgian leaders themselves. The petitioners were then liable to be hauled over the coals for “slander.”

The situation of the Abkhaz in the post-Stalin period was never as bad as in the late Stalin period but never as good as in the early Soviet period. The worst persecutions of the Abkhaz did not recur, but neither did they regain the degree of autonomy they had enjoyed de jure up to 1931 or de facto up to 1936. Within this broad intermediate range, however, there were significant changes over time. In particular, the year 1978 marked a major turning point. From 1953 until 1978, the Georgian leadership in Tbilisi remained in firm control of Abkhazia and made only token concessions to Abkhaz interests. Educational and media provision in the Abkhaz language was on a very small scale. Even the question of restoring original Abkhaz place names that had been Georgianized under Stalin remained unresolved. After 1978, by contrast, the Abkhaz began to reacquire real autonomy, although this tendency encountered strong resistance both from a large part of the Georgian political and cultural elite in Tbilisi and from discontented Georgians in Abkhazia itself. It was at this period that the Abkhaz won such prized concessions as television broadcasting in Abkhaz and “their own” university—the Abkhaz State University, formed on the base of the Sukhum(i) Pedagogical Institute. This period also saw a steady rise in the share of management and government positions in Abkhazia that were occupied by ethnic Abkhaz, to a point well beyond the proportion of Abkhaz in the total population of the region, giving rise to fears among local Georgians of the emergence of an “ethnocratic regime.”

What happened in 1978 to bring about this shift was the third post-Stalin wave of popular protest for Abkhaz rights, led by a section of the Abkhaz cultural intelligentsia. The first two waves of protest (in 1957 and in 1965—1967) had yielded minimal results,6 but in 1978 Eduard Shevardnadze, at that time party leader in Georgia, responded to the protests by publicly acknowledging the need to correct nationalities policy in Abkhazia. He promised the protestors that all their demands would be granted except for one—namely, the demand that Abkhazia be transferred from Georgia to the Russian Federation. And on the whole Shevardnadze kept his promise. Only later did he backtrack somewhat, when “Abkhazization” gave rise to counter-protests by ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia (see below). It should be noted that in 1978 there were also Georgian nationalist protests in Tbilisi against a move by Moscow to deprive the Georgian language of its constitutional status; Shevardnadze responded in a conciliatory manner to these protests too and persuaded the central leadership to concede. So both Abkhaz and Georgians had reason to appreciate him.

Abkhaz discontent was aroused not only by substantive grievances but also by ostensibly scholarly disputes in the field of ethnic history. They were upset by the appearance in the press of articles in which Georgian historians claimed either that the Abkhaz were just another regional variety of Georgians (like the Megrels or Svans) or—on the contrary—that they were “newcomers” to Georgia who originated to the north of the Great Caucasus Range, implying that they were merely “guests” on Georgian land. (Some Georgian historians take the same view of the Ossets. The difference is that the Ossets really did migrate to Georgia from the northern slopes.) In 1979, on Shevardnadze’s initiative, a series of meetings was initiated between Georgian and Abkhaz historians in Borzhomi to encourage joint research and the development of a common historical narrative. Although these meetings did lead to the publication of several works on Abkhaz-Georgian relations, they did not achieve the goal set for them. The process remained dependent on the personal support of Shevardnadze, and when Gorbachev called him to Moscow in 1985 to become Soviet foreign minister the meetings came to a halt. Lezhava believes that Shevardnadze might have managed to prevent escalation of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict had be been allowed to remain in Georgia through the post-Soviet transition (Lezhava 1997, p. 217).

The post-1978 shift in the balance of ethnic power in Abkhazia led to a counter-reaction from local ethnic Georgians, who began to resort to the same means of pressure that had been used to such good effect by the Abkhaz. In 1980, a petition signed by no fewer than 338 “representatives of the Georgian population” was sent to Shevardnadze and Brezhnev, claiming that the new “anti-Georgian policy” had resulted in Abkhaz, many of them corrupt, occupying two thirds of all the nomenklatura positions in Abkhazia. In some places, popular protests by ethnic Georgians led to the replacement of newly installed Abkhaz local officials or managers by Georgians. There were also instances of individuals being physically assaulted apparently for ethnopolitical motives, although such cases were always publicly tried as non-political offenses (Lezhava 1997, pp. 220—25).

7) The period of perestroika and post-Soviet transition (1986—August 1992)

Perestroika in Abkhazia

The ethnic tensions that the Soviet political system in its pre-perestroika form had been able to muffle and contain (though not resolve) developed more freely and openly under the liberalized conditions of Gorbachev’s perestroika, especially in its second stage (from 1988 onward). Abkhaz and Georgian nationalist organizations were established, and massive demonstrations with ethnopolitical slogans became commonplace.

In December 1988 the Popular Forum of Abkhazia “Aidgylara” (the Abkhaz word for “unification”) was set up and soon became the main organizational vehicle of Abkhaz nationalism, although it brought together not only Abkhaz organizations but also organizations of Russians, Armenians, and other non-Georgian (and mainly Russian-speaking) groups. Its program demanded a Republic of Abkhazia, fully separate from Georgia, within a renewed Soviet federation. This goal was directly opposed to the main aim of all Georgian nationalist parties, which was a united Georgia including Abkhazia outside the Soviet Union.7

On March 18, 1989, with the support of Abkhaz party and government officials, “Aidgylara” held its first mass public meeting in the village of Lykhny, the traditional sacred gathering place of the Abkhaz people. A week later, on March 25, in response to the Lykhny meeting, Georgian nationalist organizations convened a mass public meeting of ethnic Georgians in Sukhum(i). Each meeting by one side provoked a counter-meeting by the other side. The increasingly tense though as yet non-violent confrontation in Abkhazia also served to heighten nationalist agitation in Georgia as a whole. One of the main demands at the mass Georgian nationalist demonstration in Tbilisi on April 9, which attracted attention throughout the Soviet Union and the world when its participants were gassed and beaten by shovels wielded by troops under the command of General Rodionov, was that Abkhazia should remain within Georgia.

The confrontation could not be expected to continue for long as such a level of intensity without spilling over into violence. The first violent clash between small groups of Georgians and Abkhaz occurred in Gagra as early as March 28 (Lezhava 1997, p. 247). Large-scale violence, however, did not erupt until mid-July.

The events of July 1989

Fighting broke out in Sukhum(i) on July 15. The issue that triggered the clashes was whether the Georgian-language sector of the Abkhaz State University, which consisted of three sectors using Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian, respectively, should be turned into a branch of Tbilisi State University (TSU).8 This seems at first sight a purely administrative question of secondary importance, for it did not affect the opportunity to study in any of the three languages. Many Abkhaz, however, feared that the new Georgian-language institution would divert funds from “their” Abkhaz State University and prove to be the first step toward closing it down. Live reporting in the media, and especially on television, may have further inflamed and spread the conflict (Lezhava 1997, p. 286).

The fighting began when Abkhaz protestors who were laying siege to a building where entrance examinations were being held for the TSU branch found themselves in turn surrounded by Georgian counter-protestors. At this site the fighting did not involve weapons. However, as it spread into the neighboring district and drew in more people, self-made weapons made their appearance: in particular, a wooden fence round a local park was pulled apart and used to make sharpened sticks. When news of the fighting reached other parts of Georgia, militias connected to Georgian nationalist organizations began to make their way into Abkhazia. What began as unorganized brawling between more or less equally matched crowds of local men started to acquire the character of a systematic pogrom conducted by large and well-armed Georgian forces, mostly from outside Abkhazia, against an almost defenseless Abkhaz population. Firearms were distributed to Georgian crowds, while Abkhaz passengers were pulled off buses and beaten up or killed. While there were a considerable number of deaths and injuries, the intervention of interior ministry troops, flown into Abkhazia from Russia by the central Soviet authorities, succeeded in restoring order and saving many lives, especially by blocking the advance into Abkhazia of more Georgian fighters.9 “Aidgylara” declared that what had taken place was “a planned action to annihilate the Abkhaz people” (Lezhava 1997, p. 283).

August 1989 – December 1991

In the aftermath of the traumatic events of July 1989, the conflict returned for a time to the level of non-violent political confrontation. On August 25, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia (SSA) adopted a declaration of state sovereignty, which the Supreme Soviet of Georgia declared invalid the next day. The declaration brought to a head a growing ethnopolitical division within the Abkhazian legislature, and on August 31 the dissenting minority, consisting mainly but not solely of ethnic Georgian deputies (with some Georgian deputies remaining in Sukhum(i)), reconvened in the Georgian Institute of Subtropical Agriculture in Tbilisi and declared itself the “real” Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia. Henceforth two separate and opposed bodies, one in Sukhum(i) and the other in exile in Tbilisi, would lay claim to the same title.

Another significant development at about the same time was the formation of an alliance of ethnopolitical movements called initially the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. (The word “mountain” was later dropped to allow movements of “non-mountain” peoples to join.) Although “Aidgylara” was the only member organization not based in the North Caucasus, the confederation set up its headquarters in Sukhum(i) and also held its first congress there, on August 26. The congress adopted a declaration of solidarity with the Abkhaz nationalist cause.10 At least some of its supporters conceived of the confederation as a possible precursor to a new Mountain Republic of the kind that existed in 1917—1918. Abkhazia would be crucial to such a state as its sole outlet to the open sea. For the Abkhaz national movement, membership in the confederation represented a reorientation away from Georgia and toward renewed community with ethno-cultural kin in the North Caucasus. The confederation also represented a potential source of support in the event of armed conflict with Georgia (and when war did come such support was indeed forthcoming). By hosting the congress and demonstrating to Tbilisi that it had outside support, “Aidgylara” hoped to deter a Georgian invasion.

On November 14, 1990, the former Georgian nationalist dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia became chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Georgia. (He won election as president of Georgia six months later—on May 26, 1991.) In December 1990 Vladislav Ardzinba was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia in Sukhum(i).11

Between October and December 1991 new elections to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia in Sukhum(i) took place in several rounds. Gamsakhurdia and Ardzinba had come to a “gentlemen’s agreement” concerning the electoral system to be employed in these elections, which was based on ethnically defined territorial constituencies in accordance with pre-assigned ethnic quotas. This meant that in 28 constituencies only Abkhaz candidates could stand for election, in 26 only Georgians, and in the remaining 11 only members of third ethnic groups (Russians, Armenians, etc.). This system, which greatly restricted the real choices open to voters, was apparently acceptable to both sides of the conflict because each side believed that it would be able to form a majority by allying with third-group deputies (Lezhava 1997, p. 328).

As it turned out, the Abkhaz side was right and the Georgian side wrong in this expectation. A few “third group” deputies took the Georgian side, but most supported the Abkhaz. One factor in this choice of orientation may have been that few members of “third” groups in Abkhazia had (or wanted to acquire) a good knowledge of Georgian, so they did not welcome inclusion in a Georgian state with Georgian as the sole state language. True, few of them knew Abkhaz either, but Russian—still used by everyone as a lingua franca—would almost certainly retain high status in an independent Abkhazia.12

The final months before the war

The Soviet Union, already much weakened, was formally dissolved at the end of 1991. This event propelled the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict into its final prewar phase.

On the juridical level, there was a competitive struggle to fill the “legal vacuum” created by abolition of the Soviet Union. This took the form of a “war of constitutions” between the parliaments in Tbilisi and Sukhum(i). In February 1992 the Supreme Soviet of Georgia voted to reinstate the constitution that the independent Georgian republic had adopted in 1921. In response, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia in Sukhum(i) voted on July 23 (three weeks before the outbreak of war) to reinstate the constitution that the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic had adopted in 1925. These steps reflected a highly formalistic approach to politics on both sides, one that took no account of changes that had occurred since the 1920s. Each of the reinstated constitutions was regarded as unacceptable by the other side: the Georgian constitution of 1921 allowed for the autonomy of Abkhazia in only the vaguest of terms, while the Abkhazian constitution of 1925 affirmed the separate and equal status of Abkhazia as a Soviet Union Republic.

At the same time, there was a more down-to-earth struggle for control over the formerly Soviet “power structures” on Abkhazian territory. The separation of Abkhazian economic institutions from their Georgian counterparts had begun in the last few months of 1991. For example, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia decreed on August 30, 1991 that legislation of the Republic of Georgia pertaining to banking did not apply to Abkhazia, and in October 1991 it established a customs service and a State Committee for Foreign Economic and Inter-Republican Ties under its own control. However, only at the end of 1991, after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, was this process extended from the economic to the military and security spheres. On December 29, 1991, four days after Gorbachev resigned as the first and last Soviet president, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia passed a resolution claiming possession and control of all formerly Soviet military forces (including naval forces, civil defense, border troops, and internal troops) deployed in Abkhazia. In February 1992, a commission was set up to register citizens of Abkhazia, and strict restrictions were imposed on the migration to Abkhazia of people from other parts of Georgia. On March 5, 1992, a law was adopted that re-subordinated other bodies of state administration, including the Security Committee and the State Property Committee, to the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia (Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, p. 37). A corresponding institutional structure was formed, including the introduction of a system of compulsory military service modeled on its Soviet counterpart. All these measures pointed to a determined effort by the Ardzinba leadership to acquire a significant military capability (Chervonnaya 1995, pp. 75—84).

Thus, in the course of these first few post-Soviet months the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia moved beyond verbal declarations into the sphere of real state-building. The process proceeded in a fairly smooth manner, with no more than a few minor skirmishes between Abkhaz and Georgian police officers.

It should be borne in mind that the same period witnessed the intra-Georgian civil war between the supporters and opponents of Gamsakhurdia (December 1991 – January 1992). Power in Tbilisi was taken by a Military Council, later reconstituted as a State Council, which in March 1992 invited Shevardnadze back to the country to become its chairman. The intra-Georgian civil war continued in the form of fighting between the new regime and “Zviadista” insurgents in Megrelia, Gamsakhurdia’s home region in western Georgia. It was still in progress when Abkhazia was invaded.



Why did Shevardnadze and his colleagues on the State Council of Georgia decide to send military forces into Abkhazia on August 14, 1992? I shall consider first the probable aim of the operation, then why it was launched at this particular point in time, and finally whether it could have been prevented by diplomatic means.

Georgia’s war aims

According to two versions of Georgia’s war aims disseminated by the Georgian side, the intended purpose of the invasion was actually more limited than it appeared to be in light of subsequent events. In one version, presented later by Shevardnadze in a report to the Georgian parliament, the goal of the operation was to “ensure security of movement along the railroad connecting Russia with Georgia and Armenia [which passes through Abkhazia], the security of the main highways, and the security of objects of strategic importance” (Zhorzholiani et al. 1994, pp. 38—9). As a rationale this was not at all plausible: first, armed train robberies had occurred in western Georgia but not on Abkhazian territory; and second, no attempt had been made to improve security along lines of communication in cooperation with the authorities in Sukhum(i).

The second version was circulated unofficially and seems designed to whitewash Shevardnadze at the expense of other members of the State Council. It claims that Shevardnadze had intended to conduct a strictly limited operation to free Georgian officials who had been abducted by Zviadista (i.e., pro-Gamsakhurdia) insurgents in western Georgia and were being held somewhere in the Gali district in southern Abkhazia. Shevardnadze had allegedly telephoned Ardzinba to forewarn him of the operation and reassure him that its aims were limited; Ardzinba, for his part, denied that he received any such telephone call, nor is it clear whether the hostages were really being held inside Abkhazia. Unfortunately, the story continues, Georgian defense minister Tengiz Kitovani, who was commanding the operation, had ignored clear instructions from Shevardnadze and proceeded straight to Sukhum(i) to suppress the secessionist regime, thereby covering himself with patriotic glory. Shevardnadze had not yet had time to consolidate his position in Tbilisi and so was unable to exert effective control over his unruly generals.

The character of the military force mobilized for the operation (as described, for instance, in Billingsley 1998) immediately puts the lie to both these versions of events. The column of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery that crossed the River Inguri into Abkhazia at dawn on August 14 was not the sort of force needed to find and free hostages or to protect lines of communication. Moreover, the thrust north along the coast road to Sukhum(i) was only one prong of a two-pronged operation. Equally important was the simultaneous amphibious landing near Gagra in the north of Abkhazia, which cannot possibly have been directed against train robbers or Zviadistas.

It makes more sense to view the operation as an attempted blitzkrieg to restore Georgian control over most or all of Abkhazia before the poorly prepared Abkhaz could organize effective resistance. The landing force in the north was to close the corridor between the sea and the mountains, which at Gagra is only a kilometer wide, so that supplies and reinforcements would not (or so they imagined) be able to reach the Abkhaz forces from Russia, and then move south to join up with the northbound column. Like so many other blitzkriegs in history, this one got bogged down, giving the adversary a chance to organize and turn the blitzkrieg into a war of attrition. The assumption that reinforcements could enter Abkhazia only along the coastal strip proved mistaken: volunteers from the North Caucasus came through the high mountain passes.

It seems that Kitovani’s conduct of the operation did thwart Shevardnadze’s intentions in one vital respect. Shevardnadze did hope to spare Sukhum(i) the ravages of war. His instructions, which assumed that Georgian forces would approach the city simultaneously from the south and from the north, were that they should halt on the outskirts, surround Sukhum(i) but not enter or bombard it. An acceptable settlement would then be negotiated from a position of strength. By bringing the forces coming from the south into Sukhum(i), Kitovani was acting against these instructions, but he had a military rationale for so doing. Unexpectedly strong Abkhaz resistance had held up the forces coming from the north, so the original plan to complete the operation with the encirclement of Sukhum(i) was no longer feasible.

Why August 1992?

It is widely held that the Georgian military intervention should be understood in the context of the “war of constitutions”—specifically, as a reaction to the reinstatement of the Abkhazian constitution of 1925. However, it is hard to see why this document should have been any more objectionable to Georgian nationalists than the Declaration of State Sovereignty that the Abkhazian parliament had adopted nearly two years before (on August 25, 1990). Both documents rejected Abkhazia’s incorporation into Georgia.13

In my opinion, a much more important factor was the capture by the secessionist authorities in Sukhum(i) of control over the formerly Soviet “power structures” on Abkhazian territory. The rapid build-up of an independent Abkhazian military capability provided the Georgian leadership with a strong incentive to act against the newborn state without too long a delay, while they still had (or thought they had) decisive military superiority.

Nevertheless, there had apparently been no noticeable rise in the level of tension in Abkhazia during the period of the immediate run-up to war. No special preparations had been made to counter an invading Georgian force, and Kitovani’s column was able to proceed completely unimpeded along the main road, meeting resistance for the first time only a few kilometers to the southeast of Sukhum(i).14 On the day of the invasion, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia was scheduled to meet to discuss a draft treaty of union between Abkhazia and Georgia. It is therefore clear that while the Abkhaz leadership can hardly have been unaware that there was a general military threat from Georgia, they had no expectation of its realization in the near future. We may presume that they viewed the “war of constitutions” as a way of establishing initial positions for subsequent bargaining rather than as a prelude to real war. They may have been misled by the conciliatory stance towards the Abkhaz that Shevardnadze had adopted in his earlier incarnation as Georgian party secretary.15

Shevardnadze had returned to Georgia, at the invitation of the junta that had overthrown Gamsakhurdia, in March 1992—only five months earlier. The initiative for the Abkhazian operation may well have come from Shevardnadze’s military colleagues, especially Kitovani and Ioseliani, and Shevardnadze may not have yet felt himself in a strong enough position to oppose their wishes. Whether but for this consideration Shevardnadze would have vetoed the invasion is hard to judge. His instructions that Georgian forces were not to enter Sukhum(i) suggest that he may have had serious misgivings. Later, moreover, having achieved a stronger position, he did resist strong pressure for a second invasion of Abkhazia—though this time round, of course, he had the benefit of hindsight.

On the other hand, Shevardnadze was perhaps not too unwilling to be persuaded by his colleagues. Although the Abkhazian operation was not a direct consequence of the war against the Zviadists in neighboring Megrelia, it may well have been seen as a logical next step in the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity under the new regime. Probably—and here the condescending Georgian view of the Abkhaz as a small and backward people no doubt played a part—none of the Georgian leaders anticipated that it would be a costly, prolonged, or indeed particularly difficult operation. Shevardnadze may even have seen a short and successful war against the secessionist regime in Sukhum(i) as a quick means of consolidating his personal authority.

Another motive for invading Abkhazia may have been to stabilize the domestic political situation by uniting Georgians against a common enemy. In particular, Shevardnadze may have seen the campaign against the Abkhaz as a way of ending the Zviadista uprising in Megrelia.

Could war have been prevented?

If this analysis of the prewar situation in Abkhazia is correct, it follows that war might have been prevented by sufficiently active preventive diplomacy on the part of Russia and/or the West. A starting point for negotiations could have been the simultaneous suspension of Abkhazia’s return to the constitution of 1925 and Georgia’s return to the constitution of 1921. It is worth noting that Shevardnadze was not personally associated with the latter step, which was taken the month before he came back to Georgia.

While it seems that Russia was not diplomatically engaged in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the immediate prewar period, prompt action was taken following the outbreak of hostilities. On September 3, less than three weeks after the war began, President Yeltsin convened negotiations in Moscow between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, with the participation also of leaders of the republics, territories, and provinces of the Russian North Caucasus.16 At this meeting Yeltsin, backed up by the North Caucasus leaders, showed himself willing to exert strong pressure on the parties, especially on Ardzinba. This suggests that had the Russian government been aware that war was imminent in Abkhazia it might have tried to avert it. On the other hand, there is some circumstantial evidence that Yeltsin may have known of the Georgian invasion in advance or even been complicit in allowing it to happen.

Most effective of all might have been a timely initiative by the United States and/or its European allies, or a combined Western-Russian initiative, with the West primarily responsible for dealing with Georgia and Russia primarily responsible for dealing with Abkhazia. One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why Shevardnadze was invited in early 1992 to return to Georgia to chair the State Council was his very positive image in the West: it was hoped that he would be able to attract considerable Western political, economic, and humanitarian support (and so he did). This gave Western countries powerful means of influencing the decisions of the Georgian leadership. By recognizing Georgia and admitting it to membership in the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN, all without preconditions of any kind, they squandered the opportunity.

The apparent absence of either Russian or Western attempts at preventive diplomacy during the crucial eight months between the dissolution of the USSR and the outbreak of hostilities is hard to explain except simply as the result of lack of attention to the Georgian-Abkhazian problem. The strongly destabilizing impact of the end of the Soviet Union upon an already tense situation should have been predictable. Presumably both Russian and Western diplomats and politicians were suffering from a severe case of issue overload at this time: Abkhazia was but one of a dozen or so hot spots in the former Soviet Union simultaneously requiring urgent preventive action, and by no means the most important from the point of view of international security (compared, say, with Crimea or the Baltic).

Why Shevardnadze and not Gamsakhurdia?

It may seem anomalous that the invasion of Abkhazia took place under the aegis of the “liberal” Shevardnadze, rather than under that of the “extreme nationalist” Gamsakhurdia. If “even” Gamsakhurdia was able to reach a mutual understanding with Ardzinba and his colleagues, then why should this have been beyond the ability of the former Soviet foreign minister, renowned for his role in bringing a much bigger cold war to a safe end?

A large part of the answer lies in the fact that by the time Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi in March 1992 the situation in Abkhazia had already become considerably worse from the Georgian point of view than it had been under Gamsakhurdia. In particular, the separatist regime was by then well on the way to acquiring a military capability. Moreover, in 1992 Shevardnadze was not yet in a position to defy the views of his colleagues on the State Council, a number of whom were no less extreme Georgian nationalists than Gamsakhurdia. It is also necessary to bear in mind the limits of Shevardnadze’s “liberalism”: while he always showed a relatively tolerant and sensitive attitude towards ethnic minorities, and advocated a civic rather than ethnic version of nationalism, he was never willing to contemplate any concession when territorial integrity was at stake. In 1992 Abkhazia clearly represented a very serious threat to Georgia’s territorial integrity; in previous years that threat had been only a potential one.

Would Gamsakhurdia have intervened militarily in Abkhazia had he stayed in power longer? Almost certainly, yes. Gamsakhurdia saw Georgia’s territorial integrity at risk in all the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, including Ajaria and the areas of Armenian and Azerbaijani settlement in the south as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the north. His first priority was South Ossetia and he had the good sense not to get into more than one war at a time; this to a large extent explains why he was willing to come to an understanding with Ardzinba. But Abkhazia’s turn would surely have come.



Persistent failures of perception and calculation on both sides greatly contributed to the escalation of the conflict and the outbreak of war.

On the Georgian side, the main perceptual failure was a tendency to underestimate the Abkhaz as an independent and potentially powerful actor with strong and deeply rooted fears and grievances. Corresponding to this tendency was a characteristic preoccupation of Georgians with the conflict between Russia and Georgia over Abkhazia, obscuring their view of the specifically Abkhaz-Georgian dimension of the conflict. Even many highly educated and sophisticated Georgians are remarkably ignorant of the history and culture of the Abkhaz.

One institution that does valuable work to disseminate knowledge of the Abkhaz among Georgians is the House of the Caucasus in Tbilisi. On my visit I was told that they run classes on the Abkhaz language, attended mainly by young Georgian war refugees from Sukhum(i). One of these young Georgians expressed regret that he and his friends had developed a serious interest in Abkhaz language and culture only after the war; if they had taken the same interest earlier, there might have been no war and they would still be living in Sukhum(i).

The Abkhaz had the psychological traits typical of a small people scarred by painful historical and—for the older generation—personal memories. Many Abkhaz who as politically active adults supported the secessionist movement could recall being beaten as children by Georgian teachers for speaking their native tongue. Thus, in 1985 three Abkhaz writers wrote of “the times when Abkhaz children, choking with tears, used to repeat Georgian words they could not understand under the cudgel of Beria’s ‘educators.’ … We would like to forget that period, but we cannot… In Abkhazia there live and constantly reminisce people who took part in closing down Abkhaz schools” (Lak’oba 1998, p. 101).

There is also a historically grounded fear that the Abkhaz might easily follow their Ubykh neighbors into extinction, whether through forced assimilation as under Stalin or through massacre and deportation as under the tsars. Awareness among the Abkhaz of the fate of the Ubykh was heightened by the publication of Last of the Departed, a historical novel by Bagrat Shynkwba about the Ubykh deportation (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, p. 169).

Under the “normal” conditions of the post-Stalin period, the fear of a genocidal Georgian reaction to Abkhaz rebellion could in fact serve as a motive for caution, since the basic physical and cultural survival of the Abkhaz would be ensured by Moscow as long as they did not make too much trouble. Such, for instance, was the attitude expressed by the local party leader V. M. Khintba at a Communist Party meeting in Abkhazia in February 1978. Khintba upbraided activist Abkhaz intellectuals (“provocateurs,” as he called them) for inciting popular unrest: “I am the secretary of the Abkhaz provincial committee of this people, of my beloved people… In 1957 and 1967 [during previous waves of unrest] a Damocles’ sword hung over us… You are infected with nationalism… So here we are, Abkhaz, displaying our agitation and discontent. But we are few. What will happen if others, more numerous than we, rise up in similar agitation? For they too have their pride. It is not just one people that is discontented” (Abkhazskie pis’ma 1994, pp. 250—51).

But as the prospect drew nearer of the collapse of the familiar political environment of the Soviet Union and of the loss of the protective umbrella of “the Center,” so did the old rationale for caution lose its force. In July 1989, the assault of the Georgian nationalist militias had been halted by the timely intervention of the Center’s internal troops. What was in store for the Abkhaz once the Georgians had a strong army of their own and the Soviet Union was gone? “What way out do we have? Just think about it!”—the newspaper of “Aidgylara” urged its readers on May 3, 1990 (Hewitt and Khiba 1998, pp. 176—7). The answer was obvious: whatever the risks of secession, they had to be taken, for the likely alternative was genocide. This fear strengthened the ethnic cohesion of the Abkhaz in support of the secessionist leadership.

For the benefit of those inclined to doubt the genuineness of historically ingrained Abkhaz fears of genocide, revived by the insecurity of a disintegrating Soviet Union, the eloquent concluding lines of an open letter to Gorbachev, written by a delegation of Abkhaz women who in July 1989 had come to Moscow in the vain hope of meeting with the Soviet leader, are illustrative:

“For you, [Abkhazia] is a resort, a beach; for us, it is a homeland that we are losing. And when your families are evacuated and the holidaymakers flee, our husbands and children, and we together with them, will with your blessing lay our bones in this land. Only we don’t know whether anyone will remain to whom you can convey your lofty sympathy.

You have exhausted our trust, and we, women of Abkhazia, who came to Moscow and were not allowed to meet with you, were forced to appeal for help to international organizations, to leaders of democratic movements, to foreign associations of peoples of the Caucasus, and to all people of goodwill not to let the small and proud Abkhaz people perish before the eyes of the civilized world (Abakhazskie pis’ma 1994, pp. 476--7).”


* I would like to thank Professor George Hewitt of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

1. The main city of Abkhazia is called Sukhum in Abkhaz and Sukhumi (or Sokhumi) in Georgian.

2. Marr is best known in the context of Stalin’s attack on his linguistic theories in 1952. Lezhava (1997, pp. 134—5) draws attention to Marr’s activity as an influential behind-the-scenes patron of Abkhaz culture and defender of the Abkhaz against Stalin’s repression. He also argues that the polemic between Marr and his opponents was no mere scholarly dispute but had definite political implications. It concerned not only linguistics but also nationalities policy as it impinged on the rights of small peoples like the Abkhaz.

3. Initially the institute was named in honor of the Abkhaz national poet D. I. Gulia. Later it was renamed in honor of Marr. After Marr’s downfall it reverted to its original name.

4. This was mentioned in complaints voiced at the 1978 plenum of the Abkhazian party committee (Abkhazskie pis’ma).

5. Many such documents have now been published in the volume of “Abkhaz letters” (Abkhazskie pis’ma). Some petitioners traveled to Moscow to seek audiences with high officials, not always without success. There were even a few brave souls who sent petitions to Moscow while Stalin was still alive; while their petitions were rejected, they suffered no further penalty (remarkably enough for the times).

6. Although the protestors did not achieve their goals, they were not severely punished either. For instance, Abkhaz teachers who had encouraged their students to join the protests were not imprisoned, but simply transferred to positions where they had less opportunity to influence the younger generation.

7. It was not yet self-evident that the Soviet Union would soon cease to exist. For the founding documents of “Aidgylara,” see Chapter 2 of Abkhazskii uzel 1995.

8. For documents relating to this dispute, see Chapter 4 of Abkhazskii uzel 1995. For a personal eyewitness account of the July events, see Popkov 1998 or

9. At Ochamchira local defenders, mostly Abkhaz, managed to hold up a column of vehicles carrying Georgian fighters headed for Sukhum(i) until Soviet troops arrived to relieve them. It is worthy of note that local Georgians did not support the invaders, and some of them helped their Abkhaz neighbors to defend the town.

10. See Abkhazskii uzel 1995, pp. 328—30.

11. According to Lezhava (1997, pp. 323—4), the Georgian deputies who had remained in Sukhum(i) gave their support to Ardzinba without realizing how radical he really was, and his election was followed by a shift in influence from a more moderate to a more radical group of Abkhaz politicians. However, some observers do not agree with this interpretation.

12. An alternative proposal envisioned a two-chamber legislature with the lower chamber elected on the basis of purely territorial constituencies and the upper chamber on the basis of ethnically defined constituencies. Such an arrangement might have given every ethnic bloc effective power of veto, perhaps facilitating resolution of the conflict. For some reason Gamsakhurdia rejected this proposal.

13. The text of the Declaration of State Sovereignty is in Abkhazskii uzel (1995, pp. 264—7); the text of the constitution of 1925 is in an appendix to Abkhazskie pis’ma (1994).

14. The first Abkhaz force encountered was a unit of seven internal troops near the village of Okhurei in Ochamchira district, 30 kilometers from the border. They were disarmed and interned at Gali. The first effective resistance was offered near the villages of Tamysh and Kindgi, southeast of Sukhum, where by blowing up a bridge over the River Kwdry the Abkhaz forces held up the rear end of the Georgian column for a few hours (Shariya 1994, pp. 4—5).

15. According to Anchabadze (1998, p. 138), Shevardnadze’s return to Georgia had raised hopes in Abkhazia for a more conciliatory Georgian position, but these hopes were soon disappointed. Nevertheless, such hopes may not have disappeared completely and may help to explain the lack of war preparedness on the Abkhaz side.

16. For a verbatim transcript of the meeting, see Abkhazia: khronika (1992, pp. 208—247).


Abkhazskie pis’ma 1947-1989 (1994), Sbornik dokumentov, vol. 1 (Akua (Sukhum): El-Fa) (in Russian)

Abkhazskii uzel: dokumenty i materialy, no. 2 (1995) (Moscow: TsIMO IEA RAN) (in Russian)

Amkuab, G. and T. Ilarionova (Compilers)(1992), Abkhaziya: khronika neob”yavlennoi voiny (Moscow: publisher not indicated) (in Russian)

Anchabadze, Jurij (1998), History: the modern period, in George Hewitt (ed.)(1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press, chapter 8)

Bgazhba, Oleg (1998), History: first-18th centuries, in George Hewitt (ed.)(1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press, chapter 4)

Billingsley, Dodge (1998), Military aspects of the war: the battle for Gagra, in George Hewitt (ed.)(1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press, chapter 9)

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Chirikba, Vjacheslav (1998), Origin of the Abkhazian people, in George Hewitt (ed.) (1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press, chapter 2)

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Hewitt, George (ed.) (1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press)

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Muller, Daniel (1998), Demography, in George Hewitt (ed.) (1998), The Abkhazians: A Handbook (New York: St. Martin’s Press, chapter 15)

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Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994), The Making of the Georgian Nation, 2nd edition (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press)

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