Georgian Apologists (at home and abroad), by George Hewitt
Close observers of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict over the years will be all too familiar with cases where a Georgian spokesman produces a charge which has little (if any) relationship with reality — evidence/statements to the contrary are airily dismissed, and the charges are reiterated. Take the interchange that took place in London on 23rd November 1992 at an open meeting at Chatham House between Georgia's then Foreign Minister, Aleksandre Chik'vaidze, and (the late) Lord David Ennals, one-time UK Minister of Health. This illustrative citation, relating to the situation in the northern Abkhazian town of Gagra after its recapture by the Abkhazians in October 1992, is taken from Appendix 6 of my 1993 article 'Abkhazia: a problem of identity and ownership' (Central Asian Survey 12.3):
Chik'vaidze: [...] the Abkhazians treacherously attacked and captured Gagra. Today the Abkhazian separatists and their so-called volunteers are treating the Georgians so badly that one could accuse them of genocide. In Abkhazia today we see the same mixture of home-grown fascists and external reactionary forces that exist in other parts also of the ex-USSR...
(1) Lord David Ennals: I was in Abkhazia only 2 weeks ago as part of a UN mission, and I can tell you that I have proof that your Georgian troops have been treating the Abkhazians atrociously. What do you say about this, and why do you not issue an invitation for the newly appointed CSCE commissioner for ethnic minorities (a former Foreign Minister of Holland) to involve himself immediately in this war?
Chik'vaidze: I can tell you that the North Caucasian forces are mistreating local Georgians — indeed, there is not a single Georgian house between the Russian border and Sukhum that the Abkhazians have not burned.
Ennals: Excuse me, but I was in Gagra, where I spoke to many Georgians who were living in their own houses.
Chik\vaidze: No, you do not understand, I am telling you that there is not a single Georgian property left unburnt between the Russian border and Sukhum. Half a million [sic!] Georgians have already fled from Abkhazia [N.B. according to the 1989 census there were only 239,872 "Georgians" living in Abkhazia! — BGH]. As for the CSCE commissioner, I have to tell you that we Georgians are a special people with our own customs that are poorly understood by outsiders, and so we have to sort out our own problems without any external assistance.
Giorgi Baramidze, Deputy-Premier of Georgia, on a tour to Europe and the USA in April 2008 made the charge (as on his BBC News 24 interview for the programme Hard Talk with Stephen Sackur) that the Georgian population living today in Abkhazia (primarily in the south-easternmost province of Gal) is 'subjected to daily killings and rapes', something which simply has no basis in fact.
Another common trope in Georgians' assertions about the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-93 is that it was a war not between Georgians and Abkhazians, but rather between Georgians and Russians. As regards one crucial action in that war, the already mentioned retaking of the northern town of Gagra by the Abkhazians and their allies, here is what the independent American observer Dodge Billingsley wrote about it in 1998:
Excerpt from Dodge Billingsley's 'Military Aspects of the War. The Battle for Gagra (The Turning-point)'
Chapter 9 of The Abkhazians: a Handbook
(edited by George Hewitt, Curzon Press 1998)
Many in Georgia and elsewhere feel that the war was really a Russian-Georgian conflict. This is a complicated issue. Technically, all volunteers from the North Caucasus were Russian citizens. The real question, however, centres on motivation and how the volunteers saw themselves. There were many indications that Chechen assistance to Abkhazia was stimulated by independent aspirations related to a pan-Caucasian federation rather than any Russian plot. The best known Chechen to fight against Georgia, Shamil Basaev (now deputy to Chechen's President Maskhadov), stated that 'as long as the small Abkhazian people suffered in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, his units would help them, but in the event of hostilities between Russia and Georgia, the volunteers would fight on the Georgian side'.
There were, however, verified cases of Russian assistance. Russian pilots were actually shot down by Kartvelian units, but the incidents were isolated and more likely reflected free-lancing by rogue elements of the Russian military, a fact which has precedence elsewhere in the Caucasus, including the earlier Georgian conflict in South Ossetia. Moreover, there were other indications that Russia (Yeltsin) knew of Shevardnadze's plan and was prepared to look the other way. Commenting on the unruly nature of the Kartvelian forces, Shevardnadze remarked that he was against sending his troops into Sukhum: 'I wanted our military units to go around Sukhumi and move to Gagra... When I spoke to Yeltsin on the next day [after the beginning of hostilities], he told me: "The generals can get out of control and you, as a smart man, should know it". Russia did meddle in the conflict, but the factor that made the difference were the hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that made their way to the region to engage Kartvelian forces throughout the war. This is not to say that the volunteers might not incidentally have served the strategy of some circles in the Russian military-political arena. However, the volunteers, many of whom were Chechen, had their own reasons for helping Abkhazia, as the more recent war in Chechenia has demonstrated.
There is no doubt that volunteers from abroad did add to the quantity and quality of the Abkhazian military effort, but their numbers were still small. Although Abkhazian veterans claim that there were only 300 combatants on their side, it is more realistic that their numbers exceeded 500. However, Abkhazians never held an overall numerical advantage. Locally-based UN military observers substantiate these Abkhazian claims, suggesting that Kartvelian troops did indeed outnumber Abkhazian personnel but were so ill-disciplined that the Abkhazian victory at Gagra should have come as no surprise.
What was a surprise was the ability of the Abkhazian movement successfully to incorporate volunteers from the North Caucasus and elsewhere, primarily Turkey, arriving to fight for Abkhazia. Abkhazia would prove most adept at this throughout the course of the war. Military cohesion on an individual- and group-level was always better on the Abkhazian side. The reasons for this need to be explored in depth. However, it must suffice to say that this factor, illustrated so clearly at Gagra, was one of the most crucial determining factors in Abkhazia's success and Georgia's failure.
In many ways the battle for Gagra was the battle for Abkhazia itself. Once in control of the border and port-facilities in the northern corner of Abkhazia, the Abkhazian leadership was assured that supplies and manpower would get through. On the other hand, after the loss of Gagra, Georgia could only hope for a break-out on the Sukhum front. Reeling from the loss of Gagra, Kartvelian forces proved incapable of further large-scale offensive operations. There were only four more meaningful offensives undertaken that are worthy of note (January 1993, March 1993, July 1993 and the final offensive of September 1993), and all were conducted by the Abkhazian side.
It is perhaps understandable (if not pardonable) if utterances that come tripping from the mouths of representatives of the side which started the war and suffered a humiliating defeat often play fast and loose with reality in order to mislead a world largely ignorant of the region into believing that the West's chief bogey-nation, Russia, was responsible for dashing Georgianss bright hopes in the early years of post-communist independence — sadly, the West all too readily allowed itself to be duped into falling for this deception. But it is more perplexing to find a host of non-Georgians playing the same game and serving up assertions straight out of the pages of the Georgian propaganda-manual. One such is Svetlana Chervonnaja, whose main publications over the years have been concerned with Tatar art. In 1993 she published in Russian Abxazija 1992: Post-kommunisticheskaja vandeja, which appeared in English translation in 1994 under the title Conflict in the Caucasus: Georgia, Abkhazia and the Russian Shadow. Here is a quotation from a short review I wrote of it at the time:
Anyone unwise enough to believe the purpose of this book is to shed light should ponder the following. Much is made of the distribution of seats in the Abkhazian parliament of 1991, whereby the 17% Abkhazians held 28 of the 65. This fact was stressed at the book's London launch by Levan Alexidze, human rights' officer at the UN Secretariat (1970-77) and now chief advisor to Shevardnadze, who also contributed a Postscript to the work, as an example of anti-Georgian machinations in Abkhazia. This electoral law was also the sole document shewn to the second mission to Abkhazia/Georgia from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples' Organisation (The Hague) when visiting Tbilisi in November 1993 in support of allegations of genocide against the Georgian population. As UNPO's report tersely notes, the personal advisor to the Georgian President, Levan Alexidze, was co-author of this law....
Of late, however, the most consistently egregious example of a non-Georgian propagandist for the Georgian cause is Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation. His latest 'contribution', if that is the appropriate word to describe what flows from his pen/computer-keyboard, namely 'The West can respond more effectively to Russia's assault on Georgia: part III', appeared on 9th May. In it we read the following:
The Russian military, not the Abkhaz (17 percent of the region's pre-conflict population) evicted the Georgian population (45 percent of the pre-conflict population) from Abkhazia by force.
This, of course, is completely consistent with the charge discussed above with particular reference to the retaking of Gagra. But is Socor's description of events actually what happened?
As noted above, in November-December of 1993 the Unrepresentated Nations and Peoples' Organisation (UNPO) organised a visit to (now post-war) Abkhazia. Their report was published in 1995 in Central Asian Survey 14.1 (pp. 127-154). Regrettably (if perfectly understandably, given human nature) after a bitterly contested civil war, there were cases of retribution by the victorious side for the atrocities committed by the occupiers, and this has to be openly acknowledged, as indeed the UNPO report did. However, due attention should be paid to the closing sentence of the following remarks from p. 138:
In the final stages of the war, when Abkhazian forces, supported by military units from the Northern Caucasus, took back Sukhum and the remaining Abkhazian territory to the Ingur river, there is evidence of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by members of the Abkhazian forces, Northern Caucasus troops and by armed civilians. When Abkhazian troops entered Sukhum many civilians were killed. Similar incidents also occurred in other parts of Abkhazia. THE MAJORITY OF GEORGIANS, HOWEVER, FLED BEFORE ABKHAZIAN AND NORTHERN CAUCASUS TROOPS ARRIVED (stresses added).
The Kartvelian inhabitants of the occupied areas might well have had good reasons to fear what would happen to them, especially if they had given active support to the occupation, but, if the majority abandoned Abkhazia before the arrival of the Abkhazians and their north Caucasian allies, how can that flight be accurately described as 'ethnic cleansing', as it usually is, or to have been occasioned by military force (let alone RUSSIAN military force)? It was a case of 'self-cleansing', carried out in the desperate chaos of the hour despite the distribution by the Abkhazian authorities throughout the relevant parts of Abkhazia of a leaflet (appended below) reminding everyone of their moral obligation to treat with respect anyone laying down weapons as well as members of the civilian population.
Lest anyone be tempted to see in the phrase 'military units from the Northern Caucasus' a reference to the Red Army, the explanation comes from the previous page of the Report, where we read (p. 137-8):
A group of approximately 300 soldiers from the Northern Caucasus served in the Abkhazian army. According to official representatives of the Northern Caucasus Federation these men came voluntarily 'to the rescue of their neighbouring people'...A number of Chechen soldiers were incorporated into the Abkhazian army, while others served in a Chechen battalion under Chechen command.
So much, then, for the latest example of Socor's fanciful rewriting of history.
'The Georgian Chronicle', Monthly Bulletin, Center for Peace, Development and Democracy, March-April 1993, p.5.
During the war between Georgia and South Ossetia, V. Adamia (leader of the Georgian military), claimed that both his forces and South Ossetian units rented Russian heavy weapons and personnel for military operations.
'The Georgian Chronicle', Monthly Bulletin, January-February 1993, p.7.
Interview with UNOMIG commander J. Hvidegaard, Sukhum, June 1995.
It should be stressed that the Abkhazians never wanted such a parliament; their preference was for a bi-cameral arrangement, but the single chamber-parliament with an ethnically determined division of seats was forced upon them by Tbilisi.
I personally never refer to the 'Georgian' population of Abkhazia, since most of them were Mingrelians. As there were also Georgian and Svan (concentrated in the Upper K'odor Valley) contingents, I prefer to refer to this section of Abkhazian society holistically/generically as 'Kartvelian'.
The Report gives details; for example (p. 137): 'During the Georgian occupation, Abkhaz, Armenians, Greeks and Russians were harassed, imprisoned, subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment for the sole reason of belonging to those ethnic groups...A number of mass-graves have reportedly been discovered in Abkhazia since the end of the war. In one of the graves, located in Sukhum near the municipal hospital, 128 bodies were discovered. All bodies had bullet woulds and traces indicating that the hands had been bound with barbed wire behind the victims' backs.' And, of course, no-one forgets (even today) the chilling threat from the autumn of 1992 by the general in charge of the Georgian troops in Abkhazia, Gia Q'arq'arashvili, when he said on TV that he was perfectly prepared to sacrifice 100,000 Georgians to liquidate all 93,000 Abkhazians, if that is what it took to keep Georgia's borders inviolate...