It was with a great sense of loss that Zaira and I learnt today of the sad, if not altogether unexpected, death of Vladislav Ardzinba in Moscow at the age of 64.
Vladislav Ardzinba holds a unique place in the history of Abkhazia. Having come to prominence in his homeland as an academic (specialising in Hittite), he took over from Prof. Georgij Dzidzarija as Director of the Research Institute. Quickly he found himself involved in politics when elected to Mikhail Gorbachëv's new Palace of People's Deputies, where he achieved national prominence across the entire Soviet Union for his eloquent articulation of the problems facing that vast state's ethnic minorities and their hopes for the future. He was naturally most concerned to achieve justice for his own Abkhazian nation, and in the turbulent days when the USSR was heading for disintegration and an ugly chauvinism was on the rise in Georgia,this speedily put Abkhazia on a collision-course with Tbilisi. When Vladislav assumed the chairmanship of the Supreme Soviet, he became the focus of verbal attacks from Georgian nationalists, attacks which continued to the day of his death, when in some early obituary-announcements it was libellously stated that he 'orchestrated a massive ethnic cleansing campaign'.
It fell to Vladislav to lead the defence of Abkhazia when it was treacherously invaded by the troops of Georgia's State Council under the chairmanship of Eduard Shevardnadze on that day of infamy, the 14 August 1992. After 14 tragic months, Abkhazia was finally liberated on 30 September 1993. And under Vladislav's leadership, then still based in its wartime home of Gudauta, a leaflet was prepared for distibution in the areas that had been under Georgian occupation during the war urging Abkhazians there to show magnanimity and not to engage in acts of vengeance against either Georgian soldiers laying down their arms or members of the civilian population. But the Caucasus is the Caucasus, and in those days of panic and rumour the majority of the local Mingrelians, Georgians and Svans elected to leave south-eastern Abkhazia before the arrival of the victors. Abkhazia then found itself subjected to years of embargo, as the world tried to punish it for having had the audacity to defeat Shevardnadze's Georgia. And it was Vladislav's destiny to steer a difficult course during those years of pressure in order to prevent the restarting of hostilities with Georgia, to avoid making concessions in the internationally sponsored negotiating process that would be unacceptable to the Abkhazian people, and to avoid causing excessive annoyance to Moscow, which most commentators now conveniently forget was by no means well-disposed to Abkhazian aspirations under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and Shevardnadze's protegé as Russian Foreign Minister Andrej Kozyrev; the same was true under Kozyrev's successor, Tbilisi-reared Evgenij Primakov, who had once been Vladislav's superior in the days when they both worked at Moscow's Oriental Institute. In 1994 Vladislav supervised the promulgation of a new Constitution for Abkhazia and became its first president.
Finally exasperated by Tbilisi's stonewalling in the negotiations, Abkhazia formally declared independence in 1999. This year also saw Vladislav elected to serve his second and final term as president; he additionally pushed through a very sensible spelling-reform. However, he was not destined to see out that second term blessed with the good health and irrepressible energy that had characterised his preceding years. Whatever the cause, a cruel degenerative illness began to take hold, which led to his being seen less and less in public and ultimately to total withdrawal and the passing of presidential responsibility to his replacement, Raoul Khadzhimba, who nevertheless worked closely with Vladislav behind the scenes.
Though by then confined to a wheelchair and able only to speak very indistinctly, Vladislav had the good fortune to live to see Abkhazia first regain control over the one area that had remained in Georgian hands after the war, the Upper K’odor Valley, on 12 August 2008 and then be recognised by Russia on 26 August 2008 — it was shortly thereafter that we met for the last time, when we were able to congratulate each other on that momentous event, an event he met with the words: 'The dreadful times have passed; now the difficult times begin.' It is now the responsibility of others to guide Abkhazia's ship of state through the choppy seas into the calm waters that should come from universal recognition and Abkhazia taking its rightful place as a full member of the family of nations.
Vladislav Ardzinba was a distinguished academic, an eloquent advocate of both Abkhazian rights in particular and minority rights in general, an inspiring war-leader, a patriotic politician and president, with whom Tbilisi could actually have worked, if only Georgia had been led by politicians of true worth and noble vision. His passing will be mourned by all Abkhazians across the world, but his permanent place in Abkhazia's pantheon of heroes is assured and unchallengeable.
We offer our deepest condolences to the Abkhazian people, the Abkhazian Government, and, on a more personal note, to Vladislav's widow, Sveta, his daughter, Madina, and the whole of his family.
Zaira and George Hewitt (UK)