General Mazniashvili and the 1918 Occupation of Abkhazia

Giorgi Mazniashvili [Mazniev] (1870-1937), a key figure in the 1918 occupation of Abkhazia.

Giorgi Mazniashvili [Mazniev] (1870-1937), a key figure in the 1918 occupation of Abkhazia.

The early 20th century witnessed a mosaic of tumultuous events reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the Caucasus, among which the 1918 occupation of Abkhazia by Georgian forces under General Giorgi Mazniashvili (Mazniev) stands out as a pivotal moment. This incursion not only altered the course of Abkhazian history but also cast a long shadow over the region's future relations and the legacy of a controversial figure.

General Mazniashvili, a man celebrated for his military prowess and later critiqued for his role in these events, embodies the complexities of this era. This article delves into the intricate narrative of occupation, resistance, and the enduring consequences of a conflict that remains relevant to understanding the Caucasus region's intricate history.

The Occupation of Abkhazia and Its Aftereffects

Giorgi Mazniashvili, by his decree on June 23, declared Abkhazia the Sukhum General Governorate and appointed himself as the General Governor, assuming both military and political functions without any agreement with the Abkhazian People's Council (APC). This move came just days after he was granted authority in Abkhazia by the Georgian Minister of War on 18 June 1918.

Mazniashvili's campaign did not halt at this administrative declaration; it extended to the full occupation of the coastline up to Tuapse. This expansion was retrospectively defended at the Paris Peace Conference on 1 May 1919, by Georgian envoy Ilya Odishelidze. Odishelidze's justification hinged on historical claims, asserting that the Black Sea coast was Georgian territory in the 11th to 13th centuries and branding Sochi as a 'purely Georgian town,' as cited by Stanislav Lakoba (History of Abkhazia. Study Textbook. Sukhum, 1991: Alashara) and others.

However, such claims were met with skepticism, even within the international community. A revealing comment in a secret document sent from Constantinople to the British War Office in 1919 stated: 'We found on occupying Trans-Caucasus that the Georgians were in possession of the Sochi District, to which I consider they have no legal or historical right. But to turn them out will cause complications in Georgia properly so-called' (Anita Burdett, 'Caucasian Boundaries 1802–1946', London, 1996, p. 630)."

"...the Abkhaz People’s Soviet in Sukhumi signed an agreement on 9 February 1918 on mutual relations with the Georgian National Council. This recognized an “indivisible Abkhazia within frontiers stretching from the River Ingur to the River Mzymta” (later known as the River Psou). However, this did not stop the Georgian Democratic Republic that was declared in May 1918 from sending troops to “meet the Bolshevik menace” in June 1918 with German backing."

The Abkhazia Conflict in Historical Perspective, by Eva-Maria Auch In: IFSH (ed.), OSCE Yearbook 2004, Baden-Baden 2005, pp. 221-235.

Political analyst Armen Gasparyan believes that the life of General Mazniashvili can be divided into two distinct phases.

"The first phase was his time as a truly brave and highly experienced soldier, notably during the Russo-Japanese War, where he distinguished himself through heroism. He received orders directly from Nicholas II and was even invited to the palace. Then begins the era known as the Russian Time of Troubles, during which General Mazniashvili became known for entirely different deeds," he says.

"Under his rule, Abkhazia experienced absolute lawlessness and looting, even by the merciless standards of the Russian Time of Troubles. During the military operations, Georgian troops brutally plundered the population, with looting and drunken rampages being rampant, along with punitive expeditions, where even bedding was stolen from peasants. General Mazniashvili's biography includes a chapter on the capture of Sochi, an episode many prefer to forget today, but it followed the same pattern of endless looting, extortion, and executions," Gasparyan further elaborates.

"This detachment, by its cruelty and inhumanity,’ reads the report submitted to the Georgian government, ‘has surpassed the infamous Tsarist General Alikhanov. Thus, for instance, the Cossacks of this regiment broke into peaceful Abkhasian villages, carrying off anything that was of any value and violating the women. Another part of this detachment, under the personal supervision of Citizen Tuldiareli, indulged in bombing the houses of those persons who were pointed out by informers. Analogous deeds of violence were perpetrated in the Gudaut[a] district. The chief of the Georgian detachment, Lieutenant Kupuni – a former police captain at Poti – severely ill-treated the entire rural council of the village of Azy."

from the 'Between Red and White' by Leon Trotsky (Communist Party of Great Britain (1922)

The government of the "Mountainous Republic" condemned the invasion of Georgian troops into Abkhazia. In June 1918, the Foreign Ministry of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (Minister Haidar Bammat) issued a protest to the Georgian government and the head of the German government's diplomatic mission in the Caucasus, Schulenburg, regarding the entry of German troops into Sukhum and the presence of Georgian units in Abkhazia.

+ Correspondence between Simon Basaria and Haydar Bammat
+ Quotes from the 'Between Red and White' by Leon Trotsky
+ Georgian policy towards Abkhazia in the period 1918-1921, by Vadim Mukhanov
+ Abkhazia and Georgia on the Verge of Independence (1917 - 1921), by Cem Kumuk

In his seminal work, 'The Abkhazian People's Soviet 1917-1920' (Sukhum, 2007), Ruslan Khodzhaa delves into archival records to uncover the strategic manoeuvres of Tbilisi, shedding light on the enduring nature of Georgian policies towards Abkhazia. Drawing from his earlier publication, 'Documents and Materials of the Abkhazian People's Soviet 1918-1919' (Sukhum, 1999), Khodzhaa highlights the unparalleled severity of Mazniashvili's campaign: 'Not a single tsarist general exhibited such merciless fury in subduing the Caucasian peoples as Mazniev did in Abkhazia' (p.7). It's noteworthy that Mazniev's harsh tactics were not confined to Abkhazia but extended to South Ossetia as well. Carl Bechhofer, an English observer, provides a critical perspective on Georgia during this era in 'In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920' (London, 1921 p.14): "'The Free and Independent Social-Democratic State of Georgia' will always remain in my memory as a classic example of an imperialist 'small nation.' Both in territory-snatching outside and bureaucratic tyranny inside, its chauvinism was beyond all bounds."

The punitive actions of General Mazniashvili and Colonel Tukhareli in the summer and autumn of 1918 were "compared in their cruelty and inhumanity" with the actions of the Tsarist General Maksud Alikhanov-Avarsky in Georgia in 1906, stated the chairman of the "Mountainous Republic," Tapo Chermoev, in a declaration to the Georgian government on September 29, 1919.

"The Georgians occupied Tuapse and the first railway station of Armavir. The soldiers from the Abkhazian mobile unit refused to cross the boundaries of their territory and returned to their homes. The Georgians officially proclaimed the occupation of the Abkhazian lands. They appointed General Mazniev, the commander of the coastal troops, as the military governor of this region. They aimed to nationalise governmental institutions and mandated that officials learn Georgian within three months, or they would face replacement.

The Georgians placed all assets related to the station under their control. They regard the Abkhazian land as a district within their republic. General Mazniev interfered in the internal affairs of the Abkhazian land by appointing commissioners of Georgian nationality. Official representatives of the Georgian Republic attended the debates of the Abkhaz National Assembly. Despite their presence, this assembly protested against all the events that had taken place so far."

from Simon Basaria to Haydar Bammat (26 August 1918)

General Giorgi Mazniashvili's occupation of Abkhazia extended until 1921. In that year, both the "Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia" and the "Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia" were declared (March 4 and March 18, respectively). However, on 21 May 1921, Abkhazia's incorporation into a Georgian federation was mandated. A further treaty of union, signed on 16 December 1921, established particularly close military, political, and financial/economic cooperation between the two republics.

Within the Transcaucasian Federation, Abkhazia enjoyed equal partnership with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. As a member, it participated in founding the Soviet Union as a full subject of international law. Notably, "Abkhazia's sovereignty was not restricted by the Georgian constitution, but solely by that of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic and the USSR. Hence, Abkhazia formally retained the right to secede from both federations independently of Georgia."

Nevertheless, with significant input from prominent figures such as Joseph Stalin, of Georgian ethnicity, and Lavrenti Beria, who was Mingrelian, Abkhazia's status was downgraded to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Georgia in 1931. This act, as Vladislav Ardzinba, Abkhazia's first president, declared in 1989, made it 'just about the only republic whose political status was downgraded rather than upgraded by Stalin.' This pivotal decision not only diminished its status from that of a full republic but also initiated a policy of Georgianization.

After wandering in exile, Mazniashvili returned to the Soviet Union, where he was executed in 1937. In a remarkable turn of posthumous recognition, he was awarded the title and Order of National Hero of Georgia in 2013.

General Mazniashvili's occupation of Abkhazia not only altered the course of history but also sowed the seeds of future conflict. The contested narratives, enduring grievances, and unresolved questions surrounding this event continue to reverberate today.




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