Abkhazia and Chechnya
Separatism and State System – Myths and Reality
Lavrentiy Amshentcy (Gagra, Abkhazia)
Michael Stiopin (Moscow, Russian Federaion)
Aleksey Nikitin (Oxford, Great Britain)
Being unable to eliminate Abkhazian statehood by neither local political manoeuvring nor militarily, Georgia tries to achieve the same goal with a help of World powers. Georgia actively appeals to the international community, labelling Abkhazians as “aggressive separatists”, cooking tales about a presence of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Abkhazia, and showing “similarities” between Abkhazia and a rebellious Russian province Chechnya. The last trick is designed for Russians to convince them that Abkhazia statehood has no more rights to exist than “sovereign Chechnya”. Vast majority of Russian population opposes to a creation of an independent Chechen state, hence the “similarities” may shift Russian public opinion against independent Abkhazia. This is especially essential as Russia dominates in Caucasus political landscape.
Georgian leaders deliberately draw parallels between Abkhazian authorities and Chechen warlords, misleading public opinion. Georgia rulers hope that international community will believe Georgian tales without proper understanding of real situation. And it happened already when after USSR disruption Georgia was accepted by the United Nations and the Organisation of European Security and Co-operation (OSCE). These respectable organisations agreed with Georgia in legitimacy of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and a belonging of Abkhazia and South Osetia to the newly born Georgian state with Capital in Tbilisi. Josef Stalin, being a Georgian national by origin, decisively assisted Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia to privatise Abkhazia and South Osetia. Stalin’s logic – logic of Soviet dictator of Georgian origin – became acceptable for the UN and the OSCE after the collapse of Soviet Stalin’s dictatorship.
Even further, Georgia tries to attribute an appearance of independent Abkhazia state after the Soviet Union disruption to some Russian “imperial intrigues”, allegedly Russian assistance to Abkhaz separatists in purpose to dismantle independent Georgia. It is a fact that Chechen rebels before an attempt to settle an independent Chechnya, participated in the fight to liberate Abkhazia from Georgian military invasion. Georgia speculates that Russia fostered Chechen terrorists through a support of Abkhazia’s claim for independence and acquired a “boomerang” of troubled Chechnya. Now Georgia blames Russia for keeping double standards, namely supporting “terrorists-separatists” in Abkhazia while fighting against Chechen separatists in Chechnya and demanding from Georgia military efforts against Chechen terrorists in Georgian gorge Pankisi.
It is true, both Abkhazians and Chechens can be named separatists in some respect. But let us understand without unnecessary emotions where the border between national liberation movement and separatism lays in comparison of Chechnya and Abkhazia.
Every nation has a natural right to dream about sovereignty. And if it is not achieved yet, there is a possibility to acquire sovereignty through fight for independence. To distinguish national liberation movement from terrorists-separatists is for a great extent a matter of personal preferences, sometimes against decency and with double standards. Statehood dream among Abkhazians and Chechens is of separatist character. Republic of Abkhazia appeared exactly because of Abkhaz people desire to live separately from Georgia. The same logic of separation but from Russia inspired the Islamic Republic of Ichkeria (Chechnya). During some periods in history Abkhazians were evicted from their land by Russians after their participation in antirussian activities in Caucasus (so called “makhadjirra”). And Chechens were moved from their homeland under Stalin’s order. Similar to Abkhazia, in the recent history Chechnya got its independence de facto through enormous sacrifice. Here all parallels and similarities end and differences begin.
The first and the most important is that the statehood of Abkhazia has its centuries-old history, while Chechnya never had its own state system. Abkhazia voluntary joined Russian Empire in 1810 to be protected from Ottoman Empire. After that Abkhazia preserved its autonomy in Russia for 54 years. Chechnya was incorporated into Russia by force in 1859. Since 1864 Abkhazia did not fight against Russia and often acted as her ally. The history of Chechen people was made of skirmishes with their neighbours, but the main aspect of the last 250 years was a fight against Russian expansion in the Caucasus. When military operations were less intensive, Chechnya fell into a devastating internecine wars and bloody conflicts between Chechen clans.
During the last centuries the history of Abkhaz people and state were closely connected to the history of Russia. Unlike Chechens, Abkhazians almost always supported Russian policies in Caucasus. From the end of 18th century to the beginning of 19th century (before entering Russian Empire in 1810) Abkhazia conducted numerous and nearly continuous wars for liberation. Very often Russian Kazak troops and regular Russian army supported the people of Abkhazia.
Not only mighty Ottoman Empire attacked Abkhazia. Georgia also attempted to conquer Abkhazia several times. In 20th century after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Georgia declared its sovereignty. At the same time she claimed territories of Abkhazia and partly Kuban area of Southern Russia. Georgia occupied these lands for about three years until Georgian troops under command of gen. Mazniashvili were thrown out of Kuban and Abkhazia by joint forces of the Red Army and Abkhazian squads “Kiaraz”.
Chechnya also fought, but against Russian Empire, being a part of the Empire. The Ottoman Turkey, Georgia and their mighty allies (Germany, and after its defeat in the First World War Great Britain) rendered a considerable assistance to Chechen squads in order to undermine Russian power or at least to engage Russia in a continuous conflict in Caucasus.
The history of Abkhazia during Soviet time can be named “a history of a single gift”, which was given to the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic by Josef Dzhugashvili (Stalin). From 1921 to 1931 Abkhazia had a status of the Soviet Socialist Republic, i. e. a part of the USSR, equal to Russia or Georgia. But in 1931 according to “a unanimous will of the people” (as it was usually for the Soviet style hypocrisy) the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic was incorporated into Georgian Republic and became an autonomous area of Georgia. The status of the top rank entity in the USSR was reduced to the status of autonomy in Georgia. That was the beginning of the history of Abkhazian “separatism from Georgia”.
The incorporation of Abkhazia strongly reinforced Georgian efforts to “Georgianise” Abkhazia and its population. Forceful assimilation with numerously coming Georgians plus repressions and complete extermination of Abkhaz intellectual elite quickly moved situation to a disappearance of Abkhaz traditions and even ethnical group itself. In 1937-1938 according to a special Decree Abkhazian alphabet was converted into a one on Georgian graphical basis. In 1945 education in Abkhaz schools began on Georgian language.
The following are extracts from Resolution of Abkhaz communist party committee of 13 March 1945:
1. For a purpose of improving the quality of education and tutorial activity at schools of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, preparation of qualified graduates among Abkhazians and meeting desires of broad masses of Abkhaz intellectuals, students and their parents, the existing educational system in Abkhaz schools must be cancelled.
2. Taking into account the availability of common alphabet and lexical similarity between Georgian and Abkhazian languages (nothing common and the languages belong to different lingual families – authors’ remark), and also the fact that major part of Abkhazian population knows Georgian language (this fact did not meet the reality also – authors’ remark), all students at Abkhazian schools must study in Georgian language from 1945-1946 academic year.
There were introduced state programmes on moving inhabitants of the Eastern part of Georgia (quite poor and rural areas) into Abkhazia. It finalised Abkhazia’s national catastrophe. During a short period of several decades Abkhaz people were turned from majority into an insignificant minority. According to the Russian census of the population in 1897, Abkhaz people constituted 58,7% of Abkhazia population. From 1959 Abkhaz population accounted only 15% and further even less. In parallel in 1897 Georgians in Abkhazia composed 1.9% and Mengrels (another ethnic group) were of 22.4%. During Soviet time Stalin ordered to consider Mengrels as Georgians. So, Soviet statistics gives only combined numbers for Georgians and Mengrels, being named Georgians. In 1959 Abkhazia accounted 39.1% Georgians among her residents which grew up to 45.7% in 1989.
Along with mass arrival of Georgians to Abkhazia, quite substantial amount of Abkhazian surnames were modified according to Georgian style. Authorities of Georgian republic intentionally impeded a return of young Abkhaz specialists back home after their graduation from colleges in Russia. Abkhaz newspapers were closed; many Abkhazians were simply renamed and registered as Georgians. It is hard to believe it, but it happened.
It was absolutely clear for Georgian and Soviet leaders that such policies badly needed some “theoretical” justification. And in the beginning of 1950-s there appeared a “scientific” theory of Pavel Ingorokva. This theory targeted to put an end to the Abkhazian ethnical existence. According to this theory, Abkhazians (self named “apsua”) were an ethnic group that intruded into Abkhazia area of today from North Caucasus and assimilated among local at that time Georgian population – so called “Abkhazians of middle ages”. It happened during Stalin’s era of political intrusions into science. Even Georgian historians could not support this approach, as it did not have any foundation in history.
Returning to Chechnya issue, someone has to certify that despite constant conflicts with Chechens, Russia did not pursue a policy of Chechen assimilation among ethnic Russians. Aiming to subdue an obstinate in resistance mountainous territory, Russia escalated the conflict, deported Chechen people, but during the two-century history of hostilities Russia did not change demographical situation in Chechnya in favour of Russians (with a single exception of deportation of Chechens by Josef Stalin during 2-d World War allegedly for a collaboration with German fascists; and eventually Chechens were allowed to return to Chechnya during Soviet period). Chechen people managed to preserve their way of life, culture and language, remaining as a numerical majority on their territory. Russia did not declare Chechens as “coming aliens” and never tried to deprive them of their right of autonomy.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent formation of independent states gave an extra push to processes of disintegration on former Soviet territories. But the disruption of the Soviet Union “was allowed” and limited only to the level of the Union’s main 15 republics, while all other ethnic statehoods were named illegal and their followers correspondingly became “separatists”. Stalin’s gift of Abkhazia to Georgia suddenly became “forever” and the international community named Georgia as the owner of Abkhazia’s sovereignty. Chechnya found herself in a similar to Abkhazia situation, being allocated to Russian sovereignty. Abkhazia wanted to restore her state system independent from Georgia, and Chechnya as usually craved for separation from Russia. Blunders of Russian and Georgian leaders led to a growing conflict and ended with military confrontation.
Undoubtedly, there is certain likeliness between situations in Abkhazia and Chechnya (fight for a sovereignty in the specificity of USSR disruption), but deeper examination brings lots of profound differences, which allow us instead of parallels to emphasize on strong differences between Abkhazian and Chechen “separatisms”.
Interestingly, understanding of sovereignty in the USSR did not coincide with full independence. And sovereignty of ethnic autonomies meant for population rather an opposition to the strictly unified totalitarian state. Sovereignty of Tatarstan was declared earlier than the Ukrainian one but Tatarstan does not seek full independence from Russia, while celebrating 10-year anniversary of its “sovereignty”.
After the declaration of sovereignty in August 1990, Abkhazia did not have an opportunity to demonstrate her ability of existence as an independent state, because this declaration did not mean a creation of a sovereign state. Instead Abkhazia declared her sovereignty as an equal to Georgia and/or Russia republic within frame of the Soviet Union. After Georgia’s declaration of her independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and then after the collapse of the USSR, Georgia tried to re-establish its power over Abkhazia. In a desperate move Georgia launched a bloody war against Abkhazians in August 1992 that ended with an utter defeat of Georgia. Abkhazia, understanding its borders, did not transfer military actions on Georgia land and restricted herself to a liberation of Abkhazian territory only. New history of sovereign Republic of Abkhazia started from 1993.
First years of independence were the hardest ones for the small republic. Country lost about 150 thousand people out of about half million in Soviet time. People left Abkhazia fleeing horrors of war. There were many ethnical Georgians among the refugees partly because some local Georgians supported Georgian invasion against Abkhazia and were afraid of possible retaliation from Abkhazia authorities. Country’s economy was severely damaged during the war and badly needed rehabilitation. But there was no money for that. Moreover, Georgia managed to initiate a strict economic blockade of Abkhazia by the member-states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (the successor of the USSR). That impoverished the population and stimulated a substantial growth of primitive street criminality. The situation became really desperate and Abkhazian authorities undertook special measures for getting over the social and economic crisis without any assistance from abroad, leaning only on the country’s own resources. During a short period of time the executive and legislative bodies – the government and one-chamber parliament – were created all over again, home affairs and state security departments were strengthened, the government launched a special programme to re-enforce economic activity. Soon Abkhazia noticed results. Crime gradually declined, especially it can be seen in Gagra and Sukhum districts, where there appeared again tens of thousands of tourists, like in pre-war time. In 2000 the Ministry of Economy certified for the first time since the USSR disruption an economic growth.
In Chechnya from 1991 all conditions were available for a de facto independence and a construction of statehood. The whole region, rich of oil and minerals, with a developed industry and substantial scientific potential, started its way to a sovereignty, that was a dream for many Chechens during the history. How did Chechnya use this historic opportunity? We all remember “heroic deeds of Chechen financiers” cooking fake avisos (payment instructions) and squandering millions and millions of roubles by high Chechen officials. We all remember Chechen criminal enterprises throughout Russian territory and famous Chechen gangsters who are well known in Europe and United Stated today. Due to constant nationalistic oppressions, Russians and other Russian-speaking people fled Chechnya by hundreds of thousands. Ethnic Chechens also were among fleeing people. As a consequence, industry and economy in general sharply declined, resulting in poverty of the remaining Chechen population. There was a huge rise of crime. Eventually Chechnya turned itself into a hotbed of crime of enormous scale. Abduction of people for getting ransom became a flourishing business. Chechen gunmen regularly attacked Russian territories situated near Chechnya. Raging crime was supported by official authorities of Ichkeria, which in their turn were financed by criminal money in unprecedented scope. Military conflict with Russia became inevitable and exploded with “the first Chechen war” which ended with an agreement with Kremlin, officially certifying a de facto independence for Chechnya (Khasavjurt agreements).
By that time Chechnya had become a bulwark of international terrorism. Civil authorities of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria were not in control of guerrillas and numerous warlords on their territory. Gradually power moved into warlords’ hands. Chechen authorities annulled civil legislation and introduced Islamic Sharia laws. Out of hand processes led to an invasion of Chechen and Arab guerrillas into the territory of neighbouring Russian province Dagestan. Russia retaliated with a new offensive – “the Second Chechen war” – and completely defeated the army of the Islamic state of Ichkeria, and Chechnya failed to appear as a decent independent state.
Hence, they’re continued centuries-old history of Abkhazian state, and a short history of Chechen state ended in failure while Chechen separatism continued.