Abkhazia: stable but fragile


Abkhazia, the small and as yet internationally unrecognised breakaway state in the Caucasus, is being used by President Vladimir Putin of Russia to put pressure on independent Georgia. It may not want a real settlement to the situation.



ABKHAZIA, the pearl of the Black Sea, was a major Soviet tourist destination sheltered from turmoil. Now, 10 years after the war with Georgia in 1992-93, the small Caucasian state is in uncertain peace, defending its de facto independence unrecognised by the international community.

The war caused 10,000 deaths, and there are 200,000 Georgian refugees, most of them still living in makeshift shelters in Georgia without any hope of return. The scars of war can be seen everywhere in Abkhazia and the infrastructure remains devastated. Of an estimated post-war population of less than 180,000, 10% depend on international aid. There is still no negotiated settlement between Georgia and Abkhazia.

In 1989, as perestroika encouraged hopes for independence all over the USSR, Abkhazia was only an autonomous republic of Georgia. (Until 1931, when Stalin changed its status, it had been on an equal footing with Georgia.) On 18 March 1989 the national Abkhaz movement Ajdgylara wanted to be "no longer to be a part of the Republic of Georgia".

Tbilisi reacted immediately to this attempt at secession. Georgians were the region's dominant ethnic group (1). As Professor Georges Charachidze of the Paris-based Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (Inalco) said, violence on both sides reflected "this pathology of historical conscience affecting all peoples of the USSR. The same obsession consumed both Georgians and Azerbaijanis: loud claims to an exalted past led to legitimisation of the expulsion of Abkhaz and Armenian minorities, supposedly the weaker element in this relationship"(2). Demonstrations quickly turned into calls for independence. On 9 April 1989 Soviet troops violently dispersed demonstrations, killing 21 people.

The split between Georgia and its satellite republic began and their interests were irreconcilable. Abkhazia continued to claim its sovereignty, even proposing to establish federal links with Tbilisi. But Georgia believed its emancipation from the Soviet system began with the defence of its territory.

On 6 January 1992 Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected in May 1991, whose nationalist and authoritarian line angered the opposition, was overthrown in a coup. In March, Gorbachev's former foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was called back to Georgia to preside over the national council, serving as a provisional parliament. In July the independent republic was admitted to the United Nations and the World Bank.

But fighting broke out in South Ossetia, Georgia's other autonomous republic, and opposition loyal to Gamsakhurdia was a threat. In the absence of Georgian representatives, Abkhazia's Supreme Soviet under Vladislav Ardzinba reinstated the 1925 Abkhaz constitution on 23 July, formalising a return to its pre-1931 status.

War started on 14 August 1992. Under the pretext of securing railways and liberating hostages, Georgian forces entered Abkhazia with the real goal of neutralising separatists. There was fighting until 27 September 1993. Supported by volunteers from the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus (including men loyal to the Chechen leader, Shamil Basayev) and especially by the Russian army, which sent a regiment of the 104th parachute division, Abkhaz forces retook their capital, Sukhumi. Almost the entire Georgian population of Abkhazia fled.

Georgia was on its knees. To secure Russia's military support against the Gamsakhurdia rebels and without consulting parliament, Shevardnadze accepted Georgia's membership into the Community of Independent States on 9 October 1993.

Previously he had turned it down. It was a victory for Moscow: troublesome Georgia fell into line and ended its pro-Western ambitions and its distance from Moscow.

Russia used the Abkhaz question to control its near neighbours. Even though there was "no real Russian strategy in the Caucasus" in the words of Silvia Serrano of the Inalco-based body, Observatory of Post-Soviet States, the coexistence of real and imagined interests, from the geopolitical to the trivial, combined to keep the region under Russian supervision.

By helping Abkhaz separatists, Moscow wanted leverage over Georgia, the key to the Caucasus. Some Russian political and military figures believed that control of the corridor was in Russia's vital security interests: a buffer against Turkey and Iran, and an open passage to the Black Sea. After Abkhazia became part of its protectorate in 1810, Russia showed several times how little importance it attached to the nation. This was not forgotten in Abkhazia. But the small state's need to protect itself against Georgia forced it to turn towards Russia. Most of the population thought that ordinary existence was no longer possible. Only Russian forces were strong enough to ensure the defence of the country, as the fighting of September-October 2001 had proved.

Russia established its influence in Abkhazia. Encouraged at the highest levels of power, Russian investment blossomed, with mobile phone networks, the purchase or long-term rental of tourist infrastructure, even the planting of 10,000 hectares of hazelnut trees by a chocolate manufacturer. In spring 2002 a campaign was organised to grant Russian citizenship to Abkhazians without papers - a way to bring the destinies of the peoples closer. In December the Sochi-Sukhumi railway line was reopened despite sharp protests from Tbilisi. Russia is now an essential player in any settlement. "The key to the conflict lies in Russia," says Cyrille Gloaguen, a researcher at the Institut français de géopolitique. "From the day the Kremlin decides to settle it, and takes the role of arbitrator, it will be only a matter of weeks."

But we must not underestimate how antagonistic the protagonists have become - either side of the Inguri river, stereotypes have hardened. To Abkhazians, Georgia is still the aggressor. And most Georgians refuse to recognise Abkhazian claims of identity and even the existence of an Abkhaz-Georgian problem: Tbilisi still refers to territorial loss and its compulsory return.

Paata Zacharieshvili is a Georgian philosopher and an instigator of the informal dialogue between civil representatives from Georgia and Abkhazia. He emphasises: "We must admit that the Abkhaz conflict did not begin with the 1992-93 war, but is far more deeply rooted. There can be no solution as long as we refuse to understand Abkhazian aspirations and admit our responsibility in the outbreak of war."

But Abkhazians have taken on the part of a threatened minority that they inherited from the Soviet era. The absorption of their republic by Georgia in 1931, and the subsequent ban of the Abkhaz language, the cultural repression and massive implantation of Georgians and Russians into the country remain on their minds. So does the era of Georgianisation. Destalinisation did help to right the situation, but Abkhazians still fear the loss of their identity.

In Georgia it is often said that Abkhazians were guests of the nation, a mountain people who merely descended from the North Caucasus a few centuries ago to settle on the banks of the Black Sea. Who was there first? Invoking the past means that the real questions about the constitution of stable nations are never asked and any real settlement avoided.

No one knows what will become of Abkhazia, but it has become a Russian means of exerting pressure on independent Georgia. This became clear last summer as Russian companies retook control of Georgian energy distribution (3). But even if a pro-Russian president succeeded Shevardnadze, the nature of the conflict would still not change. "It looks unlikely to be settled anytime soon," says Serrano, "because Moscow is not holding all the cards."

This situation suits Abkhazia. Given a choice between the Russian rock and the Georgian hard place, Sukhumi will claim independence, but remain open to the idea of an association with the Russian Federation. In 2004 no successor to the ailing Ardzinba will be able to do anything else.

State structure in the region is weak. Pressure from clans and former networks of influence from the USSR is strong, and mafia interests are a major obstacle to any conflict resolution. The ceasefire line along the Inguri river is a lawless zone where Abkhaz and Georgian smugglers run their stolen car, petrol and cigarette trafficking businesses freely and harmoniously.

What can the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (Unomig) or the group of friends of the Secretary-General (4) achieve in this context? The UN Special Representative in Georgia, Heidi Tagliavini, says: "The Abkhaz question is still not settled, but the situation is now stable, if fragile, thanks in part to Unomig."

Working from the Boden document, which proposes a "distribution of competences" between Abkhazia and Georgia based on a federal state, the international community continues to back Georgia's territorial integrity. But this is unacceptable for Sukhumi. "The important thing is to start negotiations," insists Tagliavini. "This document is just a launching point."

In March 2003 Vladimir Putin and Shevardnadze met in Sochi to discuss the Abkhaz question. Their signed agreement called for the return of Georgian refugees to the Gali region, the reopening of the Sochi-Tbilisi railway line via Sukhumi, and the modernisation of the Inguri hydroelectric plant. Presented as a step forward, the Sochi agreement confirmed the status quo, particularly in the case of the Gali refugees. It also put Moscow in command to the detriment of the UN and possibly of any comprehensive political settlement.

* Mathilde Damoisel is a documentary filmmaker, director of 'Soukhoumi, rive noire' (The Black Shore of Sukhumi), a film on the contemporary history of Abkhazia. Régis Genté is a Tbilisi- based journalist

(1) After the 1989 census, the population was estimated at 525,000, 46% Georgians, 18% Abkhazians, 15% Armenians, 15% Russian and 3% Greek.

(2) "L'Empire et Babel: les minorités dans la perestroïka," Le Genre humain, n° 20, "Face aux drapeaux," Gallimard-Seuil, Paris, 1989.

(3) On 6 August, the Russian company Unified Energy System (UES) bought the shares from AES Corp, the US shareholder holding 75% of AES Telasi, which handles electricity distribution in the Georgian capital. (4) France, Russia, Germany, the UK, and the US.

Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane  January 2004