Paul Henze (Rand Corporation) and Abkhazia:Some Observations

by George Hewitt, FBA

Professor of Caucasian Languages, London University


Paul Henze was a member of the small team sent in November 1992 to Abkhazia/Georgia by the London-based NGO International Alert to investigate the conflict that had already developed into full-scale war. My comments on the resulting report, largely written by Henze and which appeared in January 1993, are already available on this web-site -- as is my response to Henze's document presented (though not, as expected, in person) in February 1993 for the Caucasian section at the International Negotiating Network's discussion of the regional problems held at the Jimmy Carter Center (Atlanta). From 29 May to 1 June 1997 Henze paid his first visit to Abkhazia since that 1992 trip in the company of William Courtney, then US Ambassador to Georgia. His impressions were set down in what he styled an 'Abkhazia Diary -- 1997' and circulated towards the end of that year. A copy was despatched to Sukhum in December in the hope that a collective response could be prepared in case the Diary was ever officially published anywhere. That publication has now taken place, but sadly the hoped for response is not yet available from Abkhazia itself, still under CIS (viz. Russian) blockade.


In June 1997 a conference took place in Haarlem, organised by a Dutch-based organisation interested in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the name SOTA. The 'hot spots' of Abkhazia, Chechenia and Nagorno-Karabagh were discussed. Both Georgian and Abkhazian spokesmen (inter alios) attended, as I did myself. The conference-volume has just appeared under the title 'Caucasus: War and Peace' (edited by conference-organiser Mehmet Tutuncu). Not all papers given at the conference are included, and the volume contains some additions, including (for reasons best known to the editor) Henze's Diary. Below is a response elicited from an Abkhazian academic (Dr. Yura Anchabadze of the Russian Academy's Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology) who, working in Moscow, is more easily contactable than colleagues in Sukhum.


However, I should like to add a brief statement of my own by way of preface.


It is obvious not only from the above-mentioned International Alert report but from his other writings (e.g. on Russo-Chechen or Russo-Circassian relations) that Henze must see the Caucasus in very elementary and formulaic terms -- peoples who oppose Russia/the Kremlin deserve Western support, those whose attitudes are less clearly defined, possibly because they themselves are in conflict with those well known for their anti-Russian/anti-Kremlin sentiments, do not. Manifestly it is just such prejudice that underpins Henze's anti-Abkhazianism. Not only has he not altered the views expressed in 1992, he evidently adheres to them fervently, stating categorically on p. 91 of the new volume: 'He [V. Khagba] had a Russian translation of our 1992 International Alert report on Georgia and Abkhazia with passages underlined and from time to time asked me questions aimed to determine whether I had changed my mind about recommendations we made then. I had not.' Perhaps Henze is unaware that International Alert's Secretary-General, Kumar Rupesinghe, apologised in my presence to the Abkhazian delegation visiting the Jimmy Carter Center in February 1993 that his NGO had published a report of such bias and poor quality, promising to make this apology public (though I am not aware that this undertaking was ever fulfilled) -- this should put Henze's maintenance of his 1992 opinions into context.


The Diary reads like a 1940s' B-movie script in which the 'goodies' are clean-shaven, neatly dressed individuals endowed with all the positive qualities one could imagine, whilst the 'baddies' are unshaven, dressed in black and painted in the worst possible light just in case the audience's intelligence cannot be trusted to work out for themselves on the basis of objective characterisation exactly who is who and what they espouse. A few illustrations will give a flavour of the whole:


GEORGIANS: A friendly Georgian lady welcomed us...and...set a good meal on the table for us.

It was a lively affair, Georgian-style.


The Russian blockade [sc. of Abkhazia] hurts far more than anything the Georgians have done here.


A newspaper in the Mingrelian dialect is being published in Abkhazia while use of the dialect, he said, is forbidden in Georgia [N.B. many Georgians mistakenly believe Mingrelian to be a Georgian dialect -- though it is a language related to Georgian, it is incomprehensible to Georgian speakers (and vice versa) -- and it suits the Georgian case that Mingrelians be deemed ethnically Georgian to have it treated as such -- BGH].


A rather good red [winde] served out of pitchers (was it Georgian?).


It was remarkable how the feel of the countryside changed after we crossed the bridge [sc. from Abkhazia into the Georgian province of Mingrelia] -- neater, more prosperous, with a feeling of life and activity as well as progress [hardly surprising in view of the fact that Abkhazia is under blockade and nothing has been done to rebuild its shattered infrastructure -- BGH].


All [Georgians] discussed Abkhazia calmly and rationally...There is, I believe, considerable flexibility in their concept of federalism as it applies to Abkhazia.


It is the Abkhaz leadership that fears discussions/negotiations, not the Georgians.




ABKHAZIANS: At bottom they know that the Russians and the North Caucasians really won it [the war] for them.


The Abkhaz nomenklatura [Henze conveniently forgets Shevardnadze's often unsavoury apparatchik-career -- BGH].

I hoped I might have provoked them into thinking constructively. I was mistaken.


Ardzinba's position is no talks until Georgia first accepts Abkhaz independence [N.B. that the meeting between Ardzinba and Shevardnadze in Tbilisi on 14 Aug 1997 makes a nonsense of this assertion -- BGH].


He...started by reviewing the Abkhaz situation over the past ten years -- but it was the total party line.


Ardzinba invited us to come to dinner at his guesthouse, the Stalin Dacha...He is unlikely to be able to survive even a modest dose of democracy in Abkhazia.


The lady who had been in the afternoon meeting in his office, a very attractive slender Caucasian type, sat next to Ardzinba and kept looking at him admiringly while we ate and talked...She was not introduced as his wife.


I think enough has been quoted for readers to understand the essence of the Henze style (including even smutty innuendo). I will mention just one other of his apparently 'ex cathedra' pronouncements, namely: '...Abkhaz, a language which is much less developed than Georgian'. Coming from someone who is unable to recognise the language-status of Mingrelian, this insult to a language which linguists universally regard as one of the world's most demanding should be treated appropriately. For information on Abkhaz see B.G. Hewitt & Z.K. Khiba 'Abkhazian Newspaper Reader' (Dunwoody Press, Maryland), April 1998.


My own contribution to the Haarlem conference (and resulting volume) was a discussion of some of the historical/linguistic works produced in Tbilisi that have distorted Abkhazian history/ethnicity over the years. I closed with the remark: 'What we are dealing with here is simply pseudo-scholarship; its practitioners, who award higher prestige to chauvinism than scholarship, should be exposed and treated accordingly.' It is fitting that my article is placed immediately after Henze's Diary...


An Abkhazian's Response to Paul Henze's "Abkhazia Diary -- 1997" by Yura Anchabadze


The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict continues to exist on the periphery of society's attention in countries of the Western world. In any case, European countries and the USA are much better and more fully informed about inter-ethnic clashes taking place in the Balkans, in Ethiopia, in Rwanda and in other 'hot spots' on the planet than about the circumstances that have developed in the Caucasus, particularly in Abkhazia. Moreover, there is not a single conflict in the Caucasus with which as many myths and legends have become associated as that between Georgia and Abkhazia. They wander from one publication into another, distorting the truth and preventing observers from gaining an adequate appreciation of (a) the historical, political and ideological sources behind the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute, (b) the current situation, and (c) prospects for a settlement in the region.


Positively speaking, one can say that Henze's piece differs from a string of other materials on the said theme thanks principally to a more attentive and deeper analysis of the situation. For example, this author is clearly not a victim of one of the most widespread myths about the Abkhazians, namely that they are muslims, one and all. Corresponding to this myth, many have discussed the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict in terms of the primitive framework of a religious clash between muslims and christians. It is quite evident that Henze understands many other political points too.


At the same time, however, Henze is not free from some mythologised stereotypes, just as he is susceptible to a certain superficial, primitive and simplistic view on the background to the conflict and on the current state of affairs. This is the more regrettable since many of the 1992 judgments, expressed in the addendum ('Attachment: October 1992 Appraisal. An Informal Assessment of the Abkhaz Problem', pp.108-114), have remained unaltered and are essentially repeated in the 'Diary'. Among these, the causes of the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute are considerably deeper and more tragic than they appear to the author, and thus attempts to find a way to settle the problem peacefully demand a more thoughtful and considered approach to defining concrete mechanisms for its realisation.


It would be a gross error to suppose that the fundamental knot of the Georgian-Abkhazian antagonism was tied only within the last 10 years, as it might appear from Henze's materials. Of course, things became especially acute in the period preceding the collapse of the USSR and in the post-Soviet years, but one simply cannot understand the genesis of the conflict without a historical retrospective of Georgian-Abkhazian relations. Henze mentions some historical facts which are important from the point of view of the chronological and essential dynamics of the conflict, but the interpretations he gives them call for refutation.


In the view of Henze, 'The Abkhaz are far from being one of the most abused of the Caucasian peoples -- they were never deported' (p.109). It is perfectly true that during the Soviet period the Abkhazians were not deported. However, during the years of totalitarian dictatorship they were fated to live through not a few torments. Thus, the state-legal status of the republic was gradually lowered: Abkhazia, declared a Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1921, was compelled in December of the same year to contract a federative treaty with Georgia and then in 1931 to become a mere Autonomous Republic within the structure of Georgia. To appreciate the essence of the conflict it is important to recognise that in parallel with this diminution in status there was an increase in the dependence of Sukhum on Tbilisi -- from the wide possibilities of self-governance, which was indeed feasible in the confines of the Soviet system, to complete political subordination to Georgian Communist Party rule.


It was precisely this lack of rights which enabled Tbilisi to unleash the harsh policy of georgianisation which was conducted in Abkhazia from the end of the 1930s upto the start of the 1950s. Its prime aim was the enforced assimilation of the Abkhazians, the elimination of Abkhazian ethnic culture, the dissolution of the Abkhazian ethnic group within a Kartvelian ethno-cultural environment. In particular, the Abkhazian language was prohibited from being taught in schools; Abkhaz writing, which at the time was based on the Roman script, was transferred to a graphical representation based on Georgian characters; original Abkhazian toponyms were transformed into Georgian ones; ethnic Abkhazians suffered discrimination and restriction of rights, which rendered a political or social career impossible for them. Conscious of the prevailing climate, a range of Kartvelian historians came out with theories of the ethnic equivalence of Abkhazians and Kartvelians.


A component of the policy of georgianisation was immigration. Tens of thousands of Kartvelians [primarily Mingrelians -- translator] were forcibly transported into Abkhazia from interior regions of Georgia. The natural consequence of this was that Kartvelians quickly achieved for themselves the position of being the numerically dominant group amongst the population of Abkhazia [see Daniel Muller 'Demography. Ethno-demographic history of Abkhazia, 1886 1989', chapter 15 of 'The Abkhazians -- A Handbook' (Curzon Press), edited by B.G. Hewitt, to appear 1998].


Henze considers that 'Abkhazia is in fact one of Georgia's most prosperous regions' (p. 109). Consequently it would seem that Henze considers the Abkhazians to have had no cause for separatist sentiments. In truth, the standard of living for the population of Abkhazia was as a whole satisfactorily high, which was facilitated by income from the tourist-industry as well as by high prices for the basic produce of the rural economy (citrus, tea, tobacco, grapes). However, economic demands were never promoted by the Abkhazian national movement, and so references to Abkhazia's economic prosperity shed no light on the essence of the conflict.


The basic cause that fed the conflict was concentrated in Abkhazia's ongoing lack of political rights. The totalitarian concentration of power at the top which characterised the governmental structure of the USSR had an effect at all levels, including the mutual relations between union-republics and autonomous republics. In this connection, the fundamental decisions affecting the crucial interests of Abkhazia were taken not in Sukhum but in Tbilisi. As a result, the Abkhazians were deprived of any possibility of influencing the situation in their own republic; at the same time the processes unfolding here had a distinct anti-Abkhazian character. And so, despite the fact that following the denunciation of Stalin the most repressive methods of georgianisation were suspended, the all-powerful position of Tbilisi gave it the possibility of continuing the process by other, 'softer' means. Thus, the policy approved by the authorities of settling in Abkhazia migrants from Georgia's inner regions allowed ethnic Kartvelians to become the socially dominant group ahead of the other ethnic groups within the local population; in the Georgian press and Georgian 'scholarly' works the history of Abkhazia and of the Abkhazians was falsified, for it was treated as purely Georgian.


Several times -- in 1957, 1964, 1967, 1987, 1989 -- the discontent of the Abkhazians poured out into open statements, mass-meetings and rallies. This puts in context Henze's assertion that 'the Abkhaz secessionists are led by an old nomenklatura that enjoyed dominance in the area under the Bolsheviks and does not want to lose its Soviet-era privileges' (p. 109). On the contrary, the Abkhazian nomenklatura, which lived exceedingly well in Soviet Georgia, fought strongly together with the Georgian authorities AGAINST the Abkhazian national movement and, especially, against those Abkhazian intellectuals who formulated the demands of the movement.


Henze's representation of another aspect of the history of the Abkhazian national movement is also not entirely convincing. If demonstrations during the period 1950-1970 were conducted under banners proclaiming that Abkhazia should leave Georgia and join Russia, in the 1990s the Abkhazian movement rallied beneath an already different banner, namely the restoration of Abkhazia's status as a union-republic. It was escape not only from Georgian dictat that was seen in this but also from analogical impulses that might have followed from the direction of Moscow.


The crisis in the Soviet system, so clearly manifested at the end of the 1980s, was accompanied by a rise in separatism within the union-republics themselves. Especially strong were the separatist sentiments in Georgia, where ulta-nationalist forces headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia directed the movement in favour of exiting the USSR. Gamsakhurdia and his followers envisaged independent Georgia as a unitary state, purged of all autonomous formations. Having become president, Gamsakhurdia gradually put his ideas into practice, liquidating in December 1990 the autonomy of South Ossetia. The president made no secret of his abkhazophobia, with the result that his threats to liquidate Abkhazia's autonomy were wholly real.


The attitudes of the Abkhazians to the prospect of the USSR's dissolution have to be seen in the context of relations with Georgia, which were ever deteriorating at that time. Henze is right when he states that the attitude of the Abkhazians to this prospect was negative. But the reason does not lie where Henze places it when he writes: 'A small group of former communist officials and politically inexperienced Abkhaz intellectuals who had monopolized all the benefits of the peculiar form of affirmative action the old Soviet Union arranged for especially favored minorities faced the demise of the Soviet system with fear of losing their privileges' (p.105), but rather in the fact that in this case Abkhazia would have been left facing one to one the totalitarian, anti-democratic, chauvinist regime which had become established in Georgia in the shape of Gamsakhurdia. Recently Eduard Shevardnadze has styled this period in Georgian history 'provincial fascism'. It is in no way surprising that the Abkhazians strove to distance themselves from such fascism.


In December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist and mechanically fragmented along the borders fixed in Soviet times. The Abkhazians understood that in the new situation it was necessary to seek acceptable and concessionary forms to their relationship with independent Georgia. The fall of the Gamsakhurdia regime and the return to Tbilisi of Shevardnadze opened up definite prospects for this. However, as far as Abkhazia was concerned, the new Georgian leader continued the policy of his predecessor. A range of actions and legislative acts of the new government bore witness to the fact that in Tbilisi they were intent as before on ignoring the fact of the existence of an Abkhazian autonomy. Such statements from Shevardnadze as 'questions pertaining to Abkhazia will be decided in Tbilisi' adequately reflect the position of the new Georgian government.


Meanwhile in Sukhum the search went on for compromises and mutually acceptable solutions. One of these was the project for a federative treaty between Georgia and Abkhazia, which the Abkhazian side intended to propose to Tbilisi. On 14 August 1992 at a meeting of Abkhazia's Supreme Council this project was to have been discussed. However, Shevardnadze did not have the slightest wish to consider any variants whatsoever for federative relations with Abkhazia. At dawn on this very day Georgian troops entered the territory of the autonomous republic.


Seeking to answer the question of the immediate causes of the Georgian-Abkhazian war, Henze meantime gives a palpably mythologised response, reducing this complex problem to the familiar mantra: 'Russian neo-imperialists and resentful communists saw a further incentive to punish him [Shevardnadze] for having deserted Gorbachev and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union' (p. 106).


The fundamental cause of the conflict and war is to be located in the difference of approach on the part of Abkhazia and Georgia to the definition of their political relations in the post-Soviet period. If Abkhazia saw them in terms of the democratisation of the internal structure of Georgia, specifically its reformation along federative lines and a clear demarcation of powers between Sukhum and Tbilisi, Georgia, having entered the epoch of its existence as an independent state, took the fateful decision to preserve all the worst traditions of Soviet totalitarianism, suppressing any attempts by Abkhazia to attain greater independence in its internal self-government.


Starting in August 1992 not negotiations but war, Shevardnadze and his circle lost a historic chance to put an end to the difficult and negative legacy in Georgian-Abkhazian relations which was bequeathed to both people by Soviet totalitarianism. To do this now is considerably more difficult: the war has brought a heavy psychological trauma to both Kartvelians and Abkhazians, has strengthened the lack of trust and mutual phobia, and has created many new problems which now stand on the path to peaceful settlement, including the problem of the refugees.


In Sukhum the existence of this problem has never been denied. However, there is a strange look to Henze's call to the Abkhazian side 'to negotiate a genuine settlement accepting inclusion with Georgia and accepting the return of a major portion of the former Georgian [sc. Kartvelian -- translator] population of the region' (p. 107). Such an agreement exists: an Agreement on the Return of Refugees and Displaced Persons was signed in Moscow on 4 April 1994; in its clauses are defined the times and mechanisms for the realisation of this process, and taken into consideration are both material factors (the necessity of providing aid to Abkhazia for restoring its ruined infrastructure, including the homes for returning refugees) and spiritual ones, designed to promote a painfree meeting between people who not so very long ago were divided by bloody hatred and enmity. Meanwhile, by now insisting in Tbilisi on some new mechanism for the return of the refugees they simply fail to understand that such a massive, swift, instantaneous return to a devastated, blockaded, starving Abkhazia could not end in anything but renewed bloodshed.


The other important problem for settlement is the question of the future political relations between Georgia and Abkhazia. Henze, as we have seen, calls upon the Abkhazian side 'to negotiate a genuine settlement accepting inclusion with Georgia'. However, Sukhum has already declared that it allows the possibility of coexistence with Georgia within the confines of some form of union-state and is ready to conduct negotiations on this matter. This is a real compromise in comparison with the original position of Abkhazia, which insisted on independence from Georgia. However, while proceeding towards compromise, the Abkhazians desire to have weighty guarantees for their security. They see these in equality of political status between Georgia and Abkhazia, who would share the future state as equal subjects. The constitution of this proposed state would exclude Abkhazia's previous vertical subordination to the Georgian government. But in this instance too Georgia is letting slip the chance of a historic reconciliation. Georgia's proposals to Abkhazia for future state-building do not go beyond autonomy, i.e. the self-same status Abkhazia already possessed during the Soviet years (sc. post-1931) and which palpably provided no guarantee at all against complications in mutual relations.


At the present moment the negotiations have reached deadlock. It is plain that Shevardnadze is in no position to come out with the sort of new, significant initiatives which might be a reciprocal compromise-step from the Georgian side. Regarding his recent statements about the need to introduce into Abkhazia a settlement representing 'a Bosnian variant', a new flashpoint of military confrontation, which will most assuredly quickly follow this, will finally put an end to any prospect for a peaceful settlement during the lifetime of the present generation of Kartvelians and Abkhazians -- surely something any sensible person would wish to avoid.