Vision from Abkhazia

by Liana Kvarchelia

November 7, 1996

A draft of this paper was presented to a seminar at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, on November 7, 1996.

After some time as a visiting scholar in the United States, I have become even more convinced that many misperceptions and misinterpretations about the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia that may exist in the West are to a significant extent due to one-sided information about the situation. Without evaluating the positions of both parties it is highly problematic to understand the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and look for ways of resolving it.

As the reader may know, on August 14, 1992, the government and the people of Abkhazia, as well as thousands of holiday-makers from outside Abkhazia, were taken by surprise when Georgian troops entered Abkhazian territory and launched a land and air attack on the south-eastern part of Abkhazia and its capital city. Fierce fighting continued for fourteen months.

This September marked the third anniversary since the end of the war, in which Abkhazia finally succeeded in regaining control over its entire territory. However, while Abkhazia in September was celebrating the end of the bloody war and her military victory, Georgia was observing a Day of Remembrance and Hope: In particular, a hope to bring Abkhazia back into Georgia, even if the price would be Georgia=s loss of its own independence.

The question is frequently asked, what the Georgian-Abkhazian and the Georgian-Ossetian conflicts are about. This is an important question, and it deserves to be answered, or at least a serious attempt should be made. Without going into the historical background of the Georgian-Abkhazian relationship it is not possible to identify the roots of the current conflict. It would be simplistic and inaccurate to say that the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia is one between a center and an ambitious group of separatists over political sovereignty in one of Georgia's provinces, or that it is only a manipulation by a third party, the most frequent versions coming from the Georgian side.

The Abkhazian-Georgian conflict is clearly ethno-political, and the main issues of controversy are the following: The Georgian side claims authority over the territory incorporated into Georgia by Stalin's decree in 1931. The Abkhazians, characterized by distinctly different ethnicity from that of the Georgians and a long history of their own state with defined geographic boundaries, make their own claim to Abkhazian territory and statehood for its multi-ethnic citizenry. The recent outbreak of hostilities was preceded by years of tensions over political issues, which started to develop along ethnic lines, as issues of ethnic identity and the origin of Abkhazians as an ethnic group became subject to Georgian manipulation toward the achievement of political goals. The situation became further complicated by the involvement of other non-Georgian groups of the Abkhazian population, overwhelmingly on the Abkhazian side, particularly since the beginning of the war in 1992.

Without going into too much historical detail, there are some important issues that need to be mentioned. Situated on the Black Sea Coast, fertile and picturesque, Abkhazia -- an important Transcaucasian crossroads -- historically has always been a dainty dish to tempt conquerors. Abkhazian statehood has existed for more than 1200 years, and Abkhazians have had to defend themselves against invaders on more than one occasion.

For centuries Georgians and Abkhazians, peoples with very different ethnic origins and languages, lived in neighbouring territories. There were periods in their history when Abkhazia, as a separate principality, was under Georgian or Ottoman vassalage. There was also a period when Western and some Eastern areas of Georgia were part of the Abkhazian Kingdom.

However, the nineteenth century Russian conquest of the Caucasus brought both countries under the rule of the Russian Empire. Thousands of Abkhazians, along with a number of other peoples of the North Caucasus who, like Abkhazians, resisted Russian domination far longer than Georgians, were forced to seek refuge in Turkey. Today their descendants (the Mokhajirs) are scattered all over the world. In Turkey alone the number of ethnic Abkhazians exceeds 400,000 people. Their lands and homes in Abkhazia were taken over by competing Georgians, Armenians, and Russians. In 1887 a famous Georgian public figure, Jacob Gogebashvili, wrote in one of his articles that Abkhazia would never have her sons back, and therefore it was time to think who would best fit the climatic conditions of Abkhazia. In Gogebashvili's opinion Mingrelians, a west Georgian tribe, were most suitable and should be the first candidates to colonize Abkhazia.

With the end of the nineteenth century began the resettlement policy in Abkhazia that continued throughout the period of Soviet power. According to the government census, Abkhazia's Georgian population in 1886 was 6.0%; by 1897 it had climbed to 24.4%. By 1926, Georgians in Abkhazia had reached 31.8%.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Abkhazia joined the Republic of Mountain Peoples, thus becoming part of a union of North Caucasian republics. Soon after, it was temporarily annexed by the Georgian Democratic Republic. When Bolsheviks came to power in Georgia in 1921, however, Abkhazia was proclaimed a sovereign republic.

Abkhazia joined the U.S.S.R. as a full Union Socialist Republic and remained a full Union Republic until 1931, having a special, treaty-based relationship with Georgia. Under Stalin's 1931dictate, and over Abkhazia's strong protests, Abkhazia was demoted to the status of Autonomous Republic and brought within the Georgian Union Republic. This fact alone, sixty years later, is what Georgians used to declare Abkhazia an inseparable part of Georgia.

Stalin's change of Abkhazia's status and the period that followed it stand out in the historic memory of Abkhazians as the policy of "georgianization" and persecution. At that time Abkhazian schools were closed and replaced by Georgian ones. Abkhazians were not allowed to study in the Abkhazian language. Similarly, Georgian geographic names were introduced instead of Abkhazian ones. The Stalin era was also a period when a new "theory" was invented by Georgian historians, suggesting that Abkhazians were "new-comers" on Georgian land. On the whole, in Abkhazian perception, this period is characterized as one of the most serious attempts to eliminate the identity of the Abkhazian people.

The years from 1937 to 1953 introduced further drastic change to the demographic situation of Abkhazia. A special office was set up by Stalin's henchman, Lavrentiy Beria, to resettle large new numbers of Georgians in Abkhazia. As a cumulative result, by 1959 the number of Georgians in Abkhazia had already increased to 39.1% of the total population. In later years, under the pretext of requiring manpower and intellectuals for industries and educational institutions, more Georgians were brought to Abkhazia, to constitute 45% of the total population by the year 1989.

In the decades that followed Stalin's death, Abkhazian schools were re-opened and the Abkhaz language was again used in publishing and broadcasting, but the policy of "georgianization" continued in a more covert manner. Abkhazians repeatedly responded with mass protests, that occurred almost every decade.

Georgian politicians often argue that Abkhazia had a more privileged position within Georgia than did, for instance, any autonomous republic within the Russian SSR. To substantiate the idea, they claim that Abkhazians, whose number by 1978 had been reduced to 17% of the population, had a disproportionately large share of government posts. They however overlook the fact that all top officials in Abkhazia were appointed by Tbilisi, and only after at least three years "good service" in the capital of Georgia. The Tbilisi authorities also made sure that the most important posts, for instance, Communist Party First Secretary, were given to "loyal" Abkhazians. Such instrumental positions as Minister of Finance, of Interior, and KGB Chief traditionally were taken by Georgians, imported most often from Tbilisi.

In the years of perestroyka and glasnost, Georgian nationalism reached its extreme form. The notion that Georgians were the "hosts" and other ethnic groups the "guests" -- often deemed "ungrateful," (because in this view they were held to have no rights at all of self-determination, even in their own historic territories) was propagated through mainstream Georgian media and academic publications. One of the central Georgian newspapers, for example, went so far as to publish an article suggesting that Georgia could tolerate not more than 5% of "guests"on its land. Some "intellectuals" demanded that restrictions be put on ethnic non-Georgian families to have no more than two children, because the birth rate among Georgians allegedly was comparatively the lowest at that time. The slogan "Abkhazia is Georgia" was surpassed in popularity only by the slogan "Georgia for Georgians." Frequently at mass rallies, fighters for Georgia's own independence from the Soviet Union, at the same time demanded that Georgia abolish even Abkhazian and South Ossetian autonomous status..

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, soon to become President of Georgia after her unilateral withdrawal from the U.S.S.R., went so far as to disseminate, in an address to the west Georgians, a plan which in essence was for Abkhazians either to be assimilated, or to be ousted from their land. Gamsakhurdia's ideas in regard to Abkhazia found little criticism, if any, in the Georgian community. On the contrary, the image of "the enemy," Abkhazian or Ossetian, served as a strong uniting factor for Georgian society, which was torn by internal political struggle. The clashes in 1989, following the self-separation of the Georgian section from the Abkhazian University as a whole, brought the antagonism between Abkhazians and Georgians to a new level.

This assertive Georgian nationalism was echoed by national movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which in the face of the growing Georgian aggressiveness felt extremely insecure. Abkhazian people repeatedly demanded restoration of full Union status for Abkhazia, or even to join the Russian Federation. The war in South Ossetia, started by President Gamsakhurdia, as well as tensions in the Armenian and Azeri districts of Georgia, the unsuccessful bid by Meskhetian Turks (deported from Georgia in 1944) to return to their former places of residence, and the forced migration of several thousands of Lezgins from Georgia, further aggravated the situation in the region. However, to avoid new confrontation with Abkhazia when the South Ossetian conflict was at its peak, Gamsakhurdia proposed a Parliament in Abkhazia that would grant 28 seats to Abkhazians as against 26 Georgian seats. This new Abkhazian Parliament was virtually split into Georgian and non-Georgian factions. The Georgian Parliamentary minority sabotaged the resolutions and acts passed by the Parliament of Abkhazia, while the rest of the Parliament adopted resolutions that would safeguard Abkhazia's sovereignty.

The unilateral abrogation by the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi of all legal instruments, including the Union treaty of 1922, and their restoration of the Georgian Constitution of 1921, during which time Abkhazia briefly had been annexed by Georgia, put the Abkhazian Parliament into a position of having to reinstate temporarily the Abkhazian Constitution of 1925 when Abkhazia, as a separate Union Republic in the U.S.S.R., had a treaty-based relationship with Georgia. The Georgian faction in the Abkhazian Parliament, which by that time already had its internal differences over the Tbilisi coup ousting President Gamsakhurdia, was however unanimous in boycotting the resolution reinstating Abkhazia=s 1925 Constitution. During discussions over the right of peoples, including Abkhazians, to self-determination as a basic human right, a Georgian M.P. stated publicly that the rights of Georgians should take priority over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The breakup of the Soviet Union triggered further tensions in the newly emerged states. Hasty recognition of the privileged fifteen new states by the world community, on a selective basis, disregarded the fact that many of these states were composed in turn of other distinct entities, e.g., Autonomous Republics, Regions, etc. Their status, as well as that of the former Union Republics, had been arbitrarily established or changed by Stalin. At the time Georgia became a member of the United Nations, state power in the country was in the hands of the Council which had seized it in a bloody coup overthrowing President Gamsakhurdia. Only fourteen days after Georgia's formal recognition by the U.N., Georgian troops attacked Abkhazia. New elections in Georgia were held amidst the war in Abkhazia. Neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia, except for the Georgian-controlled districts where non-Georgians were forced to vote, participated in the elections. Some areas in Mingrelia, a Gamsakhurdia stronghold, did not take part in the voting, either.

Economically weak, poly-ethnic in composition, fueled by ambitions of building a unitary Georgian state, unwilling to accept ideas of federalism despite declarations of adherence to democratic principles, Georgia posed a perfect example of what Andrey Sakharov called a "mini-empire." While paying tribute in general to Sakharov as human rights advocate and public figure, Georgians never forgave him for tagging Georgia with the mini-empire label. The right of the Georgian people to self-determination, finally realized through the collapse of the Soviet Union, was viewed by most Georgians as only an ethnic Georgian prerogative, throughout all the entities within former Soviet Georgian boundaries.

Abkhazians, who held their own freedom and heritage sacred, just as the Georgians held theirs, were extremely concerned by the developments in Tbilisi. Fearing a serious threat to their identity and Abkhazia's statehood, they proposed to the Georgians to discuss a possible federative treaty to fill the "legal vacuum" that existed between the two entities after abrogation by Georgia of all Soviet agreements and acts. The proposal was rejected by Tbilisi, mainly on the grounds that Georgian society was not ready to accept any ideas of a federation. On August 14, 1992, on the very day when the Abkhazian Parliament assembled to discuss a draft treaty, Georgian armed forces attacked Abkhazia. The Abkhazian Parliament building was one of the main targets.

Fierce fighting continued until September 30, 1993, when the Georgian troops finally were ousted from the territory of Abkhazia. In the face of the advancing Abkhazian forces, large numbers of local Georgians, many of whom had taken up arms or otherwise supported the Tbilisi side, fled Abkhazia, fearing reprisals for killings and atrocities which had been perpetrated in large numbers against Abkhazians, local Armenians, Russians, and Greeks. A U.N. fact finding mission then finally visited Georgia at the request of the Georgians, who were now blaming Abkhazians for alleged ethnic cleansing. The mission established that both sides, initially the Georgian and later the Abkhazian, were involved in human rights abuses and atrocities.

Throughout the three years of negotiations following their defeat in Abkhazia, Georgia's leadership has been trying (not without some success) to get the world community to pressure Abkhazia to accept a political settlement on Georgia's terms. But Abkhazia's reluctant consent to form a union with Georgia, within Georgia's internationally recognized boundaries, still has not satisfied Georgia's ambitions. By playing a balancing act between Russia and the West, Shevardnadze has got both, for the present, to take a hard line against Abkhazia. He is likely to play it for all that he can.

From the very begining of the conflict, the Western official position on Abkhazia has been an unambiguous double standard. At the time when the unexpected attack by Georgian State Council troops was launched on Abkhazian towns, villages, and Parliament, Western governments, blind and deaf to numerous pleas and appeals by Abkhazians, declared that the conflict was an internal affair of Georgia, and that the Georgian government (i.e., the Provisional State Council which recently had overthrown the elected President) was only legitimately restoring law and order to safeguard the railway lines in Abkhazia. Ironically, this and other official pretexts for the introduction of Georgian troops were later refuted by Eduard Shevardnadze himself, in one of his television interviews. He put the blame for unleashing the war on his warlords Kitovani and Ioseliani. The same blind eyes and deaf ears by Western officials were until recently turned toward the Russian crusade against Chechnya. In the case of Chechnya, at least human rights were made an issue, but even that happened only after numerous exposures and pleas by Russia's human rights advocates, and through considerable efforts by the Russian and international media.

During the first months of the Georgian military occupation of Abkhazia, serious human rights violations were perpetrated on an ethnic basis: Hundreds of Abkhazians and those who fell under suspicion for being pro-Abkhazian were tortured and executed. Practically the whole Abkhazian population and large numbers of other non-Georgians were expelled from the occupied territories. The Abkhazian State Archives and the Institute of History, Language, and Literature, with irreplaceable documents and manuscripts, were intentionally burnt to ashes, a fact which Abkhazians see as an evil symbol of Georgia's desire to eliminate the very identity of the Abkhazian people. The Abkhazian government at that time unsuccessfully tried to bring the attention of the world community to the fact that the Abkhaz people were put on the verge of annihilation by Georgia's aggression. The public threat of the Georgian Commander-in-Chief Karkarashvili, on television, to eliminate the entire Abkhaz nation, if it took that to win the conflict, even if it also took the sacrifice of 100,000 Georgians, did not evoke the slightest criticism within Georgia, nor by any government or intergovernmental organization. Not long after, Eduard Shevardnadze promoted Kharkarashvili to the post of Defense Minister and gave him the rank of general. Only Amnesty International and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (of which Abkhazia is a member) published any material during the war documenting Abkhazian claims of ethnic persecution by Georgian forces. At that time, also, only U.N.P.O. and a few western scholars and parliamentarians were trying desperately to raise awareness in the west about the nationalistic character and aims of Georgia's armed attack.

It was not until Abkhazian forces retook the northwestern part of Abkhazia, up to the Russian border, that the West made up its mind that it was time to take a more active stand in the conflict, and probably to try to intercept Russia's initiative and broker a peace agreement that would unconditionally consolidate Georgia's territorial integrity. The overall military victory of Abkhazian forces in late September 1993 pushed the U.N. to take more resolute steps not to allow Russia to have control over the situation.

Russia, in its turn, used the situation to make Georgia pliable in the securing of Russia's interests in the region. Obviously, it was not in the interests of Russia to have an independent Abkhazia as a precedent for its own subjects. Equally, it was not in Russia's interest to have on her southern borders a strong, independent, disloyal Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia back in its control, and to be left without instruments to exert pressure. The expulsion of Shevardnadze's Provisional Council forces from Abkhazia left them in a vulnerable position. Pro-Gamsakhurdian nationalist troops in western Georgia made use of the situation to push Shevardnadze's forces increasingly further back toward Tbilisi. To secure Russian help in suppressing the opposition forces, Shevardnadze was forced to bring Georgia into the CIS. Today, Russia and Georgia continue to haggle over whether Russia will have military bases in Georgia, with Abkhazia again being a pawn.

It can hardly be questioned that Russia's moves are dictated by a desire to preserve its influence and presence in the regions of her strategic interests. However, to say that the tensions between Abkhazia and Georgia are a result only of Russia's manipulations would be to admit to only half the truth. To manipulate a situation, it is necessary to have something to manipulate. In this regard, Georgia's ultra-nationalism and push for hegemony, with the responsive self-determination movement in Abkhazia, made the perfect trump card.

Russia's role in the conflict has been singled out as an issue by many analysts and the media, particularly in regard to the degree of her military involvement. Georgia was the first to insist that Abkhazians owe their victory entirely to Russia's direct military support. It is not easy for Georgia to acknowledge its military defeat in Abkhazia, just as it was not easy for Russia to acknowledge its defeat in Chechnya. One thing is clear, however: Both Georgians and Abkhazians (and the Chechens, for that matter) got their armaments from the same source. In one of his regular radio addresses President Shevardnadze claimed that thousands of Russian citizens took part in the war on the Abkhaz side, and it was their assistance that "enabled full occupation of that part of Georgia." However, the bulk of Abkhazian forces consisted of Abkhazians, local non-Georgians, and even Georgians, the rest being volunteers from North Caucasian republics and Cossacks. North Caucasians are ethnically related to Abkhazians, and they were strongly supporting Abkhazia since the tensions and clashes in 1989. The Cossacks in their turn were concerned with the fate of the Russians, who made up 15% of the pre-war population in Abkhazia. However, it suffices to look through the list of casualties, to be able to judge who was actually resisting the Georgian assault.

The Western media and public have paid tribute to the Chechens, whose spirit has not been crushed by the Russian army, something Abkhazians have been denied by the West. Serious Western concerns have been expressed over Russia's behaviour in Chechnya. Yet Abkhazians heard almost not a word of sympathy in the west when they were forced to fight for their very survival, evidently because they had the "wrong" oppressor. Unlike Russia, whose power Western security analysts want to limit, Georgia has been seen as needing to be strengthened, to help provide those limits.

The most recent developments in Chechnya have added a new dimension to the Georgian-Abkhazian peace process. Georgia is now trying to avoid, whenever possible, any comparison between Chechnya and Abkhazia, which is quite understandable. The Georgian President was one of the first to give public support to President Yeltsin at the time Yeltsin gave authority to Russia's attack on Chechnya, in December 1994. Shevardnadze then called for joint efforts in suppressing all manifestations of "aggressive separatism," at any cost. Later, after the signing of the Khasavjurt peace accords, he stated that the Abkhazian and Chechen conflicts differed, and therefore ways for their settlement should be different. Despite many similarities, however, there is indeed one important difference between the two situations: The Chechens had Russia fighting against them, while Abkhazians had to confront Mr. Shevardnadze, with his worldwide image as champion of democracy and peace, and his position as leader of an "underdog" nation whose security goals, in theory if not so far performance, have appeared to correspond with those of the West.

Quite apparently, the recent agreements between Russia and Chechnya have put Georgia in an uncomfortable position, since now Chechnya could create a precedent unattractive to Georgia for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, it is also possible, depending on the outcome of the political struggle within the Kremlin, that Abkhazia might become, or on the other hand be forced to become, a precedent for Chechnya.

So far, Russia's economic and political sanctions against Abkhazia, including the closing of the Russian-Abkhazian border and cutting off communication lines with Abkhazia, along with considerable pressure from the "Friends of Georgia" (a group of leading Western countries), have forced the Abkhazian side, after three years of de facto (and very arguably de jure) independence, to agree to some concessions to Georgia. Abkhazians are willing to sign an agreement whereby Georgia and Abkhazia would unite in a federative union. Still, Abkhazia demands that the relationship between the two entities must be on an equal footing, in accordance with the documents signed by the parties in 1994, under the aegis of the United Nations, Russia, and the CSCE (now OSCE). According to the framework provided by these documents, Abkhazia is prepared to negotiate specific delegations of her state authority to a common body of jurisdiction. Again according to this framework, however, Abkhazia insists that the political status of Abkhazia will not be the subject of negotiations. Only the people of Abkhazia have the right to determine their own future. In the Abkhazian view, negotiations with Georgia appropriately should be focused on re-establishing relations between the two republics.

Georgia, in its turn, is insisting on such an arrangement that would enable her to reassert her role as a center in relation to its province, to which Georgia is prepared to delegate certain responsibilities. However, Georgia's promises to grant Abkhazia the broadest autonomous rights are not believable to Abkhazians, after what they have experienced. They can no longer accept such an arrangement, as it does not guarantee security of their statehood. Because Abkhazia experienced during the armed conflict, from an international system not recognizing her statehood, total lack of interference with Georgian, "nation-state" aggression which Abkhazians credibly perceived as attempted genocide, Abkhazia now sees preservation of its statehood as essential to securing not only her self-determination, but her very survival. Georgia, for her part, is not capable of forcing her will on Abkhazia without outside help. Therefore, there has been much maneuvering by Georgia to get third parties to do the job.

One of the instruments to put pressure on the Abkhazian side has been the issue of Georgian refugees. Apparently to effect their prompt return en masse, the Georgian side has insisted that the Russian peace-keepers must be entrusted with police functions. However, that would mean Russian forces would be directly involved in armed confrontation, since the return of refugees before an acceptable political settlement would inevitably trigger new clashes.

For those who are familiar with United Nations documents, it is easy to differentiate the more balanced reports on the situation by the U.N. Secretary General, based on the materials of the Observer mission and his Special Envoy, from resolutions by the Security Council. One of the recent Security Council resolutions strongly supported the Georgian demand to bring back the Georgian refugees to Abkhazia and insisted it was inadmissible to link the refugee problem to the issue of Abkhazia's "political status," i.e., to the problem which actually constitutes the core of the conflict. In several interviews Mr. Shevardnadze has practically acknowledged that sending troops to Abkhazia was a grave mistake, for which Kitovani and Ioseliani were responsible. Georgian refugees from Abkhazia are paying a heavy price for that mistake. The mistake would be repeated if they were induced to return to Abkhazia prior to a true political settlement. Around fifty to sixty thousand of them have spontaneously returned to the Gal region of Abkhazia, which has been predominantly ethnic Mingrelian in settlement. Return to other areas, with more mixed population, would only increase the confrontation. The non-Georgians would see them as Georgia's "fifth column," manipulated by Tbilisi as before. What is more, three-quarters of the Georgian refugees do not even want to return to Abkhazia, according to a survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council, as long as Abkhazia is not under Georgian jurisdiction.

Georgian leaders more than once announced a move for a policy change. Along with threats to suspend the Russian peace-keepers' mandate, warnings have been given of the possibility of reviewing Georgia's military agreements with Russia, and even seceding from the CIS, if Russia does not help to settle the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Georgia's terms. The above declarations were followed by statements that the fate of Russian military bases in Georgia will depend on the way the Abkhazian conflict is resolved. Not able to rely on Western assistance, however, which though not entirely token has failed to provide security guarantees for Georgia so far, Shevardnadze recognizes Russia's geopolitical role as chief broker in the region. Apparently he is actually offering up Georgia's independence to Russia, in practical terms, in exchange for the return of her former autonomous regions. Mr. Shevardnadze's prophetic words, that for Georgia the sun rises in the North, might after all come true.

Trying to "restore" Georgia's territorial integrity, however, by permitting Russian military bases in Georgia in exchange for Russian coercion of Abkhazia back into Georgia's control, would not solve Georgia's problems in the long run, if at all. Russia is aware of the fact that Georgia's loyalty would be only temporary, and would have predictable limits. On the other hand, continuing coercive action against Abkhazia will undermine any attempts for reconciliation. Abkhazia and South Ossetia at this point have little or no grounds to believe that Georgia is building a democratic state, and that they should seek the accommodation of their rights within it. Further attempts by Georgia at coercion, direct or indirect, will increase Abkhazian and South Ossetian conviction on that point. They are likely to resist any kind of association with Georgia, without genuine guarantees for their own security. In the end, any attempt to force Abkhazia into a relationship with Georgia characterized by a power balance at all resembling the pre-conflict relationship, would not be viable. In essence it would amount to forcing a restoration of the Soviet legacy, and with it the restoration of an international security "bomb," ready to explode again, any time in the future.

As for the Western position, it seems that the oil pipeline interests on the one hand, and considerations concerning NATO enlargement on the other, contribute to the ambivalence as to the possible Western role in post-Soviet space. In the case of Georgia, another factor is the West's particular support for Eduard Shevardnadze, who has been seen by Western policy analysts as a key person in ending the cold war and a sophisticated player on the world scene. However, continued western support for Georgia's unwillingness to meet Abkhazia's main security concerns, would naturally tend to drive Abkhazia away from Georgia, toward a Russian alliance instead.

It seems, then, that the degree of Georgia's independence is likely to depend on the degree of Abkhazia's sovereignty. Any specific or wider solution to these problems sanctioned by the international community will contribute to the longterm security and peace, only if it takes into account the particular reasons and claims for self-determination and statehood of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, and Nagorno-Karabagh, especially in light of the post-Soviet legacy of armed conflict "explosions" they already have experienced.

It is illuminating to look at some of the sociological research in Abkhazia and Georgia. Results of the surveys conducted in Abkhazia in 1994 by a non-governmental organization called "Civic Initiative" showed that 45.5% of 10,026 respondents (67.3% of Abkhazian respondents, 21.3% of Russians, 35.9% of Armenians, 13.5 % of Georgians, (In the survey, local Georgians who never left Abkhazia and those who became refugees and later returned to Abkhazia's Gal region were studied as separate groups) 21.0% of Georgian returnees to the Gal region, 75% of experts) wanted Abkhazia to be an independent state. Another 45.5% favoured uniting with the Russian Federation (27% of Abkhazians, 68.7% of Russians, 58.1% of Armenians, 29.7% of Georgians, 9.0% of Georgian returnees in Gal, 15.0% of experts). The survey was conducted before the introduction of Russian Federal troops into Chechnya. Therefore, one would expect that the attitude of the population towards actual union with Russia could have considerably changed. Russia's sanctions against Abkhazia which followed the beginning of the Chechen war are another factor that could account for a possible change of attitude. The idea of a Union State with Georgia on an equal basis found support with 6.7% of all respondents (3.8% of Abkhazians, 8.6% of Russians, 4.3% of Armenians, 37.8% of Georgians, 32.0% of returnees to Gal, 10% of experts). Abkhazia as part of Georgia found support with 0.6% of the respondents (the only significant numbers being 8.1% of Georgians and 36.0% of Georgian returnees to Gal, with 0% of Abkhazians).

The survey among the Georgian refugees conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council (mentioned above) shows that 74% of respondents consider bringing Abkhazia back under Georgia's jurisdiction as the main precondition for their return to Abkhazia. Two simple, but important points stand out from this fact: First, they do not think that Abkhazia is currently under Georgia's jurisdiction; and second, they do not consider themselves or want to be citizens of Abkhazia.

Another survey carried out by the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology established that 44.2% of Georgian and 32% of non-Georgian respondents in Tbilisi would like to see Abkhazia as a constituent part of Georgia without right to secession, while 28.8% of Georgians and 39.5% of non-Georgians there found it hard to answer the question on the status of Abkhazia. _

42% of ethnic Georgians responded that Abkhazia and South Ossetia belong to Georgia, but that keeping them by force is not worth the sacrifice. 44% said that it is worth the sacrifice. Only 6.7% of ethnic Georgians supported the idea of allowing Abkhazia to be even a free economic zone.

From these surveys, it is evident that in the aftermath of the bloodshed, Georgians and Abkhazians are divided to the point of total mistrust for each other. These feelings are further stirred up by propaganda. Georgians view Abkhazians as "secessionists" and "aggressive separatists" (the term introduced by Mr Shevardnadze into the political vocabulary), while Abkhazians see Georgians as aggressive nationalists, an imperial force that has ungrounded claims for their land, as the party that holds the blame for unleashing the bloody war, and as the party that now is behind economic and political sanctions against Abkhazia.

There could be more chance for reconciliation of the two nations when political reconciliation takes place. In this regard the world community can and must play a constructive role. Characterizing peoples in negative terms as "secessionists" and "separatists"-- who with no meaningful international protections are forced to defend themselves against state-organized, nationalist, armed violence -- and at the same time trying to coerce them into submission, will hardly persuade these peoples to give up their aspirations and rights. It will be necessary to recognize that the current international framework is not, in many cases, equipped to deal with the new realities. Nevertheless, even within the existing system it is possible, with a will, to find ways of accommodating the two apparently rival principles of self-determination and territorial integrity. If all parties can see, in mutually agreed, specific provisions, sufficient guarantees for their safety and rights, alternatives to total independence can be something like a confederation, or a union state with each entity having equal rights and access to international organizations, or other possible agreed arrangements that will provide satisfactory structural safeguards.

The two main current tendencies in world organization -- self-determination movements to establish new states and an integration process among older states (which process has problems of its own) -- need not in the long run contradict each other. The new states-to-be are seeking independence, not because they want to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, but because they want to be integrated into the world community directly and equally. They have suffered too much from entities that not only misrepresent, but use their memberships in international institutions to intentionally suppress, the legitimate needs and demands of entities within their boundaries..

Till the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Black Sea coast used to be populated by Ubykhs, a tribe closely related to Abkhazians. As a result of Russia's conquest of the Caucasus, the Ubykhs were forced to flee to Turkey. Eventually they were assimilated into general Cherkess and Turkish cultures. In 1994, the last speaker of the Ubykh language died in Istanbul. With him died a unique culture and language.

The fate of the Ubykhs is of legendary importance in the Caucasus. What has become of them, and of many other peoples, moves us to look for the answer to the question, whether the world community should try to build real security by looking into the sources of self-determination movements in each particular case, and by working out mechanisms to accommodate the rights of peoples to decide their destinies, or will continue to attempt coercive measures, sacrificing the rights of entire nations, in most cases to protect vested interests under the banner of regional, or even global security.


1. Resolutions of the 6-th Congress of the Soviet of the SSR Abkhazia and the 6-th Georgian Congress of Soviets , February 1931.
2. J. Gogebashvili, "Kem Zaselit' Abkhaziyu?", Tiflisskyi Vestnik, September-November 1877.
3. Census data cited from T. Achukba, Ethnic Revolution in Abkhazia. Sukhum 1996.
4. I. Marykhba, "Abkhazskiye Pis'ma" (1941-1989), Sbornik Dokumentov, vol.1,1994.
5. R. Mishveladze, Akhalgazrda Kommunisti, 29 July1989.
6. Abkhazskoe Pis'mo, 18 March 1989, Lykhny, cited from I. Marykhba.
7. J. Gamakharia, Sovetskayia Abkhazia, June 1990.
8. On 31 July 1992 Georgia became a full member of the UN.
9.A. Sakharov, Ogonek, no.31 1989.
10.UN Document S/26795,17 November 1993.
11."Zerkala Separatizma", interview with E. Shevardnadze, Moskovskyi Komsomolets, April 1995.
12. Report of an Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization Mission to Abkhazia, Georgia and the Northern Caucasus. November 1992, the Hague, Netherlands.
Amnesty International. Georgia. Alleged Human Rights Violations During the Conflict in Abkhazia, July,1993.
Vlasis Agtsidis. "The War in Abkhazia. Its Conseqences for the Greek Community", Athens, January 1994.
13. See testimonies of eye-witnesses in "Belaya Kniga Abkhazii", Yu. Voronov, pp.203-204.
14. Statement by G. Karkarashvili on the Sukhum TV, 24 August 1992.
15. B. G. Hewitt. Abkhazia: aproblem of identity and ownership. Central Asian Survey,1993.
16.E. Shevardnadze, interview to the Georgian Radio, cited from BGI, September 1996.
17. Throughout the fighting lists of casualties were open to the public at the Press Service of the Parliament of Abkhazia.
18. Interview with E. Shevardnadze by Martin Schepp, "Stern", 12 April 1995.
19.R. Stancliffe, J. Kharashvili.. "A Survey on the Living Conditions and Future Options of Displaced People in Georgia", Norwegian Refugee Council, Tbilisi, 1995.
20. Throughout September- October 1996 repeated statements were made by Georgian officials conserning Russia's military basis and possible suspension of Georgia's CIS membership. Interfax. Monitor, Jamestown Foundation. Reuters. September-October 1996.
21. L. Tania. State Structure of Abkhazia: Negotiation Process and Attitudes of the Population. Sukhum, 1995.
22. Cited from L.Tania, State Structure of Abkhazia...