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The forgotten war and an intractable conflict
September 24, 2003
Moscow Times

Written by Peter Rutland
Posted by HW on January 18, 2020

10 years ago
Almost exactly 10 years ago, on Sept. 30, 1993, separatist rebels drove Georgian forces from the province of Abkhazia on the east shore of the Black Sea. Thus ended a war that left more than 10,000 dead and caused half the region's 525,00 inhabitants to flee.

Not recognized
A decade later, the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia is not recognized by any state, and peaceful resolution of the conflict is still nowhere in sight.

During my visit to the region last month, one mother described being evacuated with her two babies on a Russian ship on the third day of the war. She watched Georgian helicopters strafing multi-story apartment blocks in Sukhumi, the capital -- where her parents were still living. The current education minister described how one of his students was shot down in front of him.

Hearing such stories it is easy to understand why these people are now distrustful of the Georgian government. And seeing the gutted ruins in Sukhumi and other cities one can appreciate the intensity of the fighting. But the conflict in Abkhazia went virtually unnoticed in the West, which was preoccupied with the war in Bosnia. Also, it was assumed that we could trust Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been helpful as Soviet foreign minister at the end of the Cold War. Western reporting on the conflict, such as it is, almost invariably relies on Georgian sources and reflects the Georgian position.

Abkhaz history
The 100,000 Abkhaz are a distinct ethnic group who speak a language unrelated to Georgian. For much of the past 200 years they have resisted conquest and assimilation by neighboring states. After the Russians crushed their last rebellion, in 1877, half the population was deported to Ottoman Turkey. Subsequent Georgian migration made the Abkhaz a minority in their own province, and Stalin put the region back under Georgian control in 1931.

Shevardnadze became president of Georgia in January 1992, after a coup deposed his predecessor. He faced rebellions in four provinces -- Adzharia, Ossetia, Mingrelia and Abkhazia. On Aug. 14, 1992, he sent 3,000 troops with tanks and aircraft to disband Abkhazia's parliament, which was debating a plan for a federal state.

Guerilla war
The Abkhaz retreated to the mountains and fought a guerrilla war. Atrocities were committed by both sides. A year later, the Georgian forces were driven out and most of the ethnic Georgian population also fled, fearing retribution.

Russian army
It is often assumed that the Abkhaz only won because they were helped by the Russian army. But it was Georgia, not Abkhazia, that received a share of Soviet army weapons when they were divided up in the spring of 1992. The Abkhaz had to beg or buy their arms from local Russian units. And the Abkhaz believe that Yeltsin approved Shevardnadze's invasion plan when the men met two weeks before the attack.

Muslim extremists
The Abkhaz are typically portrayed as Muslim extremists, in contrast to the Christian Georgians. In fact, they blend Muslim practices with Christian and pre-Christian traditions. Muslims and Christians are buried together in the same cemeteries. There is not a single mosque in Abkhazia -- although there are some sixth-century Byzantine churches. I met Muslims who observe Ramadan, but eat pork. Today, there are probably just as many Abkhaz Christians as Muslims. The national flag consists of green and white stripes, symbolizing the two religions.

A second widespread but erroneous view is that the Abkhaz are surrogates for Moscow. The Abkhaz do not want to join the Russian Federation, they want independence and self-rule. Wary of setting a precedent for Chechnya, Moscow opposes secession in principle, and in fact enforced the international blockade of Abkhazia for much of the 1990s. Russian policy became more favorable to Abkhazia under President Vladimir Putin, who saw Georgia as an obstacle to victory in the war with Chechnya.

Out of sheer necessity, Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble as its currency. Average salaries are $25 a month, and the state pension is $1 a month. Many Abkhaz are now taking Russian citizenship, because their Soviet Union passports will finally expire at the end of this year. Travel restrictions have been eased, and this year some 300,000 Russian tourists have taken cut-price vacations on Abkhaz beaches. (The Russian border is still closed to Westerners: The only way they can enter Abkhazia is in a UN convoy from Georgia.)

Georgia also suffers from the current standoff. The blockade hurts the Georgian (and Armenian) economy since Abkhazia sits astride the sole railway line to Russia. Georgia still hosts 200,000 refugees. And although some 50,000 refugees have returned to the Gali district in southern Abkhazia, I did not meet any Abkhaz who were prepared to see Georgians return to central Abkhazia.

Rail links
At a meeting in March, Putin and Shevardnadze agreed to encourage the return of refugees and to re-open the railroad, leaving aside the question of Abkhazia's status. Shevardnadze, who is facing parliamentary elections in November, was immediately attacked by his nationalist opponents, who insist on restoring Georgian control before there is any discussion of refugees or rail links.

The two sides are kept apart by 3,000 Russian peacekeepers and a UN observer mission. Georgia does not allow the peacekeepers to patrol the Kodori valley to the east, which is also a no-go zone for the Abkhaz authorities. In June 2003, four UN observers were kidnapped in Kodori, but released a week later. In 1998 and again 2001, armed groups descended from Kodori and marched on Sukhumi, but were turned back by Abkhaz troops. The 2001 attack was led by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev.

US influence
In spring 2002, the United States started a train and equip program to help the Georgian army expel Chechen rebels from the Pankisi Gorge in eastern Georgia. Some Georgian politicians want to use the newly strengthened army to re-take Abkhazia by force. This idea meets with little enthusiasm among ordinary Georgians, but it could be a last resort for Shevardnadze, whose popularity has plummeted amid rampant corruption, economic decay and electricity blackouts.

Perhaps Shevardnadze hopes that at the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit, President George W. Bush will persuade Putin to end the conflict by returning Abkhazia to Georgian rule. However, neither Washington, nor Moscow, nor the UN should imagine that they can solve this problem without taking into account the fears of the Abkhaz and their determination to resist absorption into Georgia.

But the Abkhaz have painted themselves into a corner. They see an independent nation-state as the only guarantee that they will not be wiped out as a people.
Yet the world community refuses to recognize their independence and views as set in stone the national boundaries drawn by Stalin.

Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times. In August he ran a summer school in Abkhazia for the London-based Conciliation Resources Group.
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