RUSSIA VERSUS GEORGIA: ONE UNDECLARED WAR IN THE CAUCASUS
1992 - 1999 After the
Nation-building and separatism Civil war in
1992 to 1993 unrest in
1992 to 1994
[Andrew Andersen / October, 2001]
On September 30, 1993 Georgian troops retreated across the Inguri river, leaving behind Abkhazia, one of the richest provinces of the former Soviet republic whose independence
was regained in April, 1991 as a result of the collapse of the USSR. Simultaneously with the evacuation of Georgian troops, Abkhazia was abandoned by almost 80% of its civilian population (Georgians, Greeks, Armenians and others). This was one of the results of an “unknown war” of 1991-93, that added one more destabilizing element to the whole bunch of conflicts in the troubled Caucasus. Another result was the establishment of a self proclaimed “Republic of Abkhazia” – an isolated territory under loose control of a violent, non-democratic regime, officially recognized by no government in the world.
The Abkhazian war posed quite a few questions, the main of which are the following:
1. How could Apsua-Abkhazians, a tiny ethnic group constituting less than 20% of the population of Abkhazia, succeed in seceding from Georgia?
2. Which of the regional powers could be interested in the war and breakup of Georgia’s territorial integrity to such an extent that would allow its direct military intervention?
3. What are major international consequences of the war for Abkhazia?
This essay is an attempt to answer the above questions.
WHO COULD NEED AN “INDEPENDENT” ABKHAZIA?
In the very beginning of 1991, it became clear that the USSR (at that moment still the USSR) was going to lose Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The establishment of new independent countries in the Caucasus could be followed by their integration into international economic and political structures and possibly result in turning the area into one more sphere of Western influence. In order to prevent such transformation of the area, which Moscow viewed as its “political backyard”, the government of Gorbachev took steps in the
direction of building up potentially destructive conflict situations in all three Transcaucasian countries. The final goal of Moscow politics was “lebanization” of the area that would lead to total or partial destruction and destabilization of the new states, making them less attractive for any new friends or allies. Later (after the collapse of the USSR) the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin was outraged by the new projects of building new pipeline systems that could connect oil fields of Central Asia and Azerbaijan to Western Europe through Georgian territory, by-passing Russian Federation.
One of the ways of turning Georgia into a “chaotic territory with a flag”(R. Peters) could be the kindling of some old inter-ethnic conflicts and turning them into civil wars of “Yugoslavian type”. The multicultural Georgian province of Abkhazia was chosen to become one of the zones of inter-ethnic violence and war. In order to go ahead with the new “destabilization project”, local authorities (still communist-dominated at that moment), got instructions from Moscow to start propaganda campaign for the secession from Georgia and creation of a “sovereign Abkhazian state”. The idea of independence from Georgia was supported by a considerable part of the Apsua – descendants of a small North Caucasian tribe whose forefathers moved into Georgia in the 16th -17th centuries, as well as by some representatives of other non-Georgian minorities who feared possible development of “Georgian chauvinism”. At the same time the idea of dismemberment of Georgia was actively opposed by most Georgians residing both in- and outside Abkhazia.
In order to escalate the conflict, Russian special services (KGB and after collapse of the USSR - FSB), started forming and training Apsua paramilitary units, while Russian troops deployed in Abkhazia provided them with the best weapons. In order to strengthen anti-Georgian forces in Abkhazia, Russian agents used Pan-Islamic feelings among part of North Caucasian Moslems (who by that time formed the “Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus”) and launched a propaganda campaign in North Caucasian subjects of Russian Federation, aimed at pushing North Caucasians towards helping their “Moslem brethren”(Apsua) to free themselves from Christian Georgia. Since the summer of 1991, numerous volunteers started coming to Abkhazia from Chechnya, Kabardia, Adyghea and other areas of North Caucasia. In Abkhazia the volunteers were organized into new paramilitary units, armed, trained, paid in cash and promised land and houses in future “free Abkhazia”.
In their turn, various separatist groups of North Caucasia (still nominally under Russian rule), supported by North Caucasian and Apsuan diasporas in the Middle East and the USA, were planning the creation of an Islamic republic in North Caucasia. If theu succeeded, the new state would be vitally interested in annexing Abkhazia because that would be an excellent chance for the landlocked North Caucasia to get access to the sea. As a result, in addition to weapons, volunteers and money coming from Russia and Russian Caucasus, Apsuan separatism was getting support in volunteers and cash from North Caucasian diasporas.
On July 23, 1992 the Council of Abkhazia (which in fact was never democratically elected) declared the province “a sovereign state”. Two days later The State Council of Georgia
declared the Abkhaz declaration invalid. Two weeks later, 3,000 troops of the Georgian National Guard under the command of Tengiz Kitovani, were sent to Abkhazia to establish “the rule of law and order”. On August 14 1992, Apsua separatists and North Caucasian volunteers launched first attacks against Georgian National Guard. The skirmishes between Georgian and separatist troops went on until September, when most Abkhazian territory was put under Georgian control. However in October 1992, enforced by up to 4,000 Russian troops, the separatists re-took half of Abkhazia. During their offensive, Russian troops used their best weapons including tanks, and aircrafts while the Georgian National Guard and militias were armed predominantly with small arms. In addition, the Georgian National Guard lacked professionalism and discipline. All these factors, plus three major attacks launched just after the signing of cease-fire agreements, resulted in Georgian defeat. It should be mentioned however that officially Russia never declared war on Georgia and never recognized participation of its troops in the conflict. Even when accused in bombing civil targets and columns of refugees, Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev claimed that Georgians put Russian signs on their airplanes and bombed their own people.
In January 1993, the government of Georgia addressed the United nations and asked to deploy international peacekeepers in Abkhazia. Soon after that desperate plea for help was declined, Russian and separatist forces launched new offensive and practically surrounded Sukhumi, the capital city of Abkhazia. At the end of July 1992, UN delegated the peacekeeping mandate in Abkhazia to Russian troops, which launched the third and the last “strategic offensive” that ended up in capture of Sukhumi (Sept.27) and final expultion of all Georgian troops out of Abkhazia.
WAR CRIMES AND ATROCITIES
Offensives of Russian, Apsuan and North Caucasian troops in Abkhazia was accompanied by ethnic cleansing and mass murder of civilians (predominantly Georgians but also Armenians, Greeks and others). Men, women and children were executed in the streets, on the roads inside their own apartments, houses and back yards. Many people became objects of torture, children were slowly killed in front of their parents, parents – in front of their children. Women were raped, often with elements of sadism. Refugees recall people
being burned to death, disemboweled and dismembered while still alive. Cases of ritual cannibalism were reported as well (in the past such cases never happened in the area). The province lost up to 250,000 or 80% of its pre-war inhabitants (up to 30,000 slaughtered on the spot, others flee to Georgia, Greece and Russia). Those who watched news programs on the TV, recall the commands given by Russian officers: “Rebyata, plennykh ne brat!” (Do not take prisoners alive!). Houses and land owned by Georgians and Greeks were taken over by the Apsuans, Russians, Chechens and other newcomers. None of war criminals involved in the above atrocities was ever brought to justice.
See the below sites for the details re. the atrocities in Abkhazia:
Some of the results of the war of 1992-93 in Abkhazia are as follows:
1. A self-proclaimed “Republic of Abkhazia” was formed on Georgian territory. Being occupied by Russian “peace-keeping” troops, it is not controlled by law-enforcement services either of Georgia or Russia, and may serve as a convenient area for arms-, drug- and terrorists-trafficking.
2. The war resulted in major changes of the ethnic makeup of Abkhazia which is illegal basing on the Geneva Convention of 1949.
3. Georgia suffered considerable financial, human and moral losses (sociologists mention the so-called “Abkhazian Syndrome” among many Georgians). Georgian GDP dropped down to the level of 1960s, discouraged foreign investment, damaged the infrastructure of the country, drove up prices, caused increase of crime and unemployment. Due to the consequences of the war combined with corruption, embezzlement and patronage inherited from the years of communism, made Georgia much less stable country than it was before the war. The success of Abkhazian separatists boosted centrifugal tendencies in other provinces, such as Ajaria, South Ossetia, Javakhetia and Svanetia. It is probably not to be considered as a “failed state” yet, but it is relatively close to that stage of development. Georgia also became a country of mass emigration.
4. In spite of traditional pro-Westen orientation of many Georgians (they believe that they are natural part of Europe due to their old Christian culture), Georgian government was forced to take a number of steps towards becoming a part of the Russian sphere of influence. These steps include Georgia’ joining CIS (October 1993) and signing a series of bilateral agreements with Russia, applying serious limitations on Georgian sovereignty.
5. The war unleashed armed guerilla movement in Abkhazia organized by groups of local Georgians who believe that armed resistance is the only realistic way to put the province back under Georgian sovereignty. These armed groups include “White Legion” and “Forest Brothers”, as well as the armed residents of Kodori Canyon controlled neither by Georgia, nor by Abkhazia.
(see http://www.abkhazeti.com/wleg.htm for details).
6. Russian tactics before and during the war, resulted in building up Chechen militants who later formed the bulk of the army of the self-proclaimed Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria. Armed units of Chechen veterans of the Abkhazian war caused enormous casualties on Russian federal troops during the wars in Chechnya (1995-96 and 1999- ). The war in Chechnya in its turn, led to the build-up of Islamic guerrilla and terrorist networks in Chechnya, Daghestan and other areas of the Russian Caucasus.
WHY IS THE SITUATION IN ABKHAZIA LARGELY IGNORED BY THE WEST?
It is hard to disagree that the war in Abkhazia (1992-93) was to a greater or lesser degree ignored by Western politicians, analysts and media. The possible reasons for that could be the following:
1. Until recently, most Western governments and politicians believed that almost all actions of post-communist governments of Russian Federation should be given active or passive support in order to refrain from “rocking the boat”. It was believed that any anti-Russian criticism could help the restoration of communist totalitarianism in that country.
2. Georgia seems to be “too far” from all the “sensitive” areas of the world. It is believed that Georgia does not belong to Europe (or at best is at the margins of South Eastern Europe). Anyway, it is believed to be much less important than for example Bosnia or Kosovo, where ethnic violence happened almost in the center of Europe. It is believed that Georgia does not belong to the Middle East (or at best is at the margins of it). It is believed that Georgia does not even belong to the Russian sphere of influence (or at best is at the margins of it). Even if we look at most of the political maps printed in the world, we will probably not even see Georgia on the map of Europe. Neither will we see it on the maps of the Middle East. And on some general maps of Asia, Georgia will appear so small that it will be hardly even possible to distinguish it somewhere between Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Thus it is probably believed in political circles of the world that the events happening in Georgia are not important and deserve little or no attention
WHY DOES THE SITUATION IN ABKHAZIA DESERVE MORE ATTENTION?
The situation in Georgia in general and in Abkhazia in particular is important possibly for the following reasons:
1. We live in a global world, and any troubled spot of it may have global economic and political consequences.
2. Georgia (and the Caucasus in general) are situated at the crossroads of important routes connecting Europe, Asia, Middle East and Russia. Thus any instability in such an area can influence some or all of the above mentioned four regions
3. Georgia’s natural resources and relatively well developed infrastructure, as well as highly qualified and well educated labor force still make it potentially attractive for possible investors.
4. (Probably the least important one) Georgia is one of the last enclaves of relatively westernized “Christian” culture remaining in the area. Most of other enclaves of that type have been totally or partially wiped out during the last 100 years (West Armenian, Assyrian, Coptic and others)
WAR IN ABKHAZIA AND THE CHECHEN CONNECTION
Today it is not a secret that prior and during the war of 1992-93 against Georgia, Moscow was training and supplying Chechen paramilitary formations , turning them into high class military professionals. Russian experts and journalists (Masiuk, Nikitin, Vassilenko, Voronov, ) confirm that for example the infamous warlord Shamil Basayev, who in 1996 orchestrated the capture of Budennovsk and the end of the first Russo-Chechen war (1995-96), was an agent of Russian special service (FSB). The above authors confirm that Georgians who captured Basayev in 1993, had to release him after Russian defense minister threatened to send aircrafts to bomb Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia). They also insist that Basayev’s connection with FSB is the reason why federal troops still have not captured him (as of Oct. 2001). Basayev’s troops, well-known in Abkhazia and Georgia for massacre in the city of Gagra where they were beside all playing soccer with the heads of Georgian women and children (Vladimir Putin), continued receiving training and weapons from the Russian defense ministry even after the war in Abkhazia (Gantemirov) when they formed the core of Chechen separatist army. It is hard to guess what “projects” they were trained for (at least this is far beyond the competence of the author of this essay) before the first Russo-Chechen war (1995-96). However it is quite clear that they are a big problem for the Russian Federation today when the second Russo-Chechen war (1999- ) entered the phase of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations. It is also well known today that these forces form an important element in the guerrilla and terrorist rings formed by Osama Bin Laden and his allies.
APPENDIX II: The Face of War
Texts and Graphics: Copyright © Anders
Photos: Copyright © http://www.abkhazeti.narod.ru/ , Darin Thompson and
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