The War in Abkhazia, 1992-1993

By George Nikoladze

Sokhumi Riot and prelude towards armed conflict
The lingering ethnic discord in Abkhazia exacerbated when, on March 18, 1989, the Abkhaz nationalists, who viewed an increasingly active movement for Georgia's independence as a threat to their political privileges of a "titular minority", signed a petition to the central Soviet government at a mass meeting at Lykhny, Abkhazia, demanding the rights to secede from Georgia. The move caused mass protests from the Georgian community, which accounted for by far the largest single group in (45,7%) of the population of the Abkhaz ASSR, and were resolutely opposed to any diminution of their links with the Georgian republic, holding rival demonstrations within Abkhazia and within Georgia proper. The protests climaxed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and evolved into a major anti-Soviet and pro-independence rally on April 9, 1989, which was violently dispersed by the Soviet Interior Ministry troops, killing twenty, mostly young women, and injuring hundreds of demonstrators.  At a plenum of the Georgian central committee the following day the Communist party first secretary, Jumber Patiashvili, resigned and was replaced by the former head of the Georgian KGB, Givi Gumbaridze. The April 9 tragedy removed the last vestiges of credibility from the Soviet regime in Georgia and pushed many Georgians into radical opposition to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz remained largely loyal to the Soviet rule partly to antagonize the Georgian movement and partly to obtain Moscow’s sympathy towards their cause.
A few days before the scheduled exams in Sokhumi state University, several thousand of Abkhaz nationalists organized a mass anti-Georgian rally in Sokhumi. On July 12 1989, the ultra-nationalist organization Aydgylara activists led the demonstrators, including armed groups, into the attack on the building of the local Georgian-language newspaper, forcing it to shot down. Soon, the school building which was expected to house the Georgian university was also surrounded by the crowd. The local police officials ignored calls from desperate employees from the besieged building and replaced, early on July 15, policemen of Georgian nationality guarding the university with Abkhaz officers. The same day, a small police unit sent to Sokhumi from Tbilisi to help restore order was disarmed by the Abkhaz militia without any hindrance from the local police. Meanwhile, Georgians gathered into a counter-rally to prevent the Abkhaz from disrupting the university.
Russian government officials and special services devised series of provocations which would quickly degenerate into an open inter-ethnic warfare and eventually into the War in Abkhazia. A group of armed Abkhaz opened fire on the Georgian demonstration in Rustaveli Park. On late July 16, a crowd of five thousand Abkhaz ultra-nationalists, many of whom were armed, surged into the building. Several members of the Georgian exam commission were beaten up, and the school was looted.
This set off a chain of events that produced further casualties and destruction as the both sides engaged in armed fighting for several days to come. That evening, Abkhaz and Georgians began mobilizing all over Abkhazia and western Georgia. The Kodori Svans, ethnic Georgian subgroup from northeastern Abkhazia, and Abkhaz from the town of Tkvarcheli clashed in a shooting spree that lasted all night and intermittently for several days afterward. Meanwhile 30,000 Georgians from western Georgia, particularly from Mingrelia, and the predominantly Georgian Gali district in southern Abkhazia, began marching toward Sokhumi, led by the eminent Soviet-era dissident Merab Kostava. The authorities reported that the Abkhaz crowds attacked police posts to get access to weapons, but evidence suggests that official sympathy prevented the local law enforcement agencies from offering resistance to the "attackers". Moreover, a local procurator in Ochamchire ordered the return of Abkhaz hunting weapons.
The July events in Abkhazia left at least eighteen dead and 448 injured, of whom, according to official accounts, 302 were Georgians. The Georgians suspected the attack on their university was intentionally staged by the Abkhaz nationalists and Russian special services in order to provoke a large-scale violence that would prompt Moscow to declare a martial law in the region, thus depriving the government in Tbilisi of any control over the autonomous structures in Abkhazia. At the same time, Soviet government openly manipulated ethnic issues to curb Georgia's otherwise irrepressible independence movement.
In 1990, the Georgian-Abkhaz antagonism had largely moved to the legislatures, and the street fights and violent demonstrations were replaced by the “war of laws.” After Georgia declared, in August 1990, Georgian the only language spoken in the Georgian Supreme Soviet (parliament), the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, in the absence of its Georgian delegation, adopted, on August 25, a decree of the “state sovereignty of the Abkhazian SSR,” a decision which was claimed by Georgians to be a result of violations of procedure, adopted in the absence of the necessary quorum. The next day, the Georgian parliament annulled the decision. The Georgian deputies of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet convened on August 31, 1990, and at an extraordinary session they rescinded all the enactments passed by their Abkhaz colleagues, declaring them contrary to the constitutions of the Abkhazian ASSR and the Georgian SSR. Amid the political disputes, the Abkhaz leaders continued their quest for allies. On their initiative, a second Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, consisting of the representatives of Russia’s North Caucasian republics, was convened in Sokhumi in October 1990.
On October 28, 1990, the Georgian SSR held the first multiparty elections which brought the bloc of political parties, ''Roundtable – Free Georgia'', led by the Soviet-era dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia to power. In December 1990, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet elected a new chairman, Vladislav Ardzinba, who led the non-Georgian part of the Abkhazian legislature to adopt a series of acts which further deepened the division between the Abkhaz and Georgian lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Georgia continued its movement towards independence, and boycotted the March 17, 1991, all-Union referendum on the renewal of the Soviet Union proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. The non-Georgian population of Abkhazia, however, took part in the referendum and voted by an overwhelming majority in favor of preserving the Union. Furthermore, most of ethnic Abkhaz population declined to participate in the March 31 referendum on Georgia’s independence, which was supported by a huge majority of the population of Georgia. Independence was declared on April 9, 1991, and Gamsakhurdia was elected president on May 26, with over 86 per cent of the vote. In Abkhazia, the Supreme Council and all major public institutions became paralyzed by the division of two blocks along the ethnic lines. However, Georgia’s preoccupation in South Ossetia, a former autonomous oblast in the northeast of the country, where the separatist movement had already escalated into a war, and the Abkhaz fears that Gamsakhurdia’s government would use military to reinforce its control over Abkhazia, made the both sides to work towards an agreement on reforming the Abkhazian autonomous structures. On July 9 1991, Abkhazia passed a new election law based upon the concept proposed by the Georgian expert, Professor Levan Aleksidze. According to the new scheme, ethnic Abkhaz were granted wide overrepresentation in the Supreme Council of Abkhazia, with 28 seats; Georgians received 26, and other ethnic groups 11. A two-third majority was to be required to pass a legislation, thus guarantying both Abkhaz and Georgian factions veto power over key decisions. The eleven “others” could choose either to side with the Georgians or with the Abkhaz. The chairman of the Supreme Council was to be ethnic Abkhaz, with two deputies, one from a Georgian delegation, and the other from other ethnic faction. Vladislav Ardzinba was reelected a chairman of the Supreme Council.  
This compromise solution failed, however, to resolve the conflict between the two main communities in Abkhazia, and the Abkhaz leaders became increasingly involved in the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, a political organization which succeeded the Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus. The Confederation accepted Abkhazia as a member on its 3rd congress in Sokhumi on November 10, 1991, and later established its own military forces.
Armed Conflict
A violent coup in Tbilisi, which ousted President Gamsakhurdia in favor of the interim Military Council from December 20, 1991 to January 6, 1992, marked the start of the civil war in Georgia. Gamsakhurdia fled Georgia, but his armed supporters continued their resistance to the new regime, especially in Mingrelia (Samegrelo), and enjoyed significant support among the Georgian population in Abkhazia. In March 1992, the Military Council was transformed into the State Council of the Republic of Georgia led by the ethnic Georgian ex-Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze.
Once again, tensions began to fuel in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz separatist politicians led by Ardzinba were determined to use the opportunity of the unrest in Georgia to reinforce their power in the region and not to allow either of the conflicting Georgian parties to gain a foothold in Abkhazia. In violation of the previous power-sharing agreement, the Abkhaz team gradually began to take control of all major posts in the autonomous structures. An internal division within the Georgian faction did not allow the Georgians to effectively counter these moves. By summer 1992, the split-up in the local authorities and public institutions of Abkhazia into ethnic Georgian and ethnic Abkhaz groups created a kind of dual authority in the autonomous republic. The predominantly ethnic Georgian members of the Supreme Council – the “Democratic Abkhazia” faction headed by Tamaz Nadareishvili – blamed Ardzinba and his team for raising ethnic tensions in the region and boycotted the Council’s sessions. In the aftermath, a number of Georgian laws were nullified in Abkhazia and a paramilitary force, the Abkhaz National Guard, was created and placed directly under the command of the Presidium of the Abkhazian Supreme Council. The ethnic Georgians responded to these measures by requesting from the central Georgian government to take additional measures for their defense. Soon a Georgian National Guard detachment under the command of Colonel Giorgi Karkarashvili entered Abkhazia and proceeded to the northern border with Russia, but the unprepared Abkhaz militias avoided offering any resistance and the Georgian force left the region. This demonstration of force proved to be ineffective, however. In a counter-move, on June 24, 1992, the Abkhaz National Guard, under orders from Ardzinba, stormed the Abkhazian Interior Ministry office, which was headed by ethnic Georgians, and took control of local police and security units. At the same time, the Abkhaz separatists secured the assistance from the Confederation in the case of an armed conflict, and intensified their contacts with the Russian military leaders and hardliner politicians. Prior to that, Ardzinba had arranged for the redeployment of a Russian Airborne battalion from the Baltic States to Sokhumi. According to the Russian historian Svetlana Chervonnaya, a number of Russian security servicemen arrived in Abkhazia as "tourists" during that summer. According to another Russian expert, Evgeni Kozhokin, director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Abkhaz guardsmen had been supplied with weaponry by Russia’s 643rd anti-aircraft missile regiment and a military unit stationed in Gudauta, Abkhazia. Ardzinba had major supporters in Moscow as well, particularly among the hardliner right-wing circles, including Vice President Alexander Rutskoy and the Chechen speaker of the Russian State Duma, Ruslan Khasbulatov. It should also be noted, that just before the conflict, Georgia also received its limited share of the heritage of the former Soviet military under the Tashkent Agreement of May 15 1992.
At the same time, Ardzinba’s rhetoric mounted, as he claimed that Abkhazia would ready to fight Georgia. In the breach of the 1990 agreement, he initiated a practice of replacing ethnic Georgian officials with Abkhaz, frequently accompanied by violence and humiliation.   
On July 23, 1992, the ethnic Abkhaz members of the Supreme Council – twenty eight of the sixty-five deputies - abrogated Abkhazia's functioning constitution and restored the 1925 constitution of the Abkhazian SSR. Abkhazia proclaimed itself a sovereign state, the Republic of Abkhazia, and declared its intention to conduct its relations with Georgia on the parity basis. The Georgian government condemned the decision and Abkhazia's Georgian population went on strike. The region was on the verge of the war.  
On August 14, 1992, some 3,000 Georgian National Guard troops and police forces under Tengiz Kitovani entered Abkhazia, their official purpose being the protection of rail communications from Gamsakhurdia’s supporters operating in the region and gain the release of several Georgian governmental officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kavsadze, who had been detained by the deposed president’s forces. Abkhaz leaders claimed this was in violation of the agreement of April 1992 whereby Georgian troops could enter Abkhazia with the permission of the Abkhazian government. Although the local Abkhazian authorities had already disintegrated, Shevardnadze still informed Ardzinba about the forthcoming "anti-terrorist operation." However, when Kitovani’s force moved to Sokhumi, the Abkhaz National Guards offered resistance, firing on the Georgian echelons at Ochamchire and Sokhumi. The Abkhaz militias were defeated and they engaged into a scattered guerilla actions. The Georgian forces entered Sokhumi and marched up to the Russian border, forcing the separatist government to leave, on August 18, Sokhumi for Gudauta, which was a home to the Soviet-era Russian military base. Ardzinba declared Gudauta Abkhazia's "temporary capital" and called in the North Caucasian Confederates to interfere.
The Abkhazians' military defeat was met with a hostile response by the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, an umbrella group uniting a number of pro-Russian movements in the North Caucasus, Russia (Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians and others). Hundreds of volunteer paramilitaries from Russia (including the then little known Shamil Basayev) joined forces with the Abkhazian separatists to fight the Georgian government forces. Regular Russian forces also reportedly sided with the secessionsts. In September, the Abkhaz and Russian paramilitaries mounted a major offensive after breaking a cease-fire, which drove the Georgian forces out of large swathes of the republic. Shevardnadze's government accused Russia of giving covert military support to the rebels with the aim of "detaching from Georgia its native territory and the Georgia-Russian frontier land". The year 1992 ended with the rebels in control of much of Abkhazia northwest of Sokhumi.
In March 1993, the anti-Georgian coalition forces launched mass offensive against Georgian-held Sokhumi, accompanied by heavy civilian casualties. The attackers were actively supported by the regular Russian navy and aviation. The Russian Defense Minister Grachev claimed that the Georgians bombed themselves in order to cast a shadow on Russian military. Shortly after this absurd statement, Georgian army brought down a Russian jet piloted by Major Shipko of Russian Air Force, a fact that was confirmed by international observers who investigated the incident. The March offensive turned a disaster to the separatists and their allies. The Georgian artillery destroyed their major military group at the Gumista River. The Abkhaz-North Caucasian forces exhausted and faced an imminent catastrophe. However, under Msocow’s strong pressure Georgian government was forced to sign a truce.    
The conflict remained stalemated until July 1993, when the Abkhaz separatist militias launched yet another abortive attack on Sokhumi. The capital was surrounded and heavily shelled, with Shevardnadze himself trapped in the city. Although the Georgian army retained control of the city, the situation was very dangerous as many of the surrounding settlements had been captured by the Abkhaz.
Although a truce was declared at the end of July, this collapsed after a renewed Abkhaz attack in mid-September. Most of Georgian hardware, under the Russian supervision, had already been withdrawn from Sokhumi, and the defenders of the city found themselves undermanned. At the same time, all equipment ceded by the Abkhaz militants to the Russian mission as part of the ceasefire accord, were returned back to the separatists. After ten days of heavy fighting, Sokhumi fell on 27 September, 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze narrowly escaped death, having vowed to stay in the city no matter what, but he was eventually forced to flee when separatist snipers fired on the hotel where he was residing. Abkhaz, North Caucasians militants and their allies committed one of the most horrific massacres[16] of this war against remaining Georgian civilians in the city known as Sokhumi Massacre. The mass killings and destruction continued for two weeks, leaving thousands dead and missing.
The separatist forces quickly overran the rest of Abkhazia as the Georgian government faced a second threat: an uprising by the supporters of the deposed Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the region of Mingrelia (Samegrelo). In the chaotic aftermath of defeat almost all ethnic Georgian population fled the region by sea or over the mountains escaping a large-scale ethnic cleansing initiated by the victors. Many thousands died — it is estimated that between 10,000-30,000 ethnic Georgians and 3,000 ethnic Abkhaz may have perished — and some 250,000 people were forced into exile.
During the war, gross human rights violations were reported on the both sides (see Human Rights Watch report[17]), and the ethnic cleansing committed by the Abkhaz forces and their allies is recognised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summits in Budapest (1994)[18], Lisbon (1996)[19] and Istanbul (1999)[20]
Post-war Abkhazia
The economic situation in the republic after war was very hard and it was aggravated by the sanctions imposed in 1994 by the CIS. During the 1990s a lot of people of all ethnicities left Abkhazia mainly for Russia. Since 1997 Russia effectively dropped these sanctions which tremendously helped republic's economy.
The return of Georgians to Gali district of Abkhazia was halted by the fighting which broke out there in 1998. However approximately 40,000 have returned to Gali district since 1998, including persons commuting daily across the ceasefire line and those migrating seasonally in accordance with agricultural cycles. The rights of the Georgian returnees are, however, systematically violated by the Abkhaz separatist authorities who, among other serious infringements of international law, practice forced recruitment of young Georgians into the Abkhaz forces. Despite numerous requests from Georgia, the UN, and even Russia, Abkhazia’s separatist government resolutely opposes an opening of the UN human right office in Gali, the only city in Abkhazia with a Georgian plurality.     
After several peaceful years tourists again began to visit Abkhazia, however their number is very small comparing to the pre-war number and come chiefly from Russia.
In 2004 the so called presidential elections were held which caused much controversy when the candidate backed by outgoing president Vladislav Ardzinba and by Russia - Raul Khadjimba - was apparently defeated by Sergey Bagapsh. The tense situation in the republic led to the cancellation of the election results by the Supreme Court. After that the deal was struck between former rivals to run jointly — Bagapsh as a presidential candidate and Khajimba as a vice presidential candidate. They received more than 90% of the votes in the new election. Abkhazia’s politics and economics remain heavily dependent on Russia which, as many experts note, continues to support the secessionist movements in Georgia as an instrument of political pressure upon the country’s pro-Western government.


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