by George Hewitt (Professor of Caucasian Languages, SOAS, London University)
CircassianWorld.com, February 11, 2008
Most Western commentators were probably in general agreement with the proposition of the late US President Ronald Reagan that the Soviet Union was an 'evil empire'. Most Western commentators during Soviet times probably knew little about life in the various union-republics which constituted the USSR, though there might have been awareness that the strongest anti-Russian sentiment was to be found amongst the three Baltic peoples (Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians) and the Transcaucasian Georgians. When the USSR began to disintegrate during the Gorbachev years, one could, therefore, understand why the long-held aspiration for independence in the Baltic states and Georgia attracted such wide sympathy among those same Western commentators and policy-makers. In the hope of avoiding a proliferation of an unpredictable number of small states, the international community in its collective wisdom decreed that it would recognise only the USSR's constituent union-republics and would, thus, not give any encouragement to the yearning for self-determination that characterised some ethnic minorities living in regions endowed with only lower level autonomy according to the Soviet administrative system (such as the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia and the Autonomous Region of South Ossetia, both lower-status entities within the union-republic of Soviet Georgia). It was a huge irony that, in adopting this stance, the West was effectively enshrining the divisions created for his fiefdom by none other than the Soviet dictator Iosep Besarionis-dze Dzhughashvili, a Georgian known to the wider world as Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. Had the Soviet Union collapsed during the first decade of its existence in the 1920s before Abkhazia was reduced in status by fiat of Stalin in February 1931 from being a fully-fledged republic, which entered the Transcaucasian Federation on 13 December 1922 in treaty-alliance WITH Georgia, to that of an autonomous republic WITHIN Georgia, and had the then League of Nations adopted the same principle of recognition later practised by its successor, the United Nations, then Abkhazia would for decades have enjoyed independence and membership in its own right of the said international community.
The Abkhazian Kingdom, founded c.780 A.D., saw the expansion of Abkhazian power into sections of today's western Georgia proper, the capital being transferred from Anakopia (today's New Athos on Abkhazia's Black Sea coast) to Kutaisi (the Georgian Republic's second city), the whole of this area at time being referred to at the time as 'Abkhazia'. Gurgen IIIrd inherited 'Abkhazia' from his mother Gurandukht' in 978 as well as all Georgian speaking provinces from potentates on his father's side, so that by 1008 A.D. he was the first ruler of a powerful mediaeval kingdom that was known as the united kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Georgians. Thereafter, until the arrival of the Mongols, 'Abkhazia' even came to be synomymous with the native Georgian term /sakartvelo/ 'Georgia'.
As one indication of the reputation of Abkhazia (or Abasgia) in mediaeval times, one can quote from 'The Travels of Sir John Mandeville', which first appeared around 1356. The English traveller writes in chapter 28 of the 1968 OUP edition:
After that [Armenia and Media] is the kingdom of Georgia, that beginneth toward the east to a great mountain that is cleped [called] El'brus,where that dwell many diverse folk of diverse nations, and men clepe [call] the country Alania. This kingdom stretcheth him towards Turkey and toward the Great Sea, and toward the south it marcheth to the Great Armenia. And there be two kingdoms in that country. That one is the kingdom of Georgia, and that other is the kingdom of Abasgia. And always in that country be two kings, and they be both Christian. But the king of Georgia is in subjection of the Great Khan. And the king of Abasgia hath the more strong country, and he always vigorously defendeth his country against all those that assail him, so that no man may make him in subjection to no man.
There is also the more realistic (and accurate in terms of Abkhazia's contemporary status) travel-diary of the cleric Johannes de Galonifontibus, who passed through the Caucasus in 1404, writing:
Beyond these [Circassians] is Abkhazia, a small hilly country...They have their own language...To the east of them, in the direction of Georgia, lies the country called Mingrelia...They have their own language...Georgia is to the east of this country. Georgia is not an integral whole...They have their own language (cited from L. Tardy's 'The Caucasian Peoples and their Neighbours in 1404', Acta Orientalia Academicae Scientiarum Hungaricae, XXXII (i), 83-111,1978).
Central power collapsed in the united kingdom with the appearance of the Mongols in c.1245, and it split into various smaller kingdoms and principalities, of which Abkhazia (more or less in the modern sense of the term) was one. These existed until Tsarist Russia started to draw them into its empire at different dates in the 19th century (though some regions were left on Turkey's side of the Russo-Turkish border). It was only after the end of North West Caucasian resistance to Russia's drive to dominate the Caucasus in 1864 and the later Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 that Abkhazia's demography radically shifted, for at this time most Abkhazians (like most Circassians and all the Ubykhs, the other members of the North West Caucasian alliance) preferred to abandon their homeland to living under Russian control, and so they left for Ottoman lands, creating a huge Near Eastern diaspora that sees the majority Abkhazian and Circassian populations today centred not in the Caucasus but in Turkey. It was only from the last quarter of the 19th century that foreign elements, mainly from neighbouring Mingrelia, started to move into Abkhazia's denuded territories (on Abkhazia's emptiness at this time see the English mountaineer Douglas Freshfield's moving chapter on 'The Solitude of Abkhazia', pp.191-220 of volume 2 of his magnificent 'The Exploration of the Caucasus', 1st edition of 1896). The contemporary Georgian intellectual and educationalist Iak'ob Gogebashvili was one of those who advocated that the best colonisers [sic] of Abkhazia were the Mingrelians, a people who speak a language related to Georgian but who, since c.1930, have been officially classified as 'Georgians' — see Gogebashvili's 'vin unda iknes dasaxlebuli apxazetshi?' [Who should be settled in Abkhazia?] (1877, in Georgian).
During Transcaucasia's few years of independence in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Menshevik government that came to power in Georgia applied the politics of 'fire and sword' in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to bring them into the Georgia's orbit. The Englishman Carl Eric Bechhofer wrote of the Menshevik government's nationalism as follows: 'The free and independent Social-Democratic government of Georgia will ever remain in my memory as a classical example of an imperialistic minor nationality both in relation to its seizure of territory to within its own borders and in relation to the bureaucratic tyranny inside the state. Its chauvinism exceeds the highest limits' ('In Denikin's Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920', London 1921). This, of course, is reminiscent of Andrei Sakharov's description of Georgia as a 'small empire' shortly before his death, something which earned him a wealth of opprobrium across the whole Georgian media.
The mingrelianised Abkhazians of the south-eastern province of Gal were eventually reclassified as 'Georgians' in the 1920s, and during the anti-Abkhazian drive of Stalin and his Mingrelian lieutenant, Lavrent'i Beria (a child of Abkhazia), which began in 1937 and ended with their deaths in 1953, huge numbers of (mostly) Mingrelians (with an admixture of Georgians, in the true sense of the word) were rudely transported into Abkhazia; this is well-documented in the collection of the official records, published as 'Abxazija: dokumenty svidetel'stvujut, 1937-1953' [Abkhazia: the Documents Bear Witness, 1937-1953], published in 1992. During this period the Abkhazian script was first shifted from a roman to a Georgian base, and then publishing was banned, as were Abkhaz-languages schools, which were replaced in 1945-46 by Georgian-language schools. Though this repression of the Abkhazians and their culture was reversed under Krushchev from 1954, Mingrelian settlement in Abkhazia continued right up to the end of the Soviet period, so that by the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, 'Georgians' (mostly Mingrelians) represented some 46% of the region's population, against a mere 17.8% for the native Abkhazian population. David Phillips merely alludes to Abkhazians constituting less than one-fifth of the republic's population; whilst the statement is true, the figure has to be placed in its historical context, as I have tried to do above.
Another sinister aspect of Georgian 'colonisation' began as early as the 1880s but is especially linked to the name of P'avle Ingoroq'va, a self-taught expert in Georgian literature, who in the late 1940s published the absurd notion that historically the Abkhazians were a 'Georgian' tribe who were subjugated as late as the 17th century by incomers from the North West Caucasus who settled in North West Transcaucasia, took on the name of this 'Georgian' people, and thus became the Abkhazians we know today! There is NO justification whatsoever for such nonsense — it seems to have been propagated in the late 1940s as grounds for the planned transportation of the Abkhazians to Central Asia in the same way that Stalin had deported many peoples to the east since the late 1930s (e.g. Koreans, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhians, Hemshins, Laz, Greeks, Kalmyks); in the event, it seems to have been decided that the banning of the Abkhaz language and the importation of so many Mingrelians would mingrelianise (?georgianise) the Abkhazians within a couple of generations, and so they escaped deportation. Though Abkhazian culture revived after 1954, investment per head of population remained low in comparison with other regions of Soviet Georgia (see Darrell Slider Slider's 'Crisis and response in Soviet nationality policy: the case of Abkhazia', in Central Asian Survey 4.4, 51-68, 1985), and there were periodic anti-Georgian demonstrations in Abkhazia in the late 1950s, late 1960s and in 1978. In this last year over 130 Abkhazian intellectuals wrote to the Kremlin to insist that Abkhazia be taken out of Georgian control and moved into the Russian Federation. The head of the Georgian Party at the time, one Eduard Shevardnadze, was despatched to Abkhazia's capital, Sukhum, to calm the growing tensions. One of the measures taken was to establish in Sukhum only the second university in Soviet Georgia. Tempers did cool, but the intellectuals who had signed the letter to the Kremlin lost their jobs.
Under Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost' [Openness] Georgians, like others across the Union, began to express their grievances, and the mood into Tbilisi quickly spiralled down into one of raging nationalism, which was directed not only upwards to Russia but inwards towards the republic's various ethnic minorities. In 1988 a draft language-law was introduced which would have made a test in Georgian language and literature an essential prerequisite to entry into higher education throughout the republic, a danger to those ethnic minorities (such as the Abkhazians) where there was little or no knowledge of Georgian. In a response to this ugly development, the Abkhazians (and South Ossetians) began to set out their own grievances against Georgian domination. Matters came to a head in the summer of 1989 with the first fatal clashes in Sukhum and (some way to the south-east) Ochamchira. On 17th March 1991 there took place an all-Union referendum on Gorbachev's proposed new Union Treaty. Though the referendum was boycotted by 'Georgians' throughout Georgia in general, 52.3% of Abkhazia's electorate did vote, with 98.6% of these saying 'yes' to remaining within a union of sovereign republics — note that this meant that an overall majority of the electorate was achieved within Abkhazia, such that it cannot have been that only ethnic Abkhazians voted this way. One has to bear this fact in mind when commentators like David Phillips speak of only less than one-fifth of Abkhazia's population throwing a spanner in Georgia's drive to establish a successful post-Soviet state. The Union Republics were due to sign the new treaty in mid-August 1991 with the autonomous units, like Abkhazia, adding their signatures a few weeks later and thereby gaining equal status with the former republics in a re-constituted Union. This would have realised Abkhazians' desideratum, removing them from the immediate control of Tbilisi. But, of course, Soviet history took a different course with the coup against Gorbachev on 18 August, the eventual disintegration of the USSR, and the recognition of only the union-republics.
Anyone familiar with the aspects of Abkhaz-Georgian relations discussed above and more especially with the anti-Abkhazian propaganda that exploded in Georgian-language sources from the late 1980s and which colours the attitudes towards the Abkhazians amongst many (?most) Georgians to this day knows that, however tempting, it is not necessary to look further than Tbilisi in seeking the proximate (and indeed ultimate) causes of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict that led to outright war with Shevardnadze's ill-considered invasion on 14th August 1992. The Abkhazians were supported by the then-important Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (including Dudaev's Chechenia) and fighters from the above-mentioned Near Eastern diaspora. Arms were naturally procured from Russia, but then anything could be bought in Russia at the time. No doubt some direct help will have been provided by official sources in Russia, just as official sources in Russia were also providing assistance to the Georgian side. But it is a gross distortion of the facts to assume that Russian either initiated this war or won it for the Abkhazian side. At its conclusion many thousands of Abkhazia's 'Georgian' community decided that it would be safer if they were not around when the Abkhazians arrived to retake control of their territories that had suffered 13 months of hostile occupation (from the capital Sukhum down through Ochamchira, a much ravaged region that bears the scars of the fighting to this day). Their flight has been portrayed as ethnic cleansing; the relevant areas might be describable as largely (though not completely) cleansed of 'Georgian' residents, but this is the result of an act of self-cleansing. The Abkhazian high command did what it could to forestall reprisals by issuing leaflets in advance of the appearance of its forces and IDPs in the region, instructing them to observe the rights of the peaceful 'Georgians' still residing there. The numbers of those who chose to flee was never anything like the inflated totals put about for propaganda purposes.
It must be obvious from what has been said that the Abkhazians (and many others of those living in Abkhazia, such as the Armenians and Russians) have for decades had no wish to live under Georgian domination. At the end of September 1993 they achieved independence (albeit 'de facto') for their republic and began to build a post-Soviet and post-war society, declaring formal independence only in late 1999 in frustration at Georgian tactics to string out and undermine negotiations on a final settlement. Progress has been slow because of the lack of investment and the state of 'no war, no peace' which obtains there. The young republic has been subjected to terrorism from the Georgian side of the border inflicted by groups (the Forest Brethren and the White Legion, for example) financed by the (Western-backed) Georgian government. In 1998 renewed war was only just averted, when Shevardnadze's Georgia again displayed hostile intent. When Misha Saak'ashvili first came to power and attempted to speak in Abkhaz, offering them, as indeed had Shevardnadze ever since his troops' defeat in September 1993, only 'maximal autonomy' within a single Georgian state, he made his offer against the background of a large-scale military display in the centre of Tbilisi, the Georgian army having been trained by US and British specialists. In the spring of 2006 Saak'ashvili transgressed the peace-accords signed in Moscow in April 1994 by both parties to the conflict when he introduced troops (under the guise of a policing operation) into the one region of Abkhazia which since the end of the war had remained under Tbilisi's nominal control, the Upper K'odor Valley. It was this action which immediately (and rightly) led to the Abkhazian side's refusal to walk out of the protracted peace-talks. What would David Phillips have the Abkhazians do? They have had their fill of 'autonomy', knowing it to be a fiction in the Georgian context and will never voluntarily resubmit to it. Those who support the Georgian position have to ask themselves why the Abkhazians should put their gains at risk. They did not seek war with Georgia but won it, when it was inflicted upon them. They lost 4% of their population during the 13 months of fighting. They know that the popular view in Georgia is that they live as interlopers on 'Georgian' soil, and they are well aware (as the international community may not be) that in the autumn of 1992 the Abkhazian Research Institute along with its invaluable archive was torched (after cherry-picking of the library's holding) in a deliberate attempt to eradicate documentary evidence of the Abkhazians' presence on their ancestral soil. Is it really to be expected that they will accede to placing their destiny once again in hostile Georgian hands?
David Phillips attempts to draw a contrast in terms of international law between Kosovo and Abkhazia. I suppose most peoples have a view parallel to that of the English speaking peoples who often speak of the law being an ass; if this frequently correctly characterises national laws, how much worse are international laws likely to be? Laws, like frontiers drawn on maps, are the creations of politicians (the most fallible of all human beings, some might say). Essentially what one should be asking is this? Does one ethnic group which solely because of the vicissitudes of history possesses an eponymous state on a map that the international community, largely ignorant of that state's history, has recognised, have the moral right to control the lives of another group living within its internationally recognised borders, when by its actions over decades it has so offended that minority (those minorities) that they time and again have demonstrated (even upto engaging in wars they never sought) their visceral opposition to such domination? The answer must be 'no', whether we are speaking of Kosovo vs Serbia, or Abkhazia (and S. Ossetia) vs Georgia. US presidential candidate John McCain ended his visit to Georgia in the summer of 2006 by calling the Georgians America's new 'best friends', adding that his fervent wish was for the secessionist territories soon to discover what it truly means to live in freedom... It was precisely to obtain that freedom that the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians fought their wars with Georgia in the early 1990s (1990-1992 in the case of the S. Ossetians; 1992-1993 in the case of the Abkhazians), and those with the power (now or in the future) to influence events regionally should take the trouble better to acquaint themselves with local realities.
By supporting so one-sidedly the Georgian position of territorial integrity at all costs, the West has succeeded in achieving the very opposite of what it would have wanted, namely consolidation of Russia's influence in Abkhazia, something which (contrary to popular myth) is by no means universally popular in Abkhazia itself. But, then, what option is available to the Abkhazians and those who share not only their republic but also their suspicions and fears of whatever regime holds the reins of government in Tbilisi? A wiser policy would have been (and would still now be) for the West itself to recognise Abkhazian independence, something which Georgians would find more acceptable than any recognition coming from Russia in a tit-for-tat move after the recognition of Kosovo. Investment would follow. The independence would be under the guarantees of the UN, and in time there would be normalisation of relations between Abkhazia and Georgia (leading to a slow but wider return of, at least a portion of, the refugees). There would also be the creation of a healthier relationship between Russia and Georgia, which would be to the benefit of the entire Caucasus region.