Friday, May 16, 2008

Leader from this week's Economist

Georgia and Russia

Gather round the gorge

May 15th 2008
From The Economist print edition

The outside world can help deter both Russian bullying and Georgian vote-rigging

IF YOU have not heard of the Kodori Gorge, you may soon. A Georgian-controlled sliver of territory in the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia, it looks nastily like the flashpoint for a new hot war in the Caucasus. Russia, which protects the Abkhaz regime, insists that Georgia is planning to use Kodori to attack Abkhazia. That is unlikely. Georgia's modern but small army is no match for the Russian behemoth. Steep terrain with only one tiny road divides Kodori from the rest of Abkhazia. And starting a war would ruin Georgia's hopes of joining NATO.

A more plausible explanation of Russia's propaganda offensive and increase in the numbers of both regular and irregular forces in Abkhazia is not fear of a Georgian attack, but plans for the opposite: an attempt to retake the Kodori Gorge. This would humiliate, perhaps topple, Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Russia would see it as giving a firm response to the deplorable precedent of Western recognition of Kosovo's independence. If you use your muscle to separate Kosovo from Serbia, the Kremlin would grunt, then just watch what we can do to a would-be ally of yours.

Tensions are still growing ahead of Georgia's parliamentary elections on May 21st. A war would splinter Georgia's fragile democracy, destabilise the whole Caucasus and embolden Russian hawks to cause bother elsewhere. That is trouble worth avoiding.

If Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev (see article), wants to be taken seriously as more than a puppet of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, he could start by cooling the row with Georgia. Menacing the country mocks his talk of the rule of law. Others can also help. Some European Union countries are joining Lithuania's hitherto lonely protests on Georgia's behalf. This week five foreign ministers went to Georgia to bemoan Russia's knout-rattling. A mission of foreign military and political observers to the Kodori Gorge itself would be a useful follow-up. It would give the lie to Russia's claims that Georgia is preparing for war. And it could deter Russia from an attack. Killing Georgian soldiers is one thing for Russia; killing officials from EU and NATO countries is another.

Meanwhile Georgia could help itself by bolstering its democratic credentials. The heavy-handed dispersal of street protests in November and allegations of ballot-rigging in January's presidential election have sullied its reputation. That helped NATO's summit in April decide that putting Georgia on a clear track to membership was premature.

Georgia's friends might rally more enthusiastically behind it if the parliamentary elections were not just clean, but seen to be beyond reproach. Mr Saakashvili's supporters say that the opposition is intransigent and maybe even outright treacherous. Bits of it may well be. But that is no excuse for dodgy election practices.

It is sadly too late to settle some controversies, such as the composition of the election commission. But video recordings of the numbers entering polling booths should be comprehensive and freely available to help allay suspicions of ballot-stuffing. Complaints need to be followed up seriously. Otherwise the impression given is one of arrogance at best, and at worst a willingness to conceal dirty deeds. Outside monitors should offer to look into any complaints that the Georgian authorities fail to investigate properly.

Demonstratively coupling its prosperity with freedom and legality will win Georgia moral high ground, and wider backing, in its war of words with Russia. And it might one day even help win back Abkhazia too.


George Nikoladze said...
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George Nikoladze said...

With all due respect, there are some inconsistencies and inaccuracies with this article. Firstly, nobody at Bucharest summit even mentioned November 7 events or Presidential election. The denial for "premature" granting of MAP to Georgia/Ukraine (did those events in Tbilisi also affected Ukraine?) was due to Russian pressure on Germany and France and this is obvious even for people who have no idea about post-Soviet politics. Secondly, the Presidential elections n Georgia were recognized as "mostly in line with democratic standards" (and nowhere in the report we see fraud or rigged) by OSCE commission, US State Department, and other observers who were monitoring the elections. Although, there were problems in elections (which post-Soviet country or new members of EU in Eastern Europe have pure 100% democratic elections, please name) which were noted in the OSCE report.
Thirdly, although there was an excess use of force by the police on November 7, they did not behave differently than lets say what police did in Budapest (last year), Paris or in Rome (or anywhere in the civilized world, when police is confronted by unruly mob) during the protests. And importantly, we didn't see demonstrators shot from Kalashnikovs as in Armenia (nobody died on November 7 in Tbilisi, while in Yerevan, 21 people were killed by gun wounds to their head) did we?

Surely, there must be a strong consolidated and popular opposition movement to further enhance the political plurality in Georgia, we don't want to resemble our Russian neighbors when it comes to baning opposition movements or alternative news media. But unfortunately, the opposition in Georgia is bitterly divided and overly hysterical (instead of politics and diplomacy, they advocate for bitter divisions in the society and even called for violence if they are not elected in the future parliament). The west should play a "tough love" role in Georgia, however, the west must not forget or overlook that the country is literary at war with its "behemoth" neighbor and 40% of its territory is under heavily militarized occupation.

Thanks for such an interesting and insightful article

giorgius said...

Mr Lucas. Great points. however, according to the latest survey of such acclaimed pollster as Greenberg Quinlan Rosner revealed increasing govt support at 44% and falling opposition support. This in itself is an interesting trend, but would be a bit tricky to accuse government of an intent to rig elections.

You should also not forget that Dieter Boden, a pro-Russian German diplomat headed the previous mission and got himself into number of controversies, including now supporting Abkhazia's irredentism.

giorgius said...
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giorgius said...

In my view, best service the west can do Georgian democracy is to coach "coachable" parts of the opposition (if those exist, I am not sure) to learn behave in a restrained manner differentiate fighting political opponent from undermining the state.

No doubt the Nov7 events were very undortunate, but to say that they impacted Bucharest decisions is very questionable. The only reason Germany and France insisted was "not to upset Russia" and thats it. I dont think Georgia would have got MAP if November didnt happen.

Edward Lucas said...

I was at the NATO summit and I can assure you that there was plenty of discussion about Georgia's democratic credentials. Those who supported MAP such as me were constantly put on the back foot by people asking about the November events. On election-rigging, I don't say categorically that it happened. But enough people are worried about it to make it vital that the authorities go the extra mile to dispel suspicion


George Nikoladze said...

Dear Mr Lucas,

Thank you very much for your reply; I was looking forward to your answer. As I understood from the Bucharest summit, the main component to the denial for MAP was the Russian factor which has been overwhelmingly influential on Germany and France. However, other factors might have also played some part. I hope that tomorrow, the parliamentary elections will put a dent into the perception that Georgia has problems with its democratic credentials. Georgia is a young democracy in its infancy, of which success is challenged by the numerous domestic and foreign threats.
Your article Mr Lucas definitely puts a greater importance on need of transparent elections which Georgia needs to win over its skeptics in Europe. I hope tomorrow, all of our hopes and wishes will prevail and overshadow the grim events of November 7. Again, thank you very much for your reply.

Your adamant aficionado

George N

Grigol said...
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Grigol said...

Dear Edward

Just few short points.

Even if November 7 didnt happen, most likely Georgia would not get MAP.

Despite occasional excessive use of force decision then in principle was right (it is another matter how it got to that and what would have happened if, for example, Georgia obtained free trade agreement with the EU amid the 100% blanket embargo from Russia, which is still in force. But in response of expulsion of around 10,000 Georgians from Russia, Germany tightened visa regime.) especially given very hard evidence obtained afterwards. If every time people gather and demand dismissal of government (without elections) and it happens there is one step to banana republic.

*Numerous demonstrations, even greater in number have taken place after November;
*Although being already very diverse, Georgian media right now is a shining example of balance;
*I am sure you saw GQR's poll figures whom nobody can dispute. It well exposed losses of the opposition due to very unwise hysterical campaign that involved throwing hammers at police;
*Given those figures it simply does not make sense for Misha to rig elections. That would simply be not only extremely stupid but equal to political harakiri
*Finally, what some of the opposition has been doing cannot be called nothing but crying wolf with many examples groundless accusations (such as claiming murder of somebody for political reasons while it turned out the incident had nothing to do with elections) to sabotage;
*Finally, you are well aware of the unprecedented increase of the Russian power within the OSCE. Why do you think Georgian elections would be immune from application of that power in dirtiest possible way?

Anton said...

What we saw in the upcoming weeks to this election, was Georgian officials and particularly Misha screaming about a the upcoming conflict in Abkhazia, he constantly kept suggesting that Russia is driving both Georgia and Abkhazia to a war. Meanwhile Abkhazia kept shooting down Georgian drones, the general picture looked as an obvious provocation by the Georgian government, a war scare is a big ace in Saakashvili´s pack of cards and he has used it a number of times earlier. Today on the day of the election, apparently explosion of a bus took place, it is not yet clear what actualy happened and already Georgian government is accusing Abkhazia. It seems as another attempt to take attention away from the election the problems and to even further emphasise this war scare Misha has so well created in the last several months. Nevertheless, will be interesting to see the outcome of this fiasco.

George Nikoladze said...

Video footage of todays shooting of Georgian civilians by Abkhaz militants which were obviously aided by Russian so called "peacekeepers." Enguri river to vote during the parliamentary elections and during the bridge crossing their bus was bombed by mortars and shooting commenced.

Grigol said...

Anton, your post, traditionally shows that you have no clue about Georgian politics. You think what you wish to think. As long as people in Moscow listen to you or anyone like you Saakashvili is just fine. Adiu

Anton said...

That is from a Georgian news channel, as far as I am aware a lot of independent channels have been put under pressure, november 2007 for example.

Do you actually think that Abkhazia would attack Georgian civilians on the day of election? Are you that naive?? That is an obvious provocation, not only did the attack boost people to vote for Saakashvili now it gives him more credibility to be even more aggressive and unreasonable towards Abkhazia.

For a struggling separatist nation, that has for the last decade of its existance only asked to be left alone by Georgia, do you think that there is any logic or rationale behind theese attacks??

At least I think what I wish to think, you think what Georgian 'free' media, Misha Saakashvili and Edward Lucas tell you to think.

Grigol said...

Anton you are really consistent:)

From Abkhaz viewpoint they attacked not Georgian nationals but Georgians who live in Abkhazia and were crossing the "border" to vote in Georgian elections. I admit, Abkhaz didnt really fire to kill anyone (although one woman was wounded) but they blew up buses that were there to transport the voters. This is an important detail.

Unlike Russian media, Georgian media is beacon of democracy, sorry.

George Nikoladze said...

well according to latest OSCE report, media in Georgia is mostly free (the popular Kavkasia TV station broadcast 24/7 anti governmental programing while most Georgian newspapers and radio stations are anti-governmental as well), something that in Russia is non-existent (I think there is no country in post Soviet world, where so many journalists were murdered and TV/Radio stations closed). Its a typical Russian response, "the attack was staged." Sure, its identical to the statement by Abkhaz separatist leader Bagapsh claiming that Hollywood probably made those footages of attacks. It was definitely "Georgian security" services shooting their own people, like Grachov claimed in 1993 that Georgians were painting MIG 29 (when on earth we would get those MIGs in the first place in 93) to resemble as Russian and were bombing mercilessly their own civilians in Sukhumi in order to blame poor Russia which had nothing to do with that "ethnic conflict". Well luckily for us, there are none in the world left who can be fooled by that cheap Soviet style blunder. You might have to come up with something more original than that. Take example of FSB run "Russia Today" Tv station, at least they try to present Stalinist type of propaganda in western fashion.


CW said...

...Additionally, the Commander-in-chief of Georgian troops in Abkhazia, General Georgiy Karkarashvili warned in a televised formal address to the Abkhaz and Georgian people in Sukhumi on August 24, that “no prisoners of war will be taken” by the Georgian troops, that “if 100,000 Georgian lose their lives, then [on the Abkhazian side] all 97,000 will be killed”; and that “the Abkhaz Nation will be left without descendants.” The delegation saw a video recording of this ominous speech.

...The Mission obtained sufficient evidence to conclude that gross and systematic violations of human rights had occurred at the hands of Georgian troops in Abkhazia throughout the period since August 14, 1992; that these included serious violations committed against Abkhazian and other ethnic population groups in cities and villages; that civilians were the primary victims of Georgian abuses; that Georgian attacks were directed against persons identifiable as Abkhazian, and that particular attack was directed against Abkhazian political, cultural, intellectual and community leaders; that in addition to Abkhazians, also Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Estonians, and other non-Georgian minorities in Abkhazia have suffered similar treatment by Georgian authorities; and that removal or destruction of the principal materials and buildings of important historical and cultural importance to Abkhazians has taken place in what appears to be an organized attempt to destroy Abkhazian culture and national identity.

The Geneva Convention forbids the use of cluster bombs, yet Abkhazian medical authorities in Gudauta report having treated a number of cluster bomb wounds in victims brought from battle areas. Cluster bombs reportedly were used extensively during late August by Georgian forces and have continued sporadically since then.

Source: November 1992 Mission to Abkhazia, The full report in PDF can be downloaded here (1 MB) UNPO

Georgian Apologists (at home and abroad), by George Hewitt

Abkhazia's Liberation and International Law

Luis Dingley said...
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Luis Dingley said...

well that statement by Karkarashvili (whose brother was skinned alive prior) was peanuts compare to what Abkhaz separatist have claimed or done with their ethnic nemesis. Remembering famous word of Smyr: Georgians can't live here any more, in Abkhazia they can only die.” (Valery Smir, "Komsomolskaya Pravda" December 19, 1992). That meant 350,000 people condemned to death due to their ethnic background, reminds of Hutu Interahamwe during the Rwandan Genocide. And more officially: The 1994 U.S. State Department Country Reports describing scenes of massive human rights abuse:

The [Abkhaz] separatist forces committed widespread atrocities against the Georgian civilian population, killing many women, children, and elderly, capturing some as hostages and torturing others ... they also killed large numbers of Georgian civilians who remained behind in Abkhaz-seized territory...

I have tons of quotes like this, including latest UN resolution (GA 10708) which supports the OSCE conclusions made in Bucharest, Istanbul and Lisbon that Russian backed Abkhaz separatist committed wide spread atrocities which led to well organized ethnic cleansing campaign.

Thatnks for those "Circassian" web sites, but they don't hold any credibility compare to tons of UN reports from Abkhazia dating from 1992, OSCE reports, US State Dep reports and UN resolutions, which luckily for Georgians, make them victims rather than the Abkhaz side (which successfully got rid of ethnic Georgian component through sadistic measures). Also in line with your Karkarashvili statement, I remember how Russians were giving the same orders over the radio when the separatists launched attack of Sukhumi in September of 1993: "Rebiyata, v plen nikago brat!" (Conflict in the Caucasus: Georgia, Abkhazia, and the Russian Shadow by Svetlana Mikhailovna Chervonnaia).

Therefore, I don't believe in separatist or other political causes which end up with ethnic cleansing and complete degradation of one particular ethnic group, in this case the Georgian one.

Grigol said...

Even that statement by Karkarashvili is slightly misquoted. Although very bad indeed, it meant that "if that much georgians die all Abkhaz might die meanwhile and that will be unfortunate" rather than "we will kill you all." Yes it was bad, but it is just a detail.

Of course certain parts of Georgian "troops" were behaving inadequately in Abkhazia but many Georgians expierenced that on themselves too. That of course cannot be put on par with expelling 350,000 people on ethnic basis. I recently heard an idiotic term crafted by the Abkhaz--"self-cleansing."

CW said...

How is it that we are separatists when we are actually not separating from anybody or attacking anybody? Are there any resolutions of the Abkhazian Parliament adopted before August 14 1992 (or even several months afterwards) which have declared secession from Georgia? There is not one! In fact, it was the Abkhazian side that suggested building our relations with Georgia on an agreed, federative basis. Therefore, it was the Abkhazian side which came out with proposals that would preserve the unity of Georgia. The response was the despatch to Abkhazia of tanks, fighter-bombers and guardsmen armed to the teeth...

We are being forced into a separatist-position by the actual separatists reigning in Tbilisi who are busy destroying their own country. They have cast their country, the unity of which was supported by the bayonets of the Stalinist Soviet Empire, back to the feudal division of the Middle Ages. The so-called separatists from Adjaria, Mingrelia, Kakhetia (not to mention Abkhazia and Ossetia) are taking up an all-round defensive position against the central power in Tbilisi. The question is: «Why are there so many ‘separatists’ in Georgia?»
(See Abkhazia is Abkhazia by Stanislav Lakoba

The mass-immigration of Kartvelians (mostly Mingrelians) goes back to the late 1930s. Abkhaz's script was then altered from a roman to a Georgian base. Abkhaz-language schools were summarily closed in 1945-6, following by a ban on broadcasting and publications. The Abkhazians as a nation were due to face transportation (like the numerous other peoples transported by Stalin from the Koreans in the late 1930s through to Abkhazia's Greeks in the late 1940s), and, as a 'scholarly' justification for that, the literary-historian P'avleIngoroq'va was commissioned to argue in print that the Abkhazians only arrived in Abkhazia in the 17th century, conquering the 'original' Abkhazians of history, who were thus a 'Georgian' tribe. This calumny was revived in the heady days of Georgian nationalism from 1988 AND IS WIDELY BELIEVED BY MANY ORDINARY KARTVELIANS, who for this reason still regard the Abkhazians as unentitled to be living in Abkhazia. The Georgian general leading the invading forces in the autumn of 1992, Gia Qarqarashvili, stated on TV that he would sacrifice 100,000 Georgians to kill all 93,000 Abkhazians, if that is what it took to keep Georgia's borders inviolate', and a similar threat came from the head of Georgia's wartime administration, Giorgi Khaindrava, on the pages of Le Monde Diplomatique in April 1993.

If you were an Abkhazian, would you welcome back your former Kartvelian neighbours, knowing how many of them think Abkhazians should not be in Abkhazia?

Did youmention that there is no objection to the Mingrelians returning to/living in the Gal Province?

And it was no accident that the Abkhazian research-institute and archives were torched (after cherry-picking) in Nov 1992 -- it was done to try to erase documentary proof of the Abkhazians' presence over the centuries (not to say millennia) on Abkhazian soil. Also, when it comes to the fate of refugees and their right to return home, what is to be said of those Abkhazian descendants (over 300,000) of those more or less forced to leave Abkhazia, when it was populated virtually exclusively by Abkhazians, in 1864?


Soviet Abkhazia 1989 Facts and Thought, By Viktor Popkov


final point. For some 60 years Abkhazia was forced to accept the unwelcome status of being a mere autonomous republic with Soviet Georgia (thanks to the ruling of the Georgian dictator Stalin – ‘Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili’). For daring to defend our interests in the face of Georgian nationalist aggression, we were subjected to 14 months of savagery. In alliance with our allies from the Abkhazian diaspora or Abkhazians’ cousins in the North Caucasus, we succeeded in ejecting the invader and winning the war. All that Georgia under its various leaders/governments has been willing to offer us by way of a settlement is a return to the ‘status quo ante’— the sudden offer by Misha Saakashvili of asymmetric federation produced on the eve of the recent NATO summit in Bucharest was clearly aimed more at impressing the Western alliance than at appealing to Sukhum. How many examples are there in history where a people after being invaded, losing 4% of their population, and yet finally winning the war have meekly resigned themselves to accepting the selfsame subordinate status they had before the tragedy of a war inflicted upon them? This is something that the Georgian side and their international backers (who have no interest in the fate of minorities but think solely of the ‘big picture’ of preserving territorial integrity, of finding allies in an unstable part of the world, and of securing the flow of oil) would do well to remember. The Georgians lost Abkhazia in 1993. They should be told by their EU, NATO and US ‘friends’ to accept this fact, find a ‘modus vivendi’ with their neighbours (big and small alike), and then contribute to the creation of stability and prosperity for the Caucasus region as whole. We can all then get on with our lives in the peace that we all deserve.

CW said...


Map of Europe in Year 800, Southeast

Map of Europe in Year 900, Southeast

Map of Europe in Year 1000, Southeast

Unknown said...

Yep, right analysis! Stephen Shenfield have written so; ''Since that time, the great majority – about 90 percent – of people of Circassian descent have
lived in exile, mostly in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Only isolated
remnants, currently about three to four hundred thousand people altogether, remain in Russia
and other parts of the post-Soviet region. During the last decades of the tsarist regime, the
emptied and devastated Circassian lands were resettled by Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian and
other colonists. Later many Georgians also settled in Abkhazia, feeding resentments that
culminated in the recent Abkhaz-Georgian war - a conflict which can only be understood
against the background of the Circassian trauma of the last century.'' (The Massacre in History, Mark Levene and Penny Roberts, Chapter 7, The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?’ By Stephen D. Shenfield)

Luis Dingley said...

Great, that was interesting, a Circassian history lesson from the odd Circassian amateur web site. Well, im bit lucky you see. I have been studying the history of Caucasus for 15 and have some idea about the region. The historical arguments can be countered by sets of other count arguments, equally credible if not greater. The Georgian side has plenty of those arguments/facts with nicely colored maps (which are in more detail than yours and are created by the western scholars) and even quotes from Medieval Georgian-Armenian annals which currents separatists cant claim to posses (their recorded history only dates back to 19th century). I never use historical arguments when dealing with ethnic conflict or in this case an imposed ethnic conflict. I will not even go as far as to counter your “historic” claims, again I have tons of such which support Georgian claims to Abkhazia. In fact, Georgians always had their history, culture, language and existence in Abkhazia since their first state Colchis was formed in the west. The fact remains, no meter how obscure or evident the history can be, that 45% of the core population in Abkhazia which has equal rights to their homes, land, cemeteries, churches, etc were uprooted/expelled by sheer sadistic force. Until their rightful and dignified return, there can be no talk of any independence, Kingdoms of Abkhazia (which by the way was a Georgian one, Ap’khazta Samepo, I don’t want to break your heart but whole of western Georgia had a name Ap’khazeti with Kutaisi as its capital and not current Sukhumi, plus ruled by Georgian Bagrationis and Shervashidzes), or any referendum which will not include the entire pre-war population (UN resolutions have a same take on that). Otherwise, as someone already mentioned here, the current attempt of militant separatist and their Russian masters can be interpreted as Apartheid in Caucasus, based on the ethnic cleansing methodology which frightfully reminds me of African type of despotism. By now it is obvious for us in the west that the good old Abkhaz separatist vs Georgian unionist is a thing of the past. Currently, Abkhazia is a catalyst conflict between Russia and Georgia, and even BBC went so far as to identify this conflict as Georgian central authorities versus Russian separatists. Therefore, no one puts any attention to your Circassian web claims, but to the dangerous creeping annexation of this territory which is recognized by all as integral part of Georgia. To add some spice, in 1992 Abkhaz separatists had any legal right to declare independence without the consent of the Georgian members of their authority (the government of the autonomous republic) or not holding any referendum to find out that if 45% of Georgians wanted some dubious mini Abkhaz state (not to mention arm themselves and wage a bloody war). It ceased to be another Balkan type of ethnic confrontation (thanks to Russia’s latest actions) and rather presents a clear picture of Russian direct annexation of Georgian territories—old master Russia vs former colony Georgia. So far, Georgia is winning the diplomatic war and the western support, not by sets of historical arguments (they did not save Serbs from loosing Kosovo) but by sets of principles outlines in the international law and by the fact that Abkhaz committed wide spread ethnic cleansing, which definitely will not be supported anyone in their right mind.

CW said...

Usually the facts are disturbs people and you seems anxious because of the facts!

Lets continue our useful lesson...

Lesson 1. In the 10th century the ruler of the Georgian provinces Shavsheti and K'lardzheti (both today lying inside Turkey) as well as the neighbouring regions of Samtskhe and Dzhavakheti, King Gurgen, had married Gurandukht', sister to Abkhazia's childless King Theodosius III (known as The Blind). Note that two centuries earlier Leon II of Abkhazia, taking advantage of Byzantium’s waning power, had extended his domains to encompass the whole of today’s Western Georgia and created for himself the title 'King of the Abkhazians'; this Kingdom of Abkhazia lasted for some two centuries (from c.780 to 978), and during this period the term 'Abkhazia' (in whatever language relevant historical documents were written) referred to all the territory belonging to the Abkhazian king, and indeed from late in the 8th century the kingdom's capital was transferred from Anakopia (today’s New Athos in Abkhazia) to Kutaisi, now Georgia's second city, lying in the west Georgian province of Imereti. In 975 the son of Gurgen and Gurandukht’, Bagrat' (the IInd of Abkhazia, but the IIIrd of Georgia), inherited the central Georgian region of Kartli, and in 978 ‘Abkhazia’ too (in the enlarged sense of the term just explained) fell into his hands from his maternal uncle. In 1001 he was left the Georgian province of T'ao (also now in Turkey), and his father's death in 1008 gave him control over other western provinces. Bagrat' III thus became the first king of the united Kingdom of Abkhazia and Georgia, a union recognised by the early chroniclers, who would refer to the rulers as ‘sovereign of the Abkhazians, Georgians, etc...’. This united kingdom came finally to encompass the modern capital of Tbilisi (earlier Tiflis) only in 1122, after King David IV (known as The Builder) defeated the Seljuk Turks in 1121 and the following year expelled the Arabs from their caliphate in Tbilisi. Thus, it was the Abkhazians who clearly played a significant role in laying the foundations of modern Georgia's statehood. Bagrat' lies buried in the church he founded at Bedia (in southern Abkhazia); the church has a depiction of him as founder (ktitor), whilst his mother's image in stone-relief can be seen at the church of K'umurdo in the Armenian-populated Georgian province of Dzhavakheti. From the 13th to the 15th centuries the Genoese had trading posts along the Black Sea coast, including Abkhazia. Up until the appearance of the Mongols in the mid 13th century, the terms for 'Abkhazia' in the relevant written sources acquire an even wider territorial sense than the already enlarged sense employed during the period of the Abkhazian Kingdom, becoming synonymous during the period of this united kingdom for the native Georgian term for 'Georgia', namely /sakartvelo/.

Central power in the united kingdom of Abkhazia and Georgia collapsed with the arrival of the Mongols c.1245. Their depredations caused the country to split into two kingdoms, which in their turn fragmented into smaller political units, constituting sovereign princedoms; one of these was Abkhazia (in the strict sense of the term in which it is used today) under the princely Chachba family. There followed centuries of rivalry for supremacy and control of coastal territory between the Chachbas of Abkhazia and the princes of the Dadiani family in neighbouring Mingrelia — recall that the Mingrelian language is a sister to Georgian, neither being at all related to Abkhaz.

From the early 16th century Ottoman Turkey began to influence developments in the area. The Catholic Italian missionary, Archangelo Lamberti, who lived in Mingrelia between 1635 and 1653, placed Abkhazia's border with Mingrelia at the R. K'odor, some way to the south-east of Abkhazia’s modern capital Sukhum, but in the 1680s the Chachbas managed to set the border along the R. Ingur, and there it has remained, forming today's uneasy frontier with the neighbouring state of Georgia.

Russia began to turn an expansionist eye towards the Caucasus from the late 18th century. King Erek'le of the central and eastern Georgian provinces (not the whole of Georgia, be it noted) signed the Treaty of Georgievsk with Catherine the Great's Russia in 1784, but the freedom-loving north Caucasian tribes stood in the way of Russia's consolidation in the area. In 1810 Abkhazia came under Russian 'protection', though local rulers continued to administer their own affairs until Russia took full control following the final defeat of the north Caucasian opposition, when the alliance of N.W. Caucasian tribes surrendered on 21 May 1864 at Krasnaja Poljana, inland from the modern resort of Sochi, though historically the place fell within territory that belonged to the Ubykhs, cousins of the Abkhazians and Circassians (in the N.W. Caucasus). A process of denuding the Caucasus of its North West Caucasian-speaking peoples began in the wake of the 1864 defeat and was completed after the Turko-Russian war of 1877-8, as all the Ubykhs and most of the Circassians and Abkhazians chose to leave to resettle in various parts of the Ottoman Empire (predominantly today’s Turkey).

The international community knows little (and cares even less) about the N.W. Caucasian diaspora, which has had such serious consequences for the demography of the whole area. Leading Georgians (such as Iak’ob Gogebashvili) appreciated the opportunity that the Abkhazian migration afforded for colonisation and began arguing that the people most suited to be settled in Abkhazia were their neighbours, the Mingrelians, and it was thus only from the end of the 19th century that speakers of Kartvelian languages (mostly Mingrelians) began to establish a permanent presence in the territory.

The period of Transcaucasian independence (1918-21) was an unhappy one for Abkhazia, suffering oppression from the Georgian Menshevik government in Tbilisi, of which the Englishman Carl Eric Bechhofer (pseudonym for Roberts) wrote:

'The Free and Independent Social-Democratic State of Georgia" will always remain in my memory as a classic example of an imperialist "small nation". Both in territory-snatching outside and bureaucratic tyranny inside, its chauvinism was beyond all bounds' (In Denikin's Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920, p.14)

For this reason Abkhazia, unlike Georgia, welcomed the appearance in 1921 of the Red Army. Soviet power was (re-)established in Abkhazia on 4th March 1921, and the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic was recognised by Georgia's revolutionary committee on 21st May. On 16th December a special 'contract of alliance' was signed between Abkhazia and Georgia. On 13th December 1922 Abkhazia (along with Georgia) entered the Transcaucasian Federation. In February 1931 Abkhazia lost its status of a treaty-republic associated with Georgia to become a mere autonomous republic within Georgia by order of the man who had by then amassed in his own hands all power in the Kremlin, the Georgian Iosep Dzhughashvili, a.k.a. Josef Stalin. Abkhazia remained one of Georgia's two ASSRs (the other being Ach'ara) until the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, when, like many other former Soviet regions it asserted its ‘sovereignty’, though, contrary to what one reads in most (typically ill-informed) sources, it did not declare independence until 1999.

Does this read like the history of an ‘inalienable’ part of Georgia?

Lesson 2. Sadly, the ancient Greeks, who first wrote about the Transcaucasus and its denizens, were not interested in the languages of non-Greeks, interpreting their speech as just a series of bar-bar-bar-sounds, which gave Greek the word /barbaros/ ‘non-Greek, savage’, which in turn gave English the term ‘barbarian’. And so, there is scope for argument as to the ethnicity of this or that ancient tribe mentioned by the classical authors. However, though the frontier between Abkhazian territory and that occupied by their neighbours (and their immediate Kartvelian neighbours are Mingrelians and Svans, not Georgians properly so-called) is likely to have been somewhat fluid, moving further to the north(-west) at times of Mingrelian domination but moving to the south(-east) when Abkhazians had superiority, there is really no historical evidence to support any large-scale non-Abkhazian (specifically Kartvelian) presence in Abkhazia until the native population moved out in the 1860s-1870s, as explained above.

Of course, various Kartvelian authors (and their sympathisers) have tried desperately to present a different picture. One such is Prof. Tamaz Gamq’relidze, director of the Oriental Institute in Tbilisi, member of both the Georgian and Russian Academies of Sciences, and corresponding member of both the British and American Academies. He published in 1991 the Georgian version of an article entitled On the History of the Tribal Names of Ancient Colchis (On the historical-etymological relation of the ethnonyms 'Apxaz-/Abazg-' and 'Abaza/Apswa'). The Georgian original was the full version of the article, and it appeared in the Georgian journal macne 'Reporter' (Historical Series 2, 1991, 7-16). A shortened version was published in one of the Georgian newspapers, where it was stated that the full article should be made available in both Russia and abroad. A Russian translation duly appeared in the internationally respected Moscow journal Voprosy Jazykoznanija 'Questions of Linguistics', whose editor at the time was none other than Tamaz Gamq’relidze (=TG); I subsequently translated the full Georgian version into English in order to help expose the tendentious nature of the argumentation — this was published, with my commentary, as "The Valid and Non-valid Application of Etymology to History", firstly in: SOAS Working Papers in Linguistics, 2 (1991-92, 5-24), and then as "The Valid and Non-valid Application of Philology to History" in Revue des Etudes Géorgiennes et Caucasiennes 6-7, 1993, 247-264. During the course of the article the country of the Missimians is mentioned as forming part of Abazgia from the VIth century. Although TG does not pursue the ethnic identity of the Missimian tribe, it has been suggested elsewhere by Kartvelian (Simon Q’aukhchishvili 1936, for example) scholars that they too were Kartvelians. This latter association was taken up in the early 1990s by Marik’a Lortkipanidze, and, since this debate demonstrates how important philological data can be to historical argumentation, I shall make some comments on the interpretation of the relevant text.

On page 9 (sc. in the Georgian text) of Lortkipanidze's brochure 'The Abkhazians and Abkhazia' (Tbilisi 1990), of which TG's article is a sort of philological equivalent, she quotes approvingly the views of certain Kartvelian scholars to the effect that the Missimians were of Kartvelian stock. In the Russian original of his scathing review of this work (newspaper 'Abxazija', 16July 1991, p.3) the Russian archæologist/historian, Yuri Voronov, assassinated in 1995, stated: 'To claim that culturally and historically the Missimians were Kartvelians is an affront to the memory of Agathias.' In her reply to this criticism (newspaper 'Svobodnaja Gruzija' 9 Aug 1991, p.3) Lortkipanidze states: 'Although Agathias underlines the relatedness of the Apsilians and Missimians, he also stresses that their languages as well as their customs were different.' And in an adapted version of his original review, written to take account of Lortkipanidze's response, Voronov re-emphasised that Agathias in the Vth century testified to the 'cultural and linguistic closeness of the Apsilians and Missimians.' How can this divergence of interpretation be explained?

Agathias' text was published in volume III of his charming series georgik’a, which contains Greek writers' reports on Georgia, by Q’aukhchishvili in 1936. All texts in this 8-volume series are given a parallel translation into Georgian. The relevant passage occurs on page 86. If we translate the Georgian into English, we might obtain: 'Sot’erike went down into the country of the so-called Missimians, who are subjects, like the Apsilians, of the king of the Colchians, but they speak in a different language and also pursue different laws.' Now this English version (and indeed Q’aukhchishvili's Georgian rendition) are rather ambiguous as to which two of the three peoples mentioned are being contrasted in terms of their languages and customs — is it the Missimians and the Apsilians (as Lortkipanidze argues), or is it the Missimians and the Colchians (as Voronov interprets the sentence)? Neither the Georgian nor the English can resolve the matter, but, of course, we can refer (and in all conscience must do so) to the Greek original. In the Greek there is no ambiguity of any sort for the simple reason that the language possesses a pair of clitics ( whose job is to accompany and thereby indicate each component of a contrasting pair. The relative clause here has the Missimians as its head; within the clause appear our clitics, the former following the noun-complement (= 'subjects’), the latter coming after the noun for 'language'. The interpretation is clear — the Missimians, while they are subjects of the Colchians differ from them in language and customs. The phrase 'like the Apsilians' is an appendage to the first qualifying remark about the Missimians and is to be understood as stating that both the Missimians and the Apsilians were subjects of the Colchians. Taking the passage on page 86 together with the statement on page 162 that the Apsilians were a 'common (i.e. related) and neighbouring people' to the Missimians, we see that Voronov is perfectly correct in stressing the cultural and linguistic genetic relatedness of the Apsilians and the Missimians. This latter ethnonym in Greek must derive from the Abkhazian surname Marshan, the princely holders of which traditionally lived around Ts’ebelda (Tibelos of Agathias' Greek text), which lies in the territory of the Missimians, as the Abkhazian historian Zurab Anchabadze proposed in 1959 and has nothing to do with the Svans' self-designation myshwan, on the basis of which suggestion Q’aukhchishvili hypothesised that the Missimians, like the Apsars, were a Kartvelian tribe occupying areas of present-day Abkhazia! The term 'Apsars' (or in its Georgian form apsarebi) is clearly an attempt by a Georgian chronicler to render into Georgian the Abkhazian's self-designation 'Apswaa', and nothing more, as Q’aukhchishvili must have known all too well in his heart of hearts. The chronicler in question is explaining how the great queen Tamar (1184-1213) selected the name Lasha as nickname for her son Giorgi (the IVth of Georgia), noting that the word 'is translated in the language of the Apsars as "enlightener of the world"' — in Abkhaz /a.laSHa/ (where -SH- is the retroflex fricative) means 'bright, clear'.

Any attempt to counter this argument by referring, for instance, to such works as Prof. David Braund's 'Georgia in Antiquity' (1994), which speaks on p.310 of 'the cultural and linguistic gulf between the Misimiani and Apsilii', will fail, because Braund, as he admitted to me in a personal letter of 19 Jan 1996, did not go back to Agathias' Greek text but relied on the sort of ambiguous (and thus deficient) English translation illustrated above...

The conclusion to be drawn from the above is that historians have a duty to consult wherever possible original texts before framing statements that might well have no historical validity, AND that linguists have a duty to reflect as accurately and in as much detail as possible facts about the languages on which they work, so that their imprecise statements do not form the basis for the mistakes of others.

The definitive article on the demography of Abkhazia from the last quarter of the 19th century through to modern times is that by Daniel Mueller in the book edited by George Hewitt for Curzon Press in 1999 ‘The Abkhazians: a handbook’ (pp. 218-239).

Lesson 3. The overwhelming majority of Kartvelians resident in Abkhazia prior to the war were Mingrelians. They arrived in Abkhazia mostly as a result of the Stalin-Beria policy from the late 1930s of transplanting them into the republic to alter the local demography. A number of Svans moved into the highland-regions of the Upper Kodor valley, when these areas were vacated by the native population in the 1860s-1870s, where they still live. I have never viewed Mingrelians and Svans as Georgians, and it was only from c.1930 that they became so categorised officially. I have, therefore, always regarded it as illegitimate simplistically to style the Kartvelian population of Abkhazia as ‘Georgian’, and I never do so.

As for the use of the term ‘Apsua’ to refer to the Abkhazians, under most circumstances it might be thought eminently reasonable to base an ethnonym on the relevant people’s self-designation. However, Georgian usage of ‘apsuebi’ in reference to the Abkhazians (in Georgian ‘apxazebi’) is a calculated term of abuse, since it arises from the entirely groundless arguments going back to a notorious pseudo-scientific theory of the self-taught literature-specialist P’avle Ingoroq’va, first propound in the late 1940s in supposed justification of the Abkhazians’ anticipated expulsion from Abkhazia by Stalin and his Mingrelian lieutenant Lavrent’i Beria. Ingoroq’va argued that the people known to the world today as the Abkhazians arrived in Abkhazia from the N.W. Caucasus only in the 17th century, replacing the Kartvelian [sic] ‘apxazebi’ then resident there and, as the new dominant tribe, adopting the self-designation of the Kartvelian tribe they had subjugated! This preposterous rewriting of history is based in part on another mistranslation of an original source; this time the source is the 17th-century (half-Abkhazian!) Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi, whose text at one point speaks of Abkhazians ‘also speaking Mingrelian’ – Ingoroq’va misled his readers by aserting that, according to Chelebi, the Abkhazians in the 1640s spoke (only) Mingrelian!

The ancient Greeks’ ‘abazgoi’ ‘Abazgians’ and the Romans’ ‘gens absilae’ (= the Georgian chronicles’ ‘aps(h)ilebi’) ‘(race of) Aps(h)ilians’ are, as every neutral commentator agrees, to be indentified with the Abkhaz-Abaza people of today – prior to the coming of the Mongols the ancestors of today’s Abaza(s), who now live in the N.W. Caucasus, lived on Abkhazian soil (as even the 11-volume Soviet Georgian Encyclopaedia acknowledges).

Thus, in English only the term ‘Abkhazians’ should be used to refer to the Abkhazians.

Once Kartvelians became established in Abkhazia, inter-marriage between them and the Abkhazians did, naturally, take place, and many such marriages broke up as a consequence of the aggressive nationalism that broke out in Georgia in the late 1980s and which threatened not only the Abkhazians but a number of other minorities living in what was still Soviet Georgia.

About the unfavourable changes for the Abkhazians in the demographic sense in Abkhazia during the last 100 years can be ascertained from the table in this page:

Also, when it comes to the fate of refugees and their right to return home, what is to be said of those Abkhazian descendants (over 300,000) of those more or less forced to leave Abkhazia, when it was populated virtually exclusively by Abkhazians, in 1864?

Lesson 4. Anyone able and willing to read what Georgian nationalist leaders (such as the late Merab K’ost’ava, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the late Gia Ch’ant’uria, and Irak’li Ts’ereteli) were writing about their various minorities from late 1988 through to the first clashes in Abkhazia (and in the Azerbaijani populated areas of Marneuli and Dmanisi in S. Georgia) in July 1989 could see at once that one did not need to look outside Soviet Georgia to understand why the minorities living there, such as the Abkhazians, the S. Ossetians, and the Azerbaijanis (to name but three who were to suffer violence at Georgian hands), felt so nervous and chose to establish National Forums (such as Aydgylara ‘Unity’ in Abkhazia, or Adamon Nykhas in S. Ossetia) to defend their own interests, should aggressive talk lead to physical aggression, as indeed it did in both S. Ossetia (under Gamsakhurdia) and Abkhazia (in July 1989 and then under Shevardnadze’s full-scale war from 14th August 1992 to 30th Sept 1993)).

Just as the conflict’s gestation was in the heady days of Georgian nationalist fervour that gripped the republic from the late 1980s, as Georgians began to think that independence from Moscow might be within their grasp, so the war started when Shevardnadze, faced with a desperate civil war concentrated in the home-district (Mingrelia) of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-communist president who had been ousted in January 1992 by a junta which then invited Shevardnadze home in March to head their unconstitutional government, between his own and Gamsakhurdia’s supporters, gambled that starting a war with a ‘common enemy’ (viz. the Abkhazians) would win Gamsakhurdia’s backers over to his (‘national’) side – the gamble, taken a matter of days after Georgia was granted membership of the UN, even though Shevardnadze had not by then achieved any kind of democratic legitimacy, failed miserably. Shevardnadze’s rag-bag of an army quickly occupied most of southern Abkhazia, including the capital, Sukhum. The Abkhazians tried to retake the city a number of times, and, after one such attempt Russia’s Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, offered to place Russian peace-keepers along the front line, which was the R. Gumista just to the north of Sukhum. Had both sides accepted this proposal, Abkhazia would have been effectively partitioned and would probably have remained so (like Cyprus) to the present day. The Abkhazian leadership had no choice but to accept, but it was Shevardnadze’s foolhardiness that again led him to miscalculate, and he rejected the offer. The result was that the Abkhazians saw their chance and retook their capital, initiating a flight of Kartvelians, who chose to flee before the advancing Abkhazian forces and their North Caucasian allies (consisting of Circassian and Chechen volunteers plus some Abkhazians from the Turkish diaspora-community) reached their settlements, as stated in the UNPO (= Unrecognised Nations and Peoples Organisation, of which both the Georgians and the Abkhazians were then members) report published in Central Asian Survey 14.1, pp.127-54. 1995.

Questions from the Lakoba's article ''Abkhazia is Abkhazia''

How is it that we are separatists when we are actually not separating from anybody or attacking anybody? Are there any resolutions of the Abkhazian Parliament adopted before August 14 1992 (or even several months afterwards) which have declared secession from Georgia? There is not one! In fact, it was the Abkhazian side that suggested building our relations with Georgia on an agreed, federative basis. Therefore, it was the Abkhazian side which came out with proposals that would preserve the unity of Georgia. The response was the despatch to Abkhazia of tanks, fighter-bombers and guardsmen armed to the teeth...

We are being forced into a separatist-position by the actual separatists reigning in Tbilisi who are busy destroying their own country. They have cast their country, the unity of which was supported by the bayonets of the Stalinist Soviet Empire, back to the feudal division of the Middle Ages. The so-called separatists from Adjaria, Mingrelia, Kakhetia (not to mention Abkhazia and Ossetia) are taking up an all-round defensive position against the central power in Tbilisi. The question is: «Why are there so many ‘separatists’ in Georgia?»
(See Abkhazia is Abkhazia by Stanislav Lakoba

And some useful links from my odd, Circassian amateur web site.

Abkhazians - Who are they? by Y.N. Voronov

Post-war Developments in the Georgian-Abkhazian Dispute By George Hewitt, Parliamentary Human Rights Group June 1996

The Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict By Alexander Krylov, The Security of the Caspian Sea Region, Oxford University Press, 2001

Testimonies about Georgian-Abkhazian War Asarkial Human Rights Group

Bonus link:

“Public appeal to the Abkhaz people” from the Campaign “Sorry”/ “Hatamzait”, Human Rights in Georgia, March 14, 2007

CW said...

Interview with Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazian Deputy Foreign Minister.