Is a solution in sight to the long and bitter Abkhaz conflict?

Border between Georgia and the Republic of Abkhazia
Crossing the Patra Enguri River, the border between Georgia and the Republic of Abkhazia (©Flickr/Clay Gilliland

Last week, the president of Abkhazia held an unprecedented meeting with his Georgian counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Five years ago, Georgia invaded Abkhazia to crush its demands for an independent state. 10,000 people were killed and a quarter of a million were forced to flee the territory on the Black Sea coast. The Abkhaz proclaimed their independence, but Georgia and the rest of the world continue to demand that the territory be reintegrated into Georgia. Peace talks since then have been deadlocked. But during their meeting in Tbilisi on the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the Georgian and Abkhaz presidents pledged not to use force to resolve their long-running and bitter conflict.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 23, 1997


Welcome to “Wide Angle”.  Last week, the president of Abkhazia held an unprecedented meeting with his Georgian counterpart, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Five years ago, Georgia invaded Abkhazia to crush its demands for an independent state. The war ended a year later when the Abkhaz expelled the Georgians. 10-thousand people were killed and a quarter of a million were forced to flee the territory on the Black Sea coast. The Abkhaz proclaimed their independence, but Georgia and the rest of the world continue to demand that the territory be reintegrated into Georgia. Peace talks since then have been deadlocked. But during their meeting in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the 5th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the Georgian and Abkhaz presidents pledged not to use force to resolve their long-running and bitter conflict. Radio Netherlands Eric Beauchemin recently visited both Georgia and Abkhazia and reports now on the politics behind the conflict.

Destroyed building in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi
Destroyed building in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi (© Eric Beauchemin)

When Georgian military aircraft started to bomb the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and tanks rolled into the city on August 14th 1992, it came as a complete surprise to the Abkhaz. They had been trying to negotiate a new status within Georgia in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. In Soviet times, Abkhazia had been made an autonomous republic within Georgia. The Abkhaz believed that the break-up of the USSR offered them an opportunity to renegotiate their links with Georgia: they were pushing for complete independence. This demand was totally unacceptable to the Georgians, who consider Abkhazia an integral part of their territory. Five years later, the fundamental positions of both sides remain unchanged, says Tamaz Nadareishvili, the deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament.

Our position is that Georgia is a single, united country. Abkhazia is part of Georgia, though we are prepared to grant Abkhazia far-reaching autonomy, including their own administration. We are willing to discuss everything with the Abkhaz, except the territory’s status. Nevertheless, the Abkhaz are still demanding the creation of a separate state, or at the very least a confederation with Georgia. We remain convinced that granting Abkhazia independence is not the solution.

Western countries and United Nations officials have also repeatedly made it clear to the Abkhaz leaders that they will not recognize an independent Abkhaz state. The Abkhaz leaders continue to tell their people that they’re striving for a separate Abkhazia, but given the Georgians’ insistence, the Abkhaz leadership appears to have quietly set aside their demand. In recent negotiations with the Georgians, they have been exploring another constitutional set-up between their territory and Georgia, says the Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba.

During talks in Moscow in June, we reached an agreement in principle with the Georgians. To become official, it must be signed by the Georgian and Abkhaz presidents. Our president says he’s prepared to sign the document, but President Shevardnadze of Georgia is reluctant because of the domestic situation. During the negotiations, both we and the Georgians have made considerable concessions. The document does not mention independence for Abkhazia, but it does contain the framework for the future relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia. It also says that both states will maintain their present constitutions and that we will coexist within the borders of Georgia.

Refugees in Tbilisi waiting to return to Abkhazia
Refugees in Tbilisi waiting to return to Abkhazia (© Eric Beauchemin)

Neither the Abkhaz nor the Georgians are willing to say more about the document until it is formally signed by their two leaders. The media blackout about the negotiations is due to the extreme sensitivity of the issue on both sides: in Georgia, a quarter of a million people displaced by the war are clamouring to return home, while the Abkhaz would be dismayed to learn that their leaders were negotiating the return of Abkhazia to some sort of Georgian rule. The strong passions felt both in Georgia and Abkhazia also explain why very little filtered through of the 9 hours of talks which President Shevardnadze had with his Abkhaz counterpart, Vladislav Ardzinba, during Mr Ardzinba’s surprise visit to Tbilisi last week. In a statement released afterwards, the two men announced that they had managed to agree on a series of key issues, but at the same time, they said, there remain significant differences. One of the thorniest issues is the return to Abkhazia of the 250-thousand ethnic Georgians who fled after the war, says the deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament Tamaz Nadareishvili, himself from Abkhazia.

We’ve been waiting to go home for four years now. Our people are living in appalling conditions in ghettos, hotels, old factories and schools. We were born in Abkhazia. We had our lives there. We’ve been waiting patiently, but no one is doing anything for us. Our patience is coming to an end. We’re prepared to march back into Abkhazia, even if it’s only with sticks and stones, but we are going to back no matter what. If the international community doesn’t like what we’re doing, then it should give us some guidance. What should we do?

60-thousand ethnic Georgians have returned to Abkhazia, to the southern district of Gali, despite the landmines which litter the region and the lack of a political agreement between the two sides. But few returnees have ventured beyond the southern Gali District because of the insecurity to the north. Human rights organizations report numerous cases of discrimination and physical violence against non-Abkhaz minorities. There are also reports that people are expected to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Abkhaz authorities before being allowed to return. The Abkhaz President Vadislav Ardzinba says he wants the displaced people to return, but the issue is more complex than it appears.

During the war, many Georgians acted like a fifth column. They committed war crimes, like ethnic cleansing, looting and rape. Georgians can come back, but we will screen them, and we intend to prosecute those who committed war crimes. You also have to realize how enormous the problem is: we’re being asked to take back twice as many people as we currently have in Abkhazia. We firmly believe that Abkhazia should be a multi-ethnic and multinational republic, as it was before, in which Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Jews, Greeks and Abkhaz living together. But Abkhazia is the only place in the world where the Abkhaz language and culture can flourish. Before the war, we were a small minority in our own republic, and we refuse to allow that to happen again.

To ensure that the Georgians don’t again become the largest ethnic group, many Abkhaz says the return of the quarter of a million ethnic Georgians must be part of a much larger repatriation, says Batal who deals with migration issues for the Center for Humanity Programs, a local non-governmental organization in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.

During the war, there were people who fled Abkhazia and went to Armenia, Greece and Israel. For economic or other reasons, these people haven’t returned even though they have the right to come back. These people should be able to exercise the right of return. We also believe that an overall settlement of the Abkhaz conflict should involve the return of the descendents of the Abkhaz who were expelled by Russia in the 19th century. There are half a million of them living today in Turkey. These people have maintained the Abkhaz language, culture and traditions. They were prevented from coming back throughout the Soviet period. We know that many of them want to return to Abkhazia, and they should be included in the overall settlement.

Destroyed building in Sukhumi
Destroyed building in Sukhumi (© Eric Beauchemin)

It’s unclear whether these half a million people of Abkhaz origin actually want to return or whether this is just wishful thinking on the part of the Abkhaz leadership. But the demand underscores the fears of the Abkhaz of finding themselves outnumbered again in their own territory. For decades, the Abkhaz were discriminated against by the Soviet and the Georgian authorities. The Abkhaz believe that there has been no fundamental change in Georgian attitudes towards the Abkhaz, and if the quarter of a million ethnic Georgians were to return, they would again treat the Abkhaz as second class citizens. This has led to a siege mentality among many Abkhaz, according to Ruslan Kishmaria, the deputy speaker of the Abkhaz parliament, Abkhaz fears are strengthened by the constant incursions by Georgian paramilitary groups into Abkhaz territory.

Tensions are mounting in Abkhazia because of the repeated attacks by Georgian terrorists. They are destabilising the situation here. Our forces have been able to kill many of these terrorists, but these people have killed innocent Abkhaz civilians. The attacks go unreported and unnoticed by the international community. None of this helps to create confidence between the two sides. On the contrary. We need to start thinking in terms of confidence building rather than resorting to violence. If these terrorist attacks continue, there is a real danger of a new war. We paid a high price for our independence, and we are prepared to defend our country.

To prevent a new military conflict, over 1500 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed along Abkhazia’s southern border with Georgia since 1994, following the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the two sides. The mandate of the peacekeeping force has been regularly extended, as has the presence of 150 United Nations monitors in the region. Last month, the Russians threatened to pull out their troops if the Georgians and Abkhaz could not agree on a renewal of the peacekeeping mandate. The Georgians are demanding that the peacekeepers patrol a much larger area in Abkhazia and do more for the return of displaced persons. The Abkhaz say this would amount to intrusion on their sovereignty. The peacekeepers’ mandate has since expired, but the Russian troops have remained and there has been no change in the status quo. While Russia has ostensibly been active in keeping the peace, both sides are dubious about Russia’s true intentions. Tamaz Nadareishvili, the Georgian deputy speaker of parliament, again.

Russia got involved in the war because when the Soviet Union fell apart, Georgia decided not to decide the new Commonwealth of Independent States. This was a big blow to Russia because Georgia borders on Turkey, a NATO member state. To be able to exert some influence in the region, Russia decided to create trouble for Georgia and back the Abkhaz rebels. Now, the Russians are saying they’ll help us recover Abkhazia if we agree to support their policies and the return of communism. But we want to be a democratic nation like the rest of Europe, not a client state of Russia.

Mr. Nadareishvili charges that the Abkhaz leaders are nothing more than puppets of the Russian government. But the Abkhaz leadership also has serious reservations about Russia’s role in the conflict. President Vadislav Ardzinba is particularly scathing in his criticism of the economic embargo imposed by the Russians in 1994.

Officially, the blockade was introduced because of the war in Chechnya. The Russians suspected us of providing support to the Chechens. The war in Chechnya ended in 1996 and yet the Russians still haven’t lifted their embargo. So, we are completely isolated: to the north by Russia, to the west because of the naval blockade imposed by Russia and to the south and east by Georgia. The Russian economic blockade is in violation of international law and is causing a great deal of suffering among our people. We can’t travel. We can’t send mail. We can’t even make phone calls abroad. The Russians must lift their embargo of Abkhazia.

Black Sea
Black Sea (© Eric Beauchemin)

Even though neither side believes the Russians are acting as honest brokers in the Abkhaz conflict, they realize that Russian involvement is essential to solving the dispute. The meeting earlier this month between the Abkhaz and Georgian presidents under the mediation of Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov may be a sign that attempts to bring the two sides closer together may finally be starting to pay off. On Wednesday, a high-level Georgian government delegation travelled to the Abkhaz capital to try and normalize economic relations, an essential step before a political agreement can be reached. Georgian President Shevardnadze, for his part, said earlier this week that the latest developments could pave the way for true reconciliation and the return of the quarter of a million displaced people in Georgia. An optimistic Russian president Boris Yeltsin has already extended an invitation to the two sides to go to Moscow to sign a peace deal to end their five-year conflict.

That edition of Wide Angle was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. I’m Hélène Michaud. Join us again next week.