The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict

The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is rooted in the Abkhaz perception of itself as a separate ethnic group with its own distinct culture, while ethnic Georgians see Abkhazia as part of Georgia. This conflict has been sharpened by human rights violations by both sides during two wars and intermittent violence over the last two decades. The conflict has resulted in the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, and ethnic cleansing. The 2008 War and Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s independence and security guarantee have not resolved the conflict, but only served to make it even more rigid.

Historical causes of tension

1870s: Russian Czarist government deports 100,000 Abkhaz to Turkey. Many Georgians resettle Abkhazia.

1922-1931: Abkhazia has separate and equal status in TSFSR with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

1931-50s: Mass resettlement of Georgians into Abkhazia, a declaration of Georgian as the state language, and limited rights for Abkhazians.

1970s-80s: Power struggles between Soviets, Abkhaz, and Georgians.

Background

March 1989: Violence following rival mass meetings of Georgian and Abkhaz nationalists.

July 1989: Violence between nationalists in response to an attempt to establish a Sukhumi branch of Tbilisi State University, which Abkhaz saw asa threat to the Abkhaz State University.  Sixteen Georgians were reportedly killed and another 137 injured when they tried to enroll in a Georgian University instead of an Abkhaz one.

1989: Violence spreads throughout Abkhazia, and armed Georgian nationalists join the fighting. Order restored by Soviet troops.

August 1990: The Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia (SSA) declares Abkhazia a Soviet republic separate from Georgia—a declaration promptly ruled invalid by the Georgian Supreme Soviet in Tbilisi.

April 1991: Georgia declares independence from the USSR.

1992: Georgia reinstates the constitution that it had adopted in 1921, shortly before its invasion by the Red Army. This was interpreted by the Abkhaz as a move to abolish the autonomy the region had enjoyed under the Soviet Union. Abkhazia responds by re-instating the constitution that it had adopted in 1925, when it was separate from Georgia.

August 1992: a Georgian armored column crosses into Abkhazia and makes it sway toward Sukhumi. At the same time, Georgian forces make a sea landing near Gagra in northern Abkhazia. Although it only took a few hours for the column from the south to reach Sukhumi, the landing force got stuck near Gagra. Abkhazian leaders escape to Gudauta, where there was a Russian military base. The temporary Abkahz defeat galvanized paramilitary groups from Russia and across the North Caucasus region, which united under an umbrella fighting group known as the Confederation of the Mountain People of the Caucasus. The commander was Shamil Basayev, who would later lead the Chechen resistance against Russia.

July 1993: Abkhaz forces break through Georgian lines and retake Sukhumi. Quickly pushing south, the Abkhaz militia reoccupies all of Abkhazia by the end of September 1993; with assistance, including air support, from the Russian military, which was officially neutral in the conflict. 10,000 -30,000 ethnic Georgians are killed. More than 250,000 ethnic Georgians flee Abkhazia as a result of massive human rights violations and ethnic cleansing.

Developments

January 2003: Although the Georgian government had repeatedly demanded withdrawal of the Russian-controlled CIS force, the Georgian National Security Council consents to extension of its mandate subject to certain conditions, including expansion of the security zone to cover the whole Gali district to protect returning Georgian refugees. In 2003 Shevardnadze agrees to prolong the CIS force's peacekeeping mandate for an indefinite period.

May 1994: Georgian-Abkhaz talks, held under Russian and United Nations auspices, lead to the Moscow Agreement for a ceasefire, establishment of a security zone free of heavy weapons, and deployment of a CIS peacekeeping force to monitor compliance, with the assistance of the United Nations Observers’ Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).    

October 2003: Twenty civilian UN police officers deployed in the Gali district to protect returning refugees and train a local police force.

2004: Georgian experts submit a draft peace plan to Georgia’s National Security Council, envisaging a Georgian-Abkhazian federation with broad autonomy for Abkhazia. Meanwhile, Abkhazians elect a new “president,”Sergei Bagapsh, who defeats Russia’s preferred candidate Raul Khajimba. Bagapsh is later compelled to run in a new election with Khajimba as his vice-president.

2006: The Abkhaz and Georgians resume discussions in the UN-led Coordinating Council for the first time in five years. The Abkhaz pull out, however, after Georgia sends forces into the Kodori Gorge region of Abkhazia. Subsequently, President Mikheil Saakashvili makes a proposal for the resolution of the Abkhazia conflict that included demilitarization, direct dialogue between the parties, establishment of an international police presence, pledges on the non-use of force, and economic rehabilitation.

In 2007 “parliamentary” elections are held in Abkhazia. Georgia rejects the election, which was also not accepted by most of the international community. In contrast, Russia terms the election a continuation of democratic tendencies.

March 2008: Prior to the NATO Summit, Saakashvili proposes unification of Abkhazia and Georgia on the basis of full autonomy and with the assistance of international guarantors. Abkhazia de facto leaders are negative, insisting on separation from Georgia rather than autonomy.

April 2008: Russian President Putin took further steps to strengthen the Abkhazia and South Ossetia “governments” (and tighten their relationships with Russia). His decree instructed Russian ministries and other government bodies to increase bilateral cooperation; recognize the legal decisions and entities registered under their laws; and give legal assistance on matters of civil and criminal law directly to their authorities and residents (most of whom have been given Russian passports).

August 2008: Russian recognition of the independence of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on August 26, 2008 undercuts Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru also recognize the separatist states.

December 2009: Abkhazian “president” Sergei Bagapsh reelected, defeating five other candidates including “vice president” Raul Khajimba.

April 2012: Abkhaz authorities refused to meet with the EUMM chief, indefinitely suspending further meetings of the IPRM.

 

 

 

OSCE involvement

The OSCE has always reaffirmed support for Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity and urged all sides to abstain from military action, respect the cease-fire agreement, and stick to negotiations. The OSCE also supported UN efforts to facilitate the peace process in Abkhazia.

In 2002, the OSCE sent a team of military experts to the Guadata base in Abkhazia for discussions with Russian representatives of the CISPeacekeeping Force.

In 2008, the OSCE Ci O condemned the decision by Russia to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He urged complete withdrawal of Russian troops and full implementation of the ceasefire agreement. The Ci O stated that the international community could not accept unilaterally established buffer zones. Abkhazia refused to let OSCE and EU monitors enter its territory.

Knut Vollebaek, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, visited Abkhazia in 2009 and 2010. He noted the pressure on local ethnic Georgians through “limitation of their education rights, compulsory 'passportization,' forced conscription into the Abkhaz military forces and restrictions on their freedom of movement.”

Since the 2008 War, the Geneva Discussions on Georgia, co-chaired by the EU, UN and OSCE, have been the main venue for the conflicting sides to address outstanding issues. The Discussions take place in two parallel working groups, one dealing with security and stability, and the other with humanitarian questions, including internally displaced persons and refugees.  The 21st round of negotiations took place in Geneva in October2012, with the next round scheduled for March 2013.  The EU Monitoring Mission and OSCE have sponsored weekly local meetings of security officials under an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism agreed on at the Geneva Discussions in 2009.

Analysis

Since the 2008 war, and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia, the entity has become increasingly dependent on Moscow. Half of the entity’s budget comes from Moscow, and new Russian military installations are being built in the Black Sea coastal area. Almost all Abkhazia residents hold Russian citizenship and almost all the trade is with Russia. At the same time, many ethnic Abkhaz are wary of their over-reliance on Moscow. The future for the international status of Abkhazia is uncertain. Only four countries, including Russia, have recognized its independence. The conflict thus remains unresolved and remains a “frozen conflict” with the very real possibility of unplanned escalation. Around 212,000 ethnic Georgians remain displaced. While some ethnic Georgians have been able to return to the Gali district, Abkhaz officials stated that returns to other parts of the entity would not be authorized.

Even before the 2008 war, prospects for progress in the relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi were small. Since the war, they have become almost nil. Georgia sees Moscow as an occupation force, annexing its territory, while the Abkhaz authorities see Russia as a guarantor of security. There are no direct contacts between Moscow and Tbilisi, and the bitterness between the two governments has also been deeply personal and emotional.