Jan 31, 1997

Abkhazia: Review of Events for the Year 1996

Abkhazia, capital Sukhum, is situated in Western Transcaucasia, between the Black Sea and the Caucasian mountains. It borders on the north with the Russian Federation and on the east with Georgia.

Abkhazia covers 8,7 thousand square km and had, according to the 1989 census, 525,000 inhabitants. It has a mild subtropical climate. The main items of national economy are agriculture (citrus fruit, tea, tobacco) and tourism. Other industries are coal, iron and mining. At present the Abkhazian economy suffers enormous difficulties because of the destruction inflicted by the war with Georgia of 1992-1993, and the severe economical blockade imposed by the Russian Federation.

Besides the autochthonous Abkhazians numbering 100,000 (ca. 18 % of the pre-war population), the main ethnic groups before the war were Georgians, Megrelians and Svans (together ca. 46%; these three related ethnic groups are sometimes referred to as "Kartvelians"), Armenians (15%), Russians and Ukrainians (14%) and Greeks. An estimated number of half a million of Abkhazians live in Turkey and in Middle East countries, as well as in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Switzerland, Austria, USA.

Abkhazians of Abkhazia are Orthodox Christians (ca. 70%) and Sunni Moslems (ca. 30%). Other population groups in Abkhazia are Christians. Nearly all Abkhazians in the diaspora are Sunni Moslems. Close linguistic and cultural links connect Abkhazians with the neighbouring peoples of the North Caucasus: Abazinians, Adyghe, Kabardians, Circassians (Cherkes), as well as with the Nakh (Chechens, Ingushes) and Daghestanian peoples (Avars, Laks, Lezghis, Tabassarans, etc.); they all belong to the North Caucasian family of peoples.

Abkhazians are the ancient indigenous population of the Western Caucasus. In the VIth century Abkhazia adopted Christianity and the VIIIth century saw the rise of the powerful Abkhazian kingdom. By the end of the Xth century Abkhazian and Georgian royal dynasties united to form a new Abkhazian-Georgian state, but in the XIIIth century this united kingdom was destroyed by the Mongols. Since that time and until 1864 Abkhazia exercised its political autonomy, though between the XVIIth century and the beginning of the XIXth century it was in formal dependency on Ottoman Turkey, and after 1810 it was formally attached to the Russian Empire.

The incorporation of Abkhazia into Russia in 1810, due to Russian colonial oppression, caused a fierce resistance of the Abkhazians. The bloody war ended in 1864 with the abolishment of the Abkhazian principality. Many Abkhazians were exterminated, and the major part of the nation (mainly Moslems) was deported to the Ottoman Empire. If in the beginning of the XIX century there were 321.000 Abkhazians, already in 1897, after the war and deportation, there were only 58.607 of them left. After the expulsion of many Abkhazians, their country became the object of energetic Russian and especially Georgian colonization.

After the Russian revolution of 1917, Abkhazia proclaimed independence and in 1918 it entered the North Caucasian Republic, which included Daghestan, Chechen-Ingushia, Ossetia, Karachay-Balkaria, Abkhazia, Kabarda, and Adyghea. In 1919-20 the North Caucasus was occupied and annexed by Communist Russia, and Abkhazia was occupied by the neighbouring Georgian Democratic Republic.

In 1921 Abkhazia was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist republic and was one of the signatories which declared the formation of the USSR. Nevertheless, in the same year, under the pressure of influential Georgian Bolsheviks Stalin, Orjonikidze, et al., it was united with Georgia on the basis of a Treaty of Union. The 1925 Constitution of Abkhazia adopted at the third Congress of the Soviets of SSR Abkhazia confirmed the fact of the unification of Abkhazia and Georgia on the basis of a Special Union Treaty; the Constitution declared SSR Abkhazia a sovereign state exercising state power on its territory independently from any other power. In 1931, again under pressure of Stalin, who was himself Georgian, the political status of Abkhazia was degraded to an Autonomous Republic within the Soviet Georgia, which meant an effective incorporation of Abkhazia into Georgia. This happened against the will of the Abkhaz people, without a referendum or any other form of popular consent.

In the thirties and forties the Communist leadership of Georgia undertook serious measures in order to "Georgianize" Abkhazia. Nearly all Abkhaz intellectuals were arrested and killed. Thousands of Georgian colonists were given substantial subsidies and whole Georgian villages were transported from Georgia to Abkhazia, which aimed at increasing the percentage of the Georgian population. The Abkhaz schools were closed, papers and radio in the Abkhaz language were banned, the only language of tuition became Georgian, though it was unknown to most of the Abkhazians. Thus, Georgian ethnicity and the Georgian language were put in the privileged position in Abkhazia, to the detriment of the language and culture of the indigenous Abkhazians, who for the first time in their history became only a minority on their own land. The Abkhaz people had never reconciled themselves to their status of an oppressed colony. This was expressed in mass demonstrations and strikes, as well as in other forms of protest in 1931, 1947, 1957, 1967, 1977-78.

On June 20, 1990 the Georgian Supreme Soviet passed a resolution which declared all documents adopted during Soviet times as null and void. In response to this unilateral action, and in line with similar measures undertaken by all former Autonomous Republics of the Russian Federation, on August 25, 1990 the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet declared "The State Sovereignty of the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic", which caused a negative reaction in Gamsakhurdia's government.

After the democratically elected Georgian President Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a coup d'etat, the military junta which called itself the "Military Council of Georgia", in February 1992 abrogated Georgia's 1978 Constitution and reinstated its old Menshevik Constitution of 1921, which did not specify Abkhazia's status. To overcome a political vacuumand in order to protect its political autonomy, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet on July 23, 1992 reinstated Abkhazia's Constitution of 1925, which connected Abkhazia and Georgia on the basis of a Treaty of Union. At the same time, Abkhazia proposed to discuss a federal structure in a new state with Georgia. Georgia insisted on a unitary state, without any autonomies. Refusing to start political talks with Abkhazia, Georgia decided to solve the problem by means of force. On August 14, 1992 Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia and bombarded the Abkhazian Parliament. This marked the beginning of the Georgian-Abkhazian war.

Georgian atrocities against civilians forced all non-Georgian populations of Abkhazia to consolidate around the Abkhazian authorities, who organised armed resistance to the invaders. The military conflict, which lasted 13 months, ended in September 1993 with a humiliating defeat of the ill-disciplined Georgian army. Fearing persecution, the major part of the Georgian population fled Abkhazia together with the defeated Georgian troops.

On December 1, 1993 talks began in Geneva between the Georgian and Abkhazian sides under the aegis of the United Nations and with the Russian Federation as intermediary. The sides signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" which stipulated a formal ceasefire, exchange of prisoners and continuation of the negotiation process. On April 4, 1994 the sides signed in Moscow the "Declaration on Measures for a Political Settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict", which drew the lines of a future common state which would include Georgia and Abkhazia. According to this document, Abkhazia would have its own Constitution and legislation and appropriate state symbols, such as anthem, emblem and flag and would maintain its own internal sovereignty, but exercise a number of important government functions, including foreign affairs, taxation, border control, etc. by means of joint Georgian-Abkhazian governmental organs. The Declaration was signed in Moscow by the heads of Georgian and Abkhaz delegations, the United Nations Special Envoy Edouard Brunner, the First Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Boris Pastukhov, the representative of CSCE V. Manno, and in the presence of the Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and the UN General Secretary Boutros Gali.

In June 1994 CIS peacekeeping forces (PKF) were deployed along the border between Abkhazia and Georgia along the Ingur river to divide the Georgian and Abkhaz forces. The operation was conducted on the basis of the Georgian-Abkhaz Agreement of May 14, 1994 and under the approval of the UN Security Council and with the cooperation of UN Observers' Mission.

After the beginning of its war against Chechnya, on September 19, 1994 Russia closed its border with Abkhazia. This brought enormous difficulties to the war-torn economy of Abkhazia, as it depends on the sale of agriculture and light industry products to Russia. The blockade also made it extremely difficult to import necessary goods, food and medicaments. Permission to import even humanitarian cargoes to Abkhazia in every individual case has to be negotiated with the Russian Foreign Ministry. Because of the blockade, no adult male with an Abkhazian passport is allowed to leave Abkhazia, in contravention of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which states in paragraph 12(2): "Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own".

Since October 30, 1995 Russia has imposed a sea blockade of Abkhazia, which effectively prevents Abkhazian ships and individuals from travelling to neighbouring Turkey and elsewhere. Moreover, the Abkhazian passports were declared by the Russian Foreign Ministry invalid outside the CIS countries. The written prohibition of the Russian Federation concerning the free movement of Abkhazian citizens was signed by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov in the document No. 16196 on August 30, 1995, still in action today. Thus the Abkhazian citizens are deprived of the possibility to visit friends or relatives outside Abkhazia, send human rights, parliamentary, NGO or any other delegations or representatives to the West, in order to present their views as a party to the conflict. Russia uses economic, transport and communication blockades of Abkhazia, as well as the interdiction on free movement of its population, in order to force Abkhazia to return under Georgian control in exchange for the Russian military bases in Georgia.

On January 19 the Council of the Heads of States of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) extended the term of the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia and Georgia from January 1 till April 19, 1996. The Council also asked the CIS Foreign Ministers to prepare the project for a new mandate for the PKF based on Georgian proposals, which would reinforce the military observers by civilian police provided by CIS countries. Additionally, the Heads of the CIS States adopted the document made up in accordance with Georgian proposals, which envisaged a complete political, economical, communication, informational and cultural isolation of Abkhazia. Belarus and Turkmenistan refused to put their signature under this document. The Abkhazian side regarded these decisions as fulfilment of the Georgian plan to strangle the civilian population of Abkhazia.

On February 15, the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping forces expired. After joint-meetings with the Abkhaz President Ardzinba, the Georgian Defence Minister Nadibaidze and Georgian Ambassador to Russia Lordkipanidze, which took place on the same day, Grachev said that though on some points the opinions of the sides had became closer, serious disagreements still remained. According to Grachev, Ardzinba was categorically against the term "federative state" and insisted on replacing it by "the federative union". Grachev declared that if the Abkhaz and Georgian sides did not reach an agreement on the settlement of the conflict in the nearest future, he would propose to the Russian President and the Federation Council to withdraw Russian troops form Abkhazia (ITAR-TASS, 15.02.1996).

At his press-conference which took place on February 15 in Moscow, President Ardzinba praised the role of the Russian peacekeepers, but objected to the expanding of their mandate and giving them police-functions, which would, according to him, lead to a serious deterioration of the situation in the region. Ardzinba declared that Abkhazia had made a big compromise step towards Georgia concerning the establishment of federative relations between them. If earlier Abkhazia insisted on confederative relations with Georgia, now Abkhazia agreed to base relations with Georgia on the basis of a Federative Union within the borders of the Georgian SSR as of December 21, 1991. According to the Draft Protocol, proposed by Ardzinba, each of two equal parties would preserve its own constitution, and relations between them would be based on a special treaty, which could be given the force of a law. According to Ardzinba, this model contains elements of both federation and confederation. The common federative organ could take such responsibilities as foreign policy and external economic relations, border control and customs service, energy, transport, post and telephone connection, as well as observation of human rights and rights of ethnic minorities.

In his reaction to Ardzinba's initiatives, the Georgian Ambassador Lordkipanidze declared that the Abkhazian position did not change, and the proposals were an attempt to preserve the confederative structure of the future state. According to Lordkipanidze, "In the position of the Abkhaz side there appeared nothing new, no compromises". Lordkipanidze insisted that the CIS peacekeeping forces be given police functions, and that the zone of their action be expanded over the territory of all Abkhazia (ITAR-TASS, 15.02.1996). Abkhazia categorically objects to any unilateral expansion of the mandate of the PKF, and the extension of the zone of their action to the whole territory of Abkhazia would be regarded by Abkhazia as tantamount to its occupation. The Georgian side still insists on the immediate mass return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia. Abkhazia maintains that such mass and uncontrolled return of refugees would seriously destabilize the situation in Abkhazia and can even lead to a resumption of hostilities.

According to Abkhaz information, at present more then 60,000 Georgian refugees have returned to the Gal region, and the overall number of Georgians in Abkhazia is about 100,000. UNHCR refuses to register the returnees who repatriated outside the agreed procedure, so that the Abkhazian authorities have to register them independently. The Georgian repatriates can move freely across the Abkhazian-Georgian border.

1996 did not bring any breakthroughs in the negotiation process between Georgia and Abkhazia, which has been characterised by an obvious stalemate. In an attempt to overcome this situation, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov made a visit to Abkhazia in late August, which coincided with the ceasefire in Chechnya negotiated by the Russian Security chief, General Lebed. The Abkhazian Parliament greeted in its Statement of September 11, 1996 the agreements reached on the settlement of the conflict in Chechnya.

By September 1996 Abkhazia agreed to some expansion of the mandate of the peacekeeping forces. On September 10-12 talks between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides took place in Moscow, but they did not bring any substantial progress and serious disagreements remained. The Georgian side insisted that, on the basis of the territorial integrity of Georgia, the communique must clearly declare the federative principle of the future state. The Abkhazian side insisted that Article 2 of the communique must state the equality of Georgia and Abkhazia in their possible future relations. The Abkhaz delegation rejected the proposal made by the Russian mediators to insert in the documents on the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict the principle of territorial integrity.

Different reports indicate that many Georgian politicians still prefer a military solution to the problem of Abkhazia. The hawkish exiled leader of the Georgian faction of the old Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia and the Deputy Prime Minister of Georgia Tamaz Nadareishvili said to a BBC interview on September 3, 1996: "I think we should go back to Abkhazia, and restore our authority there by force. Of course there will be more blood, more casualties". In order to exert military pressure on Abkhazia, at the end of September Georgia carried out military exercises, with the use of the airforce (SU-25 fighters and military helicopters), in the vicinity of the conflict zone, which was in violation of the Agreement of May 14, 1994.

At the same time Georgia and Russia showed obvious departure form the documents signed by the Georgian and Abkhazian sides with UN and Russian mediation. The Deputy Chairman of the Georgian Parliament V. Kolbaya stated regarding the Agreements of April 4 and of May 14, 1994: "There are many points [in these agreements] which do not correspond to reality" (Interfax news agency, 16.09.1996). In July the Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Tamaz Nadareishvili said in a televised interview that agreements signed between Georgia and Abkhazia had no legal basis and were harmful for Georgia (BGI Daily News, 8.07.1996).

To give new incentives to the stalemated peace process, on November 12 President Ardzinba of Abkhazia, as reported by ITAR-TASS from Sochi, signalled his readiness to seek a political solution to the Georgian-Abkhazian problem. "We are ready to participate in the negotiating process to normalize Georgian-Abkhaz relations under UN auspices and with Russia's mediation", he was quoted as saying. Despite the predictions of some politicians that Ardzinba would use the increased tension between Abkhazia and Georgia to withdraw from talks, Ardzinba not only announced his intentions to continue the talks, but also signalled readiness "for certain initiatives on this account". He also expressed his wish to "stick to a gradual process of voluntary repatriation of refugees to Abkhazia".

In another development, a meeting took place in November 15 in Tbilisi between the Georgian President Shevardnadze and Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili with the Abkhazian Foreign Minister Konstantin Ozgan and the Abkhazian MP Daur Barganjia, organised at the initiative of President Ardzinba. The talks were confidential and no official communique was issued.

The main event of 1996 was undoubtedly the November parliamentary elections in Abkhazia, organised due to the expired mandate of the current Parliament, elected in the times when the Soviet Union and the Communist system still existed. This decision caused an angry reaction on the part of Georgia, Russia, the UN and the European Parliament. The statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry read that the elections could hamper the peacekeeping efforts of Russia and other interested sides and complicate the situation in the talks on the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. On October 22 the UN Security Council appealed to the Abkhazian leadership to postpone the elections. In his interview to the Georgian news agency BGI on November 13, 1996, the British Ambassador to Georgia Stephen Nash said: "Recognition of the results of elections is completely out of the question". At the same time, Nash said that it was not possible to resolve such conflicts by force and that he was a supporter of a peaceful settlement. The Head of the UN Observers' Mission to Abkhazia General Per Kaelstrom said that the elections would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the situation in the region and the situation would become so tense after the election that "we will witness a new war" (Sakinform news agency, 1.11.1996). Tamaz Nadareishvili was quoted as saying that "by holding the elections, the separatists have themselves put an end to a peaceful settlement of the conflict". However, these gloomy predictions were contradicted by the Georgian President Shevardnadze himself, who said two days after the elections that the talks would continue.

According to the Abkhazian Statistical Department, the population total in Abkhazia at present is more than 300,000, i.e. the majority of the Abkhazian multi-ethnic population. From this number more than 200,000 are eligible to vote. According to the Abkhazian side, the elections of the deputies to the Abkhazian parliament would not hamper the process of a peaceful political settlement. It was declared that the Abkhazian citizens who live at the moment outside Abkhazia, could vote courtesy of the permanent representations of Abkhazia in Turkey, in the Republics of the Northern Caucasus, in Moscow, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and Ukraine.

On November 23 Abkhazia conducted elections to the People's Assembly - the Parliament of Republic of Abkhazia. The elections were monitored by international observers including deputies of the Russian Duma, parliamentary representatives of Republics of the Northern Caucasus and southern Russia, the Trans-Dniester Moldavian Republic, the Republic of South Ossetia, the International Circassian Organization and a delegation of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (consisting of the Chairman of the Human Rights Group of the British Parliament, Lord Avebury and Senator John Nimrod). According to the final report of the Central Electoral Commission of Abkhazia, on elections to the People's Assembly, 81% of the electorate turned out to vote. 30 MPs were elected out of 83. Of 30 elected MPs there were 19 Abkhazians, 4 Russians, 3 Armenians, 2 Georgians, 1 Greek and 1 Kabardian. Five more seats in the parliament were to be elected in 5 constituents two weeks later.

In a counter-measure, the Georgian authorities organised a plebiscite among the Georgian refugees from Abkhazia "on the legality of the parliamentary election in Abkhazia". According to Shevardnadze's decree, persons who were "de facto refugees" but had no official refugee status were also entitled to take part in the plebiscite. The Georgian authorities claim that over 99% of the refugees said "NO" to elections in Abkhazia. No independent international observers were reported to have monitored conducting of the plebiscite or the evaluation of its results.

In an attempt to disrupt the elections in the Gal region and intimidate the potential voters, the Georgian special services organised a number of terrorist acts on the territory of Abkhazia. Thus, an armoured personnel carrier of the Peacekeeping Force blew up on a mine, and a bomb exploded at the administrative building in the town of Gal, destroying the office. Early in the morning of November 23 the Abkhazian police post was shot at, one person was wounded. At nearly the same time the terrorists shelled a living quarter of Gal with rifles and grenade launchers. At 6 a.m in the village of Chuburkhindzhi a polling station was blown up. In the village of Okhurey the passenger bus was shelled with a grenade launcher. On November 23 at 7:10 a.m 4 mines exploded on a central street in Ochamchyra. Nevertheless, the turnout, the Gal region included, was reported to be rather high.

The unceasing activity of Georgian terrorist groups (both locally based or sent periodically from Georgia) in the security zone in the Gal region of Abkhazia has seriously hampered the process of repatriation of refugees and establishing a peaceful life in this region of Abkhazia. Since the moment of the separation of forces, Georgian terrorists have committed about 100 subversive acts on the territory of Abkhazia. As informed by the Chairman of the Security Service of Abkhazia Astamur Tarba, at present 3 large Georgian subversive groups numbering in total ca. 100 men are active on the territory of the Gal region (Interfax news agency, 6.02.1996). According to the UN General Secretary's report, there are reported cases of murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and assault, as well as mine-laying and attacks on the CIS peacekeeping troops, UN Observers' Mission and the Abkhaz police. In its Statement of April 25 the President of the UN Security Council condemned the mine-laying in the Gal region which had resulted in loss of life, including of a UN military observer, though the statement failed to address the Georgian side directly, which is responsible for the subversive activity on the territory of Gal region.

Different Georgian authorities have expressed their dissatisfaction with the United Nations' Special Envoy in the Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations (who is the Swiss Ambassador in France) Edouard Brunner. As Lord Avebury and Senator Nimrod wrote in their report on 1996 elections in Abkhazia, the Georgian criticism of Brunner "may simply indicate that he is impartial, and they are disappointed that he does not show the same preference for the Georgian side that is displayed by the Security Council, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe". The Georgians blamed Brunner for the fact that in his press-conference held in the Abkhaz capital Sukhum he unambiguously endorsed the planned Abkhazian parliamentary elections and held out the promise of international recognition of their results (Interfax, 10.10.1996). Tbilisi also continuously criticizes the UN's ineffectiveness in solving the problem of Abkhazia (Monitor news agency, 11.10.1996).

On December 4-7, the talks between Georgia and Abkhazia were resumed in Moscow with Russian mediation. The Georgian delegation was headed by the Georgian Ambassador to Russia, V. Lordkipanidze, the Abkhazian by the Foreign Minister K. Ozgan, and the Russian by the First Deputy Foreign Minister, B. Pastukhov. The sides reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful, political means of settling the conflict and agreed to continue work on a draft document on the principles of settlement and confidence measures. Concerning the problem of refugees, the sides agreed to meet in the town of Gal in the second part of December 1996. The sides also discussed some urgent economic problems, such as reinstallation of post, telegraph and telephone communications.

In general, the situation concerning Georgian-Abkhazian relations can be characterised in the words of the Abkhazian Foreign Minister Ozgan, as "no peace, no war".

Dr. Viacheslav A. CHIRIKBA