Conflicts in the post-Soviet space: an Abkhazian case-study

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D. Sc. (Hist.), Professor, Director of the Center for Mediterranean-Black Sea Studies,
The Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, the Russian Federation).
The author delves into the national policy of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation (particularly its power component) to explain the appearance of the numerous ethnoregional and ethnoterritorial conflicts
in the Caucasus. Abkhazia and the far from simple relations between Georgia and the Russian Federation relating to it are used as the starting point for analyzing the regional conflicts and their repercussions.
The Soviet Union left behind numerous ethnoterritorial and ethnopolitical conflicts which had been gaining momentum even before the collapse of the common state. Initiated during perestroika, they were ill-fitted to the democratization policy of the time, which explains why the Soviet state and party functionaries dismissed the settlement efforts as & quot-opposition to the democratic reforms& quot- and & quot-attempts by the local corrupt nomenklatura to hang onto its privileges. "- Neither the ideologists of perestroika nor the conservative politicians who resisted perestroika proved able to accept the parade of sovereignties of the Union and then autonomous republics triggered by the failed putsch of August 1991. On the whole, the & quot-national question& quot- was put on the backburner- political issues were high on the agenda. Mikhail Gorbachev later admitted: & quot-Much of what went wrong in the national issue was caused by our delayed or even wrong moves,& quot- and hastened to add that it was & quot-Russia'-s sovereignization& quot- that prevented the search for a new formula of relations. It started a chain reaction among the Union and then autonomous republics, which also proclaimed independence. 1
There were blunders and there were errors, but we must accept the fact that amid perestroika and democratization, the Soviet Union and later Russia repeatedly used force to suppress the national movements in Tbilisi, Baku, and the Baltic countries. In the Caucasus, Russian troops were involved in the national conflicts and civil wars in Georgia and Azerbaijan, to say nothing of the two Chechen wars. This means that we need to go to the very core of the matter and discover the origins of the Soviet nationalities policy.
1 See: M. Gorbachev, Zhizn i reformy, Book 1, pp. 472, 525.
The Origins of the Nationalities Policy
For many reasons and for many centuries the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union'-s predecessor, developed as a multinational power which, while expanding in all directions in search of safe borders, assimilated the peoples living in the newly acquired territories. According to the 1897 population census, which asked about native language rather than ethnic affiliation, 47% of the Empire'-s population chose Russian. By that time, many subjects of the Russian Empire of different ethnic affiliations had been using Russian- this meant that by the end of the 19th century Russians were no longer the numerically dominant ethnicity.
The peoples brought together in one country used different languages and had different life styles, cultural traditions, level of social and economic development, and, finally, religions. According to official statistics, Orthodox Christians comprised 70. 8% of the total population- Catholics amounted to 8. 9%- and Muslims to 8. 7%. The administrative division into gubernias did not leave space for ethnic territories. In short, the Russian Empire was a conglomerate of peoples and cultures tied, in one way or another, to Russian statehood.
The nationalities policy radically changed when the Soviet Union replaced the Russian Empire- during the struggle against autocracy, Lenin favored the idea of a unitary state. After the 1917 October revolution in the turmoil of the Civil War, however, the Bolsheviks had to turn to the political leaders of what had been the empire'-s national fringes. This made federalization and independent national-state units tied together by treaties inevitable- it became clear that cultural national autonomies, both in the territorial and ex-territorial respect, should be established.
Those who insisted that the national question should be resolved through territorial self-governance of nations and nationalities within a common statehood (Stalin'-s idea of & quot-autonomization"-) realized their approaches in the Soviet Union. It seems that when promoting his idea Stalin was firmly convinced that a & quot-united and indivisible Russian Empire& quot- should be restored (strange as it may seem, this fully coincided with what the white emigration leaders wanted for Russia) and that the national question came second after the question of power.
It should be said that the new & quot-ideocratic"- empire (Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov'-s term) still preserved the Great Power ideas inherited from the past and highly arrogant treatment of the non-Russian nationalities. The general results of the intensive and highly successful expansion of the 18th-19th centuries were explained, very much in violation of the & quot-class approach& quot- to politics, by Russia'-s & quot-specific messianic potential& quot- (this became especially evident in the 1930s and 1940s), while unification of the non-Russian peoples within Russia by force was described as a necessary and objectively progressive act.
This made the Soviet Union an alliance of & quot-titular nations& quot- of a very special kind, in which some peoples enjoyed limited sovereignty in the form of Union republics, others were even more limited as autonomous republics, while still others had no, no matter how limited, sovereignty or, worse still, were deprived of it for their & quot-crimes. "- The hierarchy of the Union and autonomous republics made the situation still more complicated. The totalitarian (authoritarian) regimes that replaced one another throughout Soviet history inevitably fed the latent and steadily mounting urge for national renaissance caused by the desire to preserve the national languages and ethnic specifics. In the mid-1980s, sociologists pointed to an upsurge of national protest which extended into 1990 and 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union. 2
The history of relations between Georgia and Abkhazia unfolded as follows. On 31 March, 1921, after the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918−1921 had been suppressed by force, an inde-
2 This was amply confirmed by the collection of documents published by Russian historians Nesostoiavshiisia iubi-ley. Pochemu SSSR ne otprazdnoval svoego 70-letia?, Moscow, 1992.
pendent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was set up. Abkhazia preserved this status until December 1921 when it became part of the Georgian S.S.R. under a Union treaty. In 1931, it became an autonomous republic (the Abkhazian A.S.S.R.) of Georgia. 3
The leaders and public figures of Abkhazia had good reason (accepted by at least some of the Georgian politicians and public figures) to ask the Center to broaden the republic'-s national rights and powers. In 1994, while in Moscow, Niko Chavchavadze, Director of the Institute of Philosophy and Deputy of the Georgian parliament, admitted in one his interviews that a small number of Georgian intellectuals were prepared to take the interests of the Abkhazians into consideration- others were concerned about Georgia'-s territorial integrity. 4
It turned out that the issue, however, was much more complicated than that. Most Georgian politicians remained undecided far too long, thus allowing the disagreements to turn into a fierce conflict and later the war of 1992−1993.
The Conflict Goes Deeper
The prerequisites of the present Russian-Georgian conflict should be sought at the stage of the Soviet Union'-s disintegration. In April 1989, Georgia became the first Soviet republic in which the Soviet army used force to disperse a peaceful rally. The civil war, which began shortly after Georgia held an independence referendum in March 1991, brought Eduard Shevardnadze, a pro-Moscow politician, to power. However, he was not liked by some of the Russian top military and members of the communist-patriotic opposition.
The conflict in Abkhazia became the highest stumbling block in the relations between Russia and Georgia. In this, very much as in many other cases, the idea of national self-identification was pushed forward to camouflage the vehement contradictions of group (clan) interests-economic, political, and criminal-in Abkhazia and outside it.
The events of late 1980s-early 1990s unfolded against a background of sharp contradictions in the Center between those who wanted to carry out the democratic reforms supported by the Congress of People'-s Deputies and the conservative-minded part of the Politburo of the C.C. C.P.S.U., along with the party leaders of the Union republics, who were against them (the reforms). The leaders of the numerous autonomous republics tried to capitalize on these contradictions by meandering among the conflicting groups. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict developed under the pressure of the following factors: Georgia refused to broaden Abkhazian autonomy, while the Abkhazian side placed its stakes on the conservative forces in Russia and the mounting movements for broader autonomous rights in the North Caucasian autonomous republics. 5
On 18 March, 1989, 30 thousand Abkhazians gathered in the village of Lykhny for a congress convened by the conservative leaders of Abkhazia- it ruled that Abkhazia should withdraw from Georgia and restore its status as a Soviet republic.6 The documents stirred up protests among the Georgians inside Abkhazia and outside it. Late in March and early April, the situation in the republic rapidly deteriorated until an unsanctioned meeting of several thousand gathered outside the House of Government in Tbilisi to discuss urgent issues. Several days later the situation became unbearable- on 9 April, the demands to liquidate the autonomy of Abkhazia were accompanied by demands to withdraw from the Soviet Union.
3 See: A. Zverev, & quot-Etnicheskie konflikty na Kavkaze. 1988−1994,& quot- in: Spornye granitsy na Kavkaze, Moscow, 1996, p. 41.
See: Stolitsa, No. 22, 1994, pp. 10−11.
See: A. Zverev, op. cit., p. 46.
See: Konflikty v Abkhazii i Iuzhnoy Ossetii. Dokumenty 1989−2006 gg., Moscow, 2008, p. 94.
The meetings in the C.C. of the Georgian Communist Party and the C.C. C.P.S.U. in Tbilisi sanctioned the use of force against the demonstrators. Units of Soviet army and riot police from several Russian cities arrived to disperse the gathering with rubber truncheons, tear gas, and entrenching tools. About 4 thousand were injured.7 The public abroad was stirred up by the fact that force was used against a peaceful and unarmed rally.
Moscow'-s response to the Tbilisi events brought into bolder relief the disagreements in the Center between the conservative-minded Communist Party functionaries and the democratic wing of the Congress of People'-s Deputies of the U.S.S.R. The decision & quot-to fulfill the request of the republic'-s leaders to help them normalize the situation& quot- was passed by a meeting held on 7 April after talks with leaders of the Communist Party of Georgia D. Patiashvili and B. Nikolskiy. It was chaired by Egor Ligachev and attended by V. Chebrikov and D. Yazov, who in August 1991 joined the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP), as well as by A. Lukyanov, who supported the GKChP. The Concluding Document of the Commission of the Congress of People'-s Deputies set up in the wake of the events of 9 April pointed out that the proceedings and decisions of the meetings in the C.C. C.P.S.U. of 7 and 8 April had not been recorded. Militia and army units had been dispatched to Georgia on the strength of the meetings'- oral decisions. According to the Commission, this violated the laws under which the right of decision-making on similar issues belonged to the state rather than party structures. 8
The Concluding Document said, in particular, that Georgia was embarking on the & quot-road of democratic development, which is impossible without constant manifestations of all sorts of people'-s social activity,& quot- while & quot-the use of force against a peaceful rally or demonstration is unthinkable because it delivers a blow to perestroika and democracy. "-9
The document described in detail how the peaceful meeting had been suppressed and why people who had taken part in the events of 9 April had been killed. Signed by prominent politicians A. Sobchak, V. Lukin, N. Nazarbaev, E. Shengelaya, A. Yakovlev, and others, the document was approved by the Congress of People'-s Deputies- many of those who took part in dispersing the meeting were later dismissed from their posts.
For the next two and a half years (1990-the summer of 1992 when the Sochi agreements were signed), South Ossetia was Georgia'-s hottest point. The irresponsible decisions of the then President of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia triggered a civil war in which towns and villages were destroyed and thousands of people had to leave their homes, while the Russian and Georgian sides were driven into the quagmire of an armed conflict.
On 24 June, 1992, the conflict was temporarily suspended by an agreement on the principles of settlement of the Georgian-Osset conflict signed by Shevardnadze and Yeltsin in Sochi. 10 The conflicts in Georgia and the Southern Caucasus, however, went on unabated. In the summer of 1992, the conflict between Tbilisi and its separatist-minded autonomies shifted to Abkhazia- like in almost all the other cases, the origins, dynamics, and results of this conflict are better seen when placed in the political context.
The 1992−1993 War
So far, the internal reasons for the 1992−1993 armed conflict in Abkhazia have remained unclear even though Georgian and Abkhazian authors indulge in frequently opposing interpretations. In his
7 This information can be found in Bulletin of RIA Novosti of 9 April, 2009, available at [www. ria. ru/politics/ 20 090 409/167605226. html].
8 See: Zakliuchenie S'-ezda narodnykh deputatov SSSR po rassledovaniiu sobytiy, imevshikh mesto v Tbilisi 9 aprelia 1989 goda, available at [http//sobchak. orgh/rus/docs/zakluchenie. htm].
9 Ibidem.
10 See: Konflikty v Abkhazii i Iuzhnoy Osetii, pp. 252−253.
recent book, the then President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze covers the tragic events in detail. 11 The documents he quotes and his assessments are of great importance for those studying the history of the armed conflict in Abkhazia. He is convinced that the personal factor played an important role in building up tension in the republic: President Gamsakhurdia, a well-known dissident, had no practical experience of governing others. Abkhazia was ruled, under an agreement with Gamsakhurdia, by Vladislav Ardzinba, one of the leaders of a reactionary all-union bloc called Soyuz. Eduard Shevardnadze is convinced that this played an important role in what happened in Abkhazia. 12
Later it became clear that the events of 12−14 August, 1992 signified a step toward war. According to the documents Russian academic Svetlana Chervonnaya published shortly afterwards, the Abkhazian leaders started the war on the pretext that the State Council of Georgia had brought its armed units into Abkhazia. Approved during a phone conversations between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, this was done to liberate the Georgian ministers taken hostage by supporters of former President Gamsakhurdia. 13 More armed units were brought into the autonomous republic to guard the railway via which military cargoes were moved. According to Shevardnadze, this measure was prompted by the incessant complaints of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan that their trains were being plundered in Georgian territory. 14
On 31 July, 1992, Georgia, which had been recognized by over 30 states as an independent state with two autonomies (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), became a U.N. member. Early in August the Georgians celebrated the event on a grand scale. According to sociological polls, by that time 65% of the people living in Tbilisi supported the State Council, while 75% pinned their hopes of drawing out of the crisis on Shevardnadze. 15 Outside the Georgian capital, however, there was no stability: those who supported the former president became more radical, while the conservative forces in Abkhazia placed the stakes on their partners in Russia. When dealing with the Caucasus, Moscow was inconsistent and contradictory: decision-making on many issues was appropriated by conservative groups in the military and political establishment.
This led to an armed conflict in Abkhazia- on 14 August, Vladislav Ardzinba (contrary to the agreements with Tbilisi) called on the Abkhazians to start a & quot-patriotic war. "-16
The war proved to be a grim test for Georgia coping with internal strife. The Abkhazian army consisted mostly of new recruits armed with weapons taken from the arsenals of the Russian troops stationed in Abkhazian territory. Moscow and President Yeltsin stood firm: Russia should stay away from the conflict- it supported Georgia'-s territorial integrity, but troops of the Transcaucasian Military District were involved in the hostilities. On 17 August, the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus in Grozny declared its solidarity with Abkhazia- this triggered a flow of all sorts of military units and armed people from North Caucasian republics to Abkhazia.
Sooner or later the history of the war in Abkhazia must be studied in detail- today, however, we should be aware of the grave crimes committed by all sides. In her book, Svetlana Chervonnaya describes the blood-chilling events witnessed by Dmitry Kholodov of Moskovskiy komsomolets, who reg-
11 See: E. Shevardnadze, Kogda rukhnul zhelezny zanaves. Vtrechi i vospominaniia, Evropa, Moscow, 2009, pp. 317−378.
12 See: Ibid., p. 324.
13 See: S.M. Chevonnaya, Abkhazia-post-kommunisticheskaia Vandeia, Moscow, 1993, pp. 136−137. In August 1992 S. Chervonnaya, a well-known Russian ethnologist, found herself in the epicenter of the armed conflict in Abkhazia where she went with scholarly purposes on an invitation from Slaviansky Dom. Her book written shortly after the events & quot-in the genre of operative and pressing ethnopolitics& quot- offers eyewitness assessments and valuable documentary evidence.
14 See: E. Shevardnadze, op. cit., p. 337.
15 See: S.M. Chervonnaya, op. cit., p. 127.
16 See: Konflikty v Abkhazii i Iuzhony Osetii, pp. 150−152 (Decisions of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia on Mobilization of the Adult Population and Transfer of Weapons to the Regiment of the Internal Troops of Abkhazia of 14 August and An Appeal of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation of 16 August).
ularly sent reports to Moscow from Abkhazia. 17 The young journalist never wavered from the truth: the Abkhazians, Georgians, and Russians were equally guilty of the crimes perpetrated during the hostilities. This cost him his life: upon his return to Moscow he was murdered under unclear circumstances.
The talks on a cease-fire were a slow uphill job- early in September Georgia and Russia (Shevardnadze and Yeltsin) began negotiations in which Ardzinba was also involved. The sides signed a document that sanctioned Georgia'-s military presence in Abkhazia and said nothing about Georgia'-s federative order. 18 The agreement was violated in October 1992- hostilities were resumed and went on until the summer of 1993.
On 27 July, 1993, the Georgian, Abkhazian, and Russian sides signed a cease-fire agreement in Sochi and devised a monitoring mechanism. 19 The document envisaged a cease-fire, pullout of the Georgian troops, and mutual delimitation of the warring sides. It also stipulated that the human rights of Abkhazia'-s multinational population should be observed, while refugees should be returned to their homes. The last two conditions were never fulfilled, which created tension between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.
In December 1993, the first round of Georgian-Abkhazian talks took place in Geneva under the U.N. aegis: the sides pledged not to use force against each other and signed a memorandum on mutual understanding. Before and after these agreements Russian diplomacy actively promoted mutual understanding.
Hard Talks
Finally, on 3 February, 1994, during President Yeltsin'-s visit to Tbilisi, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Georgia signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborly Relations, and Cooperation.
Art 1 of the Treaty stressed the sides'- willingness to build their relations as friendly states, mutually respect their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of borders, and faithfully fulfill their obligations under the treaty. Art 4 stipulated the sides'- mutual pledge to keep away from alliances or blocs aimed against any of them. Art 3 envisaged cooperation in building up defenses, in particular, in creating Georgia'-s armed forces, effective realization of the agreements on temporary deployment of Russia'-s armed units in Georgia, and joint guarding of the agreed stretches of the state border.
Significantly, the Treaty was expected to promote economic cooperation and create conditions conducive to business activities and oil and gas transportation systems. The joint communique on the results of the Russian President'-s official visit tied together implementation of the treaty and conflict settlement in Georgia.
The Georgian parliament ratified the treaty in March 1996- the Russian State Duma refused to comply, however, even though the President and Foreign Ministry of Russia presented the treaty three times for ratification. The document of the Duma Committee for the CIS published by Nezavisimaia gazeta said by way of explanation that & quot-by assuming obligations to Georgia in the Caucasus, which even Russia will hardly be able to fulfill, we shall lose the confidence of the other sides in the conflict and impair our peacekeeping missions. "- In the same issue, the newspaper gave the following comment: the document & quot-perfectly fits the well-known conception of Russia'-s policies related to its neighbors in the new abroad- specifically, to those that stand opposed to drawing the post-Soviet space into the sphere of Moscow'-s vital interests- Georgia, to be more exact. "-20
The democratic factions in the Duma energetically supported ratification- they referred to international laws on which the provisions of Georgia'-s territorial integrity were based. After World War II, the
17 See: D. Kholodov, & quot-Nikto ne khotel ustupat,& quot- Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 29 July, 1993, p. 4.
18 See: Nezavisimaia gazeta, 4 September, 1992.
19 See: Konflikty v Abkhazii i Iuzhnoy Osetii, pp. 274−276.
20 Nezavisimaia gazeta, 24 February, 1994.
state borders in Europe were established on the principle of territorial integrity borrowed from Roman law & quot-uti posedis juris. "- Art 1 of the U.N. Charter registered & quot-the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples& quot-- later documents on European security treated the principle of territorial integrity as a priority.
In 1994−1997, Georgian academics and prominent cultural figures frequently visited Moscow to remain in contact with the Russian public and Russian politicians. Russian politicians and experts visited Georgia and Abkhazia and were aware of everything going on there.
Late in October 1994, members of the Permanent Peacekeeping Mission for the Conflict in Abkhazia, among whom there were Nikolai Diko of the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry of Russia and Alla Yazkova of IMEPI RAS, visited Abkhazia. The latter summed up the mission in a detailed commentary based on the meetings with the Abkhazian leaders, in which she described the appalling situation in which the refugees from Abkhazia had found themselves and had the following to say about Russia'-s policy: & quot-Russia today is far from being united and the statements of the opposition forces cannot but cause concern. They provoke the Georgian opposition to make responses and take retaliatory action… Not everyone can objectively assess the importance of the presence of Russian troops. "-21
In April 1995, Founder of Obshchaia gazeta Egor Yakovlev received representatives of Georgian intelligentsia Elza Zurabian and Alexey Gherasimov, members of the Public Council under the Head of State, and astrophysicist Georgy Machabeli, who said: & quot-We have common historical values, common historical roots, and our mentalities are similar, which means that we should preserve our spiritual ties. Today, Russia pretends that it is neutral. It cannot be neutral! It should abandon intrigues and openly describe its interests in the Caucasus, which will make it easier for the heads of state to start talking. There are '-parties of war'- in Russia and in Georgia-how much longer will we remain dangling on their hook?& quot-22
Early in the 2000s, there were several meetings within the framework of the unofficial Russian-Georgian dialog which involved public and political figures of both sides. 23 The Russian and Georgian sides summed up the meetings in their Analytical Reports. The Russian side pointed out that Sukhumi would never accept the broadest possible autonomy for Abkhazia suggested by Tbilisi as a way out of the war and its repercussions. The Abkhazian side was prepared to discuss a confederation of Georgia and Abkhazia. 24 The report said, in part, that in these conditions & quot-it is advisable to discuss a formula of asymmetric federalism and sign corresponding agreements between Georgia, on the one side, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, on the other. "-25
The Georgian side, in turn, pointed out that & quot-Russian mediation proved ineffective& quot-26 and mentioned the suggestion Georgia had presented to the U.N. Security Council: Abkhazia as a federation member within Georgia with the broadest possible rights known in the world. 27
The sides preferred to ignore the suggestions of the partners- the talks were frozen until 2005 when, according to Russian information agencies, former president of Abkhazia Sergey Bagapsh said that he was only prepared to discuss the status of Abkhazia within Georgia with Mikhail Saakashvili if most of the refugees driven from Abkhazia did not return, the Abkhazian leaders'- monopoly on power was recognized, and the plundered property of the evicted residents of Abkhazia was legalized, that is, if the current status quo was preserved. 28 There have been no further developments.
21 & quot-Tam, za rekoy Inguri,& quot- Russian Diplomatic Courier, November 1994, p. 3.
22 Obshchaia gazeta, April 1995.
23 See: Rossisko-gruzinskiy dialog 2002−2003, Moscow, 2003, Collection of documents published by the Committee for Foreign Policy Planning and the Institute of Strategic Assessments with support of the Ebert Foundation.
24 See: Ibid., p. 35.
25 Ibid., pp. 35−36.
26 Ibid., p. 68.
27 See: Ibid., p. 67.
28 [http: //www. abkhazeti. ru/pub/abkhtoday/18 03 2005 c//]. Lenta. ru informed at that time that Saakashvili was prepared to talk to Bagapsh in Tbilisi- foreign information agencies doubted this information.
Everything that happened later around the conflicts in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia drove Russian-Georgian relations into an impasse, where they remain to this day. Throughout the last decade the conflict around Abkhazia remained smoldering until August 2008, when as a result of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia Abkhazia was proclaimed independent.
In one of his interviews, Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov said that relations between Russia and Georgia would never be the same as before. In a way, he was right- however Russia stands to lose as much as Georgia.

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