Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 10

Abkhazia seems set to become a “second Chechnya” for both Russia and Georgia, Prism’s correspondent reports from the region

By Igor Rotar

June 7-20 saw a massive "Abkhazian invasion" of Moscow. On June 10, the leader of the self-proclaimed republic, Vladislav Ardzinba met with the head of the presidential administration, Valentin Yumashev, Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Kovalev, and Border Guards Service chief Andrei Nikolaev. No other regional leader, not to mention the head of a self-proclaimed republic, has ever been received with such honor.

Ardzinba’s audience with the Russian leadership was followed by a fresh round of Georgian-Abkhazian consultations, mediated by Foreign Minister Primakov. No agreement had been reached at the time of writing, but the negotiations are to continue in the near future. It is expected that a document will be signed in Moscow by Ardzinba and Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze.

Moscow’s activity is easily explained. A summit meeting of the CIS in March decided, on the insistence of Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, to expand the security zone controlled by Russian peacekeepers to include the whole of Abkhazia’s Gali raion (district). Tbilisi said this was essential to ensure the safe return of Georgian refugees to the homes from which they fled during the 1992-93 fighting. But the Abkhazian authorities categorically objected to expanding the security zone. Tbilisi responded that, if the zone were not expanded, it would not agree to extending the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, due to expire on July 31.

Tbilisi’s refusal to allow Russian peacekeeping forces to remain in the conflict zone would seriously damage the prestige of Russian diplomacy and undermine the Kremlin’s influence in the Caucasus. Moscow, which has just lost control over Chechnya, places a high premium on maintaining its position in other parts of the Caucasus region. There can therefore can be little doubt that the Kremlin will do everything in its power to keep its peacekeepers in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone.

Separatism: Good Times and Bad Times

The situation in Abkhazia closely resembles that in other self-proclaimed republics in the former Soviet Union. Events in all unrecognized republics have developed according to a similar, preordained scheme. The years 1990-1991 saw a sharpening struggle between the new leadership of the Russian Republic, which at least formally was of a pro-Western, democratic orientation, and the leaders of the USSR, whose views represented an improbable mix of Communist and imperialist ideologies. Soviet leaders tried to exploit separatist movements on the territory of the former USSR as a means of putting pressure on Russia and the USSR’s other constituent republics. USSR Supreme Soviet chairman Anatoly Lukyanov’s remark to Moldovan president Mircea Snegur in 1991 that, "If you want to get rid of separatism in Transdniester, sign the Union Treaty," has passed into the history books. Lukyanov’s close associate and co-chairman of the "Soyuz" (Union) fraction in the USSR Supreme Soviet was the present leader of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba.

But the good times for the separatists ended soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At first, it is true, the Russian leadership adopted the same tactics as those of the USSR, and tried to extract favorable decisions from the leaders of the other CIS republics by exerting pressure on them through separatist movements in their countries. Thus, the Kremlin helped the Abkhazian separatists to capture Sukhumi, thereby forcing Tbilisi to agree to allow Russia to station military bases on Georgian territory.

Before very long, however, Moscow gave up such tactics. The leaders of the CIS countries which had separatist movements decided not to provoke the Kremlin by being too stubborn and Moscow, in turn, renounced (at least for the time being) its covert support for unrecognized states. Instead, it concentrated its efforts on consolidating its relations with the leaders of the new independent countries.

The self-proclaimed republics, left on their own, turned out to be incapable of surviving independently. Their economies paralyzed, the standard of living of their populations fell to the lowest indicators in the entire former Soviet Union (the average monthly salary in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is, for example, about $10, as compared to $20 in Georgia, and $20 in Transdniester as compared to $40 in Moldova). Since it is impossible to survive on such a salary, the "natural economy," relying on direct barter, now predominates in all the self-proclaimed republics.

Abkhazia is in an even more disastrous position than the other self-proclaimed republics. After the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, Abkhazia’s border with Russia was closed. Russian border troops stopped allowing male Russian citizens to cross into the unrecognized state, and prevented the male population of the self-proclaimed republic (those aged 18 to 65) from entering Russia. Abkhazia, which during Soviet times had a nationwide reputation as a health resort, was deprived of its main source of income. Soon after, Russian border guards blockaded the border from the sea as well, depriving the republic’s citizens of the possibility of traveling to Turkey. Officially, Moscow explained its actions by saying it feared that Abkhazian fighters would come to the assistance of the Chechen separatists. Even after the cessation of hostilities in Chechnya, however, border sanctions were not lifted. This led the Abkhazian authorities to maintain that the war in Chechnya had served only as a pretext for Russia to blockade the self-proclaimed state, and that Moscow was really doing this to force Sukhumi to be more tractable in its negotiations with Tbilisi.

It is interesting to note that the "blockade" is reflected in the standard of living only of ordinary people in the republic. For criminals, and especially for so-called fighters, the cordons of Russian border troops are not a substantial obstacle. There is a virtually foolproof system of smuggling goods and people across the border. (Prism‘s correspondent can vouch for this on personal experience.) Guides charge 200,000 rubles (about $40) to get someone across the border. These guides told Prism that it is most often criminals and fugitives from justice — who feel quite safe in Abkhazia — who resort to their services. The illegal export of weapons from Abkhazia to Russia remains the smugglers’ most profitable trade.

Extreme poverty, in a republic full of weapons, is an invitation to armed banditry. Just as in Chechnya, the most widespread crime is kidnapping people for ransom. Last month alone, five people were abducted in Abkhazia. In a republic with a population of only 250,000 people, that is a substantial number. It is true that, unlike in Chechnya, it is not journalists who are being kidnapped; local criminal groups act, for the most part, on the republic’s own territory. But it cannot be ruled out that Abkhazia’s disastrous situation will, in the near future, encourage local criminal groups to operate outside the republic’s boundaries as well.

The Security Zone

Before the war, ethnic Georgians made up more than 90 percent of the population in Abkhazia’s Gali raion, which borders Georgia proper. But after all of Abkhazia came under the control of the separatists, virtually all of the raion’s population fled to Georgia.

Georgians began gradually to return after a 12-kilometer security zone, controlled by Russian troops, was created on either side of the river Inguri, which separates Abkhazia from Georgia proper. Except for police and officials of the Committee of National Security, Abkhazian and Georgian armed formations were withdrawn to the Abkhazian part of the security zone. This is now the only raion of Abkhazia to which Georgian refugees are returning.

"As of today, some 45,000 of the 85,000 people who lived in Gali raion before the war have returned. At first, it was only old men and women who returned, but now quite a few young men have appeared. If, in accordance with the decision of the March CIS summit, the security zone is expanded to the whole Gali raion, the flow of returnees will increase still further. At present, Georgians are still afraid to return to the part of the Gali raion which is not under our control," the commander of the zone’s western sector (the Abkhazian side), Russian Col. Nikolai Belyaev, told Prism.

On the whole, all of the Georgian repatriates with whom Prism‘s correspondent was able to speak confirmed Belyaev’s view. In the opinion of the returning Georgians, the wave of robberies and violence has receded sharply by comparison with the immediate post-war period. But the situation is still far from idyllic.

"Any Georgian still feels like a second-class citizen. If we see an Abkhazian policeman, for example, we don’t tempt fate by speaking Georgian. Just as before, we still have no feeling of security," local inhabitants told Prism.

The peacekeepers themselves make no objection to such arguments. "Naturally, we can’t guarantee the repatriates’ complete security. Our mission does not include policing, so we cannot guard each repatriate’s house. Our task is not to let armed formations into the security zone, and to prevent mass conflict," Belyaev told Prism. Nevertheless, as the Georgian repatriates themselves admit, the Russian peacekeepers are today their only defense. If they were withdrawn, almost all the repatriates would be forced to flee back to Georgia again.


In essence, all the supporters of Abkhazian independence achieved after their victory over the Georgian army was to carry out "ethnic cleansing" in their republic. Before the war, ethnic Georgians made up about 45 percent of the republic’s total population, while Abkhazians were about 15 percent. The Abkhazians’ victory caused the mass flight of the Georgian population from the republic. Today, Georgians make up about 15 percent of the population, and almost all of them live in Gali raion, close to the border with Georgia proper. Abkhazians are now the republic’s largest ethnic group. Sukhumi knows that, if a mass repatriation of Georgians took place, the republic’s present, virtually monoethnic (Abkhazian) leadership would not be able to stay in power for long. Therefore, the present leaders block the return of Georgian refugees by any means they can.

Moscow’s ability to influence Sukhumi is nonetheless ephemeral. During the military operations in Abkhazia, the Georgian army (like the Abkhazian army, by the way) looted on a massive scale and frequently murdered peaceful inhabitants of the "enemy" ethnic group. It is therefore easy for the Abkhazian authorities to maintain the "image of the enemy," and most of the republic’s leaders are ready to put up with any privation to prevent the "mass repatriation" of the Georgian population.

It is unlikely that Tbilisi would really decide to ask the Russian peacekeepers to withdraw. That would make sense only if the Georgian authorities decided to resume the war in the name of restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Taking into account the disastrous state of the Georgian economy and the fact that Tbilisi’s potential opponents have a well-trained and organized army, such a decision would be reckless in the extreme. Introducing Georgian troops into Abkhazia could also encourage volunteers from Chechnya and other north Caucasus republics (such the fighters led by Salman Raduev, who speaks openly of overthrowing Shevardnadze’s "dictatorial" regime) to come to Abkhazia’s aid. This would destabilize the situation in Russia and severely complicate relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Most likely, the present round of Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations will be no more fruitful than in previous years. The self-proclaimed republic risks becoming a "second Chechnya" for both Russia and Georgia, a sort of "criminal zone" which poses a constant threat to its neighbors.

Gali – Sukhumi – Moscow

Translated by Mark Eckert