The secessionist province of Abkhazia completed a military rout of ethnic Georgian guerrillas presumably backed by Georgia’s government in Tbilisi. The Abkhaz victory was a victory for Russian policy as well.

When the Republic of Georgia left the Soviet Union in 1991, the ethnic make-up of the northern province of Abkhazia was 45% Georgian and 17% Abkhaz, along with Russians, Ossetians, and others. Russian troops supported Abkhaz secession in 1992-1993, remaining in the region as “peacekeepers” who looked on peaceably as Abkhaz forces drove an estimated 300,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes and lands. In 1996, ethnically cleansed Abkhazia held unauthorized elections. While some 40,000 – 50,000 displaced Georgians subsequently returned to Abkhazia, the secessionist government consolidated its power under an umbrella of Russian protection.

In mid-May, Georgian guerrillas conducted successful raids into Abkhaz territory and the level of violence sharply increased. Georgian Internal Ministry forces entered the fighting, and the Abkhaz leadership responded with tanks and long-range artillery from Russian arsenals that the Georgians could not match. Casualties rose into the mid-hundreds. Rather than commit his regular army to the battle, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze backed down. The two sides negotiated a cease-fire on May 26, but not before most of the Georgians who had returned to Abkhazia over the past two years had again become refugees. Since the cease-fire, Abkhaz troops have burned and leveled the houses that Georgians had occupied.

In addition to its support for Abkhaz secession, Russia seems to stand behind insurgents in Georgia proper who came close to success in assassination attempts against President Shevardnadze in 1995 and again in February of this year. That has been President Shevardnadze’s view, given credence by Russian protection of persons wanted in Georgia for questioning in connection with those incidents. The motive for Russian mischief may be economic. Russian policy seems aimed at reducing the attraction of Georgia as a transit corridor for Caspian and central Asian oil and gas headed for Western markets. While Georgian authorities talk up a pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan across Georgia to the Black Sea or to Turkey, investors must weigh the risk of instability arising from a Russian-dominated Abkhazia in the north and a Russian-instigated insurgency in Georgia proper. Destabilizing Georgia may prolong Russian control of pipeline routes and so restore Russian influence in former Soviet states that now increasingly look westward.