Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 4

The Challenges to Georgian Sovereignty

Georgia’s Ethnic Conflicts

by Rossen Vassilev

After the breakup of the USSR in December 1991, ethnic strife increased sharply in nearly all former Soviet republics. Resurgent micronationalism was fueled by the chaos, tensions and uncertainties surrounding the collapse of communism. Ethno-cultural divisions have turned out to be so intense, unbridgeable and enduring that they are overshadowing all other conflicts. Past Soviet policy of playing off one captive nation against another has also had a role in fomenting ethnic rivalries. The current rulers of Russia have benefited from the ensuing turmoil because it forces the newly independent states to turn to Moscow as mediator and referee of their inter-tribal feuds. Russia has taken advantage of instability to reassert its influence over the countries of "the near abroad." But ethnic separatism has been well-nigh disastrous for the former Soviet republics, diverting energies and resources that could have been invested in the quest for democracy instead.

Ethnically divided Georgia is no exception, having had to deal with two major secessionist movements inherited from the Soviet era. The first of these, in South Ossetia, is tied to Ossetian demands for unification with North Ossetia, an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation. Ever since a truce was declared in mid-1992, the South Ossetian problem has been on the back burner, with negotiations resuming only last year. The second one, in Abkhazia, has been particularly intractable, showing little promise of being resolved despite a shaky cease-fire and Russian efforts at mediation and conflict resolution.

But Russia itself has more often been part of the problem, rather than the solution, where Georgia’s inter-ethnic troubles are concerned. By exploiting the unresolved minority conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has demonstrated how ruthless it can be when pursuing its own interests within the borders of the former Soviet empire. By using any means necessary, including military force, it has coerced its smaller southern neighbor into submission.

Abkhazia, populated by a predominantly Muslim people, was a constituent Soviet republic until 1930, when Stalin incorporated it into the Georgian SSR, which is Orthodox Christian. Also on Stalin’s orders, large numbers of Georgians were resettled in the area, making the Abkhazians a small minority in their own country. Like other unrepresented local minorities in Georgia, they were subject to discrimination and persecution. (1) Encouraged by Gorbachev’s policy of "perestroika" and "glasnost," in early 1989 the Abkhazians renewed a campaign, begun in the 1970s, for the secession of their autonomous republic, which is located on the northwest Black Sea coast of Georgia.

While clamoring for independence from Moscow, Georgians were not prepared to tolerate separatist demands from their own minorities. Passionate demonstrations were staged by Georgian nationalists calling for their country’s territorial integrity to be preserved and demanding that Abkhazia remain part of an independent Georgia. Ethnic unrest spread in 1990 and 1991, when Georgians living in Abkhazia blockaded the regional capital of Sukhumi.

As in Abkhazia, a movement for South Ossetia’s independence from Georgia was revived under the politically more relaxed atmosphere of the late 1980a. Ossetia, whose population is of Iranian descent, had been divided into two parts under Stalin. North Ossetia was incorporated in the Russian SFSR, while South Ossetia became an autonomous region of Georgia. The conflict began in 1989, when the South Ossetians, who comprise two-thirds of the region’s population, called for greater autonomy and eventual reunification with their northern brethren. But these demands were fiercely resisted by local Georgians, who feared that the region would be annexed by neighboring Russia. Following clashes between Georgian and Ossetian irregulars in 1990, the Tbilisi government abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status and declared a state of emergency in the area.

In addition to ethno-cultural cleavages and historical grievances, the traditional pro-Russian feelings of both Abkhazians and South Ossetians are also a factor in their desire to secede from Georgia and become part of Russia. While the Georgian authorities boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum on the future of the Soviet Union in March 1991, voting did take place in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with almost the entire non Georgian populations voting to preserve the Union. When Georgians voted overwhelmingly for independence a month later, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians refused to participate in the poll. Seeing national independence rather than democracy as the ultimate guarantee of their freedom, both ethnic groups took up arms in fear of being ruled by Tbilisi without protection from Moscow.

After Zviad Gamsakhurdia, an ardent nationalist, became Georgia’s president, serious armed conflict engulfed both areas. This inevitable clash of ethnic nationalism was the fruit of Stalin’s devious plan to prevent Georgia from ever becoming independent from Moscow (although born an ethnic Georgian, Stalin was at heart a Russian nationalist). The threat of the country’s disintegration along ethnic lines was a major factor in the civil war that erupted among Georgia’s bickering elite factions.

At the end of 1991, the South Ossetians declared their region’s independence and announced plans for its integration into the Russian Federation. Fierce fighting broke out, when Georgian government troops surrounded and shelled the regional capital of Tskhinvali. The situation was further complicated by the arrival of volunteer fighters from North Ossetia in support of their South Ossetian neighbors. Russian troops remaining in the area also became actively engaged in the conflict on the side of the Ossetians. This development was not unexpected, since Georgian-Russian relations had already been strained over Tbilisi’s refusal to sign the CIS Treaty. Some 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia and 100,000 Ossetians from the rest of Georgia fled to North Ossetia.

As part of his efforts to restore peace in the two rebellious regions, Georgia’s next president, Eduard Shevardnadze, responded favorably to President Yeltsin’s offer to mediate the dispute. In July 1992, an agreement was reached for a permanent cease-fire in South Ossetia. This agreement, providing for the simultaneous withdrawal of all armed forces from the region, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, and the return of refugees, promised a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The truce has held ever since, even though a new, Communist-dominated leadership has reaffirmed South Ossetia’s intention to secede from Georgia. With the mediation of Russia, the CSCE, and North Ossetia, a joint memorandum on Georgian-Ossetian reconciliation has recently been drafted as a first step towards a negotiated settlement. At present, the South Ossetians are playing for time, waiting to see how Georgia’s other unresolved conflict, in Abkhazia, will play itself out.

A peaceful solution to the conflict would be easier to secure in South Ossetia than in Abkhazia. In July 1992, the Abkhazian legislature voted to reinstate the region’s 1925 constitution, in effect asserting its sovereignty, and asked Russia to either make it a protectorate or annex it. After Gamsakhurdia was overthrown the same year, many of his supporters fled to Abkhazia, from where they continued armed resistance with some local support. Under the pretext of suppressing the "Zviadists," the new regime in Tbilisi dispatched troops to stamp out the region’s secessionist movement. Although the Abkhazian militia resisted the invasion, the better-armed Georgian National Guard captured Sukhumi, forcing Vladislav Ardzinba, the region’s renegade leader, to retreat north.

After Georgian troops had begun withdrawing their heavy weapons under the terms of a Russian-mediated armistice, Ardzinba’s forces launched a successful counter offensive in the fall, recapturing Abkhazia with the support of Chechens and other mountainous tribes of the Caucasus, and some Russian forces. Ethnic cleansing forced over 200,000 Georgians living in Abkhazia to flee the area. Shevardnadze, who had taken personal command of the Georgian troops, accused conservative elements in the Russian army of providing military equipment and supplies to the rebels and clashes near Sukhumi between Georgian and Russian forces provoked fears that Moscow might be drawn into the conflict.

Tbilisi asked for UN intervention, charging that the loss of Abkhazia was a direct result of Moscow’s covert aid to the rebels and failure to enforce the cease-fire. As for the Russians, Georgia’s inter-ethnic struggles played right into their hands. Realizing that the two separatist conflicts could not be settled without, Russian cooperation, Shevardnadze was forced to yield to Moscow’s pressure and initiate a policy of rapprochement with his powerful northern neighbor. Georgia joined the CIS, including its collective security system, and signed a ten-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow. Other bilateral agreements provided for the stationing of Russian border troops on Georgia’s external borders and gave the Russians the right to use military bases on Georgian soil for another 25 years. With the country effectively reintegrated into Moscow’s sphere of influence, the Shevardnadze government finally succeeded in crushing Gamsakhurdia’s rebellion with Russian military backing.

Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders have denounced Georgian-Russian military cooperation, claiming that it would only serve to exacerbate tensions and encourage Georgian aggression. Their fears of a Russian about-face were heightened by Moscow’s declarations that Georgian territorial integrity should be restored. Such fears were indeed justified. Having helped the Russians regain a foothold in Georgia, the two pro-Russian separatist movements have now outlived their usefulness to the Kremlin.

In April 1994, the two warring sides, meeting in Moscow, agreed on the creation of a union, in which Georgia and Abkhazia would enjoy equal status. Also announced was a cease-fire to be monitored by a CIS peacekeeping force of 3,000 Russian soldiers. Peace negotiations were suspended after the Abkhazian legislature adopted a new constitution in November 1994, declaring the region an independent republic. The declaration of sovereignty was condemned by both the Russian and Georgian governments, but negotiations resumed under the auspices of the CSCE "Minsk Group" co-chaired by Russia and Finland.

There is a chasm, however, between the positions of both sides. Shevardnadze wants a federal arrangement, giving Abkhazia the status of a constituent republic with its own constitution and parliament, while preserving Georgia’s unity. Under his proposal, Abkhazians would have a guaranteed share of the seats in a federal parliament and veto power over important issues like the national budget. But the Abkhazians have rejected the offer of autonomy, preferring instead a loose confederation, in which they would be able to maintain their independence and set up their own army. Nor does Georgia’s recently ratified new constitution accommodate their desire for national self-determination. Due to resistance by the nationalists who dominate Georgia’s legislature, the constitution fails to provide for a federal makeup of the country, leaving the status of the two breakaway regions open.

Another dispute concerns the repatriation of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population, as stipulated by the cease-fire agreement. The reason for Abkhazian reluctance to allow the return of Georgian refugees to their homes in Abkhazia is obvious. In 1989, the Abkhazians were only 18 percent of the area’s populace. Comprising nearly 46 percent of the population, the Georgians constituted the largest ethnic group in the region. Before the outbreak of hostilities, the Tbilisi government; repeatedly rejected Abkhazian secessionist demands on these demographic grounds.

Insisting that it only wants a peaceful resolution to the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, Moscow has tried to bridge their differences by proposing a compromise protocol that would be acceptable to both parties. In spite of Russian prodding, the peace talks broke down at the end of last year. Russia has put pressure on the Abkhazians by discontinuing the overland supply of fuel, food and medicines to Abkhazia since December 1994. It has also used gunboat diplomacy, virtually blockading Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, including the Sukhumi seaport (although ships are still allowed to bring in food from Turkey).

The separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia must realize how much the playing field has changed. The bargaining power of the Tbilisi regime has increased, while its vulnerability to Russian subversion has declined. The bloody civil war in Georgia ended with President Shevardnadze the clear winner. A landslide victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections held last November 5 (in which Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not take part) has further consolidated the power of Shevardnadze and his Union of Georgian Citizens.

Having secured its long-term military presence in Georgia, Moscow has no interest in stirring local trouble. Its own debilitating war in neighboring Chechnya has come as a stern warning of the dangers of regional separatism. As part of its new regional strategy, Moscow has blocked the flow of arms supplies to South Ossetia across the Russian-Ossetian border.

The Georgian president now threatens that a combination of political measures and armed force will be used to restore the country’s territorial integrity in 1996. (2) In spite of its accelerated military buildup, Tbilisi is unlikely to force a new test of arms, given the country’s ravaged economy and Moscow’s need for stability in the area. A new flare-up in Georgia might jeopardize Moscow’s plans for a portion of Azerbaijani oil exports to the West to be pumped via a Russian pipeline running through Chechnya. Bogged down in its Chechen quagmire, the Russian army is unlikely to resist a renewed Georgian military drive to reconquer the two breakaway regions, but Tbilisi knows that Moscow has other ways in which to make its displeasure felt.

Shevardnadze pushed strongly for the Georgian-Abkhaz standoff to be put on the agenda of the January 19 meeting of the CIS heads of state in Moscow. At a pre-summit conference of CIS foreign ministers, the Georgian position was supported by the new Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who stated that, Georgia had made all. possible concessions, and now stronger measures were needed to resolve the conflict. (3) Primakov’s statement was a clear signal that the Kremlin has switched sides and is now opposed to Abkhaz secession.

At the request of the Georgian president, the CIS summit meeting decided to impose sanctions, including a tightened economic blockade and a total arms embargo, on Abkhazia until it agrees to a comprehensive political settlement; of the conflict. The CIS leaders also accepted in principle a long-standing Georgian demand for revising the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force in Abkhazia to include police functions and the repatriation of refugees, by endorsing the Georgian proposal for economic and political isolation of Sukhumi. Moscow has gone from mediating in the dispute to supporting Georgia openly.

If Russia matches its words with actions, its tougher stance against the Abkhaz separatists could force a breakthrough in the deadlocked negotiations and bring peace to the area. The Sukhumi government has denounced the announced sanctions, claiming they are part of a Russo-Georgian plan to put military and economic pressure on Abkhazia with the aim of forcing it to reunite with Georgia.

Without Russian military and economic backing, the two secessionist regimes cannot survive for long. The Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders are pinning their hopes on the chance that the June presidential elections in Russia will bring to power a strongly nationalistic candidate, who might be more willing to support their cause than Yeltsin. In the meantime, should they fail to settle their differences with Georgia, the threat of renewed war in both regions will only escalate.


1) See Ronald Grigor Suny: "1988: The Making of the Georgian Nation." Bloomington, Indiana University Press

2) Radio Tbilisi, January 8, 1996

3) Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 13, 1996, p. l