Georgia-Abkhazia War, in which ethnic Abkhazians effectively
extracted northwestern Georgia from Tbilisi’s control, is a
conflict largely forgotten in the West, despite its high profile
re-ignition in August 2008. Historical arguments can be made
both for Abkhazia’s unity and autonomy from Georgia, but the
conflict cannot be solely blamed on Soviet ‘ethno-federalism’.
It must, however, be understood within the context of Georgian
independence. Ethnic tension between Abkhazians and Georgians
was a necessary but not sufficient cause for the conflict. It
took an unstable transition in Moscow, and chaotic Russian
involvement in the run-up to the conflict, to turn tension into
violence. Russia’s one-sided role in ending hostilities meant
that the conflict’s causal issues were left frozen, only to be
violently thawed fifteen years later.
Abkhazia, Russia, ethnic conflict, Caucasus
As one of many conflicts
precipitated by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the 1992-93
conflict between Georgia and the region of Abkhazia
distinguishes itself as one of the bloodiest, most consequential
and most unresolved. It caused tens of thousands of casualties
and led to the displacement of about 250,000 people.
It is a dispute that persisted without major incident as a
‘frozen conflict’ until 2008, when large-scale Russian military
intervention across Georgia re-ignited hostilities and led to
Moscow’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia as an independent
The following article posits that
the 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia War is what can be termed as a
‘forgotten conflict’. Therefore, the paper will attempt to
explain the context surrounding the war, explore the dynamics of
the politics and the ‘fighting’ of the conflict by looking at
the roles of the three main groups involved: Georgians,
Abkhazians and Russians, and craft an argument throughout for
why the war took place when it did. Although the
Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is still unresolved, this paper will
focus on the events leading up to, and the ‘initial violent
phase’, namely from August 1992 to October 1993.
According to the Red Cross, the
conflict claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives and left over
Other sources, emphasizing ethnic cleansing, cite the figure for
deaths as between 25,000 and 30,000.
Yet other conflicts during this period, such as the wars in the
former Yugoslavia, have received much more attention, popularly
and academically, than the 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia War. Apart
from a handful of specialist works, centered around the same
group of scholars, analysis of the war available in English is
limited to unprofessional and highly biased accounts from one
side or the other. In the United States and Western Europe at
least, there is little, if any popular knowledge about the war.
Therefore, it would seem appropriate to label the 1992-93
Georgia-Abkhazia conflict a ‘forgotten conflict’.
Two major reasons account for the
lack of knowledge and absence of mainstream study of the
conflict: there was little coverage of events during the
conflict, and there has been little exploration of the conflict
since. In contrast, the comparatively brief developments of the
August 2008 re-ignition of the war were broadcast as rolling
news on the BBC, CNN and other international outlets, while the
significance of Russia’s intervention led to a global debate on
the limits of Western integration in the Black Sea and Caspian
regions. Even then, academic and popular historians largely
neglected the initial conflict for a number of reasons. It is
seen by many as yet another confusing ethnic conflict in a
confusing part of the world. As the noted historian of Georgia
Ronald Suny observed, ‘From afar the ethnic and civil warfare in
Georgia often looks to casual observers like the latest eruption
of “ancient tribal conflicts” or irradicable primordial
Others view the 1992-93 war as an internal Georgian issue that
never became heinous enough to warrant international concern or
as an issue to be discussed only in the context of the ‘Russian
Part of the reason for this
neglect comes from the conflict occurring at the same time as
tumultuous events in Moscow and other parts of the
just-broken-up Soviet Union. However, for those involved, the
1992-93 war is far from forgotten, not least because a
resolution has not yet been found. A 1999 Red Cross study found
that 90 percent of Abkhazians and 42 percent of Georgians say
they experienced ‘negative effects’ of the conflict, including
the killing or rape of relatives, the looting or destruction of
homes, or being taken prisoner.
Therefore, the 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia War can more accurately
be described as a ‘forgotten conflict’ for those in the U.S., or
more broadly, the ‘West’, but certainly not for those in the
In exploring the
1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia War, it is important to avoid a common
fault of many examinations of obscure conflicts, that is, diving
right in and drawing conclusions without having understood the
wider context into which the war fits. When considering an
ethnic conflict in a region with a history as rich and complex
as that of the Caucasus, it is especially necessary to
understand the conflict’s background in order to understand the
conflict itself. Accordingly, the first section of this paper
will focus on the history behind the conflict; the situation,
ethnic and otherwise, in the region before the conflict; and the
immediate events leading up to the conflict.
For many in the U.S. and Western
Europe - even after the events of August 2008 - Georgia, in the
South Caucasus, south of Russia and north of Armenia, is an
obscure country. Even more obscure for those unfamiliar with
the region are Georgia’s breakaway territories: Abkhazia in the
northwest, South Ossetia in the north, and until 2004, Ajaria in
the southwest. Ethnically distinct, Abkhazia and South Ossetia
managed to effectively secede from Georgia through separate wars
in the early 1990s. Since then, they existed with most of the
governmental trappings of independent state-lets, including
parliaments, presidents and militaries, and administrated their
own affairs with significant Russian support, divorced from
This situation was maintained largely due to Russian
‘peacekeepers’ on their ‘borders’ with Georgia. After Russia’s
military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, the
‘peacekeeping’ contingents in both territories were
significantly augmented and, in Moscow’s terminology, shifted to
a status of forces hosted by the so-called independent states of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Historically, Georgia has had
within its borders a number of regionally-tied ethnic minority
groups, including Armenians, Avars, Azeris, Greeks, Ossetians,
Russians and Abkhazians.
It was this situation that led the Soviet physicist and
dissident, Andrei Sakharov, to describe Georgia as a ‘little
empire’, just before the Abkhaz war.
In 1989, ethnic Georgians made up 70.1% of the population of
Georgia, or the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), while
ethnic Abkhazians made up only 1.8%.
In what was then the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic
(ASSR), ethnic Georgians made up 45.7% of the population, while
Abkhazians only numbered 17.8%.
The remainder of the population of Abkhazia was largely made up
of Armenians, Greeks and Russians.
Abkhazians have historically had a
nebulous relationship with Georgians and Russians. Since early
Byzantine times, Georgianized Abkhaz princes ruled their region
with varying degrees of autonomy.
Although the Abkhaz language was linguistically distinct from
Georgian, related to the languages of North Caucasian peoples
such as the Circassians, Georgian was the official language of
governance and the nobility.
As Byzantium’s control slipped in the 9th Century,
the rulers of the Abkhaz Kingdom began efforts to unify their
dynasty with that of their Georgian neighbours. In 1001 the
royal lines were combined, creating what is known as the unified
Georgian Kingdom. This entity lasted until the 16th
Century when the Ottomans established suzerainty over the area
that is modern Abkhazia.
Until the late 17th
Century, however, when the Ottomans began converting the
Abkhazians to Islam, the Abkhaz princes remained mostly
influenced by Georgian culture and political affinities. As
Georgians and Russians fought the Ottomans and their Muslim
allies in the North Caucasus in the ensuing centuries, many
Abkhazians routinely shifted between Muslim identities and
Orthodox Christian identities, as the politics of the day
Even during the Ottoman period, various Abkhaz princes were
either unified with or served as vassals to different Georgian
So, as Alexei Zverev puts it, ‘both unity with Georgia and
autonomy can be argued on historical grounds’.
The Abkhazians became a minority
in their own land through waves of mass emigration to the
Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century, as Russia slowly
took control of the Caucasus.
After failed anti-Russian rebellions in 1866 and 1878,
Abkhazians all but disappeared from the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.
The majority of Abkhazians still live outside of their homeland,
most of them in Turkey and the Middle East.
In March 1921, Abkhazia was given the status of an independent
Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR, but was joined with
Georgia in a treaty of union later in the year. In 1931,
Abkhazia’s status was ‘demoted’ to that of an Autonomous Soviet
Socialist Republic within Georgia.
Under Stalin’s rule, Georgians were forcibly resettled in
‘empty’ parts of Abkhazia, leading to Abkhaz fears of losing
their homeland. Abkhaz leaders petitioned Moscow in 1956, 1967
and 1978 to sever Abkhazia’s connection to Georgia and
incorporate it into Russia.
Tension between Georgians and
Abkhazians simmered in the 1970s as Moscow pressured Tbilisi to
push Abkhaz farmers to lower prices for their fruit and wines,
famous throughout the Soviet Union.
Instead of granting separation from Georgia in response to
Abkhaz petitions and complaints, however, Moscow gradually
increased preferential policies toward the Abkhazians, so that
by 1988, the minority Abkhaz lived better than the average
Georgian, held most of the powerful positions in Abkhazia and
even had their own television and radio stations, independent of
This situation led to Georgian resentment of Moscow’s treatment
of the Abkhazians and increased ethnic tension.
It is developments such as these
that have led analysts such as Christoph Zurcher to assert that
the ‘mechanism of Soviet ethno-federalism’ is responsible for
the Georgia-Abkhazia war, as well as the several other
ethnically-based conflicts that broke out in the former Soviet
Zurcher argues that although the Armenian and Azeri minority
populations in Georgia were substantially bigger than the Abkhaz
and Ossetian groups, the former two did not seek independence
from Tbilisi’s control because the Soviet federal system had
delineated regional autonomy, and the identity and symbolism
that came with it, for only the Abkhaz and Ossetians, not for
the other minorities in Georgia.
This argument, however, ignores the broader historical picture.
The Soviet ethno-federal system, for the most part reflected the
ethnic realities of the region, in place centuries before the
USSR. Furthermore, the Armenians and Azeris in Georgia could be
seen as ‘spill-over’ populations from their respective
neighboring sovereign homelands. Many returned to Armenia and
Azerbaijan during the periods of strife in Georgia. Other large
minority groups, such as the Avars in north-eastern Georgia were
‘traded’, under an agreement with Daghestan, for Georgians
living in that Russian autonomous region.
The Abkhazians, however, had no such option of ‘return’. Their
historical geographic homeland was entirely within Georgia.
Similarly, in his paper comparing
the breakaway areas of Abkhazia and Ajaria, Georgi Derluguian
claims that Abkhazia was destined to secede from Georgia, while
Ajaria was not, because, due to the Soviet policy of demarcating
ethnic distinction based on language rather than religion,
Moscow had deemed the former, but not the latter, worthy of a
Again, this argument ignores the basic ethnic realities of the
Caucasus. The Abkhazians are a distinct ethnicity, linked
linguistically and culturally to peoples of the North Caucasus,
such as the Chechens.
The Ajarians are an ethnic Georgian sub-group (of which there
are at least seventeen), their main contemporary distinction
being that the majority are Muslim, converted by the Ottomans.
As will be discussed below, the Abkhaz link to the North
Caucasus played an important part in the events of the 1992-93
Historically, in fact, it seems
that ethnic problems in Georgia, and specifically between the
Georgians and Abkhazians, were exacerbated when leadership in
Moscow underwent a period of transition or significant policy
shift. Ethnic tensions increased in the period immediately
following the 1917 Russian Revolution and at times in the 1970s
The break-up of the Soviet Union and the summer of 2008
presented other such periods of transition or policy shift – in
the latter case, a full-scale intervention in Georgia not long
after Vladimir Putin handed over the Russian presidential reins
to Dmitri Medvedev.
examination will reveal that the 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia war
was inextricably tied to the wider political and military events
surrounding Georgian independence. Therefore, in order to
accurately understand the war in question, this paper examines
developments in Georgia during and after the break-up of the
Soviet Union, as well as the events of the civil war in Georgia
that occurred simultaneously, between January 1992 and November
1993. In an attempt to keep the focus on the Abkhaz war, this
paper will not extensively address the events of the Georgian
war with South Ossetia, which ended in July 1992, a month before
the beginning of the war in Abkhazia.
As the consequences of Gorbachev’s
policies of perestroika and glasnost tore at its seams, the
Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s. In 1988,
emboldened young lower-level communist officials and
intellectuals in both Abkhazia and Georgia began organizing
nationalist political campaigns, frequently directed against
In June 1988, fifty-eight Abkhaz officials sent a letter to the
Nineteenth Party Congress in Moscow, demanding support for
secession from Georgia.
As the Georgian nationalist movement grew, the Georgian
Communist Party, struggling to stay in power, published a series
of ‘Georgianization’ laws beginning in December 1988, including
the ‘State Program for the Georgian Language’, which replaced
Russian with Georgian as the public sector language and
established a Georgian language test for higher education.
This was a direct slight towards Abkhazians, most of whom did
not speak Georgian.
On March 18, 1989, a mass assembly
of 30,000 Abkhaz separatists, including over 5000 Armenians,
Greeks, Russians and some ethnic Georgians met at the village of
Lykhny, the historical seat of Abkhazia’s princes. Here they
signed a declaration demanding the restoration of Abkhazia’s
1925 constitution, upgrading its status to a sovereign Soviet
Republic, effectively seceding from Georgia.
The publication of this declaration in local newspapers
immediately sparked furious anti-Abkhazian mass demonstrations
in Tbilisi. Many of those who took part were ethnic Georgians
living in Abkhazia, but as they continued for weeks, the
demonstrations began to take on a wider, pro-independence
What had initially begun as a rally against Abkhaz secession
from Georgia, turned into a rally for Georgian secession from
the Soviet Union. This mixture of sentiments would characterize
much of the developments to come.
On 9 April, 1989, Soviet troops
waded into the mass of demonstrators in Tbilisi, attacking them
with sharpened digging tools and toxic gas.
Nineteen people were killed, mostly young women, and hundreds
were injured. Fearing they would be overthrown, the Georgian
Communist leadership had asked Moscow for aid in putting down
the demonstrators. The 9 April ‘Tbilisi massacre’ is viewed as
the event that tipped the scales in favour of Georgian
Many would contend that from here, the nationalist movement and
conflict with Abkhazia were irreversible.
Meanwhile, Abkhaz demonstrations
were decidedly pro-Soviet, and Abkhaz leaders tried to ‘project
an image of loyal Soviet citizens resisting anticommunist
Georgian nationalism’, by lobbying Moscow for support.
In July of 1989, the first inter-ethnic violence erupted in
Abkhazia. The Georgian faculty at Sukhumi University refused to
work with the Abkhaz and Russian faculties and established a
separate branch of Tbilisi State University, which was then
attacked by Abkhaz nationalists, resulting in 16 deaths.
As what became known as ‘Tbilisi syndrome’ gripped the Soviet
leadership in Moscow, Georgia was left to its own devices, and
the so-called ‘war of laws’ ensued between the Georgian Supreme
Soviet and its Abkhaz counterpart.
In concessions following the 9
April massacre, the Georgian Supreme Soviet released Zviad
Gamsakhurdia, a longtime Soviet dissident and Georgian
nationalist leader, originally from Mingrelia, a Georgian
province bordering Abkhazia from which most of the Georgians in
Abkhazia also originated.
In November 1989, the body officially condemned Soviet Russia’s
annexation of Georgia in 1921 and announced that it would not
recognize any Soviet law that contravened Georgian interests.
In March 1990, it declared Georgia a sovereign nation and
legalized opposition parties.
In response, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet declared Abkhazia to be a
sovereign union republic within the Soviet Union.
In turn, a rail blockade led by Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist group
pressured the Georgian Supreme Soviet to adopt a law outlawing
regionally-based parties for the upcoming Georgian parliamentary
election, effectively eliminating Abkhazia and South Ossetia
28 October, 1990 saw victory for
Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist group in Georgia’s first
parliamentary elections free of Soviet control. Gamsakhurdia
was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet and made it clear
that his intention was to lead Georgia to full independence and
to deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as he saw fit.
In December 1990, Vladislav Ardzinba, a hard-line Abkhaz
separatist, (who remained ‘president’ of Abkhazia until 2005),
was elected chairman of the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet, and the body
moved to hold separate parliamentary elections for Abkhazia.
In March 1991, with war raging between Georgia and seceding
South Ossetia, Gamsakhurdia proclaimed Ardzinba a traitor and
tool of Moscow, but had almost no effective control over
That same month, Abkhazians
participated in the Soviet referendum on whether to preserve the
unity of the state, while Georgians were forbidden to do so by
the Tbilisi government.
In response, Gamsakhurdia threatened to abolish Abkhaz autonomy,
and by extension its Supreme Soviet, while Ardzinba countered by
arranging for a Russian airborne assault battalion to deploy in
The stage was set for violent conflict. On 9 April, 1991,
exactly two years after the Tbilisi massacre, the Georgian
parliament declared Georgia fully independent. A month later, in
an election boycotted by the Abkhazians, Gamsakhurdia became
president of the new Georgia, with 86.5 percent of the vote.
Perhaps due to Ardzinba’s new
close relationship with Russian commanders in the area, as well
as increasing pressure from political rivals in Tbilisi, not to
mention war in South Ossetia, Gamsakhurdia decided to attempt a
compromise with the Abkhaz separatists. In August 1991, a
power-sharing deal was reached for the makeup of the new Abkhaz
parliament based on ethnic quotas, where ethnic Abkhaz, 17.8% of
the population, were guaranteed 28 of the 65 seats, while ethnic
Georgians, 45.7% of Abkhazia’s population, were guaranteed only
Tbilisi’s support for this configuration would not last,
however, as Gamsakhurdia’s erratic policies led to the mutiny of
the Georgian National Guard he had created for the war in South
Ossetia. In December 1991, five hundred National Guard soldiers
laid siege to the parliament building in Tbilisi, forcing
Gamsakhurdia into exile.
To gain legitimacy, the new forces
in power invited former Soviet foreign minister and Georgian
party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze to lead the transitional State
Shortly after, Gamsakhurdia slipped back into Georgia, to
Mingrelia, where forces loyal to him, the so-called ‘Zviadists’,
began an insurgency in the Georgian province bordering Abkhazia.
Expecting war at any moment, Ardzinba and the Abkhaz leadership
continued to collect allies wherever they could. In addition to
cultivating local Russian commanders, the Abkhaz reached out to
the Council of Russian Cossacks and the newly formed
‘Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus’, an
unofficial parliament and military organization of various
related ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, including
Circassians, Ossetians and Chechens.
Ardzinba also traveled to Turkey to try to garner support, but
In May 1992, Georgian deputies in
the Abkhaz parliament began boycotting proceedings, complaining
of discrimination. This was followed by a Georgian strike in
Sukhumi and an attack by Abkhazia’s National Guard on the Abkhaz
Ministry of Internal Affairs, the last outpost of Tbilisi’s
authority in the region.
After an increase in Russian support for secessionists in South
Ossetia, including Russian helicopter attacks on Georgian
villages, Shevardnadze was forced into a cease-fire in July
On 23 July, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet passed a resolution,
without the participation of the Georgian deputies, restoring
the 1925 Abkhaz constitution and Abkhazia’s status as a
sovereign republic within what was then the Soviet Union.
Then, on 11 August, a high-ranking delegation from Tbilisi,
including the minister of the interior and the national security
advisor, was kidnapped by Gamsakhurdia’s forces in Mingrelia
while trying to negotiate with them.
It was alleged that the hostages were taken into Abkhazia. On
14 August, 1992, full-blown violent conflict broke out between
the Abkhaz National Guard and the Georgian National Guard, sent
to Abkhazia ostensibly to retrieve the hostages.
Instead of looking for hostages,
Georgian tanks rolled into Sukhumi and engaged with Abkhaz
forces defending the city. It is thought that Abkhaz forces
fired on Georgians first at the village of Ilovi, 50 kilometers
outside the capital.
The Georgian government claimed that it had notified Ardzinba of
Georgian plans to enter Abkhazia, but he denied this.
Depending on the source, between 2000 and 5000 Georgian National
Guard troops crossed the border and headed for Sukhumi, while
another 1000 troops landed in Gagra, in northwestern Abkhazia,
to seal off the border with Russia.
Abkhaz resistance proved much stiffer than anticipated and heavy
fighting broke out in and around Sukhumi.
However, a cease-fire was
negotiated on 15 August while Russian troops evacuated tourists
from the resorts along the Black Sea and Georgian forces
withdrew from Sukhumi.
On 18 August full hostilities resumed and Georgian forces
re-took Sukhumi, forcing Ardzinba and the separatist Abkhaz
leadership to flee to Gudauta, the site of a Russian base in
Georgian National Guard units occupied the Abkhaz parliament and
a military administrative council of 8 officers was set up.
Shevardnadze declared on television that, ‘Now we can say that
Georgian authority has been restored throughout the entire
territory of the republic’.
Achieving that goal was to prove
slightly more difficult. If any tactical objectives are to be
ascribed to the Georgian operation, they seem to have been to
secure the main northwest-to-southeast road running through
Abkhazia and to seal off the mountain passes to the North
These objectives were never met, resulting in a resilient Abkhaz
resistance able to move about the territory, as well as a steady
stream of North Caucasian fighters moving southwards to
supplement it, over 1000 by September 1992.
On 3 September, talks between Shevardnadze, Yeltsin and Ardzinba
were held in Moscow where the Abkhaz leader signed a document
authorizing the presence of Georgian troops in Abkhazia. The
talks fell through, however, when Abkhaz forces recaptured Gagra
in October 1992.
As hostilities continued, the
conduct of undisciplined forces on both sides towards civilians
grew worse. Villages were routinely looted and burned, and
civilians were slaughtered or taken hostage.
Troop numbers swelled, as both sides enacted emergency
conscription measures and a host of ‘volunteers’, from
Transnistrian Russians to Islamist terrorist Shamil Basayev’s
‘Chechen Battalion’, joined the Abkhaz cause.
Groups of bandits, some tied to one or more of the several sides
involved, roamed remote areas with impunity. As another
attempted cease-fire fell apart in November 1992, Abkhaz forces
began shelling Sukhumi.
In February 1993, the situation grew chaotic, as Gamsakhurdia’s
Zviadist insurgents began raids on the Georgian rear and Russian
planes bombed Sukhumi.
Early July 1993 saw an amphibious landing of Abkhaz forces near
Sukhumi and a renewed attack on the city, prompting Zviadist
fighters to come to the aid of regular Georgian forces.
On 27 July, another
Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed by the belligerent
parties in Sochi, just across the Russian border, that led to
the withdrawal of Georgian troops from positions in Abkhazia.
Thinking the conflict was over, Georgian civilians returned to
Sukhumi, while Georgian troops staggered back into Mingrelia,
many of them joining Gamsakhurdia’s insurgency.
As Zviadist attacks on regular Georgian and Abkhaz forces grew
in early September 1993, the Abkhaz forces launched their
largest offensive of the war, breaking the terms of the
cease-fire and capturing Sukhumi on 27 September.
Shevardnadze’s pleas for Russian help produced only condemnation
and nominal sanctions of the Abkhazians, as they routed the
remaining Georgian forces and drove some 200,000 Georgian
civilians across the Inguri River into Georgia proper.
The Georgian civil war continued
through October and November of 1993, as Zviadist forces
captured the Black Sea port of Poti and blocked food supplies
from reaching Tbilisi. Fearing the complete dismemberment of
Georgia, Shevardnadze enlisted Russian support to quell the
It is thought that around this time, as Georgian forces
surrounded a remote hamlet in Mingrelia, Zviad Gamsakhuria died
in mysterious circumstances.
The consequences of Russian support were that Georgia had to
join the Commonwealth of Independent States, effectively
re-entering the Russian orbit, and negotiate basing agreements
allowing Russian troops to remain on Georgian soil.
So far, this article has looked at
the entire time period targeted. However, the analysis has
focused mainly on the Abkhaz and Georgian roles in the 1992-93
war. As it has been alluded, however, Russia played a
significant role in the conflict in a variety of ways. It was
mentioned earlier that historically, increased ethnic strife in
the Caucasus coincided with periods of transition or policy
shift in Moscow. Dmitri Trenin seems to bolster this assertion
when he posits that the 1992-93 Georgia-Abkhazia war took place
during a period of transition in Russian foreign policy, from a
rejection of ‘empire-building’ and a view towards Western
integration in 1991, to a reassertion of geopolitical concerns
and a traditional view of control in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ by
In general, as Trenin observes,
during the Abkhaz war, ‘Russia’s aim appears to have been to try
to restore its influence throughout the region, on all sides, in
every conflict, in order to prevent developments from slipping
out of control and so opening the floodgates to outside
However, although Russian elements were involved on all sides of
the conflict, the amount of control Moscow exerted over their
actions is unclear. Local Russian military commanders certainly
had a personal stake in the war: to protect their sanatoria and
dachas in Abkhazia.
In her comprehensive examination
of Russia’s role in the conflict, Oksana Antonenko reveals that
before the Georgian National Guard initially moved into Abkhazia
in August 1992, Russian units in the region transferred
substantial amounts of military hardware to the Georgians,
including over 100 tanks.
It seems that Yeltsin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign
Affairs were sympathetic towards Shevardnadze’s efforts, while
Defense Ministry officials were split down the middle in their
loyalties, and Russian commanders on the ground were almost all
sympathetic to the Abkhaz cause.
Regional Russian officials even played a part in training and
equipping the Abkhaz North Caucasian allies.
As the war grew into a stalemate,
official Russian policy aligned more closely with the opinions
of Russian forces in the region. It seems that Moscow
sanctioned the transfer to the Abkhazians of large amounts of
armaments from the Russian base at Gudauta, while Russian
commanders continued to supply Abkhaz forces with intelligence
and planning support.
Interestingly, at one point, when Russian planes and pilots were
bombing Sukhumi, other Russian units continued to supply
Georgian forces with weaponry.
Overall, whatever the strategy Moscow was attempting to
implement, it seems that Russian policy during the violent phase
of the conflict manifested itself in what Trenin has called
This gave way to a decidedly anti-Georgian stance in the
‘frozen’ phase and finally the full re-ignition of the conflict
Georgia-Abkhazia war can best be understood as stemming from
parallel movements for national liberation that contradicted one
another. The Georgians asserted their independence from Russian
control. Simultaneously, the Abkhazians sought closer ties with
the Russians in order to assert their independence from Georgian
control. Although both sides had attempted these actions in the
past, the tumultuous break-up of the Soviet Union, characterized
by a significant transition and policy shift in Moscow, tipped
historical tensions over the edge, into armed conflict.
Stephen Jones posits that the
freedoms of perestroika changed Georgian nationalism, ‘from a
force for liberation and democratization to one of ethnic
hegemonism and anti-pluralism’.
Given the outlook of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the mandate he
received in Georgia’s first post-Soviet elections, this
assertion seems accurate. However, a similar statement can also
be made about Abkhaz nationalism at the time. Both ethnic groups
gravitated towards increasingly uncompromising positions, as
manifested in the ‘war of laws’ that preceded the war of arms.
The ethnic history of the region explains why this move was
possible for both sides, but not why it occurred at that moment.
Moscow’s chaotic involvement during a time of unstable
transition, however, provides an explanation for the outbreak of
war in August 1992.