Conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia go back to the
years 80’s and 90’s of XX century being a result of the dissolution of USSR.
They are a direct outcome of a long lasting ethnical tensions, national stigmas
and independency movements awakened by Perestroika.
Until today, after almost three decades, the region is
far from peaceful. The latest conflict in 2008 has actually never been resolved.
The both sides of the conflict, being Georgia on one side and allied forces of
Russia, Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other side are still kept on tenterhooks.
The goal of this paper is to analyse the events and
circumstances leading to war started in 2008, trace its course and eventually
explain the aftermath expressed in the relations between the countries that had
taken part in the conflict. The research is based on articles, online sources,
official documents and scholarly literature.
In order to understand the processes that took place
in the South Caucasus, we must go back in history, back to the times of USSR
existence. In the years 1931-1991 Abkhazia was formally an Autonomous SSR
incorporated into Georgian SSR. Such way of things was a direct outcome of
Stalin’s administrative directives, although the indigenous Abkhazians never
considered themselves a part of Georgia’s demography, culture nor heritage in
general. The idea was to create a more centralised administrative area of USSR,
comprised of Georgian SR and Abkhazian SR.1
Abkhaz belong to Abkhaz-Adyghe ethnical group and are closely related to
Circassians (an English counterpart of Adyghe). The predominant religion is
Orthodoxy, however the Abkhaz relatives living in the northern parts of the
region are followers of Sunni Islam. They speak their own language, although a
vast majority of Abkhazians are proficient Russian speakers.
On the contrary majority of Georgians are Christians speaking their own
language: Georgian. Following the colonization of Abkhaz territories, Georgians
have become the biggest ethnical group in the region (around 45%)2
On February 21st, 1992 a Georgian Parliament approved a
rollback to a Georgian constitution from the year 1921. According to that
constitution Abkhazia was not recognized as an autonomous region. For Abkhazia,
such claims, followed by the liquidation of internal borders between Georgia
and Abkhazia, resulted in a deterioration of their official status. The
proclamation of Abkhazia’s independency became imminent. On the 23rd
of July 1992, Abkhaz parliament voted for the reintroduction of their own
official constitution, established in 1925, which allowed Abkhazia to nullify
all the political relations with Georgia. It was and indirect declaration of
independency. Georgia stood against such resolution, claiming this constitution
to be void. Few weeks later a conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia, won by
Abkhazian forces backed by Russians, shifted demographic, forcing an estimated
later to abandon their homes and flee to the closest Georgian zone of
influence. In May, 1994 a ceasefire is signed between Georgian government and
Abkhaz separatists. At this very point Abkhazia becomes and independent entity,
however, it is not recognized by the UN and international community, as those
recognize Abkhazia as part of Georgian territory and respect Georgian
territorial integrity. It is also crucial to mention that Georgia became a
legitimate member of UN in July 1992, few days before the conflict emerged. Hence
the international community do not recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign state,
because back in 1992 it was still officially an autonomous region of Georgia. The
aftermath of the first conflict crippled Georgia, as it technically had lost
Abkhazia. At this very point it is worth to stress again, that despite United
Nations Security Council’s de iure recognition of Abkhazia as a part of Georgian territory, de facto
Abkhazia was and independent state denying Georgian authority over the region. Quote:
“The principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity was constantly reaffirmed in
UNSC resolutions, as well as the need to define “The political status of
Abkhazia, respecting fully the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the
Republic of Georgia”4 – end of the quote. Georgia
continuously claims itself to be a rightful governor of Abkhazia.
Historical background: South Ossetia
One of the most substantial differences between history of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia is a fact, that South Ossetia had been promised by USSR to become
the SSR same way as Abkhazia was, but it never happened. Instead, South Ossetia
was straight away incorporated to Georgian SR in 1922. The incorporation itself
was not really a decisive factor leading to outbursts in that region. What
really had made South Ossetia rebel against Georgia, was Georgian attitude
towards Ossetia. The harsh, sudden and robust process of “Georgianisation” was
the key to the animosities between Georgians and indigenous people of Ossetia. Here
is a fragment of interview with Znaur Gassiyev, one of the leaders of South
Ossetian independence movement5:
Question – Why not?
return back to the former status of South Ossetia – ed. note
Answer – First of
all, we simply will not be able to be second-class people, as we are considered
at Georgia’s Government House. Second, too much blood has been shed. And for
what? To return to the past? Most importantly, we don’t believe that the
leaders of the present opposition and Tengiz Sigua himself former prime
minister of Georgia – ed. note, are truly democratic.
Question – But as
far as I know, Russia is in no hurry to take South Ossetia into its embraces.
Moreover, you will agree there are quite a few constitutional and legal snags
Answer – I agree.
But the USSR has collapsed; it no longer exists. So why should its laws and
Constitution be in effect?
As we can see Ossetians held an immense grudge towards their Georgian
authorities. The grudge evoked mainly by the poor treatment of indigenous
people of Ossetia by Georgians. Moreover, Ossetia has always wanted to be
either an independent state, or wanted to be incorporated to the Russian
Federation and by that unified with its neighbour – North Ossetia.
However, the ethnical conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia was not
fuelled solely by the mutual disregard. South Ossetia’s geography, consisting
mainly of mountains and hills without an access to any sea, was and still is a
giant obstacle for the Ossetian economy to strive and flourish.
War in 2008
In 2004, following the events of Rose Revolution in Georgia, Mikheil
Saakashvili came to power. That event became a prelude for the conflict in
2008, as the policies of Saakashivili were aimed for the absolute integration
of Georgia and its territories, paved with efforts to minimise Russia’s
influence in that post soviet region – a true recipe for dynamite.
The next turning point that took place is Kosovo Assembly, a region of
about 2 million people, and its declaration of independence, recognised and
embraced by the majority of European Union member countries and United States.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the acceptance of such
precedence “could lead to an undermining of established rules and ethics for
interaction between states”6. The dubious and
controversial Kosovo’s proclamation of independence on February 17th
immediately attracted a deep scrutiny regarding the recognition of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. A chain of debates has risen again.
Not only Abkhazia and South Ossetia sought an opportunity in the events
from February, Russian Federation, having invested huge amounts of money in the
Abkhazia, also tried to undermine the Georgian authority over the regions.
The fear of the Kosovo’s casus repetition pushed Russia to secure its
influence in the post soviet region, believed to be the Russia’s natural zone
of influence. The first step undertaken by Russia was lifting sanctions of
Abkhazia on 6th of March, 2008, allowing both sides to officially
establish political and economic relations. Furthermore, on March 21st
State Duma called the Russian officials to reassure the security of Russian
citizens living in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, referring to the
events of February 17th7. Another key event
leading to war was the NATO summit held in Bucharest from the 2nd to
4th of April. The acceptance of Georgia into the NATO would reinforce
and reassure their reign over two insurgent regions. Russia warned NATO, that
such step would result in Georgia losing the two rebelled regions, and shall
undertake every necessary step in order to prevent Georgia from obtaining NATO
membership. USA, Canada, central and eastern European states voted for the
incorporation of Georgia, however France and Germany remained hesitant, fearing
a backlash from Russian side. Ultimately no serious claims regarding Georgia
were established – such reluctance and ambiguousness of NATO states showed
Russia how vulnerable Alliance is, and encouraged it to strengthen is stance on
the Georgia case. Two days later, president Putin recommended Russian
government to establish official relations with so called authorities of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia and institutionalise the economic, social and
political cooperation. Following such recommendation, both regions- formerly
insurgents- has now became, in the eyes of Russia, official partners with an
aim to integrate them with Russian Federation. Georgia had no choice but to
Russia was gradually reinforcing its presence on the Abkhaz territory.
The pinnacle of its actions was on the 30th of July- a completion of
a railroad connecting Sukhumi and Ochamchire, later used for a swift transportation
of Russian soldiers to the warzone, the placement of military and heavy warfare
on the Abkhaz-Georgian border and the military maneuvers in Caucasus.
The first skirmishes between Georgians and insurgents took place between
2nd and 7th of August. Those were just mere fire
exchanges, claimed by both sides to be just an answer to other side’s hostility.
The real war started at night between 7th and 8th
of August when the Georgian military opened fire at Russian forces stationing
Tskhinvali, triggering an intervention of Russian 58th Army.
On the 9th of August a martial law was introduced all over
Georgia. Fearing the feasible bombardment of Tbilisi, all of the Georgian
officials were evacuated from the capital. Seeing how vulnerable Georgian side
was, Abkhazia openly joined the conflict, repelling all the Georgian forces
from the region. On the 10th and 11th of August, a series
of ferocious bombardments and air strikes done by Russians disabled Georgian
key strategic points (i.e. Kodori Gorge; military base in Tbilisi and Kodori)
and captured a Poti harbour, leaving Georgia hindered.
1 Zbigniew Lewicki, Konflikt
gruzi?sko-abchaski w ?wietle dzia?a? pokojowych ONZ (1992-2009), s. 18.
2 Georgia: The Abkhazian
Conflict, UN, DI (EUR)POL1, WH160, 1995, s. 12.
3 Celine Francis, Conflict
Resolution and Status; The Case of Georgia and Abkhazia (1989- 2008)
4 Celine Francis, Conflict
Resolution and Status; The Case of Georgia and Abkhazia (1989- 2008), quote
p. 90; reference no 156, p. 110.
5 Fragment quoted from Georgy Ovcharenko’s article found in
book Countdown to war in Georgia,
East View Press, p. 33-34
6 Countdown to war in Georgia,
East View Press, p. 321
7 Robert Potocki, Marcin Domaga?a, Przemys?aw Sieradzan,
Konflikt kaukaski w 2008 roku,
Europejskie Centrum Analiz Geopolitycznych
8 Robert Potocki, Marcin Domaga?a, Przemys?aw Sieradzan,
Konflikt kaukaski w 2008 roku,
Europejskie Centrum Analiz Geopolitycznych, p. 118.