Abkhazia (Abkhaz: /Apsny, Georgian: აფხაზეთი/Apkhazeti, Russian: Абха́зия) is a region of 8,600 km² in the Caucasus. It is formally an autonomous republic within Georgia but is de facto independent, although not recognised as such internationally. The capital is Sukhumi (Sokhumi).
Geography and demographics
Abkhazia covers an area of about 3,300 mi² at the western end of Georgia, on the north shore of the Black Sea. The Caucasus mountains on the north and northeast divide Abkhazia from Circassia; on the southeast it is bounded by Mingrelia (Samegrelo); and on the southwest by the Black Sea.
The republic is extremely mountainous (nearly 75 percent is classified as mountains or foothills) and settlement is largely confined to the coast and a number of deep, well-watered valleys. The climate is extremely mild, which in Soviet times caused it to become known as a "Georgian riviera" and popular holiday destination. It is also renowned for its agricultural produce, including tea, tobacco, wine and fruits.
The demography of Abkhazia has undergone major changes since the 1990s. At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, it had a population of about 500,000, of whom 48 percent were Georgians (principally Mingrels ) and only 17 percent of whom were Abkhazians.
In 1993, a major war led to Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia, during which virtually the entire Georgian population—about 250,000 people—were displaced in what was alleged to be a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The conflict has not yet been resolved, and Abkhazia's much-reduced population is now largely ethnically Abkhazian.
The earliest archeological evidence of human settlement in the Western Caucasus dates back to about 4000-3000 BC. Current Abkhazian nationalists call these early tribes "proto-Abkhazians," and write that such tribes "lived along a swathe of the Black Sea coast roughly corresponding to the present Abkhazian republic"1.
In the 1st millennium BC (9th-6th centuries BC), the territory of modern Abkhazia was a part of the ancient kingdom of (Colchis) (Kolkha), which was subsequently absorbed (in 63 BC) into the Kingdom of Egrisi. Greek traders established ports along the Black Sea shoreline. One of those ports, Dioscurias, eventually developed into modern Sukhumi, Abkhazia's traditional capital.
The Roman Empire conquered Egrisi in the 1st century AD and ruled it until the 4th century, following which it regained a measure of independence but remained within the Byzantine Empire's sphere of influence. The Abkhazians were converted to Christianity during the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the mid-6th century. Abkhazia was made an autonomous principality of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century, a status it retained until the 9th century, when it was united with the Georgian kingdom of Imereti. Actual independence from Constantinople ebbed and flowed during this period, which Abkhazians remember as an Abkhazian principality. It is certain that Byzantine authority would have faded once the towns were left behind, as one penetrated the mountains.
In the 16th century the area was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, during which the Abkhazians partially converted to Islam. The Ottomans were pushed out by the Georgians, who established an autonomous Principality of Abkhazia (Abkhazetis Samtavro in Georgian) ruled by the Sharvashidze dynasty.
Abkhazia under the Russians and Soviets
The advance of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus region led to fierce fighting between the invading Russians and the indigenous Caucasian peoples. Various Georgian principalities were annexed to the empire between 1801-1864. The Russians acquired possession of Abhkazia in a piecemeal fashion between 1829 and 1842, but their power was not firmly established before 1864, when they managed to abolish the local Principality. Large numbers of Muslim Abkhazians — said to have constituted as much as 60% of the Abkhazian population, though contemporary census reports were not very trustworthy — emigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1864-1878 as a result of Russian oppression of Muslims.
Modern Abkhazian historians insist that large areas of the region were left uninhabited, and that many Armenians, Georgians and Russians (all Christians) subsequently migrated to Abkhazia, resettling much of the vacated territory. This version of events is strongly contested by Georgian historians (see Lortkipanidze M., The Abkhazians and Abkhazia, Tbilisi 1990) who argue that Georgian tribes (Mingrelians and Svans) populated Abkhazia from ancient times, from the times of the Colchis kingdom. According to Georgian scholars modern Abkhazians are the descendants of the North Caucasian tribes (Adygey, Apsua ), and are the ones who were moving down to Abkhazia from the North Caucasus mountains throughout the history and merging with the already existing Georgian population there. Either way, according to a reliable reference source by the beginning of the 20th century Abkhazians were a minority in the region. The Encyclopędia Britannica reported in 1911 that in the principal town, Sukhum-kaleh, (population then 43,000) two-thirds were Mingrelian Georgians and one-third Abkhazians. The takeover of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution led to Abkhazia being granted a degree of cultural and political autonomy until in 1931 Stalin made it an autonomous republic within Soviet Georgia. Despite its nominal autonomy, it was subjected to strong central rule from Tbilisi and a policy of "Georgianization" was forcibly imposed. Georgian became the official language, the Abkhaz language was banned, and cultural rights were repressed, with thousands of Abkhazians killed during Stalin's purges. Lavrenty Beria encouraged Georgian migration to Abkhazia, and many took up the offer and resettled there. Later, in 50s and 60s Vazgen I and the Armenian church encouraged and funded the migration of Armenians to Abkhazia. Currently, Armenians are the largest minority group in Abkhazia. The repression of Abkhazians was ended after Stalin's death and Beria's execution, and Abkhazians were given a much more powerful role in the governance of the autonomous republic. As in most of the smaller autonomous republics, the Soviet government encouraged the growth of culture and particularly of literature. Ethnic quotas were established for certain bureaucratic posts, giving the Abkhaz a degree of political power that was disproportionate to their minority status in the republic. This was interpreted by some as a "divide and rule" policy whereby local elites were given a share in power in exchange for support for the Soviet regime. In Abkhazia as elsewhere, it led to other ethnic groups — in this case, the Georgians — resenting what they saw as unfair discrimination, thereby stoking ethnic discord in the republic.
The Abkhazian War
As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tension grew between the Abkhazians and Georgians over Georgia's moves towards independence. Georgian nationalists held demonstrations in Tbilisi as early as 1989 demanding the full integration of Abkhazia into an independent Georgia. Many Abkhazians opposed this, fearing that an independent Georgia would lead to a renewed period of "Georgianization", and argued instead for the establishment of Abkhazia as an independent republic in its own right. The dispute soon turned violent, when rioting between Georgians and Abkhazians broke out in Sukhumi on July 16, 1989. 16 people were said to have been killed and another 137 injured following a dispute over university enrolment policies. After several days of violence, Soviet troops restored order in the city but blamed rival nationalist paramilitaries for "provoking" confrontations.
Georgia declared independence on April 9, 1991, under the rule of the former Soviet dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He was overthrown in an armed rebellion between December 1991 and January 1992. In December, the Georgian National Guard, under the command of Tengiz Kitovani, laid siege to Gamsakhurdia's office. After months of stalemate, he was forced to resign, and was replaced as president by Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister whose rule began (in effect) as the public face of a government dominated by hardline Georgian nationalists.
On February 21, 1992, Georgia's ruling Military Council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet-era constitution and restoring the 1921 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Many Abkhazians interpreted this as an abolition of their autonomous status. In response, on July 23, 1992, the Abkhazia government effectively declared independence, though this was not internationally recognized. The Georgian government accused Gamsakhurdia supporters of kidnapping Georgia's interior minister and holding him captive in Abkhazia. It dispatched 3,000 troops to the region, ostensibly to restore order, but heavy fighting between Georgian forces and Abkhazian separatists broke out in and around Sukhumi. The Abkhazian authorities rejected the government's claims, claiming that it was merely a pretext for an invasion. After about a week's fighting and many casualties on both sides, Georgian government forces managed to take control of most of Abkhazia and closed down the regional parliament.
The Abkhazians' military defeat was met with a hostile response by the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus , an umbrella group uniting a number of pro-Russian movements in the North Caucasus, Russia (Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians and others). Hundreds of volunteer paramilitaries from Russia, including Shamil Basayev - a little known former Russian army officer at that time, joined forces with the Abkhazian separatists to fight the Georgian government forces (see Wall Street Journal: Vladimir Socor, A Test Ground of Putin's International Conduct). In September, the Abkhazians and Russian paramilitaries mounted a major offensive after breaking a cease-fire, which drove the Georgian forces out of large swathes of the republic. Shevardnadze's government accused Russia of giving covert military support to the rebels with the aim of "detaching from Georgia its native territory and the Georgia-Russian frontier land". The year ended with the rebels in control of much of Abkhazia west of Sukhumi. Significant "ethnic cleansing" occurred on both sides, with Abkhazians displaced from Georgian-held territory and vice-versa; some 3,000 people were reported to have been killed in this first phase of the war.
The conflict remained stalemated until July 1993, when Abkhazian (separatist) forces launched an attack on Georgian-held Sukhumi. The capital was surrounded and heavily shelled, with Shevardnadze himself trapped in the city. Although a truce was declared at the end of July, this collapsed after a renewed Abkhaz attack in mid-September. After ten days of heavy fighting, Sukhumi fell on September 27. Newly appointed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze narrowly escaped death, as he had vowed to stay in the city no matter what, but was eventually forced to flee when separatist snipers fired on the hotel he was residing in. Shevardnadze had to rely on the Russian navy to evacuate him from Sukhumi.
The separatist forces quickly overran the rest of Abkhazia as the Georgian government faced a second threat, an uprising by the supporters of the deposed Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the region of Mingrelia (Samegrelo). In the chaotic aftermath of defeat, almost the entire non-Abkhazian population fled the region by sea or over the mountains. Many thousands died—it is thought that as many as 10,000 may have perished—and some 250,000-300,000 people were forced into exile.
See also: Politics of Abkhazia
The Abkhaz conflict has not been resolved; a ceasefire agreement was signed on May 15, 1994 and a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNOMIG) was given the task of monitoring the agreement. A separate force from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was assigned to a peacekeeping mission.
Peace talks have taken place on and off over the last ten years but have achieved little of significance. Although there have been no major outbreaks of fighting in the meantime, border clashes and armed raids by both sides continue to inflict casualties.
A new constitution was adopted on 4 November 1994 which declared Abkhaz sovereignty. Elections were held on 23 November 1996 but these were not recognised by the Georgian government or the international community. The CIS imposed economic sanctions in January 1996 and the region is formally blockaded by both Georgia and Russia.
On 3 October 2004 presidential elections were held in Abkhazia. In the elections, Russia evidently supported Raul Khadjimba, the prime-minister backed by seriously ailing outgoing separatist President Vladislav Ardzinba. Posters of Russia's President Vladimir Putin together with Khadjimba, who like Putin had worked as a KGB official, were everywhere in Sukhumi. Deputies of Russia's parliament and Russian singers, led by Joseph Kobzon, both a deputy and a popular songster, came to Abkhazia compaigning for Khadjimba.
Still, on 12 October Abkhazia's Supreme Court, after a series of contradictory decisions by the Electoral Committee, recognized that the new president would be a businessman Sergei Bagapsh, accused by his rival's supporters of being pro-Georgian. (Georgia doesn't recognize any separatist candidates or even the elections). Abkhazia's outgoing President Ardzinba claimed the decision was illegal and made under pressure from supporters of Bagapsh. The decision was cancelled by the Supreme Court the night of the same day. When supporters of Raul Khadjimba seized the building of the Supreme Court and destroyed the protocols from local electoral constituencies new elections were prescribed.
Soon the Supreme Court cancelled the later decision, and again named Bagapsh the new president. His supporters captured a local TV station, while Raul Khadjimba's supporters took control over the parliament's building. Outgoing president Ardzinba replaced Khadjimba as a prime-minister with Nodar Khashba, who, before this appointment served in the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations .
On 12 November supporters of Bagapsh, who was planning to be inaugurated on 7 December, took the building of Abkhazia's administration, making Nodar Khashba flee from his room. Capturing the major governmental offices in Sukhumi led to the death of one elderly woman, Tamara Shakryl (Bagapsh's supporters claim she was killed by Ardzinba's guard). The same day Russia made it clear that it would directly intervene in Abkhazian developments in case of threats to its interests in this unrecognized republic, and blamed Bagapsh for the disorders.
In response, Georgia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it "calls upon the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General and the international community to give the proper reaction to such Russian declarations, to reiterate their support to Georgia's full sovereignty and territorial integrity and to warn Russia to abstain from any interference in Georgia's internal affairs".
In response to Georgia's accusations that Russia is sending its so-called peacemaking troops to Sukhumi, Russian lieutenant colonel Yevgeni Morenko, head of the Collective Peacemaking Forces in the region, told journalists on 12 November that only two armored troop-carriers were sent to Abkhazia's capital, "for better protection of the Peacemaking Headquaters".
On 14 November, the current prime-minister Nodar Khashba, named by the relatives of Tamara Shakryl as responsible for her death, and threatened by them, had to spend the night at Russia's Peacemaking Headquarters in Sukhumi. Tensions continued to mount as the day for Bagapsh's inaugural ceremony came. In early December 2004, however, Bagapsh came to an agreement with Khadjimba under which they would run in new elections under a national unity ticket, with Bagapsh as presidential candidate and Khadjimba as vice-presidential candidate. The ticket won the elections with over 90% of the vote, and the new administration took office on February 12, 2005.
Abkhazian leaders have made alternating demands in recent years. At times, they have insisted on full independence, and at other times, they have requested associate membership of the Russian Federation. However, the Russian government has been slow to respond to the latter proposal, fearing the negative effect of such an action on its relations with Georgia. On 28 November, 2003, Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky tabled such a resolution in the State Duma, but saw it rejected. Nonetheless, many citizens of Abkhazia now possess Russian citizenship, and Abkhazians, unlike Georgians entering Russia, do not require a visa.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, European Union and United Nations have continued to insist that Abkhazia must remain part of Georgia, and that at the very least, the many Georgian refugees that fled after the 1992-1993 war must be allowed to return before any acceptable vote on independence can be held.
The Georgian government has continued to insist on Abkhazia's reunification with Georgia, but has differed in its suggestions of means to achieve this, particularly under the government of current President Mikhail Saakashvili.
They have, at times, proposed two main peace deals. The first one would divide Georgia into seven autonomous entities, each with power over police and economic issues, and relinquishing power over defence and foreign affairs to the federal government. In a later proposal, it was suggested that Georgia and Abkhazia could form one federal Georgian republic, somewhat along the lines of Serbia and Montenegro.
The Georgian government has, at times, suggested that they may attempt to resolve the conflict by military means. After the 2004 removal of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze from office after large public protests, Saakashvili suggested that Abkhazia and fellow separatist entity South Ossetia could be reintegrated in the same manner. However, over the following months, he distanced himself from this idea.
Saakashvili has also attempted to portray the Abkhaz dispute as being between Georgia and Russia, due to the latter's support of the separatists, with the separatist government being portrayed as little more than a Russian puppet. To this end, they have pushed for either the complete removal, or major changes to the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, and the removal of Russian military bases from Abkhaz territory. During 2003, they succeeded in achieving the latter demand, with Russia removing its bases, leaving only its peacekeeping force.
Both the Abkhazian government and opposition resolutely oppose reunification with Georgia under any circumstances.
. Wikipedia. Mar. 3, 2004. This particulate quote is due to User:ChrisO