Another War in the Caucasus?

by Joshua Foust on 4/29/2008 · 16 comments

The fallout from that drone shoot down continues. Now Russia is claiming Georgia is planning to restart hostilities in Abkhazia:

A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said that “a bridgehead is being prepared for the start of military operations against Abkhazia”.

Russia accuses Georgia of amassing 1,500 soldiers and police near the rebel areas of the upper Kodori Gorge…

Russia has kept a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under an agreement made following the wars of the 1990s, when they broke away from Tbilisi and formed links with Moscow.

There are around 2,000 Russians posted in Abkhazia, and about 1,000 in South Ossetia.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia have flared up recently, despite Russia lifting economic sanctions against Georgia earlier this month.

This is probably tied to Georgia’s quest to block Russia’s membership in the WTO. Georgia has suspended its bilateral talks with Russia, which are a condition of Russia’s WTO ascension, on the condition that Moscow halt its growing ties with the separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now Russia steps forward with talks of Georgia invading Abkhazia.

It’s not that the timing is too convenient, which it is, but that is might not matter. Both Georgia and Russia have a habit of badly overplaying their hand in the battle for sympathetic ears in the West. In this case, Russia has a particularly weak hand—its fondness for separatist movements appears not to extend to either Kosovo, or Chechnya (which is not doing well under the stewardship of Ramzan Kadyrov). Similarly, the blatantly political nature of its embargo on Georgian goods two years ago, along with its history of using gas prices against recalcitrant former vassals, give it relatively little leverage in these multilateral agreements.

None of this means Georgia will come out on top, or that it will actually move troops back into Abkhazia (“invade” is too strong a word, since Abkhazia is still technically a part of Georgia). But the way Georgian-Russian relations have deteriorated over the last few weeks is indeed deeply troubling; with the addition of the still-simmering tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh, is the Caucasus looking at another round of civil war?

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Inkan1969 April 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

Please clear one detail up for me.: The majority of South Ossetians want SO to join the Russian Federation, possibly uniting with North Ossetia-Alania to form one Ossetia Federal Subject of Russia. But in contrast, the majority of Abkhazians want full independence, being neither part of Georgia or Russia. Am I right?

Metin April 29, 2008 at 3:28 pm

When people today describe the status of Abkhazia, they use such phrases as: ‘between heaven and earth’, ‘between East and West’, ‘between the hammer and the anvil’, ‘between…’ – such ‘in betweenness’ correctly describes our position.

We are lost somewhere between life and death – to be or not to be, because defeat in this war would be tantamount to the annihilation of our entire nation. We have proved to be a very ‘inconvenient’ people, but despite our small numbers it is not so easy to do away with us just like that. Perhaps this too is one of our failings!

Georgian and some Russian politicians do not seek to conceal their annoyance at the ‘unruly’ Abkhazians, who as far back as in the 19th century were officially declared ‘a guilty nation’ for their repeated uprisings in defence of their freedom and honour. Today we are impeding friendly relations between Georgia and Russia, for, let us say, ‘sticking in their throats’. In other words, we are guilty for the simple reason that we still exist.

Is it really true that being part of the world-community we Abkhazians, numbering about 100,000 in Abkhazia itself, are somehow doing harm to this community? Is it possible that if mankind, having already lost in the 19th century our brothers the Ubykhs, is now to lose us Abkhazians at the close of the 20th century, it will find itself in some way enriched in the 3rd millennium A.D.?!

The fact is that people are being exterminated and the world is keeping silent… Well, almost – for such news-agencies as Reuters, AP, the BBC, whenever they refer to us, our standard epithets are ‘separatists’ and ‘rebels’… How is it that we are separatists when we are actually not separating from, or attacking, anybody? Are there any resolutions of the Abkhazian Parliament adopted before the start of the war on 14th August 1992 (or even several months afterwards) which have declared secession from Georgia? There is not one! In fact, it was the Abkhazian side that suggested building our relations with Georgia on an agreed, federative basis. Therefore, it was the Abkhazian side which came out with proposals that would actually preserve the unity of Georgia. The response was the despatch to Abkhazia of tanks, fighter-bombers and guardsmen armed to the teeth…

We are being forced to adopt a separatist-position by the real separatists reigning in Tbilisi who are busy destroying their own country. They have transported their country, the unity of which was supported by the bayonets of the Stalinist Soviet Empire, back to the feudal division of the Middle Ages. The so-called separatists from Adjaria, Mingrelia, Kakhetia (not to mention Abkhazia and [South] Ossetia) are taking up an all-round defensive position against the central power in Tbilisi. The question is: «Why are there so many ‘separatists’ in Georgia?» When Russia appealed to her own former autonomies to conclude a federative treaty, the status of autonomies and many regions, including those in the North Caucasus, were raised to the level of republics. No obstacles were put in the way of the elections of presidents in these republics or of the adoption of their national flags and other state-symbols.

But in our case the situation was quite the reverse. When we were putting forward proposals and trying to build bridges, we were repulsed and told: «Who are you? You should not even have autonomy, being so few!» This was and remains the only argument against us. So, we ‘separatists’, having been driven into a corner, have started to resist simply in order to survive, to save our women, children and old people. Try driving even a little creature into a corner – will that too be a separatist?

Freedom and independence for their own people vs dictatorship and open chauvinism towards other peoples – this is the double standard that underlies the Georgian policy in Abkhazia.

It is not by chance that in 1989 after the first Georgian-Abkhazian clashes Academician Sakharov in one of his last articles called Georgia a ‘mini-empire’ (Ogonёk 1989, 31). Later, describing the relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia, he wrote: «I tend to justify the Abkhazian position. I think we should regard with special attention the problems of small peoples: freedom and rights of big nations should not be exercised at the expense of small ones» (Znamja, 1991, No.10, p.69).

Today some people say that Abkhazia is Russia, others that it is Georgia, while the fact is that Abkhazia is Abkhazia. And at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century we want to preserve our own identity and keep our own face for the simple reason that it is ours, even if somebody else may not find it to their liking.

Joshua Foust April 29, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Inkan, what you said matches with my understanding of the contrast between the two regions. However:

Metin, I’m certainly not an expert on the Abkhazian independence movement, but it is very much a separatist movement. Officially, the territory is part of Georgia, so any independence movement by definition is a separatist movement. Similarly, they are rebelling against the Georgian government. The labels might have certain implications to them, but they are not inaccurate.

It’s also not the best idea to complain about being innocent victims after the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in 1993. There is plenty of blood and blame to go around, but very few willing to compromise to achieve a non-violent solution.

Daniel Adams April 29, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Just to take a section to potentially stoke the conspiracy fires. I don’t know how much I truly believe it, but I think it is an idea at least to present if only to effectively counter and deflect.

A lot of ideas float around about FSB/Putin/Siloviki utilizing, some say even starting, the second Russia-Chechnya conflict as a pretext to rally around the flag for Putin. Others go further and suggest the apartment bombings may even be connected to this.

As I mentioned, I don’t know how much true those theories hold, but it is been pretty clear that the nationalist card has been utilized fairly effectively. Is this another iteration? (I think the boiling in Chechnya probably isn’t, seems way too messy.) If it is another example, who is it made to help?

I think if we assume this line of thought, this event may pose some insight to the true nature of the Russian authoritarian regime (personalistic/putin vs corporatist/almost neo-soviet business & security alliance). If we assume that the regime is more personalistic, is this an opportunity for Putin to retain his power by legally / technically retain the presidency after a brief term as PM? If its more corporatist, is this a chance for Medvedev to demonstrate to the Russian people that he too is a strong leader?

Anyway, just throwing this out there for some bit of speculation. I don’t necessarily think it’s either; however, I know I am guilty (as is most of the “West”) of not seeing the larger picture in seemingly single events that later turn out to be crucial. For example, few decried early attempts to go after “unruly” oligarchs or the acquirement of media outlets. The changes to NGO laws were seen as an overstep, but even the “watered down” version eventually implemented has proven effective. I could go on, but the list gets depressingly long.


Jim April 29, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Note on the troops massing on the borders claim, this has been floating around for a few days about both sides, and the UN has said this isn’t what they are seeing:

Granted this was a week ago (geez, has this really been going on that long already?), but I see no reason at this point to believe things like this until we get some independent confirmation (which, btw, why don’t we have that? Do I need to go over there?! 😛 )

I also don’t buy it because I don’t think the Georgians have the cajones to initiate conflict with the Russians. The Georgians previously entered the Kodori gorge and re-took it, but that was mostly because it was easy pickings. Venturing further into Abkhazia wouldn’t be so simple.

And as far as the WTO thing, I dunno. That seems a little too simplistic an explanation.

Andy April 30, 2008 at 1:47 am

Jim – I think you’re right. Neither Russia nor Georgia will want to initiate an actual conflict with the other over the disputed territories.

However, I think both want to (and probably will) push each other as far as they possibly can short of provoking actual conflict. Troop movements, overflights, etc.

The danger, of course, is that provoking the other like this runs the risk of an unanticipated forceful reaction, and events spiraling out of control.

anouk April 30, 2008 at 2:07 am

you probably have no idea what u r talking about? (”I think both want to (and probably will) push each other as far as they possibly can short of provoking actual conflict”) .
Do you forget Georgians are trying to defend their land and Russians are trying to anex it! don’t u see the difference here?

Nathan April 30, 2008 at 5:58 am

Anouk, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. One of the ways that Georgia can win back control over the territory is to win the international PR battle. This, in turn, can be helped along by baiting Russia into overly aggressive acts.

Diana Friedman April 30, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Hello, regarding the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, this is inaccurate. No such genocide occured. I was a freelance reporter in the Caucasus after the fall of the USSR, and have been in Abkhazia several times. I never heard of this until recent times when I, surprisingly, found out Georgians had pushed this fabrication all the way to the OSCE and other international bodies. There was no genocide. This is a pure lie. If anything, Georgians were the ones to attack Abkhazians, who were unprepared for battle at the time, and also have had a hand in massacring hundreds if not thousands of innocent Abkhazian villages and fighters.

Would you stand aside and let your country be overrun by a people who have continuously oppressed you and denied you your basic rights solely based on your ethnicity? I doubt that. Please try to look further into this matter. Anyone who has experience in the Caucasus region or knows its history…or, someone like me, who has been there and lived among them know that this is incorrect.

Nathan April 30, 2008 at 1:44 pm

Diana, no one has said “genocide.” I know a Georgian who was among the expelled and who ended up a refugee in Tbilisi. Call it what you will, but a large number of ethnic Georgians who were living in Abkhazia ended up taking refuge in Georgia proper.

Joshua Foust April 30, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Diana, I believe the term I used was ethnic cleansing. This is to be distinguished from genocide, as genocide involves mass killings. Ethnic cleansing generally involves fewer, but more targeted, killings, along with a large scale forced expulsion. “Anyone” familiar with refugee movements and conflict zones would know the difference between them. Don’t twist my words.

As Nathan says, there is little dispute that Abkhazians ethnically cleansed their territory of ethnic Georgians.

Nathan April 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Waitaminnit. Diana, I read your comment more closely. Where in the Caucasus were you a reporter and when were you reporting from there?

I mean, come on. This blog is kind of a journalistic endeavor and I’ve been to Central Asia. Doesn’t mean that I ask you take me as the last word on something like Andijon. I wasn’t there.

And if you were really engaged in the region and didn’t hear about this until recently, you weren’t paying attention. Reporting on it from 1992-1995 isn’t too hard to find.

Oldschool Boy May 1, 2008 at 11:48 am

You sound like being brainwashed by Russian media. No offence please. Even people very far from politics and international relations, and even from the region (like myself) know that the war in Abhazia was supported, if not organized, by the Russian security. They gave money and weapons to people like Shamil Basaev, who started his terrorist career in Abhazia. Half of the fighters against georgians in Abhazia were from Russia: cossacs, chechens, people from Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and so on. They were all united by hatred to georgians and russian weapon.

Oldschool Boy May 1, 2008 at 11:50 am

Sorry, may be a half is a too strong word, but a big part.

JACK May 2, 2008 at 8:47 pm

maybe you can cut down on your blatantly anTirussia PROPAGAnda NEXT TIME???? i’N NOT HOLDING MY breAth THOUGH.

Michael Hancock May 3, 2008 at 6:17 pm

Anti-Russia Propaganda? I think La Russophobe has that covered.

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