Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - EVOLUTION OF THE WAR

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - EVOLUTION OF THE WAR

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The earliest part of the war, from August to September 1992, was fought mostly in hand-to-hand combat on the streets and beaches of Sukhumi, then the capital of Abkhazia. Georgian combatants, loosely knit groups of soldiers and marauders, murdered and intimidated the local residents, who were taken by surprise and were almost entirely unarmed, and looted and pillaged homes extensively, targeting ethnic Abkhaz. Many, mostly Abkhaz, left in those first weeks, with the result that those civilians remaining – primarily Georgians – became the target of the heavier bombardments of Sukhumi that followed the initial incursions.

As several cease-fire agreements failed almost immediately, both sides increased their arms capabilities, fortified positions around Sukhumi, and through December of 1992 launched air strikes on each other's positions in and around the capital. Georgian forces also pressed south to eliminate resistance in the Ochamchira region, and began to lay siege to the mountainous town of Tkvarcheli, a stranglehold that held for most of the war, creating a severe humanitarian crisis in that region.

Gradually, the Abkhaz side caught up in terms of firepower, and through the end of 1992 the parties engaged in see-saw fighting along the Gumista River. The fighting escalated as both sides conducted air raids. Sukhumi and environs suffered almost daily air attacks, with heavy civilian casualties. By the beginning of 1993, Abkhaz forces had retaken all of the territory between the Gumista and the Russian border to the north, including the town of Gagra, taken in a bloody assault.

A stalemate set in along the Gumista in the first half of 1993. With the assistance of Russian military equipment and logistics, Abkhaz forces launched three major assaults on Sukhumi – on January 5, in mid-March and on July 1 – but failed to take the city. Persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch who lived through that period told of relentless shelling, long months of living in cellars without access to basic supplies, and the terror of seeing neighbors and relatives fall to indiscriminate shelling. At the same time, Abkhaz villages were being terrorized by Georgian troops in the Ochamchira district. Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch recalled daily intimidation, widespread looting and house-to-house murder. The humanitarian crisis peaked in the besieged town of Tkvarcheli, where Abkhaz and a relatively large number of Russians were effectively held captive.

On July 27, 1993, both sides agreed to a cease-fire. When the political agreement appeared to take hold, the U.N. deployed several of the promised fifty military observers to the conflict zone. During the lull, the violent power struggle between the Georgian central government under Head of State Eduard Shevardnadze and supporters of his predecessor, President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, reasserted itself after having been dormant for much of the war in Abkhazia. Indeed, the degree of the military threat from Abkhazia determined at various points in the fighting whether the anti-government forces would fight alongside Shevardnadze's forces or turn their guns on them. The renewed hostilities, concentrated on Abkhazia's southern border, complicated Georgia's troop withdrawal, mandated under the cease-fire agreement. On September 16, 1993, Abkhaz troops broke the cease-fire, citing Georgia's failure to comply with the terms of the agreement, and opened an all-front attack. The sudden incursion caused a hemorrhaging of civilians from the region. Some were evacuated by sea; others fled through mountainous Svanetia, where many died of hunger and exposure. Eleven days later the Abkhaz troops had regained control of almost the entire territory of Abkhazia and returned the military situation to the status quo ante bellum - boundaries which have not changed as of this writing.

Taking advantage of the weakness of the Georgian position, anti-government forces again reasserted themselves in October, taking control of critical railroad lines and other strategic facilities in western Georgia. In apparent desperation, on October 23 Shevardnadze paved the legal way for Russian troops to help retake the railroads and other key points by approving Georgia's membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States, of which Russia is the most powerful member - a step the Georgian government had adamantly resisted since declaring independence.

Following the first round of peace negotiations on December 1, 1993, the Georgian and Abkhaz sides signed an Agreement of Understanding. Despite the formal cessation of hostilities, fighting broke out in February and March of 1994 in and around the Gali region of Abkhazia. There have also been reports of local fighting where displaced persons were attempting to repatriate. Throughout 1994, the U.N. sponsored negotiations to resolve the political status of Abkhazia, the withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhaz territory, and the repatriation of displaced persons. Representatives of Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia and the O.S.C.E. (Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) regularly participated in these negotiations. Russian peacekeeping troops entered the conflict zone in June, demining the region and opening a safety corridor along the Inguri River. After several false starts, the repatriation program, sponsored by the U.N.H.C.R., began in September 1994 but was suspended soon thereafter.

The Role of the Russian Federation in the Conflict

The conflict in Abkhazia was heightened by the involvement of Russia, mostly on the Abkhaz side, especially during the war's initial stages. Whereas Russia has endorsed the territorial integrity of the Republic of Georgia, Russian arms found their way into Abkhaz hands, Russian planes bombed civilian targets in Georgian-controlled territory, Russian military vessels, manned by supporters of the Abkhaz side, were made available to shell Georgian-held Sukhumi, and at least a handful of Russian-trained and Russian-paid fighters defended Abkhaz territory in Tkvarcheli.

The motives of Russian military involvement have been the subject of much speculation. It has been regarded by some as post-imperial meddling, as genuine humanitarianism by others, and by still others as something in-between. The Russian role in this conflict has in part foreshadowed the brutal Russian behavior in Chechnya, and has contributed to a pattern of Russian disregard for human rights and violations of the laws of war.

Our sole purpose in investigating Russia's military involvement is to determine the extent to which it was responsible for committing violations of the laws of war and assisted abusive parties in committing atrocities; and determine as well at what level of military command abuse was permitted, or even ordered to be carried out. Our focus on Russian involvement in the war should in no way detract from the responsibility of the major combatant parties for human rights abuses.

Russia has played a decisive role in determining the course and outcome of the war in Abkhazia, both positive and negative, because it has immediate stakes in the conduct of military action and its outcome. Stability in the region is important to Russia, which shares a border with Georgia, including Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a fertile area, and a treasured resort spot, particularly for the Moscow elite. Russia has also sought to protect ethnic Russians living in the region.

Throughout the conflict, Moscow maintained official neutrality, condemned human rights violations, and imposed sanctions on both Georgia and Abkhazia in response to their misconduct. It also provided essential humanitarian assistance, such as delivering emergency supplies, particularly to areas where there was a significant Russian minority in jeopardy, and evacuating civilians trapped in the fighting. From the first days of the war, Russia assigned diplomats to facilitate the peace process, and in 1994 deployed peacekeeping troops to enforce the cease-fire. Its military facilities and personnel, stationed in Georgia since before the break-up of the Soviet Union, came under attack and eventually Moscow gave the order to return fire.

Numerous Russian foreign policy statements have shown that Russia perceives special prerogatives and responsibilities for itself throughout the former Soviet Union. These prerogatives are legalized through bilateral accords and through a series of agreements that link almost all of the former Soviet republics under the rubric of the Commonwealth of Independent States. At the beginning of the outbreak of hostilities in Abkhazia, the Georgian leadership had consistently opposed joining the C.I.S., fearing it would impinge on Georgia's hard-won independence. Additional treaties regulating bilateral military relations with Russia, including the fate of Russian bases on Georgian soil, had not yet been finalized. Some analysts argue that a Georgian defeat was in Russia's strategic interest because it would make Georgia more willing to grant Russia military and political concessions. With the cessation of hostilities, Georgia has indeed acceded to the C.I.S. treaty, agreed to allow Russia to maintain three military bases in G