Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - CIVIL WAR IN GEORGIA

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - CIVIL WAR IN GEORGIA

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Although fighting did not begin in the Abkhaz conflict until August 1992, political events in Georgia during at least the two preceding years paved the way for open war.[9] First among these were the armed conflict between Georgia and its northern region of South Ossetia which broke out in 1991. Like Abkhazia later, South Ossetia was seeking autonomy from Georgia, and the Georgian central government fought to prevent its secession. Peacekeeping forces were introduced to South Ossetia, and after the fighting died down, the parties have pursued a political solution to the conflict through negotiation.

The other contributive event was the civil war between forces for and against then-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, which was playing itself out in the Georgian capital and in Mingrelia, Gamsakhurdia's home province and the main base of his support.[10] Mingrelia is important also because it borders Abkhazia to the south. As a show of solidarity against the Abkhaz, supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia periodically threw in their lot with the government forces during the conflict.

Eduard Shevardnadze's inability to control the country's armed formations, when he became head of state in March 1992 following Gamsakhurdia's ouster in January of that year, was another factor contributing to the outbreak of war. Abkhaz rebels moved independently to take advantage of the opportunity presented by political disarray in Georgia.

In April 1991, the Republic of Georgia declared itself independent of the Soviet Union.[11] The following month, in May 1991, Gamsakhurdia was elected president of Georgia with about 86 percent of the vote. A philologist by training, Gamsakhurdia had stature within Georgia by reason of having been a dissident and political prisoner in the Soviet Union, and because his father, Konstantine, was a prominent writer.

Within months of his election as president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia became "increasingly dictatorial" in his methods of governance, "arresting political opponents, imposing censorship of the media, and blaming Moscow for any manifestations of dissent."[12] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki repeatedly expressed concern during this period about human rights violations committed during the Gamsakhurdia regime.[13]

The formation of a broad range of political armed groups in Georgia, including extreme nationalist organizations along paramilitary lines (which played so important a role in the subsequent Abkhaz conflict), predated Georgia's formal independence from the Soviet Union by several years. In the late 1980s, there were numerous, mostly small paramilitary groups in Georgia; one estimate claims 60,000 total volunteers in paramilitary groups by early 1990.[14] In 1990, the principal paramilitary organization was the Mkhedrioni, established by Jaba Ioseliani in 1989, as a black-uniformed, extreme nationalist militia under his personal control, although "by late 1990 ... it had fallen foul of Gamsakhurdia. Ioseliani was subsequently jailed [in February 1991], while Mkhedrioni activity was barred."[15]

In the meantime, the Gamsakhurdia government in early 1991 formally established a National Guard, sworn to defend "Georgian territorial integrity, constitutional rights, and the freedoms of its citizens."[16] Although the National Guard was originally set up as a force loyal to the Gamsakhurdia government, within a few short months in 1991, internal factionalism centered around Gamsakhurdia's increasing authoritarianism brought its main element, commanded by Tengiz Kitovani, into opposition against the Georgian president. Elements remaining loyal to Gamsakhurdia increasingly became identified with him on the basis of region, rather than politics.

Kitovani and his faction of the National Guard broke for good with Gamsakhurdia when, in August 1991, Kitovani reportedly refused an order to open fire on demonstrators in the capital city Tbilisi, who were demanding new elections. For a period of some six weeks thereafter, "Tbilisi was the scene of mass pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia demonstrations that petered out only when [Kitovani's] rebel faction of the National Guard withdrew from the capital."[17] On December 20, 1991, the political opposition to Gamsakhurdia issued new calls for his resignation. When the president ignored them, Kitovani's National Guard, together with members of Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni, launched an "all-out attack on the Georgian parliament building, where the president had gone to ground," leaving considerable parts of downtown Tbilisi in ruins, as they remain today.[18] This was the beginning of the Georgian civil war.

On January 6, 1992, Gamsakhurdia fled Tbilisi, eventually settling in Chechnya. (Chechnya, the neighboring republic in southern Russia that had declared independence from Moscow the previous year, came into open armed conflict with Russia over its status within the Russian Federation in December 1994.) The fighting that toppled Gamsakhurdia was in effect a coup by Kitovani's National Guard and Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni. Never renouncing the presidency, however, Gamsakhurdia continued to fight against the subsequent Shevardnadze government with his supporters until his death of uncertain causes on or around December 31, 1993 – albeit with lulls and occasional periods of cease-fire established in the interests of a common Georgian front against the Abkhazians.


Shevardnadze returned to Tbilisi from Moscow in March 1992, declaring his motives to be patriotic and saying he had a moral obligation to help as best he could in a time of crisis.[19] In March 1992 he became head of a new State Council, which replaced the Military Council, established by Kitovani and Ioseliani; his official title at that time was chairman of the State Council Presidium, and Kitovani and Ioseliani were appointed deputy chairmen along with former prime minister Tengiz Sigua. Because of his efforts as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under President Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist leadership, Shevardnadze's return to Georgia brought a certain international legitimacy, and his government was soon granted recognition by the United Nations and almost the entire international community.

But Shevardnadze's ascension did not bring internal stability; real military power continued to be exercised by Kitovani, who retained command of the National Guard, and Ioseliani, whose Mkhedrioni effectively became an arm of the state.[20] To deal with continuing support for Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze imposed press censorship and detained some opponents. This did not stop the continuing civil war, however; in Mingrelia (on the Abkhaz border), armed Gamsakhurdia supporters continued hit-and-run attacks, blew up bridges, and disrupted rail traffic.[21]

In a bid for political legitimacy, Shevardnadze scheduled parliamentary elections for October 11, 1992, which Gamsakhurdia promptly announced he and his supporters would boycott as unconstitutional. Central to the October 1992 election was the provision of a "parliamentary chairman," who was not part of any of the forty-seven parties registered to put up candidates; the sole candidate for the post was Shevardnadze himself.[22] Shevardnadze won the October 1992 election with 96 percent of a vote that, as one commentator noted, "enhanced Shevardnadze's international prestige without substantially augmenting his authority."[23]

A cease-fire was reached in late 1993 with the pro-Gamsakhurdia side, and in July 1994, the head of the pro-Gamsakhurdia paramilitary group, Vakhtang "Loti" Kobalia, was arrested on criminal charges, effectively decapitating the armed political opposition. Acts of violence in the power struggle have all but ceased.


The October 1992 election was overshadowed by the outbreak of war in Abkhazia in August. The history of Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian relations is long, and the facts subject to disputations by experts for one side or the other.

Russia annexed Abkhazia in the time of the tsars, in 1864. Four years after the Russian Revolution, in March 1921, Abkhazia was proclaimed an independent Union republic in the USSR, separate from the Union republic of Georgia. Later that year, however, Abkhazia became part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia as a result of the Treaty of Union between Georgia and Abkhazia, although Abkhazia retained its status as a Union republic until the early 1930s. In 1925 Abkhazia adopted its own constitution and existed for decades in federated status in the Georgian republic.

In 1978, Abkhazia tried unsuccessfully to secede from the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic and become incorporated into the Russian Federation. Twelve years later, in 1990, an amendment to the Abkhaz constitution was adopted – with the agreement of the Georgian Union republic parliament in Tbilisi – establishing ethnic quotas for elected representatives to the local Abkhazian assembly: Abkhazians would receive an automatic minimum of twenty-eight deputies, Georgians twenty-six, and the "Russian- speaking population" eleven.

Objections to the ethnic quota law caused a reversal of policy in the Georgian Supreme Soviet, which in August 1990 adopted an election law prohibiting the participation of locally based parties, including the Abkhaz Popular Front (the Aydgylara). In response, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet declared the Abkhaz republic independent of the Georgian republic; the government of Georgia refused to recognize the declaration. In December 1990, an Abkhaz parliament was formed.

In March 1991, Georgia boycotted the all-Union referendum on preserving the USSR. The Abkhaz republic (or at least the ethnic Abkhaz population) took part in the referendum, rejecting the boycott; among that population, the treaty preserving the USSR passed with a reported 98 percent of the vote. Later that same year, in November, Abkhaz representatives joined an agreement of confederation with "thirteen peoples of the North Caucasus and Abkhazia."[24] The Georgian government did not recognize the declaration. Instead, in February 1992, it announced a return to the 1921 constitution, which, if made effective, would have reduced Abkhaz legal autonomy by eliminating its confederated status with Georgia. A few months later, Georgian deputies in the Abkhaz republic's parliament in Sukhumi announced they would boycott the assembly; ethnic Abkhazians and ethnic Georgians each then formed rival local Abkhazian parliaments, boycotting each other's votes.

On June 23, 1992, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet passed a resolution purporting to terminate the validity of the 1978 Abkhaz constitution, thereby returning to the 1925 constitution, which established Abkhazia merely in federation with Georgia. One month later, on July 23, 1992, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet declared sovereignty under the 1925 constitution.

Following several tense days in Sukhumi in June 1992, in which armed groups assaulted the Minister of Internal Affairs of Abkhazia in his office,[25] the Georgian government under Shevardnadze (which had just survived an attempted coup by Gamsakhurdia's supporters in Tbilisi)[26] announced a "political warning strike" by radio, demanding the dissolution of the Abkhaz parliament, the resignation of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic government, and new elections for the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet.[27] The Georgian government cut electricity and telephone service to the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi for several hours on July 1, 1992, as part of its pressure campaign.[28]

The next day, on July 2, an agreement was reached between Georgian and Abkhaz representatives subordinating all armed forces on the territory of Abkhazia to the Georgian Defense Ministry, although day-to-day control was to be exercised by the Abkhaz parliament and a military coordinating council. The Georgian Defense Ministry, however, was little more than a paper entity, since the real fighting forces in Georgia (nominally under the command of Shevardnadze's civilian government) were Kitovani's National Guard and Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni. Mid-July 1992 through August 1992 saw a series of armed actions in the civil war by Gamsakhurdia supporters which ultimately had great bearing on the outbreak of the Abkhaz war. On July 6, 1992, Gamsakhurdia forces reportedly blew up two bridges in western Georgia and laid siege to a school building where Mkhedrioni fighters were garrisoned; the siege was finally broken by other Georgian troops.

Still more importantly, on July 9, 1992, Chairman of the Georgian governmental Committee for Human Rights and Interethnic Relations and key negotiator Aleksandre Kavsadze and other government officials were taken hostage by Gamsakhurdia forces and held in their home territory of Mingrelia in northwest Georgia near Abkhaz territory. On August 11, 1992, Georgian Interior Minister Roman Gventsadze and ten other Georgian officials, who had gone to the town of Zugdidi in western Georgia, a region of Gamsakhurdia supporters, to negotiate the release of Kavsadze and other Georgian government hostages, were themselves taken hostage by Gamsakhurdia's forces.[29] It appeared that the hostages were held in Kokhra village, in the Gali region of Abkhazia.[30] The Abkhaz interior minister, after unsuccessfully negotiating for the hostages' release, announced that Georgian and Abkhaz soldiers would jointly conduct an operation to release the hostages.[31] Meanwhile, on August 13, 1992, the Georgian Interior Ministry Press Center announced that Georgian police officers were forming combat units under the command of Kitovani to go and free the hostages.[32]

On the night of August 13-14, 1992, a mechanized battalion of the Georgian National Guard, commanded by Kitovani and comprised reportedly of about 1,000 men, five tanks, a helicopter, and ten cannon entered the Gali region of Abkhazia, avowedly for the purpose of releasing the thirteen Georgian government hostages. However, the Georgian battalion went on from villages of the Gali region to the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi where, as detailed in the next chapter, it attacked Abkhaz government buildings and proceeded, after fierce but disorganized fighting, to take the city. Thus open warfare began in Abkhazia.