Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - RUSSIAN INTERESTS AT THE OUTSET OF HOSTILITIES

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - RUSSIAN INTERESTS AT THE OUTSET OF HOSTILITIES

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The Russian Federation was drawn into the conflict in a number of ways. The resort towns along the Abkhaz coastline, including Sukhumi, were filled with tourists, many Russian, who on the afternoon of the attack were literally lying on the beaches. Most were able to flee north along the coastal highway toward the Russian border at the town of Sochi.[54] On August 16, Russian paratroopers began to evacuate civilians from the conflict.[55] By August 20, nearly 10,000 civilians had been evacuated by sea by the Russian Black Sea fleet.[56]

Russian forces also faced pressure and sometimes outright attacks on their military installations, at Batumi, Vaziani (near Tbilisi), Gudauta, Poti and Akhalkalaki, the defense research center at Eshera, and personnel by both sides, most often in an effort to seize weapons. Although for a variety of reasons, ranging from corruption to sympathy for one side or the other (typically for the Abkhaz), there was leakage of weapons from these facilities, the official Russian government position was one of neutrality. Russia became less tolerant of armed raids on its installations and began to enunciate a policy of forcible neutrality, declaring that its installations would be defended with force – as they were on several occasions as the conflict went on.[57] At the same time, pursuant to pre-existing bilateral agreements with the Georgian government, the Russian government turned over to the Georgians several large military facilities, including the Akhaltsikhe motorized rifle division on September 22.[58]

From the outset, Russia called upon both sides to negotiate, though the Russian Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution on August 25, as fighting continued and cease-fires brokered by the Russian government did not hold, accusing Georgia of provoking the armed conflict by its military incursion. Days later, the Russians had mediated an agreement between Shevardnadze and the Abkhaz leadership, signed on September 3, 1992, which provided for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the conflict zone.[59]

In keeping with this official position of neutrality, the Russian procuracy initiated criminal proceedings against the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus as an unregistered association "for inciting national discord, carrying out terrorist acts and taking hostages."[60] Under pressure from the Russians, agreement was reached on August 26 for the withdrawal of non- Abkhaz volunteers from the Confederation. Two days later, on August 28, Russian helicopters landed in Abkhaz-controlled Gudauta to take the first hundred mostly Chechen fighters out.

In addition, the Russian government consistently saw itself as having a humanitarian role to play in the conflict. The rescue operations conducted by the Black Sea fleet in the first days of the fighting were not limited to the evacuation of Russian nationals. On September 22, the Russians brokered an agreement for the distribution of Russian humanitarian aid to both sides.[61] Later in the war, Russian humanitarian assistance proved crucial in the evacuation of Georgian refugees from areas retaken by the Abkhaz. It was also crucial in relieving the suffering of civilians in the mountain town of Tkvarkcheli, held by the Abkhaz and besieged by the Georgians.


The military situation of the opening weeks of the conflict was characterized by Georgian forces exercising control of Abkhaz territory. Because of the ethnic make-up of the population, both Georgian and Abkhaz forces were operating among both hostile and friendly population groups. This fact inevitably figures in the pattern of human rights abuses committed over the course of the conflict, because it establishes both parties' incentives to drive civilian populations from one place to another.

Within days after Sukhumi was taken by Georgian National Guard troops, and as additional Georgian forces flowed into the city (including the Mkhedrioni), a pattern of vicious, ethnically based pillage, looting, assault, and murder emerged.[62] Although some of the victims in Sukhumi were Georgian, the city's Abkhaz residents were the main victims during this period of the conflict. No one disputes that all sides engaged in high levels of criminality. One young Abkhaz refugee told Human Rights Watch, for example:

On September 13, Georgian guardsmen came to my neighbors on the ninth floor. I live on the sixth floor. They were yelling, so I heard everything. They said: "Give us your gold!" My Georgian neighbors went up to them and said: "Why are you doing this?" They answered: "They are Abkhaz and we can do what we like." The next morning I left. I was unable to leave earlier because of my child, who is nine. I left everything behind. I took just a small bag with the bare necessities for the child. Mkhedrioni would drive around at night and shoot out the windows. They would yell: "Abkhaz!...This is your death!" They would [also] go out on the balconies and just throw things off: crystal, dishware, [you name it]."[63]

Another Abkhaz refugee from Sukhumi reported to Human Rights Watch, in an account typical of many others, that a few days after the invasion was over, armed men broke into his house at night and threatened him with death if he did not leave Sukhumi. He reported that after they smashed his possessions and beat him up, he decided to flee.[64]

Another refugee family described how drunken men broke into their apartment firing automatic weapons and telling them to leave Sukhumi "forever, because Sukhumi is Georgian." The family claimed that the soldiers stole jewelry, assaulted the husband, and then threw them all out into the street. The same witnesses reported seeing dead civilians, including women and elderly people, in the street, although fighting had been over for days.[65]

The pattern that emerges from refugee testimony taken by Human Rights Watch is one of gross intimidation by Georgian forces for the purpose of terrorizing, robbing and driving the Abkhaz population out of their homes. While the Georgian forces appeared to be operating under no particular command, they did seem to have a clear agenda. They roamed through the city at will, especially at night, looting and pillaging. While political negotiations took place in Moscow, armed Georgian men poured daily into Sukhumi, intoxicated by a heady mixture of nationalism and privateering. The first of many cease-fire agreements, signed August 16, called for Georgian troops to withdraw from the conflict zone; fighters in Sukhumi therefore had plenty of incentive to take whatever loot they could with them at every opportunity.

Many of the Georgian fighters were from Abkhazia themselves. Whereas eyewitness accounts emphasize that some local Georgians assisted and protected ethnic Abkhaz during the course of the conflict, sometimes at great personal risk, many local Georgians proved to be among the most stubborn and cruel fighters on the Georgian side. In part this was because they saw themselves as fighting to protect their homes and families. But once Georgian forces held sway over most of the territory, these fighters had a different aim as well: to make clear that Abkhazia would always be part of Georgia, and that the Abkhaz were an ethnic minority even in Abkhazia.

Many of the Georgians of Abkhazia, on the evidence of Human Rights Watch interviews, bitterly resented earlier political concessions made by the central government in far-away Tbilisi that gave the minority Abkhaz a guaranteed majority in the local Abkhaz parliament. The ethnic Abkhaz had exercised that majority, in the view of the local Georgians, to oppress the non-Abkhaz. Clearly, there were political scores to settle in Sukhumi, not the least of which was, in the eyes of many local Georgians, to prove that Sukhumi was subordinate to Tbilisi.

The Abkhaz population thus lived in terror of fighters from elsewhere in Georgia but also of its neighbors. Over the course of a few weeks, most Abkhaz fled Sukhumi. Those who remained were often the elderly who tried to stay in their family homes either because they had nowhere else to go or because they thought their presence might deter looters and squatters.

On August 20, 1992, the Georgian military commander of Sukhumi, Maj.-Gen. Giorgi Gulua, ordered troops to shoot looters on the spot; it had little effect, however, on pillage in the city.[66] Interviews with eyewitnesses suggest that crimes at this point in the conflict were largely committed by Georgian fighters against Abkhaz civilians. There has been little or no effort, then or now, to make individual fighters or their commanders accountable for these crimes. The Georgian political leadership, while expressing regret for these actions, has done almost nothing to pursue their perpetrators.

In addition to the looting, Abkhaz cultural monuments (the city was the cultural as well as political capital of Abkhazia) were destroyed in a manner that suggests deliberate targeting. University buildings were sacked, and museum and other cultural collections broken up. The irreplaceable Abkhaz national archives were set upon and burned by Georgian forces; reportedly, local firefighters did not attempt to douse the blaze. These are serious crimes for which no accountability has been sought by Georgian authorities.[67]