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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Russian FM: On the origins of the situation around Abkhazia and South Ossetia

In 1810 Abkhazia voluntarily joined the Russian Empire as a self-governing principality, separately from Georgia. Following the wars in the Caucasus in the second half of the 19th century, some indigenous people left Abkhazia and its territory became an attractive ground for Georgia's expansion. Georgia's nationalistic circles intensified their activities to establish control over Abkhazia after the break-up of the Russian Empire.

1) In 1810 Abkhazia voluntarily joined the Russian Empire as a self-governing principality, separately from Georgia. Following the wars in the Caucasus in the second half of the 19th century, some indigenous people left Abkhazia and its territory became an attractive ground for Georgia's expansion. Georgia's nationalistic circles intensified their activities to establish control over Abkhazia after the break-up of the Russian Empire. In May 1918, the newly established Georgian Democratic Republic, supported by German troops, occupied and annexed Abkhazia.

On 31 March 1921, following the establishment of the Soviet rule, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was proclaimed. Two months later, the new authorities of Georgia recognized its independence.

The Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia took part in the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a sovereign state, and its representative signed the Treaty on the Establishment of the USSR in December 1922.

Starting from February 1922 and until February 1931, the SSR of Abkhazia was united with the SSR of Georgia on an equal basis to form a common State and was called "The Treaty-based SSR of Abkhazia". However, in February 1931, by the order of Joseph Stalin and against the will of the Abkhaz people the Treaty-based SSR of Abkhazia was transformed into an autonomous republic and was made part of the Georgian SSR. The encroachment upon the sovereign rights of Abkhazia and its lowered status of an autonomy within Georgia resulted then in a public outrage and a national gathering, which vehemently protested such decision.

From 1937 one of the darkest periods in the contemporary history of Abkhazia started. Lavrentiy Beria initiated a wave of terror and repressions in the Republic in order to annihilate the political and intellectual elite of the Abkhaz people. The policy of intensified Georgianisation was pursued: Georgian script was imposed instead of the Abkhaz writing, original Abkhaz names were changed to Georgian ones, teaching in schools was in the Georgian language, the Abkhaz population was prohibited from calling themselves a people, a purposeful policy of resettlement was pursued with a view to altering the ethnic and demographic composition of the population. During the period from 1937 to 1953, tens of thousands of Georgians were moved from Georgia to Abkhazia, which considerably increased their share in the population of Abkhazia. The Abkhaz people had difficulties with making a career unless they changed their names so that they sounded as Georgian ones.

2) Developments around Ossetia took place along the same lines. In 1774, the Ossetian people with all their lands voluntarily became subjects of the Russian Empire, and in 1843 an Ossetian district of the Tiflis province (gubernia) was established in the southern part of Ossetia, which formed part of the administrative and territorial system of Russia.

Following the break-up of the Russian Empire in 1917, Georgia's leadership made an attempt to annex the southern part of Ossetia by force, in response to its willingness to stay within Russia. In 1920, it was subjected to an armed aggression accompanied by the most cruel repressions and genocide (approximately 20 thousand people were killed, more than 50 thousand were ousted to the North beyond the Greater Caucasus Range). In Soviet times, Ossetian people were subjected to the same oppressions and discrimination as the Abkhaz people.

Following the establishment of the USSR, South Ossetia was made part of Georgia as the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, while North Ossetia was made part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

3) In the period of the Soviet Union's disintegration the then Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia set out to create a unitary national state. Under the slogan "Georgia for Georgians" he declared: "We should deport Ossetians to Russia, we should divide Abkhazian territory, we should abolish Adzhariya's autonomy as there should be no autonomies in the territory of Georgia where only the title nation should rule".

On 17 March 1991, South-Ossetians took part in the referendum on the future of the USSR where 98 percent of the population voted in favor of preserving the Union. It should be noted that the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had banned the referendum in the territory of Georgia violating once again the existing legislation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of South Ossetia almost unanimously voted, in a referendum that took place on 19 January 1992, for the independence of South Ossetia. On 29 May 1992, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of South Ossetia adopted the Act on State Independence.

On 23 July 1992, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia pronounced Abkhazia a sovereign state, a subject of international law. At the same time, the Parliament of Abkhazia invited the leadership of Georgia to start negotiations on establishing equal relations on the basis of a federal agreement.

In response to a refusal by South Ossetia and Abkhazia to submit to Tbilisi's dictate, the Georgian leadership decided to use force to bend them to will.

The hostilities started by the Georgian authorities against South Ossetia killed more than three thousand people in 1990-91, with more than 40 thousand Ossetians fleeing to North Ossetia. Over one hundred South-Ossetian villages were burned down.

As a result of the war against Abkhazia, started by the Georgian leadership in 1992, more than seven thousand people were killed and 200 to 250 thousand people (predominantly Georgians) (out of 550 thousand people who lived in Abkhazia before the war) became refugees.

4) After the aggressive wars against Abkhazia and South Ossetia were stopped, at the cost of lives of many Abkhazians and South-Ossetians, Russia has actively facilitated a process to resolve the conflict and establish negotiating mechanisms.

At their meeting on 24 June 1992 in Sochi, the President of Russia Boris N. Yeltsin and President of Georgia Eduard A. Shevardnadze signed an Agreement on the Principles for Resolving the Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict under which a peace-keeping operation in South Ossetia was started on 14 July 1992: the Mixed Peacekeeping Forces (MPF) in the Zone of Conflict between Georgia and Ossetia comprised of the Russian, Georgian and Ossetian battalions entered the conflict zone. The Sochi Agreement also set up a Mixed Control Commission for Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Resolution (MCC). The OSCE began its participation in the MCC as an observer.

Attempting to resolve the problem by military means, in June-August 2004 the Georgian side used force against South Ossetia in gross violation of the aforementioned Agreement.

On 5 November 2004, a meeting was held in Sochi with Russian mediation between the Prime-Minister of Georgia Zurab Zhvania and the President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity. As an outcome of the meeting, a statement was signed which, in particular, anchored a cease-fire and contained an obligation to withdraw all illegal armed formations from the conflict zone.

Eduard Kokoity agreed with the three-stage conflict resolution plan initiated by Zurab Zhvania and presented by the Georgian leadership in the autumn of 2004 at the 59 UN GA session, thus demonstrating openness to a negotiated settlement of the problem, including the status issues. However, after Zurab Zhvania was killed in mysterious circumstances early in 2005, Mikheil N. Saakashvili abandoned the three-stage plan that opened the road to a Georgia-South Ossetia Agreement.

On 12 December 2005, the President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity made another attempt to reach a compromise. He presented to Mikheil N. Saakashvili and the OSCE a proposal that they start, jointly with the Georgian side within the framework of the MCC, working out a single program of actions to resolve the conflict. Georgia's Prime-Minister Zurab Nogaideli positively responded to this initiative, and a relevant accord was reflected in MCC documents signed by Georgy Khaindrava, State Minister for Conflict Resolution. This approach was supported by the OSCE, whose representatives also favored the signing of a document on the non-use of force by Tbilisi and Tskhinval.

However, the Georgian side again radically changed its position. Georgy Khaindrava was dismissed while the new State Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze refused to continue working on a joint program at the MCC meeting held in Moscow on 17-18 August 2006, stating that a settlement should be based on the unilateral approaches offered by the Georgian leadership. Thus, the negotiation process was deadlocked by the Georgian side which subsequently withdrew totally from the work in the MCC.

On 12 November 2006, South Ossetia held another independence referendum and elections of the Republic's president (Eduard Kokoity was reelected by an overwhelming majority of votes). At the same time, in some Georgian villages of South Ossetia Tbilisi organized provocative "alternative elections" and a "referendum", on the basis of which a puppet authority headed by Dmitry Sanakoev were formed.

Starting from the end of June 2007, Georgia intensified its efforts to build up its presence in the conflict zone and around it.

On 7 August 2007, the Georgian side accused Russia of violating Georgia's airspace and firing an air-to-ground missile in the area of the Georgian radar situated in the Georgia-Ossetia conflict zone and staged a noisy anti-Russian campaign in the international arena. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and the Russian Air Force General Headquarters refuted the accusation. Russian experts who visited Tbilisi on 16-17 August 2007 concluded that what was involved was a blunt anti-Russia provocation. The so-called "material evidence" presented to our experts turned out to be parts of different missiles. The Georgian side refused to continue a joint investigation.

On 4 March 2008, the Parliament of South Ossetia addressed the UN Secretary-General, the President of Russia, as well as the EU and CIS heads of States with a request to recognize the Republic’s independence.

5) The situation around the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict followed a similar scenario. On 14 May 1994, the Agreement on the Ceasefire and Separation of Forces was signed in Moscow between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides with Russian mediation. Starting from June 1994, the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Forces (CIS CPF) were deployed in the conflict zone on the basis of this document and the subsequent decision of the Council of the CIS Heads of States. The UN Security Council established the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).

In 1994, the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia (GFG) with the participation of Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, France and the USA was established. Russia also received the status of facilitator in the UN SC resolution.

On 19 January 1996, the Council of the CIS Heads of States adopted a decision on Measures for the Settlement of the Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia, that imposed restrictions regarding official trade and economic, financial, transport and other operations with Abkhazia.

On 6-7 March 2003, a meeting was held in Sochi between Vladimir V. Putin, President of Russia, and Eduard A. Shevarnadze, President of Georgia, with the participation of the Abkhaz side. It was decided to set up three working groups with the participation of Russia, Georgia and Abkhazia: 1) on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the Gali region; 2) on the renewal of direct Sochi-Sukhum-Tbilisi railway communication; 3) on upgrading of the Inguri hydroelectric facilities.

Yet the on-going work on these tracks was disrupted after Mikheil N. Saakashvili came to power in Georgia.

In 2004-2005, Georgian coast-guard boats seized or shot at Turkish freight vessels en route to Abkhazia on several occasions. In that context, Sukhum suspended its participation in the negotiations process.

On 18 June 2006, the Georgian parliament adopted a statement that the activities of peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia presented one of the main obstacles for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In that context, the Georgian government was tasked to begin the termination of peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to suspend relevant international treaties and the activities of agencies, as well as immediately withdraw the CIS CPF contingents from Georgia and replace them with international police forces.

In July 2006, the situation in the upper Kodori valley deteriorated, where in contravention of the 1994 Moscow Agreement police and military units of Georgia were deployed. The government of Georgia announced the launch of a police operation in the Kodori valley to "restore the constitutional order".

On 13 April 2007, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1752 that stressed the stabilizing role of the CIS peacekeeping force, called on the Georgian side to bring the situation in the upper Kodori valley in line with the 1994 Moscow Agreement, as well as to finalize without delay the document between Tbilisi and Sukhumi on the non-use of violence and on the return of refugees and IDPs.

Having ignored the provisions of the UN SC resolution 1752, the Georgian side continued to build up its army and police presence in the upper Kodori valley, increasing its strength to 2,500 by August 2008.

Between August 2007 and March 2008, UNOMIG military observers registered 26 flights of UAVs over the territory of Abkhazia, conducting reconnaissance in violation of the 1994 Moscow Agreement and the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Thus, the Georgian side blocked the negotiation process and made it impossible to agree on the terms of ensuring security and normal social and economic development of Abkhazia and addressing the most pressing problems facing its population.

In that context, on 6 March 2008, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia sent an official note to the CIS Executive Committee that, in view of the changed situation, Russia considered itself to be no longer bound by the provisions of the Decision of the CIS Council of the Heads of States on Measures for the Settlement of the Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia, of 19 January 1996 banning official trade and economic, financial, transport, and other operations with Abkhazia. By the way, the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General for Georgia had repeatedly recommended to lift economic sanctions against Abkhazia.

The UN SC supported this recommendation in its resolution 1781 of 15 October 2007.

On 16 April 2008, Vladimir V. Putin requested the Government of the Russian Federation, federal executive bodies and executive bodies of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation to ensure comprehensive protection of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens of the Russian Federation, residing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To this end, cooperation was pursued with de-facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including in trade and economic and social spheres, as well as science and technology, information, culture and education.

Due to constant provocations on the part of Georgia, its destabilizing activities, as well as escalation of tension in the area of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, on 29 April 2008 the Russian side decided to strengthen the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Forces within the limits set forth in the Decision of the CIS Council of Heads of States of 22 August 1994.

In the course of his interviews with Mikheil N. Saakashvili on 6 June 2008 in Saint-Petersburg and on 6 July 2008 in Astana, President Dmitry Medvedev called on Georgia to sign an agreement on the non-use of force and security safeguards with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to conclude an arrangement on the withdrawal of Georgian troops and police forces from upper Kodori valley and de-escalation of the situation there.

6) The night of 7-8 August 2008 marked the culmination of the provocation policy on the part of Tbilisi. The Georgian side unleashed military actions against South Ossetia using heavy armament and military equipment (aviation, tanks, howitzers, multiple rocket launchers) despite the assurances on the non-use of force made by Mikheil N. Saakashvili a few hours earlier.

The headquarters of the Mixed Peacekeeping Forces (MPF) was heavily attacked, the fire was aimed at the JPKF observation posts, living quarters, graveyards, and cultural monuments. The shells also hit the OSCE office with the Organization's observers. On 8 August, in the day time, the Georgian troops entered Tskhinval. The Georgian military personnel from the JPKF who had abandoned their positions before the attack on Tskhinval joined in the actions of the Georgian army and opened fire on their comrades-in-arms from the peacekeeping contingent.

In order to repel the Georgian attack and to comply with the commitments of Russia under the 1992 Agreement and use the right of self-defense, in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, the units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation entered South Ossetia to help the Russian peacekeepers. After the liberation of South Ossetia and suppression of Georgian positions which were bombing its territory on 12 August 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, decided to conclude the operation since it has achieved its objectives. The security of our peacekeeping forces and civil population was restored.

On 10 August 2008, in the context of the attack of Georgian military forces on South Ossetia and exposure of plans for a similar operation against Abkhazia, a Russian military force was sent to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. The main task of the Force was to exclude a repetition of the situation, when Russian peacekeepers were killed in Tskhinval as a result of the Georgian attack on 8 August 2008, prevent the expansion of military operations to the Abkhaz territory, protect Russian citizens and other civilians, and to prevent a humanitarian disaster.

On 12 August, the Abkhaz side started an operation to force the Georgian armed formations from the Kodori valley and establish its control over the upper Kodori valley. On 13 August, the Valley was transferred under the responsibility of the civil administration of the Gulripsh district of Abkhazia.

64 Russian military personnel were killed as a result of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, including 12 peacekeepers, and more than 323 were wounded. Civilians comprised about 1,500 victims. Tens of thousands of South Ossetian civilians lost their homes, were deprived of water and food. Within four days 35 thousand refugees crossed the Russian border.

On 25 August 2008, both Chambers of the Russian Federal Assembly unanimously adopted their statements in support of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recommended the executive branch to implement all procedures necessary for its recognition by the Russian side in response to the official request of Tskhinval and Sukhum.

On 26 August 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, signed Decrees on the recognition of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the Russian Federation.

7) When Mikheil N. Saakeshvili came to power, militarization in Georgia reached a scale that exceeded the defense needs of the country and covered almost every sphere of the military development.

In 2007, the military personnel of the Georgian army exceeded 32,000 which is twice as much as the “optimal number” recommended to Georgia by US experts in 2005. In July 2008, the Armed Forces of Georgia reached 37,000.

Georgia is the world’s leader in terms of growth of military expenditures. While in 2002, its defense budget was 18 million US dollars, in 2007 it actually reached 900 million US dollars. Thus, over the last six years Georgia’s military expenditures increased fifty-fold. The state budget for 2008 earmarked about 780 million US dollars for the needs of the Georgian Defense Ministry. In July 2008, the Georgia's Parliament approved amendments to the state budget that increased military expenditures to 997 million US dollars (7 percent of the GDP or 20 percent of the state expenditures).

The acquisition of offensive weapons sharply increased in 2005-2008. From 1 January 2005 through 1 January 2008, the number of tanks in the Georgian army increased from 98 to 183, armored combat vehicles (ACV) – from 83 to 134, artillery pieces with a caliber over 100 mm – from 96 to 238, combat helicopters – from 3 to 9, combat aircraft – from 7 to 9. This estimate is made only on the basis of official data provided by Georgia in the framework of the CFE Treaty. The real picture is even more serious taking into account the extensive information on wide-scale illegal shipments of offensive weapons to Georgia.

Many NATO countries and several other states have consistently provided large-scale military assistance to Georgia, with the military equipment supplied free of charge or at a low price.

According to official data, the USA, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel, Great Britain, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Poland took the most active part in strengthening Georgian armed forces. An exceptionally large amount of offensive armaments was supplied to Georgia from Ukraine between February and July 2008.

After the events of August 2008, the USA and some other countries have declared that they are about to start re-arming Georgia on a large scale.

The Georgian Defense Minister Vano Merabishvili said that "the war is not over". Mikheil N. Saakashvili's statements have been in the same vein.

8) The chronic inability of the Georgian leadership to meet their obligations under international agreements on the settlement in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been fully demonstrated in the Georgian-Russian bilateral relations. When in 2005 Moscow and Tbilisi reached a principle agreement to completely withdraw all Russian military bases from Georgia before 2008, the essential part of this agreement was Georgia's obligation not to deploy any foreign military bases within the country, as well as to adopt an appropriate law. Moreover, these agreements were to establish a Russian-Georgian anti-terrorist center, since in the past the territory of Georgia had frequently been used by terrorists to stage up and launch raids against the Russian Federation.

Russia has accurately and ahead of schedule withdrawn its military bases from Georgia, despite the fact that Georgian authorities tried to disrupt this process by creating obstacles for relevant work and organized repeated provocations against the Russian military officers engaged in the withdrawal.

The Georgian side has not implemented any obligation in the framework of the mentioned Russian-Georgian agreements: the law on non-deployment of any foreign military bases on the Georgian territory has never been adopted and the initial contacts on establishing the Russian-Georgian antiterrorist centre have been terminated by the Georgian side.

Source: Russian Foreign Ministry

Provided for PRAVDA.Ru