The ISCIP Analyst
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Intervention in Transcaucasus
By GEORGE KHUTSISHVILI
Visiting Scholar, Stanford University
After a period of euphoria in the West, primarily related to hopes concerning Russian reforms, the previously fading image of the Russian threat is becoming visible once again, although the Western media have focused almost exclusively on one aspect--the extremist rhetoric of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his pro-imperialist compatriots in the recently elected Russian parliament. In fact, Russia has already initiated major actions to ensure a tougher Russian grip on Ukraine and Belarus', two of the more meaningful actors in the CIS, and has made stiffer demands on others to comply with Russian interests.
Assertions of Russian political-military involvement in ethno-political conflicts in the former Soviet republics have been disputed, with the Russian authorities repeatedly explaining away these charges as inspired by the (non-Russian) nationalists' conspiratorial mindset and speculation by the Western press.(l) However, with the accumulation of cogent evidence, a consistent picture of Russia's geostrategic game for domination in--and recently even beyond--the postSoviet space is becoming clear. The Transcaucasus region of the former Soviet Union, comprising the three republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, has attracted particular attention in this respect.
Moscow's Views Disseminated
The Republic of Georgia, a tiny spot on the post-Soviet political map, came to attract international attention largely because of two circumstances, i.e., almost permanent turmoil since the disintegration of the Soviet Union (following a year of bizarre ethno-nationalist rule by former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia),(3) and the leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet Foreign Minister and principal confederate of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Georgia seems likely to be viewed as a model of a failed state.
Renewed Russian Military Presence
Shevardnadze had remarked repeatedly that the destiny of Georgia was being decided in Abkhazia, and he was right in his view. This ancient and fertile land has for centuries been settled by various ethnic groups, among which the Abkhazians and Georgians are both indigenous.(5) Beneath the traditionally tolerant relations between the two peoples (attested by many mixed marriages) glimmered sparks that in a few years blazed up into an incredible degree of anti-Georgian hatred comparable to the ethnic antagonisms in Bosnia The nationalist "Georgia for the Georgians" hysteria launched by the Zviadists (followers of Gamsakhurdia) played a decisive role in bringing about this process.
The Russians have concentrated on backing the procommunist Abkhaz secessionist leadership of this breakaway Georgian region (with its long stretch of Black Sea shoreline), not least in view of Russia's complicated relationship with Ukraine (which threatens to reduce Russia's control of the Black Sea).(6)
A clumsy attempt by Georgian government troops on August 14-15, 1992, to restore order in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi gave rise to a bloody year-long war that resulted in over 200,000 refugees and forcibly displaced persons (mainly ethnic Georgians). The secessionist Abkhaz stronghold of Gudauta remained "miraculously" free of the shortages, anarchy and famine that had spread all over Georgia.(7) The government repeatedly appealed to the UN, CSCE, and other international organizations to intervene, while at the same time refusing offers of Russian military assistance. Several UN Security Council resolutions and decisions failed to lead to a de-escalation of the conflict. On July 27, 1993, a Russian brokered trilateral agreement on a cease-fire and principles for the solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict was signed. Complete demilitarization of the region, supervised by Russia, was to follow the separation of the military forces of the two sides. However, the UN failed to implement its long sought decision to send a large group of military observers to Abkhazia. Furthermore, the Russian military observers insisted that Georgians did not participate in the supervision of the withdrawal of heavy weaponry.
Russian Arms for Abkhazia
At the end of August 1993,S. Shoigu, chairman of the Russian Emergency State Committee, declared on Russian television that demilitarization had reached a stage at which resumption of the war would be impossible. Large numbers of hopeful refugees returned to their ruined homes and began rebuilding. Then on September 17, a surprise attack by Abkhaz tanks and artillery, supported by their Russian North Caucasian and Cossack allies, forced the remaining disarmed Georgian troops, together with tens of thousands of civilians, to flee in panic. Many of these victims later starved or froze to death in the Svaneti mountains. Shevardnadze himself, who was besieged along with the defenders of Sukhumi, had a narrow escape. The sudden clandestine Abkhaz rearmament remains a mystery only for the extremely naive.(8)
The war ended in late September 1993 with Abkhazia's virtual secession from Georgia through a radical ethnic cleansing of its multi-ethnic population and the destruction of its cities, including Sukhumi. After this, facing a new insurgency in Western Georgia led by deposed president Gamsakhurdia (who was trying to profit from the desperate situation in the country), Shevardnadze was obliged to trade Georgia's independence (by joining the Russian-controlled CIS) for Russian military assistance. Included in Russia's price was the establishment of three Russian military bases on Georgian territory.
Moscow Manipulates N-K Conflict
The natural question arises why the Russian Federation should be interested in manipulating and aggravating ethnic conflicts in neighboring newly independent republics in view of the contagious character of such conflicts and the instability already existing in what is still the largest country in the world. In order to respond to this question, one needs to distinguish between the forces that formally define and those that actually determine Russian strategies. It is not necessary to assume a single rational actor behind the whole complex picture. Rather, one may assume that a statistically sufficient synergy between the Russian military, the security apparatus, the legislature and voter sentiment "hath done this deed."
Could the process whereby former Soviet republics tried to obtain independence have been more successful politically and less disastrous in its consequences for their populations? As it turned out, ethnic nationalism was the only force on the political palette, both in the Baltic region and the Caucasus-- the foremost regions in terms of the desire to be free of Soviet rule--that animated the politically active sections of society. (The Baltic nations, however, were fortunate enough to enjoy the support of the West.) Soviet totalitarian rule was unable to produce anything but its own disguised and distorted reflections in the social consciousness of the various peoples. Democratically minded movements and parties lacked the fervor and ruthlessness to satisfy mass expectations. The revival of democratic organizations is essential for the future of the Caucasus--if there is to be any acceptable future for this tormented part of the globe.
Copyright ISCIP 1994