Vitaly Sharia
Honoured Journalist of Abkhazia. Editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Echo of Abkhazia and author of the Ekho Kavkaza. Abkhazia.

At dawn on 14 August 1992, the Georgian-Abkhazian war began with the entry into Abkhazia of a group of troops of the State Council of Georgia. It lasted 413 days, or thirteen and a half months. It was only in its very first days that the majority in Abkhazian society avoided pronouncing this word "war", hoping that everything would be settled through negotiations in the coming days. But very soon it became obvious that this was a war, and many Abkhazians were enraged for a very long time when they heard that somewhere, in particular on the Georgian side, they called what was happening a “conflict”. The same thing happens to this day; however, for some in Abkhazia confuse the concepts. After all, there really is a “Georgian-Abkhazian conflict”, which has not yet been resolved, and the war of the early 1990s was the hot phase of this conflict.

It should also be remembered that the prerequisites for the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993 took shape many decades after the territory of Abkhazia was largely deserted in the last third of the 19th century, after the catastrophe of the makhadzhirstvo [or Great Exile].

The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st in terms of the triangular relationship "Abkhazia - Georgia - Russia" very much resembled the parallel relations at the beginning of the 20th century, except that everything, according to the law of the spiral, developed much further and sharper. This recurrence can be confirmed, for example, by a brochure of an unidentified author, published in 1908, “Abkhazia is not Georgia” as well as by notes of a Russian lawyer, Deputy of the State Duma of the Republic of Ingushetia Alexander Demjanov, entitled “In Abkhazia and the Georgian Socialist Republic”, which covers events from March 1918 to March 1921. These notes, previously unpublished, were published as a separate book in 2021 by the famous Abkhazian historian Stanislav Lakoba. Upon acquaintance with them, one is struck by the coincidence of many arguments voiced by the parties to the conflict now and a century ago.

Some are trying to trace the roots of the current Georgian-Abkhazian conflict to much more distant times. For example, I remember, a speaker at one of the Abkhazian rallies at the turn of the 80s-90s of the last century reproached the first king of the Abkhazian Kingdom (from about 787 to 975), Leon II, who lived thirteen centuries ago, for starting the process of annexing the lands inhabited by the peoples of the Kartvelian language family. continued by his successors. And we, they say, modern Abkhazians, are now disentangling the consequences of these territorial acquisitions, because the distant descendants of the annexed Kartvelians never tire of repeating now that Abkhazia is Georgia…

In fact, of course, the centuries-old history of relations between Abkhazians and Georgians, as well as most of all neighbouring peoples in the world, includes periods of hostility, territorial disputes and wars, as well as cooperation, military alliances, and good-neighbourly relations. And over the millennium that has passed since the existence of the Abkhazian Kingdom, such periods in relations between our two peoples have replaced one another more than once. The roots of the current period of conflict go back to the last decades of the 19th century, when immigrants from Georgia, mainly its western region(s), began intensively to populate Abkhazia, depopulated after the makhadzhirstvo. But it cannot be said that this immediately led to the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation. It matured in proportion to the rise in the numerical superiority over the remaining Abkhazians in Abkhazia of the Georgian [or Kartvelian] population arriving from the east and to the increase in Tbilisi's attempts to assimilate the Abkhazians. It is noteworthy that in our days some among the Abkhazians began, including in the press, to “issue criticisms” of the Abkhazian leaders of the twenties and thirties of the last century for their “policy of compromise”, as a result of which, they say, Abkhazia was united in December 1921 with Georgia as a "treaty republic" and then in 1931 entered fully the Georgian SSR as an autonomous republic. But sane people had to explain to these (to put it mildly) eccentrics that the leaders criticised by them lived in a different era from the one in which we live, and did not know – could not know – either about such future developments as: Beria’s repressions of the late thirties in order to destroy the Abkhazian political and cultural élite; the transfer in 1946 of Abkhazians from Abkhaz-language schools to schools where Georgian was the language of instruction; or the fierce Georgian-Abkhazian war of the early nineties. That is, they simply looked at the prospects for relations between the two ethnic groups in many ways with different eyes from those of their critics today...

But what can I say, if for us, representatives of the current generation, much over time begins to be perceived quite differently than before. There is nothing to say about such turning points as wars, and the collapse of previously united states. But if we compare how the future was imagined by the participants in the conflict immediately after the end of its hot stage (viz. the Georgian-Abkhaz war), thirty years ago, then, perhaps, there is one thing that unites all of them, no matter how and in what else their interests and views differed. For no one in Sukhum or Tbilisi on the eve of 1994 imagined that everything would be left “hanging between heaven and earth” for so long, in a state of “neither peace nor war”, that in 2022 Abkhazia would exist as a partially recognised state for 14 years, and Georgia is still striving to restore its territorial integrity within the borders of the Georgian SSR...

It is naturally easier for me to judge what mindsets were in the very first post-war period in Abkhazian society - because I saw all this “from the inside”.

But it is not difficult to guess that in Georgia after 30 September 1993, despite the most severe military defeat, they still hoped for a military revenge and restoration of the aforementioned territorial integrity. But there was clearly no unity regarding the means and methods of achieving this goal, as the next episode clearly shows. On 13 January 1995, Tengiz Kitovani, with the support of Tengiz Sigua, gathered about 700 armed supporters and set off on a new campaign against Abkhazia. He was stopped by the Georgian police and arrested, then convicted of organising illegal armed groups and sentenced to eight years in prison in October 1996, and in May 1999 he was pardoned by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze "on medical grounds." This is the same Kitovani who, during his first campaign in Abkhazia, two and a half years before the second, with the rank of Minister of Defence of Georgia, brought there three thousand Georgian guardsmen, members of the paramilitary unit "Mkhedrioni" ("Cavalry"), etc. But if the first campaign turned out in the end to be a gamble, then the second initially looked absurd and insane... However, when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Georgia as a result of the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, he, inspired by the expulsion of Aslan Abashidze from Adzharia, proclaimed publicly that very soon he would extend the power of Tbilisi to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although any sober-minded observer perfectly understood and understands that there was “a huge disparity”, because there was no ethnic conflict in Adzharia but simply an intensified struggle for power. In 2008, Saakashvili decided to start with what he probably thought was the weakest link - South Ossetia. But he failed, because the Russian army came to the rescue of the Ossetians. Since that time, the Georgian leadership and civil society have adopted exclusively peace-loving rhetoric, repeating as a mantra the words that Georgia should return “our Abkhazian and South Ossetian brothers” with kindly words. But when on social networks Georgian users start “discussing” with Abkhazians, most of them immediately switch to the language of hatred, insults and threats. At the same time, even if one believes in the absolute sincerity of those bearing “good will” among Georgian society, one must, being realists, understand that with any hypothetical “return”, there will be immeasurably more of the latter.

As for the ideas about the future on the Abkhazian side, at first they did not doubt that the outcome of the war logically entailed the recognition of Abkhazia's independence by Georgia, and then by other states, plus its acceptance into the UN. True, for quite a long time this was combined with fears that over the River Ingur, having come to their senses after the crushing military defeat, maybe not today, but tomorrow they would attempt revenge. Many residents of Abkhazia admitted that they woke up in the morning for at least six months with anxious fears: has the Georgian army moved in a new campaign against North-western Georgia (this is how Abkhazia was called in their texts in the late 80s by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his associates)? But since this did not happen, they started increasingly asserting themselves in an optimistic scenario. Namely: after some time, Tbilisi will recognise the independence of Abkhazia, and, following after it, all other states. Well, such was the way, let’s say, after the wars of France with Vietnam and Algeria, which had belonged to it... Well, in fact, here after all, it is, as they say, "either - or." It is surely impossible to find oneself stuck forever between heaven and earth.

True, some in Abkhazia recalled at that time the saying of Kozma Prutkov "There is nothing more permanent than temporary." By ‘permanent’ they did not understand, of course, nothing is endless. It was understood that the negotiation-process could drag on for an unexpectedly long time. The biggest skeptics, answering one of the interview-questions of the newspaper "Echo of Abkhazia" in the mid-90s, to wit: "When will the independence of Abkhazia be recognised?", assumed that this would happen in five years. Others went lower – two, three years...

Can all these people be called naive? No way. They simply relied on the previous experience of mankind. But it was at the end of the 20th  century that the world reached such a degree of interconnectedness and interdependence and its division into spheres of influence of the leading powers took place in such a way that the concept of geopolitical ambivalence appeared and the number of so-called partially recognised states began to grow. One of them – the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – will soon be half a century old. Approximately the same applies also to the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in north-west Africa. But these are cases that stand apart. All the remaining partially recognised entities are the product of the bloody collapse of two multi-ethnic countries of the former Eastern bloc – Yugoslavia (1991-2008) and the USSR; on the territory of the latter, it continues even now, in the form of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, DPR, LPR... Here we should add Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh, which are not recognised by anyone but have three decades of de facto independent existence.

Recall that during these decades, after lengthy wars against the mother-countries, Eritrea and South Sudan achieved independence... Why were they recognised without any long delay by the world-community, just like East Timor, which bloodlessly achieved independence? Yes, because neither of these states, which joined the UN family, nor their former mother-countries were involved in the orbit of confrontation between the leading world-powers. But, let’s say, in the early 90s, even though Yeltsin's Russia seemed to be in partnership and almost friendly relations with the Western coalition, it never occurred to anyone in the West to support the so-called separatists who decided to secede from the former Moldavian, Georgian and Azerbaijani SSRs. And the fact of the matter isn’t only that Chisinau, Tbilisi and Baku were not going to let go of the controlled territories in peace, as Moscow did with the former Soviet republics (which was such an unexpected turn-out for many). Another factor – and indeed the main point – was that the Russian Federation, as the legal successor of the USSR, was still implicitly perceived in those years as a rival of the collective West, whilst the former Soviet republics were viewed as a natural counter-balance to it. Accordingly, the separatist republics within the former union-republics became a natural counter-weight to them and thus Russia's allies. Here, as they say, is the whole story in a nutshell. Well, except that in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh it was still somewhat different; there the role of patron was performed by Armenia and the influential Armenian diaspora of many countries. That is why the NKR did not join the Society “For Democracy and the Rights of Peoples”, which was established in 2006 by Tiraspol, Sukhum and Tskhinval but which quietly died after 2008 and is almost forgotten today. More precisely, Stepanakert formally joined it and then left it...

In addition to the aforementioned “naive” ideas in Abkhazian society in the mid-90s, I’ll say what I personally imagined then: after the settlement of Georgian-Abkhazian relations (based, of course, on the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia), the Tbilisi-Sukhum passenger-train will again run and we shall ride it just as in Soviet times. The only difference is that along the way, border-guards and customs-officers will enter the wagons for checks. By the way, at one time it was very convenient to travel on the trains along this route in both directions: you would go to bed in the evening and get up in the morning ... after all, don’t a variety of modes of transport go between many countries that fought each other, including, it seems, those recently completely conquered, as, for example, in the former Yugoslavia?

But, as you know, not only did the restoration of this passenger-route not happen, but even the railway-bridge over the Ingur, blown up on the night of 14 August 1992, has not yet been restored. (It has never been officially stated who carried out this explosion; there are only speculations in the media that it was Zviadist rebels under the command of Loti Kobalia).

By the way, now in the Abkhazian segment of social networks, sometimes there are really naive statements from those who are perplexed: the participants in the Second World War reconciled a long time ago, so why are there no changes for the better in Georgian-Abkhazian relations? They begin to explain the obvious to these eccentrics: in the first case, there is no subject of dispute, but how can reconciliation occur if none of the parties to the conflict agrees and in the foreseeable future will not agree to the version of the state-status of Abkhazia on which the other side insists?

In this case, a paradoxical picture is observed. In the very first post-war years, when the spiritual wounds of those who buried relatives and friends in the war were still fresh, at the same time quite intensive contacts were observed between the Georgian and Abkhazian sides. Suffice it to recall the meetings of the so-called Schleining Process that took place in Western Europe, in which representatives of both civil society and state-structures of Georgia and Abkhazia took part. Everything was interrupted in 2006, after the entry of the Georgian army into the upper part of the Kodor Gorge and the translocation there by Mikheil Saakashvili of the structures of the so-called government of Abkhazia-in-exile/the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, who, however, were clearly in no hurry to do this and preferred to stay in comfortable conditions in Tbilisi. Well, shortly after that, the August war of 2008 broke out, which led to the recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the Russian Federation and a number of other countries.

This partial recognition prompted many in Abkhazian society solemnly to proclaim that the conflict with Georgia is over and assert that we and Tbilisi have nothing to talk about now. But this was, of course, far from being the case; one stage of the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation simply ended and another began.

For the last nine years after the Georgian Dream party came to power in Georgia, the positions of the parties in this ethno-state-conflict look like this. Sukhum did not accept anything other than the recognition of independence, and this was, one might say, initially, during and after the war. Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations with the aim of creating some kind of "common state" were conducted in the second half of the 90s under the obvious pressure of Moscow, with the mediation of [the late] Boris Berezovsky and other Russian politicians of the time, and Sukhum was extremely satisfied when it was Tbilisi that refused to sign an already seemingly agreed version of the agreement. And the reason for that refusal was once again the following - “all or nothing!”. In today's Georgia, however, noble-hearted rhetoric ("We must return not the territories, but our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers and sisters, and this return can only be a peaceful one") coexist perfectly with the fact that any, so to speak, compromise-proposal from the Georgian side is immediately branded as national betrayal.

So it was, for example, with the idea of ​​the political scientist Mamuka Areshidze, who was persecuted in Tbilisi for the idea of ​​recognising the independence of Abkhazia while simultaneously returning en masse Georgian refugees and their descendants to it. Moreover, in Abkhazian society they clearly saw this as a trap. Another thing is that no one seriously discussed such a proposal in Abkhazia, since it was rejected in Georgia while still in bud: how can one, they say, even talk about some kind of recognition of the independence of the “breakaway regions”?! And in vain did Areshidze draw for the Georgian public an analogy with the puppet-state of Manjou-Go that had sunk into oblivion in the thirties of the last century, thereby (of course) confirming the very suspicions of the Abkhazian public.

A couple more examples. Shortly after the end of the Georgian-Abkhazian war, a certain map was shown on Abkhazian television, according to which it was proposed to divide Abkhazia along ethnic lines into western and eastern parts. Here is what the first president of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, writes about it in his posthumously published book of memoirs “My Life” (2018, p. 293):

“Imagine my surprise and bewilderment when I saw the map attached to the report of the UN Secretary-General dated 6 August 1993, on which the Republic of Abkhazia was shown divided along the Gumista River. The eastern part of it, according to the principle of ‘new ethnic distribution’, was called Abkhazeti. The Georgian name of Abkhazia left no doubt that the map was prepared by Georgian representatives advocating the dismemberment of Abkhazia along ethnic lines."

Quotations are also cited there, confirming that this option was then supported by a number of Georgian figures.

It is curious that similar "compromise"-options with the partition of Abkhazia along the Gumista were in the air on the Georgian side even on the eve of the war. Well, though not hovering in the air, then this is exactly what I heard in the summer of 1991 from one of the leaders of the Georgian national movement in Abkhazia, when we were standing together in the editorial office in Sukhum near the map of Abkhazia hanging on the wall and I asked where, according to his opinion, if it came to it, it would be fair to draw such a border. His answer, of course, roused a fury in my heart: that is, Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia, which then accounted for about a quarter of the population of the republic, he kept for his own people, and in their number he himself was going to stay here, while thereby proposing to me that I leave my native city and settle somewhere then on the right bank of the Gumista. But I didn’t see any point in entering into a discussion with him and didn’t argue ... By the way, that’s what I ended up having to do a year later, when the Georgian-Abkhazian war began, and to live in the city of Gudauta, working there as deputy-editor of the Republic of Abkhazia newspaper, for the thirteen and a half months of the war.

And now, many years later, in one of the publications on the radio Echo of the Caucasus, I mentioned this memorable “Q&A”, and recklessly gave the name of my interlocutor of long ago, although I could have safely dispensed with such specification without prejudice to the meaning. I just didn’t imagine that it could do him any harm... So what happened? He burst into an interview in some Tbilisi Russian-language online-publication, where he categorically denied that any such conversation had taken placed! Well, well, it happens that one person remembers something from a conversation with another, whilst that other one completely forgets this moment. Therefore, I will not reproach my old interlocutor for insincerity. But this unexpectedly furious reaction of his made me think about something else – that, apparently, in modern Georgian society, such “compromises” are already deemed to be exclusively seditious ­– but what about, they clamour, our Bichvinta (that is, Pitsunda), our Akhali-Afoni (that is New Athos) [these locations lying on the ‘Abkhazian’ side of the putative divide – Translator]? Let me once again draw attention to this paradox: the further the hot phase of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has moved into the past, the more all compromise has been excluded in the public consciousness, and more and more often the statements of politicians and political scientists have rung out for internal consumption, so as not to anger the radicals.

Here's a more recent example. I was told that one middle-aged Tbilisi resident wanted to come forward three years ago with such an initiative: Georgia's recognition of the independence of Abkhazia in exchange for the transfer by Sukhum of the Gal region within its pre-war borders to the control of the Tbilisi authorities. But when he first decided to acquaint his high-ranking acquaintances with his idea, they were horrified, saying: “Are you out of your mind?”

The preservation of the status quo, in general, suits Abkhazians well enough. The Georgians have, apparently, decided to follow the ancient Chinese wisdom - to sit on the banks of the river and wait for its current to carry the corpse of your enemy away. We shall, they say, wait... In rhetoric, they have realised, it seems that everything is there; no deviations from the Georgian national project should be voiced.

Indeed, just as any war ends sooner or later, such an “ambivalent state” also ends. Not in this century, but in the next. And experts both in Sukhum and Tbilisi have long agreed that this will most likely happen after some global upheaval, when one of the world powers acting as patrons to the parties to the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict will prevail in the course of their rivalry. Might this possibly be the third world war resulting from the development of Russo-Ukrainian hostilities, as some political scientists are croaking? This has already been discussed in both Abkhazian and Georgian societies, although not a single person of good will can possibly wish for this.

In 2003, in a number of Tbilisi publications there appeared a publication based on the materials of a discussion club in the journal Dro Mshvidobis (Time of Peace) which outlined five possible options for resolving the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Almost twenty years later, it can be said that none of them has been realised. The fifth option turned out to be closest to reality – “Conservation of the conflict with its attendant problems continues,” but at the same time, none of the participants in the discussion could have imagined that in this case Abkhazia would become a partially recognised state (the most important thing, of course, being recognition by Russia).

I will express the following thought: if today someone proposes twenty variants of the aforementioned settlement, then, most likely, some twenty-first will be realised at some future point. That's how life works.

And another question, which, of course, inevitably faces experts and futurologists: will the period of enmity and confrontation between the Abkhazian and Georgian peoples change into one of good neighbourliness, and if so, when? It is well known that everything in the world has developed and is developing very differently here. For example, the British, French, Germans, Russians and other Europeans for centuries fought, then became reconciled and "were friends against someone else". But in relations between the Turks and the closely related Azerbaijanis, on the one hand, and the Armenians, on the other, nothing is visible at the end of the tunnel... In the relations between the Abkhazians and Georgians in the past, we repeat, things were different, but there is something which, like a splinter, is acting as an irritation for the future, and this is the impossibility of finding a compromise on the issue of Abkhazia’s state-status.

The peculiarity of this ethnic conflict is that it cannot be qualified as a territorial dispute, such as lies at the heart of most such conflicts on the planet. Let's take the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict over the territory of South Ossetia, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over the Donbas plus some other territories... In Abkhazia, as already noted, there is no territorial dispute: Georgia simply denies the right of the Abkhazian people to self-determination.