A Brief History
On December 14, 1992, the War in Abkhazia took a sickening turn when a helicopter carrying refuges was shot down, killing 52 people, about half of which were innocent children. The unfortunate death of civilians and children occurred during the Siege of Tkvarcheli, an unsuccessful siege by Georgian National Guard forces of the city held by separatist Abkhazians, a siege that lasted more or less for the entire course of the War in Abkhazia, 1992-1993. So what and where is Abkhazia? Today we seek to answer those questions and shed some light on a war that occurred not that long ago that you may not even be aware of, even though this “minor” war cost as many as 35,000 lives!
Abkhazia is a region in Georgia, not the American state, but the former Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Georgia became an independent country and was somewhat at odds with Russia, holding grudges and disagreements stemming from the long domination of Georgia by the Russians. From 1931 to 1991 the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic had existed inside the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, something the Russian overlords that actually ran the USSR set up over the objection of the Georgians. The Abkhaz people had considered themselves separate from the ethnic Georgians and this nationalism was used by the Russians to undermine the unity within Georgia. As the central power of the USSR started to crumble in the late 1980’s, Abkhaz fervor for independence grew, and the Georgian political power over Abkhazia was diminished, eventually becoming virtually non-existent as the Abkhaz people basically began ruling themselves.
Abkhazia actually declared independence in 1990, before the Soviet Union had even dissolved. Georgia declared independence in 1991, but claimed sovereignty over Abkhazia. Abkhazia in turn declared independence from Georgia in 1992 and the war for independence began. Ethnic Abkhazians were joined by ethnic Armenians and ethnic Russians in their fight against the Georgian government forces, and the armed forces of Russia also offered some assistance to the Abkhazian rebels. Even a battalion of Cossacks fought alongside the Abkhaz fighters. (Although Russia was officially neutral, that neutrality was an open joke as Russia supplied arms and equipment to the Abkhaz cause and in some case actual combat assistance. Oddly enough, Russia also provided limited assistance to Georgia, especially in refugee rescue.)
The history of Abkhazia had been stained by numerous allegations and incidents of atrocities on the part of both the Georgians and the Abkhaz. The War in Abkhazia was no different, as Abkhaz people attempted to purge ethnic Georgians from their territory through the dreaded “ethnic cleansing” genocide that had also become an international catch phrase due to the ugly war in Yugoslavia. The War resulted in the aforementioned casualties, broken down approximately by 2220 killed on the Abkhaz side with another 8000 or so wounded (in battle), with nearly 2000 Abkhaz civilians killed. Georgian losses were considerably worse, with 2600 killed, 10,000 wounded, another 1000 missing, and as many as 30,000 civilians killed, mostly slaughtered through “ethnic cleansing.” Another quarter million ethnic Georgians were evicted from Abkhazia and became refugees.
The War in Abkhazia left Georgia and Abkhazia both ravaged financially, and Georgia lost a lot of prestige and power in addition to the human carnage and disruption. Abkhazia was devastated, left a war-torn area with nominal independence, still disputed by Georgia. After initially have strained relations with Russia (1995-1997 economic blockade of Abkhazia by Russia), the Abkhazian government has repaired those relations and Russia now trades with Abkhazia freely. Georgia is helpless to enforce the sovereignty it claims over Abkhazia. The cease-fire that ended the War in Abkhazia was brokered by the United Nations in December of 1993. Instead of the normally expected UN peacekeeping force stationed to prevent renewed warfare, the Russians took the role of peacekeeping force in 1994. Meanwhile, the United States had little influence over the course of events in Georgia, and officially condemned the independence of Abkhazia. Abkhazia currently has a population of almost 250,000 people, half its pre-war population and a land area of 3340 square miles. It is situated on the East coast of the Black Sea (a little over 100 miles of coastline) and is home to the deepest cave in the world, the Veryovkina Cave that has a difference of over 7200 feet between its highest and lowest known points. Only 5 countries and 3 territories recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign nation.
Abkhazia has a damaged economy that is supported by a million visitors a year from Russia and a largely agrarian economy, producing tea, fruits, nuts and tobacco. They even produce wine. Many of their cities have been left as ghost towns by the war and mass expulsion of ethnic Georgians. The per capita GDP is a rather uninspiring $2000, compared to $11,481 in Georgia and $59,501 in the United States! (If Abkhazia was a normally recognized country, its per capita GDP would rank around #141 of 193 in the world, the level of Djibouti.) Most inhabitants of Abkhazia are ethnically Abkhazians and speak either Abkhazi or Russian (officially), or Georgian. Most Abkhazians are Orthodox or other Christian (60%), while around 16% are Muslim. A growing trend in Abkhazia is neopaganism (8%), a reversion to the pre-Christian religion of Abkhazia. (Abkhazia does not appear to have produced many famous people, as a brief research failed to turn up more than a few barely notable persons.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you previously heard of Abkhazia? Do you know anyone of Abkhazian ethnic origins or descent? Do you know anyone of Georgian descent? Were you aware of the War in Abkhazia? Do you believe that Abkhazia should be independent from Georgia? Why should the US continue to refuse to recognize Abkhazia? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jafarova, Esmira. Conflict Resolution in South Caucasus: Challenges to International Efforts. Lexington Books, 2014.
Lynch, Dov. Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States: Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States. United States Institute of Peace, 2004.
Rayfield, Donald. Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia. Reaktion Books, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a map by Kami888 showing the events of the war in October 1992 – August 1993, based on Andrei nacu’s 2008 South Ossetia map derived from Wikipedia and the CIA regional map of 1994, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.