Caucasian Early Warning Network: Abkhazia Special

Caucasus region early warning report


FEWER is supporting pilot projects in the caucasus and central africa, managed by two regional non-governmental organisations (africa peace forum and russian academy of sciences). The projects involve a range of different ngos throughout these regions. They are monitoring key indicators and drawing on local open information sources and expertise regarding the conflict and peace dynamics of their countries and region as a whole. Information and analyses drawn from international news-wire sources (from a project led by the university of maryland) are systematically incorporated into their reports. This degree of corroboration helps ensure objectivity and analytical rigour.

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This report on the conflict in Abkhazia relates to the events of March and early April 1999. The information was gathered from the regular monitoring of Georgian media sources until April 15, 1999.

Although the conflict in Abkhazia has reached a stage of stagnation, as there have been no serious hostilities since May 1998 and large-scale violence is not expected in the immediate future, frequent terrorist activities continue to aggravate the security situation in the region. Neither party is content with the status quo, but the negotiations process has reached a deadlock as both sides have either reverted to unilateral actions or appealed to third parties for outside intervention.

On March 1, 1999 the authorities in Abkhazia declared their acceptance of the unilateral return of refugees to the Gali district, but the Georgian government denounced this as a propaganda ploy, consequently very few people returned to the district.

On the other hand, in early April, new pressure was brought to bear when the CIS summit stated that unless an agreement on the return of refugees is not achieved within one month, the involvement of Russian peace-keepers, operating under the aegis of the CIS could be reconsidered. This statement was favourable to the Georgians, but rejected by the Abkhaz authorities.

Such a standoff is not new in the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, but there is a concern that in this period tensions will rise rather than decrease. It is important therefore, that a serious process of negotiations be revived, and that this is regarded as a priority for all sides.


Scenario 1. Negotiations start and are successful. The Russian PKF stays.

Scenario 2. Negotiations either fail or do not take place at all, but the Russian PKF stays, and the Georgian government accepts their existence under a face-saving pretext.

Scenario 3. Negotiations do not take place or fail and the Georgian government demands the withdrawal of the Russian PKF. Moscow accepts, and Georgia appeals to the international community to replace them with a UN or NATO PKF.

Scenario 4. Negotiations do not take place or fail, Georgia demands the withdrawal of the Russian PKF but the latter stays. A Russia-Georgia crises mounts.


1. Intense Negotiations could be encouraged and prioritised. Russia, the UN, and western powers could urge the two sides to engage once again in serious negotiations.

2. The Internationalisation of the peace-keeping forces in Abkhazia could be supported by leading international powers and the UN Security Council.

1. The Context of the Conflict

Basic Facts

Territory: 8660 Population (1989): 525,000 Abkhaz: (93,000) 17.8% Georgian: (239,900) 45.7% Armenian: (76,500) 14.6% Russian: (74,900) 74.9% Greek: (14,700) 2.8% Ukrainian: (11,600) 2.2% Pop. (post 1993): est.200,000 Abkhaz: 40% Georgian: 15% Armenians: 25% Russians: 15% Others: 15%

Abkhazia is located on the Black Sea coast, north-west of Georgia, and north of Russia. It comprises 12.5 % of Georgia's territory. Prior to the 1992-93 war, its population was 525,000. In the aftermath of that war, and a mass exodus of ethnic Georgians and other minority groups, the territory's population is estimated at 200,000. The ethnic Abkhaz community is divided roughly between Muslims and Christians, but is predominantly secular in charachter.

The Conflict

In 1992-93 secessionist Abkhazian forces, with assistance from North Caucasian volunteers and mercenary groups and Russian military/paramilitary groups, defeated the Georgian army to establish the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, in Northwest Georgia. Only the Kodori Valley (pop. 3100) remained outside their control. The majority of the ethnic Georgian population was driven out. Some 270,000 were refugeed. The Georgian government described these events as 'ethnic cleansing'; a term that has been accepted by the OSCE, but not the UN Security Council. There were an estimated 7000-8000 casualties of the conflict.

In 1994, Abkhazia proclaimed itself a sovereign Republic, and Vladislav Ardzinba, Chairman of Supreme Council of Abkhazia since 1990, was elected President. But its independence is not recognized by any other state. Instead, the Georgian government only recognises the authority of the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in exile. This Council, chaired by Tamaz Nadareishvili, was part of the last pre-war Abkhazian Supreme Soviet; 31 out of 65 deputies (mainly ethnic Georgians) have remained loyal to the Georgian government.

Peacekeeping and Negotiations

In April 1994 a cease-fire agreement was concluded, and from May 1994, a 2,500 strong Russian peace-keeping force (PKF), operating under the aegis of the CIS, has been deployed in the conflict zone, creating a 24 km-wide corridor to divide both sides. The operation is monitored by the UN Observers' Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). Also, since early 1994, negotiations have been under way between the Georgian and Abkhazian (secessionist) governments. They have been mediated by Russia, under the aegis of the UN, with the participation of the OSCE and, more recently, the "Friends of Georgia" group (based in the USA, Germany, UK, France and Russia). There are two major issues;

i. the return of the refugees, and

ii. the status of Abkhazia.

No tangible results have been achieved so far. The Georgian side prioritises the unconditional return of refugees, while the Abkhaz side demands the resolution of the status issue. Though both sides declare they would accept some kind of federal solution (the Abkhaz side sometimes prefers to speak of confederation), interpretations of the terms "federation" or "confederation" vary dramatically.

The Economy

Abkhazia's pre-war economy was predominantly based on tourism and agriculture. Its main agricultural products are citrus fruits and hazelnuts. The region used to be one of the most popular resort areas in the fSU, with some three million people vacationing there annually. Since the war, this has all but stopped.

In January 1996, the CIS - on the insistence of Georgia - introduced economic sanctions against Abkhazia. This resulted in the closure of the Abkhaz-Russian border. Although the sanctions are not strictly enforced, and goods are still exchanged with Russia and Turkey, the "blockade" is a considerable blow to the Abkhazian economy and a major concern for the authorities and the public.

Today 90 per cent of Abkhazia's economy is state-controlled. According to estimates, the GDP in 1997 was $50 million or about $250 per capita. But this does not take into account sources as international humanitarian assistance (estimated at $17.5 million in 1997), remittances from Abkhaz emigrants, income from the transfer of assets abandoned by the IDPs, open or covert help from different Russian, Turkish or other organisations, and free electricity received from Russia and Georgia (this is greater in value than all other outside assistance). Despite this the economic situation is dire, and crime is on the rise.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Populations

The vast majority of the region's ethnic Georgians (some 200,000 people) were driven out of the area and are now living as refugees/IDPs in Georgia, Russia and other countries.

According to the recent UN estimates, the population of Abkhazia itself, now stands at 200,000, over 50% less than the pre-war figures, with a predominance of ethnic Abkhaz (see box). The majority of Georgians who have remained (estimated at 3,100), live in the Kodori Valley which is not under Abkhaz control. There are very few Georgians elsewhere in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz authorities have a policy of registering Georgians as Megrelians (a sub-set of Georgian ethnicity), to present the latter as an independent ethnic group rather than part of the Georgian nation.

Of those who fled, most have IDP/refugee status. They are scattered throughout Georgia, with large pockets settled in Megrelia and Tbilisi. A large number also fled to Russia. Of the minority groups, the majority of the ethnic Greek community (14,700) returned to Greece.

The displaced populations receive considerable humanitarian assistance from the Georgian government and international organisations, but their economic situation is bad. Street trading is their major source of income, yet this is causing resentment amongst local Georgians. According to surveys, most refugees aspire to return to their homes in Abkhazia. The Georgian government does not encourage them to settle permanently in Georgia.

The refugees themselves tend to be skeptical of resolving the Abkhaz problem through negotiations. The exiled Abkhazian government (dominated by ethnic Georgians) has pushed for a military solution to the problem. On occasions, the refugee community has organised mass action and demonstrations, demanding the Georgian government to take more resolute actions. However, they pose no threat to the general stability of Georgia.

Not long after the war ended, many began to return to the Gali district in southern Abkhazia (bordering Georgia), which historically was populated almost entirely by ethnic Georgians. By 1998, some 40-50,000 refugees were settled in the area. The Georgian guerrilla movement, allegedly with covert support from the Georgian authorities emerged, planting landmines and ambushing the Abkhaz authorities. But in May 1998, following a successful guerrilla attack, the Abkhaz responded with a major sweep operation. The guerrillas were defeated, and between 35-40,000 people were refugeed for a second time.

2. Current Key Indicators

Given that the Abkhaz conflict has already occurred and there is a stalemate at present, the indicators monitored were those reflecting the opportunities for peace-making, and those reflecting the threat of further exacerbation, heightened tensions, and ultimately a failure of the mediation efforts.

Peace Indicators

i. The clear and firm interest of both parties in preventing a new war.

Militarily Abkhazia is the winner, so naturally it has no interest in a new war. Georgia on the other hand is preoccupied with economic projects, for which political stability is a prerequisite. This situation has been evident since 1995 when Georgia reached a point of political stability internally, and became particularly clear in the aftermath of the May 1998 violence.

ii. Weak public support for the military solution in Georgia.

This applies to the Georgian side as it is a military loser and it would be more natural to expect revanchist tendencies from within the population. It is also directly linked to the above as the improvement of economic conditions is, according to all surveys, the major priority of the Georgian electorate. Although the resolution of the Abkhaz problem is a major concern of the people, there is widespread awareness of the fact that a new war would undermine both stability and their chances for economic development.

iii. Weak public mobilisation around ethnic issues in Georgia.

Mobilisation around ethnic issues is strongly linked in the public consciousness with turmoil and the threat of economic collapse (link to Indicator ii), so ethnic issues - and extreme nationalist parties - are unpopular.

iv. Contacts between the parties to the conflict continued.

Since both parties have a common interest in preventing a new war (Indicator i), they have maintained some level of co-operation.

Conflict Indicators

i. Failure of the negotiations process.

Although between August-December 1998 the negotiations process was intense and there were signs of the possible breakthrough, in recent months the process has all but stalled. Only limited communications.

ii. A lack of public support (on either side) for compromises on crucial issues.

This largely explains the Indicator i: the parties do not want a new war, but the status quo, while not being ultimately favorable to either side, provides relatively acceptable conditions of life. Thus the possible political costs of a major compromise are considered too great by the political leaderships of both sides.

iii. The presence of non-state armed actors; primarily Georgian guerrillas in Abkhazia

While there may be some links between the Georgian government and guerrillas (though they have never been admitted), the guerrillas are not under the effective control of any political body, thus their presence introduces an element of uncertainty and unpredictability. Although neither side wants war, there is a threat that in a less politically stable environment, the guerrillas may create a situation in which a war would be difficult to prevent.

iv. A mutual mistrust of the major mediating powers.

The Georgians mistrust Russia, the Abkhaz mistrust the US and other western powers, and both sides mistrust the UN. This has a direct impact on the failure of negotiations.

v. The uncertain stand of the major outside players.

Although officially Russia supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, traditionally pro-Abkhaz communist and nationalist forces have gained some strength as a result of the Russian economic crisis, (directly linked to Indicator iv).

vi. Competition between major international powers for influence in the region.

Parties to the conflict are waiting to see which of the international players could be most influential and able to give them the better deal (links to Indicators i and iv.

vii. The general weakness of political institutions and poor economic conditions in Georgia.

Abkhaz society still perceives Georgia as it was in 1992-93, not as the politically stable state it has been since 1995, (linked to Indicator ii), there is therefore less willingness to compromise. At the same time the Georgian government, while condemning terrorism (committed by both sides), is not strong enough in Megrelia (the region neighbouring Abkhazia) to carry out stringent though unpopular policies to curb the terror.

3. Major Events and Recent Trends

I. The New Refugee Policy of the Abkhaz Government.

Since March 1 1999, the Abkhaz authorities have implemented their new policies regarding the unilateral return of Georgian IDPs to the Gali region. This policy change came about after the failure of several rounds of negotiations between August and December 1998. The negotiations centred on an agreement for the safe return of refugees to the Gali district in exchange for the lifting of all economic sanctions against Abkhazia.

But the parties could not agree on the security conditions for the refugees: the Abkhaz insisted that was their responsibility, while Georgia demanded international guarantees. The Abkhaz allow the return of Georgian refugees once they give written confirmation of their acceptance of the legitimacy of the de facto authorities of Abkhazia. On March 1, the Abkhaz leader, Ardzinba appealed to the Council of the Heads of States of the CIS to lift all economic sanctions against Abkhazia.

The Georgian attitude to this new policy is negative. In its statement of March 5, the Georgian parliament defined the unilateral process as absolutely unacceptable unless there is a bi- or multilateral agreement spelling out an international security regime for the refugees. President Shevardnadze of Georgia defined the Abkhaz declaration as a "propaganda ploy", saying that "refugees cannot return to Abkhazia unless they have guarantees of full security" and without that, accepting the Abkhaz initiative would amount to "sacrificing people". The pledge of allegiance to the Abkhaz authorities is also regarded negatively as it amounts to the recognition of an independent Abkhazia. Those who make this pledge are perceived as "traitors" by other refugees and their interests may contradict with Georgia's central authorities.

According to mayor of Gali, Valeri Lomia, some 800 people returned to Gali district by the end of March in accordance with the procedures set up by the Sukhumi government (apart from that, refugees routinely move between the Gali district and neighbouring parts of Georgia proper without registering with the Abkhaz authorities). During meetings with refugees, the Abkhaz administration promised them assistance and inclusion in local police units if they agreed to deny support to Georgian guerrillas. On March 23, the minister of interior of the self-proclaimed Abkhazian Republic stated that police units have been created in the Gali district and some 120 Abkhaz policemen had already been sent there.

On April 15, there were new media reports regarding a new Abkhaz plan for the return of refugees, but no details were released.

II. CIS Summit Favours Georgia.

With direct negotiations stalled and relations with Russia far from perfect, Georgia redirected its efforts towards international diplomacy. At the CIS Summit officials sounded out the possibilities of replacing, or at least changing the mandate of the current all-Russian PKF (mandated by the CIS), without at the same time undermining the existing level of stability. According to official sources, while Georgia does not call for the withdrawal of Russian PKF, it is not satisfied by their current activities as they play the role of border guards between Abkhazia and Georgia rather than facilitate the return of refugees. President Shevardnadze repeatedly referred to the CIS's passivity vis-à-vis the conflict in Abkhazia as the primary reason for Georgia's refusal to join the renewed Collective Security Agreement within framework of the CIS. The Abkhazian government did not call for any changes, although it would also like the PKF to be more active in curbing the activities of Georgian guerrillas.

Statements made by the Georgian leaders differed. President Shevardnadze appealed to the divisions in public opinion (especially that of the refugee community): for while some call for the withdrawal of peace-keepers, others are afraid of the complications that could arise afterwards. Revaz Adamia, the Chairman of the Defence and Security Committee of the Georgian Parliament, said that Russian PKF should be replaced by the UN forces. Tamaz Nadareishvili (Abkhaz Council in exile and pro-Georgian) reiterated his demands for the Russian PKF to leave or at least move to the Ghalidzga river in the North.

The CIS summit in Moscow adopted a resolution with regards to the conflict in Abkhazia on April 2. Its major provision was that unless an agreement on the return of refugees is not achieved within one month, the presence of PKF in the area should be reconsidered. The document called for the creation of an international administration in the Gali district, consisting of representatives of international organizations, Russia, and the conflicting parties. President Shevardnadze strongly endorsed the new CIS document calling it "unprecedented". He declared it as the proper legal basis for the solution of the problem and expressed the hope that the UN Security Council would endorse the summit's decision. He also iterated that if the agreement was not reached, the UN should eventually use the mechanism of coercion for peace in Abkhazia. Shevardnadze strongly condemned any terrorism committed by both sides.

The Abkhaz reaction to the CIS summit resolution was very negative. The Abkhaz believed that the summit had not taken their interests into consideration, and thus would not implement the decision. On April 9th the Abkhazian Parliament in Sukhumi declared that it did consider the statement obligatory for Abkhazia. Moreover, they indicated that if Russia continues to support the Georgian position, Abkhazia might question Russia's mediating role in the conflict.

Russian President Yeltsin was quoted by the Georgian press saying on the CIS summit: "We cannot take greater responsibility for this. 67 our men where killed and 200 wounded [in the course of peace-keeping operation]; if Georgia decides so, Russia will withdraw its forces from the conflict zone".

III. Deadlocked Negotiations

In contrast to the active negotiations process of August-December 1998, by mid-March 1999, the Georgian Foreign ministry spokesperson described the process as deadlocked. Direct contact between the two sides was weak but Russia continued its efforts and claimed some success in drawing the two sides closer on the key issues of refugees and sanctions. But the divisions remained as Abkhazia rejected the notion of accepting international involvement for guaranteeing the security of the returnees.

In late March, Sergei Kirienko, former Russian prime-minister and the leader of Novaya Sila movement, born in Abkhazia, proposed a new initiative, which was welcomed by the Georgian government. But a series of meetings in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, bore no fruit.

On March 23 and 24, Donald Caiser, special envoy of the US Secretary of State, and responsible for coordinating US conflict resolution efforts in the Caucasus held meetings with leaders in Tbilisi and Sukhumi. The US, he said, was prepared to actively engage in promoting peace in the Caucasus. He confirmed American interests in helping Georgia regain its territorial integrity and the safe return of refugees, as well as the readiness of the American government to provide humanitarian assistance to the population in Abkhazian.

IV. Continuous Tensions and Terrorist Activities in the Security Zone

A series of incidents occurred in late March and early April 1999.

  • On March 24, a group of Abkhaz policemen in the Gali district where ambushed by unidentified gunmen (presumably, Georgian guerrillas). Two of the policemen were shot dead.
  • On the same day, ten Abkhaz policemen crossed the cease-fire line into the Zugdidi districts in Georgia side and killed two Georgians.
  • On 27 March, a Georgian returnee in the Gali district was abducted by a group of Abkhaz and was later found dead.
  • A bomb exploded outside the office of the Gali District Administration office on April 2 where Konstantine Ozgan, vice-premier of the Sukhumi government was to meet the Georgian refugees (who did not come). Three people were wounded, though Ozgan was unharmed (he had left earlier). The Abkhaz Cabinet issued a statement; it was the first time that Georgian guerrillas had targeted a top Abkhaz official.
  • On April 9, two Abkhaz were shot dead in the Gali district. Abkhaz authorities held Georgian guerrillas responsible.
  • On April 3, the Abkhaz arrested a Georgian fishing boat "Alioni" with nine people aboard, for violating "Abkhaz territorial waters". Georgia appealed to the peace-keeping force to demand the crew's release, but then opted for direct contact with the Abkhaz. The Abkhaz proposed to exchange the Georgian crew for four Abkhaz policemen who had been kidnapped earlier by Georgian guerrillas, but the Georgian government refused to take responsibility for the guerrillas' actions.
  • On April 13, one of the crew, a woman, was released.

V. Splits Appear in Georgian Refugee Groups as Activities Mount

The increased activities of the refugee groups may be linked to the upcoming parliamentary elections (fall of 1999). Refugee organizations are united in calling for tougher, military solutions to resolve the conflict (in Georgia the military option is often referred to as a "Croatian scenario"). They are also united in their opposition to Russian mediation efforts.

The groups differ in their relations and support for the current government. In late December 1998, Tamaz Nadareishvili, who represents the refugee mainstream supporting President Shevardnadze, established the "Liberating Abkhazia" party. Nadereishvili is opposed by Boris Kakubava, leader of the anti- Shevardnadze camp, and closely linked to the Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze. Kakubavu and Abashidze have joined together to form the Coordinating Council of Refugee Political Parties and Organizations (also known as the All-Georgian League of Refugees).

For three weeks between February 15 and March 8, some 250 refugees blocked the bridge over the river Enguri. The action was endorsed (and allegedly also organized) by the Abkhazian government in exile. During their meeting with the Georgian state minister, Vazha Lortkipanidze, refugees demanded that Georgia supports and appeals for the withdrawal of Russian peace-keepers in the area, and that it ceases its negotiations with the Sukhumi government.

VI. Reactions to the Kosovo Crisis

Both sides tried to interpret NATO involvement in the Kosovo crisis to their advantage. Major Georgian government officials expressed support for the NATO military operation though the wording of this support was often cautious. The underlying idea has been that the NATO strikes in Kosovo demonstrate that when one side consistently resists the demands of the international community, force may be applied (clearly alluding to Abkhaz resistance to the return of Georgian refugees). Georgian officials said that the NATO operation will be justified, if Serbia yields to international pressure and accepts the conditions set by the international community. However President Shevardnadze also stated that the use of force by NATO was a result of the Security Council's inefficiency, in particular its failure to apply mechanisms of coercion for peace according to Chapter 7 of its Charter; Georgia wants these UN measures applied in Abkhazia.

The Georgian delegation to the CIS Parliamentary Assembly did not support the Assembly's resolution to condemn the NATO air-strikes. A number of opposition parties also supported NATO action, having organized a conference dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the NATO.

The two main factions of the refugee groups expressed different opinions vis-à-vis the air-strikes. Tamaz Nadareishvili expressed his support (hoping that one day NATO would also help Georgian refugees to return), while Boris Kakubava of the Coordination Council strongly criticised them as an encouragement of separatism.

Only extreme opposition groups, such as Communist pro-Russian parties and the quasi-fascist Union of Georgian Nationalists condemned the NATO strikes for their support of separatism.

Sukhumi meanwhile declared that the events in Kosovo show that the use of force (meaning Georgian force) will not contribute towards resolving the Abkhaz conflict.

4. Possible Scenarios

It was expected