See also Abkhazia by Levan Urushadze
|Official languages||Abkhaz, Russian|
|Political status||Autonomous republic|
|Capital's coordinates||42°49'N, 41°02'E|
|President ¹||Vladislav Ardzinba|
|Prime Minister ¹||Raul Khajimba|
|¹ Separatist government|
|Chairman of the
Supreme Council ²
|Chairman of Cabinet of Ministers ²||Londer Tsaava|
|² Pro-Georgian Government in exile|
July 23, 1992
- % water
|Time zone||UTC +4|
Abkhazia (Abkhaz: Apsny, Georgian: Abkhazeti, Russian: Абха́зия) is a region of 8,600 km² in the Caucasus. It is formally an autonomous republic within Georgia but is de facto independent, although not recognised as such internationally. The capital is Sukhumi.
Geography and demographics
Abkhazia covers an area of some 3,300 mi² at the far western end of Georgia, on the north shore of the Black Sea. The Caucasus mountains on the north and northeast divide Abkhazia from Circassia; on the southeast it is bounded by Mingrelia (Samegrelo); and on the southwest by the Black Sea. The republic is extremely mountainous (nearly 75% is classified as mountains or foothills) and settlement is largely confined to the coast and a number of deep, well-watered valleys. The climate is extremely mild, which in Soviet times caused it to become known as a "Georgian riviera" and popular holiday destination. It is also renowned for its agricultural produce, including tea, tobacco, wine and fruits.
The demography of Abkhazia has undergone major changes since the 1990s. At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989 it had a population of around 500,000, of whom 48% were Georgians (principally Megrels) and only 17% of whom were native Abkhazians. In 1993, a major war led to Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia, during which virtually the entire Georgian population—some 250,000 people—were displaced in what was alleged to be a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The conflict has not yet been resolved and Abkhazia's much-reduced population is now largely ethnically Abkhazian.
The earliest archeological evidence of human settlement in the Western Caucasus dates back to around 4000-3000 BC. Current Abkhazian nationalists call these early tribes "proto-Abkhazians," and discover that such tribes "lived along a swathe of the Black Sea coast roughly corresponding to the present Abkhazian republic" according to former text deposited at Wikipedia. In the 1st millennium BC (9th-6th centuries BC) the territory of modern Abkhazia was a part of the ancient kingdom of (Colchis) (Kolkha) subsequently absorbed (in 63 BC) into the Kingdom of Egrisi. Greek traders established ports along the Black sea shoreline, one of which, Dioscurias, eventually developed into modern Sukhum, Abkhazia's traditional capital.
The Roman Empire conquered Egrisi in the 1st century AD and ruled it until the 4th century, following which it regained a measure of independence but remained within the Byzantine Empire's sphere of influence. The Abkhazians were converted to Christianity during the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the mid-6th century. Abkhazia was made an autonomous principality of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century, a status it retained until the 9th century, when it was united with the Georgian kingdom of Imereti. Actual independence from Constantinople ebbed and flowed during this period, which Abkhazians remember as an Abkhazian principality. It is certain that Byzantine authority would have faded once the towns were left behind, as one penetrated the mountains.
In the 16th century the area was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, during which the Abkhazians partially converted to Islam. The Ottomans were pushed out by the Georgians, who established an autonomous Principality of Abkhazia (Abkhazetis Samtavro in Georgian) ruled by the Sharvashidze dynasty.
The advance of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus led to fierce fighting between the invading Russians and the other Caucasian peoples. Georgia entered the empire in 1801 as a dependent principality. The Russians acquired possession of Abhkazia in a piecemeal fashion between 1829 and 1842, but their power was not firmly established until after 1864. Large numbers of Muslim Abkhazians—as much as 60% of the Abkhazian population, though contemporary census reports were not very trustworthy—emigrated to the Ottoman Empire between 1864-1878 as a result of Russian oppression of Muslims. Modern Abkhazian mythology insists that large areas of the region were left uninhabited, and that many Armenians, Georgians and Russians (all Christians) subsequently migrated to Abkhazia, resettling much of the vacated territory. Thus they explain Abkhazians becoming a small minority in the region. The Encyclopaedia Britannica reported in 1911, that in the principal town, Sukhum-kaleh, (population then 43,000) two-thirds were Mingrelians and one-third Abkhasians.
The takeover of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution led to Abkhazia being granted a degree of cultural and political autonomy until in 1931 Stalin made it an autonomous republic within Soviet Georgia. Despite the name, there was little actual autonomy and a policy of "Georgianization" was forcibly imposed. Georgian became the official language, the Abkhaz language was banned, and cultural rights were repressed, with thousands of Abkhazians killed during Stalin's purges. Stalin and his successors encouraged Georgian migration to Abkhazia, and many took up the offer and resettled there. Such repression was ended after Stalin's death, and Abkhazians were given a much more powerful role in the governance of the autonomous republic. As in most of the smaller national republics, the Soviet government encouraged the growth of culture and particularly of literature.
The Abkhazian War
As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate at the end of the 1980s, ethnic tension grew between the Abkhazians and Georgians over Georgia's moves towards independence. Georgian nationalists held demonstrations in Tbilisi as early as 1989 demanding the full integration of Abkhazia into an independent Georgia. Many Abkhazians opposed this, fearing that an independent Georgia would lead to a renewed period of "Georgianization", and argued instead for the establishment of Abkhazia as an independent republic in its own right. The dispute soon turned violent, when rioting between Georgians and Abkhazians broke out in Sukhumi on July 16, 1989. 16 people were said to have been killed and another 137 injured following a dispute over university enrolment policies. After several days of violence, Soviet troops restored order in the city but blamed rival nationalist paramilitaries for "provoking" confrontations.
Georgia declared independence on April 9, 1991, under the rule of the nationalist former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He was overthrown in an armed rebellion in December 1991-January 1992 and was replaced as president by Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, whose rule began as (in effect) the public face of a government dominated by hardline Georgian nationalists.
In December 1991, the Georgian National Guard, under the command of Tengiz Kitovani, laid siege to Gamsakhurdia's office. After months of stalemate, he was forced to resign, and was replaced by Eduard Shevardnadze.
On February 21, 1992, Georgia's ruling Military Council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet-era constitution and restoring the 1921 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Many Abkhazians interpreted as an abolition of their autonomous status. In response, on July 23, 1992, the Abkhazia government effectively declared independence, though this was not internationally recognized. The Georgian government accused Gamsakhurdia supporters of kidnapping Georgia's interior minister and holding him captive in Abkhazia. It dispatched 3,000 troops to the region, ostensibly to restore order, but heavy fighting between Georgian forces and Abkhazian separatists broke out in and around Sukhumi. The Abkhazian authorities rejected the government's claims, claiming that it was merely a pretext for an invasion. After about a week's fighting and many casualties on both sides, Georgian government forces managed to take control of most of Abkhazia and closed down the regional parliament.
The Abkhazians' military defeat was met with a hostile response by the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, an umbrella group uniting a number of separatist movements in the North Caucasus (Abkhaz, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians and others). Hundreds of volunteer paramilitaries joined forces with the Abkhazian separatists to fight the Georgian government forces. In September, the Abkhazians mounted a major offensive which drove the Georgian forces out of large swathes of the republic. Shevardnadze's government accused Russia of giving covert military support to the rebels with the aim of "detaching from Georgia its native territory and the Georgia-Russian frontier land". The year ended with the rebels in control of much of Abkhazia west of Sukhumi. Significant "ethnic cleansing" occurred on both sides, with Abkhazians displaced from Georgian-held territory and vice-versa; some 3,000 people were reported to have been killed in this first phase of the war.
The conflict remained stalemated until July 1993, when Abkhazian forces launched an attack on Georgian-held Sukhumi. The capital was surrounded and heavily shelled, with Shevardnadze himself trapped in the city. Although a truce was declared at the end of July, this collapsed after a renewed Abkhaz attack in mid-September. After ten days of heavy fighting, Sukhumi fell on September 27. Newly appointed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze narrowly escaped death, as he had vowed to stay in the city no matter what, but was eventually forced to flee when seperatist snipers fired on the hotel he was residing in. Shevardnadze had to rely on the Russian navy to evacuate him from Sukhumi.
The separatist forces quickly overran the rest of Abkhazia as the Georgian government faced a second threat, an uprising by the deposed Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In the chaotic aftermath of defeat, almost the entire non-Abkhazian population fled by sea or over the mountains. Many thousands died—it is thought that as many as 10,000 may have perished—and some 250,000-300,000 people were forced into exile.
The Abkhaz conflict has not been resolved; a ceasefire agreement was signed on May 15, 1994 and a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNOMIG) was given the task of monitoring the agreement. A separate force from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was assigned to a peacekeeping mission.
Peace talks have taken place on and off over the last ten years but have achieved little of significance. Although there have been no major outbreaks of fighting in the meantime, border clashes and armed raids by both sides continue to inflict casualties.
A new constitution was adopted on 4 November 1994 which declared Abkhaz sovereignty. Elections were held on 23 November 1996 but these were not recognised by the Georgian government or the international community. The CIS imposed economic sanctions in January and the region is formally blockaded by both Georgia and Russia.
Abkhazian leaders have made alternating demands in recent years. At times, they have insisted on full independence, and at other times, they have requested associate membership of the Russian Federation. However, the Russian government has been slow to respond to the latter proposal, fearing the negative effect of such an action on its relations with Georgia. On 28 November, 2003, Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky tabled such a resolution in the State Duma, but saw it rejected. Nonetheless, many citizens of Abkhazia now posses Russian citizenship, and Abkhazians, unlike Georgians entering Russia, do not require a visa.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, European Union and United Nations have continued to insist that Abkhazia must remain part of Georgia, and that at the very least, the many Georgian refugees that fled after the 1992-1993 war must be allowed to return before any acceptable vote on independence can be held.
The Georgian government has continued to insist on Abkhazia's reunification with Georgia, but has differed in its suggestions of means to achieve this, particularly under the government of current President Mikhail Saakashvili.
They have, at times, proposed two main peace deals. The first one would divide Georgia into seven autonomous entities, each with power over police and economic issues, and relinquishing power over defence and foreign affairs to the federal government. In a later proposal, it was suggested that Georgia and Abkhazia could form one federal Georgian republic, somewhat along the lines of Serbia and Montenegro.
The Georgian government has, at times, suggested that they may attempt to resolve the conflict by military means. After the 2004 removal of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze from office after large public protests, Saakashvili suggested that Abkhazia and fellow seperatist entity South Ossetia could be reintegrated in the same manner. However, over the following months, he distanced himself from this idea.
Saakashvili has also attempted to portray the Abkhaz dispute as being between Georgia and Russia, due to the latter's support of the seperatists, with the seperatist government being insignificant. To this end, they have pushed for either the complete removal, or major changes to the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, and the removal of Russian military bases from Abkhaz territory. During they succeeded in achieving the latter demand, with Russia removing its bases, leaving only its peacekeeping force.
Both the Abkhazian government and opposition resolutely oppose reunification with Georgia under any circumstances.