18 January 2004, 20:20

The lost Chegem

Ten years ago, on September 27, 1993, Sokhumi was captured, and Georgian troops were dislodged beyond the river Inguri on September 30.

The war lasted longer than a year - this year then seemed eternal.

On August 14, 1992, Georgian troops rapidly invaded Abkhazia. Thus started one of the most destructive and bloodiest armed conflicts in the former Soviet republics. Refugees poured from what had used to be a heavenly nook. The Abkhaz party was not only able soon to put up defense, but also to employ the hardware seized from the enemy. Aid came soon. It came overtly from the Caucasus Peoples Confederation and Cossack units that made up volunteer battalions. But the covert aid was no less important, received from Russian militarized structured and security agencies that armed and trained those units. Aid from the outside came to Georgia, too, where volunteers fought from among Ukrainian nationalists. And in September of next year, 1993, hundreds of thousands of Abkhazian residents, this time Georgians, again became refugees.

To separate the parties, Russian troops were moved to the conflict area under the banner of collective peacekeeping forces; they just changed their status, though, because they had been there before. But even now, ten years later, the conflict is as before far from a political settlement.

In reality, the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict began much earlier than 10 years ago.

Its "political" phase by that time had lasted for several years already, from the late 1980s, i.e. from the start of Gorbachev's "perestroika." Meetings developed into armed confrontation replaced by a lull. It is quite another matter that the date when the war began was not accidental - on August 14, 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet was to complete codification of Abkhazia's separation from Georgia.

If we take a deeper look at it, the matter was not in the perestroika - like all other ethno-social conflicts in that period, it had been laid down in the preceding seven decades of Soviet rule. Those willing can address "samizdat" [secretly printed books, magazines, etc., that were forbidden by the state in the USSR - trans.] and the 63rd fascicle of Chronicle of Current Events published in 1981 where the 6-page document titled The Georgian Nation's Demands outlines the contours of all conflicts that came up years later.

Probably, every reader knows Fazil Iskander's novel "Sandro from Chegem." However, even the beautiful Chegem described by Iskander in his saga harbored seeds of trouble - suffice it to reread the chapters about the Endurs personifying evil foreigners of an alien denomination.

Fazil Abdulovich wrote about us, though, residents of the Soviet Union; after all, Endurs can be found everywhere.

The Abkhaz national movement appealed to relics of the early Soviet administrative division of territories, to the year 1925, to those times when Abkhazia was equal to Georgia in its status in the USSR. The Georgian national movement has its own "golden age" placed within a brief period of independence between monarchy and Soviet rule.

So the April meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1989 was turned against Abkhaz separatists. Its dispersal - blood on sapper spades - became the symbol of the Soviet government's switch to violence in fighting centrifugal tendencies.

For Georgia, that entire year passed in struggle. It was Abkhazia in spring. The summer of 1989 elapsed in expectation of an invasion by the Meskhetian Turks ousted from the Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan, ready to invade Sakartvelo; even duties of voluntary units were organized on Georgia's borders. In autumn, it was South Ossetia's turn where several thousand people went from Tbilisi for "explanation of national policy." In the same autumn of 1989, after Merab Kostav's death in a car accident, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's hegemony in the Georgian national movement became absolute. In fighting Georgia's communist leadership, he staked on the trump card of nationalism. Givi Gumbaridze, Secretary of the Communist Party, tried to fight him on this ground, but all in vain: it is always hard to outdo radical nationalists, while disputing with them promised to cost one too much.

This is when Andrei Sakharov, comparing Georgian politicians' actions in the autonomies with Moscow's policy in respect of the union republics, called Georgia a "small empire." His voice remained unheard, like the voice of the Georgian sage Merab Mamardashvili who left his homeland, but failed to stand this parting. Another artist who had foretold the future through imagery of the past - movie director Tengiz Abuladze who had directed Penance - kept silent while his resurrected hero, the new Varlam Aravidze, was gaining strength. As a result, Gamsakhurdia became president. It started to smolder on Georgia's outskirts, and then it blazed.

There are similar examples in present-day Russia, though: the "second Chechen war" served as a basis for Putin's political victory in 1999-2000. And none of our contemporary politicians recalls Andrei Dmitrievich - "it's not the custom currently."

* * *
For Georgia, it was a hard and insane time.

It was blazing in South Ossetia: large-scale military action was underway there from January 1991 after Georgian police was moved into the rebellious autonomy's capital - "to establish constitutional order." The police were blocked in Tskhinvali and made a retreat after three weeks' battles.

In the autumn of 1991, the intra-political confrontation in Georgia developed into civil war on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. By New Year, Gamsakhurdia's government in the capital was overthrown, but Zviadists in Mingrelia continued guerilla war against the newly-established "State Council" of Georgia. Eduard Shevardnadze headed the Council, being considered but a nominal, if authoritative, figure by armed groups' leaders.

It seemed insanity to move troops into the rebellious autonomy after the defeat in Tskhinvali, more so that approaches to it in West Georgia were blocked by Zviadist guerilla units.

From Russia, it seemed insanity.

* * *
How different we are now, eleven years later! In August 1992, by the start of the war in Abkhazia, less than one year had passed after the August Coup's failure - the almost bloodless and, as it seemed, final victory of democracy in Russia. It seemed to us this country did conquer democracy, avoiding nationalistic frenzy and civil wars. Moreover, becoming independent we separated from local conflicts flaring up in Transnistria, the Caucasus, and Middle Asia. At the same time, we, Russians, had not yet realized the reality of this separation. Everything seemed closely related to us - we, "democrats" felt responsibility of Russian democracy for developments in the former Soviet republics - with some conscious superiority to all the rest.

This myth was to be destroyed in a couple of months - the bloody Ossetian-Ingush conflict will start soon; blood will be shed in Moscow in another year, and troops will be moved to Chechnya in two years. Motorized brigades will be sent to Grozny in the same insane way as the Georgian police force to Tskhinvali - and they will be just as cruelly routed. Our "small victorious war" will linger years leading to change of government in the country. Yet in the summer of 1992, we did not know anything of this.

* * *
The blitz on Abkhazia carried out under the pretext of either "protecting the railway from the Zviadist guerillas" or "fighting terrorists to free the hostages" (this motive is now familiar to us, isn't it?) allowed occupying most of the autonomy, practically the entire coastline from the river Inguri to the river Psou, almost everything but the mountains. However, it soon became clear that overwhelming domination in manpower (and absolute in materiel) cannot substitute for skill and morale. Abkhaz units soon seized most hardware. The government of Abkhazia moved to Gudauta and managed to organize resistance. In a month and a half, Abkhaz forces were already able to regain Gagra and reached the river Gumista where the front actually froze for a year. Sokhumi and the entire coastline south remained under the control of Georgian forces with an obstructed coalminer's settlement, Tkvarcheli, in their rear.

Oddly enough, the Abkhaz war seemed not to exist in Russian politics that time. Although it received continuous media coverage, it left no due trace in the Russian "media space," as they call it now, remaining in fact an "unknown war." This can be explained in part - the main political process in Russia in 1992-93 - the confrontation between the Supreme Soviet and the President that reached its peak on September 21 and was over on October 4 - was the focus of all media's attention. Meanwhile, in Abkhazia the denouement occurred five days earlier - Sokhumi was taken on September 27, 1993.

For Georgia, these were tragic days. More than 0.2 million Georgian residents of Abkhazia had to flee. Evacuation of Eduard Shevardnadze who came to the front at the crucial moment was only possible thanks to Russia's military.

They tried to supply the half-surrounded garrison in Sokhumi by air. Several passenger planes were brought down by surface-to-air missiles launched from the boats that blocked the city from sea - hundreds of people were killed. They remember it in Georgia.

However, in Abkhazia they can remind another incident when on December 14, 1992, a helicopter was brought down on its way from Tkvarcheli, so 84 people died, including 35 children.

There is seldom the right side at war, though - there are warring parties and suffering population.

* * *
From the start of the conflict, Abkhazia was on the brink of humanitarian disaster. There was trouble, as is the custom to say, with observation of humanitarian law - there were missing people and hostages, and the condition of civilians became critical.

Aid could come from Russia alone, across the Psou. It was one of the first such experiences for Russian humanitarian organizations.

One can recall collection and delivery of humanitarian aid to the obstructed, starving Tkvarcheli.

One can also recall peacemaking attempts, not that much of a success, though. Victor Popkov, organizer of a "peace march" in the conflict area, paid a visit to basements of both warring parties' security services as a result...

However, the same Popkov was trying to stop extrajudicial executions in Sokhumi captured by Georgian forces - and he saved many people in what seemed to be a hopeless situation.

Several years later, Popkov again will need this experience, this time in Russia. During the first Chechen war, he had dozens of Russian soldiers out of Chechen captivity, in which his being acquainted with Chechen field commanders who had fought in Abkhazia came in handy.

But we already have lost even this experience. In the spring of 2001, already during the "second Chechen war," Popkov was shot dead on Grozny's outskirts by "unidentified armed people in camouflage uniforms."

* * *
Chechens fought in Abkhazia, under Basaev's command - this is commonly known presently.

Well, actually, many remember that time as a kind of soar of international romanticism. It's a strange thing: fighting in Abkhazia involved both Cossack battalions and troops of the Caucasus Peoples Confederation which was based exactly on the idea that the mountain peoples make a contrast to all the rest. They were preparing to oppose both empires: the "big" one, Russia, and the "small" one, Georgia. However, Russia had not yet used force in the Caucasus mountains, having kept from quelling Chechen separatism in the autumn of 1991; meanwhile, in the winter of that year Georgia had shown itself large as life to the mountain peoples in South Ossetia. As for the Cossacks (as well as national patriots in general), this was their second, after Transnistria, experience of armed resistance to "anti-Russian, anti-communist forces." One song popular with Chechen units was created in Abkhazia by a Cossack last-named Bardadym.

Volunteers from among Ukrainian nationalists fought on the Georgian side, though, too.

The unity of the Caucasus Peoples Confederation was broken by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict as soon as in the autumn of 1992. The Cossack author of the song was killed in action. And in 1995, the Cossack Ermolov battalion was employed in Chechnya as part of the federal force.

However, this time Ukrainian volunteers did not fight against Chechens, but on their side - everything was mixed up! Later on, Chechen units found shelter on Georgian territory and even set out with Georgian guerillas against Abkhazia.

* * *
Organized and regular aid from the Russian military was no less essential for the Abkhaz victory than volunteer units.

As a matter of fact, the military took part in all post-Soviet conflicts, and often on all sides: corruption is insuperable, after all. In February of the same year 1992, the 366th motorized regiment took part in a "clean-up operation" in the Azeri settlement of Khojaly, Nagorno-Karabakh; on the contrary, General Shamanov's paratroopers broke the Armenian front in the Shaumian district in June. However, in Abkhazia this participation - supplying arms, training professionals, and bombing by "unidentified flying objects" - all this was planned and conscious. One can even say it was in Abkhazia where the way began to the revanche of the late 1990s, to the "second Chechen war," and to Putin's election.

* * *
There is another, personal connection between Abkhazia in the early 1990s and Russia at the end of the decade - Shamil Basaev.

Basaev's "Abkhaz battalion" took Sokhumi along with Abkhaz battalions proper. A video has been preserved of Chechen fighters dancing against the background of the burning building of the Council of Ministers.

In five days, the House of Soviets will burn - the "White House" in Moscow, and a year later, Chechens will dance zikr against the background of the Republican Committee - the presidential palace in Grozny that will soon also be destroyed. These ponderous buildings are not only alike in architecture, but also in fate...

If one takes a careful look at it, though, a lot of conflicts in the Caucasus are related in the same way: Basaev's people also fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on Azerbaijan's side, without, however, winning much fame there.

But it was in Abkhazia that Basaev and many other Chechens received special training under the direction of Russian paratroopers and special forces. The officer who trained Shamil thought him very able, but rather an executor absolutely indisposed to initiative. Time has told how wrong he was...

Russian security services brought up Basaev in hope for sole use - and they were wrong, like one should observe the Americans were wrong about Osama bin Laden. Some lovers of all-explaining versions, though, consider Shamil an agent, and they think his raid on Budennovsk in 1995 and campaign in Dagestan in 1999 a sophisticated provocation. The matter is more likely to be simpler: the student left the school and said good-bye to his teachers and then he surpassed them. Shamil Basaev in 1993, 1995, 1997, and 1999 are very different, unalike people, though.

* * *
In 1998, when Basaev was Ichkeria's Prime Minister, legal action was taken against him in Georgia "for genocide of the Georgian population in Abkhazia." More likely, it was a projection of Shamil's future "black" glory onto his past. Indeed, when Sokhumi was occupied by Abkhaz forces, a wave of robberies and murders swept across the city - yet they are by no means attributed to Basaev's battalion, but to the rearguard "Cossack battalions."

The same Cossacks had handled small robbery and looting before, too, on the territory they controlled. The "Ermolov battalion" was also famous for such activities in Chechnya. This problem is ours, a Russian one, not an Abkhaz or a Chechen one. That time robberies and murders were explained with bandits from "illegal armed formations" making violence over foreigners and people of denominations other than their own. As a matter of fact, though, Georgian residents of Sokhumi, leaving in the autumn of 1993 through the Kodori Gorge, were robbed by Svans of the same religion. In Russia, we needed several years of "clean-up operations" in Chechnya to understand: our regular army can rob the same skillfully...

* * *
Although Russian militarized agencies' participation, as it is, in the Abkhaz war is undisputable, their role and meaning is subject to discussion up to now. The Abkhaz party ignores it not to give away the laurels of victory, while the Georgian party, on the contrary, underscores it, reluctant to have been beaten by the knowingly weaker enemy. However, it's certainly not up to us to judge here: domestic propagandists in uniforms and civilian clothes have long been regaling us with fairytales that "white stockings" and crowds of Arab mercenaries have been stealing victory from our valiant army for years.

These are again our, Russia's unlearned lessons. Their overwhelming superiority in manpower and absolute in materiel did not yield victory to Georgian forces in Abkhazia. In accordance with the Tashkent Treaty of 1992 and specified provisions of the 1990 Paris Treaty, literally on the eve of the war, Georgia received a lot of arms and military materiel; there were hundreds of combat armored vehicles, but even this did not help.

And again, it is not up to us, Russians, to give grades here. Russia's federal forces showed in 1995-96 and have been demonstrating since 1999 that numerical superiority is not so important and that there is no military solution to problems such as that of Abkhazia or Chechnya.

* * *
So what sort of undoubted lesson can we learn from that? Perhaps, there is one: neither sovereignty (stands for independence), nor sovereignty (stands for territorial integrity) were and are not worth such sacrifices and sufferings. The question is when we are going to understand this, and when this understanding will develop into action. Ten years have passed, but we are still walking the path of errors and crimes.

Author: Alexander Cherkasov, Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow) Source: Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow, Russia)

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