The Capture of Sukhum – Part II

This piece, by writer Alexander Rostovtsev, as I mentioned yesterday, is devoted to the history of the Gruzia-Abkhazia war of the 1990’s, with the lede being the 22nd anniversary of the capture of Sukhum, capital of Abkhazia. Yesterday we briefly covered the history of the conflict between these two peoples who have populated the Southern Caucacus since antiquity; both peoples have a rich and ancient culture and much in common, yet cannot get along.   Sometimes they seem like a Caucasian version of the Scottish Highlanders.  And often seem to need a third party arbitrator, be it Tsar or Commissars, to keep these mountain clans apart.

1989 – War Breaks Out

Leaving the ancient world behind, we fast forward to March 18, 1989.  This is how the war started:  In the Abkhazian town of Lykhny, which in ancient times was the capital  of the Akhazian Princes, a group of some 30,000 Akhazians marched in procession, demanding the secession of Abkhazia from the Gruzian entity; and the reinstatement of Abkhazian status as an SSR.  Recall from yesterday we discussed the difference between an SSR (Union Republic) and ASSR (Autonomous Republic), and how it is better to be the former than the latter.

A couple of weeks later, on April 4-9 1989 a pro-independence demonstration in Tbilisi, Gruzia was put down by the police.  These events were to lead eventually to the election of former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia as the President of a newly-independent Gruzia.  But before we get to that….

Abkhazians saw what happened in Tbilisi and mainly sided with the police rather than the demonstrators.  See, to put everything in simplistic terms:  Gruzians wanted to be independent of the Soviet Union; whereas Abkhazians wanted to be independent of the Gruzians.

Thus proving that my mom is right, when she says that you can’t please everybody all the time.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia

As the conflict deepened:  On 15-16 July 1989 there were clashes between groups of ethnic Abkhazians and Gruzians.  In the course of these clashes, 16 people died and some 140 were wounded.  Army troops were brought in to keep the peace.  The existing leadership of the Republic was able to keep order, and things calmed down.  It helped that Gamsakhurdia, once he became President of Gruzia, was inclined to make concessions to the Abkhazians.  This might have been a key moment where Gruzia could have established herself as an independent federation of various ethnic groups — different but equal — and Gruzian tribes made peace with the other ingredients.  But no….

Pipe dream, anyhow, because too many levels of distrust had piled up over the centuries.  And once the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics had fully disintegrated into its contituent ingredients, once the Russians had gone away, there was literally nothing keeping Abkhazia within the bounds of independent Gruzia.  A Gruzia which became militantly nationalistic and declared a policy “Gruzia for Gruzians”.  By “Gruzians” meaning mostly Kartvelians, possibly others, but certainly not including Abkhazians as a component of the Chosen People.  Thus proving once again that a “Nationalist Internationale” is an oxymoron.  Nationalists simply cannot get along with other people, because they are too full of themselves.

I Need Independence, Why Do You Need Independence?

Rubbing salt into Abkhazian wounds, the victorious Gruzian nationalists started to cite “historical science” and adduce various documents “proving” that Abkhazian land was actually Gruzian land from way back; and that the Abkhazians were interlopers and migrants into sacred Gruzian soil.  A typical Gruzian taunt of the time went something like this:

Abkhazians: “You can’t fool me with your jive talk!”

“Why do you need independence, you Abkhazians?  Under the protection of Greater Gruzia, your people will preserve its population and autonomy.  Without Gruzia you’ll just be assimilated by the Armenians.  Or, if not the Armenians, the Russians.  They’ll just take your land.  They need the land, not the people.”

But Abkhazians, being a cunning and world-weary people, were not taken in by these seductive arguments nor the accompanying trash talk.  They continued, politely but persistently, to distance themselves from everything Gruzian.

On 21 February 1992, the Military Council of Gruzia announced the repeal of the Constitution of the Gruzian SSR of 1978.  The 1978 Constitution was repealed in favor of the return to a much earlier constitution, that of the Gruzian Democratic Republic of 1921.  In essence, Gruzia made an ideological choice here.  Predictable, but radical.  Dismissing the entire 70 years of the Soviet past and mentally returning to 1921, with everything that entailed.  In our next installment we will take a look at that 1921 entity and Constitution, and delve more into just what this choice meant for Gruzians, as well as Abkhazians.  For now, suffice it to say that Gruzia’s reaction prompted a Newtonian equal but opposite re-action on the part of the Abkhazian leadership.  If Gruzia could return in time to 1921, then the Abkhazians allowed themselves to go back in time to 1925, when they were also a sovereign state.

[to be continued]

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