The Capture of Sukhum – Part III

Dear Readers:
We have been working our way through this piece, by writer Alexander Rostovtsev.  Yesterday we saw tensions between the Gruzians and Abkhazians leading up to a series of clashes and wars, starting in spring of 1989 and continuing on into the 1990’s and beyond.

We left off with two key milestones:

  • On 21 February 1992 the ruling Military Council of newly independent Gruzia repealed the Constitution of the Gruzian SSR and returned to the Constitution of 1921.  Short history:  After the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and ensuing Civil War, Gruzia briefly broke away from Russia and declared independence (May 26, 1918).  The new government was ruled by the Menshevik faction of the Gruzian Social Democratic Party.  Independent Gruzia faced many challenges, both internal and external.  In fact, it quickly became a protectorate of Western powers, and so could hardly be called truly independent.  As wiki mentions:    The young state had to place itself under German protection and to cede its largely Muslim-inhabited regions (including the cities of Batum, Ardahan, Artvin, Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki) to the Ottoman government (Treaty of Batum, June 4). However, German support enabled the Georgians to repel the Bolshevik threat from Abkhazia. German forces were almost certainly under the command of Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein. British-held Batum, however, remained out of Georgia’s control until 1920. On December 25, 1918, a British force was deployed in Tbilisi too.    Note how Abkhazia is mentioned in this context as part of the “Bolshevik threat”.  Initially the Soviet Union, in its weakened state, was forced to recognize neighboring Gruzia in all its Western-protectorate glory (treaty signed in Moscow on 1920).  However, that situation could not stand.  In February 1921 the Soviet Red Army re-took Gruzia and annulled the 1921 Constitution, instead incorporating Gruzia into the USSR.  Seventy years later and history repeats itself:  The Gruzians annul the Soviet Constitution and return to the virtual reality of 1921, in which they are a capitalist country and a Western protectorate.

Red Army commanders in Batum, 1921

  • On 23 July, 1992 Abkhazia reacts:  A session of the Supreme Soviet (which is boycotted by the Gruzian delegates) votes to re-institute the Abkhazian Constitution of 1925.  Which is this, and begins thusly:  1. After overthrowing a power of a former Georgian Democratic republic on the territory of Abkhazia, the workers, peasants and soldiers of a Red Army of Abkhazia have founded the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia and established sovereignty and dictatorship of the proletariat rendering all state power to the Councils of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies.

Abkhazian flag of 1925 denotes Abkhazia as an SSR

1992 – A Line In Blood

These dueling recidivist constitutions could only result in bloodshed.  On 14 August 1992 clashes between the two countries, Gruzia and Abkhazia, led to full-fledged war, complete with aviation, artillery, and use of all weapons.  With so-called “Operation Sword”, Gruzian soldiers invaded Abkhazian soil, under the pretext of freeing hostages and securing the railroad lines.  This incursion sparked furious resistance on the part of the Abkhazians and other ethnic minority groups, all of whom were united in their distrust of Gruzian nationalists.

Both sides had clear goals:  The Gruzian goal was to reestablish territorial integrity of the entire Gruzian entity.  The Abkhazian goal was to secure Abkhazian autonomy, or possibly even (more ambitious) achieve independence.  At the time a noted Gruzian parliamentarian gave away the game when he declared:  “We are for the rights of man.  However, the rights of Gruzians on Gruzian soil, must take precedence over the rights of man.”

By the way, I searched for that quote, to see if I could find out who this “noted parliamentarian” is, or maybe this quote is just some urban legend.  Best I could find is that the quote was uttered by some guy named D. [possibly Dzhemal] Gamakharia.  [More interestingly, in the course of searching, I did find this interesting monograph by a scholar named M.A. Zhirokhov, on the use of aviation in the Abkhaz-Gruzian War of 1992.]

Ukrainian Banderite mercenaries fought against Abkhazia – that might be Yatsenuk front right.

In any case, whether or not Gamakharia or anybody else ever uttered such a thing, it doesn’t really matter.  Because Gruzian nationalism was a potent force, and Abkhazians were pretty sure they knew what was in store for them if they were to submit to full-blown Gruzian authority over them.  They would be forcibly assimilated and, as a people, die out.

And sure enough, the Gruzian invasion intensified, now also beefed up by mercenaries recruited from Gruzia’s Western allies.  Various nationalististic Gruzian militaries and paramilitaries included the National Guard unit “Mkhedrioni”, the paramilitary “White Eagle” and various other unsavory formations, including 500 hired mercenaries from the Ukrainian neo-Nazi group UNA-UNSO (aka the Banderites, and evolving to today’s “Right Sektor” party in Ukraine).

Abkhazia = A Thorn In The Lion’s Paw

Why did people like Ukrainian Banderites rush to the Caucacus to kill Abkhazians?  What had the Abkhazians ever done to them?  Well, nothing, really.  But isn’t it obvious?  An “independent” Gruzia as a Western protectorate — on a track to being a NATO country on Russia’s vulnerable southern border — was a big prize for the Westie side.  Gruzia was slated to be a crown jewel in the anti-Russian coalition that Westies started building feverishly the very instant the Soviet Union dissolved.  But Abkhazians, by resisting Gruzian “territorial integrity” threw a spoke into this rolling wheel.  They didn’t do it, necessarily, out of any grand geo-political scheme or reasoning on a global scale.  They did it instinctively, for their own survival.  Just like the hero of a Russian fairytale, it is the self-serving actions of the small guy, the “cunning peasant”, who unwittingly brings down the mighty giant.

Sculpture of lion-chimera from ancient Colchis

The Abkhazians fought back fiercely against the incursion of the Gruzian army, paramilitaries, and foreign mercenaries.  In the Russian tradition, self-called local militias rose up, consisting of ethnic Abkhazians, Armenians, Greeks and Russians.  Other “volunteers” (the Gruzian side would call them “mercenaries”) arrived from Russia and Transnistria.  The war was on, and the two sides drawn clearly in the sand.

The Gruzian side possessed military superiority, especially in the area of heavy artillery.  The Soviet army (10th Division), on withdrawing from Gruzia, had left behind 108 T-55 tanks, 111 BMP-1’s,  4 BTR-70’s and much other artillery.  The Soviet condition for bequeathing this equipment to the Gruzian army (Tashkent Treaty of May 1992) was that it not be used in internal conflicts.  But it was used in this internal conflict, so the Gruzians lied.  On the aviation front, the Gruzians possessed around a dozen SU-25’s, a couple of MIG-21’s and a couple of helicopters, for which they had no trained pilots.

Against this, the Abkhazian side had only hunting rifles and some rocket launchers.  But soon enough the Abkhazians began to acquire trophy weapons from the Gruzians.  By October 1992 the Abkhazians had won enough tropheys to stand on almost equal ground with their foe.  With the exception of aviation, of which the Abkhazians had none.

[to be continued]

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