Today we shall finish this historical piece from PolitNavigator, written by Russian journalist Alexander Rostovtsev. The material covers events from 1992-1993, namely the capture of Sukhum, the capital of the Abkhazian Autonomy.
Where we left off with our story yesterday, the Abkhaz side attempted to re-take Sukhum from the Gruzians on 5 January 1993. Recall that Sukhum was the capital of the Abkhazian people since ancient times; and yet 70 years of the Soviet system and decades of population migrations had resulted in the city being ethnically mixed, and Abkhazians a minority within their own autonomy. People who complain about Russians being “occupiers” by migrating to non-Russian areas, need to understand that this situation cuts both ways. In the modern world, all peoples: Russians, pro-Russians and anti-Russians, tend to move around a lot. The 1989 census for Abkhazia shows a total population of around 525,061, with ethnic Gruzians at 45.7%, ethnic Abkhazians 17.8%, Russians 14.3%, Armenians 14.6%, and Greeks 2.8%. Under Soviet rule, Sukhum had become a majority ethnic-Gruzian city, a fact which the Abkhazians blame on Stalin and his supposed bias towards his Favorite People. But, in my humble opinion, could also could just be the result of normal population movements and inter-marriage in a fast-moving and post-industrial world.
The first Abkhazian storm of the capital was repulsed. The second attempt, in March of 1993 was also repulsed, with high casualties, especially among the Armenian Battalion, which was fighting alongside the Abkhazians, as part of a Caucasian Peoples Confederation against the Gruzians.
Next, the Abkhaz side changed their tactics. Instead of a full frontal storm of Sukhum, they began a campaign of wearing away at the suburbs, taking populated points one by one, and gradually forcing back the Gruzian troops. The end game was to force all Gruzian military formations out of the Autonomy.
This wiki entry, which is pro-Gruzian in tone, adds more details, including lurid atrocity stories, but also some piquant notes proving overall Russian (moral) neutrality in this ferocious inter-ethnic conflict. Since Russians helped evacuate at-risk Gruzian civilians.
Abkhaz forces, largely supported by the Russian military presence in the region, were now in control over Gagra, Gudauta (where a former Russian military base remains) and Tkvarcheli and rapidly approaching Sukhumi.
The expelled Georgians fled to Russia through the land border or were evacuated by Russian Navy.
The villages along the Gumista river (north and east of Sukhumi) such as Achadara, Kamani and Shroma, which were heavily populated by ethnic Georgians became a strategically important area, which enabled motorized units to reach Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. After a failed attempt to storm Sukhumi from the west, the Abkhaz formations and their allies diverted their offensive on the northern and eastern sides of Sukhumi. On 2 July 1993 under Russian military directives and naval support, the Abkhaz and their (Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus) allies attacked the villages on the Gumista river. The Georgian side didn’t expect any offensive from the northern or eastern side of Sukhumi District.
The Georgian forces suffered heavy losses (as many as 500 dead within an hour of the attack) and the defensive line around Sukhumi was breached by the Abkhaz offensive. On 5 July 1993, Abkhaz, Armenian Bagramyan battalion, Russian and North Caucasian detachments stormed the villages of Akhalsheni, Guma and Shroma of Sukhumi district. The residents from the villages were rounded up and massacred. The last offensive took place on 9 July, on the village of Kamani. Kamani was a Svan (sub-ethnic group of the Georgian people) village, which also included an Orthodox Church (named after St. George) and convent. After the fall of the village, most of its inhabitants (including nuns and priests) were killed by Abkhaz formations and their allies (see Kamani massacre).
On 20 September the Abkhaz forces stormed Sukhum for a third attempt. They were able to capture several suburbs and neighborhoods, including the airport. The capital was surrounded and Gruzian troops pushed back. Five days later the Abkhazian flag was raised over Mount Sukhum and over the railroad station. The end was close.
Two Sides To Every Story
Like my mom says, there are two sides to every story. While the wiki entry tells a horror tale of raping Cossacks and Russian MIG’s deliberately dropping thermobaric bombs on residential areas, Rostovtsev recounts how the Abkhazian military command offered the Gruzian forces a corridor with which to retreat eastward — back to Gruzia — and how the Gruzians arrogantly refused the offer.
On 27 September, 1993 Sukhum finally fell to the Abkhazian side. At 15:30 hours, after a battle lasting two hours, the flag of the Republic of Abkhazia was raised over the Government Building. The victorious Abkhazians captured many tropheys, including dozens of tanks, weapons, armored vehicles. The Gruzian forces were completely shattered and forced to leave all of Abkhazia (with the exception of one slice, the Kodori Gorge, which they held onto until 2008).
During that final battle, Gruzian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who was in Sukhum leading the military campaign, declared in an interview with Russian newspaper “Izvestia” that he planned to remain in Sukhum and share the fate of his people. Along these lines, Shev appealed to the citizenry to fight to their last drop of blood. Wiki again:
Shevardnadze appealed to the population of Sukhumi by radio:
- Dear friends, Citizens of Sukhumi and Georgia! Georgia is facing the most difficult days, especially Sukhumi. Separatists and foreign invaders entered into the city. I am proud of your courage… Separatists and opportunists will be judged by history… They do not want Georgians to live in this Georgian city. Many of them dream to repeat the Gagra tragedy here… I know that you understand the challenge we are facing. I know how difficult the situation is. Many people left the city but you remain here for Sukhumi and for Georgia…. I call on you, citizens of Sukhumi, fighters, officers and generals: I understand the difficulties of being in your position now, but we have no right to step back, we all have to hold our ground. We have to fortify the city and save Sukhumi. I would like to tell you that all of us – Government of Abkhazia, Cabinet of Ministers, Mr. Zhiuli Shartava, his colleagues, the city and regional government of Sukhumi, are prepared for action. The enemy is aware of our readiness, that’s why he is fighting in the most brutal way to destroy our beloved Sukhumi. I call on you to keep peace, tenacity and self-control. We have to meet the enemy in our streets as they deserve.
After this emotional appeal to the population, Shevardnadze then proceeded to pack his suitcase and flee for his life. Escaping death, so he says, by a whisker. His official biography is coy about the next few days of his life, there is noticeable gap in the record. Rostovtsev cites rumors that the Russian Special-Ops group “Alfa” secured Shevardnadze’s safety and flew him to Tbilisi. When next we pick up his story, a few weeks later, Shev is involved in a new civil war with his rival Zviad Gamsakhurdia and is appealing for Russian military assistance against the latter. Citing a different wiki entry on the ensuing inter-Gruzian civil war, Shev secured the assistance of the Russian Black Sea fleet, commanded by Admiral Baltin, who helped him crush his rival and put him back in power in Tbilisi. Thus initiating the rule by which the Gruzian commander-in-chief who is defeated on the battlefield, still gets to keep his job in the corridors of power.
Aftermath: Ethnic Cleansing and Human Suffering
The startling and decisive Abkhazian military victory was followed by a period of ethnic cleansing of the majority ethnic Gruzian population. As even the anti-Russian wiki admits, though, the Russian government did what it could to save lives, by evacuating civilians, mostly by sea. Rostovtsev, who clearly has little sympathy for the Gruzians, remarks ironically: “It is notable that when Russian ships began to evacuate Gruzian refugees out of Abkhazia, many of them demanded to take their stolen automobiles with them on the boats.”
In the final accounting of the war, Rostovtsev adduces the following metrics:
- Approximately 4,000 dead Gruzians, with another 1,000 disappeared without a trace
- Approximately 4,000 dead Abkhazians
- Losses to the economy of $10.7 billion dollars
- Around 250,000 Gruzians (almost half of the population) forced to flee their own homes
- Other refugees included some tens of thousands of Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Germans, and Jews (with the ever-handy Israel helping to evacuate Abkhazian Jews on military planes). There was also a small Estonian diaspora which had dwelled in Abkhazia since the 19th century, and they also fled.
To this day, 23 years later, the Gruzian government has not been able to fully house or care for the refugees from the 1992-1993 war. Many of these refugee families continue to live in ramshackle temporary housing and even hotel rooms. In August 2008, under President Mikheil Saakashvili and allegedly egged on by American advisors, the Gruzians made one more attempt to re-take their “lost province” of Abkhazia. That attempt also resulted in defeat and the loss of Gruzia’s one remaining slice of Abkhazia, namely the Kodori Gorge.
And also as a result of that 2008 re-match, Abkhazia “officially” changed its status from a breakaway territory of Gruzia to that of an independent sovereign state. Not recognized by Westies, obviously, but recognized by four UN member states, including (most importantly!), Russia.