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Abkhazia: facts & history

Located in north-western Georgia, the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic covers an area of 8,700 sq. km and had a pre-war population of 535,634. The borders of the republic are delineated by the Black Sea in the west and southwest, the Greater Caucasus Mountains in the north, the Psou River in the northwest, and the lower reaches of the Enguri along with the Svanetian-Abkhazian Mountains in the east.

Mountains and foothills cover 74 percent of the territory of Abkhazia; the highest peaks are Dombai Ulgen (4,046 meters), Psish (5,790 meters), Ertsakhvu (3,910 meters), and Guandra, (3985 meters). The mountain passes connect Abkhazia with villages of the Stavropolsky region in the northern Caucasus. The balance of the landscape is low lands stretching to the Black Sea Coast.

The climate ranges from humid subtropical on the coast to extremely alpine, with temperatures on the highest peaks falling to below 0° С even in July-August when it is 25° С in Sokhumi. In winter the temperature exceeds 7° С on the coast and can fall as low as -19° С in the upper elevations. Travelers will benefit from the approximately 215 sunny days in the year.

Tea, tobacco, and citrus grow along the coast. There is an abundance of fruit- bearing trees like apple, pear, and persimmon, and forest covers 55 percent of the territory. Excellent honey comes from higher up in the mountains.

The origins of the Abkhazian people are unclear. The language is part of the North Caucasian language group, and scholarly opinion favors the notion that the indigenous people are related to the Heniochi tribe, a proto-Georgian group. Pliny in the first century AD and Arrian in the second century mention the Apsily and the Abazghi tribes of this region. Many Georgian scholars hold that the Abkhazians and Georgians were the two aboriginal peoples who lived in this region but that in the 17th to 19th centuries the Abkhazians mixed with the Adige, a North Caucasian people, thus losing their orientation to Georgian culture.

Western Georgia has known many rulers. In the first century ВС after the Colchian Kingdom had weakened, the territory now defined as Abkhazia was conquered by the ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator. In 65 ВС the Romans defeated him and ruled the coastal regions until the fourth century AD. From the first century AD the Romans had to contend with the Kingdom of Lazica. The Laz, a Georgian tribe that had settled in the territory of ancient Colchis, were a power to be reckoned with until the sixth century. In the sixth century the region suffered the attentions of both the Byzantines and Sassanid Iran. In the eighth century Abkhazia became independent under the military leadership of Leon I, who became ruler. His successor, Leon II, managed to unite all of western Georgia under him and establish his capital in Kutaisi (in present-day Imereti). In 978, with the death of King Feodosy the Blind, Abkhazia joined eastern Georgia under Bagrat III, ruling from Kutaisi.

In 1578, Abkhazia fell to the Ottoman Empire, which began three centuries of Turkish subjugation in which the Christian Abkhazians were forcibly converted to Islam and many Georgians were sold as slaves. During this period mountain tribes of the northern Caucasus came down into Abkhazia. Throughout the 18th century Abkhazia, reunited with eastern Georgia, made many attempts to free itself from the Turkish yoke. It was not, however, until 1810, when the Prince of Abkhazia received  Russian protection that there was any relief. In the 1840s and 1860s, many Abkhazians emigrated to Turkey to join their coreligionists. Others who had participated in a peasant rebellion in 1866 were forcibly deported. Abkhazia was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1864. As a result of the emigration of Abkhazians to Turkey, new migrations of Svans, Rachans, and Russians, as well Armenians and Greeks from Turkey, occurred. On April 3, 1921, Abkhazia became a Soviet Autonomous Republic headed by Nestor Lakoba.

Under Georgia's 1921 constitution Abkhazia was virtually autonomous; Stalin made Abkhazia an autonomous republic in 1930, but he also encouraged large numbers of Georgians to immigrate; by 1989 the population of 450,000 was 46% Georgian, 18% Abkhaz, 14% Armenian, 14% Russian and 3% Greek. Perestroika encouraged the growth of secessionism and in July 1989 demands for teaching at the University of Sukhumi to be in Georgian rather than Abkhazian led to fighting and 14 deaths. In August 1990 the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet voted for independence as a Union Republic within the Soviet Union, but was persuaded to reverse this; in the referendum of March 1991 virtually the whole non-Georgian population of Abkhazia voted in vain to stay in the Soviet Union, seeing it as less of a threat than being part of an independent and nationalist Georgia.

Although the 1921 constitution was restored in 1992, the Abkhaz were convinced that Tbilisi was bent on denying them autonomy and saw no choice but independence; therefore a Republic of Abkhazia was declared in July 1992 (though without the required two-thirds majority). The next month Shevardnadze's defence minister, Kitovani, sent the National Guard into Abkhazia, ostensibly to protect transport links with Russia, and full-scale conflict broke out. The Abkhaz leader, Vladislav Ardzinba (a historian in Moscow until 1987), retreated to the Russian army base at Gudauta; with help from Russia and Muslim paramilitaries from the northern Caucasus he had regained control of northern Abkhazia by October. By spring of 1993 the front line seemed stable along the River Gumista, north of Sukhumi, although the city was largely destroyed by the Russians bombing Georgian troops. Shevardnadze flew to Moscow to urge Yeltsin to bring his generals under control, but he soon saw that Russia was determined to bring the former Soviet Republics under its domination. In May Kitovani was sacked; by July there was a ceasefire and UN observers arrived in August; however, the Abkhazians launched a surprise attack in September and soon 'liberated' Abkhazia (Shevardnadze went to Sukhumi vowing to defend it himself, but had to flee ignominiously by air). Around 8,000 people were killed between August 1992 and October 1993.

Between 200,000 and 350,000 Georgians and others fled, about 400 dying in the mountains on the border with Svaneti. Talks in Geneva produced an agreement on refugee repatriation; in July 1994 3,000 CIS (mainly Russian) peacekeepers moved in, and in August the first 5,000 refugees returned. The Georgians exiled from Abkhazia have considerable political influence in Tbilisi, and they and other nationalists are pushing for a (totally unrealistic) military solution; in January 1995, when Russia was distracted by its disastrous war in Chechnya, Kitovani attempted to invade with just a thousand fighters, but ended up in a Georgian jail.

Gali, the district of Abkhazia bordering Mingrelia, was virtually unscathed in 1993-94 and has been a demilitarised zone since mid 1994; but in May 1998 Georgian paramilitaries killed between six and 20 Abkhaz militiamen, before being driven out of Gali, with between 60 and 200 deaths, and at least 30,000 refugees took to the roads again. Over 2,000 buildings were burnt down by the Abkhaz in the buffer zone patrolled by the Russian peacekeepers (which even Russian officials later admitted was too close to turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing). Many of the Georgian refugees began crossing by day to work the fields in Gali, returning to sleep in Zugdidi, and in 1999 they began to return to their homes. The Abkhazians claim that 70,000-90,000 have returned, but Georgia claims the total is far lower.

The two sides continue to talk, with Abkhazia insisting on equal confederal status with Georgia, and Georgia insisting on an asymmetric arrangement with more power for Tbilisi. Nor can Georgia accept Abkhazia staying in the rouble zone. Russia came in for a lot of international criticism for its role; the general commanding the Russian peacekeepers claimed in 1994 that Abkhazia had always been an integral part of Russia, and the economic blockade of Abkhazia has only been enforced half-heartedly. As discussed on page 72, Russia is thought to be fomenting instability in Georgia to boost its own Caspian-Black Sea pipeline and keep it out of NATO. It is claimed that the Russian airfield at Vaziani (just east of Tbilisi) was the base for the 1995 attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze, and Moscow has failed to extradite Igor Giorgadze and Guram Absandze, both of whom are accused of involvement in the plot; Giorgadze appeared regularly on television but Russia's police responded to an Interpol warrant by denying it knew where he was, until he was granted asylum in 2006. In mid 1999 Russia opened its border with Abkhazia (although it had been very porous for a long while).

In October 1999 Abkhaz presidential elections produced a 99% vote for Ardzinba, the only candidate, and a referendum on independence was approved by 97%; a week later the Abkhaz parliament formally declared independence, and the new Abkhaz premier Anri Jergenia spoke of applying to join the Russian Federation, though this was still a step too far for Putin. Russia failed to withdraw in July 2001 (as agreed in 1999) from Gudauta, the base for the CIS peacekeepers and also for dodgy Russian arms sales worldwide. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 Russia expected a free rein to strike at Chechen 'terrorists', yet continues to support Abkhazian separatism, and no-one now expects Gudauta to be relinquished.

The upper part of the Kodori Gorge, adjoining Svaneti, still in Georgian hands, became a flashpoint; in 1999 first Georgian government officials and then UN observers were kidnapped there, with armed clashes in July 2001. In October 2001 Georgian guerrillas, reportedly aided by Chechen fighters, launched raids here resulting in at least 30 deaths, and a few days later a UN helicopter was shot down near the Kodori Gorge, killing five UN military observers, three Ukrainian crewmembers and a Georgian interpreter - it seems likely that Russian missiles from Gudauta, and possibly Russian personnel, were involved. Russian jets also flew over Svaneti and dropped bombs in the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian parliament voted 163-1 for Russian peacekeepers to withdraw, and talked of leaving the CIS. In July 2006 Georgian special police were sent to the Kodori Gorge to arrest the renegade governor turned warlord, Emzar Kvitsiani, and disperse his paramilitary Hunter battalion. There was some skirmishing in the villages of Azhara and Omarishi, and one civilian was killed but order was soon established, and, apparently, some slaves were freed. The Abkhazian government-in-exile was moved from Tbilisi to the Kodori (renamed Upper Abkhazia), and Saakashvili and Burjanadze visited.

Saakashvili pledged to reunite Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the rest of Georgia by 2008, but despite some alarming signs that a military solution might be attempted this has not happened. Russia has since lifted its sanctions on Abkhazia and granted citizenship to most residents, while Saakashvili continues to push, so far in vain, for Russian peacekeepers to be replaced by an international force. It might seem odd to the independent observer that the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, used by Russia as a precedent for separating Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, has oddly not been taken up by Russia as a template for its own Chechnya region. The lifting of sanctions against South Ossetia and Abkhazia in March 2008 was seen as the first step towards the recognition of their independent status by Russia. This raised concerns within the EU who had recognised Georgia's territorial integrity since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In April 2008 a Georgian unmanned drone was shot down over Abkhazian territory. Abkhazia claimed that its own forces had downed the Israeli-made plane but the Georgian government asserted that it possessed video footage that proved that a Russian MiG-29 had been involved, an accusation denied by Russia. This event would turn out to be a forerunner of the short but brutal Russian-Georgian war that unfolded in the summer of that year. Although peripheral to it, Abkhazia was largely unaffected by the conflict: its economy continues to do quite well under Prime Minister Sergey Baghapsh; tourism from Russia is booming and there's lots of development.

What the future holds for Abkhazia is unknown. There won't be a simple solution. But whatever the result would be one can only hope that there would be time when travelers will be able to visit Georgia and include, without hindrance, the splendors of this region in their itineraries.