20 April 2013

Chechnya: A Little Background Series

Due to the events in Boston, Chechnya is the hot topic.  There is a lot of solid, fair information out there, but there's also really prejudiced, xenophobic information as well.  This post should hopefully condense the history of the neighboring north Caucus neighbors as well as Chechnya and give context since the name and history of this region will be tossed about for the next couple of weeks, at least.  Let me clearly state this now: it is unclear whether the conflict in Chechnya has any relevance to the Boston bombing and I am not endorsing a direct link between the two.  This is merely to give more information about a misunderstood, seldom-taught corner of the world and it's best to have more straight information out when it's being talked about.  Let us proceed.

Chechnya is right on the border of Georgia.  This borderland of the former Soviet Union/USSR has been embroiled in conflict for the past while.  Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Chechnya all occupy the Caucus between the Caspian and Black Seas.  The proximity of all these regions, their wars, and continued disputes is important when considering the state of Chechnya.  Since there is a lot going on, I've broken it down by the conflicted region.  There is a lot going on here, so I've broken it down into 3 post, culminating in Chechnya.  But let's start with Abkhazia, to the far west, bordering the Black Sea.
via Wiki


Abkhazia is on the northeasterly border of Georgia on the Black Sea.  It's early beginnings were during the Georgian kingdom of Kolkha, which was later absorbed in the Kingdom of Egrisi (or Lazica), that served as a vassal kingdom for the Byzantine Empire.  During this time, the region's modern day capital of Sukhumi became critical to trade with the Greeks.  By 780 AD, it became the Kingdom of Abkhazia and even included Georgia's modern day capital of Tbilisi.  Abkhazia included parts of modern Georgia until the kingdom broke up in the 16th century.  Then it became the Principality of Abkhazia and came under Ottomon influence, which changed the region from Christian to Muslim.  However, in the early 1800s, there was a push and pull between Russia and the Ottomans.  There was a brief courting of Russia when eastern Georgia joined the Csarist empire, but the population was pro-Ottoman and this won out until Russian marines replaced their ruler with a Christian who went by the name "George".  Abkhazia became part of the empire and then during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the prince of Abkhazia went pro-Ottoman as the country was emptied out.  This worked out because Russia needed a buffer zone between them and the troublesome western Caucus, but once Russia squashed that, Abkhazia once again got pulled into their ambit, though as an autonomous region.  Most Muslim Abkhazians then emigrated to the Ottoman Empire and Armenians, Georgians, and Russians moved into the fill up the empty space.  Fast forwad to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which created an independent Abkhazia.  During the USSR, it was an Autonomous Soviet State Republic (Abkhazia ASSR), but was downgraded, at Stalin's behest, to an autonomous region within the Georgia SSR (Soviet State Republic).  It wanted to join the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, meaning it would no longer be an independent entity within Georgia, but autonomous from them. They were subject to the federal government and Beria and Stalin closed Abkhaz schools and forced children to learn in Georgian; however, this was alleviated after the death of both men.

As the Soviet Union was breaking apart, Abkhazians were threatened by Georgians moving towards independence, fearing it would eliminate their own autonomy.  They began to push for their own independence.  Ethnic tensions came to a peak on July 16th, 1989 in Sukhumi (modern day capital).  Georgians were attacked for enrolling in a Georgian University instead of an Abkhaz one.  In March 1990, Georgian declared independence from the USSR and boycotted the all-Union referendem with Gorbachev, which Abkhazia attended and voted to preserve the Union.  (This is why it's important to note that Abkhazia was an ASSR within a SSR!)  Georgia officially declared their independence on April 9th, 1991 under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who managed to keep some peace and order with a power-sharing agreement guaranteeing some overrepresentation of Abkhazians.  A military coup under Eduard Shevardnadze then marked the beginning of a hard-line Georgian nationalist rule of law.  It abolished the 1921 constitution, which contained the declaration of Abkhazian autonomy, and this sparked the Abkhaz faction of the Supreme Council to declare independence in 1992.  No one paid it any mind, so Abkhazians violently removed Georgians from office in their territory and Vladislav Ardzinba teamed up with Russia to begin war.  The War of Abkhazia lasted from 1992 until 1993, but displaced nearly about 200,000 Georgians by forcibly emptying out regions and killed, in the name of ethnic cleansing, thousands of Georgians.  After the war, 60,000 Georgians returned to the region of Gali, which became violent again in 1998.  There is still some seasonal (based on agricultural cycles) migration, as well as daily commutes, between Georgia and Abkhazia at the cease-fire line, as Gali remains a point of tension.  In 2004, during the first presidential elections, Russia backed a candidate that lost the election.  The republic was incredibly tense over it, so the Supreme Court ruled that Bagapsh (Prime Minister during the war) and Raul Khadjimba (the Russian backed candidate) should jointly run, with Bagapsh as president and Khadjimba as vice president.  Since the new election was essentially the two heavyweights running together, it was not a surprising victory.

In 2006, Georgia launched an operation against the leader of a region in Abkhazia called Kadari Gorge and successfully gained control of the region.  Russia had supported Abkhazia during the 1992 war, and continued to do so.  Sporadic violence continued throughout the post-war years as Russia supplied Abkhazians with money (the ruble soon became the de fact currency), passports, and weapons.  Georgian president Sakaashvilli proposed the broadest autonomy possible within the Georgian state, which Abkhazia officially labeled "propaganda," leading Sakaashvilli to accuse Russia of influencing the statement instead of the mood of the Abkhazians.  Then in August 2008, Kodori Gorge was full of gunfire from the Abkhazians.

2008: The Russia-Georgia War

This war is also known as the Five-Day War2008 South Ossetia Conflict, or August War.  Russia joined sides with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with Georgia opposing them.  Since these were two simultaneous conflicts, they are separated for clarity.


August 9th, 2008, Russians and Abkhazians began shooting in the Battle of Kodori Gorge with a 2 day bombardment, damaging one of Georgia's bases and wounding soldiers.  As Russia continued to assert they were not at war with Georgia, the Black Sea Fleet and 3 landing ships from Russia showed up on the maritime border of Georgia on August 10th, ostensibly to provide help for the refugees and not a naval blockade.  A naval skirmish ensued and Russia claimed they were defending their security zone (protected by international law), effectively causing the withdrawal of Georgian ships back to the harbor.  The next day, paratroopers left Abkhazia and attacked bases deep within Georgia territory, capturing four tanks.  The reconnaissance mission resulted in two shot-down Georgian helicopters and the following day (August 12th), Abkhazia declared a military offensive in the Kodori Gorge just as the Georgian government said they were pulling out as a sign of goodwill. The fighting continued until August 13th, when Georgian troops pulled out entirely.

A peace agreement was reached between Medvedev and Sakaashvili under the supervision of Sarkozy, who was the President-in-Office of the European Union, on the 12th of August and was signed by Kokoity and Bagapsh in the 14th.  It must be noted that this did not end the violence and skirmishes did happen past the date of agreement.  There is still dispute over Russia's presence and their political involvement in the region.
 [NOTE: A reader, Metin Sönmez, has commented below with a plethora of resources. Check them out!]


  1. You had better to study on Abkhazia and Georgia. There are lots of things to correct but let ask this first. "Georgia and Abkhazia spoke Georgian and lived harmoniously together under the kingdom broke up in the 16th century. "

    What is your source?

    Travel-diary of the cleric Johannes de Galonifontibus, who passed through the Caucasus in 1404, writing:

    Beyond these [Circassians] is Abkhazia, a small hilly country...They have their own language...To the east of them, in the direction of Georgia, lies the country called Mingrelia...They have their own language...Georgia is to the east of this country. Georgia is not an integral whole...They have their own language (cited from L. Tardy's 'The Caucasian Peoples and their Neighbours in 1404', Acta Orientalia Academicae Scientiarum Hungaricae, XXXII (i), 83-111,1978).

    As one indication of the reputation of Abkhazia (or Abasgia) in mediaeval times, one can quote from 'The Travels of Sir John Mandeville', which first appeared around 1356. The English traveller writes in chapter 28 of the 1968 OUP edition:

    After that [Armenia and Media] is the kingdom of Georgia, that beginneth toward the east to a great mountain that is cleped [called] El'brus,where that dwell many diverse folk of diverse nations, and men clepe [call] the country Alania. This kingdom stretcheth him towards Turkey and toward the Great Sea, and toward the south it marcheth to the Great Armenia. And there be two kingdoms in that country. That one is the kingdom of Georgia, and that other is the kingdom of Abasgia. And always in that country be two kings, and they be both Christian. But the king of Georgia is in subjection of the Great Khan. And the king of Abasgia hath the more strong country, and he always vigorously defendeth his country against all those that assail him, so that no man may make him in subjection to no man.

  2. In the Middle Ages, Abkhazia was an independent country and Georgia was a separate but neighbouring independent country. Abkhazia was never the ‘heart of Georgia’ or a ‘key-territory’ in the history of Georgia.

    Since the very beginnings of the two states, Abkhazia and Georgia have been separate countries with different languages and cultures. In only two periods have they been together: first, from 1003 to 1323, a part of what is now Georgia was part of the Kingdom of Abkhazia (and not vice versa); second, in the period 1931 to 1991, Abkhazia was part of the Georgian SSR (both together as parts of the administrative structure of the USSR; Abkhazia was NOT at this time part of an independent Georgian polity).

    After the Russian revolution of 1917, the Abkhazians formed the Abkhazian People’s Council – an autonomous body of power, which at the Congress of the Abkhaz people held on 8 November 1917, adopted the Declaration and Constitution. One of the goals of the Abkhazian People’s Council as written in the Declaration and Constitution was to work in the direction of the self-determination of the Abkhaz people.

    The Abkhazian People’s Council was replaced by the Soviet bodies of power when Abkhazia became a part of the Soviet Union in 1921.

    In the 20th century, within the Soviet framework, the statehood of Abkhazia is declared in all Abkhaz and in Georgian constitutions. On 31 March 1921 Abkhazia was proclaimed a Soviet Republic, and the Georgian Revolutionary Committee (Revkom) recognized the independence of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia. Though in the same year Abkhazia was compelled to become associated with the Georgian SSR on the basis of a confederal “Treaty of Union”, its 1925 Constitution stipulated a very high level of political autonomy, including the right to secession from the USSR.[1] Only on 19 February 1931, at Stalin’s behest, did Abkhazia lose its SSR status, when it was downgraded to that of an Autonomous Republic within the Georgian SSR. Notwithstanding this, within the Soviet constitutional framework, the Abkhazian ASSR was regarded as a State: it had its Constitution, state symbols, a government, elected parliament and ministries.

    The Soviet law on secession, adopted on 3rd April 1990 and called “On the procedure of the settlement of questions connected with the withdrawal of a union republic from the USSR”, allowed the Autonomous republics and Autonomous Regions to decide independently whether or not to join the secession of the Union republic in which they are situated.

    At the all-Union referendum held on 17 March 1991, 52.4% of the electorate of Abkhazia took part in the referendum, 98,6% of whom voted for the preservation of the reformed USSR. At the same time the non-Georgian population of Abkhazia did not take part in the all-Georgian referendum on independence from the USSR held on 30 March 1991. This means that on the results of the 1991 referendum Abkhazia had the legal right to separate from Georgia, staying in the USSR, whereas Georgia on 9 April 1991, on the basis of its own referendum, declared the restoration of the independent Republic of Georgia.

    Thus, according to the Soviet law of 1990, Abkhazia had a legal right to secession from Georgia, although it did not get a chance to realize it because of the disbanding of the Soviet Union.

    Let me suggest you two documentary; one about 1992-93 war.Prepared by a Georgian

    Second on 2008 war http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OE8Gg0PMgnk

  3. History could be complicated but at least you have to know that Abkhazians have their OWN languge.

  4. Thank you for writing in Metin! I will admit that I am no expert on Abkhazia and that my research was not as thorough as I would like, given the constraints on my time. However, I tried to cross-reference sources as much as possible though this never guarantees a flawless results. Your comments indicate a much more thorough knowledge (perhaps you are from Abkhazia?). On the point of language, I do mention that Abkhaz schools were closed and Georgian was the forced language of learning, an indication that they have separate languages. My sources indicated that during early time periods, there was a mutual use of Georgian (not to say that it replaced Abkhaz). However, I will remove this from the post for the sake of clarity and greater accuracy. While you are correct about Abkhazia's (may I say it? it's so bizarre and convoluted) status with the SFSR, I wanted to simplify it *just a little*. Abkhazia has a rich and complicated history that is difficult to condense and this does mean some nuance is lost. I will make a note to read your comments should they be more interested in that aspect of their history. I'm merely trying to offer a digestible bit of information that gives the potentially neophyte audience a basic understanding of the region. Should you be interested, I would love for you to contribute a MUCH more expert piece about Abkhazia. I simply cannot know everything to a greater depth, but I am always looking for someone who knows much more than I to contribute. If this piques your interest, please send me an email to the address above and we can discuss it further!

  5. I had better to share some links.

    The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953, by Stephen D. Shenfield

    Origins and Evolutions of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, by Stephen D. Shenfield

    Declaration of the Revolutionary Committee of the SSR of Georgia on Independence of the SSR of Abkhazia - 21 May 1921

    Union Treaty Between the SSR of Georgia and the SSR of Abkhazia - 16 December 1921

    "Absebce of Will" Commentary