Abkhazia Twenty Years On, Some Thoughts

Reflections on Abkhazia: 1992-2012

The Republic of Abkhazia, factually an independent state with limited formal recognition, a client of Moscow, and unlikely ever to be a component of Georgia in any form, bears a mark upon it, “Made in the U.S.A.”  Permit me to explain.

In June of 1992 I attended a conference in Maikop where I met once again my old friend and colleague, Slava [Viacheslav] Chirikba. He told me that war was coming to Abkhazia, that Georgia was going to invade his homeland, and asked me to send warning to the U. S. State Department. I did as he asked upon my return to Canada, contacting “State” via a public number. My calls went unreturned, unacknowledged. Two months later Slava’s fears became reality as Georgian irregular forces invaded Abkhazia. Within three more months I found myself in Washington, escorting the first Abkhazian delegation ever to visit that capital. I was in the company then of Natela Akaba, Liana Kvarchelia, and the two Kazans, Yahya, and his son Yanal. This was my first engagement as a back channel diplomat and advisor to Washington. By the time the Abkhazians had driven out regular Georgian troops in September of 1993 I had attained a status as an advisor to Washington, Ottawa, and Moscow, on matters of the Caucasus. While I went on to deal with the Ossetian – Ingush conflict and the Chechen wars, as well as advising on a wider range of matters, my first experience with the organs in Washington had left an ineradicable impression on me. Several crucial shortcomings in diplomatic thinking had led to the “loss” of Abkhazia. I shall summarize these briefly.

First, the diplomats at State rushed to recognize Georgia within borders that were largely fictional, being lines drawn not merely by the Soviets, until the preceding year (1991) arch enemies, but by none other than Stalin himself. Two factors seemed to underlie this act, which can only be termed simplistic. The first seemed to be the conceptual difficulty of admitting any nuances in the categories that defined the objects of the international order. Any one with any knowledge of the history of the South Caucasus would have implemented a nuanced policy, reigning in the Georgian forces and softening the territorial claims of Tbilisi.  Such a nuanced policy would have benefitted all parties concerned save Moscow. Instead State, and the rest of the West following its example, simply endorsed Tbilisi’s claims and demonized Abkhazia in ways that bordered on the fictional, depicting Sukhum (Aqua) as a seat of Muslim terrorists, when in fact it was a largely Orthodox Christian nation, multi-ethnic, and with strong democratic tendencies. Its leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, was viewed with scorn by State as a former apparatchik. In fact he had served as Abkhazia’s representative to the Duma. Such a Soviet background seemed not to be a failing, however, when it came to Georgia’s (second) leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, but consistency was not the issue.

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