Abkhazia - Crisis in the Caucuses
Abkhazia might sound like some magical far-away idea, but it's actually a real place that's survived wars, communism and ethnic cleansing. Then last month, it became the centre of world attention when Georgia and Russia had that violent blow-up. You'll remember that in that conflict the US backed Georgia. And Russia even sounded like it was prepared to bring on a new cold war over the issue. In a few words, that makes Abkhazia - and the neighbouring province of South Ossetia - very important indeed. The world's media has almost unanimously painted Georgia as the innocent victim in all this. But Dateline's Nick Lazaredes discovered there's far more to this intriguing story.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
I arrived in Abkhazia less than 24 hours after Russia became the first country in the world to recognise its independence as a sovereign state. In the capital, Sukhumi, the party had already begun. Abkhazians had been waiting for this moment since they broke away from neighbouring Georgia in 1992 during a bloody separatist war which saw more than half the population flee in terror. But as Abkhazians celebrate, few in the West share their enthusiasm, alarmed by what many see as the start of a new cold war over this strategic crossroads.
GIORGI BADRIDZE, GEORGIAN DEP. AMBASSADOR TO THE UK: Russia wanted this war a long time, Russia has been preparing for this war and Russia started this war. And Russia is now directly telling all its neighbours that it will be using force in order to ensure its national interest – in other words, it is trying to restore its lost empire.
At a new Sukhumi restaurant on a converted pier, patrons can now enjoy a special view as they dine – Russia's Black Sea fleet. In exchange for security guarantees to Abkhazia, Moscow has acquired a strategic new port. It's a move that's raised alarm in the West but the President of Abkhazia seems comfortable with their new role as a NATO buffer zone.
SERGERY BAGAPSH, ABKHAZIA PRESIDENT (Translation): We would rather become a buffer zone and keep intact our nation, our ethnicity, our language, our culture, our identity, just like any other country in this world.
Abkhazia's parliament even held a special session to pay tribute to Russia and its years of support during crippling sanctions.
SERGEY BAGAPSH (Translation): People were starving, we couldn’t treat our kids we were not allowed to import medications. Only Russia offered us humanitarian aid and it was thanks to them that we survived. So to accuse Russia now of imperial ambitions, that’s.. I want to find a word that won’t offend viewers, it’s blasphemy you see.
I congratulate you and all of us on this historic moment in the life of our country.
Even as his supporters were celebrating in the streets, Abkhazia's President, Sergey Bagapsh, was bemoaning the West's lack of support for his country's independance.
SERGEY BAGAPSH (Translation): They should realise it’s impossible to wage war forever in the South Caucasus. In the last 15 years alone we and the South Ossetians have fought with Georgia six times. This should end, right? That’s why I think that.. the international community consists of experienced people and knowledgeable people. They will come to the conclusionthat to end the confrontation, they will have to recognise us.
Instead, Western nations have roundly condemned Russia's recognition of Abkhazia.
LIANA KVARCHELIA, ABKHAZIAN HUMANITARIAN CENTRE: It's very upsetting when you are a pawn to geopolitical games.
As the director of one of Abkhazia's most respected humanitarian NGOs, Liana Kvarchelia has been working hard to restore order in this largely unrecognised state, which is claimed by Georgia.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: I think it's very unfortunate that there has been so much focus on Georgian-Russian relations and there was so little focus about Georgian-Abkhazian relations and why nobody really was interested in why we don't think it's safe for us to live in a Georgian state.
Abkhazians have been living under the threat of a full-scale Georgian invasion for years. And their President believes the recent attacks ordered by Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili had the backing of a greater power.
SERGEY BAGAPSH (Translation): The truth is Saakashvili would never have attacked either Abkhazia or South Ossetia without the go-ahead from Washington. That’s 100 per cent. They went in with US consent that is for sure, I know it and we have lots of evidence to prove it. We have photos of the Upper Kodori Gorge where Americans taught Georgian troops demolition techniques. I have photos they took and abandoned there.
From ancient times, the Kodori Gorge has been a treasured and strategically important part of Abkhazia but since 1993 it has been under Georgian control, giving them a vantage point from which they could stage an attack and, according to Abkhazia's deputy Defence Minister, that's exactly what the Georgians were planning to do.
MAJOR GENERAL GARRY KUPALBA (Translation): This was a foothold that was to be used in future military operations. From this territory Georgian troops were to infiltrate the rest of Abkhazia. They intended to seize Sukhumi airport.... here....and to block....the Kodori River here, at the Kodori bridge thus splitting into two.
Major General Garry Kupalba says Abkhazia had proof and prior warning of the Georgian plans and so within days of Georgia's assault on South Ossetia the Abkhazian military seized the chance to reclaim the Kodori Gorge. With the approval of the Abkhaz army, I am the first journalist given permission to visit the Kodori Gorge since it was recaptured. Travelling by army helicopter, I’ve been provided with an armed escort and a military spokesman to guide me around. The Abkhaz are keen to show me what the Georgians were up to in the Kodori Gorge.
DIMA, ARMY PRESS OFFICER (Translation): For many years Georgia has been massively supplied with arms from the Western countries, countries such as the USA, Israel and so on. You can see extra proof of that here.
We are in the village of Ajara and my guide – the Abkhaz army's press officer, Dima – wanted to show me evidence of the Georgian military build-up here – a weapons stockpile which he claims was ignored by observers from the United Nations.
DIMA (Translation): As you see we are now at the UN base, it’s an observation post of the United Nations observer Mission. So really, in violation of all agreements, the Georgian side brought these heavy-calibre howitzers here.
REPORTER: And the United Nations was just over here, just a few metres away?
DIMA (Translation): Yes, they were here and they were supposed to watch that this area was demilitarised. But as you can see....all these weapons are Georgian trophy weapons.
With freedom to explore the area, I soon discover that there's plenty of evidence to support Abkhazia’s suspicions about a planned invasion by Georgia - a plan that may have had the tacit approval of NATO.
Now, the Abkhazian army wanted to point out to us these rations that they've found here – they're marked "NATO-approved rations". There's the Halo Trust here and Russian peacekeepers behind me. They've been going around, picking up the weapons and blowing up the explosives and anything dangerous that they find, but what they're really concerned about is the evidence, they say, that NATO personnel have been here. Perhaps there were American soldiers based here in the gorge before it was captured by the Abkhazian army.
SOLDIER (Translation): This is an army ration, everything is in English for some reason. It’s not in Georgian or whatever, it’s in English.
But Georgia's Government prefers to sidestep questions about why it was stockpiling arms in the Kodori or who supplied them – instead pointing out that the Abkhazians and Russians attacked first.
GIORGI BADRIDZE: Only weapons that were there were the weapons normally used by police for protecting civilians in this area. There were no plans of any military action, attack on any part of Abkhazia.
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON, INTERNATIONAL STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE: When the Abkhaz get there, and the Russians, and they see Western-supplied weapons because the Georgian army has been modernised by NATO countries, they say, “You didn’t notice them?" Well, they notice the fact there were weapons, but they simply didn't say what sort of weapons.
Colonel Christopher Langton has served as both deputy head of the UN's mission in Abkhazia and as Britain's defence attache in Georgia and is now a leading military analyst. He says the UN had noted the arms stockpile in the Kodori and reprimanded the Georgian Government but that observers didn't bother trying to identify the weapons' origins.
REPORTER: So really the what sort of weapons is not especially relevant?
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON: Well, only if you're pointing your finger at the West, and its assistance to Georgia and the fact that Georgia abused that friendship by using weapons and equipment given to them for illegal purposes.
Just a few kilometers down the road lies the village of Chkhalta. Here Georgia was executing a strange plan to undermine the Abkhaz authorities by establishing its own so-called government of Abkhazia and constructing this huge building to house them. Now the Abkhaz soldiers who control the area laugh off the attempt as ludicrous.
SOLDIER (Translation): They sat in this building distributing the whole power infrastructure. They thought, and believed, that this was an Abkhazian state. They tried to create their state on this little piece of land. It was very funny, it was a state within a state. It’s really out of this world.
A group of seven Georgian monks are the only residents left in Kodori Gorge. Locals were given just 30 minutes to leave before the Abkhaz army advanced and Deputy Ambassador Badridze insists ethnic Georgians were the innocent victims of last month’s hostilities.
GIORGI BADRIDZE: Anyone can have any suspicions but the fact of life is that it was Russians and Abkhaz that invaded and attacked the ethnic Georgian enclave there and ethnically cleansed it.
In fact, Badridze says Abkhazia played a pivotal role in a Russian effort to topple the Georgian Government.
GIORGI BADRIDZE: Simultaneously, Russia invaded Georgia from Abkhazia as well, Russia completed the ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia from Georgians and invaded deeply into Georgian territory into western Georgia, so we, in fact, had a war on the two fronts. It was a planned war, designed and directed at the destruction of the Georgian statehood and the immediate goal was a regime change.
In the Soviet era Abkhazia was known as the pearl of the Black Sea. Its tree-lined boulevards and art nouveau buildings became a summer resort for the Communist Party's elite. But ethnic tensions had been simmering here ever since the Georgian-born communist leader Josef Stalin had Abkhazia's political elite executed and handed the territory over to Georgia. Years of widespread Georgian settlement soon followed but when the USSR collapsed decades of festering ethnic hatred boiled over.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: We are standing now at a place where we used to have the Institute of Abkhazian History, Culture and Literature and this place was burnt down by the Georgian soldiers during the fighting in 1992.
Of all of the conflicts triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the battle for Abkhazia was the most fierce. When Abkhazians sought to throw off their Georgian rulers in 1992 the descent into chaos was almost immediate.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: I think that was an attempt to destroy our culture, to erase the memories, any historic evidence about our identity, about the fact that we've been living here for centuries.
Liana wants to show me around Sukhumi's old parliament. This bombed and blackened building bore the brunt of Georgian anger over the 1992 Abkhazian plan to secede.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: The MPs where literally sitting in the building of the Parliament when the Georgian bombs started to drop on their heads.
For Liana, and many other Abkhazians, the assault on the capital, Sukhumi, was Georgian nationalism out of control. But they're not the only breakaway province to face Georgia's wrath. There was a terrible feeling of deja vu for the Abkhazians last month when Georgia attacked South Ossetia and its capital, Tskhinvali.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: We were absolutely shocked to watch how Tskhinvali was bombed on the night from 7 August to 8 August. We were horrified to see that nobody really interfered in those fatal 14 hours to stop Georgia, the Georgian side from bombing Tskhinvali and even before the Russia troops were introduced there was a Security Council and it was absolutely shocking that the American representatives didn't want to support a resolution that would call on both Georgia and South Ossetia to stop hostilities.
GURAM AKUAB, TELEVISION DIRECTOR (Translation): This is the town of Tskhinval on the night of 8th August, it was shelled by the Georgian army which wanted to destroy it, wipe it from the face of the earth. It is very difficult.... and sometimes impossible to put into words what I saw and heard in Ossetia.
Guram Akuab is the director of Abkhazia's only TV station. As news of the Georgian assault on South Ossetia broke, he and his team headed there to document the drama.
GURAM AKUAB (Translation): I could never imagine that today, in the 21st century, somebody could get away with opening fire on a sleeping town. Opening fire on the people who were asleep.. Dozens, hundreds of people died at night in their sleep, not knowing what had happened.
The Abkhaz state TV portrayal of the carnage wrought by the Georgians is highly emotional and clearly one-sided but it offers some heart-wrenching accounts of the South Ossetian civilians who were caught up in the bloodshed.
GURAM AKUAB (Translation): I interviewed a family who had lost their daughter, a sniper killed the 14 year old girl, she died in her mother’s arms. For a long time she was carrying her daughter’s body in her arms, suddenly she felt she had ran out of strength, so she abandoned her child in the forest, in the wilderness and kept running with her three other children.
The Georgian Government says it deeply regrets the civilian casualties but believes their deaths were inevitable.
GIORGI BADRIDZE: Georgian army was forced to use artillery against the areas, parts of Tskhinvali where the artillery fire was coming from. The damage and, in some cases, loss of life was probably inevitable, and that's extremely regrettable. We also admit that the use of the multiple rocket launchers was not necessarily the best way to approach it, but we didn't have much choice.
Debate rages over who attacked first in South Ossetia. Current evidence indicates the Georgian bombardment began nine hours before the Russians advanced through a mountain tunnel from North Ossetia.
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON: I remain convinced that the Georgians attacked Tskhinvali before Russian units moved from North Ossetia into South Ossetia.
But the Georgian action came after a series of incidents which shrewd observers of the Kremlin say may have been designed to provoke the Georgians into a war they couldn't win.
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON: I don't know if 'trap' is the right word, but I would certainly say that a number of things had been going on which would have definitely provoked Saakashvili into some type of action at some time, and they did, so the provocation was deliberate – I'm in no doubt about that.
As Georgia and other nations in the region move under the NATO umbrella, Colonel Langton says the West has simply ignored Russia's security concerns.
CHRISTOPHER LANGTON: The US and its partners did not understand the strength of feeling in Russia when people were telling them about it for many, many years and they ignored that – they ignored the sensitivity of Russia, and that was a huge mistake.
In a sign that life might just be getting back to normal in Abkhazia, hundreds gather in the capital to witness this year's Miss Abkhazia contest. Abkhazians can enjoy this moment. For now, their future as a culture, and a nation, is assured. But they know the world is not behind them and resentment at the West's role in their recent history won't easily be forgotten.
LIANA KVARCHELIA: There is a lot of frustration here that nobody really cares for our strive to build a civilised democratic state. Everybody thinks that the Georgians deserve independence and freedom and have to be respected and have the right to be part of the international community, and you are not. It's such a frustration that the rest of the world, the international community, is taking such a one-sided position.
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