The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict has been stagnating for a few years. Since the bloody war ended in September 1993 and the Collective Peacekeeping Forces, which were mainly represented by the Russian military contingent and UN military observers, intervened in Abkhazia, the situation has been mostly stabilized. In military talk it is relatively quite but unstable. A new war has not yet been predicted, but Russian peacekeepers deployed along the Inguri River regularly encounter cases of violence and robbery. This unrest is not associated with policies of either Georgian or Abkhaz official authorities, and has a criminal origin. Growth of crime in the conflict zone is caused by the weakness of local authorities and by the fact that the peacekeepers are not entitled to any police functions by their mandate.
Representatives of the UN and the Collective Peacekeeping Forces say that a presence of international police forces in the conflict zone would be desirable, but understand that this will not happen, because there are no large-scale violations of human rights in the region, and a few tens of thousands of Georgian refugees (primarily Megrels) who fled from Abkhazia in 1998 returned to their homes in the Gallsky District of Abkhazia. Meanwhile, the major contradictions of the conflict remain. First, the major problem and the basic reason for the conflict, the definition of the status of Abkhazia, has not been solved yet. For seven years Abkhazia has existed as a de facto independent country, that has not been recognized by a single country. Second, there is practically no Georgian population in Abkhazia except for its western district where about 60,000 Megrels live. Before August 1992, Georgians formed the majority of the population of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic of Georgia. According to the census of 1992, there were about 240,000 Georgians in Abkhazia, or 45% of the entire population of the republic. The Abkhaz population totaled 93,267, or about 17%. About 180,000-190,000 Georgians have left Abkhazia. Due to the war, low standards of living, and instability representatives of other nationalities have also left the republic. According to approximate estimates, the population of the republic currently totals about 300,000 (one-third of them are Abkhaz). Abkhazia has its own government, parliament, and other power institutions. However, the main industries (mining, construction materials, and so on), tourist business and resorts are mainly idling. During the Soviet times these sectors used to earn the main income for the republic. The country is currently in a state of collapse. Destroyed houses and enterprises, unfinished buildings with idling cranes represent a picture typical for Abkhazia. However, a few resorts recently opened in the Gagry District of the republic, and valuable kinds of timber, mandarin oranges and persimmon are intensively exported. The country’s budget receives revenue mainly on account of the customs duties on the export of these items.
Abkhazia spends 25% of its budget on defense. The republic has combat ready troops, though they are not very numerous. The Abkhaz Armed Forces stake on the so-called reservists. The country uses the Swiss model of security provision. Each able-bodied man normally owns small arms and ammunition. These are mainly the trophies taken during the combat operations in Abkhazia in 1992-1993. According to a command from the military recruitment and enlistment office, a reservist is obliged to arrive with his weapon to the special place where units of the main Abkhaz forces are manned. Thus, in a few hours the strength of Abkhaz Armed Forces may be raised to 40,000-50,000. As a rule, all these people have combat experience. Independent experts note the high combat readiness of Abkhaz Armed Forces, who defeated the Georgian forces when the latter invaded the republic in 1992, although the Abkhaz force had no numerical superiority and lacked armaments.
The combat readiness of the Armed Forces of the breakaway republic is also explained by the high morale of Abkhaz people and their love for freedom. During World War II 20 Abkhaz people became Heroes of the Soviet Union. This is more per capita than among the peoples of the former USSR. Official Tbilisi understands very well that it is impossible to solve the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict by military methods. That is why Shevardnadze’s regime appeals to international organizations for assistance. According to Shevardnadze, these organizations can provide for the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia. However, neither UN nor the Collective Peacekeeping Forces have been successful.
Lieutenant General Sergei Korobko, the Commander of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces, characterizes the situation saying, “Georgians would like very much to make us responsible for the return of the refugees, for their security, and for police functions. Since we do not do this, they are very irritated. They cannot do this themselves, although it is there job, and wish to use us instead. No way. The Abkhaz party wants us to be border guards and to prevent penetration of Georgian refugees to the Gallsky District. We have also explained to them that we are not border guards, and if the documents of a person crossing the border are in order, we will let him go.”
A spokesperson for the Abkhaz Defense Ministry says that the ministry will never allow all Georgian refugees to return to the republic, because they would form a majority in the country and “the whole struggle for independence of Abkhazia would be in vain.”
The problem of return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia exists, but we need to note that that majority of Georgians residing in Abkhazia have no deep historical roots. During Soviet times Beria who was been born in Megrelia (it was a part of Abkhazia) forcefully moved Georgians to the republic. Whereas there were 4,166 Georgians in Abkhazia in 1866, in 1926 there were already 67,494 of them, and in 1939 about 100,000. In 1970, over 200,000 Georgians already lived in Abkhazia.
Russian leadership does not recognize the independence of Abkhazia. A few years ago the border with this republic was sealed off, which dealt a devastating economic and political blow on Abkhazia. However its population has adapted to the situation, Authorities of Russia and Abkhazia are currently resuming informal and unofficial relations. The unofficial friendship between Moscow and Sukhumi is beneficial for Russia, not only from the economic standpoint, but also from the standpoint of geopolitical problem solving. Georgia is trying to cut ties with Russia. It demands withdrawal of all Russian military bases, including the bases in Abkhazia. This is not beneficial for Russia, and for Abkhazia. Sukhumi leaders say that they will not allow withdrawal of a single Russian military vehicle from the republic. They understand very well that presence of Russian forces allow the keeping of peace in Abkhazia, and prevents attempts of forceful return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia.
Thus, the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is suspended, but has not been settled. Its settlement will obviously last for many years, and will mainly depend on the Russia’s position. At any rate, official Moscow has not yet defined its goals and principles fully, although it is evident that it will have to some day.