13 December 2022Georgia

The political memory of the Conflict in Abkhazia

Two opinions

by Anna Dziapshipa, Tamar Chergoleishvili
© Anna Dziapshipa

Conflict in Abkhazia, with its deep roots in the imperial politics of the Russian Empire, Soviet national politics and Stalinist repressions, is the major political and social trauma in Georgia and a central issue of Georgian politics. The unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were the main argument against granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan at the NATO Bucharest Summit 2008. Today we present two different views of the Abkhazian Conflict memory politics.

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Caught in the one-sided memory

The politics of memory in Georgia prevents the rethinking of the Abhkazian Conflict
Anna Dziapshipa, Filmmaker

February 24, 2022 had to change a lot in Georgia. Primarily, the changes should have concerned the transformations in the ways of thinking; therefore, not doing so, we have missed one more chance to reflect upon the complex conflicts around us. This particular note is about the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992-1993, which still exists in our minds but only through superficial representations of catchy mottos or pathetic toasts. Our understanding of this war has consistently failed to become multi-dimensional. Instead, what had to become an impulse for reconsideration became a more rigid and firm thought. Every single position about this complicated matter tends to represent objective truth; thus, having a “proper” point about this subject is considered a duty by all Georgian citizens.

A while ago, I promised myself not to write about Abkhazia ever again; I thought I said almost everything in my last documentary film, “Self-portrait along the borderline”. I worked on the film for nearly seven years and finished it in summer of 2022. This almost endless process allowed me to reflect upon the multi-layered Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, to comprehend its various dimensions, and embrace the privilege of knowing it from different points of view. It allowed me to rediscover my Abkhaz relatives and friends, overcome the difficulties of my split identity, and realize and accept that my family and our biography are the microcosms of this conflict with its distinct meanings.

This note is supposed to be about constant mistakes and mistrust, renewed traumas and the continued refusal of reflection prospects shaped by objective circumstances. It is complicated to think about dialogue with Abkhazia or formulate any vision of conflict resolution because of our complex, polarized environment, which does not allow us to find a consensus about simple values and truths. It seems impossible until we are in a constant circle of self-identification and formation. However, our immature attitude towards conflicts and the impossibility of reflection makes it impossible to break through this vice circle and get a chance to develop.

The issue of Abkhazia occasionally appears in and vanishes from the agenda of Georgian politicians and society. Speaking about the tragedy can be beneficial for politicians. Therefore, the instrumentalization of the misery of refugees always serves political aims and is never meant to make refugees' lives easier. Over 30 years, this conflict has been discussed exclusively through a prism of the Georgian-Russian relationship, although it might have much more dimensions. However, we can only comprehend this conflict if we consider its different configurations, be it Georgian-Abkhaz, Russian-Georgian, Russian-Abkhaz or perspectives of refugees from Abkhazia. The name we give to this conflict already reflects our superficial understanding. To my knowledge, rarely anybody ignores the Russian Federations' interest and involvement in the conflicts in our region. However, we can start to reconsider the conflict only if we learn to give it a proper name. The Russia-Ukraine war paralyzed the process of rethinking our conflicts making it almost impossible to discover and realize our own mistakes.

Unlike many other wars, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine revived our latent traumas and revanchist forces. As a result, some people around me lost control and decided that oppressing the weak would be the best way to deal with their fears and weakness. Championing Ukrainian victory in this clearly unjust war, they no longer repressed their desires and resumed “Crusade” against ethnic minorities in Georgia, this time in a virtual space.

By the end of February 2022, many people had evoked their anger towards Abkhazia and Abkhazians again (a large part of those screenshots became part of my personal archives). However, this recollection did not initiate a reflection process but instead became a sublimation of our fears and failures aggressively released in virtual space. I have always thought that “our European choice” does not mean the resolution of unresolved conflicts by military means. On the contrary, to me, it implies the defeat of militarism, although I was proven wrong. With a group of respected people, I signed an open letter to request an open dialogue after the election of the new president of unrecognized Abkhazia – Aslan Bzhania, in 2021. Some used this letter to compromise me. Others threatened to execute me as an Abkhaz since they believed to notice separationist tendencies in my positions; Some tried to represent me as an “alien” using the word “Mshibzia” (which means hello in the Abkhazian language) in the xenophobic context. Being an alien is not unusual for me.

Moreover, I grew up in a somewhat nationalistic context with the constant reminder that “The Abkhazian nation does not exist”. Therefore, it didn't surprise me when a few years ago, a long-time friend publicly condemned me for using the term “Unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia” and deleted me from social media. This gesture of erasure has followed me for decades. My parents erased our last name from the walls of the entrance hall in Tbilisi in the 90s. During the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, I discovered my mother's Georgian surname instead of mine on the doorbell of my parents' house.

In the wake of the Ukraine war, the political party European Georgia, the NGO Freedom Institute, the Tabula magazine, the Voter Education Society and the Abkhaz Assembly raised the Abkhazian problem again. The political party and their associates, which constantly use various populist methods to bargain supporters, have again limited themselves to one-sided and superficial use of this complicated topic. The campaign “Act for the recognition of Georgian genocide in Abkhazia” tried to score political points and gather supporters by using the decontextualized cut-ups of the tragic stories of refugees from Abkhazia. I followed their activity, the films and short videos they produced, and read torn-out expressions on the posters. Unfortunately, though, I believed that, like many of their activities, this campaign also would have a temporary and unsustainable character. Now, while writing this letter, I once again checked the Facebook page of this initiative. Their last post was from September 29 (September 27 is known as the day of the fall of Sokhumi/Sukhum in Georgia; in Abkhazia, Victory and Independence Day is celebrated on September 30). A careless, superficial treatment of this very subtle and painful issue threatens the unstable trust that peacebuilders involved in these negotiations have built up over the years. Hardly anybody knows these peacebuilders and if anybody knows them, mainly in a negative context, both in Georgia and Abkhazia.

Another campaign by the political party European Georgia, the Freedom Institute, the Tabula magazine, the Voter Education Society and the Abkhaz Assembly was “Before Bucha was Abkhazia”. Similarly, it maintained a one-sided and superficial representation of the Abkhazian war. The campaign included an exhibition dedicated to the Abkhazian war in the nightclub KHIDI. In this exhibition, the organizers compared atrocities that the Russian army committed in Bucha, Ukraine, to the events in Abkhazia. It was embarrassing to compare these different conflicts to each other, and it seemed wrong to take advantage of the ongoing struggle of the Ukrainian people. It seemed more an act of envy than the continuation of a common anti-colonial, anti-imperialistic struggle against Russia. If the organizers had made more effort and conducted a thorough research, they would have found vital differences and even more resemblances in those painful conflicts.

Both campaigns, “Act for the recognition of Georgian genocide in Abkhazia” and “Before Bucha was Abkhazia”, did not represent memories of the victims of the conflict from both sides. As a result, they become just a temporary PR campaign of a particular political party. They were based neither on consistent research nor on comprehensive knowledge. Therefore, they did not demonstrate any desire to reflect upon the deep roots of the conflict. Consequently, the quality of those performances is cheap, and their aims are rather short-termed. Both campaigns achieved nothing except retraumatizing thousands of people with war traumas. After Bucha my Georgian friends started to speak of the genocide of Georgians in Abkhazia, and Abkhazians also began to talk about the genocide of Abkhazians by Georgians. With my personal experience of being in the centre of this continuous parallel history, I was thinking of my grandfather's sister, who spoke two languages perfectly – Georgian and Russian (more precisely, all four: Georgian, Abkhazian, Megrelian and Russian). When I saw her for the last time in Sukhum/Sokhumi in November 2013, she ironically recalled how many times she saved her life from Georgian and Abkhaz fighters, addressing everyone “in their native language”.

Russia’s war in Ukraine reminded Abkhazians of the horrible years of war. Even for me, it was rather unexpected that Abkhazians like Georgians would identify themselves with Ukrainians in their struggle against imperialism. Unlike Georgians, they will never forget the words “The Abkhazian nation does not exist” as Ukrainians will always remember the words of Kremlin propaganda “Ukraine does not exist”. It feels so bizarre to live in this geopolitical context of distorted mirrors and still avoid seeing the connections, reasons for damaged relationships and the never-ending chain of mistakes. The intensified energy crisis and cold winters are shifting Abkhazians back to a place where they see few chances of developing. Due to the uncertainty in the region, they feel much more isolated than ever. The non-recognition of the passports issued by the Russian Federation by the European Parliament could be another painful move towards the isolation of Abkhazians. At the same time, Abkhazian Foreign Minister Inal Ardzinba is obstructing the work of Abkhazian non-governmental organizations thus leaving behind all possibilities of communication with the small part of Georgian society that supports the dialogue. The Gali district issue clearly demonstrates the attitude of the Georgian state and civil society towards conflicts in general. Gali lives in a constant liminal state. For both sides, it forms a “buffer zone”. Georgia does not support the dominantly Georgian-populated area, and the Abkhaz administration is trying to oppress the people there. For example, they are restricting the right to study the Georgian language or not allowing them to hold even Abkhazian passports. It is also symbolic that one of the largest landfills in Abkhazia is located in the Gali district. These unresolved issues become the legacy of changing governments. However, instead of solving the problems, they reduce their policies to meaningless slogans. The society, on its own, commercializes those slogans by selling the sentiments – like creating a new collection of T-shirts with the words “Gali” on the front. Living in our region means that all of us experience constant anxiety. But no one wants to admit that sometimes we, the Georgians, could also be the reason for that endless fear.

Very often, in various discussions, people ask me one “tricky” question. Do I recognize the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia? I consider this question “whataboutism” and leave it mostly without any answer. However, this note is an excellent opportunity to respond to it and to say yes, I do recognize it. I regard any further discussion finished after this question, but I keep wondering, how many of us have heard and recognized the victims on the Abkhazian side? For example, what do most people know and think about the Lata Tragedy or about the burned building of Abkhazian Archives?

I often wonder why the multi-dimensional character of the Georgian-Abkhaz war is only discussed within closed meetings and platforms; why is it only comprehensible for non-governmental organizations or individuals working on this issue? Armed with years of acquired knowledge, experiences and contacts, only people working on this conflict can grasp different perceptions and parallel histories. But those often quite complex debates and arguments end up in their close circles. Why can the coverage of this contradictory history not overcome the limits of the nationalistic narrative and the discourse of pseudo-patriotic slogans? Is it just the problem and superficiality of the mainstream media or because the comprehensive knowledge and discussions about the conflict are closed to a wider audience? The solution is to create new common spaces and shared platforms, be more open and courageous expressing unpopular and uncommon perspectives, open up the discussion to a broader audience, uncover knowledge gained throughout the years, and dare share it to more people and in different places. It is essential to realize and overcome our fear that our opinion may not coincide with the majority's beliefs and does not necessarily mean “betrayal of the country” and deserve being labelled as a “Russian agent”.

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Before Bucha was Abkhazia

Russian crimes against Georgians should be assessed politically and juridically
Tamar Chergoleishvili, Director of the Voters Education Association

© Jon Jones / Sygma

History proves that political convenience always tends to determine which victims are commemorated and which victims are forgotten.

This article is about forgotten victims.

If today the free world spends vast resources and efforts to contain Putin's bloody revisionism, for the past 30 years it has fed on the illusion that Russia is no longer the USSR and, therefore, cannot pose a threat to the international order.

“If we don't stop them [Russians] in Georgia, they will be in Ukraine tomorrow,” said the Ukrainians who fought in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 to defend Georgia's territorial integrity and freedom.

“...The actions of some of the highest-ranking Russian military officers and the policy of the Russian parliament give us the right to assert that we are dealing with a well-coordinated and synchronized attack. I want the world to understand: Abkhazia is a battlefield of bloody revenge...

Stop this heinous crime, stop the punishment of a small country, save my people from being burned in the fire of imperial reaction... The world has no right to reconcile with the destruction of one of the oldest peoples, the creators of a great culture and a country of high spiritual traditions...

I want everyone to understand this because humanity cannot be happy, cannot enjoy the benefits of peace, when even the smallest nation is under the threat of death,” Eduard Shevardnadze appealed in vain to the international community on the September18, 1993, 9 days before the fall of Sokhumi.

The voices of Georgians and Ukrainians were lost in the euphoria sparked by the victory over the evil empire in the 90s – the West was not ready to see a defeated Russia as a potential threat to the international order. Georgian efforts were not enough to stop a weakened Russia.

At that time, Moscow, using groups under its effective control such as the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, created for this very purpose, together with gangs of Russian mercenaries and aviation, easily managed to occupy Abkhazia. It is noteworthy to mention that the ceasefire signed on July 27, 1993, was led by then the Minister of Emergency Situations of Russia and now the Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu – the agreement was broken, Sukhumi fell on September 27, and the Russian army was deployed as a peacekeeper on the occupied territories, cleansed from Georgians.

5738 people died in Abkhazia, including 800 women and 50 children. 300 were declared as missing. Up to 250,000 people escaped slaughter on ethnic ground.

Russia kept its peacekeeping status until the 2008 August War. The Georgian government attempted to change the format in 2005, but the West did not support the effort. As for the initiative to abolish the peacekeeping status in 2008, the Western ambassadors responded with diplomatic démarche to disapprove of the move as provocative. So the Georgian government opted to take into consideration the standpoint of strategic partners. Whether or not this was the right decision is a topic for another discussion, but this is how we got to the August War.

Putin had already declared his geopolitical goals before the war in Georgia in 2008 – to revise history and restore the past influence, but, unfortunately, Western capitals, not wanting to complicate relations with Russia, did not take Putin's intentions seriously enough. Therefore, following Russia's invasion of Georgia, they couldn't resist blaming the victim. Western leaders scolded the “hot-headed” Georgians for succumbing to provocation and blamed the Russian army's full-scale military aggression on this “mistake.” All this happened when the international investigation confirmed that the Russian regular army had entered the territory of Georgia before the attack by the Georgian army.

Contrary to the 90s, in 2008, international attention was much more significant. While Russia bombed Georgian territory, European presidents cheered the Georgian people from the capital's main avenue. The war lasted for five days, and in the minds of many Georgians, George Bush's speech on August 13 marked its end. At that time, the President of the United States informed us about the start of a humanitarian operation led by the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates. One hour after Bush's announcement, an American military plane landed at Tbilisi International Airport.

The 2008 war ended in a couple of days instead of years as in the 90s and killed ten times fewer people. Putin's regime did expand its occupation but did not achieve the stated goal of overthrowing the democratic government of Georgia.

Few months after the August War, the newly elected President of the United States initiated the “Reset” with Russia. The policy of Barack Obama, even from the point of view of his Secretary of State, turned out to be naïve: “I think for a little while we were a little confused and believing that there had to be a path forward that would not spark conflict, that would not return to a cold, heaven forbid, a hot war,” said Hillary Clinton when answering the criticism of US foreign policy towards Russia, in 2018.

Still Russia could not be stopped then, either.

“It was terrible, terrible. Now that it is happening in Ukraine and they tell me to watch it, I refuse, we went through this. Russia is visible in the Ukraine war, and it was not visible here,” says Nutsa Giobrelidze-Darsalia in a conversation with Tabula. She is one of the IDPs who seek the restoration of historical justice, and she wants a legal and political assessment of the crimes committed by Russia against Georgians 30 years ago. But, unfortunately, not only does the world know very little about the crimes committed against Georgians, but Georgian society itself does not know much.

There is the main reason why such a grave tragedy went unnoticed. Twenty-nine years ago, the Georgian authorities, considering the geopolitical situation, believed that an adequate assessment of Russia's role was an unattainable goal. They gave it up. Indeed, Russia assumed a peacekeeping role and ensured Georgia's entry into the CIS, appointing its residents to key government positions and the criminal investigation on the crimes committed in Abkhazia – with 25,000 testimonies shelved and forgotten.

Nobody has ever talked consistently to Georgian society about what hundreds of thousands of Georgians went through in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 and what Russia did to them. As a result, this episode was erased from Georgian history, and the IDP community was stigmatized and alienated from public life. Nobody showed interest in them and thus they remained silent.

It is not surprising then that it came as a shock to many that we shifted the narrative from generalized evil to individual stories, and a couple of months ago, we shed light on the events in Abkhazia through an interactive exposition “Before Bucha was Abkhazia.” Since then the discussion about judging Russia's role and revisiting Abkhazia has started and has gotten international exposure, but we are still far from achieving our goal.

Some protested the revival of history and the actualization of Russia's role – they call themselves peacebuilders. Moreover, they claim that discussing Russia's role will harm the so-called reconciliation process, as it will irritate the puppet regime of Sokhumi. Some even went as far as to argue that focusing on the role of Russia is an attempt to dismiss the responsibility of Georgians.

I believe that both claims are baseless. Even today, Georgian society is not a democratic society, and it was not one when the Soviet Union collapsed and inscriptions in passports divided us ethnically. We have yet to establish a republic where all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, race, religion, or sexual identity, will have the right to liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness. Establishing such a republic would be the most appropriate response to past mistakes that sometimes are worse than the crimes themselves.

But it remains unclear how adequately evaluating Russia's role, sharing the tragedies of our fellow citizens, showing compassion, and restoring historical memory means denying that there existed an ethnic hatred between Abkhazians and Georgians that needs to be studied and resolved.

Or how does this prevent reconciliation? Only when the role of Russia is adequately assessed and Russia is denied a place in the peace-building process can we investigate the foundations of the Georgia-Abkhazian conflict and ways to solve it.

Suppose there is evidence that the Georgian state or groups that were under its effective control had the goal of complete or partial destruction of ethnic Abkhazians, and on their orders, Georgian soldiers and fighters killed and tortured Abkhazians on ethnic grounds, burned the elderly alive, skinned children and raped women. In that case, naturally, this should be assessed, and legal consequences should follow. However, I strongly suspect that if such facts existed, they would have been published and judged by the winning party long ago.

“We will stay in Abkhazia until fascist states oppress small nations,” declared Russian fighters who identified themselves as coming from Moscow and Novosibirsk in an interview recorded in 1993.

Thirty years have passed, and Russia's manual has not changed – Putin's regime has tried to paint the military aggression in Ukraine as a special operation aimed at protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians from Nazi Ukrainians. Yet Putin failed in Ukraine, contrary to Georgia, not because there were no Ukrainians with Nazi views as there were no Georgians with Fascist ideas back then, but because that is not the real reason for the war. The reason for the war was and is Russia's geopolitical ambitions. But for too long, we Georgians were trapped in the narrative of ethnic conflict, ethnic cleansing, and reconciliation; projects were initiated around these ideas, and many people were employed in the “peacebuilders” camp. It is, therefore, not surprising that these people are now concerned about changing the status quo.

“We must learn to kill Georgians, cut off their ears and noses,” this is how the head of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of Caucasus, Musa Shanibov, taught the North Caucasian fighters during the war in Abkhazia. Indeed, by bringing together the testimonies and the stories of the victims, all the details start complementing each other very logically, like a puzzle, and it becomes clear that what happened in Bucha, Irpen, Mariupol and other cities of Ukraine in 2022, happened 30 years earlier in Abkhazia.

What is striking is not only the scale of butchery but also the similarities between what Russia is doing in the occupied cities of Ukraine and what it did in Abkhazia: the mass raping of women and children; torturing and dismembering people; burning the elderly alive; driving over people with tanks and filling wells with corpses to dry up what for those who survive – all these purely on the ethnic ground. We have seen only a tiny part of tens of thousands of testimonies. It was enough to understand that Georgian survivors were only alive because they managed to escape genocide.

The war crimes committed in Bucha, Mariupol, Irpen and other cities were officially classified as genocide by the parliaments of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ireland, Canada, and the Czech Republic.

“I am sure that the whole world stands by Ukraine, and Ukraine will win this war. There is no debate about this,” says Venera Meshveliani, a teacher from Akhaldaba, whose husband died in the war while she was held captive by the Russians for three weeks together with her son and 300 Georgian women who were raped in turn. “Ukraine will win because the whole world has united now and we, for some reason, were isolated back then. I think because there was so little information, perhaps the world could not even understand what happened in Abkhazia. But we should say it now – let the world know what happened to us. The victims and witnesses are still alive, and we can talk about it.”

Venera Meshveliani is right.

The prophecy of the Ukrainians who fought in Abkhazia came true. It is precisely because Russia could not be stopped in Georgia that we are where we are today. There is a full-scale war in Ukraine. The West is discussing the chances of using chemical and nuclear weapons, and the deterrence of Putin's Russia is immeasurably more expensive now than it would have been had the West acted during Yeltsin's Russia.

Unlike in the 90s, the courageous struggle of Ukrainians for freedom has created a new international reality. In this reality, there is a chance to achieve the recognition of the crimes committed by Russia against Georgians as genocide. We should use this window to commemorate the victims, re-evaluate the erased history and build a future on the foundation of a rightly understood past.

“We don't need lies; we need the truth. The truth is that the Russians kicked us out,” says Liana Mikaya from Akhaldaba. Liana is not the only one who needs this truth; the international community needs it, too – to better understand evil and save the lives of peaceful citizens.

Translated from Russian by Kun

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