Jaundiced view of a war that stayed
Conflict In The Caucasus:
In February this year Eduard Shevardadze paid his first visit to the United Kingdom as Georgian head of state, which he became in 1992 after his democratically elected predecessor, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in a violent coup. While in London the Georgian leader spoke at Chatham House. The thrust of his talk was that the main cause of the New World Disorder was what he termed "aggressive separatism" in regions such as Abkhazia and Chechenia.
He lumped his predecessor, Gamsakhurdia, together with presidents Ardzinba of Abkhazia and Dudayev of Chechenia as "fascists", reiterated his unequivocal support for Yeltsin's savage intervention in Chechenia, and urged the international community to take "all necessary measures heedless of cost or criticism" to crush separatism wherever it raised its head. He is certainly doing his bit, allowing Russian bombers to fly from Georgian airfields with their murderous cargoes of cluster and needle bombs (the latter outlawed under the Geneva Convention) to be dropped on mainly civilian targets in Chechenia.
Given that Svetlana Chervonnaya's Conflict in the Caucasus has a foreword by Shevardnadze it comes as no surprise that the book essentially presents the Georgian case over Abkhazia. The author does, however, concede from time to time that the Abkhazians have legitimate grievances, that they were provoked by extreme Georgian nationalists and even that their leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, is so telegenic that his "nervous-artistic manner" causes women viewers to go weak at the knees.
Although the born-again Christian Shevardnadze likes to depict himself as engaged in a crusade against Islamic fundamentalists, the author rightly points out that religion sits lightly on the Abkhazians, who are divided roughly equally into Christians and Muslims.
Chervonnaya's main thesis is that the war was provoked by the old Soviet nomenklatura and former KGB functionaries who used the Abkhazians as proxies to fight a war to hang on to a valuable piece of real estate, to destabilise and force Georgia back into the Commonwealth of Independent States and to undermine reformists in Russia. In furtherance of this devilish plot, she argues somewhat implausibly, even humble workers in sanatoria were incognito KGB lieutenant-colonels awaiting the signal to work their evil designs.
Such an analysis ignores the fact that it was the Georgians, and Shevardnadze in particular, who precipitated the vicious war in August 1992 which culminated 13 months later in the fall of the capital, Sukhum, to the Abkhazians and the flight of most of the Mingrelian and Georgian population from Abkhazian territory. (Chervonnaya blurs the fact that a great majority of "Georgians" in Abkhazia are in fact Mingrelians, who, despite having their own identity and language, are claimed by Georgians as ethnic Georgians. She also insists, quite wrongly, that the Georgians constituted an overwhelming majority of the population of Abkhazia. Mingrelians and Georgians together numbered some 45 per cent.) Shevardnadze clearly hoped he would be able to crush the Abkhazians in a matter of days, before the rest of the world woke up to what was going on. Yeltsin, equally vainly, hoped to do the same in Chechenia. The United Nations and the international community only began to interest itself in Abkhazia when the Mingrelians/Georgians began to experience the treatment that they had earlier meted out not only to the Abkhazians but to the Armenian, Russian and Greek communities in Abkhazia.
It was the appalling behaviour of the invading Georgian troops that helped create the "rainbow coalition" of Abkhazians, Abkhazians from Turkey, local Russians, Armenians and Greeks, and volunteers from the North Caucasus, that scored such a striking military success.
Support from the Russian army was much more limited than Shevardnadze and Chervonnaya claim. Moreover, the Georgians themselves were not without allies. The most revealing illustration in the book shows a Ukrainian naval vessel unloading tanks on an Abkhazian beach, confirming rumours that Ukrainians made a significant contribution to the Georgian military effort.
Chervonnaya's book contains a wealth of material on one of the bloodiest conflicts to have accompanied the (partial) collapse of the Russian Empire. It is a pity she has such an axe to grind.
Richard Clogg is an associate fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford.
Conflict In The Caucasus:: Georgia, Abkhazia and the Russian Shadow
Author - Svetlana Chervonnaya
ISBN - 0 906362 30 X
Publisher - Gothic Image Publications
Price - £23.00
Pages - 227pp