The Abkhazia Conflict

The Abkhaz are linguistically distinct from the Georgians, their language being one of the northwestern Caucasus family (although Russian is now the most common language in Abkhazia). During the Middle Ages, Abkhazia was an important component of Christian Georgia. It came under Ottoman rule in the 15th century. Russian conquest in the 19th century resulted in many thousands of Muslim Abkhaz fleeing to the Ottoman empire, and there is a big Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey today.

Under Soviet rule in 1921, Abkhazia signed a treaty of union with Georgia, but in 1931 it was downgraded to an autonomous region within Georgia. The number of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia increased to the point where by 1989 46% of Abkhazia’s population was Georgian and only 18% Abkhaz. The Abkhaz began to agitate for more rights in the late 1970s, and in 1990 Abkhazia’s Abkhaz-dominated Supreme Soviet unilaterally declared Abkhazia a separate Soviet republic.

Real conflict broke out in August 1992 when the Georgian National Guard occupied Sukhumi, driving out most of its Abkhaz inhabitants. Abkhazia was plunged into a year of fighting, in which about 8000 people died. The Abkhaz were aided by fighters from the Russian Caucasus, and on some occasions by Russian armed forces. Both sides committed appalling atrocities. In September 1993 the Abkhaz attacked Sukhumi in violation of a truce and drove the Georgian forces and almost all of Abkhazia’s Georgian population (about 230,000 people) out of Abkhazia. Only in the southern Gali district have significant numbers of Georgians (around 40,000) since returned.

After the 1992–93 war, Russia imposed trade sanctions on Abkhazia, but Vladimir Putin changed Russia’s stance when he entered the Kremlin in 2000. Abkhazians were offered Russian passports from 2001, and in 2008 Russia removed trade sanctions. During the 2008 South Ossetia War, Russian forces came from Abkhazia to attack Georgian military installations in western Georgia. Soon afterwards, Russia recognised Abkhazia as an independent nation. (Only Venezuela, Nicaragua and a couple of small Pacific islands have followed Russia’s lead.) Russia stepped up aid and investment and stationed anti-aircraft missiles and several thousand troops in the territory. In 2014 Abkhazia and Russia signed an Agreement on Alliance & Strategic Partnership, under which Abkhazia's defence, law enforcement, border control and economic management are to be merged with Russia's within three years.

Ethnic Abkhaz now constitute about half of Abkhazia’s much reduced population. Most do not appear to want Russian rule (their ideal is genuine independence). They have, however, little choice but to obey Russia's will.