Sokhumi Riot and prelude towards armed conflict

The lingering ethnic discord in Abkhazia exacerbated when, on March 18, 1989, the Abkhaz nationalists, who viewed an increasingly active movement for Georgia’s independence as a threat to their political privileges of a “titular minority”, signed a petition to the central Soviet government at a mass meeting at Lykhny, Abkhazia, demanding the rights to secede from Georgia.

The move caused mass protests from the Georgian community, which accounted for by far the largest single group in (45,7%) of the population of the Abkhaz ASSR, and were resolutely opposed to any diminution of their links with the Georgian republic, holding rival demonstrations within Abkhazia and within Georgia proper. The protests climaxed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and evolved into a major anti-Soviet and pro-independence rally on April 9, 1989, which was violently dispersed by the Soviet Interior Ministry troops, killing twenty, mostly young women, and injuring hundreds of demonstrators. At a plenum of the Georgian central committee the following day the Communist party first secretary, Jumber Patiashvili, resigned and was replaced by the former head of the Georgian KGB, Givi Gumbaridze. The April 9 tragedy removed the last vestiges of credibility from the Soviet regime in Georgia and pushed many Georgians into radical opposition to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz remained largely loyal to the Soviet rule partly to antagonize the Georgian movement and partly to obtain Moscow’s sympathy towards their cause.

A few days before the scheduled exams in Sokhumi state University, several thousand of Abkhaz nationalists organized a mass anti-Georgian rally in Sokhumi. On July 12 1989, the ultra-nationalist organization Aydgylara activists led the demonstrators, including armed groups, into the attack on the building of the local Georgian-language newspaper, forcing it to shot down. Soon, the school building which was expected to house the Georgian university was also surrounded by the crowd. The local police officials ignored calls from desperate employees from the besieged building and replaced, early on July 15, policemen of Georgian nationality guarding the university with Abkhaz officers. The same day, a small police unit sent to Sokhumi from Tbilisi to help restore order was disarmed by the Abkhaz militia without any hindrance from the local police. Meanwhile, Georgians gathered into a counter-rally to prevent the Abkhaz from disrupting the university.

Russian government officials and special services devised series of provocations which would quickly degenerate into an open inter-ethnic warfare and eventually into the War in Abkhazia. A group of armed Abkhaz opened fire on the Georgian demonstration in Rustaveli Park. On late July 16, a crowd of five thousand Abkhaz ultra-nationalists, many of whom were armed, surged into the building. Several members of the Georgian exam commission were beaten up, and the school was looted.

This set off a chain of events that produced further casualties and destruction as the both sides engaged in armed fighting for several days to come. That evening, Abkhaz and Georgians began mobilizing all over Abkhazia and western Georgia. The KodoriSvans, ethnic Georgian subgroup from northeastern Abkhazia, and Abkhaz from the town of Tkvarcheli clashed in a shooting spree that lasted all night and intermittently for several days afterward. Meanwhile 30,000 Georgians from western Georgia, particularly from Mingrelia, and the predominantly Georgian Gali district in southern Abkhazia, began marching toward Sokhumi, led by the eminent Soviet-era dissidentMerab Kostava. The authorities reported that the Abkhaz crowds attacked police posts to get access to weapons, but evidence suggests that official sympathy prevented the local law enforcement agencies from offering resistance to the “attackers”. Moreover, a local procurator in Ochamchire ordered the return of Abkhaz hunting weapons.

The July events in Abkhazia left at least eighteen dead and 448 injured, of whom, according to official accounts, 302 were Georgians. The Georgians suspected the attack on their university was intentionally staged by the Abkhaz nationalists and Russian special services in order to provoke a large-scale violence that would prompt Moscow to declare a martial law in the region, thus depriving the government in Tbilisi of any control over the autonomous structures in Abkhazia. At the same time, Soviet government openly manipulated ethnic issues to curb Georgia’s otherwise irrepressible independence movement.

In 1990, the Georgian-Abkhaz antagonism had largely moved to the legislatures, and the street fights and violent demonstrations were replaced by the “war of laws.” After Georgia declared, in August 1990, Georgian the only language spoken in the Georgian Supreme Soviet (parliament), the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, in the absence of its Georgian delegation, adopted, on August 25, a decree of the “state sovereignty of the Abkhazian SSR,” a decision which was claimed by Georgians to be a result of violations of procedure, adopted in the absence of the necessary quorum. The next day, the Georgian parliament annulled the decision. The Georgian deputies of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet convened on August 31, 1990, and at an extraordinary session they rescinded all the enactments passed by their Abkhaz colleagues, declaring them contrary to the constitutions of the Abkhazian ASSR and the Georgian SSR. Amid the political disputes, the Abkhaz leaders continued their quest for allies. On their initiative, a second Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus, consisting of the representatives of Russia’s North Caucasian republics, was convened in Sokhumi in October 1990.

On October 28, 1990, the Georgian SSR held the first multiparty elections which brought the bloc of political parties, ”Roundtable – Free Georgia”, led by the Soviet-era dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia to power. In December 1990, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet elected a new chairman, Vladislav Ardzinba, who led the non-Georgian part of the Abkhazian legislature to adopt a series of acts which further deepened the division between the Abkhaz and Georgian lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Georgia continued its movement towards independence, and boycotted the March 17, 1991, all-Union referendum on the renewal of the Soviet Union proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. The non-Georgian population of Abkhazia, however, took part in the referendum and voted by an overwhelming majority in favor of preserving the Union. Furthermore, most of ethnic Abkhaz population declined to participate in the March 31 referendum on Georgia’s independence, which was supported by a huge majority of the population of Georgia. Independence was declared on April 9, 1991, and Gamsakhurdia was elected president on May 26, with over 86 per cent of the vote. In Abkhazia, the Supreme Council and all major public institutions became paralyzed by the division of two blocks along the ethnic lines. However, Georgia’s preoccupation in South Ossetia, a former autonomous oblast in the northeast of the country, where the separatist movement had already escalated into a war, and the Abkhaz fears that Gamsakhurdia’s government would use military to reinforce its control over Abkhazia, made the both sides to work towards an agreement on reforming the Abkhazian autonomous structures. On July 9 1991, Abkhazia passed a new election law based upon the concept proposed by the Georgian expert, Professor Levan Aleksidze. According to the new scheme, ethnic Abkhaz were granted wide overrepresentation in the Supreme Council of Abkhazia, with 28 seats; Georgians received 26, and other ethnic groups 11. A two-third majority was to be required to pass a legislation, thus guarantying both Abkhaz and Georgian factions veto power over key decisions. The eleven “others” could choose either to side with the Georgians or with the Abkhaz. The chairman of the Supreme Council was to be ethnic Abkhaz, with two deputies, one from a Georgian delegation, and the other from other ethnic faction. Vladislav Ardzinba was reelected a chairman of the Supreme Council.

This compromise solution failed, however, to resolve the conflict between the two main communities in Abkhazia, and the Abkhaz leaders became increasingly involved in the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, a political organization which succeeded the Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus. The Confederation accepted Abkhazia as a member on its 3rd congress in Sokhumi on November 10, 1991, and later established its own military forces.

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