Fire in the mountains

A secessionist war threatens to spread through the Caucasus

MALCOLM GRAY November 2 1992

Fire in the mountains

A secessionist war threatens to spread through the Caucasus

MALCOLM GRAY November 2 1992

Fire in the mountains



A secessionist war threatens to spread through the Caucasus

Descending from the Caucasus mountains, the Psou River be-

comes a shallow stream dividing Russia and Georgia as it reaches the Black Sea. Only 30 km south of Sochi, the palm-fringed resort city that is the heart of the sun-and-fun beach strip known as the Russian Riviera, the Psou now flows through a border area awash in weapons and tension. Peace still holds on the Russian side. But on the other end of a dusty, narrow bridge, a green-and-white flag signals the proximity of a war that could spread across the mountainous and volatile Caucasus region. That striped banner is the national flag of Abkhazia, a frontier region of Georgia held by secessionist rebels who earlier this month routed soldiers loyal to Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. After an overwhelming endorsement as Georgian head of state in an Oct. 11 election,

the former Soviet foreign minister vowed to keep his homeland intact—by military force if necessary. Said Shevardnadze, speaking in the national capital of Tbilisi: “There must be Georgian forces on the border between Georgia and Russia.”

Georgian suspicion of Russian involvement in the Abkhazian crisis has led to heated exchanges between Shevardnadze and a once close political friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Shevardnadze charged that conservative Russian generals had provided the Abkhazian rebels with arms and training as part of a clandestine bid to reassert Russian control over Georgia. For his part, Yeltsin has firmly denied that his government is acting against Georgian interests—even though the Russian president has announced his intention to send troops into Georgia to guard a vital rail line that runs along the Black Sea coastal plain to Armenia. That plan, Russian officials acknowledge, has severely strained relations between Shevardnadze and Yeltsin—two Communiststumed-democrats who stood together against last year’s failed takeover by hard-liners in Moscow.

Including one-eighth of Georgia’s territory,

Abkhazia is a rugged, mountainous region that is roughly equal in size to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. Palm trees grow in the subtropical climate of its fertile coastal plain, shading the sanatoriums and rest centres that were a sought-after holiday retreat under the nowdeposed Soviet regime.

But the region, whose name in the local language means “country of the soul,” is also a seething brew of nationalities, politics and religions. It is also a place where Abkhazians and Georgians—nominal Moslems and Christians, respectively—are now engaged in a bitter and potentially devastating conflict. “If you look at a map of Georgia, it makes Yugoslavia look tidy by comparison,” said one clearly worried American official in Washington. “There are little slivers and fragments of ethnic minorities all over the place, like a horrendous case of measles.”

Open warfare in Abkhazia is the latest disaster to visit Georgia, a sunny, mountainous country of 5.4 million people that regained its independence last year as the Soviet Union collapsed. In January, vicious street fighting in Tbilisi drove Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the country’s first elected president, from office. One

month later, Shevardnadze agreed to lead the provisional council that had overthrown Gamsakhurdia’s increasingly dictatorial regime.

That acceptance marked Shevardnadze’s second coming as Georgia’s ruler: during the 1970s, he served as a tough and ruthless Communist party boss there. Now, the man who once bestrode the world as the chief foreign-affairs spokesman for a military superpower candidly acknowledges that bringing peace and prosperity to his troubled homeland is the greatest challenge of his long political career. Said Shevardnadze: “What I, we, are trying to do here is very hard. We are simply trying to survive as a country.”

The clash of competing faiths and beliefs in Abkhazia is part of a traditional struggle in the Caucasus, a region of stubbornly independent tribes that yielded to Russian rule during the 19th century but that Bolshevik forces had to conquer anew dining the 1920s. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, the siren call of independence is once again echoing through the mountain valleys. A year ago, leaders from 16 ethnic groups met in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi. There, in one of the few regional centres that still remains in Georgian hands, the dele-

gates formed the Confederation of Caucasian Mountain Peoples. Their goal: nothing less than an independent country carved out of Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Certainly, the armed clashes that erupted in Abkhazia in August highlighted a prediction by confederation leaders that a war for independence loomed over the Caucasus. At that time, Shevardnadze and other Georgian leaders defended a troop buildup in the northwest because the national guard units were there to protect transportation links from attack by diehard Gamsakhurdia supporters. But Abkhazian political leader Vladislav Ardzinba promptly accused the central government of using

military force to crush separatism in the region. After two months of inconclusive skirmishes, Abkhazian irregulars went on the offensive and achieved a stunning breakthrough in early October when they seized a string of Black Sea resort towns and drove poorly trained and newly raised Georgian units north across the Psou River into Russia.

Yeltsin aides privately acknowledge that the Russian leader has been forced to tread a delicate line in the Abkhazian conflict. They argue that open intervention on the Georgian side could spread the war to Russian parts of the Caucasus—home to thousands of Moslem volunteers who are now fighting alongside the Abkhazian rebels. Similarly, official Russian support for a secessionist region that wants to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, the successor to the old Soviet Union, might tempt Georgia to export the war to Russia’s southern frontiers. As a result, Yeltsin has

limited himself to nonspecific promises of protection for the 100,000 ethnic Russians who live in Abkhazia. Said Yeltsin in an address to the Russian legislature earlier this month: “Russia will not stand aside when human rights are violated and the interests of ethnic Russians are trampled.”

Georgians quickly respond that their rights are being abused in a region where they form the largest single ethnic group, which accounts for about 40 per cent of Abkhazia’s 538,000 people. The 97,000 Abkhazi are actually a minority in their own homeland—in part, say nationalists, because of deportations carried out by the Georgian-born Soviet dictator Josef

Stalin in the 1930s. Now, in a small-scale war involving about 6,000 soldiers on the Georgian side, volunteers from other parts of the Caucasus have sought to offset that numerical advantage by joining the Abkhazian side. Especially prominent are fighters from Chechen-Ingushetia, a largely Moslem enclave inside Russia that has achieved near-freedom from rule by the government in Moscow.

Some Chechens, tough mountaineers who are renowned for their fighting ability, commonly appear on the first few metres of Abkhazian-held territory across the Russian border. There, near a commandeered traffic-police checkpoint, Chechen irregulars carrying AK-47 assault rifles and dressed in a motley assortment of camouflage jackets, jeans and fingerless black leather gloves, guard the frontiers of recently liberated Abkhazia. Their primary task: to screen the hundreds of refugees who flow northward across the border daily. “Yes, we are

Chechens,” acknowledged one lean, bearded guard on the Abkhazian side of the border. As he spoke, he flipped through maroon-colored Soviet-era passports that denote the bearers’ ethnic origins. “Georgians are of interest to us, naturally,” the guard said, adding: “But unless we think that they will return to fight us, we do not discourage them from leaving Abkhazia.”

Well back from the passport checkpoint, Ardavast Khaladzhayan resigned himself to a two-hour wait in line. He had just completed a six-kilometre trek from his home in a nearby village, pushing a cart loaded with a mattress and a dismantled bed. Khaladzhayan said that he was seeking refuge in Russia, where he has relatives and a place to stay. Declared the 54year-old Armenian ambulance driver: “I am worried about the Georgians coming back as Armenians and Georgians sometimes do not get along.”

But with skirmishes still occurring in the

nearby hills, southward-bound traffic has been sparse recently on the M27, or Black Sea Coastal Road, a route that many former Soviets associate with their summer holidays. The route to the posh Georgian resort city of Gagra is lined with graceful eucalyptus and cypress trees. But there are frequent checkpoints along the 30-km route, as well as burnt-out trucks and cars that offer mute evidence of the Georgian forces’ retreat under fire in early October.

Gagra itself, a community with a population of about 35,000, also shows the scars of the street fighting that has claimed the lives of about 200 Georgian soldiers. And fire-blackened houses on the city’s hilly streets illustrate the ethnic hatreds rampant throughout western Georgia. According to Ruslan Yazychba, the city’s 43-year-old chief administrator, some Abkhazian fighters celebrated their victory by destroying the homes of Georgian police and military officials who they said had persecuted local residents. But Yazychba also admitted that some of the buildings were destroyed simply because they were owned by Georgians. Said Yazychba: “We do not condone such acts of hooliganism, but they happen in war.”

As a worker carefully removed shards of glass from shot-out office windows in the city hall, Yazychba fanned a collection of photographs across his desk and pointed out members of the Georgian militia forces who had recently fled from Gagra. To a visiting journalist, the casually dressed subjects appeared almost indistinguishable from the similarly clad and equally heavily armed Abkhazian irregulars clustered outside the city hall. But to Yazychba, each individual’s actions had been noted—and carefully assessed. “Even his friends called this one stolb [post] because he was so stupid,” said Yazychba as he fingered a picture of a young man in a brightly colored Tshirt. “We let most of the Georgian soldiers we captured return to Tbilisi, but this one raped an Abkhaz girl and if we catch him we will kill him.”

Yazychba and other Abkhazian leaders dismissed suggestions that the rebels had received late-model T-72 and T-80 battle tanks from sympathetic Russian generals. But they acknowledged that their fighters were now equipped with older tanks, armored personnel carriers and even surface-to-air missiles. That heavy arsenal, they insisted, was captured from the fleeing Georgians.

From the bullet-nicked city hall, Gagra still retains the appearance of a town built on tourism. But the approaches to some beaches remain mined, and a Georgian SU-25 bomber recently swooped in from the sea and destroyed a recreation centre. To Yazychba, that relatively minor raid erased the old Gagra familiar to many, former Soviet citizens—a place of sunshine, rest and relaxation. Now, Abkhazia has a different, bleaker image: as a war zone on Russia’s unstable southern frontier.


in Gagra