Chapter 2: Frozen conflicts

1994 – 1999

2.1. General review

Between 1994 and 1999, Russia gradually came to take up the position in Georgia that it had set out to achieve. As a result of the civic confrontations, ethno/political conflicts, and hostilities between Caucasian peoples that Moscow had sought to exacerbate within Georgia, Russia was able to assume its desired position as the only organized and functioning military/political force. Hence, it could also claim to be the only force capable of guaranteeing peace and stability in the region.

It should be noted that, during this period, Russia failed to meet its “peacekeeping” responsibilities. For instance, it failed to create the necessary conditions for the safe and dignified return of IDPs and refugees, and it did not facilitate any confidence-building programs.

Throughout, Russia continued to actively assist, sometimes covertly, the separatist administrations. It operated four military bases on Georgian territory (Tbilisi, Akhalkalaki, Batumi, Gudauta); it fully controlled the regime in the Adjara Autonomous Republic (a regime led by Aslan Abashidze); and it had a say in the appointment of high-level officials in the Georgian government.

During that same time, the Georgian Government focused its efforts on reconstruction and the amelioration of the humanitarian, political and material damage caused by the wars.

2.2. Developments in the Conflict Zones

From the beginning of the 1990s onwards, Russia controlled the most strategically important parts of the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region and most of Abkhazia (excluding the Kodori Gorge).

Under the protection of Russia, puppet “political elites” were created in Sukhumi and the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region and were forcibly established as “local authorities.” To maintain its control, Moscow appointed Russian functionaries and representatives of the Security Services of the Russian Federation. The puppet regimes in Sukhumi  and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region were generously financed—in effect, subsidized—by Moscow through multiple channels. In these territories, the dominant currency was the Russian ruble. Russian investments were widespread and the property of Georgian authorities and people displaced from Abkhazia was misappropriated and sold.

In this manner, the regions became totally tied to Russia—politically, economically, socially, and culturally. This is especially true for the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, which had developed into an enclave that was linked to Russia exclusively through the Roki tunnel.

At the same time, the economies of the regions collapsed. In Abkhazia, much of the infrastructure destroyed by the war remained unrepaired. As a result, the potential for the development of tourism was reduced. Separatist economies survived through the smuggling of Russian goods to the rest of Georgia, the selling of valuable timber resources, the destruction of the natural environment, the development of cottage industries, small numbers of Russian tourists, and widespread reliance on Russian subsidies.

The regime in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region was also fed by criminal activities. It both conducted and relied upon the smuggling of alcohol and fuel, the shipping of stolen goods and cars to Russia, and robbery and burglary. For the leadership of the separatist authorities, the generous Russian subsidies were simple bribes that rarely, if ever, reached the local population. A further source of revenues for the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region were the so-called customs duties imposed on any goods shipped via the Trans-Caucasian highway. This route was used by Armenia and by the military travelling to Russian bases.

Both regions became “safe havens” where law and order were ignored and criminals could find shelter and immunity from prosecution. Drug trafficking, smuggling, and blackmail became routine. Even the most minor economic activities (such as the growing of citrus fruits, nuts, and other agricultural products by local farmers) were controlled by criminal groups.

The situation surrounding the ratification of the framework agreement between Georgia and Russia provides a further example of Russian policy. The framework agreement was signed in 1994, during Boris Yeltsin’s official visit to Georgia. But while Georgia ratified the agreement, Russia did not. It is clear that Russia had no intention of recognizing the internationally recognized Georgian border.

Given this situation, from 1997 onwards, Georgia attempted to initiate an international conflict resolution process. This was manifested in the promotion of policies that sought to “internationalize” the process and/or weaken Russia’s dominance by increasing the role of international actors. Those attempts resulted in the Geneva negotiations, which started in November 1997 under UN auspices. The so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General—including France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the US—became quite active. All subsequent negotiations followed this format. One of the mechanisms applied by the working group on security issues was the so-called Chiburkhimji quadripartite meeting, in which the Russian Federation played a leading part.

During this period, the then-Russian Foreign Minister, Evgeny Primakov, proposed a plan for the creation of a “Common State.” According to the plan, Georgia had to recognize, a priori, Abkhazia’s independence; later, the two independent subjects would create a common state under Russia’s supervision. Simultaneously, Russia categorically rejected any form of participation by the international community. According to the Primakov plan, the subjects founding the new entity would have the right to secede from the common state. The plan also included an “allied state” variation. It is worth mentioning that this form of “state entity” is unknown in international law.

It is also worth noting that in 1997, the then-Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the de facto Abkhaz leader, V. Ardzinba, made a joint statement at a meeting in Tbilisi on the non-resumption of military activity. However, despite this agreement, in May 1998, the separatists initiated a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from the Gali region. The Russian peacekeepers, who were obliged under their mandate to ensure the security of the population, did nothing to stop the cleansing of the ethnic Georgians. This generated a further wave of IDPs.
Relations between former President Eduard Shevardnadze and the de facto South Ossetia leader, Chibirov, are also worth mentioning in the context of the conflict in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. As early as 1993, Chibirov began to hold leading positions in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region when he became de facto Chairman of the Supreme Council of South Ossetia and Head of State.
The situation at that point can best be described as tenuous stability, whereby the formerly intense phase of military confrontation evolved into a more stagnant phase. During this period smuggling (especially of alcohol) rapidly increased. Individual Georgian and Ossetian special interest groups soon found a common language and smuggled goods started to flow in both directions: from Russia into Georgia and vice versa. During this period, a certain “warming” could be observed in the conflict.
In 1996, the Ergneti market was opened and soon became the place where people traded in smuggled goods. It represented the meeting point of multiple interests and actors, including the separatist leaders, the leadership of the Russian peacekeepers, criminals, and corrupt officials. This market acted as a conduit for millions of dollars worth of goods to be smuggled into Georgia from Russia through the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. In turn, also via the Ergneti market, narcotics and weapons were brought to Georgia which helped to generate income to finance criminal groups and the separatist regime. The market thus developed into an important source of income. From the Ossetian side, it was controlled by the family of Ludvig Chibirov, who, after winning the 1996 “elections”, acquired the status of “President of South Ossetia.” The Georgian side agreed to open the market because it would “bring people closer to each other.”
The blossoming of these common business interests was followed by meetings between political leaders. In this context, a memorandum signed in Moscow on 16 May  1996 (Memorandum on “Measures for providing security and confidence building”) can be regarded as the first step towards a rapprochement between Georgia and the separatist region of South Ossetia.
A series of Shevardnadze-Chibirov meetings followed (1996 in Vladikavkaz, 1997 in Java, 1998 in Borjomi). These resulted in some positive developments as the parties started to talk about IDP return, economic development, a political solution to the issues, and the protection of the population in the conflict zone.
In parallel to this, the actual situation within the conflict zone began to improve. Common business interests helped bring people closer to each other and confrontation decreased. However, the reason for this dynamic was the trade in smuggled goods, which consequently had a negative effect on the institutional development of the Georgian state and contributed to an ongoing failure to meet the budgetary needs of the state.
The emergence of positive dynamics ceased after Georgia further developed its orientation in the direction of the West and Eduard Kokoity was “elected” as “President of South Ossetia.” Specifically, Russia took active measures to promote the Kokoity presidency, with the goal of escalating tension in the region.

Thus, Russia once again had taken measures aimed at slowing Georgia’s natural movement towards the Western and European space. In so doing, Russia in effect exerted direct and indirect political influence over the sovereign choices of the Georgian state. This policy was enhanced by Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia, Russia’s manipulation of societal cleavages, and the international community’s failure to adopt successful conflict-resolution mechanisms. By exerting direct influence in the zones of conflict, Russia was able to either “melt” or “stir” the conflicts at any moment as it pleased.

 

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Decree issued by the Government of the Russian Federation on importing of citrus and some other agricultural products to the Russian Federation (07.11.1997). (Russian)

Final Statement on the results of the resumed meeting between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides held in Geneva within 17-19.11.1997 (Russian)

Statement of Russian Duma regarding simplification of border and customs regime at the Abkhazia border and Statement of the Parliament of Georgia (August 26 1998) (Russian)

Athens meeting of the Georgian and Abkhaz Sides on confidence-building measures (18.10.1998) (Russian)

Basic principles for determining the status of Abkhazia within the new State structure of Georgia, proposed by the Government of Georgia (23.07.1999). (Russian)

Suggestions for resolving Conflict in Abkhazia(Russian)

Lisbon Document 1996 OSCE (English)

Shevardnadze-Ardzinba Joint Statement, Tbilisi (Russian)

“Memorandum on necessary measures to be undertaken in order to ensure security and strengthen mutual trust between the Parties to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.“ (16.05.1996)(Russian)