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.
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.