Georgian civil war


Georgian civil war
(1991–1993)
   As the Soviet Union unraveled in 1990–1991, Georgia was in the vanguard of the independence movement. The pro-Moscow orientation of certain autonomous regions of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, however, created a volatile situation in the South Caucasian republic. In September 1990, relations between the central government and the South Ossetian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) deteriorated rapidly, particularly after leaders in the regional capital Tskhinvali declared a South Ossetian Democratic Soviet Republic and appealed to Moscow for help against Georgian nationalists. In December, Georgian politicians negated South Ossetian autonomy. Fighting between South Ossetian and government forces broke out in early 1991, reaching its peak in April before a respite in the summer months.
   Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to calm the violence, but political challenges in the Baltic States and the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan weakened the position of the federal government. The presence of Soviet troops in South Ossetia did constrain Georgian military action against its breakaway region but proved ineffective against roaming bands of paramilitaries. The violence claimed nearly 1,000 lives and resulted in mass emigration of Ossetians across the Russian border to North Ossetiya. In April 1991, in the midst of the conflict with South Ossetia, the Georgian Supreme Council unanimously passed the declaration of independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). On 26 May 1991, the former dissident and Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected as president, winning 86 percent of the vote. However, his authoritarian style and refusal to address economic issues, as well as continued ethnic tensions, led to further instability across Georgia. Gamsakhurdia’s ambiguous position on the August Coup and imprisonment of opposition leaders further sapped his popularity among reformists. Ready access to Soviet military hardware and the rising strength of paramilitary groups operating in the country came to a head in December when a group of military personnel, including the leader of the Georgian National Guard, Tengiz Kitovani, launched a coup against Gamsakhurdia. By the end of January 1992, the president had gone into exile, first fleeing to Armenia, then to Chechnya. Media reports suggested that Russian forces had assisted the plotters and aided anti-Gamsakhurdia activists to gain control of state television.
   In March, Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party from 1972 until 1985, returned to the country and was soon elected head of state. Shortly after coming to power, Shevardnadze was confronted with a new separatist challenge from the Black Sea region of Abkhazia. An ASSR during Soviet times, the region clamored for union with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic from the mid-1980s onward. As Georgia slipped into civil war, the Abkhaz, supported by local Armenians and ethnic Russians, turned against Georgia. In the summer of 1992, Abkhazian separatists attacked government buildings in Sukhumi, the regional capital. In an environment of threats and counterthreats, Cossacks from Russia and various volunteers from the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus rallied to defend the Muslim Abkhaz from Georgian aggression. Russian forces were ostensibly neutral in the conflict but supplied battlefield intelligence and weapons (missiles and SU-25 fighters) to the Abkhazians, and were found to have participated in the aerial bombing of Georgian-held Sukhumi in 1993. A number of Russian politicians including Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy vocally supported the Abkhazians. Russian border guards also allowed the Chechen fighters, including Shamil Basayev, to cross into Abkhazia. Ethnic cleansing reached epic levels, with some 200,000 Georgians being forced out of the region. Increasingly, Russia assumed the ambiguous role of peacekeeper in the region, but conflicting loyalties and reticence to send soldiers into harm’s way actually contributed to a worsening of the security situation. Ultimately, Abkhaz forces were able to secure most of the region, with the exception of the Kodori Gorge, which remained under government control. From 1992 to 1993, pitched battles between the security forces, assisted by Mkhedrioni (Georgian: “Horsemen”) paramilitaries, and Gamsakhurdia loyalists known as Zviadists wracked the country. Supporters of the ousted president were able to establish effective control over his home region, Samegrelo. This gave Gamsakhurdia the ability to launch an offensive against Shevardnadze’s forces from the city of Zugdidi in the west of the country.
   Under intense pressure, Shevardnadze begged Moscow for help, which came in the form of Russian support from the Black Sea. Gamsakhurdia’s units were routed, and the ex-president died shortly thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In the midst of the strife, Aslan Abashidze sealed the borders to Ajaria, creating a semi-autonomous fiefdom that he would control for more than a decade. In addition to losing control of Ajaria, Shevardnadze was forced to join the Commonwealth of Independent States and accept long-term Russian deployments in his country and (temporary) subjugation of its foreign policy to Moscow. Other aftereffects of the civil war included long-term economic debilitation, frozen conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and lingering social conflict.
   See also Foreign relations; Immigration.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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