What Ukraine Must Learn from Georgia’s Mistakes
By Mikhail Kholodov
This article is dedicated to the dear family friend, Count Yuri Nikolayevich Voronov, one of the greatest historians and archaeologists of Abkhazia, a tireless politician, serving his people as the Vice-Premier of the Republic of Abkhazia in the aftermath of the war against the Georgian invaders, and a champion of Abkhazia’s independence. A man of unbounded intelligence and many passions, Abkhazia was his greatest love, which overshadowed even his love for his own life. Yuri Nikolayevich Voronov was assassinated in his home in the country’s capital, Sukhum, on September 11, 1995, nineteen days short of the second anniversary of the victory of the people of Abkhazia over the Georgian aggressors, a victory that he had a big hand in achieving. Abkhazia will never forget her hero.
History has a resilient tendency to repeat itself, which has been witnessed all-around the globe time and time again, yet people rarely draw parallels between events transpiring elsewhere and their own situations. The current conflict in Ukraine is the most recent illustration of this, as the country’s government in Kiev stubbornly refuses to recall one of the deadliest conflicts within the former borders of the late Soviet Union, which in many ways is similar to the situation in Ukraine, and which foretells an utterly grim future for that country. This conflict sparked between the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of Georgia over twenty years ago and went virtually unnoticed by the media in the United States. The outcome of those events many years ago stands to occur in Ukraine, like a miserable ghost of utter human arrogance, malice, and absurdity, stubbornly haunting the nation’s divided society forever.
On our end in the West, we must come to the realization of just what is coming to that region as a direct result of big countries’ meddling in small countries’ affairs. It is apparent that the United States (and, to a lesser extent, the EU) not only plays a major role in the pro-Western unconstitutional ultranationalist coup, as does Russia with the pro-Russian East of the country, but it continues to lead the new Ukrainian government toward what it surely calls a rosy future of the eternal basking in the green rays of Western-style democracy. As Libertarians, we must realize that this is not only wrong, since any meddling in the affairs of another country is completely unacceptable, but it is costing all American taxpayers enormous amounts of money. This is nothing new, but is a logical continuation of the American foreign policy, undertaken by both Republicans and Democrats for decades. It does not, however, mean that this policy must continue and it is up to us, the Libertarian Party, to show the rest of our country a fair alternative to confrontational language and actions.
If nothing is done, then History, the great predictor that it is, has already made all the preparations to help it repeat itself in Ukraine, so let us see what is to come, based on the great tragedy of Abkhazia.
In order to understand the dynamics of the hostilities between Abkhazia and Georgia, it is imperative to examine the relations between the two nations through history, especially the early years of the Soviet Union.
Republic of Abkhazia is a de facto independent nation on the northern shore of the Black Sea, located between Russia and the Republic of Georgia. Currently, Abkhazia’s independence has been recognized by four countries: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru (a tiny island nation in the Pacific), so to these four, Abkhazia is also a de jure independent nation. Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia came after its brief war with Georgia in 2008, when Mikhail Saakashvili, then, the president of Georgia, tried to take back another breakaway region: of South Ossetia. Once Georgia was defeated, Russia recognized both South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence.
During most of the Soviet era, Abkhazia was a part of Georgia, which itself was one of the fifteen republics that made up USSR. In its early Soviet years (between 1921 and 1931), Abkhazia existed as a full-fledged republic, equal in status to Georgia, but was demoted by Stalin, a Georgian criminal, turned Soviet dictator and mass-murderer, to the status of an autonomous republic within Georgia at the end of this period, in February of 1931. The first modern constitution of the Republic of Abkhazia, enacted in 1925, documents Abkhazia’s sovereignty from Georgia, and is the basis for the country’s relations with Georgia. After Georgia left Soviet Union, Abkhazia pushed for federalization of Georgia, planning to stay within the country as an autonomous republic, a motion that was rejected by the government of Georgia, which favored a completely centralized rule from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (at this point, parallels with the Ukraine of today must be starting to appear for anyone reading this). The USSR broke apart in 1991 and the talks between the capitals, Tbilisi and Sukhum, on Abkhazia’s status within Georgia continued for over a year. Not willing to work with the people of Abkhazia, Georgia saw the negotiations going absolutely nowhere until the end of summer, 1992…
And then, the talk was over…
The first, shy rays of the delicately-soft, eternally-loving sun had begun to break through the blushing line of the horizon, standing guard over the warm waters of the ancient Black Sea, waters that millennia before saw Jason and his Argonauts arrive from Greece in search of the Golden Fleece. Waking up from the short summer night, these waters, though majestic in their own right, could not help, but smile in awe of the sight, they have beheld for countless eons, yet could never really get used to – the grand Caucasus Mountains, the highest mountains in Europe. The crystal-clear summer dew began to sparkle all across these mountains, the bees started to leave their hives, getting an early jump on their new, busy day, the virgin rainforests of thousand-year-old, moss-covered boxwood trees began to stretch their ancient branches toward the young rays of the sun, and the unforgettable, intoxicating smell of wild honey, mountain flowers, and everything else that lives up in these mountains began to fill every slope and every ravine, making its way toward the sea below. The slight wind… no, not wind, really, but a whisper of an afterthought of the infinitesimally small movement of the morning summer air, barely felt by the leaves of the mountain forests, foretold a wonderful day ahead…
It was the morning of August 14th, 1992. That evening war came to Abkhazia.
Under orders from the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, a man, whom many may still remember as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of USSR, two to three thousand Georgian National Guard militants invaded Abkhazia, aided by over 50 heavy armored units and a large number of artillery. What followed gave birth to the unapologetic sanitarium of the wretchedly twisted whirlwind of all-devouring hatred, infinite in its destructive power.
A sizable portion of Georgian troops consisted of convicts that were released under the pretext that they take part in the country’s military operations in Abkhazia, after which, they would be free men. Little did the celebrated Soviet politician know that a virtually unknown and untested leader of the Republic of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, would not only stand firm and resolved against him, but actually defeat Mr. Shevarnadze.
As the invasion commenced, the Georgian forces, which inherited a large amount of weapons and military vehicles, quickly realized that they were up against a makeshift militia, in possession of nothing, but small arms. Because of that, the Georgian blitzkrieg-style offensive resulted in occupation of most of Abkhazia within a few days, forcing the Abkhazian government to flee the capital city of Sukhum (then called Sukhumi) for the still-unoccupied territories in the west of the country. In the midst of these lightning-fast events, the leadership of Abkhazia appealed to the numerous small nationalities of the Caucasus for help. The result of that plea was truly astonishing, as people all-over Caucasus and beyond answered the call. Among the first who came to the aid was the Confederation of Mountain People of the Caucasus (CMPC), a confederation that includes such peoples as Chechens and both North and South Ossetians. The soldiers of Abkhazia and CMPC were also reinforced by the squadrons of the Kuban Cossacks, who have always stood at the vanguard of Russia’s defense against numerous invaders from the East, by the Armenian battalion, and other volunteers. This was the force that had no choice, but to defeat the invading Georgians, if Abkhazia and its people were to survive the conflict.
The Georgian side was not alone, either, as it was aided by a battalion of the UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense), called Argo. This ultra-right political organization of militant Ukrainian nationalists is now part of Right Sector, a Neo-Nazi organization that currently makes up a sizable portion of the Ukrainian National Guard, organized by Kiev earlier this year that, contrary to many regular Armed Forces of Ukraine, is willing to obey Kiev’s orders, without regard to the legality of those orders. These people are willing to fight at a moment’s notice, against anyone who may be related to the Russians or their supporters, and who they see as the enslavers of the Ukrainian people. Though looked at from some specific perspectives one could clearly see and justify the point of view taken by them, the problem is that in the rhetoric that continuously comes out of the circle of Right Sector leaders, Russia as a state is equated with each individual person of Russian descent. This completely destroys any legitimacy Right Sector and other like groups may ever hold in its “struggle” for independence from the Russian rule, as to them, fighting (including murdering) against any given individual Russian is as just and justified, as protesting against the Russian government.
The forces of Abkhazia faced this coalition-of-the-willing invaders and stopped them before they were able to take over the whole country, but it wasn’t until over a year later, that Georgians were finally defeated. In the aftermath of the war, countless accounts of atrocities, committed by Georgian troops, surfaced, many, almost too gruesome to recount, such as soldiers being taken prisoner, tortured continuously for many days in a row (often, with the severity of each day’s torture depending on the progress of Georgian forces on the battlefield), before being impaled on poles, while still alive. This, however, is really to be expected of any army that consists in large part of freed convicts. What would a criminal do when he is given weapons and armored vehicle support and thrown into hostile territory? Would he follow the rules set forth by the Geneva Convention? Not even many of the real soldiers among that army did that, but the convicts really shined. One popular way to pillage villages was to drive a tank or an armored personnel carrier into a home, breaking one of its walls and running into the half-destroyed building to find women to rape, men to torture, and valuables to take. To many, this was the main purpose of participating in the invasion, which later became one of the reasons for Georgia’s eventual defeat – when the real, the heavy fighting begins, people like that lose their resolve and stop being soldiers. And cowards always run from danger.
The war, Abkhazians call the Patriotic War of the People of Abkhazia (analogous to the Great Patriotic War of USSR versus Nazi Germany), was over when the last Georgian units crossed into safety over the Georgian border as, unlike the Soviet Red Army, Abkhazian troops did not pursue the fight to their enemy’s capital. Also, similar to WWII, the Patriotic War of the People of Abkhazia even includes the account of a large city, located close to the enemy border, which was never taken by the enemy, enduring a horrible siege that lasted for almost as long as the war itself. Just like Leningrad of 1941-1944, the city of Tkuarchal (former Tkvarcheli) was encircled by the enemy on September 27th, 1992 and liberated one day before the victory, in September 29th, 1993. Many in Abkhazia call it Abkhazia’s Leningrad. Unlike Leningrad, however, Tkuarchal is now a virtual ghost town, most of its residents either dead of starvation during the siege, or gone from the city afterwards.
The war of 1992-1993, one of the bloodiest post-Soviet conflicts, took more than 17,000 lives and more than halved Abkhazia’s population from over 500,000 to just over 200,000. Over twenty years later, Abkhazia still has not completely recovered. In the aftermath of the war, the government of Georgia offered Abkhazia an even greater autonomy than Abkhazia had previously asked for, but that bridge between the two peoples was gone forever. It is neither possible to forgive, nor feasible to forget the brutal attack, led by what the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia called criminal intelligentsia, an oxymoron in its own right, but a wonderful description of those, who led the country to this mindless and horrifying fiasco.
The Lesson for Ukraine
Ukraine, many of whose militants know of what had gone on in Abkhazia firsthand, is currently staring into the same abyss, as did Georgia, and the similarities are staggering! Ukraine’s East is pleading for autonomy within the country, a plea that has to this day been ignored. Instead, the government in Kiev, government that itself lacks legitimacy, having come to power as a result of a political coup, legalized its ultra-nationalist fringes of UNA-UNSO and Right Sector from the country’s West into the National Guard, clearly preparing to take the rebellious regions by force. Starting these full-scale operations will lead to a horrible civil war that will see many of the same events that happened in Abkhazia, including heavy looting, rapes, torture, mutilations, and murders. Thousands will die and any chance of reconciliation between the two groups of the divided country will be lost FOREVER.
The United States wants another ally in Eastern Europe, which it will get even if Ukraine splits. The US also wants to reposition the EU economy toward its energy products and away from Russia’s. Russia, on the other hand, wants a buffer zone between itself and the NATO countries, which it will get if Ukraine splits, in two. Moreover, Russia’s energy products can be reoriented toward the booming Asian economies, which have enough demand to absorb everything Russia can export, so EU’s reorientation away from Russia’s exports will not create a permanent negative effect on Russia’s economy. In fact, this will probably happen naturally within several decades, with Europe sliding deeper into stagnation, while the Asian countries become the new powerhouses of the world’s economy. The future economic superpowers are the four countries that now make up the BRIC alliance (which stands for Brazil-Russia-India-China), but the United States still has a chance to be among them. To do that, our country needs to realize that the current trends in international policy are utterly destructive for our political and economic stability and to sharply turn these trends toward the policy of reason. The clear losers in this situation are Ukraine and the European Union and they both need to realize that.
The Libertarian Party has always stood for the freedom of each individual region and group of people to decide on their own physical, mental, moral, and political future everywhere around the globe. Our party continuously, yet quietly, supports the right of the people to be free and independent, no matter which continent they live on. Now is the time for us to stop being shy and quiet and to voice our opinions for everyone to hear, for even if all of this changes the mind of a single person in the United States, then our work would not be in vain. I truly believe that eventually, the Libertarian principles will come to govern the proud nation of the United States of America, changing us from the world’s bully into an impartial and non-interventionist economic partner in the global community.
For Ukraine, however, the time of sanity is running out. They say that a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes, but an idiot – from his own. In the infancy of its independence, Georgia did not have other people’s mistakes to learn from, but today’s Ukraine does. There is still a glimmer of hope that she really is as wise as she believes herself to be.