between war and peace
Manana Gourgoulia and
Wars divide people and erect insurmountable barriers between
them. In the following article, two journalists - one from
Georgia and the other from Abkhazia - make an attempt to
bridge the gap between the two communities. This is the first
attempt of its kind since the outbreak of the conflict more
than seven years ago.
"Neither war, nor peace": it is in these terms that
many people describe the current situation in Abkhazia. The
armed clashes that erupted more than seven years ago in the
territory of post-Soviet Georgia have been replaced, for some
years now, by a war of words; the confrontations take place
nowadays around the negotiating table and in newspaper
columns. Symbol of the gulf that now divides the two peoples
is the ceasefire line along the River Inguri, established
after the arrival in the conflict zone of Russian peacekeeping
forces under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent
The spark that set alight the savage conflict pitting
Georgians against Abkhaz was the decision of the Tbilisi
authorities on 4 August 1992 to send troops under the command
of the Georgian Council of State to the autonomous republic of
Abkhazia. They justified the move on the grounds that they
needed to protect rail communications. The fateful decision
ignited a war between Georgia and Abkhazia which lasted nearly
14 months (from 14 August 1992 to 30 September 1993) and led
to widespread suffering and the deaths of thousands of people.
On 27 September 1993, Abkhaz forces took control of Sukhumi,
triggering the massive exodus of Georgians living in Abkhazia.
According to official Georgian sources, some 3,000 members of
the Georgian armed forces lost their lives in the war in
Abkhazia, as did some 7,000 civilians of all origins
(Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Abkhaz, etc.) According to
Abkhaz statistics, the clashes left 5,000 dead among the
soldiers and officers of the forces of Abkhazia and the
northern Caucasus, of whom more than 3,500 were of Abkhaz
origin. The war also forced 300,000 residents of the
autonomous republic - more than 60 per cent of the population
living in the republic before the war - to flee their homes to
seek refuge in other regions of Georgia or abroad.
Since then, the parties have engaged in talks, more or less
dynamic and fruitful, with the aid of intermediaries (Russia
and the United Nations), to find a solution to the conflict.
While the political leaders hurl insults and recriminations at
each other - and even though the conflict is
"frozen" - people in Abkhazia are still dying.
Landmines, the deadly legacy of the past war, still claim
civilian victims, and terrorist acts continue to be
perpetrated on Abkhaz soil. The Sukhumi authorities point
their fingers at "Georgian terrorist groups and
subversive elements", while Tbilisi officials talk of
"partisans" and armed groups beyond the control of
the Georgian authorities. According to an Abkhaz source, 52
terrorist or subversive acts were committed in 1998 alone, and
58 in 1999.
Georgia is currently struggling to provide a means of
subsistence to more than 200,000 people displaced from
Abkhazia. Emerging as it is from a dire economic crisis
brought on by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the
country has a budget that enables it to pay an allowance of a
mere USD 7 a month to the displaced people.
Those living in Abkhazia are no better off. During the
fighting, thousands of homes, industrial and agricultural
installations and cultural monuments were looted, burned or
destroyed. According to statistics gathered by a special
governmental commission in Abkhazia, the economic losses
suffered by the republic as a result of the war amount to USD
The summit of CIS heads of state in January 1996 imposed
economic sanctions on Abkhazia, which have hampered the
development of economic relations with the outside world.
Abkhazia is thus reduced to relying essentially on its own
resources. Abkhazia's national budget totalled 101 million
roubles in 1999. The average monthly salary of civil servants
and public service workers is around 230 roubles (around USD
10). Social security and retirement pensions are no more than
USD 4 a month. The main source of income for many people is
the family's own economic activity. During the citrus fruit
season, you can see thousands of women heading for the Russian
border with carts piled high with crates and sacks of
tangerines, in the hope of selling their crop in Russia in
exchange for some means of subsistence.
The peace negotiations, which have been dragging on for six
years with only marginal success, have not found solutions
acceptable to both parties on the two key issues: the return
of the displaced people and a political settlement to the
The media's responsibility in times of
Conflicts, especially those driven by nationalism, have a
particular characteristic: they are self-perpetuating. Even if
this means that the mechanisms of this process must be looked
for within the conflict itself, there are a multitude of
external factors which help to keep a conflict alive. The
media, by diffusing information which reinforces the logic of
war, can create a fertile breeding ground for this phenomenon.
This being said, the press can also play a very different
role, by opposing the logic of war with one of peace.
Numerous articles about Abkhazia have appeared in the Georgian
press, which, because of their subjective nature, have only
served to infuriate Abkhaz readers. Facts are distorted,
although this can sometimes be explained by the absence of a
normal exchange of information between Sukhumi and Tbilisi.
The same, or as good as, can be said for the information on
Georgia put out by the Abkhaz media, while keeping in mind
that the situation in Abkhazia is not properly comparable with
Georgia, which boasts hundreds of newspapers. In general, the
Abkhaz press publishes mostly negative information on and
superficial analyses of events in Georgia.
Georgian and Abkhaz journalists are now trying, as far as
possible, to build cooperation. Contacts between journalists
are hindered by restrictions on travel in the conflict zone.
The only way for Georgian and Abkhaz journalists to
communicate is by telephone, which functions only
Despite all the obstacles, initiatives have begun in Sukhumi
and Tbilisi to redress the lack of objective information
between the two communities and to foster professional
contacts. One project on the drawing board is the creation in
the near future, under the aegis of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of a
non-governmental organization bringing together journalists
from the Caucasus. The first task of this entity will be to
enable the Abkhaz media to have access to e-mail and the
M.G. et E.I.
Differences of opinion
On innumerable occasions in the course of the talks between Georgia and
Abkhazia, discussions have centred on the signature of two documents that
would significantly advance the peace process: a "Peace Accord and
Cessation of Armed Hostilities" and a "Protocol on the return of
displaced persons and on the recovery of the Abkhaz economy". Yet to
this day, Georgia refuses to sign these texts, claiming that they need
refining and harmonizing.
For the record, the views of the leaders of the two parties on the future
of Abkhazia remain diametrically opposed, as demonstrated by their various
statements. According to the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze,
"Sooner or later, the time will come when we will be able to restore
brotherly relations between Georgians and Abkhaz (...) Abkhazia, as part
of a unified Georgian state, will enjoy extensive rights, in accordance
with international norms relating to autonomous state entities. Abkhazia
will have its own parliament, its own constitution, its supreme court and
law enforcement bodies (...) It will be essential to define the respective
competencies of the central authority (Tbilisi) and the local authorities
in Sukhumi. All controversial issues must be resolved on the basis of the
Vladislav Ardzinba, president of Abkhazia, maintains that "Abkhazia
demands that its relations with Georgia be as equals and will only
participate in negotiations on equal terms (...) The Abkhaz authorities
have no intention of entering into a debate with Georgia on the issue of
Abkhazia's political status, all the more so since the Abkhaz people have
already expressed their views on the matter in the referendum of 3 October
1999, and under no circumstances will it discuss the distribution of
constitutional power between Abkhazia and Georgia (...) It is more a case
of establishing neighbourly relations and economic cooperation between two
In this conflict, each side has its own version of the truth. Tbilisi
claims to be defending Georgia's territorial integrity; Sukhumi insists on
independence for Abkhazia. Today, each party is accusing the other of
genocide and ethnic cleansing and is appealing to international
organizations for support. Both count on the restoration, sooner or later,
of "justice founded on historical facts". However, the
squabbling of politicians won't do anything to ease the plight of the
ordinary people who have become the victims of this conflict.
Humanitarian response in Georgia
In Abkhazia, the ICRC focuses on providing protection, relief and medical
assistance to the most vulnerable. In Georgia, it cares for the displaced
in the western part as well as other categories of victims, notably the
war-wounded and detainees. The ICRC has worked with the Georgian Red
Cross Society since 1995, primarily in the field of tracing, promotion of
humanitarian law and Red Cross principles, and emergency preparedness.
ICRC food security programmes in Abkhazia have been delegated to
Participating National Societies - the Finnish Red Cross (canteen
programme) and Swedish Red Cross (home-care programme). To carry out
these activities, the ICRC has deployed 38 expatriate delegates and 250
local staff. The annual budget is nearly 10 million US dollars.
The International Federation has one of the largest basic health-care
programmes for internally displaced people in western Georgia. Its other
activities include relief programmes for displaced people, home care for
vulnerable pensioners, disaster preparedness and development of the
Georgian Red Cross Society.
Sea Press, Tbilissi.
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