Occupied Regions of Georgia
Flag of Abkhazia
Flag of South Ossetia
Currently there are two territories within Georgia that are considered to be occupied--Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These territories sit in a political limbo because they are overwhelmingly considered to be a part of Georgia (only Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and Nuaru recognize these two regions’ independence from Georgia). However, the Georgian government lacks all formal control over the regions, with over 90% of Abkhazian and South Ossetian citizens carrying Russian passports and receiving pensions from Russia, over 70% of each region’s governmental budget being provided by Russia, and all security being provided by Russia. So it really boils down to this: to the majority of the world, these regions are nominally a part of Georgia; to the regions themselves, they are nominally independent; but in reality, due to their dependence on Russia and its influence, they are annexed territories of Russia.
Access to these territories is technically possible from both Georgia and Russia. According to the Law of Georgia on Occupied Territories, it is possible to access Abkhazia only from Zugdidi municipality, and South Ossetia only from Gori municipality. Prior to entry, the individual must inform the Georgian government of the approximate date and time of entry and exit. The second method of entry into either Abkhazia or South Ossetia is from Russia, however, this is punishable under the Criminal Code of Georgia. This means that an individual who wishes to enter either of the occupied regions from Russia cannot enter Georgia at any point thereafter since the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Russia are treated as an international border and the evidence of the crime would be stamped in the individual’s passport.
This website stands with the international community’s status of the occupied territories, but does not formally support the Georgian, Abkhaz, South Ossetian, or Russian government's stance on these regions. When describing these two regions, this essay refers to their status as it was during the time period being discussed.
Abkhazia is located north-northwest of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti and south-southeast of the Russian city of Sochi along the Black Sea. If you are Georgian, the capital of Abkhazia is Sukhumi, and if you support Abhaz indepence, Sukhum. The region is named after the Abkhazian people, who are a part of the North Caucasus ethnic family called Circassians. The Abkhazians are the only ethnic group of the Circassians to live south of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The region itself is extremely similar to Adjara in that it is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, it is subtropical, and it has a long reputation for being a summer vacation beach destination. The sanatoriums and resorts along the Abkhazian riviera were renowned during the Soviet era. Today, the region is seeing an uptick in development, mainly from Russia.
South Ossetia is located in the middle of the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, between the regions of Racha-Lechkhumi and Mtskheta-Mtianeti. Its capital is Tskhinvali, if you are Georgian, and Tskhinval if you support South Ossetian independence. This region is home to only some of the Ossetian people. Most Ossetians live in North Ossetia, a region that is in Russia and borders South Ossetia to the north. The overwhelming majority of the region is mountainous, with only a few flat areas located around Tskhinval(i). As such, the local economy currently relies heavily on Russian investment, particularly in the form of military bases, such as those located in Tskhinval(i) and the town of Java, located in the region’s center.
It’s a common misconception that the Caucasus Region is an innately violent part of the world, with many of its conflicts deeply rooted in the region’s history and exaggerated by its ethnic diversity. History’s version of this region--Georgia’s conflicts included--paints a story where today’s violence and distrust between various ethnic groups can be traced back. Prior to the late 1800s, the Georgians, along with their Abkhazian and (South) Ossetian neighbors, lived in agrarian societies without the notion of “us” and “them” (i.e. nationalism). In Georgia, the process of introducing nationalism into the Georgian people was done mostly by Georgian author and academician, Ilia Chavchavadze. Through alphabetic reforms, the introduction of a newspaper and periodicals for the citizenry, and the creation of a national museum, Chavchavadze allowed people from all around Georgia to begin developing the notion of “the Georgian people.” This was occuring at the same time as the Russian Empire came to its end.
The period between 1918 and 1921 was extremely tumultuous for the Georgians, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians alike. During these four years, these three peoples had to arrange their political relationships with each other for the first time in centuries while simultaneously having to deal with increasing local nationalism and a strengthening Bolshevik party in Russia. The chaos caused by these factors resulted in the governments of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be extremely divided between different interests and aspirations for their respective region.
Historically, the Abkhazians have had relatively stable ties with Georgia; however, they are a people who are unrelated to the Georgians in all but Christianity. The Abkhazians have had long historical ties with both sides of the Caucasus, but this became irrelevant to the Abkhazian government, which was becoming increasingly replaced by ideas of Abkhazian self-determination. The majority of infighting occurred between the Abkhazian intellectuals wanting independence and intellectuals wanting integration with Georgia. The North Caucasus has teetered on the edge of conflict, whether it be the uprising with Imam Shamil in the 1840s which resulted in deportations of both Chechens and Circassians, the Rebellion of 1877, or the various ethnic cleansings of the Circassians in the mid to late 1800s. As such, the Abkhazians knew that vying for independence or unification with Russia would create the risk of associating themselves with the abovementioned uprisings and disturbances that had in the past led to a series of deportations within Abkhazia proper in 1866 and in 1877. Therefore, when the national question came up, a large group of Abkhazian leaders lobbied for independence, and by 9 February 1918, the Abkhazian People’s Council told the Georgian National council during a meeting that the Abkhazians would be an independent people from the Georgians.
The members of the Georgian National Council refused any Abkhazian claim to full independence that broke Georgian territorial integrity. The Georgian and Abkhazian leaders reached an agreement that the discussion of Abkhazia’s future would wait until after the election of a special assembly in Abkhazia, and, in return, Georgia would recognize full Abkhazian sovereignty within Georgia. The pro-independent group within the Abkhazian government had made claim that Abkhazia was to be an independent country, yet folded and allowed Abkhazia to remain within Georgia as an autonomous region. Such indecisiveness about the status of Abkhazia prevented any further substantial agreements and understandings between the Abkhazian government and the Georgian government. Ultimately, this would allow national tempers to fester, creating an environment ripe for revolution and conflict.
The case for South Ossetian independence was a loose one, which, like with Abkhazia, was filled with in-fighting among the local leaders, allowing for the Bolshevik Party to dominate other political ideologies within South Ossetia. Up to this time, South Ossetia was a region that had no official boundaries and was traditionally placed within the Gori district of the Tiflis/Tbilisi Province within Georgia itself. Similar to the Abkhazians, the South Ossetians have their ancestry in the North Caucasus but, unlike the Abkhazians, have their ethnic homeland residing on the direct opposite side of the Caucasus Mountains in a region now called North Ossetia-Alania. The ramifications of this have come to haunt the South Ossetian push for independence throughout recent history. From 1917 through 1918, the South Ossetian People’s Congress conducted two meetings, during which they petitioned to the authorities in Tbilisi for the creation of a unified Ossetian region to be composed of both the regions of North Ossetia and South Ossetia, wherein the capital would be Tskhinvali, located about 100 kilometers north-northwest of Tbilisi.
Breakdown of Relations
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia realized that independence would not be possible without having either assistance from Georgia or from exterior sources. As both societies realized that they lacked external support, they began negotiating with the Georgian government for agreements on autonomy. In September 1918, the Abkhazians and Georgians agreed that Abkhazia would be an independent entity in Georgia with complete sovereignty so long as it remained nominally a part of Georgia. The South Ossetian government also began to negotiate their integration within the Georgian state with similar conditions as Abkhazia.
Following the 1918 agreements, problems immediately began to arise between the Bolshevik majority regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Menshevik Georgian government. Merely five days following the agreement, a Bolshevik rebellion was launched within Abkhazia, ending with a Georgian general declaring himself the governor-general over Abkhazia. This would be the beginning of external political factors leading to the disintegration of trust and communication between Tbilisi and Abkhazia. The year 1918 ended with the threat of war between the Russians and Georgians. In January and February of 1919, the Bolshevik Volunteer Army were occupying Abkhazia. With the advance of the Bolsheviks within Abkhazia, many Abkhazians turned to the Volunteer Army for assistance in splitting Abkhazia from Georgia.
Georgia’s denouncing of South Ossetian autonomy was mostly due to their distrust of the local population caused by the 1918 peasant rebellion which was believed by many in Tbilisi to have been engineered by the Bolsheviks as a means of weakening the Georgian Mensheviks. Following this rebellion, the Georgian government attempted to disarm the local South Ossetian populace but was met by much resistance, both from the population itself and from the South Ossetian government. In response to the Georgian government’s attempts of disarmament, South Ossetia declared the establishment of South Ossetian regional autonomy in 1918. In an effort to prevent this, Tbilisi decided to disband the local South Ossetian government.
The Current Situation
During the Soviet era, Abkhazia remained a republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, while South Ossetia only managed to obtain republic status for short periods of time. Georgia’s experience in the U.S.S.R. was similar to that the other Soviet republics--when the Soviet Union began in 1921, it paused the political events of that time, but the ethnic sentiments were allowed to fester. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, the political situation was “unpaused” and the conflicts prior to the creation of the U.S.S.R. carried themselves out through the rest of the 1990s. In Georgia, this was a particularly tumultuous time since the country not only went through a 15 day civil war over leadership, but was also fighting a war in Abkhazia in the mid-to-late 1990s in an attempt to prevent Abkhazian independence. The result of this war was the Georgian government’s loss of control over Abkhazia. During this time, South Ossetia also claimed to break away from Georgia, but little progress was made on that front by either the Georgians or the South Ossetians.
In August 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saak’asvhili invaded a market in Tskhinvali, claiming to take back control of South Ossetia, using the large influence illegal trading had on the region’s economy as pretext. The response from Russia was a complete naval blockade of Georgia in the Black Sea and the destruction of its entire navy, the bombing of the city of Gori, and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages within South Ossetia. Following the 2008 War (also called the August War or the Russo-Georgian/Georgian-Russo War), Russia acknowledged the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since then, all effective control of the regions is conducted by Russia, with everything ranging from road, school, and hospital construction to government funding and pensions being paid for by the Russian government.
The worst result from these conflicts and the frozen status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is the humanitarian crisis created by the need to assist over 100,000 IDPs/refugees (individuals who were forced to leave their homes as a result of the conflicts). Most of these people are living in temporary camps-turned-permanent villages throughout the Georgian countryside, particularly in Samegrelo, Mtskheta-Mtianeti, and Shida Kartli. The ability for these individuals to return to their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is nearly impossible, and the Georgian government’s limited capabilities have resulted in these individuals continuing to live in camps years longer than intended. Likewise, the result for the Abkhazians and South Ossetians is equally bleak in that they have limited access to international relief and aid since all but four countries consider them to be a part of Georgia. This means that these regions are dependent on Russian funding for almost all human and economic development.