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Abkhazians & Ossetians in Georgia

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Map of Georgian states in 1762. Based on the map of Dr. Andrew Andersen, from Atlas of Conflicts. Author: Gaeser

Authors: Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua & Dr. Emil Avdaliani

In light of the disinformation campaign carried out by Russian information networks and picked up by western media, the Institute of the Georgian History at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University has released an explanation as to why the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions (incorrectly called “South Ossetia”) have always been an integral part of Georgia.

In the remote past, to the south of the Great Caucasian Range and east of the Black Sea, rural clans fought each other for land and mines, making alliances and early states. Two cultures equipped first with bronze and then with iron were established in the valleys of the rivers Rioni (Phasis), Chorokhi (Aphsaros), and Mtkvari (Cyros/Kura). Roughly, the borders of Colchis included the city of Pitius (Bichvinta, Pitsunda) in the North West, Sarapanis (Shorapani) in the East, near the Likhi mountains, which divides Georgia into West and East, and the mouth of the river Chorokhi in the South, near Batumi, Georgia’s main port. Another name for Colchis is Egrisi, derived from the tribal name Margali/Megreli/Mingrelian. The Mingrelian language, very close to the Georgian, is still spoken in West Georgia as a family one, like that of West Georgian highlanders, the Svani. The next country had two rivers, Chorokhi, now mostly in Turkey, and Mtkvari within its borders. Local folk called it Kartli, and the Greeks – Iberia and Iberians. The latter term contributes to Ivirk, Vrastan – Armenian terms; also to Varkan, Gurgan, Gurgistan – Persian terms, which in turn contributes to Georgia and Gruziya.

Thus, Kartli, while comprising the Mtkvari and Chorokhi valleys, was labeled as Iberia, or Vrastan, or Varkan, or Gurgan by foreigners. Gradually, Colchis/Egrisi and Kartli/Iberia became more and more integrated, and Georgian, the language spoken in Kartli, spread to the eastern Black Sea coast, putting the Mingrelian and Svani languages in the position of a family language. From that point on, this new country was called Sakartvelo, a term derived from Kartli, and also Iberia, Gurgistan, Gruziya and Georgia (T. Dundua. History of Georgia. Tbilisi. 2017, pp. 5-22. v. Academia.edu/Tedo Dundua).

Still, there was another language in West Georgia which was also converted into a family language: Abkhazian. The Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia (Georgia) has Sokhumi as its capital. Sokhumi is the Turkish version of the Georgian name Tskhumi, while the Greeks and Italians called the city Dioscurias and Sebastopolis. People living in its neigborhood in the Classical and Hellenistic periods were the Colas and the Coraxae, obviously Colchian clans. Their names are substituted by that of the Colchians themselves. The first mention of the Aphsils, obvious ancestors of the Abkhazians, near Sebastopolis/Tskhumi, dates back to the 70s of the 1st c. A.D. Soon, their relatives, the Abasks, appear. These two names sometimes disappear in favor of “Lazi,” the name of Mingrelian-speaking people descended from the southern mountains to mingle with the Colchians, thus changing the name of the country into Lazica. In the northern part of Lazica under the local feudal lords, they again call themselves Aphsils and Abasks, when unified with the rest of the country – Lazi. That means that from the 2nd c. A.D., the Mingrelian language was a social one throughout Lazica, while the Abkhazian language was put in the position of a family language spoken near Sebastopolis/Tskhumi. Indeed, the special Mingrelian term for that part of Lazica was “apkha,” i.e. periphery. The periphery of what? That of Mingrelian, i.e. western Georgian, culture. Gradually, Aphsils and Abasks under the local princes also started to call themselves Abkhazians. When in the 8th c., apparently through marriage, their prince found himself residing in the central city of Kutaisi, Lazica/Egrisi received one more name – Apkhazeti. With the Georgian language becoming dominant on the eastern Black Sea coast, the Mingrelian, Svani and Abkhazian languages found themselves in the position of a family language (T. Dundua. Christianity and Mithraism. The Georgian Story. Tbilisi. 1999, p. 6; T. Dundua, Akaki Chikobava. Pacorus, the Lazi King, Who Was Overlord of Colchis/Western Georga. Tbilisi. 2013, pp. 9-16; T. Dundua. Georgia within the European Integration. Tbilisi. 2016, pp. 81-88. v. Academia.edu/Tedo Dundua).

West and East unified was called Sakartvelo/Georgia. And the title of the kings from the Bagrationi ruling dynasty was as follows: “King of the Abkhazians (i.e. Western Georgia), Kartvelians (Eastern and Southern Georgia), Ranians and Kakhetians (extreme East of the Eastern Georgia)” (T. Dundua. Review of Georgian Coins with Byzantine Iconography. Quaderni ticinesi di numismatica e antichità classiche. Lugano. 2000. Vol. XXIX, pp. 389-393; T. Dundua and Others. Online English- Georgian Catalogue of Georgian Numismatics).

The decline of Georgia towards the end of the 16th c. enabled the Ottomans to increase their territory, seeing them taking control of the cities on the eastern Black Sea coast. Georgian frontier defenses were down. Finding so little opposition, many tribes settled in the districts they had penetrated, a new wave of the Abkhazian speaking clans among them. They made their way from the mountains first to the region of nowadays Sochi (Russian Federation), and then down the coast towards Bichvinta (Pitius, Pitsunda). Those rough highlanders forced part of the local agricultural folk to flee to the central regions. Thus, rural and urban sites suffered much and the links with the rest of the country were badly damaged. The Ottoman overlords also encouraged the slave trade, completely changing the economic visage of the northwest of western Georgia for centuries before the Russians advance against the Ottomans in the 19th c. (T. Dundua. North and South (towards the Question of the NATO enlargement). www.nato.int/acad/fellow/99-01/dundua.pdf, pp.41-42; T. Dundua and Others. The Black Sea – Zone of the Contacts. Tbilisi. 2001, pp. 9-10, 15-16; T. Dundua and Others. The Black Sea. A History of Interaction. Teaching Pack. The Council of Europe. Oslo. 2004, pp. 46, 105. v. Academia.edu/Tedo Dundua).

The Russian Empire annexed eastern Georgia, the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti, in 1801. This paved the way for Russian expansion into western Georgia. In 1810, Abkhazian prince Giorgi (Safar Beg) Shervashidze swore allegiance to the Russian Emperor and in 1864, Russian governance was established in the territory. (Abkhazia in the late 18th- early 19th centuries. Entry of Abkhazia Under the “Protection” of Russia. in Essays from the History of Abkhazia. Tbilisi. 2011, pp. 300-305). Sukhumi military department was founded (M. Lordkipanidze. The Abkhazians and Abkhazia (Georg., Russ. and Engl. texts). Tbilisi. 1990

Although the process of separating Abkhazia from Georgia was actively supported by the Russian authorities, still Abkhazia was a natural and integral part of Georgia. Perhaps it was for this reason that the Sukhumi military district was soon included in the Kutaisi governorate. Despite the negative effects of the Russian imperial policy, in 1918, the year when the Democratic Republic of Georgia was founded, Abkhazia was a part of Georgia (M. Lordkipanidze. The Abkhazians and Abkhazia (Georg., Russ. and Engl. texts). Tbilisi. 1990

On June 11, 1918, an agreement was signed between the people’s council of Abkhazia and the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Georgia, where Abkhazia as a part of Georgia gained autonomy.

After the end of Georgia’s short independence in 1921, Abkhazia remained within Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia under a special union agreement, as a treaty republic having a certain type of autonomy within Georgia. In 1931, Abkhazia officially became the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) of Georgia (Political Status of Abkhazia within the Soviet Georgia. 1921-1937. in Essays from the History of Abkhazia. Tbilisi. 2011, pp. 419-436; Революционные комитеты Абхазии в борьбе за установление и упрочение Советской власти. Сборник документов и материалов. Сухуми. 1961, p. 350). This remained unchanged until the end of the Soviet Union. According to the 1989 Soviet census, the total population on the territory of the ASSR of Abkhazia was 525,061, of which 239,872 were ethnic Georgians (45.7% of the population), while 93,267 were Abkhazians (17.8%) (S. Markedonov. Abkhazia: Historical Context. in Abkhazia Between Past and Future. Prague. 2013, p. 18).

Abkhazia enjoyed cultural and scientific benefits as part of Georgia during the Soviet era. The Abkhazian language was taught at the schools, and university.

Since 1993, the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia has been occupied by the Russian Federation (for the full-length narrative about Abkhazians v. З. Папаскири. Абхазия: история без фальсификации. 2е изд. Тбилиси. 2010 (with Engl. summary).

The next region occupied by the Russian Federation was the Autonomous District of South Ossetia. The Ossetians started settling in Georgia beyond the Caucasian range in the 16th-17th cc. as fugitives.

After the annexation of eastern Georgia by Russia in 1801, the Ossetian villages were attached to the Gori district of the Tbilisi governorate.

In 1920, the Russian Bolsheviks supported Ossetians living in the Democratic Republic of Georgia, in the mountains north of Gori, to establish the Soviet power there and declare the territory a part of Soviet Russia. This was an abortive attempt.

In February 1921, Soviet Russia violated the agreement of May 7, 1920 by militarily attacking the Georgian state and eliminating its independence. In April 1922, the Bolsheviks granted so-called South Ossetia the status of autonomous district within Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. Soviet policy can be regarded as a premeditated attempt to disrupt the future attempts of the Georgians to gain independence and build a stable state as separatism within Georgia would constrain Tbilisi in its actions. The Autonomous District of South Ossetia consisted of a number of Ossetian settlements and a purely Georgian town Tskhinvali.

Thus, in 1922, the Autonomous District of South Ossetia was created in the heart of historic Georgian lands where the Georgian population represented the majority of the population.

It also needs to be emphasized that throughout the Soviet period (until 1991), the Ossetians living in Georgia were granted all necessary legal rights as an ethnic minority. Then Georgia became independent and the Russian occupation of the Autonomous District of South Ossetia began. (M. Lordkipanidze, G. Otkhmezuri. Ossets in Georgia. in The Caucasus and Globalization. Vol. 1 (4). Tbilisi. 2007, pp. 109-118; R. Topchishvili. Ethnic Processes in Shida Kartli (the Ossetians in Georgia). in Causes of War – Prospects for Peace. Georgian Orthodox Church. Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation. Tbilisi. 2009, pp. 111-138).

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Eastern Europe

Crisis in Armenia Provides Fertile Ground for Russian Meddling

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The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.

Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.

Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.

The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.

Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.

In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.

And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.

Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.

In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.

Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

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An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

How has the world’s largest inland body of (salty) water escaped the economic and political notice for so long? And it is for a resource-rich area of a unique locality that connects Europe and Asia in more than just geography. Simply, the Caspian Basin is an underrated and underexplored topic with scarce literature on its geomorphology, mineral deposits and marine biota, its legal disputes, pipeline diplomacy,environmental concerns and overall geopolitical and geo-economic interplays.

As the former Minister of the Canadian government and Secretary General of the OECD – Honorable Donald J Johnston – states in the foreword, Caspian – Status, Challenges, Prospects“is a fitting title for a book that masterfully gives an objective, comprehensive overview of the region. The authors have compiled an analysis of Caspian’s legal classification, security and environmental concerns, geopolitical scenarios, and energy flow impacts as they affect the world’s largest continental landmass – Eurasia.”

From comprehensive but content intensive insights on Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russiaand Turkmenistan, to external actors like Turkey, EU, China and the United States, readers are presented how separate actors and factors interact in this unique theater. The book elaborates on the legal classification of the Caspian plateau including the recent ‘Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian,’ to the numerous territorial and environmental security concerns.

Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors present Caspian as the most recent, fresh and novel way, in one stop-shop offering broad analysis on the Caspian region. It is a single volume book for which extensive information is exceptionally rare to find elsewhere. Following the read, authors are confident that a new expanse of scholarly conversation and actions of practitioners will unfold, not only focused on Caspian’s unique geography, but its overall socio-economic, politico-security and environmental scene.

Welcoming the book, following words of endorsements have been said:

The Caspian basin and adjacent Central Asian region (all being OSCE member states, apart from Iran) have, since the early Middle ages, acted as a crossroads between different civilizations and geopolitical spaces. In an increasingly interconnected world, growing geopolitical competition, economic interdependence and the emergence of new global challenges, particularly those related to water, energy and the climate emergency, have highlighted the relevance of this region, making it of increasing interest to researchers and academics. This book presents a thorough analytical compendium of historical factors, political dynamics, economic trends, legal frameworks and geopolitical interests which underpin, but also affect, the stability and development of this complex, diverse and strategically significant region.

Amb. Lamberto Zanier,Secretary-General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2011-2017)  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (2017-2020)

A thoughtful, comprehensive and balanced analysis of the complex interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in Central Eurasia, and pivotal energy plateau – that of Caspian. We finally have an all-in reader that was otherwise chronically missing in international literature, which will hopefully reverse the trend of underreporting on such a prime world’s spot.   

Hence, this is a must-read book for those wondering about the future of one of the most dynamic and most promising regions of the world and what it could entail for both reginal and external players. 
Andrey Kortunov Director General, Russian International Affairs Council

Although of pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic importance, Caspian energy plateau represents one of the most underreported subjects in the western literature. Interdisciplinary research on the topic is simply missing.  

Therefore, this book of professor Bajrektarevic and his team – unbiased, multidisciplinary, accurate and timely – is a much-needed and long-awaited reader: A must read for scholars and practitioners, be it from Eurasia or beyond.

It is truly a remarkable piece of work!  

Authors were able to tackle a challenging subject with a passion, knowledge and precision, and turn it into a compelling, comprehensive yet concise read which I highly recommend.   

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington dc, USA 

ARTNeT secretariat is pleased to see how our initial invitation to Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic to present at the ARTNeT Seminar Series in 2015 evolved. The talk was initially published as a working paper for ARTNeT (AWP 149). Now Prof. Bajrektarevic, in collaboration with another two co-authors, offers a comprehensive study on a nexus of legal, security, and environmental issues all emanating from and linked to energy cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subregion. This volume’s value extends beyond the education of readers on the Caspian Basin’s legal status (e.g., is it a sea or a lake?). It is just as relevant for those who want a more in-depth understanding of an interplay of economic, security, and political interest of players in the region and outside. With the global institutions increasingly less capable of dealing with rising geopolitics and geo-economic tensions, more clarity – even if only about some aspects of those problematic issues – should be appreciated. This volume offers such clarity.   

Mia Mikic, Director UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) ARTNeT coordinator

It is my honor to reflect on this work on Caspian. Comprehensive and content rich, this book of professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors brings up comprehensively all the useful information on Caspian, with the geographical and historical background and cultural, economic as well as security aspects related to it.

Authors’ novel and unbiased approach shall certainly help decision makers in their bettered understanding of the region that has centuries-long history of peace and cordial neighbourly relations. Long needed and timely coming, I warmly recommend this reader to those who want to know, but more importantly to all those who want to understand, this pivotal region of the world.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh Former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva & Vienna

The book by Professor Bajrektarevic and his co-authors embodies a wide-ranging overview of the intertwined interests pursued by the young democracies of the Caspian basin, battling with inherited land and water disputes, and their interplay with regional and global powers. Apparently, supporting political independence of the formers and promoting their integration into the latter’s markets requires adequate analyses, timely outreach policies and consistent engagement. In this sense the publication serves as one of the scarce handbooks to understand diverse interests of stakeholders, dynamically changing security architecture of the region and emerging opportunities of cooperation around the Caspian Sea.

Ambassador GalibIsrafilov Permanent Representative to the UN Vienna and to the OSCE Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

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Eastern Europe

As Georgians Fight Each Other, Russia Gleefully Looks On

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Earlier today, the leader of Georgia’s major opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – was detained at his party headquarters by government security forces, the most recent escalation in a drawn-out political crisis. This could well be the beginning of a new troubled period in the country’s internal dynamics, with repercussions for the country’s foreign policy.

The optics favor the opposition. Images of armed and armored police storming UNM’s headquarters was damaging to the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Western diplomats expressed grave concern over the events and their repercussions. Protests have been called, and will likely be covered closely in Western media.

What comes next, however, is not clear.

Much will depend on what long-term vision for the country the opposition can articulate in the aftermath of the most recent events. It was not that long ago that UNM was declining as a political force in Georgian politics. There is a real opportunity here. But the burden is on the opposition to make a play for the loyalty of voters beyond its circle of already-convinced supporters.

Appealing to ordinary Georgian voters is ultimately the key to resolving the crisis. Beyond the intra-party clashes about the legitimacy of the most recent elections, there is a growing chasm between political elites and the challenges faced by people in their daily lives. And tackling these challenges successfully will not be easy.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have been facing declining support from the public at large. Long-term economic problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, have not been credibly addressed by either side. Instead of solutions, both sides have engaged in political theatrics. For many voters, the current crisis is more about a struggle for political power, rather than about democracy and the economic development of the country. No wonder that most people consider their social and economic human rights to have been violated for decades no matter which party is in power. These attitudes help explain high abstention rates during the most recent election. Despite remarkable successes in the early years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia has lacked a long-term policy for reimagining its fragile economy since its independence and the disastrous conflicts of the 1990s.

None of this, however, should minimize the threats to Georgian struggling democracy. Today’s arrests reinforce a longstanding trend in Georgian politics: the belief that the ruling party always stands above the law. This was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is now the case with the current government. For less politically engaged citizens, plus ça change: Georgian political elites for the last 30 years have all ended up behaving the same way, they say. That kind of cynicism is especially toxic to the establishment of healthy democratic norms.

The crisis also has a broader, regional dimension. The South Caucasus features two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia. The former took a major hit last year, with its dependence on Moscow growing following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Today, Russia is much better positioned to roll back any reformist agenda Armenians may want to enact. Armenia’s current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been weakened, and easily staged protests are an easy way to keep him in line.

Georgia faces similar challenges. At a time when Washington and Brussels are patching things up after four years of Trump, and the Biden administration vigorously reiterates its support for NATO, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow. Chaos at the top weakens Georgia’s international standing and undermines its hopes for NATO and EU membership. And internal deadlock not only makes Georgia seem like a basket-case but also makes a breakthrough on economic matters ever more unlikely. Without a serious course correction, international attention will inevitably drift away.

At the end of the day, democracy is about a lot more than finding an intra-party consensus or even securing a modus vivendi in a deeply polarized society. It is about moving beyond the push-and-pull of everyday politics and addressing the everyday needs of the people. No party has risen to the occasion yet. Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations remain a touchstone for Georgian voters, and both parties lay claim to fully representing those aspirations. But only through credibly addressing Georgia’s internal economic problems can these aspirations ever be fully realized. The party that manages to articulate this fact would triumph.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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