By Soviet standards, the town of Sukhumi was a place of real pleasure: arranged about a crescent bay of the Black Sea, the climate warm even in October, with seaside hotels and restaurants. Those who knew the customs of the place, and had the money or clout to exploit them, could have a grand time here in the Georgian manner, drinking and feasting. A senior Georgian official I met while trying to get to Sukhumi told me of three and four-day feasts in homes or restaurants, in the course of which pigs would be slaughtered and a bear on a chain gave entertainment to the drinkers – by becoming drunk himself.

One of Stalin’s many dachas is in the town. A bust of Marx on a slim pedestal is revealed when the high gates are opened by the guard: behind it, through a lush ornamental garden, a road corkscrews up a hill – security proscribed a straight road to the dictator – between palms and soft lamps. A clutch of buildings is dominated by a high villa, furnished in dark wood and heavy drapes; after Stalin’s death, the villa passed to the collective ownership and pleasure of the Politburo, more recently to become a high-class sanatorium. In one of the outbuildings, a billboard spells out the stern order of Soviet collective leisure: the times at which to present oneself for dinner, to vacate one’s room, to set off for the beach.

Today, it is the headquarters of the Georgian armed forces, who hold the town against surrounding units of Abkhazian separatists, North Caucasian irregulars and – they say – Russians. In the eyes of most Georgians, including the ministers who supposedly govern from the ramshackle ministries in Tbilisi, Georgia is at undeclared war with Russia.

In the wire services of the world, the Georgian ‘story’ blips in and out of the schedules, usually with some mention of Eduard Shevardnadze, for the past month the elected head of Georgia’s Parliament. In the scale of what matters to those who believe foreign affairs matter to their lives, Georgia seems minor: self-contained, complex, resistant to solutions. The argument for it mattering is not the so far relatively small loss of life, but the fact that it is an extreme but not wayward example of the particularist and defensive ethno-nationalism which is now becoming the dominant political principle throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

That Abkhazians are killing and being killed by Georgians stems directly from the collapse of Soviet power. Until quite recently, it was generally believed, by me among others, that the rapid dismantling of the Empire was a good thing which would allow the suppressed nations to recover an identity from whose search they had always been deflected by force or the threat of force. It is hard to hold onto that belief now, especially in the Caucasus and Transcaucasus. In the last three years of the Gorbachev presidency, it was easy to be impressed by the strength of national feeling and its apparently natural ties with the democratic movements, and easy, too, to see those who stood in the way of national independence as tyrannous – few more so than the leaders of the Georgian CP, who invited in Soviet special forces to put down a nationalist demonstration in Tbilisi in April 1989 and watched them do so with the aid of sharpened shovels.

That demonstration had been a response to earlier street protests in Sukhumi by Abkhazians agitating for the attachment of their Autonomous Republic to Russia rather than to Georgia, as it is now and has been since the Twenties. Under Soviet power, the linguistically, ethnically and culturally distinct Caucasian groups were held in check; the cultures of the smaller groups were preserved, even encouraged. Politicians were assured of a place in the regional Soviet; and while these were all, in effect, rubber-stamp centres, so, too, were the Republican and other Soviets – all condemned to an equality of insignificance before the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Thus the Abkhazians, in an Autonomous Republic which bore their name even though they constituted less than 20 per cent of the inhabitants (with the Georgians at 40-50 per cent and Russians, Armenians and other making up the rest), had something out of the bargain: a territory for which to fight once Soviet power could no longer provide them with very much security.

Armed clashes began this summer. The Abkhazians set up their own national guard, which soon came into conflict with the Georgian militia – most violently in Sukhumi itself, where Georgian national guardsmen took control in early August. Pockmarked buildings indicate the streets in which the fighting took place. At the same time, the peoples of the North Caucasian Republics within the Russian Federation became politically active: these little states – Karachayevo-Cherkassia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Chechen-Ingushetia and Dagestan – are now falling under the sway of Caucasian radicals whose aim is the creation of a Transcaucasian – and largely Islamic – confederation. The chief movers are the Federation of the Caucasian Mountain Peoples, based in Kabardino-Balkaria; the Abkhazian leadership; and the President of Chechen-Ingushetia, General Dzhokar Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force commander who engineered a pro-independence referendum over a year ago and then became president of a state he had declared independent. The Chechens are seen as the mafiosi of the former Soviet Union, though it is generally assumed in Moscow that most Caucasian politicians are sustained by narco- and other kinds of illegal business. Indeed, the criminal trade keeps all these states going despite the widespread collapse of the official economy: in Georgia, for example, most plant is now idle.

To non-Georgians inside Georgia, any ally, even Russia, is considered preferable to the imperious Georgians, while the Georgians see all non-Georgians as Russian stooges, pawns in the Russian great game: an easy enough line to sustain given the old-style pro-Soviet pedigrees of some of the new nationalist leaders including Abkhazia’s Vladislav Adzinba, whose allies had been in the conservative pro-strong-Union wing of the Supreme Soviet in the Gorbachev era.

When I was in Sukhumi, a colleague took me to visit an Abkhazian family, former members of the town’s nomenklatura, who, along with a few hundred other Abkhazians, had refused to leave after the Georgians took the town. The man of the house had been a minister in the Abkhazian government until 1990. Since the population of Abkhazia is 500,000, and most matters not settled in Moscow were dealt with by Tbilisi, this gave him the powers of the chairman of a county council committee; still, it also gave him a nomenklatura flat, which was large and pleasant with his wife’s paintings in the living room and books of European and Russian reproductions on low tables. In this setting, he told us stories of Abkhazians betrayed to the Georgian troops by their Georgian neighbours; of Abkhazians spreadeagled against walls while Georgian soldiers shot round them, of stolen belongings; of beatings and molestations; of forced exits from the town. They had been lucky, he said – or perhaps he had connections still. He voiced the now conventional sentiments about the Soviet era, blaming it for the setting of one nation against the other, though it was clear enough that he had been pro-Soviet – and that the substantial benefits he enjoyed came from the Soviet policy of promoting the cadres of the local ethnicity.

Foolishly, my colleague and I had gone to the flat straight from the Georgian HQ, and the military driver who had taken us there reported us to his superiors. As we sat in the flat, three Georgian guards burst in, automatic rifles at the ready, demanding to know what was happening. Though the trouble was soon over, our hostess remained inconsolable. Things were not improved by the angry entrance of the family’s Georgian neighbour, who raved that trouble was being brought upon the house, that her good nature was being abused, and that she would no longer allow our hostess to make and receive calls on her phone (all Abkhazian phones were cut off by the military authorities to prevent them making calls to ‘enemy’ forces).

When we left, the Georgian woman’s husband came downstairs with us, protesting that he had nothing to do with politics; that he took people as he found them; cared nothing for the present situation and merely wished to live and let live. In fact, he got into his car and drove straight to the HQ. When we got there, he was on the terrace in front of Stalin’s dacha, pointing to us and gesticulating as the guards glowered and hitched their Kalashnikovs. He and our acquaintances had been neighbours for twenty years; they had been friends, even intimate friends – which was one reason, we were told, why the Abkhazians had stayed on. Nor was he informing under duress: on the contrary, he was eager to be seen to be on the right side – which shows how easily long-standing ties of friendship yield to the dictates of ethnic solidarity. It would have been the same had their situations been reversed.

Sukhumi is a beleaguered city. Its impressive airport, built to receive the Soviet brass, is filled with Georgian military helicopters and army pup tents. The Georgian forces hold a line about six kilometres from the town, along the River Gumista: they crouch in dugouts and behind walls and look at the other side, barely two hundred metres away, through periscopes. They trade small-arms fire. A shipment of T54 tanks arrived in Sukhumi while I was there, but they were not immediately deployed at the front. The tactic, about which the army command would not talk, seemed to be to build up forces – whether in preparation for an offensive or in anticipation of an attack wasn’t clear.

An attack by whom? All Georgians say that the Russians are actively engaged in the war. Georgi Khaindrava, the Georgian Minister for Abkhazia who works from Stalin’s dacha, told us what we had heard before: that the Russian effort is overseen by the Deputy Defence Minister, Vladislav Kondratyev; that the on-the-spot commander is General Sigutkin, directing operations from the former Soviet, now Russian air base at Gudauta, in Abkhazia-held territory; that many T80 tanks, the last word in Soviet military technology, have been flown into the base; that the Russian units are the former ‘Afrika Korps’ veterans, withdrawn from Angola and Mozambique; that they disguise themselves as Cossacks (who are self-confessedly fighting on the Abkhazian side); that they provide logistics, communications and training. My colleague, Steve LeVine, went into Abkhazian territory via the Russian port of Sochi, spoke to the Russian and Abkhazian commanders and satisfied himself that what Russians were there were Cossack volunteers. The Georgians, for their part, have scarcely any evidence, but their suspicions are exacerbated by the pro-Abkhazian sentiments of much of the Russian Parliament, who see the Abkhazians as their allies.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of Russian troops remain on Georgian soil, a legacy of the Soviet period. There is no agreement that says they should be there or what they should be doing. As the Georgians see it, less than two years after the achievement of nominal independence, large tracts of their country are now defecting to Russia. To make matters worse, they are largely dependent on Russia and other former Soviet Republics for markets and supplies, and the evident impoverishment of the place reflects the breakdown of these links. Thus the detailed but unproven allegations of Russian involvement take their force from the larger and correct perception that Russia still commands the essential elements of Georgian statehood.

The inhabitants of Sukhumi are fearful of the Russian Army and seek to leave town. Since the road and rail links are cut and the sea exit is dangerous, they crowd the airport and attempt to get onto the two or three 200-seater planes which come up from Tbilisi each day with soldiers and supplies. When I left Sukhumi with two or three other reporters, three armed guards took us to meet an incoming aircraft. As the plane taxied to a stop, it was surrounded by a crowd of six or seven hundred people, mostly women, who had been let out onto the runway in the streaming rain. As they waited for the steps to be brought up, they edged closer and closer; and when the steps arrived they pressed up them without waiting for the soldiers to disembark; feelings began to rise, and what had been an ordinary crowd became a hysterical mob. The Georgian guards responded in kind, pushing the women and children back, and swearing at them as they did so. One man, perched on the steps and either drunk or drugged, went into an insane rage, roaring incoherently and repeatedly firing his Kalashnikov in the air. Other soldiers rushed at him and brought him down with his gun still firing. There was a scrum, weapons were brandished but no triggers pulled.

When disembarkation ended, we were propelled up the steps and sat down in a row near the door. As the other passengers came on, the soldiers supervising the boarding pushed and shoved at the women and hit out at the men. The women screamed and wept, the children wailed. What should have taken an hour became a four-hour horror of imprecations, violence and, for the children especially, fearful confusion. Yet it was not unrelieved. Two soldiers – judging by their wild demeanour, they too may have been drunk – took the lead in the chaos, making it immeasurably worse by their furious vendettas against particularly stubborn women who would not sit down (few would) or who insisted on finding their luggage or their children separated from them in the crush. But several times they plucked a baby from its mother’s arms to coo at it and gently stroke its face: twice, when we remonstrated with them, they responded civilly, with polite exasperation – only to transform themselves into furious dervishes immediately afterwards.

Watching this, I thought of the behaviour of Shevardnadze: his studied pacifism; his constant (and to my view wearying) appeals to abstract morality; his endless threats to resign. It chimed with an often-mentioned characteristic of the Georgians – the gulf between the intellectual and the worker-peasant classes, with the former studying to be above the latter in every way, while reproducing much of their self-centredness and ineffectuality. Yet these same soldiers would go up to the front line at Gumista to face what they believed was the Russian Army with a bit of bread and some wine and Shevardnadze left the distinguished ex-statesman circuit to take up a burden which he, of all people, knew would be murderous. It is not in the Georgian nature to be stoical: displays of courage is what they are good at.

Yet Shevardnadze’s must now be the voice of a frightened and angry nation: he has to subdue the Abkhazians and win back the country. The Georgians are what Christopher Hitchens, in his piece on Bosnia in the LRB last September, called an ‘aggrieved majority’ in their own country: but this is because they have never been able to make Georgia ‘their own’ for any period of time. Shevardnadze, detested by those who most wanted the Soviet Union to hold together, has now descended into a pit which he himself, in an earlier incarnation, helped to make.

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