Amid War in Ukraine, Georgians Push to Recognise Abkhazian ‘Genocide’
In reaction to the perceived pro-Kremlin tilt in the Government, Georgian opposition parties hope to draw attention to the forgotten slaughter of 30 years ago
Venera Meshveliani fled her home in Abkhazia thirty years ago. With it, a wave of ethnic cleansing would see thousands of Georgians tortured, raped and slaughtered by Abkhaz separatists backed by Russian forces.
Her testimony forms part of a new campaign by civil groups and opposition figures in Tbilisi, aimed at securing formal recognition of the atrocities as genocide, and raising awareness among a public its organisers say have all but forgotten these horrors and those who survived.
Since its launch earlier this year, the initiative has assumed a place at the heart of the ongoing political fray that has broken out in Georgia following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Opposition politicians have seized on the movement, a reminder of what their country has suffered at the hands of Russia and Russian-backed groups, in condemning what they describe as a growing pro-Kremlin tilt on part of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
Given Georgia’s highly precarious geopolitical lot, bereft of international security guarantors against a neighbouring superpower that has already invaded once this century, officials say they are merely trying to avoid being dragged into a conflict, not of their making.
The war that drove Venera Meshveliani from her home began in 1992. Ethnic tensions in the western region of Abkhazia date back before the Soviet era but had mounted with growing support for Abkhaz independence amid the dissolution of the union, culminating in an outbreak of armed violence that saw at least 20,000 killed and a further 250,000 ethnic Georgians displaced.
Though Russia officially claimed the role of neutral peacekeeper, Moscow provided significant tactical and material support to the Abkhaz separatists, including the deployment of special units who fought against Georgia’s military.
At the time, Meshveliani, an ethnic Georgian, lived in Akhaldaba, some miles south of the regional capital of Sokhumi. Survivors remember it as a prosperous village, known for its fruit and flowers.
“Before the violence started, we had no idea such a thing could happen to us. When it did, it was like thunder had struck,” says Meshveliani. “I remember bullets like heavy rain through the leaves of our tangerine trees.”
When the militants came to Akhaldaba, she took refuge with her children in a cramped bomb shelter while her husband, a maths teacher, joined efforts to protect the village. He returned to the bunker after the line was broken, but the family was quickly apprehended and he was taken outside, to be shot by one of his students.
The Massacre of BuchaOvercoming the Trauma of Russian OccupationTommy Walker
Meshveliani’s captors, a mix of Russians, Kazakhs and Abkhaz, then led her and the other survivors along the road out of town. One of her neighbours lay in the dirt, decapitated, beside the body of a child crushed by a tank. “You couldn’t even recognise it as human flesh,” she says. They were taken to a school building in a neighbouring village, where over a period of two weeks the men were beaten, tortured, murdered, and the women systematically raped.
She remembers one family in particular — a mother and five daughters, one married. “When they came for the family, the married girl would always go. Virginity means everything in that world,” she explains. “The last time was maybe the fourth or fifth time. When she came back, she was half dead.”
Eventually, some 300 Georgians from the district were loaded onto buses and driven to a bridge at the de-facto border. All along the highway were corpses piled black and swollen, and Meshveliani wondered before she saw arms and legs whether they might be cows, or sheep.
“Before crossing the bridge we were read a lecture by one of the school principals,” she adds. “He said that Abkhazia had always been theirs, and told us never to return. That the land was now forever lost to us.”
‘Before Bucha, There was Abkhazia’
Earlier in April, three decades since the war in Abkhazia began, a Ukrainian TV channel contacted Georgian media outlet Tabula for information on historic atrocities committed by Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Georgia, as context for a documentary on war crimes in Bucha.
Tabula’s founder, Tamara Chergoleishvili, explains how in compiling this material, she was shocked at how little she remembered of the violence. To understand why, she says, it is important to grasp the context in which the war in Abkhazia took place.
“It was just after another, civil war, in Tbilisi, when everyone was fighting for bread, while the West was celebrating the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she explains. “It was the end of history. Nobody wanted to listen, and in time everyone just sort of forgot about it.”
To this day, many displaced from Georgia’s breakaway regions live in settlements scattered across the country. Mired in poverty and stigma, struggling to get by with little to no support from the government. “I saw an opportunity to amend the past,” Chergoleishvili says. “To finally allow 250,000 citizens of Georgia who have suffered to be remembered, to tell their stories.”
It was after helping with the documentary team that Tabula launched the genocide-recognition campaign, ‘Before Bucha, There Was Abkhazia’, in partnership several civil groups. Though highly ambitious, the coalition believes its goals are feasible in the long run. Atrocities were committed by all sides, they say, but it was only the targeted killing of Georgian civilians that the OSCE has since acknowledged as a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Under the Volcano
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Georgia’s ruling party has refused to join international sanctions against the Putin regime, with senior Georgian Dream officials engaged in unprecedented verbal attacks against both US and EU diplomats, whom they accuse of attempting to turn their borders into a second front.
“You’ve got [chairman Irakli] Kobakhidze saying outrageous things, accusing the U.S. of trying to drag Georgia into the war,” says David Kramer, decorative director of the George W. Bush Institute. “It’s utterly absurd. The very last thing the United States wants to do is widen the conflict.”
It’s against this backdrop, which critics say is alienating historic allies and deepening Georgia’s vulnerability to Russian influence, that opposition politicians have thrown themselves behind the genocide-recognition campaign.
“Remembering what happened in the 1990s is so important because it shows us what happens when we are left alone in Russia’s backyard,” according to Giga Bokeria, chairman of the opposition party Movement for Liberty – European Georgia. “It’s an example of the threats we face in giving into this narrative of accepting Russian dominance.”
The government’s reservations aren’t without merit. At present, around twenty per cent of sovereign Georgian territory is internationally considered to be occupied by Russia – with troops still stationed in Abkhazia, but also in so-called South Ossetia, a northern region invaded by Russia in 2008 that has since similarly declared independence.
“We live at the foot of a volcano,” as George Khelashvili, deputy chair for foreign relations, puts it. “It could erupt and engulf us at any time.”
FEARLESS, INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM
& INCREDIBLE VALUE
Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and support quality, investigative reporting.
Khelashvili further explains that Georgia, as neither a NATO nor EU member, has long existed in the shadow of Euro-Atlantic politics and that until recently, “strategic patience” was something encouraged by Western governments. “Now, when we are in precisely that mode of strategic patience, there’s this anxious attitude of ‘you have to do something’,” he says. “And when we say ‘what, exactly?’ Well, that’s where the conversation stops.”
Nor has the government’s position been met entirely without sympathy in the West. Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, believes allegations of a pro-Kremlin tilt are less an accurate description of government policy than a show of political theatre by the opposition.
“Georgian Dream is saying look, we know Ukraine is fighting Russia, and we really hope they win. But we don’t want to get whacked ourselves,” Volker says. “I understand keeping their heads down, not making big pronouncements. That perspective I get.”
The End of History
None of these geopolitical complexities is lost on Meshveliani, as she sits in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Tbilisi – her building, like others housing Georgia’s displaced, in disrepair, the bare concrete walls of the hallway outside threaded with loose wires and wide cracks where the wind blows bitterly through.
Nevertheless, she shares her story in the hope her country will remember what happened in Abkhazia, and that people will understand “there is still grave evil in the world, and what is happening in Ukraine, it is exactly the same picture.”
“This terrible man,” she says. “He has to be stopped.”
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.
New to Byline Times? Find out more about us
SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION
A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.
Don’t miss a story! Sign up to our newsletter (and get a free edition posted to you)
Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture war, Brexit, crony contracts, Russian interference, the Coronavirus pandemic, democracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.