The Political Violence in Gali District of Georgia By Aleksandre Kvakhadze - MA Terrorism & Political Violence
Ethnic cleansing and brutal war crimes are considered as the main features of so- called ‘new wars’. Under the term ‘new war’ we can understand that a new type of conflicts emerged after the end of the cold war. Mary Kaldor believes that ‘new wars’, mainly taken place in Africa and Eastern Europe, are types of conflict involving a blurring of the distinction between war, organised crime and the large-scale violation of human rights such as genocide or ethnic cleansing (Kaldor 2013, pp. 8-9). Another important feature of the new type of conflict is active involvement of non-state actors. The breakdown of the Soviet Union was followed by explicit nationalism and self-determination in newly independent republics. One of those conflicts is the 1992-93 War in Abkhazia and Gali district as the significant legacy of this conflict. In the present article, I shall overview the current trends and developments in this region.
Historical background Gali District is situated in the south-east of Abkhazia, an autonomous region of Georgia which is de-facto controlled by Russian military and Abkhaz separatists. Historically, Gali district was populated by sub-ethnic group of Georgians called Mingrelians. Unofficially, this district is split into two zones, namely Lower and Upper zones. According to census 1989 of the Soviet Union, the population of Gali district was above 90,000 and approximately 99% were Georgian. In 1993 after seizing capital of Abkhazia Sokhumi the whole population of Gali district has undergone ethnic cleansing and has been forcefully displaced to the other regions of Georgia, predominantly neighbouring Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti. In order to change the demographic balance in Abkhazia in favour of ethnic Abkhazians, approximately 300,000 of ethnic Georgians have been expelled. The end of an active phase of conflict was followed by the establishment of a ceasefire line along the river Inguri (Oltramonti, 2016, p. 245). After the ceasefire in 1994, nearly 60,000 Georgians gradually returned back to the region.
However, without any external or internal protection they have been subjected to oppression, ethnic discrimination, namely disenfranchisement, a lack of political rights and prevention from expressing their ‘political and social potential within Abkhazia’ (ibid, p. 246). In reaction to this mistreatment, Georgians formed guerilla groups such as ‘White Legion’ and ‘Forest Brotherhood’, which had been targeting high-ranked Abkhaz militia leaders. The activity of Georgian paramilitary groups reached its peak in May 1998 by launching intensive partisan attacks on Abkhaz militia forces and taking control over Lower Zone of Gali district. The separatist militia, with significant Russian support, managed to thwart rebellion and simultaneously attacked thousands of civilian Georgians. By early 2000s the activity of partisan groups steadily decreased and by 2004 as an attempt to form peaceful dialogue with Abkhazian separatists, the Georgian government unilaterally encouraged the withdrawal of all paramilitary groups from Gali district and incorporated them into Georgian military or security forces. During the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, the Gali district was relatively stable without any significant clashes or attacks.
Importance of Gali district Gali district is a highly important region for Abkhaz separatists as well as their Russian proponents for a number of reasons. Firstly, located there is an Inguri power station containing a hydropower plant, one among the largest in the Caucasus region which is the vital source of energy for Georgia. Due to the dam being located in the non-occupied territory of Georgia (neighbouring Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti), official Tbilisi and separatists share the energy produced by this facility. Secondly, Gali district is an important agricultural region for Abkhazia. Unlike Abkhazians, local Georgian populations have vast agricultural traditions and produce nuts, an important export product. Thirdly, for Abkhaz separatists, Gali district can be seen as a buffer between Abkhazian ‘heartland’ (Ochamchire district) or Abzhua and the rest of Georgia. Fourthly, this region has a huge importance from a military point of view. It is easier to launch large scale military operations against Georgia from Gali because of the absence of any natural barrier. For this reason, Russia opened a permanent military base and other military infrastructure in that region. Moreover, due to corruption among Abkhaz separatists in the administrative border between Gali district and Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti, smuggling has flourished in recent years and this region became a serious source of illegal income for local Abkhaz de-facto leaders and warlords.
Types of oppression Although Gali district is predominantly inhabited by Georgians, the region is governed by ethnic Abkhazians. Abkhazians are also widely represented in local so- called ‘law enforcement’ structures. According to a report done by Georgian human rights activist Malkhaz Pataraia, there are three interdependent groups responsible for total control of the Georgian population (Pataraia 2014). First is the local de-facto administration, mainly the head of the village council. As a part of Abkhaz separatist bureaucracy, they are responsible for administrative control. Second is the Abkhaz separatist militia, which aims to decrease the influence of Tbilisi and oppress potential opponents of separatist regime and Russia. Third are criminal authorities, so-called ‘majine’ (Megr. ‘supervisior’), the intermediate level in the post-Soviet criminal hierarchy. The main function of ‘majine’ is not only to extract an unofficial tax from the population, which is paid by every ton of hazelnuts harvest (Oltramonti 2016, p. 251), but also to control the racketeering, drug distribution and young generation in order prevent their engagement in any pro-Georgian movement. The interesting fact is that, unlike the first two mechanisms of control, the criminal world of Gali district is represented by ethnic Georgians. All of those groups are coordinated by Russian intelligence FSB.
The main features of oppression are:
Extracting the hazelnut harvest from the Georgian population. Hazelnut is the main source of income for the local population and due to its high quality, it is always in high demand. Georgian peasants from Gali district are forced to share a part of their harvest with local criminal authorities or Abkhaz warlords as the part of the unofficial tax.
Limiting education in the Georgian language and converting primary and secondary schools from Georgian to Russian. Abkhaz separatist political elite are always concerned that the source of information for the population of Gali is not Russian and Abkhazian, but Georgian media.
The systematic closing of the administrative border between Abkhazia and the remaining regions of Georgia. The absolute majority of Georgians in Gali district have relatives in other parts of Georgia, predominantly in neighbouring Zugdidi district. Consequently, the Enguri bridge and some other checkpoints called by separatists ‘Abkhazian-Georgian border’ are extremely vital.
The threat to deport those inhabitants of Gali district who have Georgian citizenship. The absolute majority of Georgians in Gali district simultaneously possess the Georgian citizenship and the status of the refugee. Abkhazians insist on the refusal of Georgian citizenship in favour of Abkhazian.
Furthermore, a part of hard-line oppression of the Georgian population is the Russian- supported Abkhaz separatists who also implement some elements of soft power. Abkhaz de-facto leaders are seeking to promote an idea that the Georgian population of Gali district are separate from Georgians nation, Mingrelians. There were attempts to broadcast Mingrelian language and encourage the setting up of compulsory Mingrelian language classes in schools instead of Georgian.
Nevertheless, the issues mentioned above raise the question; Why Abkhaz separatist elite maintain the Georgian population in the Gali district? The main reason is demographic balance in Abkhazia. According to the census done by a separatist regime, ethnic Abkhazians constitute 50,7% of the population. However, taking into account low fertility rate, high mortality and immigration, the number is more likely to be exaggerated and artificially increased. Armenians and Russians together are almost equal. Therefore, Abkhazians need Georgians to constitute the majority (Etno kavkaz).
Political violence in Gali district The political violence in Gali district involves covert operations done by Georgian or Russian intelligence. A number of assassinations of high-ranking Abkhaz warlords like Otar Turnanba, Alik Khishba, Eduard Emin-Zadeh and Valmer Butba took place in Gali district. Separatists accused Georgian intelligence of organising these assassinations. At the same time, according to Georgian officials, Russian intelligence was using recruited Georgians from Gali to carry out terrorist attacks in the remaining regions of Georgia, including bomb explosion near the US embassy in Tbilisi (Lomsadze, 2010). There was also an assassination of Georgian intelligence officer Kordzadze in Batumi, who was responsible for Gali district. After a few years, in 2016 Abkhaz militant Rashid Kanji- Ogli killed Georgian citizen Giga Otkhozoria in Georgian-controlled territory near an administrative border. The kidnapping of ethnic Georgians in order to receive ransom and other forms of economic violence are still widespread in the region.
In conclusion, despite the armistice between Russia and Georgia, Gali district remains to be a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over Georgia, especially its western provinces. In case of a new large scale conflict, this region (due to its strategic advantages) may become one of the key attacking points for the Russian army. Nevertheless, it still continues being the territory of instability.
Bibliography Lomsadze, G. (2010) Georgia arrests Six terrorist suspects. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704250704576005683933186342 (Accessed: 3 February 2017).
Kaldor, M. (2013) New and old wars: Organised violence in a global era. 3rd edn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press. Prelz Oltramonti, G. (2016) ‘Securing disenfranchisement through violence and isolation: The case of Georgians/Mingrelians in the district of Gali’, Conflict, Security & Development, 16(3), pp. 245–262. (No Date) Available at: http://www.ethno-kavkaz.narod.ru/rnabkhazia.html (Accessed: 3 February 2017