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Putin: Throwing sand of historic deceit

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a history lecture in Yekaterinburg on July 9, 2019 on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since the Russian Empire started annexing territory in the Caucasus in the late 18th century.

In typical Kremlin styled irony and nihilism, Putin framed Georgia as occupant, sending a message to the protesters in Georgia against the ongoing Russian occupation of both regions. Let’s set the record straight.  

South Ossetia

Putin first suggested that North and South Ossetia were united as an independent state in 1774 under Russian rule:

“Ossetia joined the Russian Empire, if I remember correctly, in 1774. Both northern and southern Ossetia came together, as an independent state.”

What he meant with Ossetia is nowadays called North Ossetia, excluding the Georgian territory that is commonly referred to as South Ossetia. The (north) Ossetian area was then part of Kabardia, added to the Russian Empire in 1774 through the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, the year Putin correctly refers to. The treaty ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 [1].

The area of modern day South Ossetia was part of the (East Georgian) Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and did not have any administrative status. Kartli-Kakheti allied with the Russian Empire in 1783 through the Treaty of Georgievsk[2] as a protectorate before being annexed in 1801. The Ossetian areas on both sides of the mountains were not united in one “independent” state or administrative district as Putin suggests. They remained within separate administrative units for as long as the Russian Empire lasted. And after that as well.

The north was part of the Caucasian Province (1785) and Stavropol Province (1822) until 1860. Administrative overhaul of the North Caucasus region [3] made the north Ossetian region part of the newly formed Terek Oblast. From 1917 until 1921 it was part of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus that separated from the Russian Empire following the February Revolution of 1917. In 1921 the (north) Ossetian district became part of the Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, before it became an autonomous oblast/republic as North Ossetia within the Russian SSR from 1924 onwards.

“South Ossetia became part of the Tiflis Governorate. There was no Georgia at the time, but the Tiflis Governorate.”

After the Russian annexation of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti in 1801 the (southern) Ossetian area was part of subsequently the Georgian Governate, the short lived Georgia-Imeretia Governate (1840) and then the Tiflis Governate from 1846 until 1918 when the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia was established. For the entire period the area now known as South Ossetia was not an administrative district in any form. Only after the Soviet annexation of independent Georgia in 1921 the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast was created in 1922 within the Georgian SSR. North and South Ossetia were separate administrative entities, under different SSR’s for the entire Soviet period.

The frame Putin seeks is historically incorrect, yet it fits in the Russian and (South) Ossetian narrative of a historically once united Ossetia that needs to be “reunited”. But which never existed in the past, while he ironically pretends a Georgian state never existed. In other words, Putin’s words are all about propagating a historic (yet incorrect) justification for a policy of annexation, through the current occupation, and delegitimizing Georgian claims on “South Ossetian” territory.

Abkhazia

Abkhazia developed in the following way. When the Russian Empire fell after World War I, Georgia made attempts to absorb Abkhazia; an independent country of Georgia was established, and, with help from German troops, it occupied Abkhazia in 1918”

The 1918-1921 period of the Georgian Democratic Republic was a chaotic time for the newly independent country which included Abkhazia. Its independence and territorial integrity was under constant threat from the north (Soviet Red Army, Volunteer “White” Army of Denikin), the south (Turkey, Armenia) and the east (Azerbaijan). Abkhazia was threatened from the north by the Reds and Whites with pockets of land changing authority back and forth frequently, especially in the northern coastal areas [4].

German troops indeed assisted the new Republic upon its request from mid-June 1918 [5]. They were tasked with guarding strategic infrastructure and thinly spread throughout the country. Never in direct conflict with any foreign troops, not in Abkhazia, and not in the rest of the Georgian Democratic Republic. Small garrisons were stationed in Abkhazia from August to October 1918, without active duty against foreign forces. Their presence discouraged Denikin’s White Army trying to seize Abkhazia during that period and thus brought stability. [6] The German troops left Georgia in November 1918 as result of the World War I armistice, less than six months after they arrived.

In February 1918, three months prior to the formal establishment of the Georgian Democratic Republic, the Abkhazian People’s Soviet and the National Council of Georgia agreed Abkhazia would join Georgia as an autonomy.[7]

In other words Abkhazia voluntarily joined the Georgian Democratic Republic and became a target for both the White (Volunteer) and Red Armies. As part of the agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia the latter had the obligation to defend the Abkhazian territory. Which it did. There was no such thing as occupation. Soviet Russia recognized the entire Georgian Democratic Republic including Abkhazia as sovereign independent country when it signed the Moscow Treaty in May 1920, only to violate it nine months later by invading and annexing Georgia.      

“By the way, during the Soviet era, it was decided to establish the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia, which included today’s Georgia. It wasn’t even Georgia.”

Again a frame as if there was no such thing as “Georgia”. In February 1921, after the Soviet invasion of the Georgian Democratic Republic, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia (later Georgian SSR) was proclaimed which included Abkhazia. The Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was proclaimed a month later, and it signed an agreement with the Georgian SSR later that year to form a federation. The agreement also regulated that the Abkhazian SSR would join the Transcaucasian Federation in 1922 through the Georgian SSR (as subject). This lasted until 1931 when Abkhazia became an Autonomous Republic within the Georgian SSR[8]. During this period Abkhazia was subordinated to the Georgian SSR.

“The Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia was established during Stalin’s time, and Abkhazia was included.”

Stalin only came to power as leader of the Soviet Union in 1924 after Lenin’s death and after the Georgian SSR was already established. Abkhazia was already in a federal union with the Georgian SSR making it effectively an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR. To portray Stalin as a protector of Georgian nationalist interests including “occupying” or “absorbing” Abkhazia is a false frame.

However, on Stalin’s orders, the NKVD, headed by Beria, took very harsh measures on Abkhazians – I don’t even want to say what – in order for Georgia to absorb this territory and the Abkhazians”

This is a vile attempt to put the Soviet terror regime in the wider (northern) Caucasus region on two Soviet leaders from Georgian descendance for the purpose of Georgian annexation of Abkhazia. Ironically Stalin is increasingly heralded in modern day Russia for his leadership and his ruthless regime. The terror campaign unleashed by the NKVD in 1936 under Beria was a nationwide policy [9] and had nothing to do with what Putin suggests here. Earlier in his career, Beria suppressed Menshevik dissent in the Georgian SSR with tough hand, killing thousands. Fact is that years before the Great Purge started, Abkhazia was already “absorbed” into the Georgian SSR.    

This is a grim legacy that one of the first Georgian presidents simply ignored when he took Adjara and Abkhazia’s autonomy

It is not clear which President Putin is referring to. Neither region had their autonomy taken by any of the (post-Soviet) Georgian Presidents.

Georgia’s first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia expressed the intention, but never materialized it. He suggested to strip the autonomy of the Adjara region at various moments [10]. The regional leader Aslan Abasidze uprooted the Adjarians to prevent this and created his own fiefdom instead. This lasted until 2004 when the third President Mikheil Saakashvili was able to unseat him and restoring national authority over the region while maintaining the regional autonomy.

As for Abkhazia, Putin might refer to the February 1992 decision of the ruling Military Council (which acted as interim government during winter 1992 after the disposal of Gamsakhurdia) to return to the 1921 Constitution of the Georgian Democratic Republic [11]. Many Abkhaz interpreted that as (possible) abolition of their autonomy, but none of that was true. The 1921 constitution explicitly stipulated both the Abkhazian and Adjarian autonomy [12]. That status was confirmed by the declaration of the Military Council.

It was South Ossetian autonomy that was abolished in December 1990 by the Georgian Parliament on instruction of Supreme Council Chairman Zviad Gamsakhurdia. This was in response to unsanctioned elections in South Ossetia and its unilateral promotion from an autonomous province to a Soviet Republic (outside of the Republic of Georgia) [13]. This was the onset for the civil war in 1991, and later troubles between the central government in Tbilisi and the de facto rulers in South Ossetia. Putin must be well aware of this, since he played an active role as President and Prime Minister for the last two decades.

Real countries

So what is Putin playing at? It is no secret that President Putin does not regard Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan as real countries: they never existed as an independent country before the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union created them. He seems to say the same thing about Georgia now. In 2005 Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century with the independence of 14 Soviet Republics as “historic accidents”. It placed roughly 25 million Russians outside of Russia, something Putin addressed in 1994 as deputy mayor of St Petersburg[14]. Just this week at the Batumi Conference the European Council President Tusk commented on that alleged “catastrophe”:

The Russian and Ossetian narrative of a once (united) Ossetia that allegedly should be restored is far from historically true. That narrative is used to create one at the expense of Georgia. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are currently used by the Kremlin to break down the Georgian state, declare it a historic accident, and to absorb it like it has done 100 and 200 years ago.

These latest comments of Putin are exemplary of the Kremlin’s denial of Georgian sovereignty over its recognized territory. Denying there was such a thing as “Georgia”, while emphasizing both Ossetia and Abkhazia were “independent countries” in historic times making them just instruments to bring Georgia back in the fold: to “fix the accident”.

But what makes a country a “real country” distinctive from the opposite? A functioning state apparatus, general recognition by other countries, and admission in the international community such as the United Nations. In other words, globally embedded as a functioning state. Which applies to Georgia.

Ever since Georgia has regained independence in 1991, it has progressed as a functioning democratic state, building its state institutions, improving governance, well being of its citizens, civil rights, freedoms, and anti-corruption efforts. Sharply distinctive from the Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions it is withheld control of, which lack all of this progress and where regression of minority rights has become active policy.

There is no better proof of Georgia being a “real country” than this distinction. Something that should not to be forgotten when the people in the Kremlin try to justify subversive actions in their neighbourhood by throwing sand in the eyes of international partners in order to divide both internally as externally.


[1] Fredrik Coene – The Caucasus, an Introduction (p. 122)

[2] Peter F Skinner – Georgia, the land below the Caucasus (p. 310)

[3] Fredrik Coene – The Caucasus, an Introduction (p. 128)

[4] Andrew Andersen – Abkhazia and Sochi, the roots of the conflict 1918 – 1921 (2014)

[5] Peter F Skinner (p. 454)

[6] Andrew Andersen (p.57)

[7] Svetlana Chervonnaya – Conflict in the Caucasus (1994) (p. 24, p. 140)

[8] Svetlana Chervonnaya (p. 27-28, 144)

[9] Svetlana Chervonnaya (p. 29)

[10] Monica Duffy Toft – The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory (2003) (p.110-117)

[11] Svetlana Chervonnaya (p. 156)

[12] Andrew Andersen (p.161)

[13] Stephen Jones – Georgia, a political history since independence (2013) (p.223)

[14] 101st Bergedorf Round Table in St. Petersburg 1994 (1994)

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