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In 1998, renewed fighting in the Gali region along the Georgia-Abkhaz border led to the deaths of Russian peacekeepers and civilians and undermined international efforts to mediate the conflict. Abkhazia, which declared independence from Georgia in 1992, has functioned as a de facto independent state since the end of the 1992-93 war which killed at least 10,000 people and forced at least 150,000 ethnic Georgians to flee the region. The Georgia-Abkhazia Coordination Council, which included representatives from Georgia, Abkhazia, the United Nations, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and several observer countries, held a series of high-level meetings throughout the year, but the issues of refugee repatriation and Abkhazia’s status within Georgia remained unresolved.
Abkhazia, strategically located on Georgia's Black Sea coast, was an "autonomous" administrative unit during the Soviet period. Its borders were drawn to include not only Abkhaz who were native to the region but also a large ethnic Georgian population. In 1990, ethnic Abkhaz, 30 percent of whom are Muslims, made up 17.8 percent of the population of 380,000, while Christian Georgians comprised 45.7 percent. In 1978, while current Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was Communist Party first-secretary in Georgia, Abkhaz literary and political figures launched a protest over cultural, linguistic, political, and economic conditions in the region. Under pressure from Moscow, Shevardnadze implemented a number of concessions, including an affirmative action program that increased the role of Abkhaz elites in governing the region. In 1990, the party and state apparatus as well as most of the local economy were firmly in control of the ethnic Abkhaz minority; Abkhaz constituted 67 percent of government ministers and 71 percent of regional department heads.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Abkhaz officials pressed for greater autonomy with then-President Zviad Gamsakhurdia of Georgia, demanding guaranteed representation of not less than 50 percent of the seats in the 65-seat Abkhaz Supreme Soviet (parliament). Gamsakhurdia agreed to a compromise that gave greater representation to predominantly Abkhaz regions: 28 seats were reserved for the Abkhaz, 26 for Georgians, and 11 for other nationalities. Conflicts between Abkhaz and Georgian deputies arose over appointments to government posts.
After Shevardnadze took over from the ousted Gamsakhurdia in the midst of a 1992 civil war, he sent troops into the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi to free hostages being held by Gamsakhurdia loyalists. After they came under attack, Georgian troops took over the capital. In 1993--with the help of Russian units, Chechens, and other North Caucasian peoples--Abkhaz insurgents launched an assault on Georgian forces in Sukhumi. In July, with more than half of Abkhazia in rebel hands, the Abkhazian parliament approved a Georgian-Russian compromise cease-fire that called for the withdrawal of all forces from Sukhumi. But in September, Abkhaz forces launched a ferocious attack near Sukhumi with the help of Russian air support. Shevardnadze, who went to Sukhumi in a last-ditch effort to encourage his forces, accused Russia of betraying the cease-fire agreement. After rebels captured Sukhumi and drove Georgian forces from Abkhazia, they launched a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that spurred an exodus by 200,000 Georgian refugees. An estimated 20,000 civilians were killed in the fighting.
In early 1994, Georgian and Abkhaz signed an agreement in Moscow that called for a cease-fire. Subsequent UN- and Russian-sponsored negotiations led to some repatriation of refugees under UN supervision. Some 1,500 mostly Russian peace-keepers patrol the border between western Georgia and Abkhazia. The Abkhazians claim that a deteriorating economy prevents further repatriation. Paramilitary groups such as the "White Legion," comprised of Georgian refugees, have launched attacks on Russian troops and Abkhaz targets.
In September 1996, Vladislav Ardzinba, president of Abkhazia, formally announced a referendum on independence and elections for a new 35-member parliament. Georgia's parliament denounced the election plan as illegal given that the 200,000 ethnic Georgians displaced by the war would not be able to participate. The elections were judged free-and fair-by international observers and returned a pro-independence majority. Ethnic Georgians voted in the Gali region, where there were several bomb explosions, allegedly the work of Georgian paramilitary units who infiltrated the area.
In February 1998, President Ardzinba accused the Georgian government of planning terrorist attacks against ethnic Georgians in the Gali district in order to mobilize Georgian public opinion and to encourage the withdrawal of CIS peacekeepers. In March, violent clashes between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians broke out during local elections, which were criticized as “illegitimate” by Russia, Georgia, and the UN Security Council. Much of the criticism stemmed from the Abkhazian authorities’ refusal to allow any participation in the election by ethnic Georgian refugees displaced from the homes in Abkhazia, as well as from the destabilizing effect of the elections on stalled UN-brokered negotiations. In June, the government announced that Abkhazia was already an independent country and would not accept “deferred political status” within Georgia.
In September, as conflicts along the border intensified, President Shevardnadze said he was prepared to give Abkhazia “the highest possible status of political autonomy within the federal Georgian state.” In December, both sides agreed to a withdrawal of forces in the Gali region, but a political solution remained elusive.
Residents of Abkhazia can elect government officials, but the 150,000-200,000 displaced Georgians could not vote in the 1996 parliamentary elections for a 35-member National Assembly. They were also barred from local elections in 1998.
There are a handful of independent newspapers; electronic media is controlled by the government and generally reflects government positions. Freedom of religion is respected for Muslims, but Christian Georgians and Armenians face harassment, intimidation, and persecution. Freedom of assembly is restricted.
The November 1994 constitution established a presidential-parliamentary system. There are several political parties and public organizations, including the pro-government Popular Front of Abkhazia (Aydylara). Others include the Communists; the mostly-Russian Slavonic House; a Armenian-based Krunki; the Intelligentsia of Abkhazia; Alliance of Women," People's Party of Abkhazia, the "Council of Elders," headed by Pavle Ardzinba, a presidential relation, which has branches in many regions; and others. The 1996 parliamentary elections were officially non-party. Of the 30 deputies elected in the first-round there were 19 Abkhaz, four Russians, three Armenians, two Georgians, one Greek and one Kabardian.
Trade union structures are former affiliates of the Georgian Confederation of Trade Unions.
The constitution enshrines an independent judiciary, but the judicial system still includes Soviet-era practices. Most judges are nominated by the president and require parliamentary approval. Georgians, Armenians, and certain Abkhaz clans face persecution. In the conflict-riven Gali district, Abkhazian and Georgian citizens have been subjected to terror and murder.
Large segments of the economy, which has been decimated by war, a Russian blockade, and lack of restructuring, are controlled by criminal organizations and clans, and corruption is rife. Normal business activity has been impeded.