Armed violence in post-war Abkhazia

Violence after war reflects continuities and changes from war to post-war that tools from civil war studies and perspectives of the actors involved can help capture

Anastasia Shesterinina

This is a summary of a case study developed as part of the UNU-WIDER Institutional Legacies of Violent Conflict project and published in Geoforum.

How should we approach violence after war? What tools can we use to capture continuities and changes from the war to the post-war period? How do perspectives of participants in post-war violence shape our analysis? Focusing on the complex local dynamics of violence in Abkhazia after the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, this article advances a micro-dynamic approach to violence in the aftermath of war and brings tools from civil war studies to understand variation. It shows that violence shifted in scale in post-war Abkhazia and that Abkhaz participants understood regular and irregular forms of violence that unfolded in the contested areas of Abkhazia through the lens of their official duties as part of Abkhazia’s state even before its partial recognition in 2008.

A micro-dynamic approach to violence after war

This study is situated in the micro-dynamic approach that emerged in the literature on violence in the aftermath of war. This approach draws our attention to continuities and changes in the actors, conditions, and dynamics of violence with a focus on local variation in its form, intensity, timing, and location. Any study of violence in the aftermath of war will benefit from an analysis of who is involved in the violence and with what understandings, what conditions foster it, and how dynamics of violence evolve across time and space in post-war settings.

Tools from civil war studies

Because violence after war is intricately related to the preceding war, conceptual and analytical tools from civil war studies can help identify war-to-post-war connections. Technologies of rebellion and territorial control are the tools that this article adapts to analyse post-war violence. The former helps distinguish irregular violence, or post-war activities that resemble insurgent and counterinsurgent dynamics of civil war, from regular violence, or post-war exchanges and clashes involving light and heavy weaponry. The latter helps focus on contested areas where violence concentrates after war.

Local dynamics of violence in post-war Abkhazia

Applying the micro-dynamic approach to violence with tools from civil war studies in post-war Abkhazia, the article shows that different systematic forms of violence emerged in this case. Irregular and regular violence unfolded in the Gal/i district predominantly but not fully controlled by the Abkhaz side and the upper Kodor/i Valley predominantly but not fully controlled by the Georgian side. These forms combined in the fighting of 1998 in the Gal/i district and 2008 in the Kodor/i Valley. In other words, violence became localised in the contested areas after the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia.

Whereas irregular and regular forms of violence are typically associated with wartime insurgents and incumbents, respectively, the nature of actors changed in the post-war period. Having achieved a military victory in the war, the Abkhaz side acted like a state after the war. Georgian armed groups, which grew out of Georgian forces that participated in the war, organized guerrilla activities from beyond the territory of Abkhazia, which Abkhaz forces targeted in their counterinsurgency-like operations. A small war between Georgian and Abkhaz patrols stationed on the two sides of the ceasefire line resembled state border defense in Abkhazia.

Abkhaz participants engaged in these activities in their official capacity to defend the Abkhaz state. They distinguished between irregular and regular violence. “What an army cannot do two people can,” a reservist differentiates Georgian armed forces from guerrilla groups. They also distinguished their responses to these forms of violence. “There is no such phrase cleaning of the territory in the army,” a commander differentiates counterinsurgency-like operations from military actions, “when the army is involved, it is theater of war.”

Implications for post-war de facto states

The outcome of these activities was the establishment of Abkhaz control over Abkhazia and its recognition as an independent state by Russia and a handful of other states. But the reality in this de facto state is ongoing conflict with Georgia and dependence on Russia. Recognition of statehood rarely brings underlying conflicts to an end. Instead, partially and fully recognized states established on the back of war are mired in multiple, overlapping forms of violence. Conflicts persist into the post-war period when the former warring parties transform and new actors emerge to contest the outcome of the war and the post-war arrangements at the local level.