NEWS

The anniversary of Operation Golden Fleece to evacuate diaspora Greeks from war in Abkhazia

By Dionyssis Kalamvrezos (1)

Amid of the fighting that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, Greece carried out a humanitarian operation to evacuate ethnic Greeks from their homes in Abkhazia, Georgia. On August 15, 1993, 1,015 Greeks who had decided to abandon Georgia boarded a ship for Greece. The first post-Soviet period was followed by wars between the former Soviet states, separatist movements and extended political and social crises. The ex-USSR states that have been most troubled by armed conflict, and refugee movements are primarily located in two principal areas: the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Greek diaspora who lived in these areas of conflict were direct or indirect victims of these crises. From 1991 through the end of 1993, Georgia was in the midst of a bloody civil war between the supporters of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Political violence had become chronic. Even after his victory over Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze faced challenges from warlords and militias and had to deal with the Abkhazian problem. The conflict in Abkhazia broke out in 1992 and has led to the internal displacement of 270,000 people. Moreover, a further 80,000 people have fled to Russia and other ex-Soviet states. As a result of the political crisis, the bloody conflicts and their subsequent catastrophic impact on social and economic conditions, a significant number of the Greek population of Georgia were forced to move to Greece either on a temporary or permanent basis. The Abkhaz Autonomous Republic had enjoyed the status of Union Republic since the 1920s, and was unified with Georgia in 1931. Its prewar population was quite mixed. According to the 1989 Soviet census, ethnic Abkhaz were 17.8 percent of the total population of 525,000 people, while Georgians were 45.7 percent, Armenians 14.6 percent, and Russians 14.3 percent. The picture is more complicated than that, however, since these demographic proportions varied throughout the period of Soviet rule. In 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet voted to secede from Georgia. That declaration of sovereignty was quickly annulled by the Georgian government. A few weeks later Georgian troops were ordered into Abkhazia, purportedly to secure transportation and communication lines. On August 14 in the Ochamchira district south of Sukhumi, Georgian and Abkhazian troops exchanged fire. The same day, Georgian troops entered Sukhumi, and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba declared full mobilization. As Georgian troops occupied Sukhumi, the Abkhaz government fled north to Gudauta, which would remain its base for the rest of the war. The Gumista river just north of Sukhumi became the major front line. A 13-month war ensued. The war was marked by Russian indecision over what had to be done. The Russian indecisiveness was a direct result of the existing internal problems and differences of opinion that divided the governing circles in Moscow. This culminated in the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet, which ended just over one year later, when Abkhaz forces took back Sukhumi and pushed Georgian forces out of Abkhazia. The bitter war in Abkhazia has claimed over 35,000 lives. Nevertheless, it did not lead to international recognition of Abkhazia, nor in the viability of its republic. Regional stability has not completely returned and since 1994 a predominantly Russian force of 2,500 CIS peacekeepers has attempted to maintain and ensure the ceasefire between Abkhazia and Georgia. (1) Dionyssis Kalamvrezos served as head of the Consular Section of the Embassy of Greece in Moscow from 1992 to 1997 and as counselor at the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations. He participated in special missions to the Greek embassies in Nicosia (1997) and Tbilisi ('93).

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