Vladislav Ardzinba: man and legend

The first president of the republic of Abkhazia remains a part of the national myth

Vladislav Ardzinba, the first president of Abkhazia, who played decisive role in history of Abkhazia, Georgia, and probably the whole Caucasus, is dead. His death was long and painful. According to some reports, the leader of Abkhazian national movement suffered from Parkinson's disease. According to others, from Alzheimer's disease. In 1997, the author of these lines accompanied the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Boris Berezovsky, on a visit to Abkhazia. Ardzinba received the guests in the former dacha of Lavrentiy Beria not far from New Athos. His facial and neck muscles already that time were twitching, betraying his illness. At the beginning of the 2000s the illness deepened and the first president of Abkhazia became disabled. He lost the power of speech and the ability to move, although he kept his mental acuity. Until 2004, the republic was governed by his closest confidants, including Prime Minister Raul Khajimba. Nevertheless, the absolute majority of Abkhazians considers Ardzinba a national hero because exactly the idea of national independence is associated with him, even though Abkhazia’s independence was recognized only years after the first president had left the political arena. Nevertheless, Ardzinba from the beginning lead the movement and then the war for independence from Georgia and achieved the victory by which Abkhazia acquired its unrecognized but real independence.

From historians to politicians.

Vladislav Grigoryevich Ardzinba was born in 1945 in the Abkhazian village of Eshera. He spent a considerable part of his life in Moscow. He was a historian by education and was considered one of the best specialists on the history and culture of ancient Asia Minor, including the history of Hittites. At the beginning of the 1980s, Ardzinba tried to defend a doctoral dissertation “Rituals and myths of ancient Anatolia” in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. But the director of the institute was then native of Tbilisi and a great friend of the Georgian intelligentsia (and of the first secretary of central committee of Communist party of Georgia Eduard Shevarnadze), Yevgeny Primakov. So as not to offend his Tbilisi friends, Primakov advised Vladislav to defend his dissertation in the Tbilisi Institute of History, Ethnography and Archeology, which was he exactly what did in 1985.

The son of famous Georgian historian Rismag Gordeziany described to me his meeting with the future Abkhazian president like this: “I saw a swarthy man with the characteristic red-tinged face of the Abkhaz standing in the hall, dumping onto the floor a huge bag of mandarins he had brought from Abkhazia as a present. Before he came to Tbilisi he phoned to ask if he would be killed in Georgia. Ardzinba was at that time already known as a radical supporter of Abkhazian separatism. In 1978, as a young scientist, he led a movement to give the Abkhazian language official status in Abkhazia (in response to the Georgian language being given this status over the whole territory of the Georgian SSR). Nevertheless Ardzinba has successfully defended his dissertation in Tbilisi (according to the generally accepted view his work was excellent) and headed Abkhazian Institute of Language, Literature and History”.

In 1989, Ardzinba became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. It was he who was the author and conductor of idea of “equalization of rights of union and autonomous Republics” which according to the opinion of several historians played important role in collapse of Soviet Union because it was inadmissible not only for Georgia (which by this way “became equal” with its autonomy) but also for national elites of all other union Republics. In the autumn of 1990, Ardzinba became the head of the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia. And his election happened as a result of a difficult compromise with the first Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Georgians were at that time 44% of population of the autonomous republic and Abkhaz just 18%, but Ardzinba managed to persuade Zviad to agree to the formula 28-26-11. That means that Abkhaz received the largest part of the seats in the newly elected Supreme Soviet. Georgians got 26 places and 11 went to representatives of other nations, including Russians, Armenians and Greeks. Then, taking its cue from the civil war in Georgia that started right after the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia in January 1992, the Supreme Council of Abkhazia on June 24, 1992, declared the restoration of the Abkhazian Constitution of 1924, when Abkhazia was independent from Georgia.


In August of the same year, the state council of Georgia led by Shevardnadze brought troops in Abkhazia seeking on the one hand to prevent acquisition of independence by Abkhazia and on the other hand to discredit the followers of Zviad, the majority of whom were in hiding in Abkhazia. Vladislav Ardzinba headed Abkhasia’s defense committee and with the support of forces from the confederation of mountain peoples of the Caucasus managed to drive the Georgian armed forces out of Abkhazia by September 30, 1993. At the same time, the large part of the Georgian population left Abkhazia. Later, a certain number of Georgians returned to the border Gallsky district. In 1994, the Abkhazian parliament elected Ardzinba president. National elections took place later – in 1999, when Abkhazia also held a referendum on independence. The five-year “transition period” is explained by the fact that between Russia, Georgia and Abkhazia in 1990s was going on a difficult play – Moscow didn’t lose hope that it could keep Georgia within its sphere of influence and in Tbilisi they hoped to restore what was lost through compromises with Moscow. Nevertheless, compromise wasn’t achieved because “surrender” of Abkhazia by Russia would destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus, where the Abkhaz’ fellow Circassians, the Adyghe, live. Therefore Russia made an unequivocal choice – as early as the beginning of the 2000s it  removed all restrictions for crossing the Russian-Abkhazian boundary (which were introduced in 1994) and began to develop relations with Abkhazia in spite of Georgia’s protests.

In spite of leaving the political arena as far bask as 2000-2001 and his protege Raul Khajimba’s defeat in the 2004 presidential elections, Vladislav Ardzinba remains for Abkhazians a symbol of independence, having become an integral part of the national myth.

Georgy Kalatozishvili, exclusively for VK.