Category Archives: Caucasus

Logistics of Penal Migration

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 715-748:

The European empires all struggled with the formidable logistical problems of penal migration. Britain’s transports to its Australian penal colonies in the late eighteenth century were dreadful ordeals for the convict passengers. Prisoners languished in the ships’ holds, “chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.” Of the 1,006 convicts who sailed on the Second Fleet in 1790, 267 died at sea and at least another 150 after landing. The British government took swift and decisive action to curb the lethal excesses in transportation because the organized and efficient transfer of healthy convicts was understood to be necessary to the wider project of penal colonization. It bombarded the private contractors responsible for transportation with demands for improvements in conditions, and deferred payment for each convict until he or she disembarked in decent health. A naval surgeon was placed on board each vessel and was answerable to the government, not to the contractors. Negligence and abuse still continued on some ships but, by 1815, the death rate in the transports had fallen to one in eighty-five. By the end of transportation in 1868, it was only one in 180.

The deportation of convicts to Siberia presented logistical difficulties not less (and possibly even more) daunting than those of the roiling waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The annual deportation of thousands of unruly and sometimes violent convicts several thousands of kilometres across the most inhospitable territory would have taxed the resources of any contemporary European state. The Siberian continent boasted only the sketchiest network of roads, and rivers that flowed unhelpfully south to north and north to south, rather than west to east, and turned each winter into a hazardous ocean of snow.

When compared with its European rivals, the tsarist empire’s state machinery was primitive and already creaking under the weight of its administrative burdens. St. Petersburg’s remit did not run as deep as that of London or Paris. Even within European Russia, the state had little direct contact with its own population. It devolved governance onto the landed nobility, the Church, merchant guilds and village assemblies. The Imperial Army was the only direct and sustained confrontation with state power that most Russian subjects—the peasantry—ever experienced. The enormous distances separating Siberia’s administrators from their masters in the capital amplified the effects of this bureaucratic weakness. Under-resourced and virtually unaccountable, officials manoeuvred within the deportation system for private gain, neglecting, exploiting and robbing the convicts in their charge.

After several months, sometimes years on the road, convicts who had departed hale and hearty from European Russia finally reached their destinations in Eastern Siberia as ragged, sickly, half-starving mockeries of the robust penal colonists envisioned by officials in St. Petersburg. The deportation process itself thus frustrated the state’s wider strategic ambitions for the penal colonization of Siberia. The downcast and desperate figures trudging eastwards in marching convoys were indictments of the imperial state’s weakness and incompetence. The boundary post was not so much a symbol of the sovereign’s power as a marker of its limitations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, exiles almost all made the journey to Siberia on foot. They would set out from one of five cities in the empire: St. Petersburg, Białystok in the Kingdom of Poland, Kamenets-Podolsk and Kherson in Ukraine, and Tiflis in Georgia. Most were funnelled through the Central Forwarding Prison in Moscow, from where they and their families would march eastwards through the town of Vladimir that gave its name to the road that wound its way eastwards. Synonymous with Siberian exile, the Vladimirka gained such notoriety over the nineteenth century that Isaak Levitan’s eponymous landscape painting from 1892, which today hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, seemed to echo to the clumping steps of exiles marching eastwards.

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Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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The Karabakhi Soviet’s Domino Effect, 1988

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:

When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.

On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.

Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.

Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.

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Genocide as a Weapon of National Identity

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1031-1055:

After years of nondialogue, some Armenian and Turkish historians began to find common ground in meetings in the late 1990s. Taboos of silence were broken, but some of the Turkish citizens who led the process paid a high price. The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk received death threats when he asked aloud why the Armenian massacres were not discussed. The Istanbul Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who had built bridges between the two communities and had been attacked by extremists on both sides, was murdered. His funeral was another landmark, as thousands of outraged Turks turned out in solidarity with the dead man. This in turn led to a courageous online signature campaign in which Turks endorsed a statement beginning “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915.” As of October 2009, more than thirty thousand Turks had signed.

In October 2009 the two countries’ governments, signing the historic Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, agreed to set up a commission “on the historical dimension to implement a dialogue with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” This agreement was condemned by many Armenians, especially in the diaspora, who said that a new investigation was tantamount to a betrayal of historical truth.

In the Caucasus, use of the word “genocide” has become a weapon of national identity. In the wake of the Armenians, other ethnic groups have adopted genocide days and called on the outside world to recognize their collective suffering. For Circassians, the key date is May 21, 1864, when they were deported en masse from the Russian Empire. Azerbaijanis have adopted March 31, referring to the day in 1918 when Armenians killed hundreds of Azeris in pogroms in Baku. For Pontic Greeks, Genocide Day is May 19, 1919. If all mass killings of recent times are to be honored, other national groups, such as Kurds, Meskhetian Turks, and Assyrians, also have good claims to make—but in their cases it seems that murderous policies were only too successful, as they lack the numbers and resources to mount campaigns on the issue. In an ideal world, it might be more dignified to call for a truce to the dueling of genocide claims and a mass honoring of the dead instead. In the very politicized world of the wider Caucasus region, that idea looks sadly unfeasible.

The repercussions of the mets eghern (“great catastrophe”), as Armenians call it, are far from over. As Israel has done, the Republic of Armenia formed itself as a country defined by mass death and exile, with a corresponding state ideology of “never again” that was later invoked in the war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. The shadow is even longer outside the region. The Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, the United States, and France consists largely of the grandchildren of those who survived the Anatolian holocaust. Only gradually is a dialogue emerging about the issue between Armenians and Turks.

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Origins of the Soviet Ethnofederal System

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1329-1340, 1408-1429:

There has [been] much scholarly debate about the impact of the Bolsheviks’ decision to devise an “ethnofederal system” for the Soviet Union, which created autonomous territories on ethnic principles. In the Caucasus, scholars have observed, this preserved national divisions, which eventually fractured the Soviet state and turned into armed conflicts. It could be argued, however, that the Caucasus set the blueprint for the Soviet Union, not the other way round. In other words, the fragile situation in the Caucasus in 1921, still broken by numerous inter-ethnic conflicts, may have caused the Bolsheviks to invent the ethnofederal system under duress.

It was also a Caucasian, Stalin, who presided over this complex construction once it had been created. His approach was both ruthless and pragmatic. The primary aim appears to have been to build a system that would survive the shock of both internal and external threats. National interests were balanced out and could eventually be eliminated. Small nationalities would be modernized, with Russia the engine pulling them into the future. Lenin, who disapproved of Russian nationalism, might have been content to see Georgia detached from Russia, so long as it remained Bolshevik. Stalin believed that Russia, the center, and the Caucasus, the borderlands, needed one another. In 1920, he wrote, “Central Russia, the hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs.

The late 1920s were the heyday of what Terry Martin calls the “affirmative action empire,” with the implementation of the new ideology of korenizatsia (literally “rooting,” or “nativization”) sponsoring programs to modernize and assist the non-Russian Soviet nationalities. The Azeri, Abkhaz, Ossetian, and Lezgin written languages were all given a new progressive Roman alphabet. Huge numbers of people received an education for the first time in their native languages. The Communists declared that in the first ten years of Soviet rule in Georgia, half a million people had been taught to read and write. In 1940, Armenia claimed that the entire adult population was literate for the first time.

For years, scholars of the Soviet Union concentrated on its centralizing policies, and some called it the “prison-house of nations.” Only recently have scholars and commentators begun to analyze how, beginning with the korenizatsia program, the Soviet authorities actually defined and strengthened national identities. As the American Suny put it in 1993, “rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations.” The tsarist empire had categorized its people by religion, mother tongue, social class, and regional location. The Bolsheviks held that “nationality” was a useful transitional phase between the backward culture of small ethnic groups and an advanced state of socialism. But the national identities persisted, and the transnational socialist future never came. As Martin writes, “in order to implement affirmative action programs, monitor their success, delineate national territories, assign children to programs, the Soviet state constantly asked its citizens for their nationality.” So to be “Ossetian” or “Azerbaijani” acquired real meaning for the first time, and this category became a formal badge of identity when it was written into the first Soviet internal passports in 1932.

There was a hierarchy of nations. Two of the three main nationalities of the Transcaucasus, the Armenians and Georgians, were classified as “advanced” Western nationalities, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, while Azerbaijanis fell into the category of nations in formation, requiring developmental aid. In practice this meant that, as in tsarist Russia, Armenians and Georgians could advance quickly up the Soviet career ladder. Two Karabakh Armenians from village backgrounds were cases in point. One, Levon Mirzoyan, served as head of the Communist Party first in Azerbaijan and then in Kazakhstan, the other; Suren Sadunts, served as first Party secretary in Tajikistan in 1935–36. Both were shot in Stalin’s purges. It would have been impossible for a Kazakh or an Azerbaijani to be given an equivalent post in Armenia or Georgia.

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Who Incites Neighbors to Kill Each Other?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2010-2032:

All the wars of the South Caucasus are case studies of the strange phenomenon whereby neighbors who have coexisted peacefully for years can end up fighting one another. Karabakh is a striking example. One village named Tug in the south of Karabakh had been home to people of both communities, with only a small stream dividing them. At first, the Armenians and Azerbaijanis of Tug said that the dispute would not affect them; then they retreated to their own half of the village, with some families being broken up; finally, in 1991, the Azerbaijanis were driven out by force.

The problem can be described as “mutual insecurity.” In tsarist times, pogroms had broken out when the regime weakened. In Soviet times, order was maintained by a central “policeman,” but when that law enforcer withdrew, the two national groups turned to their own armed men to protect them. Then in 1991 the Soviet armed forces collapsed into indiscipline, arming both sides and providing hundreds of “guns for hire.” This helped elevate a low-intensity conflict into an all-out war fought with tanks and artillery.

Another answer to the puzzle of neighbors fighting one another is that generally it was not they who actually started the conflict. Many Armenians and Azerbaijanis, like the people of Tug, did their best to resist the slide toward war. In the spring of 1991, the revolutionary California-born Armenian warrior Monte Melkonian was sent on a commission down Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan to prepare villages for impending conflict. He got frustrated as villagers asked him and other would-be defenders to leave, saying they did not want to fight their Azerbaijani neighbors.

Moreover, although ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side, the views of their intellectual elites were sharply different. Each harbored memories of the wars of the tsarist era and subscribed to nationalist ideas, which had been boosted by the officially tolerated nationalism of the late Soviet period. In 1988, some intellectuals often played a negative role by disseminating narratives of hate. The Armenian writer Zori Balayan wrote that the Azerbaijanis were “Turks” who had no history of their own. The Azerbaijani historian Ziya Buniatov wrote an inflammatory pamphlet suggesting that the Armenians themselves had been behind the killing of Armenians in Sumgait.

After the intellectuals came the men of violence. As the Soviet security apparatus withered, the initiative was handed to people who have been called “entrepreneurs of violence.” They were people who were often marginal figures in society but willing or able to fight. Violence became self-fueling. In the later war in Abkhazia, much of the most brutal fighting would be done by people from outside Abkhazia itself—North Caucasians on the Abkhaz side, incoming Georgian paramilitaries on the Georgian side. These guns-for-hire would exact a tithe for their fighting in looting and plunder.

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