Vladislav Ardzinba: Historian who became the first President of Abkhazia

Vladislav Ardzinba, who died after suffering for almost a decade from a mysterious and increasingly debilitating illness, was a wartime leader and the first president of Abkhazia. He was born in May 1945 in the village of Lower Eshera (just north of Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi), where his father taught history. He worked at Moscow's Oriental Institute under Yevgenij Primakov, who, as Russian Foreign Minister, was later to play a role in the post-war Georgian-Abkhazian negotiating process.

The thesis which earned Ardzinba his doctorate in 1986 was later published as "Rituals and Myths of Ancient Anatolia" (in Russian). The death in 1988 of Georgij Dzidzarija, director of the Abkhazian Research Institute, resulted in Ardzinba being invited to return to his homeland as Dzidzarija's successor, a post he retained until 1996.

As a leading local academic, Ardzinba was chosen in 1989 both as a deputy to Abkhazia's Supreme Soviet (becoming chairman in 1990) and as a people's deputy (as well as deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet), which gave him national prominence. This was at a time when nationalism was rising in Georgia, in which, since 1931, Abkhazia had been an autonomous republic. A number of ethnic minorities in Georgia recognised the danger, and fatal clashes took place in July that year both in Abkhazia and southern Georgia's Azerbaijani-populated region. Ardzinba attracted attention and respect for the beautiful Russian in which he articulated the grievances and aspirations of the Abkhazians and other ethnic minorities across the USSR in the Palace of People's Deputies, established by Mikhail Gorbachev during perestrojka. The speeches in the Palace were broadcast live, drawing huge audiences fascinated by this experiment in openness (glasnost). Ardzinba quickly became the main individual focus for Georgian abuse as the figurehead of the Abkhazians' determination not to support Georgia's push for independence through fear of what that independence would mean for the very physical survival of their nation, reduced to a 17.8 per cent minority in their historical homeland by 1989. His appearance in London at the 1990 Caucasian Colloquium cased some discomfort amongst the Georgian delegation.

When the Military Council, which had ousted Georgia's first post-communist President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in a coup in January 1992, abrogated all Soviet legislation, reinstating the pre-Soviet 1921 constitution in which Abkhazia's state-legal relations were undefined, Abkhazia felt itself in a constitutional vacuum and so reinstated in turn its own 1925 constitution on 23 July. This codified the treaty linking the Republic [sic] of Abkhazia to Georgia, prior to its 1931 demotion.

The draft of a parallel treaty to link post-Soviet Abkhazia and Georgia was tabled for discussion by the Abkhazian parliament on 14 August 1992. But hopes for peaceful coexistence with Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze, who had returned to head the state council in March, were dashed when that very morning Georgia's National Guard crossed the River Ingur, sparking the bloody war that ended in Georgia's defeat on 30 September 1993. Magnanimously, Ardzinba responded to Yeltsin's plea to allow Shevardnadze safe-passage out of Abkhazia.

Despite many setbacks, Ardzinba proved to be an inspirational leader during those months from Gudauta in northern Abkhazia, the war-time home of the legitimate authority. The war left the country de facto independent from Georgia, but with a devastated infrastructure and economy; 4 per cent of the small Abkhazian population perished. Ardzinba promulgated a new constitution on 26 November 1994 and became the republic's first president. Boris Yeltsin's government had already demonstrated a pro-Georgian bias, and Ardzinba's refusal to sign Yeltsin's order to attack Chechnya at the end of the year will not have helped Abkhazia's cause. For the rest of the 1990s Ardzinba had to steer a careful course, avoiding renewed hostilities, rejecting concessions that would alienate fellow-Abkhazians, and not offending the Kremlin.

In 1997 Primakov arranged for Ardzinba to visit Tbilisi for talks with Shevardnadze, though there was no break-through. Ardzinba was elected (unopposed) to a second presidential term on 3 October 1999 and, exasperated by Tbilisi's constant stonewalling in the negotiations, declared Abkhazia independent on 12 October.

It was not long before the first signs of his illness (some slurring of speech and difficulty coordinating movement) began to appear. Treatment over the years in Moscow and Israel failed to reverse the deterioration, and Ardzinba was seen less often, eventually disappearing from view and becoming wheelchair-bound. Though he saw out his term, his deputy Raoul Khadzhimba eventually fulfilled presidential duties. The fact that the head of the presidential bodyguard fell ill at the same time as Ardzinba and soon died gave rise to intense speculation as to what might have been the cause.

Until illness struck, Ardzinba was a man of boundless energy. However, he was not exactly tolerant of contrary opinions, and this led to problems: at home he did not encourage the formation of an opposition and had differences of opinion with Parliament, whilst some visiting Western politicians and diplomats did not always take kindly to being lectured, when they came to listen and be heard. There were also questions about the control of the country's economic levers. Nevertheless, Ardzinba's place in Abkhazia's history as war-leader and deliverer of its independence cannot be erased. He lived to welcome Russia's recognition of Abkhazia on 26 August 2008 with the words: "The dreadful times are past; the difficult times now begin."

......... George Hewitt

Vladislav Gregor'evich Ardzinba, hittologist, philologist, historian, politician: born Lower Eshera (Abkhazia) 14 May 1945; PhD 1986; director of the Abkhazian Research Institute 1988-96; Deputy Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia 1989; USSR People's Deputy and USSR Supreme Soviet Deputy 1989; chairman, Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia 1990; President of Abkhazia 1994-99 and 1999-2004; married 1972 Svetlana Iradionovna Dzhergenia (one daughter); died Moscow 4 March 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor