So-called presidential elections took place last month in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. The fact that the European Union and the United States rejected them as totally illegitimate, however, did not prevent the proponents of the Abkhaz "cause" from continuing their campaign to achieve recognition as an independent state. Russian ministers, of course, praised the ballot. The international community, however, should not be fooled.
The Abkhaz regime exists only because Russia backs it with military might and financial support. Calls for international recognition conveniently overlook how it was established: through the killing of around 10,000 civilians in the 1990s and the expulsion of more than 300,000 people from Abkhazia over the past two decades.
It is for the international courts to define the legal nature of the atrocities committed by the Abkhaz militia and their Russian allies. But no one should ignore these acts while considering the future of a region that has been forcefully emptied of the overwhelming majority of its population.
The 1992-1993 conflict and the 2008 Russian invasion -- together with the constant harassment and intimidation of the non-Abkhaz civilian population -- have radically altered Abkhazia's demographics. According to Soviet census data, ethnic Abkhaz comprised 17.8 percent of the 525,000 residents of Abkhazia in 1989, while ethnic Georgians accounted for 45.7 percent, numbering roughly 240,000. By 2003, the ethnic Georgian population had decreased by 81 percent to just 46,000 (mostly in the Gali and Tkvarcheli districts); Armenians had been reduced by 41 percent, Russians by 69 percent, Greeks by 87 percent, and others (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, Jews) by 81 percent.
In the same period, the Abkhaz were the only ethnic group whose ranks increased -- from the prewar tally of just 17 percent to about half the population. The outrageous process by which this occurred has been denounced as "ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and many others.
The Georgian side that participated, mostly in the form of militias, in the war that raged during the early 1990s, was also involved -- like the Abkhaz -- in abject crimes. But since then, Georgia, as a government and society, has held its criminals to account. The militias were dissolved and banned, and their leaders jailed. Nothing similar has happened on the Abkhaz side. Nobody was prosecuted, and criminals were rewarded with fame, medals, and stolen property. Not a single person among the Abkhaz presidential candidates has ever even acknowledged -- let alone condemned -- the ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, proponents of the Abkhaz cause ask a powerful question: Why not apply the precedent of Kosovo, which achieved international recognition after a violent separation from Serbia, to Abkhazia?