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The Sukhumi riot was a riot in Sukhumi, Abkhaz ASSR, Georgian SSR, Soviet Union, in July 1989, triggered by an increasing inter-ethnic tensions between the Abkhaz and Georgian communities and followed by several days of street fighting and civil unrest in Sukhumi and throughout Abkhazia.

The riots started as an Abkhaz protest against opening of a Georgian university branch in Sukhumi, and concluded with looting of the Georgian school which was expected to house the new university on July 16, 1989. The ensuing violence quickly degenerated into a large-scale inter-ethnic confrontation. By the time when the Soviet army managed to temporarily bring the situation under control, the riots had produced at least eighteen dead and 448 injured, mostly Georgians, marking the start of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.


The lingering ethnic discord in Abkhazia exacerbated when, on March 18, 1989, the Abkhaz élites, who viewed an increasingly active movement for Georgia's independence as a threat to their political privileges of a "titular minority" and the status of autonomous republic, signed a petition to the central Soviet government at a mass meeting at Lykhny, Abkhazia, demanding the rights to secede from Georgia. The move caused mass protests from the Georgian community, which accounted for by far the largest single group in (45,7%[1]) of the population of the Abkhaz ASSR, and were resolutely opposed to any diminution of their links with the Georgian republic, holding rival demonstrations within Abkhazia and within Georgia proper. The protests climaxed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and evolved into a major anti-Soviet and pro-independence rally on April 9, 1989, which was violently dispersed by the Soviet Interior Ministry troops, resulting in the deaths of twenty, mostly young women, and the injury of hundreds of demonstrators.[2] At a plenum of the Georgian central committee the following day the Communist party first secretary, Jumber Patiashvili, resigned and was replaced by the former head of the Georgian KGB, Givi Gumbaridze.[3] The April 9 tragedy removed the last vestiges of credibility from the Soviet regime in Georgia and pushed many Georgians into radical opposition to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz remained largely loyal to the Soviet rule partly to antagonize the Georgian movement and partly to obtain Moscow’s sympathy towards their cause.

The university controversy

The issue of university had always been very sensitive in Abkhazia. Sukhumi State University was established in 1978 as a part of the concessions towards the Abkhaz secessionist demands, which in its turn was triggered by the Georgian national mobilization in defense of their language and culture. The University had three – Abkhaz, Georgian, and Russian – sectors. However, Georgian students repeatedly complained of discrimination at the hands of their Abkhaz and Russian lectors and administration. Soon after the April 9 events, Georgian students at Abkhaz State University launched a hunger strike, demanding that the Georgian-language sector of their institution be spun off and transformed into a branch of Tbilisi State University. The students' demand was part of a larger Georgian campaign aimed at reviving or establishing separate Georgian cultural institutions in Abkhazia which would be free of any Soviet influence. Earlier, this had led to the division of the Sukhumi soccer team and the theater along ethnic lines. The student movement acquired a widespread support among the Georgian population of Abkhazia, with ethnic Georgian lectors and schoolteachers, and the Sukhumi Subtropics Institute researchers joining them in a strike. The university issue, however, required Tbilisi's approval, and the authorities were reluctant to concede. On May 14, 1989, however, Gumbaridze's government gave in to public pressure and ordered to establish the new Sukhumi branch of Tbilisi State University, leaving the Abkhaz and Russian sectors under the administration of Sukhumi State University.[4] Yet, Abkhaz responded angrily and launched a series of mass demonstrations immediately after the decision. They promptly organized a sit-in in an attempt to block the Georgian preparations for admissions examinations for their new university. Foreseeing the possibility of violence, local officials began a campaign to collect hunting weapons from the population. At the same time, the Abkhaz activists from the recently established nationalist organization Aydgylara ("Popular Forum") filed a complaint to Moscow, reporting that the university crisis was fueled by the Georgian "informals" as anti-Soviet oppositionists were then known. A special commission Supreme Soviet of the USSR launched an investigation of the university dispute in early July and concluded that the Georgian government had no legal right to authorize the new university, prompting an acute reaction in Georgia. Despite that conclusion, and threats by the Abkhaz, the Georgians went ahead with a new entrance exam for the university that was scheduled to be administered on July 15.[4]

The riots

A few days before the scheduled exams, several thousand of Abkhaz organized a mass anti-Georgian rally in Sukhumi. On July 12, 1989, the Aydgylara activists led the demonstrators, including armed groups, into the attack on the building of the local Georgian-language newspaper, forcing it to shut down. Soon, the school building which was expected to house the Georgian university was also surrounded by the crowd. The local militsiya (police) officials ignored calls from desperate employees from the besieged building and replaced, early on July 15, policemen of Georgian nationality guarding the university with Abkhaz officers. The same day, a small police unit sent to Sukhumi from Tbilisi to help restore order was disarmed by the Abkhaz militia without any hindrance from the local police. Meanwhile, Georgians gathered into a counter-rally to prevent the Abkhaz from disrupting the university.

While the reports are conflicting on which group first resorted to violence, with both sides blaming each other of starting fighting, the ensuing events would quickly degenerate into an open inter-ethnic warfare and eventually into the War in Abkhazia. Georgians reported that a group of armed Abkhaz opened fire on the Georgian demonstration in Rustaveli Park, while Abkhaz claimed that they engaged in fighting after an Abkhaz photographer was beaten by Georgians while trying to penetrate the university building. Either way, on late July 16, a crowd of five thousand Abkhaz, many of whom were armed, surged into the building. Several members of the Georgian exam commission were beaten up, and the school was looted.[5]

This set off a chain of events that produced further casualties and destruction as the both sides engaged in armed fighting for several days to come. That evening, Abkhaz and Georgians began mobilizing all over Abkhazia and western Georgia. The Kodori Svans, ethnic Georgian subgroup from northeastern Abkhazia, and Abkhaz from the town of Tkvarcheli clashed in a shooting spree that lasted all night and intermittently for several days afterward. Meanwhile, 30,000 Georgians from western Georgia, particularly from Mingrelia, and the predominantly Georgian Gali district in southern Abkhazia, began marching toward Sukhumi, led by the eminent Soviet-era dissident Merab Kostava. The authorities reported that the Abkhaz crowds attacked police posts to get access to weapons, but evidence suggests that official sympathy prevented the local law enforcement agencies from offering resistance to the "attackers". Moreover, a local procurator in Ochamchire ordered the return of Abkhaz hunting weapons.[4] Hence, the Abkhaz armed groups were able to organize picket and block the Georgian marchers (some of whom were armed as well) at a bridge outside the ethnically mixed town of Ochamchire. Kostava stopped the march, averting more bloodshed, and soon the Soviet Interior troops were invoked to reestablish order.

The July events in Abkhazia left at least eighteen dead and 448 injured, of whom, according to official accounts, 302 were Georgians.[6] Although a continuous presence of the Interior Ministry troops maintained a precarious peace in the region, outburst of violence did occur, and the Soviet government made no progress toward solving any of the interethnic problems.[7] The Georgians suspected the attack on their university was intentionally staged by the Abkhaz secessionists in order to provoke a large-scale violence that would prompt Moscow to declare a martial law in the region, thus depriving the government in Tbilisi of any control over the autonomous structures in Abkhazia. At the same time, they accused the Soviet government of manipulating ethnic issues to curb Georgia's otherwise irrepressible independence movement. On the other hand, the Abkhaz claimed that the new university was an instrument in the hands of Georgians to reinforce their cultural dominance in the region, and continued to demand that the investigation of the July events be turned over to Moscow and that no branch of Tbilisi State University be opened in Sukhumi.[6]

However, as neither side felt strong enough to force the issue militarily at that time, the Georgian-Abkhaz antagonism had largely been relegated to the legislatures by July 1990, making Abkhazia a field of "war of laws" until the armed hostilities broke out in August 1992.[8]


  1. Cornell, Svante E. (2001), Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, p. 156. Routledge (UK), ISBN 0-7007-1162-7.
  2. Barylski, Robert V. (1998), The Soldier in Russian Politics: Duty Dictatorship and Democracy Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, p. 65. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-335-9.
  3. White, Stephen (1993), After Gorbachev, p. 168. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-45896-X.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kaufman, Stuart J. (2001), Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, p. 104-5. Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8736-6.
  5. Beissinger, Mark R. (2002), Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, pp. 301-303. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-00148-X.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Suny, Ronald Grigor (1994), The Making of the Georgian Nation: 2nd edition, p. 399. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-20915-3
  7. Arbatov, Alekseĭ Georgievich (1997), Managing Conflict in the Former Soviet Union: Russian and American Perspectives, p. 374. MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-51093-6.
  8. Coppieters, Bruno (ed., 1996), Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994. Contested Borders in the Caucasus. VUBPress.

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