Vladislav Ardzinba, 1st Abkhazia leader

By Ruslan Khashig
Associated Press / March 5, 2010

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SUKHUMI, Georgia - Vladislav Ardzinba, who led the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia to de facto independence through a bloody war and ethnic cleansing, died yesterday, his doctor said. He was 64.

Mr. Ardzinba died in a Moscow clinic, Anzor Gooz said without specifying the cause of death.

The Abkhazian president hailed Mr. Ardzinba’s role in the nation’s history. “His service to Abkhazian people was boundless,’’ Sergei Bagapsh told the Interfax news agency.

Russia recognized Abkhazia after the 2008 war with Georgia over another breakaway province, South Ossetia. The United States and the European Union consider both provinces an “integral’’ part of Georgia.

Mr. Ardzinba was a controversial figure criticized for his autocratic policies, poor human rights record, and determination to secure Abkhazian independence that led to what Georgian leaders called a genocide.

In 1989, Mr. Ardzinba, a prominent scholar who specialized in ancient Middle Eastern history and mythology, became a lawmaker in the Soviet Union’s first democratically elected Parliament.

A year later he was elected chairman of Abkhazia, an autonomous province of ethnically diverse Soviet Georgia.

Abkhazia lies on the Black Sea coast, and its subtropical climate and numerous resorts attracted tens of thousands of Soviet tourists.

The 1991 Soviet collapse and the increasingly nationalist policies of the Georgian government led to disagreements between the central government and its autonomous republics that exploded into a civil war.

In 1992, Mr. Ardzinba proclaimed Abkhazia’s independence saying that he was “strong enough’’ to fight Georgia, and actively recruited mercenaries from neighboring Chechnya.

One of the recruits was Shamil Basayev, who later led Chechen separatists and was dubbed Russia’s most wanted terrorist.

By late 1993, the Georgian Army left Abkhazia, and Mr. Ardzinba’s government orchestrated a massive ethnic cleansing campaign that resulted in expulsion of some 250,000 ethnic Georgians, more than half of Abkhazia’s population.