The former parliament building of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, in the capital city Sukhumi was destroyed during the 1992-1993 war.


Competing Nationalities, Ethnic Confrontations and Unrecognized States: Cases of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia

There are several important aspects of the conflicts prevailing over the Caucasus that mark and shape the region. First, the longstanding historical roots of different and competing nationalisms, the demographic concerns of several parties, and the territorial demands with claims of historical territory compose the basis of the conflicts. Against this background, different actors compete with secessionist demands for the establishment of new sovereign entities, new nation-states, in other words. Then, there are also important and strong third parties that interfere with and influence the trajectory of the conflict and the situation of the conflicting parties. And finally, there are different states, different de facto governments, which are not recognized by the international community. The conflicts seem to be deadlocked after long periods of stagnations and also occasional recommencement of hostilities. The issue of enforced disappearances, therefore, should be tackled within this very complicated context of multi-actors, competing demands and various political entities. This background presents a tremendous impediment crippling any actual possibilities for dealing with enforced disappearances.


Various armed conflicts with different demands for autonomy and secession rose in the Caucasus after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. Following the demise of the USSR, several ethnic tensions and hostilities came about with different demands for self-governance ranging from autonomy to the recognition of collective rights and independent states, and the region witnessed a revival of historical territorial claims. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of these armed conflicts arising from territorial demands. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, in 1992, the Nagorno-Karabakh region became the scene of an intense armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh region, a historically disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was governed by Azerbaijan with strong rejections of Armenia that considers the region its own due to its ethnic composition and claims that Armenians were the original inhabitants of the region. The armed conflict began in 1992 and lasted until 1994 with a record number of casualties, forced migration, displacement, executions and enforced disappearances. “The conflict, for which there is still no final settlement, is essentially a conflict between two principles: territorial integrity and self-determination. During the armed conflict, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolutions 822 (1993), 853 (1993), 874 (1993) and 884 (1993) calling on Armenia and Azerbaijan to restore peace, protect civilians and liberate the territories occupied in the course of the conflict. Also confirmed in these Resolutions are the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and other states of the region. Major parts of these Resolutions have not yet been implemented.”1 A government of Nagorno-Karabakh had been established by ethnic Armenians with its capital in Khankendi/Stepanakert, a government that is not recognized by any of the member states of Council Europe but has strong political, economic and military ties with Armenia. Also, according to the report of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, “Armenia has soldiers stationed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the surrounding occupied districts. It is in these areas that most of the missing disappeared during the conflict.”2

Persons displaced by the Karabakh War (Photolur)
Persons displaced by the Karabakh War (Photolur)

The conflict in Georgia is two-folded: there is the conflict of Abkhazia and the conflict of South Ossetia. The war in Abkhazia, which began in August 1992 and lasted for 13 months, occurred between the Georgian government and the separatist forces of ethnic Abkhazians. The main demand was greater autonomy for the Abkhazian population in Georgia which was refused by the Georgian state. “[…] a cease-fire was signed in July 1993, which was broken by the Abkhazian army which recaptured Sukhumi on 27 September 1993 causing a massive exodus of Georgians. A new cease-fire was signed on 14 May 1994. Abkhazia is not recognized by any Council of Europe member state. Most of the missing from the conflict disappeared in the region of Abkhazia.”3

Azerbaijani warriors, 1992. (Ilgar Jafarov)
Azerbaijani warriors, 1992. (Ilgar Jafarov)
Mother is in mourning for her son. New Athos, Abkhazia. (Olga Ingurazova)
Mother is in mourning for her son. New Athos, Abkhazia. (Olga Ingurazova)
Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives during 1991-1994. (AFP/Alexander Nemenov)
Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in a war that claimed some 30,000 lives during 1991-1994. (AFP/Alexander Nemenov)
The wife of a missing person and her grandson water a tree planted in memory of their missing husband and great-grandfather. (Icrc/H.Galstyan)
The wife of a missing person and her grandson water a tree planted in memory of their missing husband and great-grandfather. (Icrc/H.Galstyan)

Finally, the conflict of South Ossetia between South Ossetians and Georgians that broke out in 1991 caused to many refugees to flee the region and a large number of the population left to North Ossetia. In 1992 a ceasefire was accepted by Georgia. “The mix of Georgian-inhabited and Ossetian-inhabited communities being governed by the separatist ‘administration’ and Georgian authorities respectively in noncontiguous territorial entities makes solving the issue of the missing particularly complicated.”4 The Georgian government maintains its claim to the territory of South Ossetia despite the existence of the South Ossetian government. “In 2004, the Georgian government began intermittent efforts to close the trade with the separatist [South Ossetian] region, and in 2008, (…) Georgia attempted to reclaim the territory by military force.”5 This time, a new Russia-Georgia conflict occurred. The conflict between Georgia, Russia, the South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who were backed up by Russia, took place between 7 and 12 August 2008 following a period of worsening relations between Russia and Georgia. The recommencement of the conflict in 2008 worsened the situation and triggered a new wave of enforced disappearances in Georgia.6

A common feature of these conflicts where enforced disappearances occurred is characterized by the existence of de facto governments, which are officially recognized by a sovereign state. Academics focusing on unrecognized states underline some similarities among different examples by an analysis of different entities. Firstly, these unrecognized states are all faced with a systemic hostility to secession characterized by the refusal of foreign states to recognize a seceding entity unless the home state recognizes it first.7 Secondly, “most unrecognized states are low-income countries” and with the added cost of non-recognition, these entities are “characterized by a lack of public investment in infrastructure and education. They also face severe brain drain and a lack of private investment caused by the absence of security and restrictions on trade.”8 Therefore, the existence of “foreign patrons” providing economic, military and political resources to these unrecognized states is crucial. Russia is the foreign patron of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgia since it sees these unrecognized states “as an efficient mechanism for imposing costs on the home state”; while Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh with the “hope of eventual annexation of the disputed territory”.9

The power relations in the frozen conflicts of the Caucasus were reshaped on August 26, 2008, when Russia recognized two new “independent” Abkhazian and South- Ossetian entities, effectively changing the rules of play and massively augmenting the political tension in the region.10 All these factors have complicated a picture that was already difficult, militarized and violent.

Patterns of Crime

The exact number of missing persons who were disappeared in the context of the conflicts in the Caucasus is still unknown. There are different numbers and lists claimed by different states, de facto states and governments and other international or national bodies, which are all tentative. Moreover, in order to find out the exact number of the missing, a joint collaboration and cooperation that includes all parties of the conflict should be implemented. Due to the over-politicization of the issue, however, a joint collaboration and cooperation to draft the lists of the disappeared are yet to be established despite several attempts. According to the report of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, as of 2007, a total of 7,643 persons remain missing, including 4,604 Azerbaijanis and 947 Armenians, from the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region; 1,763 Georgians and 197 Abkhaz from the conflict over the Abkhazia region; and 10 Georgians and 122 South Ossetians from the conflict over the South Ossetia region.11 These numbers were provided after a careful review and crosscheck with the numbers of different governments, de facto governments, and international bodies.

One should add to this number, the persons who were disappeared in the context of the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008. Human Rights Center reports that according to the data provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, in 2008 the Ministry registered 310 facts of people missing. The report of the Human Rights Center also states that “these figures do not reflect the missing people from the conflict regions (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), where the number is much higher”.12 Also, considering that all these numbers are tentative and do not reflect the accurate number, we only have an approximate knowledge of the magnitude of the missing and the disappeared.

Most of the disappeared are armed or civilian individuals who had been abducted in the context of the conflict by different authorities such as sovereign states, unrecognized de facto governments, or different armed forces. In most of the cases, there were no news from these individuals who were abducted during the conflict. Given the huge lack of data on the whereabouts of the missing due to the absence of collaboration and cooperation and accurate lists of the disappeared and executed, the hope that the missing may still be alive is widespread among the families of the disappeared. The Rapporteur of the report of the Committee on Migration states: “While the concerns of families differed from country to country, the overwhelming issue was the need to establish the fate of the missing. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, the hope that some of the missing were still alive was still real for many of the families. In Georgia, by comparison, there was a much greater level of acceptance that the missing were no longer alive and importance was placed on identifying grave sites and the process of return of the remains of the missing.”13

The identification efforts in various burial and grave sites are conducted at very different levels in each country. According to the report, in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the process of identifying, mapping and preserving the burial sites is in its infancy.14 The situation stems from the fact that the authorities do not have the necessary information about the burial sites and can only have such information through a real, concrete and joint collaboration between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The reports state that in Georgia, the situation is more advanced. There are some discovered burial sites and graves in different cities where the remains have been properly identified. Moreover, the Georgian Minister of Refugees and Accommodation has informed the Rapporteur that “[…] the Georgian side knows where the missings are and has the technical expertise and funds to deal with the issue as long as there is the political will on the side of the Abkhaz to facilitate the process. The Minister also made it clear that transfer of information on missing persons will take place with the ‘administration’ in Abkhazia without pre-condition.”15

None of the countries have an appropriate domestic legal framework that defines the crime of enforced disappearances, provides a full-fledged reparation or governs a program of compensation.

Legal Situation

None of the countries have an appropriate domestic legal framework that defines the crime of enforced disappearances, provides a full-fledged reparation or governs a program of compensation. In Georgia, for instance, enforced disappearances are not defined under the Georgian criminal code per se and the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators may only be triggered under the provision of prohibiting illegal deprivation of liberty.16 The situation is more or less the same in the other contexts; the legal domestic contexts need to be re-designed with a consideration of the needs of the families of the disappeared and through a regional joint effort. That is why in Resolution no. 1553, the Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly emphasizes that the issue of the disappeared cannot be solved via unilateral attempts but requires joint efforts and calls on all parties to “provide for an appropriate domestic legal framework to clarify the legal status to guarantee the interests of all missing persons and to provide for appropriate legal and administrative measures to meet the legal and material needs of family members and dependants, covering such matters as the custody of the children of missing persons, inheritance rights, remarriage rights, pension rights and entitlements to public assistance.”17

Despite the legal lacunae in the region at large, there are, commissions established in every country. In Armenia, a State Commission on Issues of War Prisoners, Hostages and the Missing Persons was established in 2000 headed by the minister of defense with the participation of representatives from different ministries, and one representative of non-governmental organizations (NGO). According to the report of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, a working group, including an archeologist, forensic expert, psychologist, and computer specialist were established to engage in fact-finding.18 However, the working group appears to be nonfunctional and the commission’s work needs to be supplemented by cooperation with Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, an official commission entitled the State Commission for Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons in Azerbaijan was founded in 1993 to locate and identify the missing and to arrange the release of war prisoners. In this commission, there are no representatives of NGOs or the families of the missing. Nevertheless, this commission seems to be relatively effective in the Azerbaijani context. According to the authorities, the commission has clarified the fate of 407 individuals.19 The Azerbaijani commission has also been successful in securing the release of 1,381 individuals during the period of 1998 – 2006. And finally, there is a separate commission on missing persons set up in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that has good cooperation with the Armenian commission but no cooperation with the Azerbaijani commission.20

In Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well, states and de facto governments have founded different commissions. In Georgia, an official commission on missing persons was established in 1996 and in 2005 was transferred under the wing of the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation.21 There are also commissions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, however, they seem to remain nonoperational and pending. Coordination, exchange of information and knowledge, and collaboration among these commissions are of crucial importance for creating a concrete and effective impact. It seems that such collaboration and coordination is hard to achieve due to the influences of the fluctuating political context, the conditionality in information exchange, and the lack of a working code/ethics despite a number of preliminary meetings held between the Georgian and Abkhazian commissions as well as the South Ossetian and Georgian commissions.

Memorialization Efforts

In the most comprehensive report drafted on the missing in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the Rapporteur states that he met with over 60 members of families of the disappeared and “was struck by the number of requests of families for greater recognition to be given to the memory of the missing, including through the building of proper memorials and the creation of official lists of the missing.”22 Even though some steps have been taken by different states and governments, the commemorations for the missing seem to be trapped in the official, nationalistic and militaristic discourses of each country instead of adopting a more democratic, pluralistic and inclusive approach. The monuments, museums and memorials are mostly constructed for combatants, martyrs, and heroes who lost their lives or had been disappeared in the defense of their homeland. There are also initiatives and associations of the families of the disappeared like Mothers of Abkhazia, which, in most of the cases, work together with their states or de facto governments. The tone of nationalism and the efforts of appropriation of the missing by the official discourse would lead one to expect full collaboration on the part of the state with these civil initiatives, however, the Rapporteur states that they have heard a number of complaints from the families concerning “the failure of the authorities and ‘administrations’ to respond to letters, to support initiatives of families of the missing, to include representatives of families of the missing in structures dealing with the missing and also to commemorate or be represented at meetings commemorating the missing.”23 Moreover, the states or governments, apart from some preliminary efforts, did not properly tackle the various needs of the families such as psychological assistance, economic reparations, social rights and expectations.

A family member of the disappeared, Nagorno-Karabakh. (ICRC/A.Karamyan)
A family member of the disappeared, Nagorno-Karabakh. (ICRC/A.Karamyan)

There have been important efforts for the organization of joint meetings between different groups of family initiatives; although few and far between, meetings have taken place between Armenian and Azerbaijani families and between Georgian and Abkhazian families. These efforts are crucial for building a joint memory that will be open to different voices and narratives from the region. Assessing the success of these meetings, the Rapporteur has observed the following: “Families have understandably had high hopes of finding information about their relatives, but have been frustrated by the enormity of the task at hand. Families have also found the reception and communication with families on opposite sides not always easy, with tensions rising to the surface. Notwithstanding the difficulties of these meetings, family members of the missing were anxious to have the opportunity of holding joint meetings and visiting places where they believed their family members were held, perished or went missing.”24 An inclusive, pluralistic and multi-dimensional memory work might be possible only by increasing the number and frequency of these meetings.

Individual Story

The International Committee of the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the key actors in the Caucasus region with its persistent work, balanced language and careful efforts for supporting the relatives of the missing. The organization has been present in the region ever since the onset of the conflicts. As of 2018, it has offices in Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi and also a permanent presence in the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.25

The Rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population recognizes the ICRC’s positive and constructive role in the Caucasus region: “It has played a central and important role in helping to solve the issue of the missing. It has contributed to the identification, exchange and return of prisoners, hostages and the missing in the region. While the ICRC has been the focal point and assisted many families in the region looking for missing relatives, the ICRC takes great care in clarifying that it is the responsibility of the authorities and ’administrations’ to solve the issue of the missing and assist the families.”26

In Georgia, for instance, the ICRC managed to establish concrete and permanent mechanisms in 2010 “for clarifying the fate of persons missing in relation to the armed conflicts of the 1990s and August 2008, and their aftermaths”.27 Ms. Bilijana Milosevic, head of the ICRC mission in Georgia, points out that “between 2013 and 2015, the human remains of 162 individuals were recovered from 22 gravesites located throughout the region; 81 of the remains have so far been identified and handed over to their families”.28

She also emphasizes that “the ICRC is directly involved in all stages of the process. Gathering and consolidating information on gravesite locations and collecting antemortem data and biological reference samples from the families of missing persons are essential for the purpose of forensic human
identification.” Moreover, the ICRC also works with a team of Argentinian forensic experts to facilitate the identification of human remains.

In addition, the ICRC provides support for the families of missing persons to meet their psychological, legal, administrative and economic needs. “The Georgia Red Cross Society, local non-governmental organizations and a number of enthusiastic individuals also lend support. To date, more than 1,100 families of missing persons in Georgia have benefited from ICRC micro-economic initiative projects, improving their livelihoods and helping them to become self-sufficient.”29 This picture illustrates the importance of international bodies and their efforts, especially in contexts where the states are unwilling or unable to support the families of the disappeared.


Graham, Benjamin A. T., and Bern Horne. “Unrecognized States: A Theory of Self-Determination and Foreign Influence.” SSRN Electronic Journal (2012): 1-44. Determination_and_Foreign_Influence.

Human Rights Center. Background Note on Enforced Disappearances in Georgia (2005-2010). Accessed October 1, 2018.

Merlin, Aude. “North Caucasus since the Russian-Georgian War of Summer 2008: between Endogenous Conflicts and Regional Instability.” ISPI – Policy Brief, no. 159 (October 2009): 1-6.

Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly. Missing persons in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia from the conflicts over the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Resolution no. 1553 (2007).

Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population. Missing persons in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia from the conflicts over the Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Council of Europe: Parliamentary Assembly, 7 March 2007.