The last decade of the 20th century proved to be extremely tense for Georgia. Ethnic conflicts and civil wars, combined with severe economic and political crises, had devastated the country, turning it from one of the most prosperous Soviet republic into one of the poorest and underdeveloped states in Europe. Georgia’s political development during these years of turmoil and her struggle to maintain independence vis-à-vis the neo-imperialist aspirations of Russia, are very complicated and difficult to illustrate.
The success of the Georgian national-liberation movement, which culminated in the Georgian declaration of independence in 1991, soon proved to be bittersweet. President Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s anti-Russian and nationalistic policies, and increasingly authoritarian rule led to an acute political conflict in Georgia in 1990-1991. The government adopted the doctrine of “hosts and guests” and threatened national minorities residing in Georgia. Gamsakhurdia himself saw enemies everywhere around him and denounced his political opponents as “agents and stooges of the Kremlin.” The new president’s erratic policies soon led to the resignation of several key government members, including Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua and Foreign Minister Giorgi Khoshtaria.
In the fall of 1991, demonstrations against Gamsakhurdia’s government regularly took place in Tbilisi. Georgian society, including national security forces, became split into two opposing sides. As clashes escalated in Tbilisi, Gamsakhurdia declared a state of emergency and cracked down on the opposition. Some units of the National Guard, led by Tengiz Kitovani, withdrew to the outskirts of the Georgian capital, where they defied orders to disband and began preparations for a military coup. Gamsakhurdia’s former allies joined forces with the opposition, which now included the National Independence Party (Irakli Tserteli), Popular Front (Nodar Natadze), Rustaveli Society (Akaki Bakradze), National Democratic Party (Giorgi Chanturia), etc.
In late December 1991, Kitovani’s forces launched an assault on Tbilisi and were supported by the Mkhedrioni paramilitary units led by Jaba Ioseliani. By 22 December, the rebels besieged the Parliament building, where Gamsakhurdia and his loyal troops put up a fierce resistance. The resulting fighting led to many deaths and destruction of the central district of Tbilisi. On 6 January 1992, Gamsakhurdia finally broke through the blockade and escaped to Armenia and then to Chechnya, where he organized his government in exile. Kitovani and Ioseliani, with support of former Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua, established an interim government, the Military Council. To legalize their coup against a democratically elected president, the members of the Military Council invited Eduard Shevardnadze, whose international clout was imperative to decriminalize the new authorities. In March 1992, Shevardnadze became the head of the State Council.
Meanwhile, the situation in Georgia escalated and led to ethno-territorial conflicts that plunged the country in the abyss of civil war and economic collapse. In February 1992, fighting intensified in South Ossetia, where Russia provided covert support for separatists. Shevardnadze was forced to make concessions and signed an armistice in July 1992 that established the Joint Control Commission to regulate the conflict. Fighting in Ossetia was barely over when tensions in secessionist Abkhazia, also supported by Russia, led to violence in August 1992. Georgian authorities dispatched the National Guard and paramilitary units and the sporadic clashes soon escalated into a major war between the Russian-backed separatists and Georgian forces. Within a year, Georgian troops were routed and some 300,000 Georgian and other residents of Abkhazia expelled in a widespread ethnic cleansing of the region.
The entanglement of official Tbilisi in Abkhazia encouraged Zviad Gamsakhurdia to return to Georgia, where he rallied forces in his native region of Mingrelia (Samegrelo) and in Tbilisi. In June 1992, Zviadists seized the state television center in Tbilisi, but were driven out by the National Guard. In 1993, the pro-Gamsakhurdia forces under Colonel Loti Kobalia launched a surprise attack against the government troops in Mingrelia and occupied strategic positions in the regions. Their actions played a crucial role in the failure of Georgian forces in Abkhazia since reinforcements were delayed or diverted to fight the insurgency. Threatened on both fronts, Shevardnadze was forced to make concessions to Russia and join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in return for Russian military support against the rebels. In October 1993, Georgian government forces, supported by the Russian troops, launched a counterattack against Gamsakhurdia’s forces; the Russian navy landed troops to secure the strategic port of Poti. Heavy fighting took place around Samtredia, Khobi, Senaki and Zugdidi; the combat was particularly savage in Mingrelia (Samegrelo) proper, where the Mkhedrioni paramilitary units went on a rampage. These atrocities contributed to the eventual antagonism of Mingrelians towards Shevardnadze and his government. By December 1993, most of Mingrelia was under government control and the pro-Gamsakhurdia leaders imprisoned; Gamsakhurdia himself was found dead under suspicious circumstances (the official version supports a suicide) near the village of Jikhashkari.
The civil war remains one of the most dramatic and decisive events in history of modern Georgia. A prosperous Soviet republic, Georgia was completely devastated during the three years of conflict, with the economy and industry shattered and the population suffering from gas and electric outages. The collapse of the central authorities led to the rise of numerous criminal gangs while the activities of Mkhedrioni paramilitary units affected thousands of citizens throughout the country. The civil war certainly contributed to the separatist movements in Ossetia and Abkhazia by radicalizing the sides involved in this conflicts and diverting much-needed Georgian resources. Other regions, notably Adjara and Javakheti, became increasingly defiant of the central authorities. Furthermore, Georgian society itself became split into two irreconcilable sides that became engaged in a vicious struggle for the next decade.
As the conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia subsided in 1994, Shevardnadze turned to domestic affairs and sought to restore the central authority that was gravely weakened during the turmoil. Over the next three years, he outmaneuvered his political opponents and consolidated his authority. The once powerful warlords Jaba Ioseliani and Kitovani were imprisoned and paramilitary units banned. In August 1995, a new Constitution was adopted establishing the institute of the Presidency and the Parliament. In 1995, and later in 2000, Shevardnadze was elected President of Georgia, though elections were marred by claims of widespread fraud and vote rigging. In August 1995, Shevardnadze barely survived an assassination attempt during the official signing ceremony of the Constitution on 29 August and used this event to get rid of his opposition. In early February 1998 Shevardnadze survived another attempt on his life and investigations alleged Zviadist involvement, leading to increased persecutions of Gamsakhurdia’s supporters. In October 1998, a two-day armed insurrection by pro-Gamsakhurdia troops threatened to destabilize Georgia but ended after the mutineers surrendered to government forces.
Shevardnadze’s presidency constitutes an important period in the recent history of Georgia. On his arrival, the country was ravaged by a civil war and ethnic conflicts, the economic and industrial infrastructure was largely destroyed. Georgian society itself was demoralized, divided into factions and dominated by warlords. Using his former contacts in the diplomatic world, Shevardnadze established close relations with the United States, which he perceived as a counterbalance to the Russian influence in Transcaucasia. Georgia soon became a major recipient of U.S. foreign and military aid, signed a strategic partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and even declared its goal of joining NATO and the European Union (EU). One of Shevardnadze’s major achievements was showing to Western and American policymakers that Georgia can serve as a secure East-West energy corridor, which allowed Tbilisi to secure a multi-billion oil pipeline project (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) to transport oil from the Caspian Sea to the European markets. In 1999, Georgia celebrated another important success as it joined the Council of Europe and, in 2000, Tbilisi became the 137th member of the World Trade Organization. In 2002, Georgia announced its resolve to seek full membership in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, becoming a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace.
However, Shevardnadze’s relative successes in foreign affairs were more than outweighed by domestic failures. While economic reforms were launched, they were not far-reaching enough and were often erratically enforced. The shadow economy accounted for as much as 60 percent of the country’s economic product as tax evasion, smuggling, extortion, bribery and rigged privatization became pervasive. Shevardnadze was unable to restore central authority in some regions, especially in Adjara. Supporters of Gamsakhurdia and other dissidents were persecuted and many imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Corruption became so rampant that Georgia became known as one of the world's most corrupt countries. Shevardnadze's closest advisers and associates, including members of his family, exerted disproportionate economic power and controlled large portions of the oil trade and media holdings. In 2001, Shevardnadze began an extensive anti-corruption reform but it proved to be an empty gesture. In October 2001, public discontent led to protests in Tbilisi, after Rustavi 2, an independent television station that had been critical of the government, was raided by security officials. Public demonstrations forced Shevardnadze to announce the dismissal of his entire government in November. In April 2002, economic woes were worsened by a natural disaster as a powerful earthquake rocked Tbilisi, causing extensive damage to some 2,500 buildings.
Irritated by Georgia’s pro-Western course, Russia actively encouraged separatism in Abkhazia and Ossetia while effectively declaring an economic blockade that resulted in widespread power and gas cuts in Georgia. The escalating war in Chechnya further deteriorated Russo-Georgian relations as Russia accused Shevardnadze of harboring Chechen guerrillas. After the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, Georgia became a strategic partner in the American war against international terrorism. Tbilisi offered Georgian airspace and airfields to America during the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and contributed troops to the international contingent in Iraq. In 2002, Shevardnadze turned to the U.S. for assistance to enhance Georgia’s military preparedness and a special Train and Equip Program to train the Georgian army was launched with the financial backing from Washington.
The charges of dishonesty and fraud left Shevardnadze’s vulnerable during the Parliamentary elections of 2003. The officially announced results of this election favored Shevardnadze’s ruling party but were immediately denounced as rigged and unfair by the opposition and international election observers. This caused massive demonstrations, popularly known as the Rose Revolution, demanding the resignation of the president. Led by Shevardnadze’s one-time protégés, Zurab Zhvania, Nino Burdjanadze and Mikhail Saakashvili, the protesters broke into Parliament on 21 November 2003, forcing Shevardnadze to escape with his bodyguards. Pressured by foreign powers, Shevardnadze announced his resignation on 23 November and was replaced as president on an interim basis by Burdjanadze.
Thus, a powerful coalition of reformists headed by Saakashvili, Burdjanadze and Zhvania found itself at the helm of the state. In January 2004, Saakashvili won a landslide victory in the presidential elections. He pushed through constitutional amendments that strengthened the powers of the president and restored the post of prime minister for his ally Zurab Zhvania. Saakashvili’s first great success came in removing Aslan Abashidze, the defiant leader of Adjara, and bringing this region back under control of the central authorities. He sought to reconcile Georgian society by rehabilitating former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and releasing Gamsakhurdia’s supporters who were imprisoned by the Shevardnadze government. Saakashvili also pushed through the change of state symbols and adopted new national flag and coat of arms in 2004; furthermore, in a bid to portray Georgia as a European state, the new administration had ordered the flag of European Union to be flown together with the state flag at government buildings.
Economic reforms and improvements in living standards are of great priority since almost half of the population of Georgia lives below the poverty line. The low rate of economic growth places Georgia as 100th out of the 177 countries listed in the United Nation Development Program's Human Development Report of 2005, significantly lower than most of the transitional countries. A growing gap between the rich and poor is also of great concern. Saakashvili’s government directed its efforts to fighting the widespread black economy, reforming tax codes, imposing more rigorous tax-collection and making the country more attractive for foreign investment. Georgia’s economic reforms and new round of privatization earned praise from the international community and helped secure new credit lines from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The military forces were substantially modernized and increased. More far-reaching, and dramatic, was the new government’s anti-corruption campaign that purged the government bureaucracy of thousands of officials. The family and clan structure of Georgian society continued to facilitate a system in which corruption could easily flourish. Thus, the watchdog Transparency International ranked Georgia on the 124th place (out of 133) in 2003 and on the 133rd place (out of 145) in 2004. It remains to be seen if the new government will be able to eradicate corruption – which is so widespread and deeply rooted in Georgian society – in the short term.
Another priority spelled out by Saakashvili after his election is bringing back the breakaway regions under Georgian authority. After restoring control of Adjara, the new presidency shifted its attention towards the separatist region of South Ossetia, which led to sharp tensions and brief clashes between the two sides. In 2006-2007, Tbilisi supported the establishment of the pro-Georgian forces in South Ossetia, where an alternative government (led by Dmitri Sanakoyev) was formed to counter-balance the separatist authorities. In May-June 2007, the Georgian government made a major push to have international community recognize Sanakoyev's government, a first step in the potential conflict resolution. In late June 2007, Sanakoyev made an unprecedented three-day visit to Brussels as part of Tbilisi’s campaign to align conflict resolution in Georgia with European, rather than Russian, interests.
In Abkhazia, after years of status-quo, political situation has slightly changed in the fall of 2006, when the Georgian authorities carried out a security operation against a rebel warlord in the Upper Abkhazia and, after securing the region, moved the seat of the Abkhazian government-in-exile there. This decision caused an outcry on the part of the Abkhaz separatists, as well as in Russia, who denounced Tbilisi's actions as a first step towards forceful resolution of the conflict. Since then, the Abkhaz authorities refuse to participate in diplomatic negotiations until Tbilisi agrees to remove the Abkhazian government-in-exile from the upper Abkhazia.
The issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are very sensitive indeed and cannot be seen separately from the relations with Russia, which exerts great influence in the separatist regions; as former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze once commented, "the keys to the conflict resolution in these regions lay in the Russian hands." Yet, Relations with Russia remain of major concern in light of Russia's continuing political, economic and military support of separatist authorities in both regions. The new government of Georgia pursues a strongly pro-Western, particularly pro-US, foreign policy and seeks Georgian membership in the NATO and the EU. After the start of the American war in Iraq, Georgia joined the coalition forces and remains one of the major contributors to the coalition in terms of a country's per capita troop deployment. In 2004, the North Atlantic Council of the NATO approved the Individual Partnership Action Plan of Georgia (IPAP). In May 2005, Georgia was visited by the U.S. President George W. Bush and greeted by tens of thousands of Georgians at the Freedom Square in Tbilisi. With the US backing, Georgia achieved a historic agreement with Russia on the complete withdrawal of Russian military bases by 2008. Such pro-Western overtures only embitter Georgia’s northern neighbor, which still perceives south Caucasia as its sphere of influence and vital to its geo-strategic interests.
In 2006, the Russo-Georgian relations hit a new low. In the spring, in the so-called “wine war,” Russia banned the imports of Georgian wine. The official explanation that the ban was motivated by health concerns was hardly convincing since Georgia had long been supplying the Russian market and sudden detection by the Russians of health hazards in Georgian wine naturally raised eyebrows. Furthermore, the ban was not followed by an order to remove Georgian wine already in Russia, which would have been a logical move to protect the Russian consumers from a detected health concern. Ironically, even after the ban, Georgian wine products continued to appear suggesting that a significant portion of the Georgian wine was produced/falsified inside Russia. Still, Russia's decision to close its market had a serious effect on the Georgian winemakers, who scrambled to seek new markets for their products. Despite initial difficulties, the Russian ban may end up benefiting the Georgian wine business since it was compelled to diversify its markets and introduce Georgian wine to new regions.
The Russo-Georgian squabbles were not limited to the "wine war" alone but the intrastate relations further deteriorated in September/October 2006 when the Georgian government arrested four Russian military officers on charges of espionage; seeking arrest of one more Russian officer, the Georgian authorities surrounded the headquarters of the Russian forces in Transcaucasia located in Tbilisi. This event brought the Russo-Georgian relations to the lowest point in over a decade. In response to Tbilisi's actions, Russia summoned its ambassador to Georgia and withdrew almost all of its embassy’s staff, and imposed a series of punitive measures on Georgia, suspending all land, see, and air transportation between Georgia and Russia, banning Georgian exports to Russia, and locating, rounding up, and deporting many legal and illegal Georgian migrants from Russia. Such persecutions led to international outcry condemning Russian authorities for their xenophobic actions.
Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow remain tense, although in June 2007, Presidents Saakashvili and Putin agreed to normalize relations and Russia pledged to lift its sanctions. Yet, another incident in early August revealed the ongoing deep conflict between Russia and Georgia. According to the findings of two international groups of experts, on 6 August, an unidentified aircraft intruded into Georgia’s airspace from Russia, fired anti-radar missile at the Georgian military radar installation and flew back to the Russian Federation. Russia vehemently denied its role in this incident and suggested the it was staged by the Georgian authorities for propaganda purposes. The incident further highlighted the gap between Russia and the US, when the official Washington sided with Tbilisi and denounced Russian actions.
Historical Dictionary of Georgia
by Alexander Mikaberidze (Author)
Series: Historical Dictionaries of Europe (Book 50)
Hardcover: 784 pages
Publisher: Scarecrow Press (March 16, 2007)
By 1920, Soviet Russia actively sought to extend its hegemony to south Caucasia. Sergo Ordzhonikidze coordinated the Bolshevik policies in the region and was a fervent exponent of sovietization of Georgia. In April 1920, the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan and established Soviet authority in Baku. In May, the Bolsheviks crossed the Georgian state border but were halted in their advance while the diplomatic negotiations soon led to Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s independence in May 1920. Nevertheless, in November of the same year, the Red Army occupied Armenia, where another Soviet government was proclaimed. The Bolshevik authorities in Moscow then successfully negotiated with Turkey and other powers promising concessions in return for their approval for an eventual attack on Georgia.
On 11 February 1921, the Bolsheviks incited an uprising in the Lori district of Georgia and, portraying it as the workers’ insurrection against the Menshevik government, the 11th Red Army quickly came to its aid, invading Georgia on 12 February. In late February, the 9th Red Army invaded Georgia through Abkhazia and additional Red Army brigades marched through strategic passes across the Caucasus. On 24 February, after failing to halt the Bolshevik advance, the Menshevik forces under General Giorgi Kvinitadze left Tbilisi for a last stand in Batumi; the Bolsheviks occupied the Georgian capital the following day. The situation was further complicated by Turkey’s involvement in the war as Turkish troops attempted to capture the strategic port of Batumi. Although General Kvinitadze routed the Turks in Adjara, the Menshevik government was unable to turn the tide of the war against the Bolsheviks and emigrated to Europe. By March 1921, Georgia was effectively under control of the Bolsheviks.
The government in exile continued its struggle for decades to come, but it was an uphill battle. Some Georgian statesmen succumbed to the pressure and committed suicide while others were assassinated by the Soviet secret service. In 1932, the Soviet Union and France signed an agreement that banned anti-Soviet émigré groups in France and led to the closure of the remaining Georgian embassy in Paris. The émigré community, however, continued its resistance. In 1934, émigré politicians from Georgia, Azerbaijan and North Caucasus organized the Council of Transcaucasian Confederation that was to coordinate national-liberation movements in their respective countries. In late 1930s and early 1940s, several Georgian émigré organizations blossomed in Germany and the Baltic states, including the Tetri Giorgi paramilitary unit.
After the coup against the Menshevik government, the Bolsheviks established the Revolutionary Committee under Philipe Makharadze as the supreme authority in Georgia. In February 1922, first congress of Soviets of Georgia was summoned in Tbilisi and adopted the Constitution of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The new authorities struggled to establish themselves as a guerilla war began in various regions. In the summer of 1921, a rebellion in Svaneti was harshly suppressed but instigated further anti-Bolshevik outbreaks. In 1922, guerrilla units, led by Kakutsa Cholokashvili and his shepitsulebi (men of the oath), operated in Kartli, Guria, Khevsureti, Kakheti and Mingrelia. The same year, Georgian political parties united their efforts forming an Independence Committtee and a host of regional organizations. However, the underground organization had been penetrated by the secret police and, in February 1923, police arrested committeee members and shut down the underground press. In the subsequent repriasals, hundreds Georgians, including Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ambrosi, were arrested and exiled, numerous churches and monasteries closed. In August 1924, a major uprising began in Georgia but lack of organization and ineffective cooperation between the rebels precipitated their defeat in bloody clashes with the Soviet authorities. The uprising was ruthlessly crushed and the Bolsheviks seized an opportunity to exterminate any potential threats, exiling or executing hundreds.
The sovietization of Georgia under Joseph Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze was so brutal that even Lenin opposed its radicalism in the so-called Georgian Affair, but the process continued after his death unabated. Collectivization was carried out ruthlessly throughout the 1920s and, in the 1930s, widespread purges of Georgian society were perpetrated by Stalin’s local lieutenant Lavrentii Beria, head of the Soviet state security apparatus in Georgia. The impact of sovietization on the Georgian culture and social environment was severe and it inculcated a conformist tendency with the Soviet Communist Party among the survivors. Between 1922 and 1936, Georgia was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (ZKFSR), which also included the neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1936, the new Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) made Georgia one of the constituent republics of the USSR.
Despite its oppressive nature, the new Soviet regime also brought rapid development of Georgian science, culture and economy. Georgia’s agricultural output greatly increased and new industrial facilities were built in Rustavi, Chiatura, Zestaponi, Batumi, Tkibuli and others towns. Several hydro-electric stations, notably Zemo-Avchala and Rioni, were constructed and provided much-needed electricity. The railroad network was repaired and expanded throughout the country. After Tbilisi State University was established by the Menshevik government in 1918, the Soviet authorities founded the Georgian Polytechnic Institute, Georgian Agricultural Institute, Tbilisi Medical Institute, pedagogical institutes in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi, Institute of Mathematics, Institute of Physics, Tbilisi Academy of Arts, etc. In 1946, the Georgian Academy of Sciences was established as the premier center of scientific research in Georgia. In 1930-1934, universal mandatory education was introduced and three stage education system established.
Georgians in World War II
During the World War II, Georgia mobilized almost 700,000 Georgian residents (out of total population of 3.5 million), who served with the Red Army on all fronts of the war; some 350,000 of them perished in the war, exceeding the war losses of such major powers as the United States and Britain. Over 240,000 Georgians received various medals and orders for their actions during the war and 137 of them were conferred the highest award of the Hero of the USSR. The home front concentrated on the production of mineral resources and increased the output of manganese at the Chiatura mining plants, coal at Tkibuli and Tkvarcheli plants and metals at the Zestaponi factory. In 1941, Tbilisi Aviation Factory was established and began producing fighter planes for the Red Army. Georgia also served as an evacuation center for thousands of refugees from German-occupied areas in Byelorussia and Ukraine. In 1943, three Georgian divisions participated in vicious battles in the Crimea and the Caucasus and several Georgian officers rose to prominence, among them Konstantine Leselidze, Vladimir Naneishvili, Ermaloz Koberidze, Porpirius Chanchibadze, etc. Georgians also took active part in the guerilla warfare and commanded units throughout western USSR and Eastern Europe, notably David Bakradze, Ivane Shubitidze and Vladimir Talakvadze’s units in Ukraine and Byelorussia, those of Vladimir Dzneladze and Shalva Kobiashvili in Poland, of Stefane Khatiashvili, Nikoloz Tabagua and Otar Chkhenkeli in France, and of Pore Mosulishvili and Noe Kublashvili in Italy.
At the same time, the Georgians also fought in the ranks of the German Wehrmacht. The Georgian social-democrats, who escaped the rigors of sovietization in Georgia, rallied in Germany and, ignoring the dangers of German national socialism, they sought to use the German war machine to liberate Georgia. Members of the intelligentsia in Georgia also considered cooperating with the Nazi authorities in order to overthrow the Soviet regime. However, the Soviet secret service effectively suppressed them and, between 1941-1942, widespread arrests were made leading to the execution of ringleaders. In 1942-1943, as the number of captured Georgian troops increased, the German command established the so-called Georgian Legion under the leadership of Major General Shalva Maghlakelidze as part of the Eastern Legions (Ostlegionen). The Legion eventually consisted of 8 Georgian battalions participating in campaigns in the Caucasus, Ukraine and Byelorussia; one of them was later deployed on the strategic island of Texel in the German “Atlantic Wall,” where it fought what is often described as Europe's last battle in late May 1945.
After the war, the Soviet authorities intensified political repression on the Georgian intelligentsia, especially the dissident groups that demonstrated nationalistic tendencies. In 1948, several students of Tbilisi State University were arrested for conspiring against the Soviet government and nine of them were sentenced to 25 years in Siberia. On 25 December 1951, some 20,000 Georgians, who allegedly had acted against the Soviet regime, were loaded on railway wagons and resettled to desolate regions of northern Central Asia, where many of them died; the survivors managed to return to Georgia in 1954. In late 1951, at Stalin’s orders, the so-called Mingrelian Case was instigated against Lavrentii Beria and claimed many innocent Georgians who were accused of Mingrelian nationalism and anti-government activities.
Georgia in 1950s through 1970s
The death of Joseph Stalin led to a power struggle in the Kremlin. In the new triumvirate, the Georgian Beria enjoyed enormous power controlling the Ministries of Internal Affairs and of State Security. However, in June 1953, Beria was arrested on charges of foreign espionage and treason and executed. The new Soviet Premier Nikita Khurschev made key changes in the Communist leadership of Georgia, appointing his protégé Vasili Mzhavanadze as the secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party, dismissing the first secretaries in Batumi and Sukhumi and some 2,000 party officials in other positions. Stalin’s death also ushered in the so-called “Thaw” period in the USSR and Khruschev began de-Stalinization process. In February 1956, he made the famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and denounced Stalin’s policies and the “cult of personality.” The speech was supposed to be secret but rumors about its content leaked.
To the majority of Soviet citizens such revelations came as a great surprise and it was particularly true in Georgia, where attacks on Stalin often stressed his ethnicity and gradually evolved into charges against the entire Georgian nation. The Georgian youth, raised under the Stalinist regime, came to idolize the late Soviet leader and Khruschev’s sudden criticism of Stalin was met with deep resentment. Following Khruschev’s speech, on 5 March 1956, a demonstration was organized near the Stalin monument on the bank of the Kura River to mark the third anniversary of Stalin’s death. The situation gradually spiraled out of control and the protesters rapidly grew in numbers, with their slogans becoming more and more radical. Students played an important role in mobilizing demonstrators and pushing a more nationalistic program of demands. As demonstrations paralyzed the entire Tbilisi, the Georgian Communist leadership was unable to cope with situation and turned to the Soviet military for help. On 9 March 1956, the Soviet armed forces opened fire and launched a bloody crackdown on protesters. The exact number of casualties remains unclear but estimates indicate some 150 killed and hundreds more wounded and arrested.
The event was quickly covered up without the rest of the Soviet Union learning about it for years. Following the events of 1956, the issues of the language and culture assumed unprecedented importance in Georgia, where Georgian sense of identity merged with the determination to preserve the Georgian language and culture from foreign domination. Immediately after the massacre, several national-patriotic groups were established. Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia organized the underground Gorgasliani, which began publishing anti-Soviet pamphlets and newspapers. Sighnaghi Youth Guard was set up in Kakheti and published several issues of Simebi, its antiestablishment journal. In 1960s, the Union for the Freedom and Independence of Georgia was established in Tbilisi with the main goal of proclaiming an independent democratic republic.
By the 1970s, the Georgian Communist Party had the highest percentage of members per capita of all the republican Communist Parties. Favoritism and political control facilitated the growth of black marketeering, speculation and corruption. According to the World Bank study, Georgia ranked twelfth poorest of the fifteen Soviet republics in terms of official per capita income, yet savings deposits per capita were sixth highest amongst the republics. Furthermore, bribe taking was rampant in the education system and, based on official statistics, Georgia had one of the highest numbers of advanced degrees awarded per thousand persons, especially in prestigious fields like medicine and law. Many Georgians joined the Party for no other reasons than careerism or opportunism. Party connections not only helped with promotion but also protected those involved in the shadow economy. In fact, the Georgian Communist Party had become so notoriously corrupt that even Leonid Brezhnev’ stagnant regime felt obliged to intervene and promote a new first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze, to clean up its activities.
Shevardnadze's tenure as the first secretary (1972-1985) was marked by a vigorous, at times even ruthless, campaign against both corruption and political opposition. Shevardnadze succeeded in rising industrial and agricultural output and labor productivity in Georgia and, by 1980, Georgia was one of the few republics fulfilling its Five Year Plan targets. However, the emphasis on completion of state plans also resulted in rapid deterioration in the quality of Georgia products, especially tea and wine. Shevardnadze's efficient and heavy-handed methods were particularly effectively in disrupting the Georgian dissident movement, which posed no threat to Soviet power until Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.
Rise of National Liberation Movement
The 1970s also saw a gradual development of the national-liberation movement led by Georgian dissidents, notably Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Merab Kostava. In 1974, the Action Group for Defense of Human Rights was established and, three years later, the Georgian Helsinki Group was founded. The power of Georgian nationalism was revealed in 1978, when the Soviet authorities decided to make an amendment to the Georgian constitution and remove an article affirming Georgian as the sole official state language of the republic. On 14 April 1978, thousands of Georgians rallied in the streets of Tbilisi and their numbers grew by the hour. As the situation escalated, First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze personally met with demonstrators and negotiated a peaceful resolution of situation. The Soviet authorities decided against removing the disputed clause. The events clearly demonstrated the potency of Georgian nationalism and contributed to the increasing popularity of the national-liberation movement.
After Shevardnadze departed to Moscow to take up his post as Soviet foreign minister, his protégé, Jumber Patiashvili, took charge of the Georgian Communist Party. The all-Union policy of glasnost (openness) after 1985 meant that previously dormant nationalist aspirations among the Georgian people began to make themselves heard. By 1987, several groups which presented themselves as cultural but which had a strongly nationalist program had appeared. In fact, such was the popular support for unofficial groups demanding better protection for the environment or Georgian cultural monuments that the Communist Party authorities tried to establish their own parallel organizations to draw off support from the anti-establishment groups. Georgian intellectuals, especially members of the republican Writer’s Union, launched a campaign to assert national prerogatives in the face of perceived threats. They declared that as a result of the imposition of Russian as the medium of interethnic communication throughout the USSR, the Georgian language was denied its natural preeminence within home republic. Furthermore, they stressed that Georgians were forced to disregard their culture and adapt themselves constantly to the Russian language and Russian culture, which became a growing challenge for the minorities within the Republic.
The late 1980s saw dramatic events leading to the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. Communist authorities fell in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria and the process culminated in the unification of Germany in 1989. At the same time, national movements were on the rise within the Soviet Union, particularly in the Baltic States and the Transcaucasia. In November 1988, a massive demonstration gathered in front of government buildings on the Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi protesting proposed amendments to the USSR constitution changing the status of the Georgian language and elevating Russian to the only state language of the republic. Although the amendments were soon dropped, the situation quickly escalated. Tensions between Georgians and Abkhazs spiraled out of control when the Abkhaz nationalists called for Abkhazian independence from Georgia in the early 1989. On 18 March 1989, the Popular Forum of Abkhazia (Aydgilara) organized a demonstration in Lykhny for the restoration of Abkhazia's status as an independent soviet socialist republic (SSR). In response, a series of rallies began on 25 March 1989 in Tbilisi and demands were made to contain the Abkhazian separatists; gradually the calls became more radical and eventually they also included the national independence of Georgia.
The 9th of April Tragedy
On 4 April 1989, some 150 Georgian nationalist activists began a hunger strike in front of the Supreme Soviet at Rustaveli Avenue. They demanded full independence for Georgia and complete integration of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia within Georgia. Two days later, tens of thousands went to the streets of the capital and demonstrated their solidarity. As the rallies increased in size, the Georgian authorities turned to the Soviet military for help. On 9 April 1989, demonstrators were attacked by Soviet troops and, in bloody fighting, 21 demonstrators, mostly women and teens, were killed while hundreds were left sick for weeks and months from toxic gases. The brutality of the Soviet forces against the peaceful demonstrators was recorded on tape and, when broadcasted later that year, it shocked the whole Soviet Union. The tragic events of April only intensified Georgian nationalism and gave greater credibility to the national-liberation movements. The nation united around the cause of independence and, in the months after the tragedy, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi, wearing black as a sign of grief and carrying national banners.
In response to the tragedy of 9 April, the Communist leadership of Georgia was replaced. The new First Secretary Givi Gumbaridze, who replaced Jumber Patiashvili, initially endeavored to calm down the situation but his attempts to delay the first free elections for the Georgian Supreme Soviet scheduled for October 1990 actually played into the hands of the opposition. The opposition parties organized the Committee of National Liberation, which united the Helsinki Union led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia (Kostava died in automobile accident in late 1989), National Democratic Party led by Giorgi Chanturia, Irakli Shengelaia’s Union of National Justice and Irakli Tsereteli’s National Independence Party. In March 1990, a special conference of opposition groups was summoned in Tbilisi and the National Forum was established. However, the opposition parties soon disagreed on a number of issues. More radical groups established Round Table-Free Georgia, uniting the Helsinki Union, Society of St. Ilia the Righteous, the Merab Kostava Society, Traditionalist Union, National-Liberal Union, etc. Other national groups formed a National Congress and began a new campaign for the national independence of Georgia.
In the elections of October 1990, the Round Table-Free Georgia bloc, led by Gamsakhurdia, won a majority of votes and formed the first non-Communist government of Georgia. Gamsakhurdia's supporters now held the majority in the Supreme Soviet and in practice the Communist and other deputies deferred to their proposals for constitutional change. On 14 November 1990, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected chairman of the new Georgian Supreme Soviet. The new Soviet began abolishing the vestiges of the Soviet authorities, adopted the first series of national laws and organized a special commission to draft the new constitution. In March 1991, Georgia boycotted the All-Soviet Union referendum on the preservation of the USSR and held its own referendum on the issue of secession from the Soviet Union, resulting in almost 90 percent voting in favor of independence. At 12:30 p.m. on 9 April 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Georgia adopted the Declaration of Independence of Georgia. Two months later, on 26 May 1991, Gamsakhurdia won the first contested direct elections for the presidency of Georgia, obtaining over 85 percent of the votes cast. It seemed that the goal of independent Georgian republic was finally achieved.
Historical Dictionary of Georgia
by Alexander Mikaberidze (Author)
Series: Historical Dictionaries of Europe (Book 50)
Hardcover: 784 pages
Publisher: Scarecrow Press (March 16, 2007)
The revolutionary upheaval of 1917 in Russia and the collapse of the imperial government created unexpected conditions for the outlying regions. In February 1917, leading Georgian political parties gathered in Tbilisi where the necessity to declare independence became clear. The Russian Provisional Government established the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Ozakom) to govern the region. In November 1917, the first government of the independent Transcaucasia was created in Tbilisi as the Transcaucasian Commissariat replaced Ozakom following the Bolshevik seizure of power in St. Petersburg. Headed by the Georgian Social Democrat Evgeni Gegechkori, the Transcaucasian Commissariat was anti-Bolshevik in its political goals and sought the separation of Transcaucasia from Bolshevik Russia.
In late 1917 and early 1918, the Commissariat took measures to suppress the Bolshevik influence in Georgia and ordered the seizure of the Tbilisi arsenal, the disarming of pro-Bolshevik troops, the closure of Bolshevik newspapers, etc. Among other reforms were the Commissariat’s decree on land, the abolition of social distinction, changes in labor conditions and the circulation of currency (bonds). In February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat surrendered its authority to the Transcaucasian Seim that was to oversee the secession of Transcaucasia from Soviet Russia. Following the Trebizond Peace Talks with the Ottoman Empire, the Transcaucasian Seim proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Federation that united Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, facing the renewed Ottoman attacks and hoping for German help, Georgia soon ceded from the Federation and the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the National Council of Georgia on 26 May 1918.
As the best organized and most numerous political party, the Social Democrats (Menshevik faction) organized the first government of independent Georgia. Based on a multiparty system, the newly established government also included the National-Democratic Party, Social-Federalists, Social-Revolutioneers and other political organizations. Although supporting internationalist ideology, the Social Democrats soon parted with their co-revolutioneers, both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, in Russia. Thus, the actual ideological basis of the Democratic Republic of Georgia became European-style democratic socialism in contrast to the Russian model of socialism and it was oriented towards the middle classes of the Georgian society.
The newly-born Menshevik government faced challenges from every direction. Bolshevik uprisings were instigated in various regions, particularly in Abkhazia and Ossetia, where separatist calls were made. In May-July 1918, the Georgian forces under Giorgi Mazniashvili and Valiko Jugheli defeated the insurgents and restored the central authority in Abkhazia. In 1919-1920, similar oubursts of separatism were suppressed in Ossetia. In the south, Armenian forces contested the Georgian control of the Lori region in December 1918 but were routed the following year. In Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki regions, the Ottomans instigated another series of separatist movements but the insurgents were crushed by General Giorgi Kvinitadze in 1919.
The independence of Georgia was recognized by Soviet Russia on 7 May 1920 and a special treaty was signed between Tbilisi and Moscow with the consent of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. This act was followed by de jure recognition by Germany, Turkey, Britain, France, Japan, Italy, etc. The three years of independence proved to be of great political and cultural significance. Major economic and educational reforms were implemented, more than a thousand schools were established, the national theater revived, Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi Opera and Conservatoire, Shota Rustaveli Theater were established. However, despite its initial success, the fledgling Georgian republic had no chance of succeeding because, as the Bolshevik government in Russia emerged victorious out of the Civil War in 1919, it turned its attention to the Transcaucasia.
Historical Dictionary of Georgia
by Alexander Mikaberidze (Author)
Series: Historical Dictionaries of Europe (Book 50)
Hardcover: 784 pages
Publisher: Scarecrow Press (March 16, 2007)
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