Georgian politics can be a little confusing at best, and before I leave for Georgia in just a month (!) for what promises to be an interesting parliamentary election year, I thought I would refresh my memory of the country’s recent political history. This is just a brief overview, so I will link major events, figures, and organizations to their Wikipedia pages for further perusal:
the Red Army occupation of Tiflis, February 1921
After the Russian revolution of 1917, Menshevik Georgia was an independent republic between 1918 and 1921 (earlier in 1918 there was an attempt to unify the countries of the South Caucasus into a Transcaucasian Federation, but this was short-lived). The Bolshevik Georgian leader Grigol Ordzhonikidze put an end to Georgian independence when his Red Army 11th battalion invaded in late winter 1921. He ultimately managed to annex the entire South Caucasus to the Soviet Union.
In 1936, at the height of Stalin’s power (a repressive period often known as the Great Purge), constitutional changes were made from Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics (SFSR) to Socialist Soviet Republics (SSR). Abkhazia’s status changed from an SSR to an autonomous SSR, thus losing the right to sovereignty. All republics of the USSR were subjected to programs of Russification. In the 1970s, Eduard Shevardnadze was First Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia. He is remembered for defending the use of Georgian as a national language at a time when Moscow was demanding a primarily Russian education. Shevardnadze was then called to be foreign minister under Gorbachev until the dissolution of the USSR.
25th anniversary of Georgian membership in the Soviet Union
Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) allowed for the beginnings of civil society during the second half of the 1980s, creating a social and political space for the establishment of several NGOs–often based around environmental projects that sometimes included an alternative political agenda, such as the Rustaveli Society.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pro-independence movement took shape under the leadership of dissidents Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Various anti-Soviet demonstrations were held, including a peaceful gathering on April 9, 1989, when at least twenty people (mostly female students) were killed by Soviet forces. Gorbachev distanced himself from this incident and ordered the Georgian first secretary Jumber Patiashvili replaced by the head of the Georgian KGB, but this leadership reshuffling did little to contain the pro-independence movement.
Georgia claimed independence on March 31, 1991, and Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected as Georgia’s first president in May. Due to the lack of democratic traditions regarding interest representation, the first post-Soviet parties rallied around nationalist platforms rather than actual policies–an attitude captured by Gamsakhurdia’s troubling slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” He refused to join the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and when South Ossetia wanted to organize its own elections, he abolished its autonomous status and sent in a military force, leading to the first South Ossetian War (essentially resulting in a Georgian defeat).
Losing grip of the political situation (and arguably his sanity), he was overthrown by militia who invited the former first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze (by then a retired minister of Russian foreign affairs in Moscow) back to Georgia. Shevardnadze drew on his former nomenklatura network, and managed to consolidate his position, although his handling of conflict in Abkhazia still led to accusations of human rights violations and to dealing with approximately 240,000 ethnic Georgian IDPs. He called for help from the Russian Federation against Gamsakhurdia, who was still stirring up dissent from Chechnya and Mingrelia. Russia agreed to provide assistance in return for Georgia joining the CIS and allowing Russian military bases on Georgian territory. Gamsakhurdia was defeated, and the 1993 elections were organized with Shevardnadze as the sole candidate.
Shevardnadze remained in power for the rest of the 1990s. Although he attracted millions in foreign aid, promoted free press, and kept Georgia comparatively stable, he was often accused of presiding over an era of economic stagnation, mafia rule, and Soviet-style administrative corruption. These accusations erupted into protest at the 2003 elections, widely considered rigged. An opposition group led by the charismatic Mikheil Saakashvili incited the Rose Revolution, a surprisingly peaceful coup.
crowd at the Rose Revolution protests waving the new Georgian flag
By law, the speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze became acting president until the formal presidential elections of January 2004. Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement won with flying colors. Between 2004 and 2006, Saakashvili implemented sweeping reforms intended to promote transparency (most notably by firing almost the entire country’s police force) and became well-known internationally for his Westward-oriented policies.
anti-Russian poster in Tbilisi following the 2008 conflict
Tensions with Russia escalated after 2006, as negotiations with Georgia and Ukraine on a Membership Action Plan to join NATO moved forward. However, Georgia’s membership bid was not accepted at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, which the Saakashvili administration blamed on Russian pressure. Unsurprisingly, that summer, the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia erupted, in which Russia used disproportionate force the occupy buffer zones around the two breakaway regions. Only after the mediation of French President Sarkozy (then chair of the EU) advising retreat from these areas, did combat cease–with Russia recognizing the breakaway regions as independent states.
Although the initial reaction of many Georgians was to support their president and his decision to undertake military action, after the war, having lost both territories along with many lives, Saakashvili faces a disenchanted population and opposition forces asking for his resignation. The OSCE acknowledged that Saakashvili’s victory in the January 2008 elections had been rigged, and should have merited a “second round.” Thus far, the opposition forces (Christian Democrats, Georgian Dream) have not managed the work out a viable coalition with a clear alternative program or an alternative leader.
Companjen, Francoise. “Exploring the Caucasus in the 21st Century: Essays on Culture, History, and Politics in a Dynamic Context.” Amsterdam University Press, 2011.
Coene, Frederik. “The Caucasus: an Introduction.” Routledge, 2011.
de Waal, Thomas. “The Caucasus: an Introduction.” 2010.
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