Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil

George Hewitt
27 November 2003

In 1972 the first secretaryship of the Georgian Communist Party passed from Vasil Mzhavanadze to one Eduard Shevardnadze of the interior ministry. He took power in the then Soviet republic claiming he would root out the corruption that had characterised his predecessor's 19-year rule. But many Georgians would argue that Shevardnadze’s own 13-year tenure was to turn corruption into an art of government.

Shevardnadze also became one of the most egregious sycophants of the then Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev; on one notorious occasion he declared that, while for most the sun rose in the east, for Georgia it rose in the north (i.e. the Kremlin). His ability to prosper and secure his own advancement earned for him the Georgian sobriquet tetri melia (white fox).

Read in our forums the moving email correspondence about Georgia’s political transition between Wendell Steavenson, acclaimed author of Stories I Stole and openDemocracy columnist, and her friend Lela Gabunia

Georgia (Sakartvelo in the main language of the country) was still a little-known backwater of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), one that aroused hardly any interest except amongst the most dedicated Soviet specialists, when in 1985 its leader came to world prominence and was appointed Soviet foreign minister under the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Few foreign diplomats of the day, and even fewer politicians, had come across the name, let alone the person, of Eduard Shevardnadze. Some of those who encountered him during his five-year term as the external face of the USSR still recall how refreshing it was to find a smiling, hail-fellow-well-met Georgian replacing the grim features of his predecessor Andrei Gromyko. The latter had held the post for about two decades and come to be styled 'Mr. Nyet' ("No") for his country's habitual obstructionism in international affairs.

The Soviet Union had only six years of existence left when Shevardnadze came to prominence. Gorbachev’s regime instituted the policies of perestroika and glasnost, which promised reform and tolerated wide-ranging political debate, and manifested a greater willingness to cooperate with the west. All this changed attitudes towards the country and its leaders, particularly those who had most contact with the outside world. Events moved at a cracking pace, and when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 without the feared military response from Moscow, Germany felt it owed a great debt of gratitude to those who had allowed such an immense historic event to happen.

This attitude spread throughout the west as the USSR itself disintegrated in the months following the abortive coup of August 1991. But, with Gorbachev deposed, who was to benefit from the west’s goodwill? The new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, certainly was to gain his fair share when no important western leader seriously objected to the brutal, unnecessary war he instigated in Chechnya in December 1994.

But Yeltsin had been a relatively minor player for most of the Gorbachev years. Whether Shevardnadze was a crucial decision-maker, as many argue, or just the face that presented his government's collective policies to a grateful west, as others believe, western leaders came to share the view already ingrained in Germany for two years. The opportunity to bestow a favour on their perceived friend came in 1992.

The travails of independence

Soviet Georgia in the post-Stalin period presented a paradox: daily life there was more relaxed and prosperous (thanks partly to the climate and its riches, partly also to local ‘playing of the system’) than elsewhere in the USSR; yet the Georgians, along with the Balts, had the reputation of being the fiercest anti-Russians.

As Moscow’s grip started to slacken on the outer regions of the vast state during the late 1980s, unofficial opposition voices quickly rose calling for Georgian independence in unmistakeably anti-Russian tones. More menacingly, nationalist politicians (like Gia Chanturia) started to voice slogans like “Georgia for the Georgians” – even though Georgians themselves constituted at most only 71% of Georgia’s population.

The alarm raised by such nationalist pronouncements among the 29% of people who belonged to non-Georgian minorities within the country – most of them living in their own compact regions dotted around Georgia’s borders – was profound. Among the political leaderships and intelligentsia of the period, not a single significant voice was raised at the fire-and-brimstone nationalism that seized the Georgian body politic. Indeed, it was one of the most vociferous of the rabble-rousers, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, an academic specialist in American literature, who was elected as Georgia’s first post-communist president.

The two most distinct of Georgia’s regions were the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia in the north-west and the Autonomous Region of South Ossetia in the north. Both territories had experienced a history of constitutional manipulation during the Stalinist period in the Soviet Union; people in both areas had campaigned to secure and defend what rights they could achieve under a state system that was always tilted against them.

Many of the people in these territories felt that even the limited autonomy they had managed to preserve under Soviet rule was now going to disappear in an independent Georgia. The government in Tbilisi continued to exert intense political and emotional pressure on them; and in 1991 the rhetorical assaults turned military, as Zviad Gamsakhurdia became involved in a war in South Ossetia, which started with the abolition of the region’s autonomy and ended with the creation of thousands of refugees. But Gamsakhurdia’s growing megalomania, coupled with his failure to reject clearly the Moscow hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, led to his own overthrow in January 1992.

This change of government turned chaos into civil war. A military council, in which Dzhaba Ioseliani and his Mkhedrioni (Cavalry) played a significant role, took power in Tbilisi. Gamsakhurdia fled north to Chechnya, then led by Dzhokhar Dudaev; political and military support for him consolidated in his native region of Mingrelia in western Georgia. In these desperate circumstances, the junta – conscious that not a single country had recognised a Gamsakhurdia-led Georgia, and seeking a figure who could be expected to bring the country western support – approached Eduard Shevardnadze, now jobless in Moscow, to return to Tbilisi.

The return of Shevardnadze was it seems encouraged by foreign luminaries like the former British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. In accepting the challenge, Shevardnadze was confident that he could draw on the reputation and contacts gained during his Soviet experience – especially from the still-powerful leaderships of Helmut Kohl / Hans-Dietrich Genscher in Germany and George Bush / James Baker in the United States.

In the event, it was a marginally less stellar partnership – that of John Major / Douglas Hurd in Britain – which played a role in helping to consolidate Shevardnadze in power, by persuading the European Union precipitately to recognise, and establish diplomatic relations with, Georgia. The country’s membership of the International Monetary Fund followed, and in July 1992 Georgia was admitted to the United Nations.

Three weeks after entering the world body, Shevardnadze celebrated by sending his ramshackle army into Abkhazia on the pretence of securing Georgia’s railway link to Russia. I have long argued that this decision resulted from a cynical (mis)calculation that is directly relevant to the bitter regional politics of Georgia revealed in the post-Gamsakhurdia civil war. The railway, after all, was being attacked not in Abkhazia, but in the Zviadists’ home region of Mingrelia; Shevardnadze probably thought that he could rally Gamsakhurdia’s supporters to his banner by presenting them with a common enemy, the Abkhazians. Events were not to turn out as he envisaged.

The war against Abkhazia caused some 10,000 fatalities and led to a humiliating defeat for Georgia in September 1993; only Boris Yeltsin’s intercession with the Abkhazian victors enabled Shevardnadze’s own life to be spared. Zviad Gamsakhurdia then attempted to return to power by leading a march out of Mingrelia, which was suppressed by Russian ‘humanitarian’ assistance only after Shevardnadze agreed to take Georgia into the post-Soviet association, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The final defeat of Gamsakhurdia left Eduard Shevardnadze clinging on to power. But the territorial loss of Abkhazia, the closure of the rail link with Russia, and the flight – not expulsions, as usually stated – of the majority of Abkhazia’s Mingrelians across the border into Georgia has been a further blight on Georgia’s ruinous economy and politics ever since.

A moment for political truth

In the mid-1990s, a form of calm settled onto post-civil war Georgia. The marauding paramilitaries that had ravaged the country were brought under control; some capital investment was secured; politics – notwithstanding two assassination attempts on the tetri melia, both originating in Mingrelia, which very nearly succeeded – acquired a sort of stability under Shevardnadze’s rule. But serious problems, widespread corruption above all, remained and grew. Instead of embarking on serious reform, Shevardnadze was intent on consolidating his rule by arrogating to himself huge powers in the post-Soviet Georgian constitution.

The great oil pipeline being built to convey Caspian oil from Baku in Azerbaijan through to Ceyhan in southern Turkey, is seen by some as a route to prosperity for Georgia. Money is also entering the country from Europe for the Traceca project (Transport Route Across Caucasia, Europe, Central Asia). But, though an elite has grown rich, Georgia’s combination of disintegrating infrastructure, low wages, non-payment of pensions, and uncertain energy-supplies has turned it from one of the richest Soviet republics to one of the poorest ex-Soviet republics. Today, 52% of Georgians live on less than $1 a day.

In this bleak environment, Eduard Shevardnadze’s attempt flagrantly to manipulate the results of the 2 November parliamentary elections added a final insult to the injury of the sorely-pressed Georgian people, and led directly to his humiliating ejection from power on the weekend of 22-23 November.

The way has now been opened for presidential elections, to be held on 4 January 2004. The three main opposition leaders (and likely presidential candidates) are Nino Burdzhanadze, Mikhail Saakashvili, and Zurab Zhvania. Burdzhanadze became parliamentary speaker in November 2001, succeeding Zhvania; both began their terms as speaker in alliance with Shevardnadze but later split with him. They fought the recent elections as joint leaders of the “Burdzhanadze-Democrats”.

The 35-year old Mikhail Saakashvili has followed a similar political cycle. This lawyer, educated in the Ukraine, United States and France, served as justice minister under Shevardnadze, but then broke with the president, and started a political campaign against him by running for the leadership of the Tbilisi city council, his current political base.

Whether Burdhzanadze, Saakashvili or Zhvania comes to power in Georgia, he or she will be faced with enormous difficulties. Georgia will need even more assistance than in the period when Shevardnadze came to power. This time, will the west bring the right sort of influence to bear on the country's leadership?

It is not difficult to stand back and sketch a few elements of the sensible reforms that Georgia needs. Presidential authority should be reduced; the country should be reorganised on federal lines to take account of feelings in such regions as Mingrelia, Adzharia, the Armenian-majority Dzhavakheti, and the Azerbaijan-majority Marneuli-Dmanisi areas south of Tbilisi; and a peaceful resolution of the Abkhazian and Ossetian conflicts should be sought as a matter of supreme urgency.

All this is in the true interests of the Georgians themselves, the minorities who live in Georgia (or its lost territories), and the country’s neighbours. The west too, which has real interests to protect by virtue of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and Traceca, has a vital stake in the stability and prosperity of the country.

Georgia’s European neighbours should learn the lesson of 1992, when they helped Eduard Shevardnadze to power. Europe, and the west in general, should now act not for the benefit of one man (or woman), but for the good of all the peoples and interests of the area. The challenge is there – will all sides have the wisdom, determination and energy to accept it and stay what might be a long and hazardous course?


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