Addict (drugaddict) wrote,


Dear Bob,
You may want to circulate the enclosed piece by Rob English to your email list.  It is the best article on what lies behind the Georgia-Russia conflict that I have seen.  (I was in Moscow during the Gamsakhurdia period.  We in the American embassy were apalled at what was happening in Georgia in 1990-91; our reporting led to President Bush's condemnation of "suicidal nationalism" in his address to the non-Russian Soviet republics on August 1, 1991.)
All the best,

New York Review of Books
November 6, 2008
Georgia: The Ignored History
By Robert English

Robert English is a Professor of International
Relations at the University of Southern
California, and the author of Russia and the Idea of the West. (November 2008)

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's first post-Soviet
president, from 1991 to 1992, has been dead for
fifteen years. But in view of his responsibility
for initially provoking the South Ossetian
campaign to secede from Georgia,­ the conflict that
set off last month's war with Russia­ his brief
but tumultuous reign merits some fresh scrutiny.
Trying to understand the Ossetian, Abkhazian, and
other minorities' alienation from Georgia without
reference to the extreme nationalism of
Gamsakhurdia is like trying to explain
Yugoslavia's collapse and Kosovo's secession from
Serbia while ignoring the nationalist policies of
Slobodan Milosevic. Yet in all the debate over
the causes of the Russian­-Georgian war, Gamsakhurdia is rarely even mentioned.

Instead, when those responsible are cited,
Vladimir Putin invariably comes first. As Russian
prime minister he ordered Moscow's brutal
offensive into Georgia, and earlier, as
president, he tacitly supported both the South
Ossetian and Abkhazian secessionists. Next comes
Mikheil Saakashvili, the impetuous and vocally
pro-American Georgian president who gambled on a
lightning strike to retake South Ossetia under
pressure of escalating artillery fire from the separatists there.

Others fault President George W. Bush for
championing the further expansion of NATO­, already
viewed by Moscow as hostile, as well as a
violation of an implicit promise made at the end
of the cold war­ to include its strategically
vital neighbors Georgia and Ukraine. And then
there is Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who as
nationalities commissar in the early 1920s laid
the foundation for post-Soviet conflicts by
pitting subject peoples against one another
("planting mines," as Georgians say) to strengthen the Kremlin's control.

But lying between the immediate and the distant
past is the Gamsakhurdia era, beginning in the
late 1980s, the years of Soviet liberalization
and the rise of assertive nationalism that did
much to shape subsequent Georgian politics­ right
up to the present. Gamsakhurdia, then mainly
known in the West as a scholar and dissident, was
also a fiery Georgian nationalist who, like
Serbia's Milosevic, rode to power on a wave of
chauvinist passions. Both were demagogues who
manipulated justified popular grievances and
crude popular prejudices to demonize "enemies"­a
tactic that soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Milosevic's "Greater Serbia" was to be
built with territory seized from neighbors
Croatia and Bosnia, where Serb minorities were
supposedly in mortal danger, Gamsakhurdia's
"Georgia for the Georgians" would be established
by curtailing the rights and autonomies enjoyed
by Georgia's internal minorities, privileges he
saw as divisive vestiges of the Soviet system.[1]
And as he acted on that program ­rising between
1988 and 1991 from opposition leader to
parliamentarian to president, Georgian relations
with the republic's Abkhazian and Ossetian
enclaves went from being strained to being violent.

Type your cut contents Gamsakhurdia's rhetoric provoked fear among all
Georgian minorities­Adjars, Armenians, Azeris,
Greeks, Russians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians. The
latter two were especially concerned to protect
their cultural rights and self-rule by means of
the new opportunities offered by Mikhail
Gorbachev's perestroika. These included free
speech, multiparty elections, the devolution of
power to local parliaments, and in 1991 an
invitation to redraw the USSR's constitutional basis in a new union treaty.

Gamsakhurdia and his allies responded with fury.
Large rallies in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi
denounced the Abkhazians and Ossetians as
"traitors" and "pawns of the Kremlin" while
groups of angry Georgians took their protests
directly to the Abkhazian and Ossetian capitals
of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. The resulting
confrontations often turned violent. A 1989 move
by officials in Tbilisi to shut down part of the
university in Sukhumi and replace it with a
branch of the Georgian State University set off
more bloodshed. In response to this clash­and the
Abkhazians' declaration of sovereignty­Georgian
nationalists began an anti-Abkhazian rally that
grew into a weeklong protest in downtown Tbilisi.
That demonstration was violently suppressed by
Soviet troops in April 1989 at a cost of twenty
Georgian lives, further fanning Georgian passions
and prompting a series of fateful steps by the Georgian parliament.
First, it passed a law making Georgian the sole
official language, a measure blatantly
discriminatory toward the republic's non-Georgian
minorities.[2] Later in 1989, it banned parties
that operated only "regionally" from
participating in general elections in the
Georgian republic, a transparent ploy to
disenfranchise Abkhazian and South Ossetian
voters.[3] In 1990, as the Ossetians moved toward
secession from the soon-to-be-independent
republic of Georgia, a newly elected Georgian
parliament, led by Gamsakhurdia, simply revoked
their autonomous status altogether. In March
1991, Gamsakhurdia banned Georgians from voting
in Gorbachev's USSR-wide referendum on preserving
the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians defied this ban
and organized their own balloting for the
referendum, while Gamsakhurdia held a separate
vote on Georgia's secession from the USSR.

Some 90 percent of Georgians voted for
independence, and the Abkhazians voted even more
overwhelmingly to preserve the union­which they
saw as the only guarantor of their autonomous
rights­and, notably, were joined by large
majorities of all the region's other non-Georgian
peoples as well. A month later, Gamsakhurdia was
elected president­he received 86 percent of the
vote on a turnout of 82 percent. Almost
immediately he dispatched handpicked "prefects"
to take over the authority of locally appointed
officials, a blow to democracy criticized even by
many of his Western admirers. Large-scale
interethnic violence was not far behind.

All this is a matter of record, though still
little known in the West. Even less understood is
the intensity of Georgian nationalism at that
time. Escape from the USSR was the primary goal,
accompanied by a romanticized idea of a unitary
"Georgian national state." The dark side of this
vision was a desire to settle scores with
minorities, chiefly the Abkhazians and Ossetians,
who were seen to have benefited at Georgia's
expense from a Kremlin policy of "divide and
rule." These groups were scorned by Gamsakhurdia
as "ungrateful guests in the Georgian home." His
nationalist ally, Giorgi Chanturia, called for
creation of a "theo-democracy" under which one
house of parliament would be composed of the Holy
Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church. The
Church's patriarch, Catholicos Ilya II, was given
to incendiary rhetoric such as his claim that the
1990 flooding that devastated another minority
region, Adjaria, in the southwest of the country,
was God's revenge for their ancestors' conversion
to Islam.[4] Gamsakhurdia, for his part,
slandered Georgia's Muslim communities as
"Tatardom" and also criticized Georgians' intermarriage with non-Georgians.

The Abkhazians and Ossetians, predominantly
Orthodox Christians, were increasingly reviled
for their defiance of Georgia's efforts to unify
the country under a strong nationalist regime.
The Ossetians were even accused of "bringing
Bolshevism to Georgia" in the first place.[5]
Russian critics of Gamsakhurdia­ among them the
human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Andrei Sakharov, ­were savaged as "agents
of Moscow." (Sakharov, who supported independence
movements from the Baltics to Armenia, saw
something different in Georgia. There the Soviet
empire was being replaced, under Gamsakhurdia, by
a "Georgian empire.") As Gamsakhurdia's
megalomania grew, journalists who dared criticize
him were subject to intimidation or even arrest
(and their newspapers subject to censorship or
closure), while Georgian state television
fostered a cult of Gamsakhurdia as the national
savior. And as ethnic tensions worsened and
secessionist forces became stronger with each new
incident of violence ­for which most Georgians
blindly believed their side was entirely
blameless­ Gamsakhurdia ranted that subversive minorities
"should be chopped up, they should be burned out
with a red-hot iron from the Georgian nation....
We will deal with all the traitors, hold all of
them to proper account, and drive [out] all the
evil enemies and non-Georgians...!"[6]
In 1990 my wife, a Newsweek correspondent, was
declared "an enemy of the Georgian people" for an
article critical of Gamsakhurdia. Meanwhile, as
an academic working in Tbilisi, I followed the
denunciations and ostracism that hounded my
host, ­the eminent Georgian philosopher Merab
Mamardashvili ­to a premature death later that
year. Merab's "sins" included criticism of
hysterical Georgian chauvinism and also of the
insulting, one-sided portrayal of Russia (and of
the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) in the Georgian press.[7]

As a student of Yugoslavia as well as Georgia, I
was struck by Gamsakhurdia's autocratic behavior
and his crackdown on liberal dissent at precisely
the same moment that Serbia's Milosevic was
repressing the liberal, antiwar Serbian
opposition. Both Milosevic and Gamsakhurdia soon
alienated many urban-educated voters and came to
rely on angry rural mobs (Milosevic had his
slivovitz-fueled "rent-a-crowds"; Gamsakhurdia
had his so-called "black stockings," legions of
adoring, middle-aged women). Both demagogues
persecuted their domestic critics and blamed
minority conflicts on foreign "enemies" (for
Milosevic it was Germany and the Vatican, for Gamsakhurdia it was Russia).

Certainly Gamsakhurdia was nowhere near as
vicious as his Serbian counterpart. Nor was he
anywhere near as competent. While Milosevic
effectively managed the "socialist" system for
the benefit of himself and his cronies,
Gamsakhurdia proved ineffective at managing even
the most basic tasks of government. While
Milosevic organized a corrupt economy and
employed paramilitary warlords for his own
nefarious purposes, Gamsakhurdia quickly lost
control of both a collapsing economy and
Georgia's increasingly powerful mafiosi-warlords
(such as Jaba Ioseliani, a convicted bank robber
and murderer). In search of both pride and
plunder, the paramilitary groups of the
warlords­ including Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni, or
"Horsemen," the Society of White George, and
several others­ instigated numerous clashes with
Georgian minorities. Even the official Georgian
National Guard (led by Gamsakhurdia ally Tengiz
Kitovani, a professional artist) proved an
undisciplined force that engaged in wanton
destruction and civilian killings during a bloody
but unsuccessful effort to suppress the South Ossetian separatists.

Kitovani and Ioseliani soon rebelled against
Gamsakhurdia himself, deposing their president in
a coup in January 1992. That summer, in the
shadow of a gathering effort by Gamsakhurdia
loyalists to regain power, the two warlords
launched a violent assault on Abkhazia that
backfired utterly. After a swift and devastating
initial advance the invasion bogged down,
distracted by Gamsakhurdia's growing insurgency.
Meanwhile, with Russia now providing large-scale
aid to the outgunned Abkhazian fighters, the
latter quickly routed the Georgian National
Guard­ along with the Mkhedrioni and other
Georgian paramilitary marauders­ and eventually
forced over 200,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes in Abkhazia.[8]

It hardly mattered that Eduard Shevardnadze,
internationally admired as Gorbachev's liberal
foreign minister, had returned from Moscow in
March of 1992 to head a provisional Georgian
government. It took many months before he was
able to gain some measure of control­ struggling
simultaneously with an inherited war in Abkhazia,
a renegade army and warlords, and Gamsakhurdia's
attempted revanche. By the time of Shevardnadze's
own election as Georgian president in 1995,
Abkhazia and South Ossetia had long since achieved de facto independence.[9]

All this is especially tragic because it could
have been avoided. Many Russians, including
then-president Boris Yeltsin, were sympathetic to
the non-Russian republics' desire for
independence from the USSR. And many Abkhazians
and Ossetians were initially hopeful of their
prospects in a free, democratic Georgia. "We
could have left the [Soviet] Union together, as
brothers," one Ossetian leader told us in
Tskhinvali in 1991. But Gamsakhurdia's aggressive
nationalism and strident denunciations of "devil
Russia" and its "traitorous" allies within
Georgia pushed moderate Abkhazians and Ossetians
into support of outright secession and of an
unholy alliance with reactionary elements in the
Russian military (who began arming them behind
Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's backs as they struggled
with their own hardliners between 1991 and
1993).[10] By the time of Putin's rise in 1999,
Gamsakhurdia's rhetoric had long since become a
self-fulfilling prophecy ­both the Abkhazians and
Ossetians had voted overwhelmingly for
secession.[11] And by 1999, of course, Russian
policy toward Georgia, and the broader
Caucasian-Caspian region, had also become part of
a larger contest for influence with the West.

None of this is to defend Moscow's manipulation
of post-Soviet conflicts to dominate its
neighbors­ though it is vital to discern the
difference in motives behind an offensive,
"neo-imperial" strategy and a defensive,
"anti-NATO" tactic. Nor is it to justify the
devastating attack on Georgia, ­though Moscow was
also clearly lashing out at the West, with
pent-up fury for what it sees as an American
strategy of isolating and encircling Russia (the
attack was also, in effect, a preventive strike
against two NATO bases-in-the-making in Georgia).
What is important, however, is to highlight the
Georgians' own initial victimization of others in
a tragedy in which they ultimately became victims themselves.

Of course it is "unfair" that Georgians today
reap the bitter fruits of what Gamsakhurdia sowed
in years past, ­just as it is unfair that today's
Serbs still pay for the sins of Milosevic. And
certainly Gamsakhurdia was far from the
coldblooded killer that Milosevic was. Yet
consider the roughly one thousand South Ossetians
who died resisting efforts to impose central
Georgian control in 1991 and 1992; for a
population of under 100,000 this represents a per
capita death toll over twice as high as that
which Milosevic inflicted on Kosovo. (Milosevic's
Kosovo savagery took some 10,000 lives, out of a
Kosovo Albanian population of nearly 2,000,000.)

Consider, too, that one of Saakashvili's first
acts as president in 2004 was to ceremoniously
rehabilitate Gamsakhurdia, hailing him as a
"great statesman and patriot." Many in the West
criticized Saakashvili's 2007 crackdown on
opposition politicians and the press, but few
noted this earlier insult to Georgia's restive
minorities. Nor are most aware of the continuing
tensions between the Tbilisi government and the
country's Armenian, Azeri, and other non-Georgian
peoples­, many of whom sympathized with the
Ossetians, not the Georgians, in the recent
war ­over ongoing linguistic, economic, and even
religious discrimination. Certainly Saakashvili
is not the extreme nationalist that Gamsakhurdia
was. And along with some provocative steps, he
has also made notable efforts toward
reconciliation. But his purge of senior Georgian
officials from the previous government, and his
replacement of them by ministers and ambassadors
who in some cases were barely in their teens
during the Gamsakhurdia era, seems also to have
purged valuable assets of experience, caution,
humility, and even recent memory.

We must hope that urgent diplomatic and economic
support from abroad, together with some
self-critical reflection by Georgians at home,
will yet help this proud, long-suffering people
escape the humiliation and the debilitating cult
of "innocent martyrdom" that has plagued
post-Kosovo Serbia. But the Western media that
blindly follow the Georgian nationalist line in
discounting Ossetian and Abkhazian
grievances­, viewing their separatist aspirations
as largely illegitimate or a Russian invention
and casting the entire conflict as the Georgian
David vs. Russian Goliath­ serve neither the cause
of truth nor reconciliation. And American
officials who embrace this simplistic
narrative­ and who reflexively call for Georgia's
rapid rearming and accelerated accession to
NATO­ risk further inflaming confrontation with
Russia to the grave detriment of both Western and Georgian interests.
­October 8, 2008


[1]Georgian nationalists such as Gamsakhurdia
simply denied the Ossetians' right to autonomous
status, viewing them as recent interlopers in a
historically Georgian region whose real homeland
was across the border in Russia. And the
Abkhazians, they noted, hardly deserved special
privileges in a region where they made up barely
18 percent of the population. "That's just it,"
countered Abkhaz leaders. After the Georgian
tyrant Stalin decimated them in the 1930s and
1940s, subsequent policies encouraging Georgians,
Russians, and Armenians to emigrate to Abkhazia
had reduced the Abkhazians to such a precarious
position in their homeland that they required
special status and cultural protections. The
parallels here with polemics between Serbs and
ethnic Albanians over the history and demographics of Kosovo are worth noting.
[2]The Abkhazians and Ossetians naturally used
their native languages first and Russian, the
Soviet lingua franca, second; only a modest
percentage spoke Georgian well enough to use it as the official language.
[3]As a result of this ban, and also thanks to
the minorities' growing boycott of official
Tbilisi, the new Georgian parliament elected in
October 1990 seated only nine non-Georgians out
of a total of 245 deputies­ and this in a republic
where minorities made up some 30 percent of the population.
[4]On Ilya II see Fairy von Lilienfeld,
"Reflections on the Current State of the
and Nation," in Seeking God, edited by
Stephen K. Batalden (Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), p. 227.
[5]For more detail on this period see Robert
English, "'Internal Enemies, External Enemies':
Elites, Identity, and the Tragedy of Post-Soviet
Georgia," in Russia and Eastern Europe After
Communism, edited by Michael Kraus and Ronald D. Liebowitz (Westview, 1996).
[6]Stuart J. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The
Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 110.
[7]Gorbachev was widely blamed for the 1989
"Tbilisi massacre." In fact, while guilty of
fumbling the investigation that followed,
Gorbachev was not responsible for the crackdown.
He was traveling abroad when hard-line Politburo
rivals acceded to the Georgian Communist Party's
request for Interior Ministry troops to "restore
order," and the actual decision to use force was
taken by the local commander in consultation with
the Georgian Communist Party boss.
[8]Thus the fate of these Georgian refugees is
very similar to that of the Serbian refugees from
Croatia and Kosovo, ­the victims of savage wars
launched ostensibly to protect them.
[9]For further detail see Alexei Zverev, "Ethnic
Conflicts in the Caucasus, 1988­1994," and Ghia
Nodia, "Political Turmoil in Georgia and the
Ethnic Policies of Zviad Gamsakhurdia," in
Contested Borders in the Caucasus, edited by
Bruno Coppieters (Brussels: VUB University Press, 1996).
[10]By and large, the Soviet military's initial
role was a fairly evenhanded one, ­acting as
peacekeepers between Georgian forces and
Ossetian/Abkhazian militias ­and only tilted
strongly in the secessionists' favor after the
Georgian side's major assaults of 1991­-1992. It
also seems that this change resulted not from a
considered decision of Gorbachev or Yeltsin, but
from commanders taking advantage of the chaos
that attended the Soviet collapse to punish their
Georgian antagonists. By 1994, support for the
Abkhazians and South Ossetians­, who had repeatedly
begged Moscow for support­ hardened into a
consistent Russian policy. On Russian policy see
Svante E. Cornell, Autonomy and Conflict:
Ethnoterritoriality and Separatism in the South
Caucasus-Cases in Georgia (Uppsala University, 2002), pp. 182­-183.
[11]The Georgian nationalist view ignores the
confusion and fluidity of Soviet/Russian policy
over the period of the USSR's collapse, and sees
instead an early, consistent strategy of support
for secession in order to cripple Georgia. In
this selective and self-serving interpretation,
Tbilisi's inflammatory rhetoric and
discriminatory policies are absolved of blame for
subsequent conflict because it was all orchestrated by Moscow from the outset.


  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.