About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos

Georgia - HISTORY

Georgia - History

GEORGIA'S LOCATION AT a major commercial crossroads and among several powerful neighbors has provided both advantages and disadvantages through some twenty-five centuries of history. Georgia is comprised of regions having distinctive traits. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic characteristics of the country as a unit coalesced to a greater degree than before under Russian rule in the nineteenth century. Then, beneath a veneer of centralized economic and political control imposed during seventy years of Soviet rule, Georgian cultural and social institutions survived, thanks in part to Georgia's relative distance from Moscow. As the republic entered the post-Soviet period in the 1990s, however, the prospects of establishing true national autonomy based on a common heritage remained unclear.

Although Saint George is the country's patron saint, the name Georgia derives from the Arabic and Persian words, Kurj and Gurj, for the country. In 1991 Georgia-- called Sakartvelo in Georgian and Gruziia in Russian--had been part of a Russian or Soviet empire almost continuously since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when most of the regions that constitute modern Georgia accepted Russian annexation in order to gain protection from Persia. Prior to that time, some combination of the territories that comprise modern Georgia had been ruled by the Bagratid Dynasty for about 1,000 years, including periods of foreign domination and fragmentation.

Georgia - Early History

Archeological evidence indicates a neolithic culture in the area of modern Georgia as early as the fifth millennium B.C. Between that time and the modern era, a number of ethnic groups invaded or migrated into the region, merging with numerous indigenous tribes to form the ethnic base of the modern Georgian people. Throughout history the territory comprising the Georgian state varied considerably in size as foreign forces occupied some regions and as centrally ruled federations controlled others.

Christianity and the Georgian Empire

In the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, Georgia, in the form of the kingdom of Kartli-Iberia, was strongly influenced by Greece to the west and Persia to the east. After the Roman Empire completed its conquest of the Caucasus region in 66 B.C., the kingdom was a Roman client state and ally for some 400 years. In A.D. 330, King Marian III's acceptance of Christianity ultimately tied Georgia to the neighboring Byzantine Empire, which exerted a strong cultural influence for several centuries. Although Arabs captured the capital city of Tbilisi in A.D. 645, Kartli-Iberia retained considerable independence under local Arab rulers. In A.D. 813, the Armenian prince Ashot I became the first of the Bagrationi family to rule Georgia. Ashot's reign began a period of nearly 1,000 years during which the Bagratids, as the house was known, ruled at least part of what is now Georgia.

Western and eastern Georgia were united under Bagrat V (r. 1027-72). In the next century, David IV (called the Builder, r. 1099-1125) initiated the Georgian golden age by driving the Turks from the country and expanding Georgian cultural and political influence southward into Armenia and eastward to the Caspian Sea. That era of unparalleled power and prestige for the Georgian monarchy concluded with the great literary flowering of Queen Tamar's reign (1184-1212). At the end of that period, Georgia was well known in the Christian West (and relied upon as an ally by the Crusaders). Outside the national boundaries, several provinces were dependent to some degree on Georgian power: the Trabzon Empire on the southern shore of the Black Sea, regions in the Caucasus to the north and east, and southern Azerbaijan.

Georgia - Occupation and Inclusion in the Russian Empire

The Mongol invasion in 1236 marked the beginning of a century of fragmentation and decline. A brief resurgence of Georgian power in the fourteenth century ended when the Turkic conquerer Timur (Tamerlane) destroyed Tbilisi in 1386. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 began three centuries of domination by the militant Ottoman and Persian empires, which divided Georgia into spheres of influence in 1553 and subsequently redistributed Georgian territory between them. By the eighteenth century, however, the Bagratid line again had achieved substantial independence under nominal Persian rule. In this period, Georgia was threatened more by rebellious Georgian and Persian nobles within than by the major powers surrounding the country. In 1762 Herekle II was able to unite the east Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakhetia under his independent but tenuous rule. In this period of renewed unity, trade increased and feudal institutions lost influence in Georgia.

In 1773 Herekle began efforts to gain Russian protection from the Turks, who were threatening to retake his kingdom. In this period, Russian troops intermittently occupied parts of Georgia, making the country a pawn in the explosive Russian-Turkish rivalry of the last three decades of the eighteenth century. After the Persians sacked Tbilisi in 1795, Herekle again sought the protection of Orthodox Russia.

Georgia - Within the Russian Empire

Annexation by the Russian Empire began a new stage of Georgian history, in which security was achieved by linking Georgia more closely than ever with Russia. This subordinate relationship would last nearly two centuries.

Russian Influence in the Nineteenth Century

Because of its weak position, Georgia could not name the terms of protection by the Russian Empire. In 1801 Tsar Alexander I summarily abolished the kingdom of Kartli-Kakhetia, and the heir to the Bagratid throne was forced to abdicate. In the next decade, the Russian Empire gradually annexed Georgia's entire territory. Eastern Georgia (the regions of Kartli and Kakhetia) became part of the Russian Empire in 1801, and western Georgia (Imeretia) was incorporated in 1804. After annexation Russian governors tried to rearrange Georgian feudal society and government according to the Russian model. Russian education and ranks of nobility were introduced, and the Georgian Orthodox Church lost its autocephalous status in 1811. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russification intensified, as did Georgian rebellions against the process.

Georgia - Social and Intellectual Developments

By 1850 the social and political position of the Georgian nobility, for centuries the foundation of Georgian society, had deteriorated. A new worker class began to exert social pressure in Georgian population centers. Because the nobility still represented Georgian national interests, its decline meant that the Armenian merchant class, which had been a constructive part of urban life since the Middle Ages, gained greater economic power within Georgia. At the same time, Russian political hegemony over the Caucasus now went unopposed by Georgians. In response to these conditions, Georgian intellectuals borrowed the thinking of Russian and West European political philosophers, forging a variety of theoretical salvations for Georgian nationalism that had little relation to the changing economic conditions of the Georgian people.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Russia, fearing increased Armenian power in Georgia, asserted direct control over Armenian religious and political institutions. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a full-fledged Georgian national liberation movement was led by Marxist followers of the Russian Social Democrat Party. Marxist precepts fell on fertile soil in Georgia; by 1900 migration from rural areas and the growth of manufacturing had generated a fairly cohesive working class led by a new generation of Georgian intellectuals who called for elimination of both the Armenian bourgeoisie and the Russian government bureaucracy. The main foe, however, was tsarist autocracy.

Georgia - The Spirit of Revolution

In 1905 a large-scale peasant revolt in western Georgia and general strikes in industrial centers throughout the Caucasus caused Russia to declare martial law. As elsewhere in the Russian Empire, the political reforms of 1905 temporarily eased tensions between the Georgian population and the Russian government. For the next decade, the Georgian revolutionaries of the Moscow-based Social Democratic Party were split between the gradualist Menshevik and the radical Bolshevik factions, and the incidence of strikes and mass demonstrations declined sharply between 1906 and 1917. Mensheviks, however, occupied all the Georgian seats in the first two seatings of the Duma, the Russian parliamentary institution established in 1905. In this period, Joseph V. Stalin (a Georgian who changed his name from Ioseb Jugashvili around 1910) became a leader of Bolshevik conspiracies against the Russian government in Georgia and the chief foe of Menshevik leader Noe Zhordania.

Georgia - World War I and Independence

Because Turkey was a member of the Central Powers in World War I, the Caucasus region became a major battleground in that conflict. In 1915 and 1916, Russian forces pushed southwest into eastern Turkey from bases in the Caucasus, with limited success. As part of the Russian Empire, Georgia officially backed the Allies, although it stood to gain little from victory by either side. By 1916 economic conditions and mass immigration of war refugees had raised social discontent throughout the Caucasus, and the Russian Empire's decade-old experiment with constitutional monarchy was judged a failure.

The revolution of 1917 in Russia intensified the struggle between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in Georgia. In May 1918, Georgia declared its independence under the protection of Germany. Georgia turned toward Germany to prevent opportunistic invasion by the Turks; the move also resulted from Georgians' perception of Germany as the center of European culture. The major European powers recognized Georgia's independence, and in May 1920, Russian leader Vladimir I. Lenin officially followed suit.

To gain peasant support, Zhordania's moderate new Menshevikdominated government redistributed much of Georgia's remaining aristocratic landholdings to the peasants, eliminating the longtime privileged status of the nobility. The few years of postwar independence were economically disastrous, however, because Georgia did not establish commercial relations with the West, Russia, or its smaller neighbors.

Georgia - Within the Soviet Union

In seven decades as part of the Soviet Union, Georgia maintained some cultural independence, and Georgian nationalism remained a significant--though at times muted--issue in relations with the Russians. In economic and political terms, however, Georgia was thoroughly integrated into the Soviet system.

The Interwar Years

After independence was declared in 1918, the Georgian Bolsheviks campaigned to undermine the Menshevik leader Zhordania, and in 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia and forced him to flee. From 1922 until 1936, Georgia was part of a united Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (TSFSR) within the Soviet Union. In 1936 the federated republic was split up as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which remained separate Soviet socialist republics of the Soviet Union until the end of 1991.

Although Stalin and Lavrenti Beria, his chief of secret police from 1938 to 1953, were both Georgians, Stalin's regime oppressed Georgians as severely as it oppressed citizens of other Soviet republics. The most notable manifestations of this policy were the execution of 5,000 nobles in 1924 as punishment for a Menshevik revolt and the purge of Georgian intellectuals and artists in 1936-37. Another Georgian Bolshevik, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, played an important role in the early 1920s in bringing Georgia and other Soviet republics into a centralized, Moscow-directed state. Ordzhonikidze later became Stalin's top economic official.

Georgia - World War II and the Late Stalin Period

Georgia was not invaded in World War II. It contributed more than 500,000 fighters to the Red Army, however, and was a vital source of textiles and munitions. Stalin's successful appeal for patriotic unity eclipsed Georgian nationalism during the war and diffused it in the years following. Restoration of autonomy to the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1943 facilitated this process.

The last two decades of Stalin's rule saw rapid, forced urbanization and industrialization, as well as drastic reductions in illiteracy and the preferential treatment of Georgians at the expense of ethnic minorities in the republic. The full Soviet centralized economic planning structure was in place in Georgia by 1934. Between 1940 and 1958, the republic's industrial output grew by 240 percent. In that time, the influence of traditional village life decreased significantly for a large part of the Georgian population.

Georgia - Post-Stalin Politics

Upon Stalin's death in 1953, Georgian nationalism revived and resumed its struggle against dictates from the central government in Moscow. In the 1950s, reforms under Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev included the shifting of economic authority from Moscow to republic-level officials, but the Russian Khrushchev's repudiation of Stalin set off a backlash in Georgia. In 1956 hundreds of Georgians were killed when they demonstrated against Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinization. Long afterward many Stalin monuments and place-names--as well as the museum constructed at Stalin's birthplace in the town of Gori, northwest of Tbilisi--were maintained. Only with Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost in the late 1980s did criticism of Stalin become acceptable and a full account of Stalin's crimes against his fellow Georgians become known in Georgia.

Between 1955 and 1972, Georgian communists used decentralization to become entrenched in political posts and to reduce further the influence of other ethnic groups in Georgia. In addition, enterprising Georgians created factories whose entire output was "off the books". In 1972 the long-standing corruption and economic inefficiency of Georgia's leaders led Moscow to sponsor Eduard Shevardnadze as first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party. Shevardnadze had risen through the ranks of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) to become a party first secretary at the district level in 1961. From 1964 until 1972, Shevardnadze oversaw the Georgian police from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he made a reputation as a competent and incorruptible official.

Georgia - The First Shevardnadze Period

As party first secretary, Shevardnadze used purges to attack the corruption and chauvinism for which Georgia's elite had become infamous even among the corrupt and chauvinistic republics of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, a small group of dissident nationalists coalesced around academician Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who stressed the threat that Russification presented to the Georgian national identity. This theme would remain at the center of Georgian-Russian relations into the new era of Georgian independence in the 1990s. Soviet power and Georgian nationalism clashed in 1978 when Moscow ordered revision of the constitutional status of the Georgian language as Georgia's official state language. Bowing to pressure from street demonstrations, Moscow approved Shevardnadze's reinstatement of the constitutional guarantee the same year.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Shevardnadze successfully walked a narrow line between the demands of Moscow and the Georgians' growing desire for national autonomy. He maintained political and economic control while listening carefully to popular demands and making strategic concessions. Shevardnadze dealt with nationalism and dissent by explaining his policies to hostile audiences and seeking compromise solutions. The most serious ethnic dispute of Shevardnadze's tenure arose in 1978, when leaders of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic threatened to secede from Georgia, alleging unfair cultural, linguistic, political, and economic restrictions imposed by Tbilisi. Shevardnadze took a series of steps to diffuse the crisis, including an affirmative action program that increased the role of Abkhazian elites in running "their" region, despite the minority status of their group in Abkhazia.

Shevardnadze initiated experiments that foreshadowed the economic and political reforms that Gorbachev later introduced into the central Soviet system. The Abasha economic experiment in agriculture created new incentives for farmers similar to those used in the Hungarian agricultural reform of the time. A reorganization in the seaport of Poti expanded the role of local authorities at the expense of republic and all-union ministries. By 1980 Shevardnadze had raised Georgia's industrial and agricultural production significantly and dismissed about 300 members of the party's corrupt hierarchy. When Shevardnadze left office in 1985, considerable government corruption remained, however, and Georgia's official economy was still weakened by an extensive illegal "second economy." But his reputation for honesty and political courage earned Shevardnadze great popularity among Georgians, the awarding of the Order of Lenin by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1978, and appointment as minister of foreign affairs of the Soviet Union in 1985.

Georgia - Patiashvili

Jumber Patiashvili, a nondescript party loyalist, succeeded Shevardnadze as head of the Georgian Communist Party. Under Patiashvili, most of Shevardnadze's initiatives atrophied, and no new policy innovations were undertaken. Patiashvili removed some of Shevardnadze's key appointees, although he could not dismiss his predecessor's many middle-echelon appointees without seriously damaging the party apparatus.

In dealing with dissent, Patiashvili, who distrusted radical and unofficial groups, returned to the usual confrontational strategy of Soviet regional party officials. The party head met major resistance when he backed a plan for a new Transcaucasian railroad that would cut a swath parallel to the Georgian Military Highway in a historic, scenic, and environmentally significant region. In a televised speech, Patiashvili called opponents of the project "enemies of the people"--a phrase used in the 1930s to justify liquidation of Stalin's real and imagined opponents. By isolating opposition groups, Patiashvili forced reformist leaders into underground organizations and confrontational behavior.

Georgia - After Communist Rule

In Georgia Gorbachev's simultaneous policies of glasnost and continued control energized the forces of nationalism, which pushed the republic out of the central state before the Soviet Union fell apart. The first years of independence were marked by struggle among Georgians for control of the government and by conflict with ethnic minorities seeking to escape the control of Tbilisi.

Georgia - Nationalism Rises

In April 1989, Soviet troops broke up a peaceful demonstration at the government building in Tbilisi. Under unclear circumstances, twenty Georgians, mostly women and children, were killed. The military authorities and the official media blamed the demonstrators, and opposition leaders were arrested. The Georgian public was outraged. What was afterwards referred to as the April Tragedy fundamentally radicalized political life in the republic. Shevardnadze was sent to Georgia to restore calm. He arranged for the replacement of Patiashvili by Givi Gumbaridze, head of the Georgian branch of the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti--KGB).

In an atmosphere of renewed nationalist fervor, public opinion surveys indicated that the vast majority of the population was committed to immediate independence from Moscow. Although the communist party was discredited, it continued to control the formal instruments of power. In the months following the April Tragedy, the opposition used strikes and other forms of pressure to undermine communist power and set the stage for de facto separation from the Soviet Union.

Georgia - The Rise of Gamsakhurdia

Partly as a result of the conspiratorial nature of antigovernment activity prior to 1989, opposition groups tended to be small, tightly knit units organized around prominent individuals. The personal ambitions of opposition leaders prevented the emergence of a united front, but Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the most widely honored and recognized of the nationalist dissidents, moved naturally to a position of leadership. The son of Georgia's foremost contemporary novelist, Gamsakhurdia had gained many enemies during the communist years in acrimonious disputes and irreconcilable factional splits.

Opposition pressure resulted in an open, multiparty election in October 1990. Despite guarantees written into the new law on elections, many prominent opposition parties boycotted the vote, arguing that their groups could not compete fairly and that their participation under existing conditions would only legitimize continuation of Georgia's "colonial status" within the Soviet system.

As an alternative, the opposition parties had held their own election, without government approval, in September 1990. Although the minimum turnout for a valid election was not achieved, the new "legislative" body, called the Georgian National Congress, met and became a center of opposition to the government chosen in the official October election. In the officially sanctioned voting, Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition won a solid majority in the Supreme Soviet, Georgia's official parliamentary body.

Arguably the most virulently anticommunist politician ever elected in a Soviet republic, Gamsakhurdia was intolerant of all political opposition. He often accused his opposition of treason or involvement with the KGB. The quality of political debate in Georgia was lowered by the exchange of such charges between Gamsakhurdia and opposition leaders such as Gia Chanturia of the National Democratic Party.

After his election, Gamsakhurdia's greatest concern was the armed opposition. Both Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition and some opposition factions in the Georgian National Congress had informal military units, which the previous, communist Supreme Soviet had legalized under pressure from informal groups. The most formidable of these groups were the Mkhedrioni (horsemen), said to number 5,000 men, and the socalled National Guard. The new parliament, dominated by Gamsakhurdia, outlawed such groups and ordered them to surrender their weapons, but the order had no effect. After the elections, independent military groups raided local police stations and Soviet military installations, sometimes adding formidable weaponry to their arsenals. In February 1991, a Soviet army counterattack against Mkhedrioni headquarters had led to the imprisonment of the Mkhedrioni leader.

Gamsakhurdia moved quickly to assert Georgia's independence from Moscow. He took steps to bring the Georgian KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs (both overseen until then from Moscow) under his control. Gamsakhurdia refused to attend meetings called by Gorbachev to preserve a working union among the rapidly separating Soviet republics. Gamsakhurdia's communications with the Soviet leader usually took the form of angry telegrams and telephone calls. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia ended the collection in Georgia of Gorbachev's national sales tax on the grounds that it damaged the Georgian economy. Soon Georgia ceased all payments to Moscow, and the central government took steps to isolate the republic economically.

Rather than consent to participate in Gorbachev's March 1991 referendum on preserving a federation of Soviet republics, Gamsakhurdia organized a separate referendum on Georgian independence. The measure was approved by 98.9 percent of Georgian voters. Shortly thereafter, on the second anniversary of the April Tragedy (April 9, 1991), the Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, Georgia refused to participate in the formation or subsequent activities of the Commonwealth of Independent States ( CIS), the loose confederation of independent republics that succeeded the Soviet Union.

Georgia - The Struggle for Control

In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia was elected president of Georgia (receiving over 86 percent of the vote) in the first popular presidential election in a Soviet republic. Apparently perceiving the election as a mandate to run Georgia personally, Gamsakhurdia made increasingly erratic policy and personnel decisions in the months that followed, while his attitude toward the opposition became more strident. After intense conflict with Gamsakhurdia, Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua resigned in August 1991.

The August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow marked a turning point in Georgian as well as in Soviet politics. Gamsakhurdia made it clear that he believed the coup, headed by the Soviet minister of defense and the head of the KGB, was both inevitable and likely to succeed. Accordingly, he ordered Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin's proclamations against the coup removed from the streets of Tbilisi. Gamsakhurdia also ordered the National Guard to turn in its weapons, disband, and integrate itself into the forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Opposition leaders immediately denounced this action as capitulation to the coup. In defiance of Gamskhurdia, National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani led most of his troops out of Tbilisi.

The opposition to Gamsakhurdia, now joined in an uneasy coalition behind Sigua and Kitovani, demanded that Gamsakhurdia resign and call new parliamentary elections. Gamsakhurdia refused to compromise, and his troops forcibly dispersed a large opposition rally in Tbilisi in September 1991. Chanturia, whose National Democratic Party was one of the most active opposition groups at that time, was arrested and imprisoned on charges of seeking help from Moscow to overthrow the government.

In the ensuing period, both the government and extraparliamentary opposition intensified the purchase and "liberation" of large quantities of weapons--mostly from Soviet military units stationed in Georgia--including heavy artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships, and armored personnel carriers. On December 22, intense fighting broke out in central Tbilisi after government troops again used force to disperse demonstrators. At this point, the National Guard and the Mkhedrioni besieged Gamsakhurdia and his supporters in the heavily fortified parliament building. Gunfire and bombs severely damaged central Tbilisi, and Gamsakhurdia fled the city in early January 1992 to seek refuge outside Georgia.

Georgia - The Military Council

A Military Council made up of Sigua, Kitovani, and Mkhedrioni leader Jaba Ioseliani took control after Gamsakhurdia's departure. Shortly thereafter, a Political Consultative Council and a larger State Council were formed to provide more decisive leadership. In March 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia at the invitation of the Military Council. Shortly thereafter Shevardnadze joined Ioseliani, Sigua, and Kitovani to form the State Council Presidium. All four were given the right of veto over State Council decisions.

Gamsakhurdia, despite his absence, continued to enjoy substantial support within Georgia, especially in rural areas and in his home region of Mingrelia in western Georgia. Gamsakhurdia supporters now constituted another extraparliamentary opposition, viewing themselves as victims of an illegal and unconstitutional putsch and refusing to participate in future elections. Based in the neighboring Chechen Autonomous Republic of Russia, Gamsakhurdia continued to play a direct role in Georgian politics, characterizing Shevardnadze as an agent of Moscow in a neocommunist conspiracy against Georgia. In March 1992, Gamsakhurdia convened a parliament in exile in the Chechen city of Groznyi. In 1992 and 1993, his armed supporters prevented the Georgian government from gaining control of parts of western Georgia.

Georgia - Threats of Fragmentation - South Ossetia

The autonomous areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia added to the problems of Georgia's post-Soviet governments. By 1993 separatist movements in those regions threatened to tear the republic into several sections. Intimations of Russian interference in the ethnic crises also complicated Georgia's relations with its giant neighbor.

South Ossetia

The first major crisis faced by the Gamsakhurdia regime was in the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, which was largely populated by Ossetians, a separate ethnic group speaking a language based on Persian. In December 1990, Gamsakhurdia summarily abolished the region's autonomous status within Georgia in response to its longtime efforts to gain independence. When the South Ossetian regional legislature took its first steps toward secession and union with the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic of Russia, Georgian forces invaded. The resulting conflict lasted throughout 1991, causing thousands of casualties and creating tens of thousands of refugees on both sides of the Georgian-Russian border. Yeltsin mediated a cease-fire in July 1992. A year later, the cease-fire was still in place, enforced by Ossetian and Georgian troops together with six Russian battalions. Representatives of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe ( CSCE) attempted mediation, but the two sides remained intractable. In July 1993, the South Ossetian government declared negotiations over and threatened to renew large-scale combat, but the cease-fire held through early 1994.

Georgia - Abkhazia

In the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic of Georgia, the Abkhazian population, like the Ossetians a distinct ethnic group, feared that the Georgians would eliminate their political autonomy and destroy the Abkhaz as a cultural entity. On one hand, a long history of ill will between the Abkhaz and the Georgians was complicated by the minority status of the Abkhaz within the autonomous republic and by periodic Georgianization campaigns, first by the Soviet and later by the Georgian government. On the other hand, the Georgian majority in Abkhazia resented disproportionate distribution of political and administrative positions to the Abkhaz. Beginning in 1978, Moscow had sought to head off Abkhazian demands for independence by allocating as much as 67 percent of party and government positions to the Abkhaz, although, according to the 1989 census, 2.5 times as many Georgians as Abkhaz lived in Abkhazia.

Tensions in Abkhazia led to open warfare on a much larger scale than in South Ossetia. In July 1992, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet voted to return to the 1925 constitution under which Abkhazia was separate from Georgia. In August 1992, a force of the Georgian National Guard was sent to the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi with orders to protect Georgian rail and road supply lines, and to secure the border with Russia. When Abkhazian authorities reacted to this transgression of their selfproclaimed sovereignty, hundreds were killed in fighting between Abkhazian and Georgian forces, and large numbers of refugees fled across the border into Russia or into other parts of Georgia. The Abkhazian government was forced to flee Sukhumi.

For two centuries, the Abkhaz had viewed Russia as a protector of their interests against the Georgians; accordingly, the Georgian incursion of 1992 brought an Abkhazian plea for Russia to intervene and settle the issue. An unknown number of Russian military personnel and volunteers also fought on the side of the Abkhaz, and Shevardnadze accused Yeltsin of intentionally weakening Georgia's national security by supporting separatists. After the failure of three cease-fires, in September 1993 Abkhazian forces besieged and captured Sukhumi and drove the remaining Georgian forces out of Abkhazia. In the fall of 1993, mediation efforts by the United Nations (UN) and Russia were slowed by Georgia's struggle against Gamsakhurdia's forces in Mingrelia, south of Abkhazia. In early 1994, a de facto ceasefire remained in place, with the Inguri River in northwest Georgia serving as the dividing line. Separatist forces made occasional forays into Georgian territory, however.

In September 1993, Gamsakhurdia took advantage of the struggle in Abkhazia to return to Georgia and rally enthusiastic but disorganized Mingrelians against the demoralized Georgian army. Although Gamsakhurdia initially represented his return as a rescue of Georgian forces, he actually included Abkhazian troops in his new advance. Gamsakhurdia's forces took several towns in western Georgia, adding urgency to an appeal by Shevardnadze for Russian military assistance. In mid-October the addition of Russian weapons, supply-line security, and technical assistance turned the tide against Gamsakhurdia and brought a quick end to hostilities on the Mingrelian front. His cause apparently lost, Gamsakhurdia committed suicide in January 1994.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com