The rich history of the land now called Georgia with its beautiful landscapes, cultural and religious landmarks was not advanced during the 20th Century. The land became part of the Soviet Union, Georgia finding itself dominated by Moscow. When independence was finally achieved in 1991, there was a sigh of relief, but even then, the following years have not been smooth sailing. Georgian tourism is growing, and visitors are now seeing Georgia’s many attractions, tasting its wonderful wines, and meeting its people. As a perfectly safe country, tourists are unlikely to face any problems, yet Georgian-Russian relations remain tense.
The National Parliament Building in Tbilisi was built where there was once a cathedral. A cemetery for Georgian cadets, killed when the Russian Red Army invaded in 1921 was there as well. Georgia’s independence announced in 1918 lasted just three years. Even then, the Provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia stood out as regions with little affinity to the Country of Georgia, both seeking autonomy and although that has not been internationally recognized, that is the reality of the situation that exists today.
The construction of the Parliament Building began just before the outbreak of World War II, with the main part constructed in 1953 at the height of the Cold War. The focal point of many demonstrations subsequently is often this place in our Capital.
The Parliament Building has always been the focal point for ordinary citizens to demonstrate their displeasure or to celebrate special occasions. There is no doubt that Georgia’s society is diverse. There are small sections of society that would still like Georgia to be part of Russia.
Russia’s concern is that Georgia, and indeed Ukraine, have been increasingly looking to the West. The EU and the USA are sympathetic to their ambitions, although they face fierce opposition from Russia.
The break-up of the Soviet Union and the ultimate creation of several independent states was a difficult period, and within Georgia, some problems have dragged on. Indeed, a year before Georgia independence in 1991, South Ossetia announced its own independence from Georgia and Abkhazia followed in 1992, an announcement that led to armed conflict with separatists able to resist Georgia’s attempts to force compliance to their rule.
At times, in the years following independence, the path to true democracy has been difficult. An examination of some of the events over the last 30 years demonstrates that, yet visitors to Georgia today will find that our Country welcomes visitors and is proud of its culture and heritage.
The Massacre in Tbilisi
Demonstrations in Tbilisi in the Spring of 1989 brought a swift response from the Soviets who did not accept protests against their rule. People gathered near Parliament to show their opposition to the Soviets with the resulting attack by the troops resulting in 21 deaths, many being youths and women. In addition, there were 100s of injuries.
The response from others right across Georgia was to come and lay flowers as a way to commemorate to those who had died or been injured in the conflict. With police and the military representatives deciding to side with the public protest, the local government resigned.
The new administration declared that Georgia had been occupied by force by Russian troops back in 1921, the implication being that Georgians did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. 99% voted for independence in a referendum resulting in the proclamation of sovereignty. That day back in 1989, April 9 became a public holiday, the Day of National Unity.
The Military Coup
Zviad Gamsakhurdia became the first President of Georgia in 1991 yet was never able to settle in the position. He had been active in opposing the Soviet government since before the massacre in Tbilisi.
Russian forces and pro-Soviet civilians staged a coup, led by a paramilitary and other political groups, and immediately took control. There was significant damage throughout the center of Tbilisi, including around Parliament. These events gave start to the darkest years of the ’90s when crime and unrest led by criminal, military groups such as the Mkhedrioni, dominated the country.
Eduard Shevardnadze became de facto President in 1992, and a year later, Zviad Gamsakhurdia committed suicide; it was suspicious, to say the least. Eduard Shevardnadze remained as President for a decade, but then things changed.
At the end of 2003, there was a widespread feeling of disquiet. That was as a result of parliamentary elections, which were regarded as fraudulent. Once again, it was the Parliament Building that was the setting for demonstrations; thousands gathered to demonstrate their displeasure.
Kmara, a youth organization, and opposition parties, led by the former Minister of Justice Mikheil Saakashvili, were clearly unhappy with President Shevardnadze as he tried to open the new parliament.
The protesters burst into the Parliament Building, carrying roses. This revolution, on November 23, was peaceful with Eduard Shevardnadze resigning before the end of his term. Saakashvili’s party won the majority of seats in new elections, and a year later, Mikheil Saakashvili became the third President of Georgia with the support of 96% of the voters.
State of Emergency
The Saakashvili administration achieved unheard before progress in eradicating corruption and crime in the country. Transparency International ranked Georgia 67th in its Corruption Perceptions Index, and Georgia’s national GDP quadrupled in the following years.
Dispute considerable success opposition to Saakashvili emerged four years later with demonstrations motivated by its belief that the Government was corrupt. Further, it accused him of involvement in violence and murder.
Demonstrations early in November 2007 took place both in Tbilisi and the Black Sea coastal city of Batumi. The police showed little tolerance of demonstrators in either city.
The Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili who owned important media in Georgia was openly critical of the Government and its actions. When he screened an interview with the former Minister of Defense describing corruption and violence, including the suspicious death of the Prime Minister of Georgia, Zurab Zhvania, armed police arrived to close the TV Station down.
A state of emergency was declared, television was closed down and once again the response from the people was to gather around the Parliament Building for a peaceful march. However, the Government accused opposition leaders of having a dialogue with Russian counter-intelligence.
Patarkatsishvili was accused of trying to organize a coup. He died the following year at his home in England, and many questioned the circumstances of his death.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia
Remember that Russia was supporting the two provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who resisted any attempts to include them in the independent Country of Georgia. Soon after independence, in 1992, a brutal war broke out in western Georgia. Abkhazia separatists backed by Russian government armed forces and North Caucasian militants defeated Georgian troops, resulting in dramatic consequences with nearly 200,000 ethnic Georgians fleeing from the region.
There is an argument about the exact number of people living in Abkhazia today; it is thought to be anything up to 250,000, half of which are Abkhazian. Russians, Ukrainians, Turks, and Georgians are among the other ethnic groups living there. There is an Abkhazian language, which is one of two recognized officially, the other being Russian.
South Ossetia has its own language, with almost 90% of the 55,000 population (roughly 100,000 ethnic Georgians fled from South Ossetia during the past 30 years) regarded as Ossetian with the vast majority of the remainder Georgian.
The Provinces are both officially part of Georgia but have separate governments that are not recognized by most of the countries of the world. A brief but brutal military aggression by Russia in 2008 in South Ossetia saw many casualties, both troops and civilians, with Russia then maintaining troops in both provinces despite the EU and USA opposition.
There has been no long term solution agreed, though it seems unlikely that any action will be taken to change the current status quo with the economy of both provinces very dependent upon Russian support. There is an uneasy tolerance of each other’s position.
From Night Clubs to Parliament
A raid on two-night clubs in May 2018 in Tbilisi sparked yet another demonstration in front of Parliament. Police arrived, supposedly in search of drug dealers, and arrested a number of people, including the owners. The action was filmed, and viewers could see that the police were using unreasonable force. The result of that was that young people began to gather outside the most popular of the clubs, Bassiani.
The demonstrations moved on to Parliament, and by the following evening, the crowds numbered in the thousands. A DJ played electronic music, and everyone danced.
There were calls for the resignation of Giorgi Gakharia, the Minister of Internal Affairs. The social media ensured that news of the dancing, ‘’the Dance of Solidarity’’ spread worldwide, and there was plenty of sympathy from the entertainment world. A Facebook page called ‘’Society for the Spreading of Freedom’’ received massive support. One of its aims was to encourage tolerance and acceptance of minorities, but the authorities responded. Nationalists and anti-lesbian and gay groups, as well as Russian sympathizers, moved threateningly on Parliament.
The tension was eased before real trouble could start when the Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia spoke to the protesters outside parliament. “Let us start with an apology,” was his message with spontaneous applause breaking out. He offered transport for those wanting to get away from the area in case violence broke out.
While that situation was diffused, it was an illustration of a range of widely diverse opinions in Georgia society.
An Invitation to Gavrilov
In the middle of 2019, a Russian MP who is a strong supporter of South Ossetia and Abkhazia being free from Georgia was invited to the Georgia Parliament. Sergey Gavrilov took his place in the Speaker’s seat and spoke in Russian. The invitation given to him was extremely unpopular and viewed with suspicion by large sections of Georgian society.
Thousands once again gathered outside Parliament, calling for resignations. At one time, it looked possible that the crowd would actually force its way into the Building. Police used rubber bullets to control the crowd with a number of injuries as a result.
This time, the Minister of Internal Affairs was seen as the villain and he and the Head of Parliament were forced to resign. The Government did, however, defend the action it had taken because of the danger of a coup.
There were injuries that resulted in Russia temporarily banning air travel between the two countries. That shocked the travel industry because there was significant tourism from Russia into Georgia.
The “Society for the Spreading of Freedom” continues to organize events to this day to highlight the violence that has been used in society and to call for change. A new electoral system, a proportional representation based, was promised by the Georgian Dream government. However, soon after, they broke the promise, which caused massive dissatisfaction that keeps building up in society.
Georgian-Russian relations are unlikely to get to the friendly stage. The Provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are just part of the reason. The open five-day conflict of 2008 has been the starkest illustration of their mutual dislike. Still, there remains some resentment in Russia about the independent states that were created out of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Their relationship was not helped by Georgia’s wish to join NATO and the EU and the times that many Georgians have demonstrated against Russian influence in the Country. Georgian tourist numbers are growing with a significant number coming from Russia because of the value for money they perceive. At the level of ordinary citizens, there has not been any examples of Russian tourists being made to feel unwelcome during their time in Georgia, whether in the city or countryside.
The invitation to that Russian MP to speak at Parliament from the Speaker’s Seat, and to do so in Russian clearly concerned people who were worried that Russia’s influence in the Country of Georgia is growing. Several people convicted of spying for Russia have been freed, which those nervous about Russia point to as further evidence of this.
Georgia seems to have distanced itself from a traditional ally, Ukraine, in recent years, which is also a sign that Georgia’s current government is getting closer to Russia. Is NATO still an objective of the present Government is a question to be asked. A Black Sea project to develop a deep seaport at Anaklia would undoubtedly strengthen the links between Georgia and the economies of the West. Georgia’s current government seems to be unsure whether to proceed, and that certainly falls in line with Russia’s wishes.
Time will tell in the coming months and years about what the medium to long term future holds. Still, Georgian people’s determination to part ways with Russia for good is unquestionable.