- Georgia’s Identity Crisis
People in the post-Soviet Republic of Georgia like to say that “nobody else has ruined their own country as much as we ruined ours.” Among foreign observers, Georgia has long had the reputation of being an especially messy and unruly place. To be sure, there are other newly established postcommunist states that can well compete with her in this: Bosnia and Tajikistan come to mind. Yet Georgia is notable not only for having all the problems and conflicts that other postcommunist countries have, but for displaying them in highly dramatic and sometimes even bizarre ways.
First of all, Georgia has seen lengthy and bloody conflicts break out on both ethnoregional and political grounds. When it began its push for independence in 1988, the movement was paralleled by separatist strivings on the part of certain ethnic minorities within Georgia, who together make up roughly 30 percent of the republic’s 5.6 million people. In addition, there were deep divisions among the leaders of the independence movement. Before long, both the ethnoregional tensions and the leadership rifts gave rise to armed combat. Georgia mounted military campaigns against the Abkhazian and Ossetian separatist movements, both of which received Russian backing. In neither case have Georgian forces met with much success, and more than 200,000 refugees have been displaced to Georgia’s remaining territory.
At roughly the same time, Georgia witnessed the outbreak of a civil war. 1 This war pitted supporters of then-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a charismatic Georgian-nationalist leader who came to power in the elections of October 1990, against opponents who denounced him as a [End Page 104] “fascist dictator.” After two weeks of fighting in downtown Tbilisi around New Year’s 1992, Gamsakhurdia was driven from the capital. More than one hundred casualties and a number of demolished buildings marked only the beginning of armed skirmishes within the nation. Supporters of the ousted president (“Zviadists”) maintained control over some 27,000 square miles of Georgia’s territory, which they used as a base for an offensive against the acting government in the fall of 1993. This could have led to a truly large-scale civil war, with unpredictable results, had not Georgian leader (and former Soviet foreign minister) Eduard Shevardnadze headed off that possibility by trading substantial elements of Georgia’s newly gained independence for the Russian support that he needed to crush the insurgents quickly and with relatively modest casualties.
As these events unfolded, Georgia found itself plunged into a modern version of Hobbes’s state of nature, with no effective state institutions, paramilitary clans-cum-mafias fighting for power, gun-toting brigands collecting their own “taxes” on the roads, and merchants wishing only for more orderly and predictable racketeers. The average salary, which failed to reach even the equivalent of one dollar per month, was paid in worthless scrip. With no consistent economic policy to speak of, Georgia underwent involuntary shock therapy (with the shock being more apparent than the therapy). The state lost almost all influence over the economy (formally “state-owned” enterprises included), and the people lost their ability to depend on the state to meet all their economic needs. Recovery did not begin until autumn 1993, after the defeat of the Zviadist insurgents. Still, no one can claim with confidence that there will be no further upheavals ahead.
What lies behind the Georgian mess? Is Georgia just a misbegotten freak of the Soviet legacy, a politically immature society incapable of self-government and doomed to reabsorption into a recrudescent Russian empire? In the fall of 1993, as the republic’s ordeal reached its climax, many within and without Georgia probably thought so. Since then, the future has come to look more hopeful; whatever it holds in store, however, the necessity to reflect on the turmoil still stands.
Such reflection may prove valuable not only to Georgians, but to anyone who seeks a better understanding of the problems of postcommunist transitions in general. Although Georgia’s political elites may have behaved with singular immaturity, the problems that they faced were universal. Georgia played out most if not all of the nightmare scenarios that a pessimistic...