Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that is ready for some Caucasian wine.
In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the Russian renewal of Georgian imports and the implications of a closer relationship between the two countries. We’ll review the history of this post-Soviet republic and the ethnic tensions and political dilemmas that create a sometimes confusing array of current events.
The Current: What do you mean Atlanta’s not the capital?
On February 4, Russia announced that it would end a seven year ban on the import of Georgian wine – known as one of the oldest wine making regions in the world. While the glasses were still clinking, a fight broke out between protesters and politicians in Tbilisi, the capital, while Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was making his yearly national speech.
Saakashvili is completing the final year in his presidential term after his political party, the United National Movement Party (UNM) was defeated by the Georgian Dream party coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzini Ivanishvili in October 2012. In addition, a meeting with Russia in December with the new Prime Minister (Ivanishvili) sought further common ground between the two countries.
What does all this mean?
For many analysts, the thawing of Russian-Georgian relations has to do with the rise of Ivanishvili, a billionaire who made his fortune after studying in Russia, and the upcoming end to the Saakashvili regime; an administration that had very hostile relations with Russia including a war in 2008. The protests (which Ivanishvili officials say was a ruse cooked up by Saakashvili) represent the continuing political turmoil that exists over an incomplete democracy.
The turnaround for Georgia is surprising and a bit confusing given their recent war with Russia and the distancing from Moscow that the country’s leadership has paced following the fall of the Soviet Union. It will be interesting to see if Ivanishvili and the new Georgian government will attempt to stray from the pro-NATO and pro-American policies of Saakashvili towards Putin’s Russia, or whether he will forge a more middle ground approach.
To get a better sense of what the politics in Georgia mean for its people and international relations, we need to examine the history behind the people and culture of this South Caucus country. From there we can grasp what Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are facing (and maybe even pronounce their names correctly).
The region now known as Georgia occupies a strategic location adjacent the Black Sea to the West and is a gateway to the Middle East to the South, and the Silk road to the far east past the Caspian Sea to the East. For centuries, Georgia was a strategic trade and traveling route. Most relevant to the present, Georgia is located where a key oil pipeline traverses. This position made Georgia particularly vulnerable to many invasions and influence from different empires and cultures. Hence, Georgia’s own individual peoples and culture have many contributing recipes.
The Roman and Byzantine Empires made their influence through conquest and Christianity, Georgia was a (Christian) ally and base for European crusaders in the Middle Ages, was overrun by the Mongols in 1236 (like the rest of Asia and Eastern Europe), brought under dominion of the Ottoman and Persian Empires, and then fell into an omnipresent reliance on Russia – which continues to this day.
Significantly, the individual culture and people were not always ruled on the whim of a foreigner – Georgia was often ruled independently through local rulers under the umbrella of a larger empire. For example, after the Arabs invaded and sacked Tbilisi in the 7th Century, the ruling family was able to retain a great deal of independence. This occurred again in the 17th and 18th Centuries when the long time Georgian family Bagratid was able to gain further independence within the larger Persian Empire.
It was when this independence was seriously threatened in the 18th Century from the Ottoman Turks that Georgian rulers began seeking security help from their large neighbor to the North, Russia.
Russification: A Bear is Not Easy to Lie With
After Herekle II united the two major regions of Georgia in 1762, he sought protection from Russia especially after Tbilisi was sacked in 1795 by the Persians. But with protection came a lack of control. Tsar Alexander 1 used the strong reins of Russia’s position to gradually incorporate Georgia into the Russian Empire, used a Russian feudal system where Russian education and nobility were introduced, and Georgia lost its regional head of the Orthodox Church. In short order, Georgia had been Russified – even though resistance to its loss of autonomy was prevalent.
In the mid 19th Century, the winds of nationalism that sparked revolution in much of Europe reached Georgia and found a receptive base as a worker class and intellectuals had begun to replace the centuries old Georgian nobility and circles of power. With new manufacturing centers in Tbilisi and other cities, Georgia, like the rest of Russia had a common enemy in Tsarist autocracy – spouting forth in the worker revolutions of 1905 and February 1917. Revolutionaries in Georgia and the rest of Russia were split between those who wanted gradual change (Mensheviks – literally minority) and those who wanted radical change through a full scale revolution (Bolsheviks – majority) led in Georgia by the striking figure of Ioseb Jugashvili, aka Josef Stalin.
After Russia essentially dropped out of WWI (abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, huge losses, etc..) and the Bolsheviks had claimed power in under Lenin in Moscow and St. Petersburg in November 1917, Georgia declared independence from the new Soviet Union in 1918 which was initially recognized by Lenin and the rest of Europe. But the war and the loss of economic relations with Russia struck Georgia particularly hard as they lost their biggest trading partner and had failed to reestablish relations with the West or its neighbors.
The civil war in Russia between the White Army led by the Russian army officers and the Red Army (Bolshevik revolutionary forces) was fought throughout the Russian Empire including Georgia and the Red Army victory and the Georgian Bolsheviks undermining the Georgian Menshevik leadership eventually brought Georgia back into Soviet control in 1921. Between 1921 – 1936, Georgia was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (together with Armenia and Azerbaijan) but then split up as separate Republics as part of the USSR until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Soviet Legacy in Georgia
The 72 years under Soviet rule left many issues when Georgia declared independence (again), but perhaps the most striking was the repression of minorities within Georgia by Stalin which was continued by successive Soviet Georgian leaders. Stalin and his chief of secret police Lavrentia Beria (also from Georgia) purged a great deal of intellectuals and Georgian nobles in the 1930s who had favored the Mensheviks. Positions of power in the Communist Party were given to Georgians over other minorities as many such as Ossetians, Abkhazians, and others were repressed. But Stalin’s legacy in Georgia maintained an elevated status until the end of the Soviet period when the truth about his crimes against his fellow Georgians became known.
Though a positive figure came to power in Georgia in 1972 named Edward Shevardnadze rooted out a great deal of corruption and notably diffused a crisis between Georgia and Abkhazian minority, increased nationalism at the end of the Soviet period brought a huge rift between Tbilisi and Moscow. Resistance against glasnost and Moscow’s effort to placate minority groups in Georgia incensed ethnic minorities and led to armed struggle in 1992 between Abkhazians and Georgian armed forces.
Republic of Georgia
Shevardnadze was elected to head the military council during the chaos of the war in the early 1990s that saw Georgian security forces attempt to put down separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (both autonomous republics). With Russian military support, Georgian forces were actually defeated, causing an embarrassing retreat and exodus for Georgian civilians from Abkhazia. This defeat and Shevardnadze’s use of force to quell democratic movements made him quite unpopular and weakened the influence of Tbilisi. Russians at the same time accused Georgia of supporting the separatist movement in Chechnya.
The United States became involved in a campaign to involve Georgia in NATO, much to the chagrin of Russia, and used special forces to train Georgian soldiers, sent a great deal of foreign aid, and was seen as a counter balance to Russia in the Transcaucuses region – perhaps due to Georgia’s securing of an oil pipeline traversing from the Caspian to the Black Sea.
The most important political events in independent Georgia’s history occurred when popular protests, against the flawed reelection of Shevardnadze forced him to resign in 2003’s Rose Revolution. In a follow up election, our friend from earlier, Mikhail Saakashvili was elected under his party, the National Movement of Democrats.
The Rose Revolution brought huge expectations for increased openness and democratic rights, but quick changes came at the price of big expanses of executive power. Saakashvili’s government had to focus on state building (securing the borders and sovereignty of the Georgian state) which meant attempting to govern over areas under ethnic minority control (helped by their Russian backers).
Georgia continued its effort to be involved with NATO and maintained its positive relationship with the United States, supporting the Iraq War and contributing troops. Russia’s continued support of ethnic minorities within Georgia, air-space violations, and maintained a military garrison as a peacekeeper strained the relationship initially between President Vladimir Putin and then his successor Dmitry Medvedev.
In August 2008, Georgia launched a full scale military campaign into South Ossetia and Abkhazia to reclaim the territory for Georgia and the Georgian peoples living there. Russia, who had supported the separatist governments of Ossetia and Abkhazia against the Georgian government moved in to defend the Georgian move – marking the beginning of a 5 day war known as the Russia-Georgia War of 2008.
After helping broker a ceasefire through the French President Nicolas Sarkozy a bilateral agreement was reached where Russia would withdraw its troops from Georgia and the conflict areas. President Medvedev made things more prickly internationally by declaring that Russia would still recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as separate nations – which was quickly denounced by the United States as a breach in the ceasefire agreement to keep Georgia intact (including separatist regions).
Since the war, Russia has kept military bases and buffer zones close to the borders of Ossetia and Abkhazia and small violent conflicts have popped up close to the disputed areas. Suffice it to say, Russo-Georgian relations remained very tense leading up to this year’s election of the Georgian Dream party and the rise of Prime Minister Ivanishvili.
So we’ve seen significant tension between Russia and Georgia over the years from:
- Russian centralized control in the 18th and 19th Century after Georgia sought protection from Turkey
- Anti-tsarist political activism from Western influences and a new working class
- Soviet control from Moscow and renewed nationalism
- Russian support for ethnic minority groups – leading to major conflicts
- Russian antagonism with American support for Georgia
Georgia’s history is long and tumultuous with several complicated trends. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Georgia’s geographically diverse place on the map has made it an important (and desired) throughway and juncture in Eurasia.
- Georgia has consistently been under the influence and power of Russia, which it has vigorously tried to shrug off
- The Soviet era left a corrupt governing structure that has struggled to bring full democracy to the country.
- Ethnic conflicts have defined the last 30 years for Georgia, exposing its governing and international relations troubles.
What did Ivanishvili’s election mean for Georgia and its relationship with Russia?
Many Georgians felt that full democracy had failed to come quickly enough under Saakashvili and the use of extended executive power in addition to force to quell political protests hurt his party (the UNM). Though Saakashvili did allow the mayor of Tbilisi to be directly elected in 2010, this small democratic move did not placate the voters motivated by the Rose Revolution.
Ivanishvili, in addition to representing a fresh face, could bring something of an economic breath of fresh air. Whether it wants to admit it or not, Georgia’s economy depends a great deal on trade with Russia -its biggest partner. Ivanishvili, a businessman who studied in Russia, recognizes this fact and is looking for a better relationship with Putin.
Russia wants to be a major force in the Caucuses as it once was. It is a strategic location, being on the precipice of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and has an important port on the Black Sea. This is one of the reasons it has been involved in the ethnic conflicts within Georgia and why it has so vigorously opposed Saakashvili’s pro-NATO and pro-U.S. policies. Russia does not want to see the U.S. be the only major player in the caucuses – it still sees itself as the extended empire it once was (at least economically).
Obviously, Saakashvili will still have significant influence over Georgian politics as President for the rest of the year, but the real question is: what will Ivanishvili choose?
Some hostility to Saakashvili, such as suggesting that he resign, and some arrests of former Saakashvili officials may signal dark clouds in the upcoming year, but in general terms, it seems that Mr. Ivanisvili is pro-business, pro-West, pro-Russia, and at least publicly, hoping to bring further democratic reform.
Given the interests of the U.S. in the region (read: oil pipeline & a caucus ally), you can bet President Obama is paying close attention to Ivanishvili’s actions and will want to at least attempt to keep Ivanishvili and Georgia from straying from its pro-NATO policies.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, ‘(POP!)’, it’s time to get to that wine.
Until the next Russian backed separatist movement,
Your Faithful historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and further reads:
The Making of the Georgian Nation, Ronald Grigor Suny