Red Blues: Strife in Post-Soviet Georgia

Article excerpt

Toward the end of November 2003, Georgians rejoiced at the revolution that removed president and semi-despot, Eduard Shevardnadze, from power. Periodicals and news networks around the world lauded this seemingly bloodless transfer of power, calling it the "Velvet Revolution." At the helm of this historic transfer of power was the current president of Georgia, New York lawyer turned homeland patriot, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Little more than a year later, however, the underlying ethnic tension and violence that plagued Shevardnadze's regime are more pronounced than ever. As of October 2004, South Ossetia and Abkhazia--self-declared autonomous republics within Georgia--have been functioning as independent countries within the Republic of Georgia. Abkhazia even moved to elect its own head of state in October 2004. As the people's visionary, Saakashvili showed that he could protect his country from sham democracy. Now that he is in the position of responsibility, he must find a way to bring the splinter republics back into the Georgian fold. This will not only require assistance from foreign powers, but a careful balance between political pressure and cultural compromise.

The composition and geography of Georgia is clear evidence of the region's instability and T'bilisi's trouble with legitimacy. Like most countries in Central Asia, this small former Soviet satellite republic is more a jumble of cultural backgrounds than a homogeneous ethnic state. The five million citizens of Georgia are comprised of primarily Georgians (70.1 percent), Armenians (8.1 percent), Russians (6.3 percent), Azeri (5.7 percent), South Ossetians (3 percent), and Abkhazians (1.8 percent).

The third variable of this Georgian-secessionist relationship is Russia. Russian dominance of Central Asia began during the age of Imperial Russia and has continued through the Soviet era into the present day. Ironically, the Soviet annexation of Georgia and the Caucasus alleviated the ethnic tensions, if only temporarily. Georgia itself was a Soviet republic comprising smaller and ethnically diverse "regions" and "republics" like Abkhazia in western Georgia and South Ossetia in the north.

The USSR's dissolution posed two problems for Georgia. First, smaller constituent regions no longer felt supported by Georgia's union republic. Second, the subsequent Georgian attempts at suppression of separatist-related rebellion in the early 1990s motivated Abkhazians to use violence to forward their secessionist agenda. In 1994, Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia. South Ossetia, the other remaining unstable region in Georgia with separatist intentions, also shares a similar history. Historically linked with North Ossetia, a Russian federative state, South Ossetia has been at loggerheads with Georgia since 1989. While there have been truces and ceasefires called between South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia in the past decade, peace, if any, is very tenuous in the area. Ethnic vitriol is by no means uncommon. The post-Cold War reorientation of Russia's geopolitical interests has resulted in increasing amiability with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. …