Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Failure of Georgia's National Idea

The political movement which drove Georgia's independence bid has fizzled out in the face of harsh political realities.
By Sozar Subeliani

The wave of national feeling which triggered Georgia's break from the Soviet Union in 1989 was surprisingly shortlived. In its heyday, the republic's independence movement enjoyed support from almost 90% of the electorate. More than 10 years on, the architects of Georgian secession find themselves languishing in the political doldrums.


In the wake of the October 1999 parliamentary elections, the New Seven Days daily paper wrote, "The elections have illustrated the failure of the national idea. Both the movement and its leaders have lost their influence. All parties actively engaged in the national independence movement between 1988 and 1992 have since vanished from the political arena."


Georgian independence was the central issue on Zviad Gamsakhurdia's manifesto when his Round Table - Free Georgia party stormed to victory at the October 1990 parliamentary elections. Supported by a massive majority, Gamsakhurdia became the republic's first president on May 26, 1991. However, in the wake of his overthrow under a year later, election laws were radically changed and deputies from 26 different parties were voted into the Georgian parliament.


The November 1995 elections saw the secessionist coalitions which emerged from the independence movement secure just 30% of the vote. By last October, none of these parties gained a single parliamentary seat.


The rise and fall of the Georgian independence movement were equally swift. Many political observers contend that this phenomenon was deliberately engineered by the Soviet regime in a bid to mould the process of secession.


Ramaz Sakhvarelidze, a psychologist and former member of parliament, said, "The Russian government plotted to give the national independence movement an ethnic rather than a political flavour - an emotional, aggressive nationalism that was not conducive to forming solid state structures."


Moscow saw an urgent need to reassess its relationship with the republics in the late 1980s, explains Sakhvarelidze. The policy of bolstering the satellite territories had sucked the Russian economy dry but the ruling elite was determined to abandon its economic responsibilities without sacrificing its political influence.


Sakhvarelidze contends that Moscow could only maintain this control by triggering regional conflicts in the former Soviet republics. It reasoned that nationalist factions would inevitably sow the seeds of ethnic in-fighting and destabilise the fledgling regimes.


Russia worked hard to provoke the aggressive elements within secessionist movements across the former Soviet Union, says Sakhvarelidze. On April 9, 1989, Soviet troops crushed a peaceful rally in Tbilisi, leaving 21 dead and hundreds in hospital. Moscow's sole intention was to unleash a wave of nationalist hysteria across the South Caucasian republic, claims the former MP.


A temporary investigative committee was set up by the Soviet Supreme Council to investigate the April 9 tragedy. Headed by Anatoly Sobchak, later St Petersburg's first mayor, the committee questioned dozens of participants and witnesses.


According to Sakhvarelidze, Georgian Communist Party secretary Nugzar Popkhadze told the commission that the Russian government had deliberately stifled the activities of moderate groups such as the People's Front and the Rustaveli Society in a bid to encourage radical - and more destructive - factions.


Shadiman Shamanidze, a playwright and former Soviet Supreme Council deputy, said, "Initially, a large part of the Georgian population was totally indifferent to the idea of independence. Others were firmly opposed to the destructive nature of nationalist elements within the secessionist movement, but the events of April 9 laid the foundations for an aggressive strain of nationalism."


Similar tactics were employed in other Soviet republics. A national independence movement in Baku, Azerbaijan, was crushed by Russian troops who killed 121 demonstrators and wounded more than 700.


Etibar Mamedov, leader of Azerbaijan's National Independence Party and a serving MP, remembers that, prior to the tragedy, local military commanders were ordered not to interfere whilst ethnic Armenians living in Baku were repeatedly harassed by local radicals.


Yusif Samedoghly, a leading member of Azerbaijan's National Front, wrote in the aftermath of the uprising: "I am convinced that all nationalist movements in former Soviet republics were in fact organised by the KGB."


This destabilising policy has allowed the Russian government to achieve its political goals: its influence remains strong across the ethnic trouble spots although a weak economy prevents Moscow from playing a decisive role.


Sakhvarelidze still believes that Zviad Gamsakhurdia's regime boasted the ideological unity necessary to form a successful government. However, civil war in Georgia rapidly discredited the political doctrines of the independence movement - and attempts at establishing democracy and territorial integrity have since failed to produce a new ideological formula.


Sakhvarelidze blames this failure on a growing crisis amongst the Georgian intelligentsia and on chronic disorganisation in governmental structures.


Political commentator Nodar Jibladze maintains that Georgia needs a national ideology to establish its identity and its position on the international map. In the early 1990s, he wrote, "Georgia is faced with the prospect of interacting with the international community. It has to adjust to the new reality by redefining and developing its system of values and ethnic culture."


Jibladze believes that this is the task of the Georgian intelligentsia which traditionally acted as a bridge between Georgia and Europe but was left in limbo by the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Political leaders are equally concerned by the crisis of the national ideology. After the October 1999 elections, a member of parliament, David Lelashvili commented in the RezonansI daily newspaper, "All parties previously affiliated to the independence movement have simply run out of steam - not because the idea itself has failed but because other political parties have taken a more pragmatic approach to the new realities."


Nevertheless, leaders of now defunct parties still actively discuss the possibility of reuniting the political forces which once backed secession from the Soviet Union - although they agree that a central ideology is still lacking. These parties lost the support of the electorate because they failed to come up with dynamic policies while factions such as Industry Will Save Georgia have promised to create thousands of new jobs and solve the economic deadlock.


On the eve of Georgia's presidential elections, President Eduard Shevardnadze comments, "We are working to establish an independent and democratic Georgian state with geo-political and international integrity. Our opponents must prove that they can improve on our policies or introduce a more acceptable political direction. At the current time, I know of no politicians capable of achieving this."


Paradoxically, Shevardnadze seems to embody the national ideology to a far greater extent than those who accuse him of betraying the national interests.


Sozar Subeliani is the editor of Georgia's Kavkasioni newspaper.


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