Georgia: A Country Out of Control

Robert Ketcherside

Political Science 271 (Ziegler)

Georgia, the smallest of the independent states created after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been forced to attempt to resolve problems with regions populated by separatist minorities, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, before it can work on other political or economic problems.

Georgia is located in the Caucasus Mountains, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Historically it has belonged to the Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Mongol, and Russian empires, and was forcibly taken into the Soviet Union in 1921. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia became an independent state, along with its neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south. Along Georgia's northern border lies Russia, and a portion of its southern border belongs to Turkey. Two-thirds of the population, which was estimated at 5.5 million in 1991, are Georgian, and minorities include Armenian, Russian, and Azerbaijani.1

The Caucasus Mountains were of strategic importance for the Soviet Union, defendable high lands protecting the flat plains to the north.2 Another important feature of this area are its ports on the Black and Caspian Seas, because ports are a scarce commodity in iced-over Russia.3 In order to ensure that the peoples of the Caucasus would not be able to separate from the Union, Stalin applied the same "divide and rule" principle he did in other regions. With this, he would make up a Republic of one majority population and one or two minority populations. This would give him the ability to play the populations against each other: should the majority try to secede from the Union, he would cause the minority to revolt; meanwhile the minority would be dependant upon the Union government to ensure that it was treated fairly by the majority.4 This tactic, put into effect more than 50 years ago, proved itself in 1991, when Georgia became an independent state with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Almost as soon as the Georgian flags were out of the mothballs they'd been in for the past 70 years, fighting began in South Ossetia. This autonomous state in north-central Georgia has always had strong pro-Soviet sentiment, as shown by their eagerness to support the attempt by communists to remove Gorbachev from power. For this reason, and the distance they feel in culture and language with Georgia, the Ossetians wanted to become a part of Russia by combining with the state of North Ossetia.5 The conflict was finally resolved with the assistance of Russia, and the establishment of a Russian / Ossetian / Georgian peacekeeping force in 1992.6

The real problems have been in Abkhazia, in the northwest corner of Georgia. The majority of the people in this area, like in South Ossetia, have a language and heritage different from Georgia. The Abkhazians had attempted a succession from Georgia, which was turned down by the state government, and comments by then-Georgian President Gamsakhurdia further aggravated the populace. On August of 1992 a military force was sent to retrieve 11 Georgian hostages which were said to be held in Abkhazia by Georgian rebels. Allegedly this force had permission to enter Abkhazia, but they were not allowed entry by Abkhazian guards. The clash which resulted was the beginning of a war of secession.7 Although it's unclear whether the initial incursion was sanctioned by him, Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, first appointed by military leaders, then later elected head of Georgia, took responsibility for the action. Realizing something needed to be done about the situation in Abkhazia, Shevardnadze sent in the Georgian military to deal with the rebels. Unfortunately, the Georgians were undisciplined and incompetent, and were unable to defeat the mercenary forces which Abkhazia had invited to fight off the Georgians.8 Many cease-fires and treaties were reached, but each failed. In the summer of `93 a Russian "sponsored" treaty (which was more or less forced on Shevardnadze by Russia) was supposed to have similar results as in South Ossetia: provide for a peacekeeping force and for the removal of troops from the area. However, only the Georgians were removed from the area, and before the peacekeeping force could be made effective, Abkhazian mercenaries (containing large numbers of Russian volunteers) took the city of Sukhumi.9 Realizing the situation was beyond his control, and seeing the continued conflicts destroying his country politically and economically, Shevardnadze turned to the Russians for help. In exchange, Georgia would allow Russia to maintain military bases within its borders, and would join the Commonwealth of Independent States.10

Although Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected to Presidency in 1991 with 87 percent of the popular vote, he proved to be a poor leader.11 In January of 1992 he was deposed in a coup, and the military leaders, promising to restore democracy, brought in Eduard Shevardnadze to rule until elections.12 Although what led to the coup and Gamsakhurdia's downfall was his non-democratic practice of squelching opposition, two other major flaws in his administration were his policy towards minorities and his relations with Russia. When the Ossetians and Abkhazians began to cause too much trouble, he tried to abolish their status as autonomous states. This only caused more anger from them, resulting in escalated violence. His view of Russia was that they were the ultimate evil, and that if anyone spoke out against him or if anything stood in his path, it was because of direct influence by Russia.13 Although this paranoia was extreme, it appears that Shevardnadze, in constrast, may have been too optimistic in his own views. Shevardnadze had served as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, and was a strong force in the Unions' movement toward democracy. As head of Georgia, he felt that the two countries, Georgia and Russia, have many reasons for good relations. Ethnically, both have minority populations of the others' majority ethnic group. Also, Shevardnadze recognized the strategic importance of Georgia to Russia. Shevardnadze was, at first, able to create good political ties with Russia, but soon he was forced to face that not all of Gamsakhurdia's worries of Russian conspiracy to undermine Georgia were paranoia.14

Although the Soviet Union is gone, the same strategic needs exist for Russia: control of defendable borders, and sufficient numbers of ports which do not become inaccessible during the winter. For this reason, Russia continues to inhibit complete freedom of the Caucasus states. When a pro-Iran President was elected to office in Azerbaijan, Russia supported a coup organized by The Azerbaijan Communist Party. Unable to remove separatist forces from power in Chechnya by political means or espionage, they moved in the military and attempted to wipe out the rebels. Similarly, Russia, through aid of weapons, intelligence, and `volunteers', has supported separatist movements in Georgia, causing serious economic and political hardship for Georgia.15 Because of this, and the fact that Western nations have been slow to help, Georgia, turning to Russia for aid, has been forced to give up its hope of being completely independent of them.

Georgia is a country in change, hoping to move as far from the socialist state it once was, as close to the democratic ideal its citizens hold. However, it must first overcome the obstacles which stand in its way. The most important of these is to gain control of the separatist regions. But to do that, it must first find a way to stop Russia from backing the separatists. It seems impossible for a small nation like Georgia to even consider standing up, through either words or action, to a nation as large as Russia. Even Shevardnadze said, "Russia is a big bear. We are but a small rabbit, and must remember our place," as he finally gave in to Russian pressure. The future of the unresolved situation in Georgia will be decided by the motives of Russia and the decision on degree of support of Georgia by the West.


1. "Fact sheet: Georgia." US Department of State Dispatch, May 9, 1994. p296.
2. Strategic Survey, 92/93. London: IISS, 1993. p83.
3. "Tricked and abandoned: Georgia." The Economist, Oct 2, 1993. p56.
4. Strategic Survey, 93/94. IIS; London, 1994. p89.
5. Roxburgh, Angus, and Tomaszewsi, Tomasz. "Georgia fights for nationhood". National Geographic, May 1992. p89.
6. "Fact Sheet: Georgia". p298.
7. "Fact sheet: Georgia". p298.
8. Strategical Survey 92/93. pp 80-81.
9. "Tricked and abandoned: Georgia". p56.
10. Strategic Survey 93/94. p95.
11. "Georgia fights for nationhood." p86.
12. Strategic Survey 92/93. p 78.
13. "Georgia fights for nationhood". p98.
14. Strategic Survey 92/93. p79.
15. "Tricked and abandoned". p56.


Afanasyev, Yuri N. "Seems Like Old Times? Russia's Place in the World." Current History, Oct 1994: pp305-308.

Main point of the article with respect to Georgia is that Russia wants to retain military, political, and economic control without having the humanitarian responsibilities to the populace. Gives support

"Fact sheet: Georgia." US Department of State Dispatch, May 9, 1994: pp296-299.
A very concise account of the events in Georgia since the fall of Soviet power.

Glastris, Paul. "Caught in the Ethnic Crossfire." U.S. News and World Report, June 13, 1994: p24.
Highlights Greek minorities' problems in Sukhumi. Good third-party views of situation.

Roxburgh, Angus and, Tomaszewski, Tomasz. "Georgia fights for nationhood." National Geographic, May 1992: pp82-112.
Good look at Georgia just after obtaining independant sovereignty. Many good pictures of Georgian people and country.

Strategic Survey 94/95. London: IISS, 1993. pp75-83.
Thorough account of the events in Georgia for the year.

Strategic Survey 93/94. London: IISS, 1993. pp89-98.
Complete recount of events in Georgia, with explanation of ramifacations.

"Tricked and abandoned: Georgia." The Economist, Oct 2, 1993: p56.
Short article on Russian manipulation and Western ignorance of Georgia.