Georgia’s geographical location between the Black and Caspian Seas and between Europe and Asia has made it a strategic and therefore contested location throughout history. The area which is now the Republic of Georgia has been linked to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. This land has changed hands many times, and each ruling power has left some mark on the modern Georgian nation. All three of the regional powers in the Caucasus—Turkey, Iran, and Russia—have controlled all or part of what is now Georgia at some point in its history.
Though Georgia was long a part of the sphere of influence of the great Muslim Empires of the medieval period, it was the Peace of Amasa in 1555 which formalized Persian and Turkish control over the region. This treaty “divided Georgia into spheres of influence. Kartli, Kakheti, and the eastern part of Samtskhe saatabago were declared to be Iranian, while Imereti, its ‘vassal’ states, and western Samtskhe were to be Turkish” (Suny, 48). All told, the period of Persian influence in the Georgian lands lasted nearly a thousand years (de Waal, 24).
In the late sixteenth century, Muscovy began to gain power and exert its influence southward into the Caucasus (Suny, 49). The successor state to Muscovy, the Russian Empire, became a power in the Caucasus in the eighteenth century when it became involved in a series of wars with Turkey. The Georgian monarchs saw an opportunity to better the position of their state in the regional order, and arranged for protection from their co-religionists in Russia against the Muslim Turks and Persians (Suny, 57-59). In 1783, the Treaty of Georgievsk was signed which officially made the Georgian kingdoms a Russian protectorate (de Waal, 38). In 1828, the Persians signed the Treaty of Turkmenchai which solidified this relationship between Russia and Georgia (de Waal, 38). A year later in 1829, the Treaty of Adrianople was signed by both the Turks and the Persians, who ceded all claims to the Caucasus and made the region an undisputed part of the Russian Empire (de Waal, 40).
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the countries of the Caucasus enjoyed a brief period of independence. Though short-lived, this period profoundly influenced political thinking in the region (de Waal, 64). Georgia was an independent, parliamentary democracy from 1918-1921. Thomas de Waal, a scholar of the Caucasus from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes this system as “fairly democratic” (de Waal, 64). The leader of the Democratic Republic, Noe Zhordania, “believed in ruling by consensus” and “was genuinely popular and earned the support of the peasantry” (de Waal, 65). Despite its democratic features and many positive traits, this system was also marked by an antagonism toward Georgia’s national minorities and was built upon a foundation of strong ethnic-Georgian nationalism (de Waal, 64-65). This nationalistic streak became a source of trouble for Georgia later. Georgia, the last independent holdout of the independent states of the Caucasus, was conquered by the Bolsheviks in 1921 and subsumed into the Soviet Union.
Though Georgia’s position in the Soviet Union was in many ways parallel to its position in the Russian Empire, de Waal cautions against seeing the Soviet Union as a mere continuation of the Russian Empire. In the Soviet Union there was less of an emphasis on Russianization, and nationalism was at times encouraged as a political tool. In fact, many high-ranking Bolsheviks (most notoriously Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria) were Georgians, illustrating the possibility for social advancement in the Soviet Union (de Waal, 72). Georgia, in particular its Black Sea coast, was billed as “Soviet Florida”. This status as a vacation destination coupled with the climate which allowed the cultivation of luxury crops such as tea and citrus made Georgia one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. (de Waal, 89).
Ethnic Georgian nationalism was on the rise in the late 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing instability exacerbated the situation. Ethnic conflicts broke out in the Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. South Ossetia initially asked for autonomy within Georgia, and then declared independence in 1990. The ensuing violence developed into an inter-ethnic war. During the conflict, the South Ossetian separatists saw the Soviet troops in the region as their allies against the Georgians (Mackinlay and Sharov, 74-75). The war in Abkhazia also started as a result of a desire for post-Soviet independence from Georgia. Fighting broke out in August of 1992, and over the course of this conflict 11,000 people were killed and 300,000 were displaced (Boden, 56). Abkhaz separatists called for Russian assistance against the “Georgian aggression” and Mountaineers and Cossacks (Russian citizens of ethnic minorities from the Russian-controlled North Caucasus) travelled across the border and joined the fighting either as mercenaries or to support their fellow Caucasians against the common Georgian enemy (Dale, 124). The degree of official Russian involvement in the conflict in Abkhazia is still debated, though these conflicts made it obvious from the beginning of Georgia’s independence that the Russo-Georgian relationship would be a fraught one. Following these conflicts, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia and was elected President. Though the conflicts remained under control, a period of corruption and stagnation characterized the Shevardnadze period.
In 2003, a new generation of reformers ousted President Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution. The three leaders of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, implemented a program of anti-corruption, democratization and Westernization. However, their coalition did not last. Nino Burjanadze departed the Rose Revolution coalition and became a leader of the opposition while Zurab Zhvania, died in February of 2005. The post-Rose Revolution political environment, led by an increasingly-powerful President Saakashvili, is characterized by a fragmented party system and an opposition focused primarily on nationalism and personality rather than on a particular political agenda. The most recent developments in Georgia will be the topic of subsequent posts.
Boden, Dieter. “The Role of the UN in the Settlement of the Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia.” Promoting Institutional Responses to the Challenges in the Caucasus: the OSCE, UN, EU and the CIS; Analyses, Case Studies, Outlooks; International Peace Academy, 31st Vienna Seminar, Diplomatic Academy Vienna 5-7 July 2001. Comp. Vienna School of International Studies. Wien: Diplomatische Akademie Wien, 2001. 56-60. Print.
Dale, Catherine. “The Case of Abkhazia (Georgia).” Peacekeeping and the Role of Russia in Eurasia. Ed. Lena Jonson and Clive Archer. Boulder: Westview, 1996. 121-38. Print.
de Waal, Thomas. The Caucasus: an Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Mackinlay, John, and Evgenii Sharov. “Russian Peacekeeping and Operations in Georgia.”Regional Peacekeepers: the Paradox of Russian Peacekeeping. Ed. John Mackinlay and Peter Cross. Tokyo: United Nations UP, 2003. 63-110. Print.
“Protests in Georgia: On Rustaveli Avenue.” The Economist [London] 2 June 2011, Print Edition ed., Europe sec. The Economist. The Economist Group, 2 June 2011. Web. 5 June 2011. <http://www.economist.com/node/18774744>.
Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Making of the Georgian Nation. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.
Due to its brevity, many interesting parts of Georgian history have been glossed over or omitted entirely. If there’s something you feel should not have been forgotten, please share in the comments! Likewise, I’ve tried hard to be accurate while also being brief, but if there are any factual errors, please let us know!