The hazy dawn of Georgian independence

April 13, 2011 - 0:0

Twenty years ago, on April 9, 1991, after two centuries, Georgia officially emerged from Moscow's “canopy of friendly bayonets.” On this day, the Georgian Supreme Soviet, the highest body of power at the time, passed a resolution declaring Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union following a national referendum in which 98% of voters chose independence.

They give their leaders a level of support at the polls normally reserved for the likes of Turkmenbashi or Alexander Lukashenko.
Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, received 87% of the vote. The second president, Eduard Shevardnadze, was elected with 82% of the vote, and the third and current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, got 96.27% of the vote in his first election.
The first two presidents ended up being ousted from power with the same unanimity and lofty agitation as they had been elected.
Saakashvili has managed to keep his job, but was re-elected with just 53% of the vote (only 59% of citizens are eligible to vote) and against a background of massive opposition rallies. The love and devotion Georgian voters feel for a politician can easily turn into hatred and distrust. Georgians are a fiery and emotional people. It's all or nothing for them; there is no in-between.
Power built on tragedy
On April 9, 1991 President Gamsakhurdia got his fifteen minutes of fame. He was essentially the sole author of Georgia's independence - the goal he had led his country toward for exactly two years. I say “exactly” because Georgia's independence from the Soviet Union became inevitable on April 9, 1989, when Gamsakhurdia and his associates literally provoked the Soviet army into breaking up a rally in Tbilisi, as a result of which 19 people lost their lives.
The tragedy of April 9, 1989 is usually described as a “bloody crime” of the Soviet government. That is justified to some extent, as unarmed civilians were killed. However, there are some important details.
First of all, people were killed not because the troops fired on the crowd or beat them with trench shovels (the subject of a lot of discussions at the time) but as a result of a stampede that broke out as they were brutally squeezed out of the square.
Second, not all the demonstrators were peaceful. Many put up fierce resistance, threw at the troops whatever they could get hold of and tried to steal their armor. Remember, this took place in 1989, and the Soviet military was still unaccustomed to such treatment. Obviously, this is not meant to justify, but rather to explain the brutality of troops' response.
The rally started on April 4, and the organizers vowed that it would continue “indefinitely.” During the five days of protest, people got very tired and wanted to leave, but Gamsakhurdia and his associates did everything they could to keep them on the square. They needed a bloody clash that would pave the way to independence and power, and that is exactly what they got.
Finally, it should be noted that the rally in Tbilisi was organized in response to a demonstration in the Abkhazian village of Lykhny in which several thousand people called for Abkhazia's secession from Georgia and the restoration of its status as a Soviet republic. In other words, the Tbilisi protest was fueled by strictly ethnic-nationalist sentiment, which Gamsakhurdia and his team skillfully channeled into anti-Soviet slogans. The future first president built his program on two slogans - “Georgia for Georgians” and “Down with Soviet power!”
From dissidents to tyrants
The father of Georgian independence was a colorful personality. On the one hand, Gamsakhurdia was a typical dissident and intellectual, the son of a writer and a doctor of philology, a member of the Union of Writers and a senior fellow at the Georgian Language Institute. On the other hand, he was a radical ethnic nationalist who led thousands of armed cutthroats to carry out pogroms against minority Ossetians and Avars.
After coming to power, Gamsakhurdia became an authoritarian leader with fascistic impulses. Having been elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet, he immediately ousted the Communists from parliament and outlawed the party. One notorious fuehrer acted in much the same way in the Reichstag in 1933, but he did not have a degree in philology.
Georgia has had many such colorful leaders. What other country could have produced a man who is referred to in encyclopedias “a political, military and criminal leader, a thief in law”? All these terms apply to another notorious personality, Jaba Ioseliani, who wrote scholarly works, novels and plays and taught at a drama school. What a surprising mix. Ioseliani was imprisoned in Soviet Georgia, under Gamsakhurdia, and under Shevardnadze, whom he helped come to power.
Let's return to 1991. When the Congress of the People's Deputies of the Soviet Union decided to hold a national referendum for the Soviet Union's preservation on March 17, the Georgian Supreme Soviet, in which Gamsakhurdia had already gained firm ground, refused to take part in it. He announced his own, Georgian referendum, which Abkhazia and South Ossetia refused to take part in.
The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR abolished South Ossetian republic in November 1989. However, it still existed, although not on the entire territory of the former South-Ossetian Autonomous Region. But the authorities of the unrecognized republic gained a firm hold on its capital Tskhinvali, undermining, together with Abkhazia, the unity of Georgia, which followed in the footsteps of the Soviet empire. The blame for this rests with Gamsakhurdia and his rigid, hard-line ethnic policy.
This was the only policy Gamsakhurdia pursued. He banned parties, shut down newspapers, subjugated the leaders of regional administrations and mired Georgia in a long and bloody struggle with the rebellious former autonomies. By the end of 1991, his compatriots were completely fed up with him. They overthrew him in a long and agonizing process, and finished him off in Western Georgia, the homeland of his ancestors, where he unleashed a civil war against the government in Tbilisi. This chaos came to an end on December 31, 1993 when Gamsakhurdia was either killed or committed a suicide. The circumstances of his death are still under investigation.
These were the early days of Georgia's independence, whose essence was captured by the famous theater and film director Giga Lordkipanidze: “I can't say how independent we are today because in many respects we depend on big countries, their desires and their fair and unfair grievances against our country.” Artists sometimes provide a better appraisal of reality than politicians, who are often prone to demagoguery.
(Source: Rianovosti