Staunton, Dec. 22 – On this anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR, Moscow commentators have focused on the global issue of how and why that country came apart. In the capitals of the non-Russian countries, in contrast, most writers have been reconsidering how and why their elites and populations behaved at that time.
In the Republic of Georgia that has produced a number of insightful articles which help to explain not only why that country has developed as it has but also why its relationships with its two autonomies, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with Moscow have been what they still are (ekhokavkaza.com/a/georgia-south-osetia-abkhayia-ussr/31620731.html).
Unlike in many parts of the USSR, in Georgia, the national movement was animated by nationalism rather than the struggle for democracy, a pattern that was reenforced by the tensions between the Georgians, on the one hand, and the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, on the other, Pata Zakareyshvili, a former minister says.
Georgians were exercised by reports that Moscow was about to do away with the constitutional rights of republics to leave the USSR, a threat that prompted ever more of them to talk about doing just that. At the same time, it lead Abkhaz activists to talk about leaving Georgia and remaining part of the USSR.
Arda Inal-ipa, head of the Sukhumi Center for Humanitarian Programs, said that the Abkhaz feared that otherwise they would be left facing the Georgians on their own and without support from Moscow, something that many of them felt would be a threat to their continued national existence.
These tensions came into public view during the discussion of the new Soviet constitution in the mid-1970s and were exacerbated in early 1989 when a meeting of Abkhaz demanded that their republic leave Georgia and reacquire the status of a union republic that it had had before 1931.
The Abkhaz began with that demand but soon expanded it to include a demand for independence. Inal-ipa says. The Georgians responded with a massive demonstration that the communist leadership in Tbilisi felt compelled to call in Soviet troops to suppress. The latter did so, brutally, killing 21 and wounding more than 600.
That act of repression did not stabilize the situation. Instead, it led to the replacement of the senior party and state officials and the appearance of the Free Georgia Round Table which assumed the leadership of the Georgian national movement. It was led by Zviad Gamsakhurdiya who later became the first president of independent Georgia.
Gamsakhurdiya exacerbated relations with South Ossetia that had already been seeking independence from Georgia. According to Zakareyshvili, “Gamsakhurdiya was more aggressive to South Ossetia than to Abkhazia.” For example, “despite the fact that the Abkhaz were a minority in Abkhazia, he proposed an election system to Vladislav Ardzinba that would ensure the Abkhaz had a majority in the local parliament.”
The former minister says that “Gamsakhurdiya considered that Abkhazia is an historical region of Georgia but South Ossetia has never existed historically. Stalin created it. In fact, that was the case. But he decided that what had been artificially created could be disbanded in the same way.” That was a huge mistake and led to serious conflict.
Gamsakhurdiya eventually had to flee the country because of his conflict with the Georgian national guard, thus becoming the only Georgian president who left office not because of elections but because of the collapse of his authority within the siloviki of the republic.