So, Georgia Georgia Georgia. Yet there’s one name I’ve hardly seen mentioned: the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of independent Georgia.
That’s sort of strange. Because if there’s one man who’s responsible for the current mess in Georgia — more than Saakashvili, more than Putin — it’s Gamsakhurdia.
Because he was a complete jackass.
All across Eurasia, in the early 1990s, you had a first generation of post-Communist leaders taking power. And by and large, it wasn’t a very promising crop. You had drunks (Yeltsin), slimy connivers (Iliescu), petty, mean-spirited nationalists (Tudjman), slimy connivers pretending to be petty, mean-spirited nationalists (Milosevic), corrupt thugs (Lukashenko, Smirnov), guys who had no idea what the hell they were doing (Izetbegovic, Berisha) and just plain lunatics (Niyazov).
But in terms of sheer damage inflicted upon his hapless country, nobody — not Yeltsin, not Berisha, not even Milosevic — came close to Gamsakhurdia.
There’s a whole long backstory about Gamsakhurdia, and if you like you can go and read it. Briefly, he was the son of a very important Georgian family (his father was one of the nation’s great literary figures) who grew up to be an intellectual, anti-Soviet dissident, and fervent Georgian nationalist. As a teenager, he got thrown in a Soviet psychiatric ward for a while; as an adult, he did some time in jail; meanwhile, he built a career as a writer and translator, circulated a lot of samizdata, and feuded viciously with other Georgian intellectuals. There’s a whole book to be written on his early life — it’s a very Soviet story — but suffice it to say that he was in and out of trouble for over thirty years before emerging as leader of independent Georgia.
Whereupon he promptly led the country into disaster. Gamsakhurdia led the drive to revoke South Ossetia’s autonomy in 1990, which led directly to the Ossetians counter-seceding and calling on Russian — later Soviet — help.
It’s possible that South Ossetia might have seceded anyway. On the other hand, maybe not… the Ossetians didn’t love the Georgians, but they didn’t hate each other, and in 1990-1 it wasn’t obvious that going with Russia was an alternative. An emollient policy towards the minorities might have worked; failing that, there was always the possibility of delaying a confrontation until Georgia’s embryonic military was ready to roll. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a worse policy than Gamsakhurdia’s “we’re revoking your autonomy — suck it up!” without having either the guns or the political clout to make it stick.
Gamsakhurdia then mismanaged things so badly in Georgia itself that within a year he’d been ousted in a coup. Here’s a summary from a (sympathetic!) article on his tenure:
Nor can the fall of Gamsakhurdia be explained as the struggle of dictatorship against democracy. Gamsakhurdia’s anti-democratic programme was clear from the very beginning… Gamsakhurdia was simply not qualified to be a president. He knew how to address rallies, how to appeal to the public, how to find active supporters; but his paranoid suspiciousness made him unable to keep his supporters on his side. He was obsessed with the problem of personal loyalty and failed to develop rational political behaviour. He did not master the art of making a temporary deal with less dangerous opponents in order to get rid of more dangerous ones. He was able to turn friends into enemies, but not the reverse.
He also managed to trash Georgia’s economy pretty thoroughly. Not that anyone was doing such a great job of managing a post-Soviet economy in the early 1990s, but Gamsakhurdia had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and so managed to make a whole bunch of stupid-to-disastrous decisions in very quick order.
So the Georgians — or rather, a disaffected coalition of Georgia’s elites — kicked him out, and replaced him with former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Gamsakhurdia sulked in neighboring countries for the next couple of years, then invaded Georgia just at the height of Georgia’s campaign in Abkhazia. In fact, he crossed the border just as the battle for Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s capital, was reaching its height. It’s an open question whether the Georgians would have lost anyway, but Gamsakhurdia’s invasion made it a sure thing: Sukhumi fell to the Russian-backed Abkhaz forces just three days later, and the Georgians were expelled from the province within weeks.
It didn’t do Gamsakhurdia much good, because the Russians, having won the key battle in Abkhazia, abruptly decided that they didn’t need him any more. In a move so cynical that it’s still rather startling to contemplate, they threw their support behind Shevardnadze — who’d been up at the front lines in Sukhumi just a few weeks earlier, trying to rally Georgia’s forces to hold against Russia’s Abkhaz clients — and pulled the plug on Gamsakhurdia.
Gamsakhurdia never did much of interest after that. He continued to insist he was the rightful President of Georgia for a few years, and then he died in obscurity and exile. (Mysteriously, of course.)
So what does this have to tell us about Georgia in 2008? Well… maybe that’s best left as an exercise for the reader.
But here’s a personal note. Like a lot of people, I had high hopes for Saakashvili and his new regime. The Rose Revolution, you may recall, involved the overthrow of a Shevardnadze government (still in power over a decade after Gamsakhurdia’s expulsion) that had grown intolerably sluggish, sclerotic and corrupt.
Saakashvili was young, energetic, and started off making all the right moves. Does anyone remember when he fired all the traffic cops? That was brilliant. And then there was the whole Ajaria thing. Hardly anyone has mentioned it, but Saakashvili managed to finesse one separatist region back into the fold without bloodshed. And he made a major dent in corruption — which is to say, it dropped from “universal and crippling” to “nearly universal and a huge problem”. And he said all the right things about liberalization and modernization and planting the seeds of European values in the stony soil of the Caucasus.
The first straw in the wind — the first thing that made me say ‘uh-oh’ — was his treatment of the Armenian minority. There are two or three hundred thousand Armenians in Georgia, and they’ve been there since forever. They’re not very assimilated, but they are very well integrated — bilingual, tend to be educated and employed, don’t make a lot of problems. They’re no sort of threat to the state: they have no separatist ambitions (for one thing, they’re too geographically dispersed), and Armenia has made it clear that it wouldn’t support anything like that. They did have some modest and negotiable requests: more autonomy, Armenian-language schools, the usual minority stuff.
Well: Saakashvili just dumped on them. Gave them nothing. Smacked down their requests — treated them as borderline treasonable — and tightened the screws on small but symbolically important stuff like bilingual testimony in court, double citizenship, and the use of the Armenian alphabet in public. Basically made it clear that he wanted them to assimilate or get the hell out to Armenia.
That was the first thing. The second thing had zero practical impact but, for me was a huge red flag. Combined with the treatment of the Armenians, it’s what made me say “okay, wait a minute, I think there’s a problem here”.
The second thing was when Saakashvili rehabilitated Gamsakhurdia as a national hero. Which is the official line today: Gamsakhurdia was the noble, misunderstood father of free Georgia. Sure, he made mistakes, but his intentions were always the best! And it was evil outside (Russian) influences that brought him down.
Sometimes the symbolic isn’t symbolic enough, you know?
And that’s my bit of Caucasus history for today.