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.

But then…

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.

This entry was posted in History and tagged , by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

15 thoughts on “Gamsakhurdia

  1. >he did some time in jail

    As far as I remember, there were two most prominent dissidents in Georgia – Gamsakhurdia and Kostava. The latter indeed got jail while Gamsakhurdia – something like internal exile. Kostava died in 1989 or near that. Seems suspiciously timely.

  2. “which led directly to the Ossetians counter-seceding and calling on Russian — later Soviet — help”

    That should be the other way around, no?

  3. Gamsakhurdia seems to have been handled with kid gloves, probably because his father was the Great Man of Letters. This seems to have made him doubly bitter.

    Jonny, yah right.

    Doug M.

  4. Well,it seems you’re a bit too harsh and unfair to Gamsahurdia. My understanding is that he was no more dictatorial than almost all other political leaders of Transcaucasia of that time, and he had not much time to do real harm to the economy (actually, I am not aware of anything unusual and exotic – by the post-Soviet standards of early 1990s – that he had done in the area of economic policy). The problem was not his personality or the lack of political skills, it was to be found in the overall political traditions of Georgia, including warlordism and clientelism, total lack of cynical political realism, etc. Unlike his opponents, he chose to employ the formal democratic procedures of the Soviet Georgia, while they decided to ignore them; their strategy turned out to be wrong, and they immediately decided to remedy their losses by the means of a coup d’etat. So, who actually was better democrat – Gamsahurdia or his enemies?

    Gamsahurdia’s policy in the South Ossetia was obviously wrong, but it has to be remembered that his policy in much more complex and dangerous Abhasia was not. Actually, he managed to achieve something miraculous, he found the way to address the Abhasian issue by making huge concessions to the Abhas minority. I know of almost no similar example in the early 90s post-Soviet unoiverse when so much consessions were offered to separatists, except the Chech-Slovak divorce and Dudayev’s agreement to Ingush secession.

    If you read Russian, I can refer you to my short piece I published in February 1992 (; I still can stand by my old views.

  5. Great retrospective on Gamsakhurdia and I appreciate your shout out to the Armenians. It should be noted Sakashvili’s huge new Georgian cathedral in Tbilisi is being built on top of a major Armenian cemetery. It is no secret to Georgians that Tbilisi was formerly a majority Armenian city and its eastern cultural center. The bones of some of the most famous Armenian writers, poets, and heroes now lie in an open pit or under the cathedral itself as it was the lucky site which just so happened to be picked as the location of this hulking symbol of Georgian Orthodox faith. If that’s not making a strong message directed at the Armenians what is?

  6. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » Your choice: drunks, connivers, thugs or lunatics

  7. Pingback: By The Fault » Blog Archive » The Crisis in Georgia — An Update

  8. “Does anyone remember when he fired all the traffic cops? That was brilliant.”
    How so? I really think this is worth explaining. What happened?

    Boris: “warlordism and clientelism, total lack of cynical political realism”. Now that´s an oxymoron a mile high and a kilometer wide.

  9. @Boris, I’m really not sure what you mean by ‘warlordism’. Georgia hasn’t seen a lot of that — unless you count ethnic separatism, which is really something different.

    I disagree that Gamsakhurdia was no worse than other post-Soviet leaders in the region. For one thing, he managed to alienate pretty much all the country’s elites with quite startling speed. Ex-communists, anti-communists, pro-western liberals, nationalist mystics, bureaucrats, intellectuals, regional bosses — by late 1991 there was astonishing unanimity among them all.

    Also, Gamsakhurdia enjoys the unique distinction of invading his own country while it was desperately trying to fight a war… thereby ensuring, with full knowledge and malice, that the war would be lost. This goes well beyond “difficult” or “eccentric” and into the realm of “treason” IMO. You have to be pretty freaking egocentric — like, insanely so — to pull something like that. In retrospect, it looks like the coup plotters knew their man.

    Doug M.

  10. @Joerg, traffic cops are some of the most hated men (they’re always men) in the Caucasus. All across the region, they make a living by holding up motorists for bribes. It doesn’t matter if you’re speeding or not: a cop will just stand on a corner, wave down cars at random, and hit the drivers for a few dollars each. Unless you have serious connections, protesting this is going to be much more trouble than just paying the fine.

    The cops do this because they can, and also because they’re operating under a Soviet system of patronage: each cop kicks a certain amount of money back each month to his boss, who in turn kicks some back to his boss, and so on up to the Minister. Failure to make your quota is worse than bad… it’s a sign of disloyalty.

    I lived in Armenia for two years and got stopped any number of times. I didn’t get zapped if I was driving — Westerners are too much trouble — but if the driver was Armenian, he would have to pay.

    It’s hard to overstate how much this pissed people off. They accepted it fatalistically, but they hated it. A lot.

    So, Saakashvili’s first move in office: he fired *all the traffic cops*, right up to the highest and most senior. Then he hired back about a third of them, doubled their pay, told them there was a new regime, and made that stick. The whole obnoxious traffic cop shakedown thing, common across the former USSR and universal in the Caucasus… no longer exists in Georgia. At all.

    It was awesome. “Brilliant” is not too strong a word.

    Doug M.

  11. Douglas, by “warlordism” I mean the state of affairs in Georgia in 1992-1993 when various armed groups demonstrated loyalty to their respective bosses. Unlike etnic separatists, these bosses were not looking for secession (neither did classical warlords of China in the 1920s). Later Shevardnadze managed to weaken and ultimately destroy them – just like Chiang Kai-shek before.

    As for the role of Gamsakhurdia in the debacle of Abkhasia, I believe that your interpretation is much debatable. Looks like the causality runs the opposite way: first, Georgia had been severely beaten in Abkhasia, particularly since July 1993, and only after the defeat was almost complete and the fall of Sukhumi inevitable, Gamsakhurdia decided to seek his final chance to oust the plotters from Tbilisi.

  12. Hi Doug,

    OT, but I’ve just been reading about our own government’s “Community Cohesion” programme (short version: “why do all these British Asians hate us? must be because they’re too Asian and not British enough!”). This line

    They’re not very assimilated, but they are very well integrated

    sums up what’s wrong with the whole thing very neatly. I liked the summing-up of Milosevic, too.

  13. Hi Doug,

    Maybe you can tell something more on Adjaria? According to Wikipedia (ok, I know…) many people are converting from Islam to Christianity. And I read something about Saakashvili winning 28 out 30 seats in elections – what might a bit too much to be honest. It makes me wonder what is really going on there.


  14. Your characterization of the Armenians in Georgia isn’t quite right. They are not “geographically dispersed”; a few neighborhoods of Tbilisi and, in Samtskhe-Javakheti, the Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki districts and the city of Akhaltsikhe, account for nearly all. Outside of Tbilisi, to the extent that they’re “bilingual” it’s in Armenian and Russian–very few speak Georgian. Outside of Tbilisi, education is poor and unemployment high.

    You’re right that irredentist sentiments are weak these days. As for the Georgian government’s posture towards S-J, I think you’re too harsh. Under Shevardnadze, the region was ignored. Full stop. It was physically and culturally isolated, with much closer ties to Armenia than to the rest of Georgia. The Saakashvili government has sought to end that isolation and to promote national integration. Roads, media, Georgian-language instruction, and such.

    The approach has been hamfisted and tone deaf, but it is improving. Faster than most Georgians’ attitudes about Armenians, I’d venture.

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