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Introduction to Georgia and the Caucasus

April 21, 2015

Summary: Georgia’s relationship with Russia has been complex, intertwined and fraught.  A brief 2008 conflict between the two shows that these problems still remain.  Georgia’s bid to join NATO is highly provocative to Russia and will likely provide more friction (and perhaps even more conflict) into the future 

Mountains everywhere you look...

Mountains everywhere you look…

Tbilisi: the "Rose Revolution" began here

Tbilisi: the “Rose Revolution” began here

Georgia, in the Caucasus region, has as much right to describe itself the crossroads between East and West as other places I have visited – Bosnia, Turkey, Afghanistan. In fact, if you draw a straight line between the Balkans and Afghanistan, Georgia seems to be more or less right in the middle. This perhaps explains the mash of cultures, language, cuisine that is so immediately evident when you hit the ground.  I was in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, over the first week of April. It was an excellent introduction to the region, courtesy of the Malmö University Association of Foreign Affairs.
We had a selection of meetings lined up, including European embassies, the UN and Georgian government representatives, as well as our own unofficial explorations of the city, people and surrounding area. The theme of the trip was to explore perspectives on the desire and prospects for Georgian membership of NATO and the EU.

But let’s get the essentials out of the way first – the food and wine (Georgians will explain that it was they who “invented” wine and vineyards around 7,000 years ago) was excellent and cheap. The people were extremely welcoming and friendly.  Get there for your holiday before it becomes Pragueified… 🙂

A very tiny, very orthodox Christian, country, Georgia has been squashed between larger empires for thousands of years: Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Russians/Slavs from the north, Turks/Ottomans from the south-west and Iranian/Persians from the south-east. It first appeared as a “Georgia” in the 9th/10th centuries. It had a  “Golden Age” around the 12th and 13th centuries under King David “The Builder” and his great grand-daughter, Queen Tamar.  Georgia’s relationship with Russia has been very complex and intertwined – and very much “love/hate”. In the aftermath of the First World War, Georgia became a democratic country. But this lasted only three years, from 1918 to 1921, when a Russian (Red) Army occupied the country.

Red Army in Tiflis Feb 25 1921

Red Army in Tiflis Feb 25 1921

Georgia, April 2015 (136)The permanent exhibition in the Georgian National History Museum focus on this period of brutal repression “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia, 1921 – 1991”.  A key feature was list upon list of the intelligensia, artists, priests, teachers and academics imprisoned and executed during this time.  The entrance to this exhibition plays on a large screen, accompanied by menacing music, a looped five minute video of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.

We sat down with a Georgian professor of history at the Tbilisi National University, and I always find it helpful to set down my notes, so here is a non-comprehensive and subjective overview of Georgian past, present and a little future. I have augmented as necessary, to keep the narrative and historic flow.


The ancient Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans and Persians were all over the region until medieval times and then the expanding Russian empire also added its interest. Georgia has been Christian since the 4th century AD. There were many periods of fragmentation as a result of much fighting and there were many ethnic sub-groups emerging as a result. In the late 18th century (1783) a peace treaty was signed with Russia in which Georgia became a Russian protectorate. (I guess you can already see where this is going, can’t you?).

In 1795, a Persian invasion reached and burned Tbilisi and in 1800 the Russian Tsar Paul I announced that Georgia was a part of Russia (although apparently, the Georgians only found this in in 1801).

In 1918, for the first time, Georgia elected a democratic government and fought a short conflict with Armenia offer disputed regions. In 1920 a short-lived Transcaucasus Federation attempted to pull together the region now covered by Armenia, Abkhazia and Georgia. This was opposed by Turkey. In May 1920, Georgia declared independence. German troops had been based on Georgia to deter Turkish aggression. These were replaced by British troops for a period after Germany’s First World War defeat.

British troops in Tbilisi, 1919

British troops in Tbilisi, 1919

Although in 1920, the Soviet government recognised Georgia’s declaration of independence, this was revoked in 1921 and a Red Army sent into Georgia. Although initially rebuffed with losses, Russian occupation of Armenia and Abkhazia permitted attacks on several fronts and Georgia was defeated and occupied. A Georgian government in exile fled first to Batumi on the coast, then to Turkey and then Paris. From 1921 to 1991, Georgia was a Soviet Republic whose most (in)famous son still seems to be Joseph Stalin.

There is still “nostalgia” for the Soviet Union time – things were much more stable and predictable with rule of law.

Post-Soviet period

The death of Stalin, in 1953, heralded the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, with corruptions of various sorts beginning to emerge in the 1950s and 60s. Russia remains suspicious of “democracy”. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the emergence of extreme forms of nationalism and “complete turmoil”. Where Western analysts were talking about the “next wave of democratisation”, in its place there was organised crime, corruption and failed states.

Soviet traces are not hard to find

Soviet traces are not hard to find

Security, conflict and NATO

In 1991/92, as a result of the confusion and turmoil of the Soviet Union’s break up, Georgians fought South Ossetian separatists in a brief conflict. A similar conflict broke out in Abkhazia in 1992/93 with similar results. This left Russian-backed forces effectively (and still) in control of two parts of Georgia. Concerned for its security, Georgia has been reaching out to NATO and NATO-led institutions since 1992, when it joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1992 and the Partnership for Peace in 1994. Official discussions about NATO membership began in 1998, with joint exercise in Poti in 2001. In 2004, Georgia contributed troops to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. More discussions and cooperation followed over 2005 and 2006. At the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, Georgia failed to receive a consensus to receive a concrete Membership Action Plan and has been pressing for it ever since. Georgia claims that NATO membership is the essential guarantor of its security and for ensuring stability in the region. Russia claims that the aggressive expansion of NATO is a provocation and a threat to Russian and the region.

In 2008, Georgia and Russia fought a five day conflict over South Ossetia. Georgia lost it, but Russian military capability was exposed for its weaknesses. The Georgian government was criticised for poor judgement in its response to initial cross-border shelling and provocation from South Ossetia and the poor levels of preparedness of its NATO-style military.
Georgian society is still divided after this conflict and NATO seems very reluctant to bring in Georgia plus its two frozen conflicts.

Unemployment and poverty are still the top problems inside Georgia. Organised crime was rampant in the 1990s. This was brought under some level of control in the 2000s but now seems to be slipping back again.

I shall feed in some more specific thoughts and discussion from the other meetings in due course.

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