Alternative names: Kartveli
Location: Georgia (Caucasus, south-west USSR), other parts of USSR
Population: 3.6 million (USSR census 1979), 3.9 million (est. 1989)
% of population: 1.4% (1979 and est. 1989)
Religion: Orthodox Christianity, Muslim (minority)
Language: Georgian (which has its own distinctive alphabet)

The Georgians represent one of the oldest and most developed civilizations on Soviet territory. Long renowned for their hospitality, wine and politicians (from Stalin to Shevardnadze), they have recently been in the headlines for the civil and ethnic strife that has erupted within their borders. Passionately attached to their fertile, mountainous land (a higher proportion of Georgians live within their own Union Republic than any other nationality in the USSR - 96.1% in 1979), the Georgians hitherto had seemed satisfied to live within a larger federation. However, the decline of their traditional enemies, the Turks and Persians, the deteriorating economic situation in the USSR, and the increase in ethnic conflicts in the neighbouring republics of Armenia and Azerbaidjan, have led to unprecedented mass demonstrations for national self-determination.

Georgian SSR

History and background

Georgia was known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, the land in which Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. Christianity reached Georgia in the fourth century and the Church became autocephalous in the eleventh century, electing its own Catholicos-Patriarch. Caught between the might of Turkey, Persia and Byzantium, Georgia was frequently ravaged by invaders. However, for a brief period in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the reigns of King David and Queen Tamara, Georgia experienced a renaissance. During Tamara’s reign Shota Rustaveli wrote the Georgian epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, thus initiating a long tradition of literary and artistic excellence amongst Georgians.

Following Tamara’s death in 1212, Georgia’s fortunes plunged and the land was invaded by the Persians and Mongols and, subsequently, by the Ottoman Turks. Seeking protection from the Turks, Georgia appealed for help from Russia, but by 1809 it had been incorporated fully into the Russian Empire. Having used Georgia as a base for military operations against Daghestan, Persia and Turkey in the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia proceeded to repress manifestations of Georgian independence until the 1917 revolutions. During and after the revolutions Georgia became a bastion of the Menshevik wing of the Social Democrats, who led an independent government from 1918 until 1921, when Soviet power was established after the Red Army had occupied the territory.

In 1922 Georgia formed part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic which joined the USSR, and became a full Union Republic only in 1936. Despite the fact that Stalin, a Georgian, succeeded Lenin as Party leader, Georgia suffered greatly from the purges of the 1930s. Indeed, another Georgian, its Party secretary, Beria, was to become Commissar of Stalin’s dreaded secret police, the NKVD. After the deaths of both Stalin and Beria in 1953, Georgia was controlled for nearly 20 years by V. Mzhvananadze and his so-called “Georgian Mafia” (during which time there were demonstrations against Moscow’s de-Stalinization campaigns, especially that of 1956). His replacement as Party secretary in 1972, Shevardnadze, initiated a drive against crime and corruption that won him some popularity in the Republic, but set off a series of arson and bomb attacks in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (in 1973 the Opera House was burned and in 1976 the government headquarters were bombed). Since then the overriding issue for most Georgians has been the Russification of the Republic, and mass demonstrations headed off attempts to downgrade the status of the Georgian language in 1978. In 1981 there were further demonstrations in Tbilisi against Russification. Even on the sports field, the success of the Dynamo Tbilisi soccer team against its Russian and Ukrainian rivals has been accompanied by mass manifestations of national jubilation.

Constitution and law

In theory the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (population 5.45 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely joined the USSR federation. In reality it hitherto has been a constituent part of the USSR, which controls its foreign affairs, military, economic and social relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 allows for Georgia to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court), control is effectively exercised by the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) through its Republican branch. As part of the USSR federation, Georgia elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and five to the Council of the Union in the 542-member Supreme Soviet of the USSR (elections every five years).

The Constitution also allows for each Union Republic to secede from the USSR, but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively invalidates this right. Similarly, the constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities are equal has been severely compromised by the dominance in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, economic and cultural norms. The Georgians have been more successful than most nations in the USSR, however, in resisting the implementation of Russification policies.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Although recent press reports on Georgia have highlighted the twin problems of Georgians as a minority vis-à-vis the Russians, and Georgian relations with their own national minority — the Muslim Abkhazians — there have been manifestations of discontent over a far wider range in recent years.

For example, after four Georgians were sentenced to death in 1984 for trying unsuccessfully to hijack a plane to the West, 3,000 Georgians including many prominent figures in the arts signed a protest petition. In October 1987, the Ilya Chavchavadze Society was formed (named after a leading Georgian Menshevik who was assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1907) to promote the cause of independence, along with the more moderate Shota Rustaveli Society (that seeks merely autonomy) and the even more radical Georgian National Democratic Party. In September 1988 there was a mass demonstration against a planned hydroelectric dam in the Republic. The following month there was communal violence in Marneuli (in the south-east of Georgia where about quarter of a million Azerbaidjanis live) after an Azerbaidjani was accused of raping a Georgian girl.

Massive protest demonstrations were held in November 1988 against proposed changes in the Soviet Constitution and the Republican Supreme Soviet formally rejected the proposals. Further nationalist demonstrations occurred in February 1989 to mark the anniversary of Georgia’s loss of independence in 1921.

However, it was the situation in Abkhazia that led to nationalist feelings boiling over in the spring of 1989. Abkhazia (which had been a separate republic from 1921 to 1931) sought to withdraw from Georgia and, in March 1989, it proclaimed its intention to do so. The local Party leader was sacked, but 10,000 Georgians gathered in Lenin Square, Tbilisi on the night of April 8-9 to protest at the situation. The local authorities lost control of the situation and Ministry of Interior troops armed with shovels and poison-gas were sent in to disperse the crowd. There were 20 deaths, including 12 women, and five leaders of informal nationalist groups were arrested. Despite a thorough investigation by the Soviet authorities in Moscow and the dismissal of leading Party officials, anti-Russian feeling in the Republic continues to run high.

More nationalist demonstrations occurred in July 1989, this time in Sukhumi, the Black Sea resort that is capital of Abkhazia. Plans were announced to open a branch of Tbilisi University there, despite the strong objections of the Abkhazians (who constitute just 20% of the population of their autonomous republic and are very sensitive to Georgian domination). In the ensuing ethnic clashes 14 were killed. Thus the situation in Abkhazia and Georgia as a whole remains extremely tense.

Minorities in Georgia

Despite the fact that 96% of Georgians live in Georgia, they constitute only 68.8% of the Republic’s population (1979). There are sizeable minorities of Armenians (448,000 or 9%); Russians (372,000 or 7.4%); and Azerbaidjanis (256,000 or 5.1%). There are also 160,500 Ossetians (3.2%) — living mostly in the South Ossetian Autonomous Republic; 85,000 Abkhazians (1.7%) living in the Abkhazian ASSR; 95,000 Greeks (1.9%); and 26,000 Kurds (0.5%).

In addition to the Azerbaidjanis and Kurds, many of the 300,000 Georgians living in the Adzharian ASSR are Shi’ite Muslims (there is no Adzharian people; it was the part of Georgia closest to Turkey and, therefore, the region in which Muslim influence was strongest). Furthermore, up to 200,000 Meskhetian Turks (also Shi’ite Muslims) formerly inhabited Meskhet-Dzhavakheti, Georgia’s border region with Turkey, until deported by Stalin in 1944 to Uzbekistan. The Georgians are resisting their return for fear of more ethnic unrest, pointing to the deterioration in relations between the Georgians and the Sunni Muslim Abkhazians (a proportion of the Ossetians are also Sunni Muslims).

Finally, there is a small community of 28,000 Georgian Jews, many of whom have emigrated in recent years, and even smaller groups of Mingrelians, Svanetians and Laz (all ethnically related to the Georgians).

In short, the national situation in Georgia is a microcosm of the situation throughout the USSR, with smaller peoples anxious to take advantage of the policy of glasnost in order to reduce the influence of their more numerous neighbours.

(See also Deported Nationalities; Other Muslim Peoples)