The South Caucasus nation of Georgia has undergone multiple transformations in the 27 years since it took over its own affairs as a fully independent entity for the first time since the late 18th century.
Almost immediately after the tiny nation of about 3.5 million people declared its its independence from the rapidly unravelling Soviet Union in 1991 it entered into a period of crisis that culminated in a short, but bloody, civil war on the streets of the capital Tbilisi that ended with marauding heavily-armed gangs and brutal warlords overthrowing Georgia’s first democratically elected president – the former dissident-turned-utterly-unhinged-ultranationalist-politician Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
His utter inability to fully comprehend the gathering storm that was being created by his discriminatory rhetoric and detached from reality proclamations about then-newly independent Georgia’s place in the world. This was a man who denied the existence of ethnic groups that has lived in Georgia for centuries, while also proclaiming that the impoverished country would “live like Switzerland” because it had mountains. Soviet-style tourism, wine, and mineral water.
Gamsakhurdia’s complete rejection of the social and political dynamics in the multi-lingual, multi-national, and multi-confessional that he found himself leading ultimately contributed to his unceremonious downfall and mysterious death less than two years later while he was hiding in the rugged mountains of his home region of Megrelia in western Georgia.
The forces that were unleashed under Gamsakhurdia’s brief, but fundamentally damaging, reign continues to haunt Georgia to this day. The brutal separatist wars that he helped unleash against the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s ended in disastrous twin defeats for Tbilisi, only to be followed by a decade of endemic corruption, economic collapse, and power cuts that were a part of daily life under Gamsakhurdia’s successor, former Soviet Foreign Minister and a chief architect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, Eduard Shevardnadze, did little to alleviate the average Georgian’s daily struggles. By the time of the turn of the millennium, Shevardnadze – once a darling of the West for his role in helping to dismantle the Soviet Union – had by the early 2000s long squandered the international goodwill that he had enjoyed only a few years earlier and left his citizens to simply do what they could to survive.
By the time Mikheil Saakashvili – the young, Western-educated, and English-speaking golden boy of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, and the Washington neo-cons – Georgians were hungry for a fundamental transformation of the country, which had essentially become a failed-state when Saakashvili and his reformers suddenly found themselves in power after 2003’s bloodless Rose Revolution swept Shevardnadze’s post-Soviet kleptocrats from power.
For a brief period, the success of the Rose Revolution and the appearance of a young and dynamic leader breathed new life into the moribund Georgian state.
Reforms, tax cuts, police and judicial reforms followed in the ensuing years. Saakashvili did his best to court Western leaders and to convince them that Georgia was on the path to becoming a part of the EU (despite its geographic location is western Asia) and NATO. Georgia found itself the subject of newfound attention by tourists, in addition to wine and food enthusiasts in Europe and the US as it was largely unknown to those outside the post-Soviet world.
But despite the restored facades of Tbilisi’s delightfully crumbling old central core and the incessant, almost ludicriously positive PR that Saakashvili’s polished, English-speaking lobbyists tirelessly pushed on anyone who would listen, the overwhelming majority of the population remained far outside the small pockets of ‘Westernisation’ and ‘European Integration’ that the government was doing its best to sell.
The core of Georgian society remained, and still remains, deeply religious and staunchly conservative. Long established traditions of nationalism, exceptionalism, and Orthodox Christian piety are mixed with latent anti-Westernism that is a result of both deep-rooted Soviet psychology and an Asiatic sense of morals that came from centuries of existence with little or no contact with Europe – an important fact that most Western-leaning Georgians fail to acknowledge.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest in the world, is run by an octogenarian former high-ranking KGB informant who has made certain to keep the church firmly rooted in its reactionary concepts of the world outside of Georgia. He has also made a concerted effort to keep the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate closely aligned to its counterpart/traditional patron in Moscow, even going so far as to adopt Russia’s ‘Eurasian World’ theory that claims countries with the historic, religious, and cultural dynamics as Georgia are incompatible with Western morals and ethics.
All of these factors were hammered home in August 2008 when an increasingly unhinged Saakashvili foolishly decided to launch a military operation into the rebel region of South Ossetia, thinking his Western supporters and NATO would come to his aid in the event anything went wrong. In five short days, not only had Saakashvili’s tiny army been routed by the Russian Armed Forces, the unwavering support he thought he had cultivated in Europe and the United States turned out to be a figment of Saakashvili’s very substantial imagination.
This has spawned a slew of like-minded political and activist groups in Georgia, all of whom claim to spearhead the drive to cleanse the nation of foreign influence in the name of ‘preserving Georgian traditions’. These far-right groups run the gamut of fringe ultra-nationalists carrying religious icons and Orthodox flags to outright neo-Nazis who have a habit of assaulting foreigners with darker complexions and sexual minorities and who regularly draw comparisons as well as inspiration from their counterparts in Moscow and the Golden Dawn in Greece.
Georgia’s current government, headed by the Georgian Dream party, which ousted Saakashvili’s party in 2013 after being led by the eccentric billionaire oligarch-turned populist politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, has done little to curb the rise of far-right sentiment in the country. After opening the door to an even greater amount of influence to the Georgian Patriarchate and its legion of followers, anti-Western sentiment has made major inroads in places that were previously considered bastions of reform, including the police, judiciary, and municipal governments.
The Georgian Dream’s, and by extension, Ivanishvili’s passivity and tacit approval of neo-Nazi groups in the country came to head in recent days after the police and interior ministry made the unusual choice of raiding Tbilisi’s popular bars and dance clubs – two of the most profitable sectors in the local economy and one of the few areas where Georgia has gained a substantial amount of positive coverage in the last several years.
The raids were described by the authorities as measures that were needed to crack down on drug sales in the capital after a series of overdoses cause the deaths of several Tbilisi residents. But the heavy-handed tactics used by the hundreds of police that were used to carry out the raids resulted in what appeared to be a coordinated crackdown on the few parts of Georgian society that is equally progressive in its outlook and modern in its attitudes towards issues that include gender equality and minority rights.
The two days that followed the raids saw a mass protest emerge that later became an impromptu rave in the centre of Tbilisi, just outside the old parliament building that had seen some of the heaviest street battles during the brief 1991-92 civil war.
Holding placards that denounced repression and declared, “We don’t want another Putin here”, the Tbilisi residents who turned out were appalled by the behaviour of their law enforcement officials as wells as the decision by the city government to attack businesses which cater to customers who have little interest in strictly adhering to traditional mores.
One of the participants, a 23-year-old native of Tbilisi who asked that her name remain anonymous told New Europe, “The main force of the protest was, of course, the youth, but you could see people of all ages among the people and the speakers. They spoke to people, many of them were trying to get rid of the misconception that the demonstrators were trying to make a statement against the arrest of the drug dealers or any drug-related issues. The demonstration was trying to make clear that it was about freedom and the right to have it.”
The response from the far-right was predictable. After attempting to assault the protestors on the second of their city centre gathering, hundreds of extremists, who described themselves as “true Georgians” seeking to “protect our country”, attempted to break through a police cordon to attack the demonstrators.
They were particularly enraged after imaged emerged of a young woman dancing on top of a memorial to Georgians killed by Soviet troops in April 1989.
After being unable to breach the phalanx of law enforcement officials – most of whom were chastised just the night before by the protestors, but who were now shielding them – the far right groups chased and intimidated anyone they could get their hands on.
“We can see how dangerous far-right groups are in Georgia, and how weak the police is to cope with them and ensure the security of people. Observing what happened in Tbilisi, I can say that we need more joint and comprehensive efforts to counter far-right activism and ideology in Georgia because it is a real threat to democracy and the state itself,” veteran Georgian journalist Tamar Svanidze told New Europe.
The violent and visceral reaction by Georgia’s increasingly emboldened far-right, ultranationalists highlights the deep cultural divisions that continue to exist in a society that has struggled to transition from a backwards failed state nearly two decades ago to a stable democracy that is capable of protecting its citizens.
What’s paramount is that the police raids and extremist violence on the streets of Tbilisi are a reminder that a country as socially conservative, but equally ambitious, as Georgia is, needs to have a civil society and the backing of its citizens to guarantee that the core tenets of free speech and free expression are not destroyed in the name of forcibly returning to the dark days of the recent past that the Georgian people so desperately want to avoid.