Editor’s Note, August 12, 2008: With tensions between Georgia and Russia having reached the point of armed conflict in recent days, we call your attention to a 2004 Smithsonian article by Jeffrey Tayler explaining how the republic’s troubled history sets the stage for future discord and a possible new Cold War.
From This Story
From the sooty maw of an unlit tunnel at RikotiPass, where the jagged massifs of the Great Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountains come together, we drove out into flurrying snow and whirling fog, heading west. The decayed asphalt wound down toward the verdant Kolkhida Lowland and the port of Poti, on the Black Sea. About 100 miles behind us was Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and its tense roadside checkpoints—grime-streaked booths of cracked glass and dented steel, concrete barriers at which hulking men in black uniforms, Kalashnikovs dangling from their shoulders, peered into car windows looking for guns and explosives.
We soon reached the lowland and its crumbling shacks and derelict factories—the towns of Zestaponi, Samtredia and Senaki. Bony cattle and mud-splattered pigs poked around trash heaps; a few people wearing threadbare coats and patched boots traipsed down slushy walkways. My driver, a gray-bearded ethnic Armenian in his 40s named Gari Stepanyan, saw me looking at the remains of an old cement plant. “When independence came, people tore up these factories, ripping out all the equipment to sell for scrap,” he said in Russian of the nation’s emergence in 1991 from the dissolving Soviet Union. Since then, corruption, economic chaos, civil war and rule by racketeers have contributed to Georgia’s disintegration. I drove this same road in 1985, and had pleasant memories of it. Now, in December 2003, I searched the ruins and recognized nothing.
Over the past 13 years, Georgia—a nation about the size of South Carolina with some five million people—has degenerated from one of the most prosperous Soviet republics into a faltering state that hardly qualifies as “independent,” so heavily does it rely on Russia for oil and gas. At times, Russia has turned off the gas, not only because of Georgia’s unpaid utility bills but also, many authorities speculate, to keep Georgia submissive. Since Soviet times, Georgia’s gross domestic product has decreased by almost two-thirds, to about $16 billion. With more than half of the population living below the poverty line, unemployment and low wages are so common that about a million Georgians have fled the country since 1991, mostly to Russia. Moreover, of Georgia’s five provinces, three—Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria—are led by strongmen with support from Russia and have essentially seceded. The civil war of 1992-1993 cost 10,000 lives in Abkhazia alone. Crime is widespread and violent. To put it mildly, independence has not brought Georgians what they had hoped for.
When I flew to Tbilisi from Moscow this past December, President Eduard Shevardnadze had just been driven from office by hundreds of thousands of demonstrating Georgians angered by rigged parliamentary elections and fed up with corruption and poverty. Their bloodless uprising, led by the 36-year-old American-trained lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili, was known to supporters as the Rose Revolution, after the flowers that some reformers had carried to symbolize their nonviolent intentions. Saakashvili’s opponents (including members of the fallen regime as well as the separatist strongmen) have termed the revolution, perhaps ominously, a coup d’état orchestrated by the United States. After the revolution, bomb blasts and shootings multiplied (hence the checkpoints we encountered in Tbilisi), allegedly carried out by henchmen of the dispossessed elite hoping to discredit Saakashvili. But on January 4, 2004, Saakashvili, pledging to eliminate corruption, modernize the country and restore its territorial integrity, won the presidential election with 96 percent of the vote.
With Saakashvili promising to pilot his country westward, but with Russia still backing separatists and controlling Georgia’s access to fuel, Georgia has become the arena for a replay of the Great Game, the 19th-century struggle between the great powers for territory and influence in Asia. The stakes are high, and not just for Georgia. The United States has given Georgia $1.5 billion in the past ten years—more aid than to any other country besides Israel (and not counting Iraq)—and invested heavily in pipelines that will carry oil from deposits beneath the Caspian Sea. One pipeline (completed in 1999) crosses Georgia and ends at the Black Sea. Another (to be completed next year) will cross Georgia and Turkey and end at the Mediterranean. American officials say they are also concerned about terrorism.The Pankisi Gorge, on Chechnya’s southern flank, has sheltered both Chechen rebels and members of Al Qaeda. The U.S. military provides antiterrorist training and equipment to Georgian troops and has conducted reconnaissance flights along the Georgian-Russian border—flights that have sparked fears of espionage and American expansionism among increasingly nationalistic Russian politicians. Russia, meanwhile, maintains two military bases in Georgia, and reportedly plans to do so for at least another decade.
The United States may be faced with a dilemma: either abandon Georgia to Russia’s sphere of influence or risk damaging the strategic partnership between Moscow and Washington that has formed the basis for international order since the end of the Cold War (and without which the fight against terrorism may be compromised). Perhaps not surprisingly, a State Department official I interviewed disputed that the United States and Russia may clash over Georgia. But leading Russian analysts have a different view. This past December Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper, that Russians “look at the U.S. in the northern Caucasus as a rival” and that Russian authorities have “declared the new leadership of Georgia to be pro-American. I’m afraid that in such conditions, one should hardly expect relations [between Russia and Georgia] to improve.” For his part, Georgia’s president Saakisahvili said this past February in Washington, D.C. that “Georgia cannot be a battlefield between two great powers.” But some experts in Georgia suggest the Great Game is well under way. “Astruggle for influence is going on between Russia and the United States in Georgia,” says Marika Lordkipanidze, a professor of history at TbilisiStateUniversity.
As Gari and I trundled down the rutted highway outside Poti, he said of Saakashvili and his pro-democracy team: “The new leaders seem honest and respectable, so things should improve—if Russia doesn’t interfere.” Then his voice hardened. “But we told them, ‘Look, we’ll forgive you nothing. If you make the same mistakes as Shevardnadze, we’ll kick you out too!’ ” Like Saakashvili, Shevardnadze and his forerunner, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, came to power in landslide electoral victories. Both fled office ahead of furious mobs.
With an eye on its future, I journeyed through Georgia in search of its past, beginning on the Black Sea in Poti, where Georgia first entered world history 2,800 years ago through contact with Greek traders during the Hellenic age. (The Kolkhida Lowland was once the Kingdom of Colchis, where Greek myth places the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.) From there I traced a route west to east, the direction of Georgia’s history until the Rose Revolution. Looking at the destroyed towns of Kolkhida and the savage mountainscape beyond, another myth came to mind, one of the first associated with the country. Either Hellenic or Georgian in origin, it is tellingly bloody—that of Prometheus. According to the myth, a peak in the Caucasus was the spot where Zeus had the Titan chained to a rock, and doomed him to have his regenerating liver pecked out by an eagle every day for eternity for the crime of having given humanity fire. The myth’s notions of gory plunder reflect a basic truth: for three millenniums Georgia has been a battleground among empires, torn apart by invaders and internal rivalries, and betrayed by allies.
In the first century B.C., Colchis stood with Rome against Persia, until, in A.D. 298, the Romans switched allegiance and recognized a Persian as Georgia’s king, Chrosroid, who founded a dynasty that would rule for two centuries. Then, in A.D. 337, Georgia’s affiliation with the Greeks led to a fateful event: its king at the time, Mirian, converted to Christianity, making Georgia only the second Christian state, after Armenia. Centuries later, when Islam spread throughout the region, Georgia remained Christian, adding to its isolation.