Georgia at a Crossroads

From our archives: How the republic’s troubled history set the stage for future discord and a possible new Cold War

By 2005, the second of two U.S.-backed pipelines spanning Georgia, a cash-strapped nation of 5 million about the size of South Carolina, will have opened world energy markets to Caspian Sea oil, said to be the world's largest untapped fossil fuel resource. (Mike Reagan)
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Just 60 miles northeast from Ajaria is the hill town of Kutaisi, capital of medieval Georgia and burial place of King David IV, considered one of the country’s founding fathers. Born in 1073, King David took the throne after an Arab Islamic occupation that had lasted from the seventh to the ninth centuries. He annexed the region of Kakheti (now Georgia’s easternmost province), drove the Seljuk Turks out of Tbilisi (which he made the capital in 1122), and turned his country into one of the wealthiest in the region. His followers called him the Builder. Only the reign of his granddaughter, Queen Tamar, who enlarged Georgia’s borders to the Caspian, would shine more brightly than his. The golden age that the Builder ushered in would not last, however. The Mongols invaded in 1220, bubonic plague devastated the population and, in 1386, Tamerlane’s armies tore through. After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman and Persian empires fought over Georgia, killing or deporting tens of thousands.

Through Kutaisi, the pewter-hued RioniRiver winds between steep stony banks, and beyond it rise the Great Caucasus. With Marietta Bzikadze, a 25-year-old music teacher who studies economics, I visited the remains of Bagrat Cathedral, which dates from the early 11th century and has had no roof since it was sacked by the Ottomon Turks in 1691. The previous day, a Sunday, I had been surprised to find the cathedral hung with icons and bristling with bundled-up worshipers attending morning services in the open air, despite a cold mountain wind. “We asked the government not to rebuild the roof,” Bzikadze said in a husky voice. “We see it as a blessing to pray in the cold, the rain, and the snow. And we have the strength to do it. You see, 99 percent of being Georgian is being Christian.” We stood beneath the cathedral’s walls and surveyed the monasteries and churches crowning hilltops around town. “From here,” she said, “you can see the belfries of Gelati Monastery and St. George Cathedral. They were built to look out on each other. The priests used to climb them to send signals. In times of trouble, they would sound the alarm bells to bring us together for the fight. Always we Georgians have stood together to face trouble bearers, be they Mongols or Turks.” She crossed herself three times in the Orthodox manner. “May God grant us peace!”

In the spirit of the early Christian martyrs, David the Builder had ordered his grave placed at the gates of Gelati Monastery so that his subjects would have to walk over him on their way in—a gesture of humility that Bzikadze and I agreed would be inconceivable today. At least until Saakashvili, modern Georgian politicians have shown their people little more than vanity and a lust for lucre.

For centuries, Georgia was subjected to atomizing blows from the north. In 1783, after Persia tried to reestablish control, Georgia sought aid from Russia. Russia, eager to expand across the Caucasus, signed a defense treaty but broke its word and stood by as the Persians plundered Tbilisi in 1795. Six years later, Russia annexed Georgia, exiled its royal family and reconfigured the country into two gubernias (provinces). In 1811 the Russians absorbed the Georgian Orthodox Church into the Moscow Patriarchate. Soon after, revolutionary fervor swept Russia and dismantled the church, a pillar of czarist rule. Even so, one of the most infamous revolutionaries of all time came straight from the ranks of its Georgian novitiates.

Gori, some 90 miles east of Kutaisi, is a small town largely without electricity. Residents had chopped holes in the walls of their apartment buildings through which to run stovepipes to heat their homes. A fragrant shroud of maple smoke hung over the deserted evening streets, and I wandered around them, entranced. With the smoke and dark hiding traces of decayed modernity, I could have been walking through the Gori of a century ago. Back then, I might have run into a dashing mustachioed young poet and topranking seminary student named Ioseb Dzhugashvili, the son of an illiterate peasant and a drunken cobbler. He would adopt the surname Stalin (from Russian stal’, or steel) and become Gori’s most famous son.

I had stopped in Gori in 1985 to visit Joseph Stalin’s home and the museum complex devoted to his life and work. At the time, a spry, middle-aged woman named Jujuna Khinchikashvili gave me a tour of the museum, which re sounded with his radio addresses, Soviet World War II-era songs and the chatter of tourists (mostly Russians). Nearly two decades later, she was still there, and still spry, but now, following the collapse of the empire that was largely of Stalin’s making, there was no electricity to power the recordings, the halls were dusty and I was the sole visitor to his frigid shrine. High windows let in the day’s dying sun—the only illumination. The museum chronicles Stalin’s rise from seminary student to poet (he published much-admired verse in Georgian before coming to power) to membership in Georgia’s first Marxist party to his rise to supreme leader in the 1930s and, finally, to his death from a stroke in 1953 at age 73. Unlike many Georgians who speak of their dictator-compatriot with a mix of awe and unease, Khinchikashvili enjoyed talking about Stalin, for whom she feels measured admiration. After all, she said (paraphrasing Churchill), Stalin took over a Russia armed with only the plow and left it with nuclear weapons.

Among the tools that Stalin ruthlessly employed to push the Soviet Union into the modern world were mass executions, artificial famine and forced labor camps—all told, he sent some 18 million of his countrymen and women to the gulags. Yet favoritism toward Georgia never numbered among his faults; in fact, Georgians suffered more than any other Soviet people during his rule. As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin in 1922 drew Georgia’s borders so that the various peoples of his native land (Georgians, Abkhaz and Ossetians, among others) could never unite to rebel against the Kremlin but, if unrestrained by Moscow, would fall into endless internecine struggles. Lordkipanidze, the Tbilisi historian, described Stalin’s autonomous entities to me as “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” And indeed, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, civil wars erupted all over Georgia and the other Soviet republics.

Khinchikashvili ambled down the shadowy corridors of the museum, chatting about Stalin’s life and pointing out memorabilia. She led me to a dark room I had not seen before, where a circle of white Roman columns rose into the black. “Come,” she said, mounting the ramp to the raised circle of columns and handing me a battery-powered fluorescent lamp. “Go ahead, climb in! Look at him!” I shivered from an eerie apprehension as well as the cold, and climbed into the circle. My light fell on a bronze bust reclining as if lying in state—an open-eyed death mask taken from the dictator’s face the day after his passing. The brows were bushy, the mustache thick, the hair rakishly abundant. It was a good likeness of him, but to me the cold and darkness seemed a more fitting tribute.

No leader in Georgia’s post-Soviet history has pledged more fervently to undo Stalin’s legacy of oppression and poverty than Mikhail Saakashvili. Unlike Shevardnadze, Saakashvili, who was born in Tbilisi, received a Western education (at the International Human Rights Institute in France and GeorgeWashingtonUniversity and ColumbiaUniversity in the United States). He speaks fluent English and French. He was working as an attorney in New York City when, in 1995, Zurab Zhvania, then the speaker of Georgia’s parliament, persuaded him to return to Tbilisi to run in legislative elections. He was elected, and by 2000, Shevardnadze, impressed by Saakashvili’s energy, appointed him minister of justice. But Saakashvili grew disenchanted by his boss’s refusal to back a proposed anti-corruption law, and he resigned in 2001 to lead the opposition National Movement. Shevardnadze sealed his fate by rigging the November 2003 elections to ensure his victory over his former protégé’s party. On November 22, Saakashvili led hundreds of thousands of protesters and stormed the parliament. The next day, he helped persuade Shevardnadze, who realized he had no better option, to resign. (Shevardnadze still lives in Georgia and has said he plans to stay there.)

Forty-five days later, Saakashvili won the presidency on a pro-Western platform. “We have a very confident, young group of people,” he told the BBC at the time. “They are Western educated, extremely bright, they speak languages, they know how the modern world functions. We need to put these people in every level of the government.” In late February, while in Washington, D.C. to meet with President Bush and members of Congress, Saakashvili said at a press conference that Georgia was “ready to meet half way with Russians on many issues as long as Russia remembers one thing: We have our national sovereignty.”


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