Georgian National Narratives on Conflicts: 1991-2012

Revaz Koiava

Researcher at Caucasian House


Like any other nationalism, Georgian nationalism is unique by its nature. After the restoration of the country’s independence, nationalism had been manifested with its almost every form which had an impact on the genesis and development of ethno-political conflicts. The paper provides an overview of the types of nationalism under Georgia’s three presidents: Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili. It is worth noting that all three leaders can be considered nationalists even though they had different ideas about nationalism and its influence. They all represent diverse Georgian nationalism which, in turn, is indicative to the confrontation existing between nationalism on the one hand, and democracy and the right to self-identification on the other.

Georgian nationalism unfolding in the beginning of the 1990s was characterized with the richness of radical elements. However, this period soon came to an end. Dynamics of nationalistic perceptions was shaped by political and economic context and increased and/or decreased together with fluctuations within these contexts. Therefore, post-independent Georgian nationalism cannot be labeled as equivocally radical and considered a sole contributor to the ethno-political conflicts which fueled up in Georgia.

The term ‘ethnic conflict’ cannot fully capture the essence of the conflicts ongoing in Georgia. It simplifies complex conflicts and blurs the full picture. So called ethnification of conflicts overlooks the impact of post-Soviet crisis, fears for political or economic changes as well as the roles played out by powerful neighboring states and squeezes a complex political development in one concrete model. During Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts mobilization of population based on ethnicity took place alongside the  conflict development rather than preceding it . These cases illustrate that conflict and war can generate nationalism while the contrary is equally possible.[1]

Ecstatic Ethnic Nationalism 

Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his followers emerging on the political scene by the end of the 1980s pursued ethno-nationalistic ideology and not only for the purpose of ascending to power. Gamsakhurdia played with feelings of ethnic Georgians who feared for Georgia’s disintegration and demographic exhastion. Gamsakhurdia argued that Georgians were oppressed in their own country while the Georgians as historically privileged community should have had special rights in their autochthonous country.[2] Therefore, the Georgian nationalism of these times targeted ethnic minorities residing in the republic as its antipode.[3] Its rhetoric rested upon national integrity, patriotism, unacceptance of minorities and seeking an enemy. Gamsakhurdia’s appeals called for uncovering internal and external enemies who would be held responsible the crisis affecting the country. National solidarity had become a shelter to seek refuge from physical and economic perils inflicted in the Post-Soviet period.

The rise of the Georgian nationalism in 1989-1995 requires a complex approach as at least three factors came into play and contributed to the rise: post-Soviet authorities, a state crisis and an interference from outside.

Gamsakhurdia’s policy was a blend of nationalism, populism, religiosity and conservatism. He would stress the racial purity of Georgians and compare the country with Lazarus resurrected from the dead. At the same time he often made reference to the role of the family, religion and therefore, was considered a follower of social conservatism.[4] What is most important, Gamsakhurdia failed to emancipate himself from the Soviet legacy which was apparent in his attitude towards opposition, the parliament and media. He justified repressions for the purpose of fighting off internal or external enemies. In addition, his vocabulary was dominated by phrases typical to the Soviet Union of the 1930s (‘enemy of people’, ‘the Kremlin’s spy’, ‘criminal’).[5] In this regard Gamsakhurdia was a Soviet product – an admirer of intolerant and conspiracy theories which further reinforced concerns of the Georgians to lose control in their own country.

Yet another important factor since the restoration of independence was the quick disintegration of the state. Fast democratization had brought about negative consequences. Michael Mann argues that liberal values characterizing sovereignty and people’s rule may lead to the most destructive outcomes of nationalism.[6] Poverty and inequality taking over Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union are not to be excluded from the Georgian nationalism. Radicalization of the Georgian nationalism was in a way a response to the post-Soviet economic and political crisis.

Russia’s interference in these processes and in particular in Abkhazia is also important. Russia’s relations with Abkhazia and so called South Ossetia rested on ideological grounds rather than ethnic foundation, and was directed against pro-Western Georgian statebuilding.

Rhetoric of ‘sieged Georgians’ promoted by Gamsakhurdia was confronted by local Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalist projects.  Svante Cornell describes how the Soviet Union would fuel up Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalism through creating autonomous republics and affirmative action programs.[7]

As a response to the declaration of independence by the South Ossetia and unsanctioned elections in the supreme council, the Georgian Parliament made a decision to abolish the status of autonomous district. However, a policy pursued towards Abkhazia was different: a consensual agreement signed with Abkhazia in 1991 resulted in creating unequal conditions for Georgians residing in Abkhazia. Abkhaz managed to win majority of seats in the local parliament which provided stronger guarantees to safeguard their legal rights and secured their political influence. This approach may have stemmed from Gamsakhurdia’s opinions towards ethnic minorities according to which Abkhaz were considered autochthonous nation while Ossetians, according to the same opinion, were not indigenous community in Georgia.[8] For Gamsakhurdia maintaining the state sovreignity was the major goal. However, as conflicts began to escalate and in particular after the first clashes, the rhetoric was changed now to bring historic and cultural incompatibility to the fore.

Roger Petersen notes that bloody conflicts are hardly ever determined by unanimous national support as enthusiasts, opponents to conflicts and neutral observers all take part in them.[9] When it comes to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it can be assumed that both parties were more of victims to the national conflicts than instigators of the conflict. V.P. Gagnon defines the developments unfoding in Serbia in the beginning of the 1990s as conflict strategy referring to the use of an aggressive form of nationalism employed by the former communist elite against opposition movements.[10] This definition holds true for Georgina-Abkhaz conflict as wel. Local Abkhaz elite used nationalistic rhetoric, Russia’s support and chauvinistic statements made in Tbilisi to back up their positions. On their turn, the Georgian elite had not wasted and took over to developing their own conflict strategy. Paramilitarized leaders were considering a victory as a means for raising their rating and collect financial resources. As a result, in regard with both conflicts, nationalistic rhetoric came to the fore where it got to the point of war or shortly before it. The cause of the conflict was a strategy generated from the up or a desire to gain profit rather than ‘ethnic’ belonging.

In her review dealing with normative variables of nationalism, Erica Benner argues that movements and ideologies set into motion on ethnic grounds are complex. New circumstances are likely to topple new leaders in few years while their goals and forms of expressions are destined to be transformed.[11] A regime of ethnic nationalism empowered by Gamsakhurdia had not survived longer than a year and was eventually overthrown as a result of coup-d’etat. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, elected as a chair of the Supreme Council in 1990 through ‘overwhelming excitement’ died three years later under suspicious circumstances.

After his return to Georgia in March 1992 Edward Shevardnadze began to transform the politics to so called liberal principes. Shevardnadze often make a reference to Georgia as a positive example of interethnic cooperation. Nationalistic rhetoric had disappeared and concepts of citizenship, minority rights and federalism filled out the opening.  However, Shevardnadze did not completely turn down nationalism and even made some attempts to make it a part of statebuilding. Nationalism turned into an ‘institute’, which Shevardnadze used as a framework to talk about conciliation and the importance of an alliance with Europe.

The Shevardnadze government established legal and constitutional framework for democratic and multi-ethnic society including constitutional and legal norms for the protection of the rights of minorities.  The law on citizenship granted citizenship to all individuals residing in Georgia without any prior condition. In 1997 requisites indicating ethnicity of a passport holder were removed from Georgian passports. Georgian legislators ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and a parliamentary committee on human rights and a public defender’s office were set up to monitor the protection of minority rights. Shevardnadze’s speeches delivered to the Parliament contributed to diminishing chauvinistic frenzy dominating the period from 1992 to 1995. However, the incumbent authorities were confronted with serious challenges as they took measures to integrate national minorities into the country’s political system.  The absence of a holistic strategy and the failure of the state management had also contributed to these challenges. A draft law on national minorities and the language did not pass. Districts with predominantly ethnic minority population were still managed by center-appointed governors and few minority MPs got seats as a result of the parliamentary elections.[12]

Shevardnadze’s initial intention was to create an asymmetric federation to contain Abkhazia, Adjara, South Ossetia and Georgia’s nine historic regions. However, this idea upset the Georgian MPs as they blamed primarily Soviet federalism for fueling up Abkhaz and Ossetian separatism.[13] In addition, Internal political weakness had negative impact on the relations between the Shevardnadze’s government and conflict regions. A consensus was never achieved on the concept of a state, its political values and objectives. Deeply rooted corruption had undermined infrastructure required for the development of the national market and the absence of basic economic welfare affecting the majority of the country’s population further deepened the gap between the state and its citizenry.

With the background described above, plan developed by the Special Representative of UN Secretary General Dieter Boden seemed to be the only viable step towards regulating the conflicts.  Basic Principles for the Distribution of constitutional competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, also known as the Boden Document was approved by the Georgian government. However, it turned to be unacceptable for the Abkhaz authorities and local communities. It is worth noting that, there was little coordination between the UN and OSCE on the regulation of the conflicts. Nor were there sufficient resources allocated in this direction, which in turn, contributed to Russia’s recognition as ‘peacekeeper’.

Revolutionary Nationalism

Mikheil Saakashvili and his team ascended to power through a revolution. His goal was to merge Georgian national pride with civic patriotism of minorities. After the victory, Saakashvili began to renew national symbols. The new flag conveyed ‘Christian symbol, Lord and four apostles’. At the same time, the President’s speeches were full of stories about bravery demonstrated by Georgians. For instance, Saakashvili’s inauguration ceremony took place at the gravesite of David Rebuilder. Saakashvili also modified the idea of radical nationalism of the 1990s and declared that ‘Georgia was home to not only Georgians but to all ethnic minorities”: ‘every citizen who considers Georgia their homeland, whether it be Russian, Abkhaz, Ossetian, Azeri, Armenian, Jew, Greek, Ukrainian or Kurd – they are all our wealth and treasure’.[14]  In spite of the fact that Saakashvili’s emotional appeals mostly focused on Georgia’s glorious history and special contribution of Georgians which did not exactly fit the concept of multiculturalism.

Like other revolutionists Saakashvili wanted to create a state which would be accountable to its population and responded their needs in a timely manner.

The Rose Revolution with mass participation, direct actions and juvenile dynamism managed to attract people again. The revolution transformed into the state controlled patriotism and developed as the revolutionary nationalism.  It united officially declared multiculturalism with the idea of creating ‘new’ with youth patriotic camps and military propaganda to play the key role. At the same time, Saakashvili was also affected by the influence of populism typical to Gamsakhurdia times and often tended to stress Georgia’s special mission.

The Saakashvili government offered a framework of federal arrangement to the South Ossetian government and developed three programs for his autonomy. All three of them granted political autonomy and the right to elect parliament while there would be a quota for Ossetian MPs in the Georgian national parliament. However, South Ossetian authorities turned down Georgia’s initiative. Nor did they accept either of the schemes offered by EU and OSCE.

Saakashvili maintained emotional rhetoric, developed anti-Russian discourse and pledged to restore the territorial integrity. He shunned away from including the opposition in debates around the country’s political course. Saakashvili ignored opportunities (2005 and 2008) which would have obliged all three parties (Georgians, Abkhaz and Ossetians) to agree on non-use of violence. The above described rhetoric coupled with Russia’s strategic objectives, internal conflicts instigated on the grounds of trade and smuggling, and with other non-ethnic factors, contributed to fueling up conflicts which eventually led to the 2008 war and the recognition of the breakaway regions by Russia.

In his inaugural speech Saakashvili said that: „the rise or decline of the Georgian state will depend  on the weakness or strength of democratic institutions: strong democracy, solid opposition, independent judiciary, civic control over the army, responsible government and vibrant civil society’.[15] With high probability, if these Kantian criteria had been in place in Georgia, Russia would not have been able to take advantage of Georgia’s weaknesses through an inside job’.[16]


Nationalism has been overstatedly considered a pushing factor of the Georgian politics. When analyzed retrospectively, it is evident that the rhetoric of radical nationalism was popular among Georgians only during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgian nationalism of that time was similar to exclusionist movements of late 20th century described by Eric Hobsbowm.[17] It was both radical and populist. The loss of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, and the civil war had resulted in changes to nationalism in Georgia. Both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili created the forms of modernized nationalism and used them for the stabilization of the state. The Georgian nationalism of today is much more liberal and emancipated from an aggressive rhetoric typical to the beginning of the 1990s.

At the same time, it is worth noting that ethno-political confrontations broke out on the grounds of constitutional issues, territorial status and competences of self-governments. It was not until later when ethnic elements appeared on the scene. Each of these confrontations further reinforced perceptions of injustice and unfairness and pushed the parties to resort to ethnic nationalism. It is merely impossible to single out Georgia’s ‘ethnic’ problem from economic and social challenges.

Stephen Jones argues that the Georgian nationalism is not likely to transform into a liberal integrational model as it is not acceptable for Georgia’s ethnic minorities,[18] who support ‘ethnopluralistic’ system described by Rasma Karklins in order to uphold their independent national rights.[19] Georgia’s diverse multi-national traditions contribute to the sustainability of such a model. However, its effectiveness will depend on the State’s authority, stable regional environment and changes within social and political economy.



[1] Smith, A. Theories of Nationalism. 2nd ed.; London: Duckworth; 1983

[2] Stephen Jones: Georgia: A Political History Since Independence, Tbilisi; the Center of Social Sciences, 2013.

[3] Author’s note: before the adoption of the constitution, Georgia was officially called Republic of Georgia.

[4] Remembering Guram Rcheulishvili; Zviad Gamsakhurdia, letters, essays; Tbilisi; Khelovneba; 1991; P.. 548

[5] Newspaper “Georgian Republic”. N.11, December 18, 1990.  P. 2

[6] Mann, M., “The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2004

[7] Cornell, S., Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, Richmond: Curzon Press; 2001

[8] Nodia, G., “The Conflict in Abkhazia: National Projects and Political Circumstances”, Koln: Bundesinstitut fur ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien; 1998; p. 30-31

[9] Petersen, R., Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2001

[10] V.P. (Chip) Gagnon, Jr; “Yugoslavia in 1989 and after”, Nationalities Papers; N.1; 2010 (January); p. 23-39

[11] Benner, E., “Nationality without nationalism”, Journal of Political Ideologies; N.2; 1997 (June); p. 189-206

[12] Stephen Jones: Georgia: A Political History Since Independence, Tbilisi; the Center of Social Sciences, 2013.

[13] V. Keshelava, V. Lortkipanidze: Perspectives of Georgia’s Federalzation: pro et contra: Tbilisi: International Center for East-West Relations; 2000; P. 14.

[14] MIkheil Saakashvili taking an oath. Available in Georgian at:

[15] Inaugural speech of President Saakashvili. January 20, 2008. Available in Georgian at:

[16] Available in Georgian at :

[17] Hobsbawm, E., Nations and Nationalism Since 1870; Cambridge University Press; Online Publication Date: July 2012; Chapter 6

[18] Stephen Jones: Georgia: A Political History Since Independence, Tbilisi; the Center of Social Sciences, 2013.

[19] Karklins, R., “Ethnopluralism: Panacea for East Central Europe?. Nationalities Papers; 2000; p. 219-241


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