After Gorbachev announced “Perestroika”, Georgian society changed profoundly. Key elements of these changes were a rapidly developing economic crisis and deficit in everyday life, political amnesty which allowed political prisoners, already legendary leaders of Anti-Soviet groups, to return home, as well as the urgent escalation of national/ethnic hate in nationally diverse areas, particularly in Abkhazia.
Georgia’s position on the periphery of the USSR had meant that everyday social and economic realities differed vastly from those within the more centralized republics of the USSR. Corruption was extremely dominant in the Soviet state and communist party system, and this, combined with the mass robbery of State goods, clan networks, symbiosis of Party, underground economy and criminal elites, and exclusive ethnic nationalist sentiments drilled in through education and culture as a tool of ensuring loyalty to the regime, created a very complex everyday reality. The disproportion of wealth between cities and rural areas, particularly the non-official privileges of the urban social elites, the ease with which “intelligentsia” state security and police members and underground “kings” could break the law and become incorporated in corruption network, meant that the urban populations could enjoy marginally more freedoms, even though this was a fragile comfort at best and unsustainable at worst.
At the end of the 1980s, around 55% of the 5,4 million population was living in cities and 45 % in rural areas. The main national groups were: Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Azerbaijanis, Ossetians, Greeks, Abkhazians, Ukrainians, and Jews. On its territory two Autonomic Soviet Republics were located – the Abkhazian ASSR and Adjarian ASSR – as well as one autonomic district: South Ossetian. To ensure political balance between the various political systems, particularly regarding the national relations in ethnically and religiously diverse areas, like Georgia, the Communist regime practiced the ethnically privileged party nomenclature rule and non-official positions in State and party were along a vertical hierarchy according to ethnic belonging. The majority of schools were run in native languages, but Russian language schools dominated in ethnically mixed and urban areas. According to the communist ideology and totalitarian system, other than ethnic minorities, official identification of other minorities was troublesome – the state was officially atheistic, gender and sexual diversity was punishable, society and healthcare system was oppressive towards people with disabilities, and the dominant ideology blocked any attempts at creativity that deviated from the official framework.
The regime had ideological dominance over cultural institutions, incorporating artists into a system of guaranteed privileges and preventing any form of protest agenda in artwork.
Resistance towards the totalitarian regime was passive and small-scale — various underground groups of students, aged activists or entire individuals were easily identified by KGB and they were isolated or exiled. Survivors worked in deep conspiracy, but their impact on the majority of society was too negligible and purely symbolic. In reality, the scale of critical, hidden messages against the regime was rare to find in literature, cinema, theater etc. Underground alternative artist groups were considered a danger and the regime was directly restricting them or was manipulating the conservative feelings of society against such groups. As a heritage of Stalin’s approach, all “traditional” religious institutions since 1943 were openly controlled and administered by the Soviet state, parallel to wide infiltration by the KGB. The regime was forcing religious institutions to take part in Soviet foreign propaganda campaigns, calling for the “World Peace” offered by Communist rule.
From 1988, the first non-sanctioned anti-Soviet demonstrations emerged in Georgia. Initially, the purpose and rhetoric of the protest movement was focused on confronting several giant infrastructure projects of the Soviet state in the Caucasus (the magistral railway, the giant dams),on protecting the cultural heritage endangered by years of bureaucracy and military training, and on demanding the recognition of state language status, among other issues. Concerns around ecologic issues were intensified by the variety of global man-made catastrophes, like the Chernobyl explosion, or local natural disasters: snow and flood in the Svaneti mountains and huge landslides in Adjara mountains, meant lot of locals became ecological refugees, so the Communist authorities displaced them in Southern Georgia, areas dominated by the Armenian and Azeri minorities, which fueled continuous tension between them over the following years.
At the end of 1988, a wave of mass protest against the reforms of the Soviet constitution, which was considered a means of blocking the union republics from leaving the Soviet Union officially, swept over the country. At the same time ethnic tensions worsened irreversibly in Abkhazia, “South Ossetia”, and the Lower Kartli region, over the question of self-determination of parts of the population there on the one hand and independence of the Georgian state from the USSR on the other hand. In April 1989, this ultimately led to mass demonstrations emerging in Tbilisi, protesting an Abkhaz assembly that had demanded that the Kremlin “re-establish” Abkhazian SSR, as an independent union republic as it had been until 1925. Mass protests in Tbilisi broke out, expressing anger at what they perceived to be an attempt to dissolve Georgian integrity. The local communist authority together with Moscow, fearing the demand for Georgian independence, suppressed the peaceful demonstrations on the night of April 9th, 1989 by using chemical weapons against civilians. The tragedy of April 9th consolidated the emotional response of Georgian society against Anti-Soviet and Anti-Russian sentiments, and step by step this ultra-nationalist protest movement began to dominate to the point of becoming a reality.
At the same time, tensions in ethnically diverse regions were deepening into disintegration and confrontation: in Kartli region, in the “South Ossetian autonomous district”, in “Lower Kartli”, dominated by Azeri ethnic group, in Abkhazian ASSR, which had a multi-ethnic population, but had a majority Georgian population. The first violent and armed clashes emerged in Sokhumi, Abkhazia in July 1989, then in the Tskhinvali region (“South Ossetia”) and “Lower Kartli” region in 1990. Extreme nationalist rhetoric from all sides meant that ethnic and religious minorities (Russians, Ossetians, Jews, Armenians, Estonians…) either started to flee from the areas of ethnic tension or later were unofficially forced to leave.
In the first multiparty elections of the Supreme council of Georgia in October 1990, the opposition block “Round table – for independent Georgia”, led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, won the majority. The Supreme council organized a referendum on independence on March 31st in 1991, which was held (besides being boycotted in ethnically Ossetian and Abkhaz dominated areas), and an overwhelming majority voted for re-establishing the independence of Georgia, which was then declared on April 9 1991. After winning the presidential election and gaining a majority in the Supreme Council, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was faced with the challenge to reanimate a collapsing state apparatus and to deal with complex internal and foreign hindrances, having only resources available. Opposition parties started permanent protest actions against the government, accompanied by violence on both sides. The Kremlin backed local paramilitary and criminal groups, and opposition parties launched an attack on the Government’s house on 22th December 1991. Zviad Gamsakhurdia was forced to leave Georgia. Forces organized a coup d’état and declared themselves the “Military council” (among them well known figures of the Soviet criminal world) and started to take the regional structures under their control, which led to confrontation with supporters of the legitimate government. The official dissolution of USSR Georgia spiraled into with complete disintegration and the emergence of ethnic wars, which led the country to total disaster and what has been termed the so called “Dark 1990’s”.
At the beginning of 1992, the “Military Council” made the former Secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party and the foreign minister of the USSR, Eduard Shevardnadze “head of State ”. In 1992 according to an agreement between Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin, “peacekeeping troops” were placed in Tskhinvali region (so called “South Ossetia”), dominated by Russian and North Ossetian battalions, and conflict started to be frozen. That same year, on August 14th 1992, Georgian military units entered Abkhazian autonomic republic, in order to prevent its secession from Georgia. Armed clashes between Georgian units and Abkhazian paramilitaries, backed by Russian troops, lead to a year of bloodshed and fighting in Abkhazia. It ended September 1993 with the fall of capital city – Sokhumi – fell. Georgian troops were withdrawn from the main part of the Abkhazian autonomous territory. Hundreds and thousands of Georgians and other nationalities were forced to leave Abkhazia and thousands were killed or injured. The Abkhazian population suffered heavy losses during the war and the breakaway region was left in social and economic collapse.
Eduard Shevardnadze announced that Georgia was joining the “Commonwealth of independent states” (СНГ), which wanted to manifest Russian interest onto Georgia’s foreign and internal policy. СНГ military forces joined Shevardnadze’s loyal units to suppress the opposition riots of the former president’s supporter still happening Western Georgia and thus consolidated power.
The following collapse of political, civil institutions, the extraordinary authority of the criminal underworld, the dismantling of economy, war, humanitarian and refugee crises shocked the Georgian society. The majority of the population lost their savings due to hyperinflation and manipulation of state reserves. In 1995 the state finalized their campaign of “privatizing” former Soviet state property. Officially it was considered an opportunity to grant citizens a fair share of state wealth, but within the frame of economic collapse, war and criminal rule, the remaining state wealth ended up being absorbed instead by the minority: the elites associated with ruling political elites and the criminal underworld. Corruption, criminal rule, radicalism, poverty, and social depression became an everyday reality in Georgia. In 1995, Eduard Shevardnadze started to neutralize his former rivals to power, by arresting or forcing them to leave, and initiated the first formats of cooperation with West. Beside such small-scale strategic steps, inner policy and social life was still staying depressing – economic failure was slowed and minimal growth gave some hopes to most of the population, but the state remained corrupt. Slowly, new actors of civil society began to emerge and West-oriented political elites started to take initial steps to consolidate themselves. Finally, Shevardnadze was removed from his office during the “Rose Revolution” in 2003 lead by Mikhail Saakashvili.
Ultimately, the 1990s made little positive change for those trapped in the vulnerable layers of society. As a result of societal collapse, the wars and failure of statehood, the scale and number of vulnerable groups increased to include the masses of internally displaced people, ecological migrants, and unemployed citizens, who had fallen victim to the failure of Soviet centralized industries. Together with ethnic, religious and sexual minorities they shared complex challenges: ignorance, aggression and isolation. Although an independent Georgia started in the 1990s to adopt legislation guarantying equality and social security of citizens, which included the country joined various international frameworks depending rights of minorities, in everyday life, the corrupted and failed state mostly wasn’t able and nor motivated to implement those values. The only progress in defending the rights of minorities, bringing their voices in mainstream public discourses, was associated with newly formed civil society organizations and the self-organized groups of minorities themselves.