The Balkanization of Georgia: Democratization Brings War

Opposition protests in Tbilisi in November 2007. The inscription says "I am not afraid" (Georgian). | Courtesy of Flickr by Vladimer Shioshvili

Independence, Sovereignty, and Democratization. These are elements that we commonly associate as markers of transitional periods for many developing nations. All former Soviet Republics gained independence from the oppressive central power in the USSR to form their own sovereign, separate, democratic states peacefully either in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union in December or in the months before 1. Independence, sovereignty, and democratization were expected to usher in positive developments and democratic prospects for these newly internationally recognized states … right? Except as Snyder warns, these periods of transition can also often bring violence including civil wars, ethnic cleansing, internal conflict, and increased corruption within the government 2 Yet few could even fathom that all of these would take place in the same state in just a short couple of decades. As a poisoned cherry on top of a negative byproducts cake, the democratic transition also produced further incentives for the former oppressive state from whom one earned independence to meddle in internal affairs by sponsoring groups in the civil war, providing actual aid for committing ethnic cleansing, and blatantly encroaching upon territorial sovereignty.  While this description can fit quite a few states’ past histories, most forget this continues to occur in our modern times with dire impacts still felt today. This is the story of a nation that has become so fragmented and broken since its newfound freedom in 1991. War, even if not killing massive numbers of people has disrupted lives and displaced large segments of the population. Having weathered decades of instability exacerbated by major internal and external ethnic, political, and economic issues, it is honestly shocking that this nation has managed to survive until today, even as recent events may further push towards its demise. This is a story of Georgia and the hardships its people have endured since choosing independence in 1991. 

A map of Georgia outlining the Abkhazia region in the northwest and South Ossetia in the north | Courtsey of Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Around the time Georgia worked towards its full independence again, conflicts erupted between Abkhazia, South Ossetia (both regions inside Georgia’s borders), and the Georgian government. Before the fall of the USSR, the Georgian-Ossetia conflict acted as the spark for a much larger fire.  While this conflict has roots that span back in time to the Russian Federation, the conflict has had consequences for years on. The official war lasted a year and a half with a multitude of battles that resulted in around 3000 casualties. War crimes were reportedly committed by both the Georgian and South Ossetian governments, which contributed to the number of civilians that died and also resulted in many internally displaced persons, both Ossetians and Georgians.3 Over 100,000 people lost their homes and are now internally displaced and have not been able to return home due to the continued hostilities.4 The amount of social unrest and political instability this conflict became the basis for the events of the Russo-Georgian War, and connect to the conflict with Abkhazia. The War in Abkhazia started in 1992 and lasted thirteen months. Sharing many similarities with the war with South Ossetia, thankfully not many people or civilians died, but instead ethnic cleansing displaced another segment of the population. This time, despite disputation from the local Abkhazian government, around 250,000 Georgians become displaced from their home in Abkhazia, marking a huge ethnic cleansing in Georgian history. The ethnic cleansing that occurred were targeted at ethnic Georgians living in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The amount of trama and social unrest that this caused is indescribable.5 International law classifies what happened to these Georgians during the war as internally displaced persons (IDP). While similar to refugees in some ways, an IDP is what it sounds like, a person who has been displaced from their home usually due to a conflict but who remains inside of their country even if away from their actual home.6 In the vast majority of cases, entire families were forced to flee at a moment’s notice leaving all their possession behind at home. Depending on the country this is occurring in, families can often not afford to simply relocate to a new home on their own let alone replace all lost possessions. As such, some IDPs end up in very rough circumstances, often without food, water, or shelter despite still being within their own country. Depending on the complexity of the cause of their displacement, when displaced by fighting with government forces in their area, IDPs cannot expect to receive help from that same government that persecuted their group or pushed them out. While there exist international organizations that assist IDPs like the UNHCR, again depending on the complexity of the situation, it can be rather difficult to send aid for IDPs and it requires the cooperation of the local government not often afforded. Even when they do receive aid, IDPs often go through a significant amount of trauma due to their experiences. At the end of the day even if they are able to return to the area where they once lived, their home and their belongings are often destroyed.7 Many, many Georgians ended up as IDPs as a result of the conflicts to come in its future. There is no legitimate way to describe the amount of suffering that these people went through without in some way diminishing their experiences. Much like Georgians expelled from South Ossetia, because of the conflict that lingered beyond the wars, many people were unable to return to their homes even after the conflict ended.

UNHCR has distributed blankets, kitchen sets, and jerry cans to some 1,500 people from South Ossetia now living in a collective center in Tbilisi, Georgia. | Courtesy of UNHCR/Y.Mechatov

Barely two years after the rebirth of Georgia as a democratic nation, Georgia fought two civil wars, with hundreds of thousands of IDPs emerging. As the cherry on top, Georgia “lost” these wars. At the end of the wars, South Ossetia and Abkhazia both declared themselves as independent republics, but the regions are still internationally recognized as a part of Georgia, save for some nations like Russia. As such while being “part of” Georgia they act as independent nations, splintered off from the Georgian sociopolitical sphere. This turmoil left a nasty mark on Georgian history, a mark that continued to follow it into its future and eventually comes back to bite it harder.

That bite turned out to be the Russo-Georgian War which started in 2008, and while only lasting 12 days, served to reinforce the divide between Georiga, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia even more. Due to the disputation from the Russian Government, there is no “clear” aggressor, but what is known is that there was a shelling that took place on a Georgian village, breaking the 1992 ceasefire, with the Georgian Government placing the perpetrators on South Ossetia.8 In response, the Georgian Army invaded South Ossetia in order to resolve this shelling. Incidentally enough, the Georgian army encountered the Russian Army in South Ossetia, meaning that the Russian Army had crossed over the “official” Georgian border. The Kremlin had portrayed the reasoning for the army’s movement into South Ossetia as a response to the Georgian Army’s “aggression” into South Ossetia. Do realize here that from a Russian perspective this action was very much like a peacekeeping or a defensive measure in the protection of South Ossetia and not as an act of aggression due to the fact that the Russian army had not technically crossed the Georgian border since they do not recognize South Ossetia as apart of Georgia. Nevertheless who was right at the moment really did not matter to Georgia who was now faced with the army of a world superpower, an army of which had already let themselves in through the door and sat down at the dining table. The Russian Army proceed to force the Georgian Army out of South Ossetia after a few days of fighting, but not before they opened up a new front in Abkhazia. A separate part of the Russian Army had begun an invasion of Georgia near the border with Abkhazia pushing into Georgian territory, causing even more of an international dilemma. In response to this, a ceasefire was negotiated by the French president at the time and the conflict came to an end. Because it was so short, in total there were not that many casualties, however, despite that fact, the number of IDPs that resulted because of it rivals the previous ethnic cleansings from the past conflicts. According to the Georgian government around 230,000 people are said to have been displaced due to the war.910 This resulted in a very bad humanitarian crisis, and just like the other conflicts, while people were able to return to their homes after the end of the conflict, some were not able to or some no longer had a home to return to. The resulting humanitarian crisis marks another period of destruction and war in Georgian history whose ramifications are still felt to this day. This war also went on to solidify the divide between Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. While the two regions are still internationally recognized as a part of Georgia, due to the presence of the Russian Army being on the doorstep in the event that Georgia ever invades either of the regions even in the event of it being an act of self-defense, Russian hegemony serves to separate the regions from Georgia even further.

Now, while this on its own is just a niche history lesson on conflicts and ethnic cleansing in a country you would probably mistake it for a U.S. state if I left it there, there is a very important development that has occurred within the Georgian government that makes this these past issues all the more pressing. In the most recent 2020 Georgian Parliamentarian Elections, ALL of the minority parties within the Georgian Parliament renounced their seats under the premise that the election was manipulated by the majority party.11  After an election referendum occurring in early 2020, it was determined that there will be “120 members elected through a proportional voting system, while 30 members will be elected through a majority system, where the party or candidate winning more than 50 percent of the vote in a constituency is awarded the contested seat,” of which Georgia Dream, the majority party, won 90 percent.12 In other words, over 60 seats of Georgia’s parliament were/are effectively declared vacant/unused after the election. It is very difficult for a parliament to function when it is missing around half its members while dealing with allegations of election manipulation. However, election fraud and manipulation are nothing new to Georgia’s political landscape. Georgia, since it became a democratic nation, has had a horrible record when it comes to election integrity. Georgia’s first elections are said to have been fraudulent as well, which served as a partial reason as to the conflict with Abkhazia, along with other events like the Rose Revolution of 2003, a revolution and wave of protests which shaped and molded Georgia’s democratic institutions. While the Rose Revolution was meant to oust corruption within the early government and provide more freer elections, ever since then there have been multiple international and governmental investigations into Georgian elections. For instance, there are Congressional Research Service reports from the U.S. Congress from 2008 and 2012 detailing how those elections had some instances of election manipulation, but since they were small in number, limited, and had no evidence of a larger connection, they were deemed to not be significant enough to warrant the overturning of the election results.131415

Former Georgian President and ex-governor of the Odessa region of Ukraine Mikheil Saakashvili | Courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica

Aside from the elections themselves, on occasion, the Presidents of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili specifically, have faced corruption charges.16 Georgia is not entirely new to election fraud, but what is new is the response to it. Sure while there have been protests and other forms of activism, a response like this from the members of parliament from the minority parties to vacate their seats, had never occurred before. Adding fuel to the fire, there was a very recent detainment of minority party leader Nika Melia by the Georgian government. Nika Melia in a bid of political protest “had blockaded himself into the party’s headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital. To make the arrest, police officers scaled fire ladders onto the roof and broke through barricades of furniture inside the building.”17 His arrest has sparked new waves of protest. To say that Georgia is in a turbulent spot right now is an understatement.

The most pressing question to ask is what is next, what is going to happen to Georgia in the future? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? With the multitude of large-scale issues that Georgia has experienced over such a small period of time, it can be difficult to maintain a positive outlook especially when the country is still in turmoil. Not only have parts of the nations have splintered off from the whole, but now both of those regions now have the backing of Russia, a world superpower. A bad streak of alleged election manipulation is still being perpetrated today, disrupting the integrity of the Georgian Democracy even further. So parts of your nation have formed their own nation, the hegemonic breath of a world superpower is breathing on your neck, and now the rest of your nation has subpar cooperation and integrity, so what hope really is there? While there are proposed solutions to the problems that are currently ongoing with the most recent election like the idea that “The government should quickly free Mr. Melia as well as Giorgi Rurua, the owner of an opposition television channel; the UNM and other opposition parties who won parliamentary seats in last fall’s elections should take them,” there are no real long term solutions to solving the Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia problems18 On the other hand, some purport that Georgia and Georgian Democracy are far from over. Alexander Scrivener of the Eurasia Democratic Security Network notes that “A big question that remains is whether Georgian democracy is truly in danger here. And despite UNM’s hyperbolic statements, this crisis, though damaging, is unlikely to strike a fatal blow to Georgia’s democracy,” but even he notes that if the anti-democratic trends such as the arrest of opposition leaders like Mr. Melia continue, “if this escalation of the situation continues and wider Georgian society begins to sense that its basic freedoms are in danger that could change very quickly and lead to more widespread unrest.”19 The past three decades since Georgia’s independence have weakened its democratic transition and thwarted its economic development, hope remains that these have not negatively sealed the fate of Georgia’s democracy and that despite Russian intervention looming as a Damocles sword, Georgia can strengthen both its democratic institutions and political leadership.

  1. BBC News, “Soviet Union Timeline”, October 31, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17858981
  2. Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence : Democratization and Nationalist Conflict, Norton, (2000).
  3. Dennis Sammut, Nikola Cvetkovski, “Confidence-Building Matters, The Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict,” PDF file, March 1996, https://www.vertic.org/media/Archived_Publications/Matters/Confidence_Building_Matters_No6.pdf.
  4. Dennis Sammut, Nikola Cvetkovski, “Confidence-Building Matters, The Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict,” PDF file, March 1996, https://www.vertic.org/media/Archived_Publications/Matters/Confidence_Building_Matters_No6.pdf.
  5. Europe Report N176, “Abkhazia Today,” PDF file, September 15, 2006, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/23764/176_abkhazia_today.pdf.
  6. UNHCR, “Internally Displaced People”, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/internally-displaced-people.html
  7. UNHCR, “Internally Displaced People”, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/internally-displaced-people.html
  8. Luke Harding, “Georgia calls on EU for independent inquiry into war,” November 18, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/19/georgia-russia-eu-media-inquiry.
  9. Helen Fawkes, “Despair among Georgia’s Displaced,” August 20, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7572736.stm.
  10. United Nations, “Ethnic Cleansing of Georgians Resulted from Russian Invasion and Occupation Since August 8, 2008” 2008, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/CCPR.C.GEO.CO.3.Add.1.AnnexIII.doc.
  11. U.S. Embassy Tbilisi, “U.S. Embassy Statement on Georgia’s Parliamentary Elections” November 1, 2020, https://ge.usembassy.gov/u-s-embassy-statement-on-georgias-parliamentary-elections.
  12. RFE/RL, “Georgian Parties Sign Election-Reform Memorandum After Months of Talks,” March 9, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/georgian-parties-sign-election-reform-memorandum-after-months-of-talks/30478091.html.
  13. United States Congress on Security and Cooperation in Europe, “Georgia’s Parliamentary Elections : How Free and Fair Has the Campaign Been, and How Should the U.S. Government Respond?” Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, Second Session, U.S. Government Publishing Office, September 30, 2012, 2015, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03837a&AN=SMU.b1764694&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  14. United States Congress on Security and Cooperation in Europe, “Georgia in 2008 : Elections or Street Politics?” Hearing before the Commission on Security Cooperation in Europe, One Hundred Tenth Congress, Second Session, February 6, 2008, U.S. G.P.O., 2012 .
  15. DW staff, “Charges of Fraud Surface in Georgian Election” January 10, 2008, https://www.dw.com/en/charges-of-fraud-surface-in-georgian-election/a-3049934.
  16. Adrian Karatnycky, “The rise and Fall of Mikheil Saakashvili” February 12, 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/the-rise-and-fall-of-mikheil-saakashvili/.
  17. Andrew Kramer, “Arrest of Opposition Leader in Georgia Raises Fear of Growing Instability,” February 27, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/world/europe/georgia-opposition-leader-arrest.html.
  18. Editorial Board, “Opinion: Democracy is on the brink in one of Russia’s neighbors, and Putin is delighted,” February 26, 2021,https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/georgia-democracy-putin-nika-melia/2021/02/26/0c16a3bc-7791-11eb-8115-9ad5e9c02117_story.html.
  19. Alexander Scrivener, “COLCHIS: Georgia is in crisis, but it’s far from the end of democracy,” February 25, 2021, https://www.intellinews.com/colchis-georgia-is-in-crisis-but-it-s-far-from-the-end-of-democracy-203920.

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13 Responses

  1. Rhys, this was a well-written, extremely informative article. It demonstrates that a state’s road to democracy is not always cut and dry or easy to fit into a step-by-step plan. Things like election fraud and corruption have become the new tools that are used to destroy democracies, representing a move away from the violent ends that democracies typically used to face. Great job!

  2. This was a very interesting read. It’s impossible to imagine how hard it is for the countries that finally regained sovereignty after being under the USSR for so long. Honestly, starting from square one with all the things that come with government sounds intimidating. It’s a shame that those who won their part of the civil war are not recognized.

  3. This was a fascinating read; I appreciated how the author was able to describe and illustrate the various aspects of growth, as well as the challenges Georgia faced after choosing to become an independent country. The narrator did an excellent job of describing what happened when Georgia became an independent nation, as well as the country’s current challenges, which include the counrty. Great Article!

  4. I found the story about Georgia interesting to say the least. Not only did Georgia had to deal with the USSR and its disappearance in the early 90s but the struggle of getting their systems to become 1 state ruled by themselves is something that I somewhat didn’t expect compared to how we handled it for our country in the 1700s. The details of it’s story I feel tell the actual struggle of this new nation at the time and of any other nations that may come to light in later times.

  5. An interesting article about a part of the world often overlooked. Georgia and its troubles are not unique, many third-world countries struggle with immense corruption within their government. The struggles of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are also not unique, as many tiny countries are often subjected to the rule of someone who has no claim to do so. The struggles of those in Hong Kong being the most well-known. Eventually, we may overcome these flaws however it will take great international pressure to do so.

  6. This was a very informative article on a topic I truly didn’t know much about, its sad to read of the challenges Georgia has as they worked towards its full independence. The immense issues that Georgia experienced during multiple transitions were written very well in detail so unfortunate to read that the country is not doing very well and hopefully none of the seals its fate.

  7. In all honesty, I had no clue about the tension in that region of the world. I thought it was so amazing how you vividly described how difficult it was for Georgia to become an independent country. Such an interesting part of this article that you spoke about was that all of the Georgian minority party seat members renounced their seat due to the thought of election manipulation. That takes such courage and strength to step down from a seat of power if they thought they were being taken advantage of. Thank you for expanding on a topic I had no knowledge of prior.

  8. Hey, Rhys.

    This was a fascinating and in-depth article to read. As someone who was only vaguely familiar with the situation in that little nook of Eurasia (at least I knew it was its own sovereign nation and not the American state), this was an enlightening — if disheartening — lesson. Balkanization is a serious issue, and the sovereignty of a nation of people a contested one. It really brings up the question of what constitutes a nation, if a nation is solely based on ethnicity, and if not, how can a nation exist cohesively on another foundation?

  9. This was a very interesting read, I really enjoyed how the author was able to detail and explain what elements are associated with development, as well as the struggles that Georgia faced after deciding to become an independent nation. The author did a good job detailing the events that occurred after Georgia became an independent nation, as well as the current struggles faced by the nation including the corruption charges brought against the president.

  10. I do wonder why a majority of states did not/still do not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as their own states after winning their respective civil wars. Maybe it’s because those regions don’t do as much global trade like the other recognized states, or maybe there are more nations in the same boat as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, like Hong Kong, than I initially thought.

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