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Georgia: Unpicking the Soviet past

Georgia is among those few former Soviet countries that fought for independence. The euphoric sense of freedom in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, started to slip away soon as the disturbing reality of the Soviet legacy took over before Georgians’ eyes. Living for nearly 70 years under the Russian yoke had completely incapacitated their ability to self-govern. Inexperienced in how to build up state institutions from scratch in a way which would safeguard the inclusivity and diversity of their traditionally heterogeneous society, Georgians became embroiled in a string of ethnic and civil wars throughout the 1990s. The initial attempt to embrace freedom of expression, market economy and other western values, so alien to the Soviet system, backfired as Georgia slowly descended into poverty and chaos.

March 16, 2017 - Shalva Dzidziguri - Articles and Commentary

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Hence, consumed by the successive failures of Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency (1992-2003), public apathy overtook enthusiasm among Georgians, which bred a corrupt, criminal-friendly and authoritarian system of governance – a widespread characteristic of Soviet legacy, also observable elsewhere in the remnants of the once-powerful empire. In all but the Baltic States, political and economic instability became an almost daily routine generating kleptocracy throughout the former Soviet space. Another striking feature which Georgians shared with other post-Soviet peoples was a chronic disenchantment with their governments, which was foremost manifested in a loss of confidence in the electoral process.\

Revolutionary change

Despondency appeared not to be an everlasting practice in Georgia. Popular indignation against the seemingly hopeless state mounted over time and escalated into massive street protests. Yet another fraudulent parliamentary election held in November 2003 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Reform-minded politicians joined forces with foreign-funded civil society groups to orchestrate nationwide protests against the autocratic regime. Consequently, the Rose Revolution swept away a government led by former Soviet apparatchiks-turned-democrats and ushered in a new government of young, Western-educated politicians and NGO activists with untainted reputations. The new political elite strongly believed that Georgia needed radical reforms rather than self-paced reforms and set out to implement “a generational change project”, which among other things aimed to counter the Kremlin’s routine interference in domestic affairs, viciously keeping Georgia tethered to its Soviet past. Russia – the main heir to the Soviet legacy – sought to recreate its glorious past by retaining its influence over the former satellite states with a combination of both hard and soft power. 

Within Georgia, the ambitious initiative did not work as intended though. While the revolutionaries succeeded in overhauling the Soviet-style bureaucracy, eliminating corruption and making Georgia a frontrunner country for ease of doing business, they failed to avoid some serious pitfalls.

Implementing a so-called “Cultural Revolution” slated to construct a new identity from homo sovieticus into homo Europaeus appeared illusory with its inherent lack of a pronounced vision of how to achieve the goal. Shunning symbols – as a way to confront the burden of past – proved to be a quick fix, but was ultimately a futile attempt to make a substantial difference to the mentality of the people. In May 2011, the Georgian parliament adopted the Freedom Charter which, among other requirements, entailed the actual collection of information “about all objects where Soviet and Fascist symbols are used”, as well as the renaming of Toponyms reminiscent of the Soviet past.

In fact, attempts to consolidate the Georgian public through acts such as the dismantling of Joseph Stalin’s monuments from his birthplace, as well as other Second World War memorials across the country, proved to increasingly alienate and confuse the majority of people. Opening the Museum of Soviet Occupation, without first adopting the lustration law banning government officials affiliated with the communist system from public service, added further to this confusion. In the first place, Stalin is an iconic historical figure in his home country not only for older communists, but also among the young (45 per cent of population according to the last polls in 2012), despite his responsibility for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, including Georgians. The unconcealed admiration which Stalin enjoys in Georgia today mainly stems from his spectacular biography. He is viewed as the most powerful Georgian, feared by the world for decades and the defeater of fascism. This image undermines his domestic political notoriety in the eyes of modern Georgians. Mindful of this fact, the government only dared to remove Stalin’s statue from the centre of his hometown Gori in the middle of the night in 2010, an act which was followed by strong condemnation and the self-initiated installation of small busts of the late dictator by his followers. In a similar vein, opening a museum in commemoration of the Soviet occupation of Georgia in 2006 has garnered much less interest than it may deserve for one main reason: the generation which faithfully served the system for a number of years before its demise still constitutes a significant part of the population.

In addition, despite headways into the EU integration process, Georgia has accomplished very little to offset its dependence on Russia. In particular, attempts to join NATO, a military organisation which Russia traditionally views as its enemy, came at a high price. Wary of losing influence, Russia initiated a full-scale invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and subsequently recognised the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The revolutionary government’s ambitious plans eventually came to a premature halt during the parliamentary elections in October 2012. A new coalition government with a different political agenda, and bankrolled by the billionaire businessmen who made their fortune in Russia in the 1990s, replaced the old one. The irony of fate was that some of the leaders of the revolutionary government were persecuted afterwards for their excessive use of power in their quest to transform Georgia.  Figuratively speaking, like the Titan Cronus, the revolution devoured its children. In October 2016 the ruling party “Georgian Dream” won for a second term, primarily taking advantage of low voter turnout as well as the deep polarisation of Western-oriented opposition political parties and diminishing popular support towards them.  In addition, and more importantly, these two factors effectively paved the way for the right-wing and allegedly pro-Russian political party The Alliance of Patriots to enter parliament, another worrying indication of the continuously changing views among Georgian people.

25 years of independence

Today, while the Soviet experience is receding far into the past, it continues to loom large over the current public discourse. But the reality is that the critical reappraisal of the Soviet legacy still remains a scholarly exercise and focus of policy think tanks, whereas discussions in public spaces are self-organised and unsystematic, many a time, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

In 2009, DVV International (Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband e.V) and the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation started a joint project, “Rethinking Soviet Georgian History (Stalinism, Totalitarianism, Repressions)” in Tbilisi, which a year later grew into the NGO called Soviet Past Research Laboratory. The primary goal of both initiatives was to invite scholars, historians and writers to produce unbiased educational materials re-assessing Soviet totalitarian history and its negative impact on Georgia. The research results, based on widely accessible archives and scholarly discussions, have been offered as material to be included in school textbooks and shared with local media outlets in order to help them disseminate better informed analyses about the subject–matter. 

By contrast, other practices strongly encouraged during the repressions of the early Soviet era remain intractable in a fairly large part of public space including hate speech, xenophobia, prejudices, and discriminative attitudes especially towards the LGBT community. Afflicted with verbal and physical violence, such an environment, in turn, effectively upends the anti-Western narrative which decries liberal values as undermining factors of Georgian traditions.  

At its core, public discourse reveals a wide gap roughly along a generational line. In the camp of the elders, who were involuntarily forced to adapt to a new competitive environment, the trappings of Soviet-era social welfare including secure employment or free healthcare and education evoke a forlorn nostalgia for bygone days. For their part the young generation, lacking such a strong affinity to a not-so-distant past of their country, is reluctant to trade the advantages of an open society for elusive stability.

Undoubtedly, such dichotomy also plays out in political debates. Two existential questions still hang in the air. Whether to join the European community ,which has a limited familiarity with Georgia short of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or whether to reconnect with the former fellow Soviet countries to reconstruct a Soviet-lite union under the Russian protectorate, which may open up a slim chance for restoring the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Meanwhile, Georgia is engaged in a two-track policy. On the one hand, it continues the integration process with the Euro-Atlantic institutions including the EU and NATO, while at the same time the new government in Tbilisi, more amenable to compromise, tries to scale back tension with Russia. In doing so, Georgia has achieved some tangible results particularly at the economic level, such as when it hammered out an Association Agreement with the EU last summer with a visa liberalisation deal still in the making (visa liberalisationwill enter into force on March 29th this year). 

Despite absence of diplomatic relations, Georgia has resumed their trade relationship with Russia. Regardless, no progress has been made in relation to the frozen conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Their fate remains irresolvable ostensibly giving the upper hand to Russia in its effort to manipulate Georgia’s orientation. That said, promotion of a western-style political and economic model while still trying to accommodate Russia’s interests, appears to be an impossible endeavour. Hence, Georgia’s orientation dilemma may seem to linger for an indefinite period of time. This is even truer, against a backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, which bears a striking likeness to Russia’s military adventure in Georgia back in 2008.

A version of this article was originally published in Die Zeit, in German. 

Shalva Dzidziguri is a member of NATO’s Future Alumni Network. He worked for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels, as a Partnership for Peace (PfP) Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome and at the Georgian Mission to the OSCE in Vienna. As a Georgian Army Peacekeeper, he spent seven months in Baqubah, Iraq (2004 – 2005) and was awarded the Certificate of Appreciation for Noble and Meritorious Service in Peacekeeping Operations in Iraq. Shalva is an alumnus of the Young Atlanticist Working Group at the Atlantic Council in the United States and holds an M.A. from the Central European University focusing on International Relations and European Studies.

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