Georgians live and breathe their history as a vital key to their national and regional identities today.
The Georgians know themselves as Kartvelebi, tracing their origins to Noah’s great-great-grandson Kartlos. In classical times the two principal kingdoms were Colchis in the west (legendary home of the Golden Fleece and site of Greek colonies) and Kartli (also known as Iveria or Iberia) in the east and south, including some areas in modern Turkey and Armenia.
When King Mirian and Queen Nana of Kartli were converted to Christianity by St Nino in the early 4th century, Georgia became the second country to adopt the Christian faith, a quarter of a century after Armenia. In the 5th century AD, western Georgia became tied to the expanding Byzantine Empire, while Kartli fell under Persian control. King Vakhtang Gorgasali (447–502), considered the father of the Georgian nation, briefly drove the Persians out and moved his capital from Mtskheta to the current seat of government, Tbilisi. But the Persians were back soon, to be followed in 654 by the Arabs, who set up an emirate at Tbilisi.
Resistance to the Arabs came to be spearheaded by the Bagrationi dynasty of Tao-Klarjeti, a collection of principalities straddling the modern Georgian–Turkish border. They later added Kartli to their possessions, and when in 1001 these were inherited by King Bagrat III of Abkhazia (northwest Georgia), most of Georgia became united under one rule. The Seljuk Turk invasion in the 11th century set things back, but the Seljuks were gradually driven out by the young Bagrationi king Davit Aghmashenebeli (David the Builder; 1089–1125), who defeated them at Didgori in 1122 and recaptured nearby Tbilisi and made it his capital.
Davit made Georgia the major Caucasian power and a centre of Christian culture and learning. Georgia reached its zenith under his great-granddaughter Queen Tamar (1184–1213), whose writ extended over much of present-day Azerbaijan and Armenia, plus parts of Turkey and southern Russia. Tamar is still so revered that Georgians today call her, without irony, King Tamar!
The golden age ended violently with the arrival of the Mongols in the 1220s. King Giorgi the Brilliant (1314–46) did shake off the Mongol yoke, but then came the Black Death, followed by the Central Asian destroyer Timur (Tamerlane), who attacked eight times between 1386 and 1403.
A devastated Georgia split into four main kingdoms: Kartli and Kakheti in the east, Imereti in the northwest and Samtskhe in the southwest. By the early 16th century the Ottoman Turks (who had overrun Christian Constantinople in 1453) and the Persian Safavid Empire were vying for control of Transcaucasia. They continued to do so for over two centuries, with western Georgian statelets generally falling under Turkish control and eastern ones under the Persians. The Safavid Shah Abbas’ campaigns in eastern Georgia in the early 17th century were particularly savage. In 1744 a new Persian conqueror, Nader Shah, installed local Bagratid princes as kings of Kartli and Kakheti. One of them, Erekle II, ruled both kingdoms as a semi-independent state from 1762.
Russian troops crossed the Caucasus for the first time in 1770 to assist Imereti’s liberation from the Turks. At the Treaty of Georgievsk in 1783, Erekle II accepted Christian Russian suzerainty in return for protection against his Muslim enemies. Russia went on to annex all the Georgian kingdoms and princedoms one by one during the 19th century, replacing the local or Turkish rulers with its own military governors.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Georgia was briefly independent from 1918 to 1921, but it was invaded by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. During the 1930s, like everywhere else in the USSR, Georgia suffered from the Great Terror unleashed by Joseph Stalin, a cobbler’s son from the Georgian town of Gori who had ingeniously taken control of the largest country on earth.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Georgia began to enjoy a good quality of life – the 1960s and ’70s are looked back upon with nostalgia by older Georgians as a time of public order, peace and high living standards. Yet by the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev began his policies of reform and the USSR disintegrated in just seven years.
Georgia’s bubbling independence movement became an unstoppable force after Soviet troops massacred 20 hunger strikers outside a government building in Tbilisi on 9 April 1989. Georgia’s now anti-Communist government, led by the nationalist intellectual Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declared Georgia independent of the USSR on 9 April 1991. Almost immediately the country descended into chaos. Heavy street fighting overtook Tbilisi in December 1991 as rebel paramilitary forces battled in the city centre to overthrow Gamsakhurdia. He fled to Chechnya and was replaced by a military council, which gained an international respectability when Eduard Shevardnadze agreed to lead it. Shevardnadze had been First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party from 1972 to 1985, and Soviet Foreign Minister under Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 to 1991. He was elected chairman of the parliamentand head of state on 11 October 1992.
Shevardnadze’s presence did wonders for Georgia’s reputation abroad, but at home, devastating internal conflicts continued to worsen. A truce in June 1992 halted the conflict that had beset the region of South Ossetia since it had declared its unification with North Ossetia (in Russia) in 1989. But in August 1992 an even more serious conflict erupted in Abkhazia.
In September 1993 Georgia suffered a comprehensive defeat in Abkhazia, and Gamsakhurdia tried to recapture power from Shevardnadze. A short but bloody civil war in western Georgia was only ended by Shevardnadze’s quick negotiation of support from Russian troops already in the country. Gamsakhurdia died on 31 December 1993, possibly by his own hand. The second major consequence of the defeat in Abkhazia was the enforced displacement of approximately 250, 000 Georgians from their homes there – a desperate humanitarian and economic burden for a country whose economy was already on the brink of collapse.
For a decade after the Abkhazia debacle, Georgia oscillated between periods of relative peace and security and terrible crime waves, gang warfare, kidnappings, infrastructure collapse and rampant corruption. Shevardnadze at least staved off a total collapse into anarchy, but by the early years of the 21st century, with corruption rampant and economic progress slow, Georgians had lost all faith in him.
Badly flawed parliamentary elections in November 2003 were the focus for a mass protest movement that turned into a bloodless coup, named the Rose Revolution after the flowers carried by the demonstrators. As the highly suspect election results were announced, protestors outside parliament in Tbilisi vowed to remain there until Shevardnadze resigned. Led by former Shevardnadze protégé Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer who now headed the opposition Georgian National Movement, the unarmed throng finally invaded parliament on 22 November. Humiliatingly bundled out of the back door by his bodyguards, Shevardnadze announced his resignation the next morning.
The 36-year-old Saakashvili won presidential elections in January 2004 by a landslide, and set the tone for his presidency by appointing a team of young, energetic, outward-looking ministers and announcing campaigns against the plague of corruption. He scored an early triumph within months of taking power when he faced down the semiseparatist strongman of Georgia’s southwestern region of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze. Just when it seemed Georgia might be plunged into another civil war, Abashidze backed down and left for exile in Russia.
Georgia enjoyed four years of relative stability following the Rose Revolution of 2003, which swept pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili and his Georgian National Movement to power. But a new political crisis erupted in late 2007 as assorted opposition parties staged big street protests in Tbilisi against poverty, rising prices, and alleged corruption and authoritarianism in the Sgaakashvili government. Claiming that a coup d’état was threatened, President Saakashvili sent in riot police with water cannons and tear gas to clear the protests, declared a temporary state of emergency, and shut down the Imedi TV station, part-owned by his political opponent, tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili.
The level of force used against the protests horrified Georgians and alarmed Saakashvili's friends in the West, but the president stood by his justification and called a snap presidential election for January 2008. Saakashvili won this with 53% of the vote over an opposition which had been caught unprepared. International observers adjudged the election to be democratic despite some irregularities, but large opposition protests in Tbilisi over alleged electoral fraud continued even after Saakashvili’s inauguration for his new term.
Parliamentary elections due in spring 2008 were likely to have a big influence on the course of events. A good showing by the opposition could lead to further protests and instability. It seems many Georgians still view mass public action, rather than elections, as the way to change a government.
The crisis should at least have a sobering effect on the Saakashvili regime, which in its enthusiasm for free-market reforms is seen by many Georgians as insensitive, inflexible and uncaring. Georgia has won international praise for its business-friendly reforms, and a new breed of young, stylish, relatively wealthy Georgians is enjoying life as never before, shopping in glitzy new commercial centres, quaffing cocktails in fashionable bars and dancing to minimal techno in the nightclubs of Tbilisi and Batumi. But with a national average monthly income of just 107 GEL (US$61) by 2007, it's still a battle for most Georgian families to make ends meet, and Georgians still have scant faith in the integrity of their court system or politicians. Following his inauguration in 2008, Saakashvili promised to reduce unemployment, raise pensions and introduce new social welfare measures.
Domestic troubles aside, Georgia's biggest headache is its fraught relations with Russia. Georgia's pro-Western stance and desire to join NATO has given Russia the heebie jeebies, and Russia is generally believed to support the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2006 the Kremlin banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, suspended flights, shipping and money transfers between the two countries, and closed the last remaining border crossing.
Meanwhile Georgia is trying to resolve the South Ossetia issue by supporting those in the enclave who favour a federal status within Georgia, rather than incorporation within Russia. In Abkhazia Georgia has installed what it considers to be the legitimate regional government in the one small area it controls, the upper Kodori valley. Georgia offers Abkhazia broad autonomy on the condition that the estimated 250,000 Georgian refugees, driven out in the 1992–93 war, can return. But Abkhazia says it won’t even talk until Georgia withdraws from the Kodori valley.