A Federative Georgia?

From: Strategic Culture Foundation

For Georgia, the consequences of the aggression against South Ossetia and of the attack on Abkhazia which was about to be launched are going to be felt not only in geopolitics but in domestic politics as well. The less-than-excellent show of the pro-presidential National Movement Party in the parliamentary elections last May and the rather unconvincing victory of M. Saakashvili in the presidential elections were among the factors behind the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia as the planned snap offensive was supposed to improve Saakashvili’s domestic political standing. In reality, the intervention in South Ossetia ended with a complete debacle and is sure to echo with a drop of the Georgian President’s popularity. The opposition in Georgia has the impression that its time is coming.

Though opposition leaders invariably reiterate at public gatherings that they are united with the authority in the confrontation “with the common enemy”, the struggle over the popularity in the Georgian society is bound to intensify. A few days ago one of the opposition leaders Koba Davitashvili said Georgia needs a national unity government and expressed the view at a media conference that at the current period which is extremely difficult for the country the opposition should take on a part of the responsibility. The patriotic rhetoric should breed no illusions – the goal of the opposition is to topple Saakashvili’s regime which it hates and to prove to both the population of Georgia and to the West that only the leadership whose authority is truly delegated by the nation can efficiently counter Russia. No doubt, the coming political changes will, among other things, affect the relations between the central authority in Georgia and its regions.

While the opposition in Georgia seeks to be admitted to running the country, Georgia’s regions demand (or are going to demand in the nearest future) a bigger role in the currently centralized decision-making process and, most importantly, a certain extent of autonomy from Tbilisi. Though the majority of Georgia’s opposition movements are nationalistic in character, a tactical alliance between the opposition and the autonomists is nevertheless possible. Such alliance will not necessarily be public, yet behind the scene the sides interested in each other will attempt to cooperate in accomplishing their priority objective which is the ouster of the Saakashvili regime or at least a limitation of its political monopoly.

The threat separatism allegedly poses to Russia may be a staple of the Georgian propaganda, but in reality the thesis mostly reflects the wishful thinking on the part of the Georgian officialdom, while the country faces the same problem in much greater proportions. As for Russia, Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia not only angered the nations of the North Caucasus but also instilled a stronger sense of togetherness in the ranks of the nations of the Russian Federation. A comparable level of unity is unattainable for Georgia which is in fact organized as a “small empire” and has to deal with a highly volatile situation in its ethnic provinces.

Historically, Georgia used to exist in the form of a loosely knit federation of small counties. Abkhazia, for example, was subordinate to Georgian rulers in some epochs but managed to expand its authority beyond its original confines and to seize control over originally Georgian territories in others. It was incorporated into the Russian Empire as an independent county in 1810 with no reference to Georgia. Ossetia has put to practice the same pattern even earlier, in 1764, and also separately from Georgia. Georgia’s claims on the “separatist regions” can only be traced back to the formative phase of the USSR whose heritage the ideologists of the Georgian independence chose to renounce with utmost radicalism already in the late 1980ies. Therefore it is J. Stalin, the man who established Georgia in its current formal borders, who should be regarded as Georgia’s father-founder rather than M. Saakashvili whose escapades jeopardize what Georgia used to have. And by this we mean not only Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What exactly the so-called Georgian territories are is not such an easy question. Quite a few of the scholars studying the Caucasus contest the broad interpretation of the term “Georgian” pointing to the fact that at least two Kartvelian peoples – the Mingrelians and the Svans – have languages distinct from that spoken by other groups of Georgians and differ from the overall Georgian population culturally. In the political sense, the Mingrelians and the Svans are also fairly distanced from the Georgian central authority. The Svans are a mountain people which has always lived in a de facto autonomy from Tbilisi. Their relations with Georgia have been strained in the recent years when the Svan-populated Kodor region was occupied on Saakashvili’s order and their local leader Emzar Kvitsiani was expelled. As for the Svans‘ neighbors – the Abkhazians – the relations between them have for the most part been complicated rather than marked by downright hostility. The Svans typically adopted a friendly-neutral stance during the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia which unfolded in the post-Soviet period.

The Mingrelians are a people residing in the western part of Georgia, south of the Svan-populated region. Their status in Georgia is an even more intricate issue. On the one hand, the Mingrelians have typically been radical Georgian nationalists. Two notorious butchers – chief of Stalin’s secret police L. Beria and the first (and extremely radical) President of the post-Soviet independent Georgia Z. Gamsakhurdia – were Mingrelians. On the other hand, the Georgianization implemented by Georgian leaders of Mingrelian descent has always been a disguised Mingrelianization. When L. Beria led the Georgianization campaign in Abkhazia which took the lives of practically all Abkhazian communist leaders and prominent intellectuals, the new population poured into the region was predominantly Mingrelian.

The objectives of Tbilisi and Zugdidi (the center of Mingrelia) are not necessarily identical. The Mingrelian elite would be happy to see the authority of Georgia over the two breakaways – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – reinstated but it also aspires to rule Georgia. Mingrelians resisted more than any other group to the Shevardnadze-Ioseliani-Kitovani triumvirate which toppled Z. Gamsakhurdia. By the way, at that time the Mingrelian march to Tbilisi was stopped by the Russian troops at the behest of Tbilisi.

It is unrealistic to expect that the Mingrelians with their manifest nationalism and belief in their elite status in the Caucasus are going to miss the opportunities opening as a result of the weakening of the central authority in Georgia. The opportunities may be ample – even the US advisers admit that the counterattack by the Russian army has destroyed not only the Georgian military infrastructure but also the country’s state control system as a whole.

It is difficult to track the developments in the potentially separatist regions of Georgia such as Svanetia and Mingrelia given the informational blockade organized by Tbilisi. But the information does spread in some amounts. Clashes between the Georgian police and Mingrelian youths in Zugdidi, the “capital” of the Mingrelian province, have been reported. Bloodshed was prevented only by the intervention of the Russian peacekeepers. Accounts of the activization of Ajarian autonomists are also available. In one of the episodes, they attempted to open fire on a US warship entering the Batumi seaport.

The list of Georgia’s defiant territories is not limited to Mingrelia and Svanetia. The list also includes Ajaria and the Armenian-populated Javakheti.

The top priority of Georgia, the country which has just lost a war and is plagued by a whole range of problems, should be not the rearmament with the US assistance (the result may be another lost war and the irreversible demise of the Georgian statehood) but the formation of a more democratic and responsible regime capable to reform the Georgian state system model.

Historically, Georgia has always been a federation. A unitary Georgia invariably troubled its neighbors and proved unsustainable. Georgia has no chance to survive as a political entirety unless it reverts to some form of a federative model.

Abkhazian President’s foreign politics adviser B. Chirikba says: “The remaining part of the “small empire” created by Stalin (Georgia minus the now independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia) should be transformed into a federation by instituting the following autonomies: the Mingrelian autonomous province, the Svanetian autonomous province, the Ajarian autonomous province (an already existing de facto autonomy populated by Muslim Georgians), the Javakheti autonomous province (with a mostly Armenian population), and the rest of Georgia. Only such truly federative Georgia can function as a stable state as this political and administrative structure would be adequate to the country’s ethnic composition and traditional statehood based on federalism and decentralization”. The point of view is absolutely logical. Of course, nobody has the right to impose any forms of political organization on the peoples of Georgia. The type of conduct practiced by the US – imposing on the whole world its value system as the only appropriate – is unacceptable as it discredits the very concept of democracy. But life itself compels the peoples of Georgia to rethink their historical experience, to identify the mistakes made in the recent past, and to adopt some form of federalism.

In the Soviet era, Georgia was jokingly referred to as the Federal Republic of Georgia, invoking the analogy with Germany. Currently, Georgia needs a genuinely democratic formula of federalism.

Russia and other neighbors of Georgia in the Caucasus are interested in its being a prosperous and democratic country, a country best known for people like the famous philosopher M. Mamardashvili, not for militarists like its current President M. Saakashvili. Federalization would help to revive Georgia, which has often been unlucky in its choice of political leaders, as a country of high culture.

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