Special Report

Trifles and Mighty Contests

Three years after being brutalized by Russia, Georgia prepares for another round of woes.

By 8.9.11

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By dint of its roughhewn landscape, kaleidoscopic diversity, and considerable strategic value, the Caucasus is forever destined to exist in a state of unstable equilibrium in the best of times, and of outright turmoil in the worst. Few figures in the recorded history of the region ever possessed such an understanding of the resulting vicissitudes of Caucasian affairs as did Davit Guramishvili. Born in 1705 to a noble eastern Georgian family, Guramishvili spent his allotted 87 years in constant contention with the endemic anarchy of his native Transcaucasia. Between 1723 and 1728 alone, the young prince experienced the chaos of civil strife and successive Ottoman, Persian and Russian incursions, the terror of captivity at the hands of Dagestani marauders, and the self-wasting melancholy of permanent exile in Russia alongside ousted Georgia ruler Vakhtang the Scholar.

After a distinguished career in military, diplomatic, and cultural service to the itinerant King Vakhtang, and subsequently to various Romanov czars and czarinas, Guramishvili retired to a Ukrainian estate. Putting pen to parchment, he produced the epic poem Kartlis Chiri, or The Woes of Georgia. In it, the worldly-wise prince described a people pummeled by the "bloody fists" of "Turks, Ossetians, Lekis, Persians, Cherkez, Glighvis, Didos, and Kists," and described a culture in which "domestic broils, quarrels, and feuds arose like mists." Guramishvili's mid-18th century Caucasus was a turbulent territory where indigenes battled with outsiders, and "brothers with brothers." Above all, it was a place where even "trifles caused mighty contests." A quarter of a millennium later, the same can still be written.

In today's Georgia, only three years removed as it is from the most recent of a long line of foreign invasions, President Mikheil Saakashvili can propose a national policy of "total defense" that incorporates the grim lessons of the Caucasian past. According to Saakashvili, each Georgian "settlement and neighborhood, each house and family" must "become a bastion, a fortress of resistance," and in the event of another Russian incursion, "every square meter of the Georgian land should burn beneath" Russian boots. Such has always been the modus vivendi in the mysterious province of Svaneti, where for centuries, under the shadow of Mount Ushba, the stalwart inhabitants have populated towns studded with privately owned towers -- defenses against interlopers and blood-feuding neighbors alike. For Saakashvili and other contemporary Georgian policymakers, the fortress-houses of Svaneti serve as medieval precedents for modern approaches to pressing security threats.

Such attitudes may seem anachronistic in this day and age, but the Transcaucasian past weighs heavily on the Georgian present. Recent months have seen a series of events that, while trifling at first glance, reveal themselves upon closer examination to be part and parcel of a contest stretching back centuries. When Georgian citizens, for instance, are outrageously detained by South Ossetian border guards while on their way to celebrate the vaguely pagan religious festival of Sajvareoba, as was the case on June 18, one is led to conclude that the days of Guramashvili's ancient mist-like feuds are hardly lost to history. In the breakaway province of Abkhazia, meanwhile, the mounting concerns about the colonization of the region by Russian military personnel and private citizens -- increasingly voiced by Georgian authorities wary of further Russian inroads within their traditional borders, as well as by Abkhazian authorities equally wary of their precarious demographic position -- recall the days of Pushkin or Lermontov, when Russia's encroachment into the Caucasus began in earnest.

In such a politically and demographically convoluted region, where breakaway republics position themselves between former capitals and present-day hegemonies, and where colonizers readily inhabit the homes of the internally-displaced, it is to be expected that the very notion of nationality maintains some of its pre-modern nuances. President Saakashvili, though attempting a sort of nationalistic revival at home, has nonetheless decried the "division, injustice, conflict, colonization, and violence" that has only served to erect "walls nobody could cross." As part of the Georgian-led "historical move towards Caucasian unity," the Saakashvili government has taken steps to issue foreign passports with a "neutral status" to residents of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These documents lack Georgian symbols but still have "full legal relevance" for the bearer. This almost neo-medieval blurring of identities seems altogether out of place today, but is entirely in keeping with Caucasian political and cultural norms.

Internal political decentralization is also underway, with the planned relocation of the nation's parliament to a modernist building being built in the city of Kutaisi. According to Saakashvili, the parliamentary relocation means that Georgia will have three centers: Kutaisi, the "parliamentary capital," Batumi, the "economic-financial center of Georgia," and Tbilisi, grandly dubbed "the capital of Caucasus." It is a protean state of affairs unimaginable under the Soviet and post-Soviet rule of Vasil Mzhavanadze and Eduard Shevardnadze, but which has an aspect rather in keeping with the history of the lands between the Black and Caspian seas. Even the seemingly benign July 5 decision by the Georgian parliament to pass an amendment to the civil code allowing long-established religious minority groups in Georgia to be registered as legal entities -- thereby undermining the position of the Orthodox Church as the official religion -- seems designed to hearken back to a more fluid pre-modern environment.

While the past exerts its influence, attempts made to overcome the enormities of previous eras have nevertheless proven equally indicative of the extent to which Transcaucasian history impacts the present. The May 20 Georgian parliamentary recognition of the mid-19th century Russian-perpetrated Circassian genocide was proposed by Georgian parliamentarian Nugzar Tsiklauri as a way to help "establish completely new relations between Georgia and the North Caucasus peoples, which is good for regional security and stability." Yet Tbilisi's needling of Moscow over the 1864 massacres and deportations of ethnic Circassians has only led to further questions about the participation of ethnic Georgians in the imperial campaign against the Circassians, and even about the appropriateness of a future recognition of the 1867 depopulation of Abkhazia (which, as Thomas de Waal has noted, in actuality served to give "Georgians a demographic preponderance" in Abkhazia). In the Caucasus, it seems, history is a Pandora's box whose lid can never be securely fastened.

Echoes of the more recent past likewise continue to resound. Three years ago, "like hot lava," to borrow from The Woes of Georgia, the "black disaster" of foreign invasion "flowed over valley, hill, and wood," and though the South Ossetia War between Georgia and Russia officially ended on August 16, 2008, innumerable running sores that resulted from the conflict have yet to heal. On an almost daily basis, tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are exacerbated. The arrival of an American guided-missile cruiser in the Georgian port of Batumi is predictably criticized by the Russian Foreign Ministry as fodder for Georgian "revanchist aspirations in respect of Russia's allies." The Tbilisi City Court's trial and conviction (in absentia) of a Russian military officer and fourteen others for having "carried out a number of terrorist acts in the Samegrelo region and Tbilisi in 2009-2010, which resulted into death of a person, as well as caused other grave consequences," only leads the Kremlin to express "bewilderment and regret" concerning the "fabricated allegations." And, when "domestic broils" like riots and debatably harsh crackdowns mar Georgian Independence Day celebrations, the aftermath is inevitably dominated by sparring over whether or not the agitators received their marching orders from the Russian "occupiers."

In the Caucasus -- a land aptly described by Charles King as that "feared and poorly understood specter at the edge of Europe" -- geopolitical instability is fundamentally inevitable. Georgian governmental initiatives aimed at safeguarding national interests (whether through policies of "total defense," symbolic moves towards "Caucasian unity," or the maintenance of close alliances with the United States and NATO) are destined to simultaneously mitigate and aggravate regional tensions, owing to Russian cross-purposes in the region. And domestic efforts to maintain internal stability, such as President Saakashvili's Putin-esque intention of assuming the recently constitutionally buttressed role of prime minister after his presidential term is up, while likely to provide continuity and much-needed political acumen for the Georgian body politic, will only lead to more "domestic broils" fomented by an increasingly vocal opposition. The wheels of Caucasian fortune, as Prince Guramishvili wrote centuries ago in his epic lament for his native land, are always turning.

Yevgeny Baratynsky, a Russian poet working a generation after Guramishvili, suggested that "Wise Providence" has given "our perception" the quintessentially eastern European "choice between two different fates," namely "blind hope and agitation" or "hopelessness and deadly rest." Baratynsky, ever the Romantic, opted for the latter. "We will be submissive to our lot," wrote the Russian elegiac poet, "we will subdue or forget our rebellious dreams; reasonable slaves, we will obediently make our desires conform to our fate." Georgians like Davit Guramishvili, or Grigol Orbeliani, who hoped his nation might redeem its "might of former time," were not so inclined. In the Caucasus in general, and in Georgia in particular, stability, even the oft-invoked "stability of the graveyard," appears to be a historical impossibility, and the interplay between hope and agitation seems destined to continue in perpetuity. As a result, the rest of the world is continuously obliged to take note of events in the Caucasus. With yesterday's third anniversary of the latest contest in the region, and with only seemingly trifling events all the while impacting the future of Georgia, the Russian Federation, and all those peoples caught in between, there is no better time to do so than now. By doing so, it is to be hoped that the woes of the past can at least provide some insight into oncoming developments.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.