Eduard Popov

31. 08.2008

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
n o 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 Os setia 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)
Presi dent 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

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 track20the 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

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 of20the "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 ar e 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.