Why would the Georgian people want to be independent from Russia, a vassal relationship that began in 1783, nearly as long as the USA is as a nation? Why, when the USSR made their province one of the most prosperous? Why, when independence has been financial disaster for Georgia?
The Georgian people dwell in their long ago past to an incredible degree. Georgians are proud of their history, quite insane about it by American standards. Today, Georgians speak of David the Builder, an 11th century king, as if he had just stepped out for lunch. I once commented to my staff, “People here seem to be living in the 12th century sometimes.” With much hilarity I was told, “Oh! You have not seen the real Georgia! Ninth century! Maximum!” This historical rootedness rivals that of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, except the Georgians never left this cradle of man. A saying in Georgia is “We are all Georgians.” The Tower of London is built on the design of much older towers in Georgia. The word Lon-don means “dirty water” to them. The battle of Hastings was won with an old Alan cavalry trick stemming from the Caucasus.
There is in the Caucasus, as in much of the world outside of the USA, ingrained ethnic bigotry on all sides. It is completely casual, utterly offensive to modern US sensibilities, and a source of violence, humor and pride. It was ethnic nationalism that was the birth-mother of the country of Georgia. Ghamsakurdia became the first president on a platform of Georgian racial superiority. Georgians fought a civil war in Tbilisi to get rid of him shortly after electing him. He was described to me as a literal paranoid schizophrenic by a university professor in Tbilisi, although precise facts are quite murky and Saakishvili brought him back to be buried with Georgian heroes. Most likely this move was a cynical political ploy on Mikheil Saakishvili's part. Most of my staff was high school age at the time of that war in 1991. For them it was an exciting time with lots of great parties and no cops showing up if they threw bottles at pedestrians while drunk from 5 stories up. Some of my staff participated in defending the libraries of their schools with machine guns during the war so they could continue their education when it was over. Education is revered in Georgia like a religion, with the great scholars of Georgia buried like saints at Mama Davita, the holiest Georgian Orthodox Church.
As is commonly the case in the birth of nations, terrible things happen to good people. I know a refugee from Georgia who was a pure Russian ethnic, but multi-generational Georgian. Her father and she journeyed to the USA as refugees because she was raped by ethnic Georgians almost every day immediately after independence, sometimes more than once a day, and nobody would do anything to help her. It was in this kind of climate that the South Ossetians had trouble trusting their province under early Georgian rule. Small wonder that the South Ossetians would be concerned under those circumstances.
It must also be understood that Georgians had experienced terrible things at the hands of Russians over a couple of hundred years from time to time. As an illustration of Soviet rule over Georgia, every American of a certain age remembers Kent State, when our National Guard killed 4 students and wounded 9 others, memorialized by Neil Young in the song “Ohio”. In that period in Tbilisi, which is a city with 5 major universities, students gathered in the central park to denounce Stalinism. Since Khruschev had denounced him long before, they thought it would be ok. But in Tbilisi, the KGB surrounded the couple of thousand students that day. Three days later there were no known survivors. Even today, this is spoken of in quiet tones in Tbilisi, looking around to see who might hear. I did not learn of it for years, though I visited the park often.
And the KGB has been at work taking back Georgia since the first day of independence, which everyone in Georgia knows without a doubt. At the beginning, a man named Igor Giorgadze, whom I believe is still wanted by Interpol, was placed as head of the new Georgian Secret Service. Igor was the man who Ames met with in Tbilisi before Fred Woodruff was killed there. Fred (Freddie) Woodruff confronted Ames in Tbilisi. There is little doubt that Giorgadze was the person who alerted the Kremlin to protect Ames as an intelligence assett. I know a man who was charged with protecting “Freddie” who said he warned Woodruff against the trip he took where he was killed. Later, Giorgadze attempted to kill Eduard Shevardnadze several times, and when Giorgadze was outed, he escaped to a Russian military base and was spirited to Russia. When the EU or Georgia asks Moscow to extradite Igor, somehow Mr. Giorgadze evades the entire police apparatus in Russia.
Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular, also has a long tradition of tolerance stronger than its ethnic divisions, despite its recent re-birth in the blood of ethnic racial superiority claims. It was a major metropolis on the Silk Road, the last outpost of European influenced civilization, where cultures met. Downtown in the old sector there are 4 or 5 branches of Christianity represented, a Synagogue and the Mosque. Rounding it out, across the 1600 year old bathhouse (still in daily use) from the places of worship are the legendary brothels. The joke in Tbilisi is that one can have a debauch, go to the baths to clean the body, then to the church of your choice to cleanse your sins, all in about 3 blocks of world class architecture. This tolerance came to the fore rapidly when Shevardnadze took power in 1992, and while Georgian ethnic pride is still in evidence, rather like Sicilian pride, the worst abuses of independence died down. It was this tolerance and the South Ossetians relaxing about being part of Georgia over the next 12 years that prompted Moscow to act in 2004. But more than South Ossetia being a problem, Abkhazia had been a “breakaway” province at independence.
Abkhazia is described as a “breakaway” province by Western media, but it was actually an ethnic cleansing by Russian troops and Russian financed Chechen mercenaries. These support troops made it possible for the 12% “Abkhazian” minority to conduct a civil war that drove over 80% of Abkhazia’s population into the capital of Tbilisi. These hundreds of thousands of refugees are still there, living in the huge hold hotels downtown. After taking military control of Abkhazia, the remaining citizens were given Russian passports. If Abkhazia is legitimate, then it would be legitimate for China or Russia to occupy Massachussetts, and claim an Algonquin breakaway, driving everyone who lives there into New York. The purpose of this move was simple. If you can’t swallow the whole thing, take a smaller bite.
It is not just the USA that knows the meaning of the word “blowback”. Those Chechen mercenaries returned home and became the backbone of the Chechen separatist rebellion that has since been crushed by Moscow. While Shevardnadze was alive, he kept Moscow at bay by allowing Georgia to be a conduit for arms to Chechnya, despite occasional attacks on Georgians by Chechen rebels. By American standards the best description of the more rural Chechen rebels would be hillbillies with guns. Some of these guys would make the characters from “Deliverance” seem like gentlemen. There was a team from Europe sent to the mountains there to install a satellite for a local chief. Some of “the boys” in the tribe beheaded them all and posed, holding the heads, with a foot up on the chest of their victims like trophy hunters in Africa. With attacks on Georgians from time to time, the general comportment and history of Chechen mercenaries in Abkhazia ethnically cleansing Georgian families with family roots in Abkhazia that went back centuries, Georgians have little sympathy for the Chechen cause. But Shevardnadze knew that as long as Moscow was busy fighting with the Chechens, they would not be able to attack Georgia further. So Eduard made book on a two-fer. He made a ton of money for Georgia on the arms trade, and he kept Russia at bay without firing a shot.
The most humorous tale of the Chechen arms trade I was told from that period was when a rebel leader and some Russian officers got together, and collaborating with one of the Georgian “black banks” sold the same load of Russian arms to the same rebel 4 times, bilking Saudi Arabian Wahabbis out of millions. Nothing ever changed hands in actual fact, and everyone made out like bandits. The tale may be apocryphal, but even if it is, it represents well the atmosphere surrounding the Chechen arms trade. Georgians are masters at corruption, and the corrupt arms trade itself being corrupted is classic.
Georgian talents at corruption and cozening occupying powers developed over almost 1,000 years of occupations. After the most recent independence, various international organizations came in and dropped massive amounts of money. Billions have been plowed into Georgia, and much of that has been stolen. Even the Soros foundation has been reported to grant loans from local functionaries in return for 30% kickback. Western bankers allocated World Bank funds in return for 10% kickback or greater. The 10% figure was for a special friend of Eduard Shevardnadze. In one loan origination from aid agencies I discussed, the man who acquired the $25 million loan took a $5 million commission for himself, then took kickbacks from contractors reportedly as high as $10 million and they in turn took kickbacks from subcontractors. It must be understood that this is how Georgia runs.
As Wedel showed in “Collision and Collusion: The strange case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe” when huge amounts of money are dropped into nations it wrecks the hierarchy of power there. Those who are honest are shuffled to the bottom, and the most greedy and criminal rise to wealth and power.
Saakishvili took power in the Rose revolution at the end of 2003. While I cannot verify this, it is possible this bloodless turnover was the first such in the tens of thousands of years of human history on that blood soaked ground since the neoltihic. It certainly is in recent time. During the election, an order went out to assassinate Mikhail Saakishvili, who was protected by volunteers. Shevardnadze, when he took power, had little choice but to govern by a spoils system, allocating permission for rackets and graft to those loyal to him. This is how one must operate when one has no budget, just military power based on loyalties. The Georgian joke was that Georgians had it better than Russians, because Russians have to pay the government and the Mafia, but in Georgia the government was the Mafia, so you only pay once. Such systems rapidly become sclerotic, and by the end of his term in office, Shevardnadze could not abdicate or he would be killed by those around him who had ridden to power. Mugabe is in a similar situation in Zimbabwe today.
When Shevardnadze lost the election to Saakishvili, who was an attorney educated and practicing in the USA, Eduard ignored election results and went to his inauguration anyway. He had little choice if he wanted to live. The opposition understood this would happen and a cadre of military officers and former officers organized to stop it. Ahead of the 100,000 strong crowd marching on the inauguration came these officers, one or two assigned to each guard. With them came a volunteer corps of physicians, ready to treat the wounded if there was a battle. Each officer spoke to a young soldier he had trained to countermand the shoot to kill orders. These young men were more than happy to have someone tell them not to fire. Then the officers went in to secure the building ahead of the crowd to prevent any mob action as they didn’t want property destroyed. A selection of these officers, some of them former personal bodyguards, and all known personally to Shevardnadze, filed into the back of the auditorium while Saaikishvili walked toward Shevardnadze holding a rose. What Shevardnadze saw was this long line of men he had commanded standing there looking at him. What the television cameras saw was Saakishvili coming forward with a rose and Eduard walking away.
The term in office of Mr. Saakishvili has been a definite mixed bag for the Georgians. In January of this year, a huge crowd, perhaps 120,000 people, turned out to peacefully demonstrate against him and his increasingly dictatorial ways. For its own reasons, the Georgian government probably saw to it that the images that reached the West showed only a few people. Control of media images is usually trivial in a place like Tbilisi, a place where western journalists rarely set foot, where it is easiest for lazy journalists to take the official releases as correct. I was witness to comically macabre instances of this more than once, where the official story was patently false, but reported by CNN and AP verbatim, without questions.
[[Tbilisi]] In this photo of part of the demonstration you can see that the crowds were tremendous. One of the problems Georgians have with Saakishvili has been his behavior in office. Georgians are very much like the French about sexual affairs. They would see nothing wrong with John Edwards’ peccadillo, and were rather proud of Eduard Shevardnadze’s reputation as a “silver fox” with the women. Nobody cares as long as a man or woman acts with decency and doesn’t make scenes. My staff brought lovers into the office, and wives discreetly flirted with me. Like the French, Georgians see such as private matters. But a head of state should not comport himself like a rock star as Saakishvili has. He also disgraced himself by having the lover of his Dutch wife thrown in jail for things that everyone did, and that prompted his wife to flee to stay with her parents for a while. All of this was considered extremely bad form, and people wondered how he had time to run the country.