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History of Georgia

The recorded history of Georgia dates back more than 2,500 years and the Georgian language is one of the oldest living languages in the world.

Ancient and medieval Georgia

The region was settled as early as the fifth millennium BC by a neolithic culture. In ancient times, the Greeks knew the region as Colchis and it featured in the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, who travelled there in search of the Golden Fleece. The Georgian regions became known as Kartli (or Kolkheti, 'Colchis') in the western coastal plain, and Iberia in the mountainous east, prior to its becoming a unified client state of the Roman Empire after 66 BC. It became one of the first states in the world to convert to Christianity in 330 AD, when King Marian III established it as the official state religion.

Although it was subsequently beset by various invaders, principally Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Turks, the Georgian kingdom retained a greater or lesser degree of independence for over 1,000 years. It achieved a peak of power and prestige between the 11th and 13th centuries under powerful rulers such as the poet-king David Agmashenebili 'David the Builder' (reigned 1099 - 1125) and 'King-woman' the Georgian language having no word for 'queen') Tamar (1184 - 1213), both regarded as saints by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Georgia suffered a lengthy period of decline thereafter, finding itself contested by the Ottoman and Persian empires. It ultimately fell under the influence of the expanding Russian Empire, from which Georgia had sought protection against its Muslim enemies.

Georgia under the Russian Empire, 1801-1918

In 1801, the Russian Tsar Alexander I abolished the Georgian kingdom and exiled its royal family. It was fully absorbed into the Russian Empire by 1804, following which an intense program of Russification was undertaken to replace the Georgian social and cultural system with a Russian version. At the same time, economic life became increasingly dominated by Armenian merchants.

Georgian dissatisfaction with Tsarist autocracy and Armenian economic domination led to the development of a national liberation movement in the second half of the 19th century. A large-scale peasant revolt occurred in 1905 which led to political reforms that eased the tensions for a period. During this time, the Marxist Social Democratic Party became the dominant political movement in Georgia, occupying all the Georgian seats in the Russian State Duma established after 1905. Joseph Stalin, a Georgian Bolshevik, became a leader of the revolutionary anti-Russian (and anti-Menshevik) movement in Georgia.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 plunged Russia into a bloody civil war during which several outlying Russian territories declared independence. Georgia was one of them, proclaiming the establishment of the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia on May 26, 1918. The new country was ruled by the Menshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party, which established a multi-party system in sharp contrast with the "dictatorship of the proletariat" established by the Bolsheviks in Russia. It was recognised as independent by the major European powers in 1918 and by Russia in May 1920.

Georgia under the Soviet Union, 1921-1991

However, in March 1921 the Soviet Red Army invaded Georgia and forcibly incorporated it into a Transcaucasian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic (TFSSR) comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Soviet rule was harsh: 5,000 people were executed following a failed revolt in 1924 and thousands more were purged under Stalin and his secret police chief, the Georgian Lavrenty Beria. In 1936, the TSFSR was dissolved and Georgia became the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Reaching the Caucasus oilfields was one of the main objectives of Hitler's invasion of the USSR in August 1941, but the armies of the Axis powers did not get as far as Georgia. Instead, Stalin's restoration of the previously suppressed Georgian Orthodox Church in 1943 led to a revival of nationalist sentiment, which emerged fully after his death in 1953. Stalin's reputation as a tyrant did not stop Georgians from idolising the former leader and reacting strongly against Nikita Khrushchev's repuditation of Stalinism. In 1956, hundreds of Georgians were killed when they demonstrated against Khrushchev's policy of de-Stalinization.

The decentralisation program introduced by Khrushchev in the mid-1950s was soon exploited by Georgian Communist Party officials to build their own regional power base. A thriving capitalist shadow economy emerged alongside the official state-owned economy, making Georgia one of the most economically successful Soviet republics but unfortunately also greatly increasing corruption.

Although corruption was hardly unknown in the Soviet Union, it became so widespread and blatant in Georgia that it came to be an embarassment to the authorities in Moscow. The country's interior minister between 1964 and 1972, Eduard Shevardnadze, gained a reputation as a fighter of corruption and engineered the removal of Vasily Mzhavanadze, the corrupt First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party. Shevardnadze ascended to the post of First Secretary with the blessings of Moscow. He was an effective and able ruler of Georgia from 1972 to 1985, improving the official economy and dismissing hundreds of corrupt officials.

Shevardnadze's appointment as Soviet Foreign Minister in 1985 caused him to be replaced as Georgian leader by Jumber Patiashvili, a conservative and generally ineffective Communist who coped poorly with the challenges of perestroika. Towards the end of the late 1980s there were increasingly violent clashes between the Communist authorities, the resurgent Georgian nationalist movement and nationalist movements in Georgia's minority-populated regions (notably South Ossetia). In April 1989, Soviet troops were used to break up a peaceful demonstration at the government building in Tbilisi. Twenty Georgians were killed. The event radicalised Georgian politics, prompting many - even some Georgian communists - to conclude that independence was preferable to continued Soviet rule.

Opposition pressure on the communist government was manifested in popular demonstrations and strikes, which ultimately resulted in an open, multiparty election being held in October 1990. They were won by the "Round Table" coalition headed by the dissident nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who became the head of Georgia's Supreme Soviet. He wasted no time in organising a referendum on independence, which was approved by 98.9% of Georgian voters. Formal independence from the Soviet Union was declared on April 9, 1991, although it took some time before it was widely recognised by outside powers such as the United States and European Union. Gamsakhurdia's government strongly opposed any vestiges of Russian dominance, such as the remaining Soviet military bases in the republic, and (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) declined to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Post-communist Georgia, 1991 - 2003

Gamsakhurdia was elected president in May 1991 with 86% of the vote. He was widely criticised for what was perceived to be an erratic and authoritarian style of government, with nationalists and reformists joining forces in an uneasy anti-Gamsakhurdia coalition. A tense situation was worsened by the large amount of ex-Soviet weaponry available to the quarreling parties and by the growing power of paramilitary groups. The situation came to a head in December 1991, when armed opposition groups launched a violent coup d'etat, besieging Gamsakhurdia and his supporters in government buildings in central Tblisi. Gamsakhurdia managed to evade his enemies and fled to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya in January 1992.

The new government invited the internationally respected Shevardnadze to become the country's effective President in March 1992, putting a moderate face on the somewhat unsavoury regime that had been established following Gamsakhurdia's ouster. In August 1992, a separatist dispute in the Georgian autonomous republic of Abkhazia escalated when government forces and paramilitaries were sent into the area to quell separatist activities. The Abkhaz fought back, and in September 1993 the government forces suffered a catastrophic defeat which led to them being driven out and the entire Georgian population of the region being expelled. Around 10,000 people died and another 200,000 were forced to flee.

Ethnic violence also flared in South Ossetia but was eventually quelled, although at the cost of several hundred casualties and 100,000 refugees fleeing into Russian-controlled North Ossetia. In south-western Georgia, the autonomous republic of Ajaria came under the control of Aslan Abashidze, who has managed to rule his republic since 1991 as a personal fiefdom in which the Tblisi government has little influence.

In the wake of the Abkhaz disaster, Zviad Gamsakhurdia returned from exile to organise an uprising against the government. His supporters were able to capitalise on the disarray of the government forces and quickly overran much of western Georgia. This alarmed Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and units of the Russian Army were sent into Georgia to assist the government. Gamsakhurdia's rebellion quickly collapsed and he committed suicide on December 31, 1993, apparently after being cornered by his enemies. In a highly controversial agreement, Shevardnadze's government agreed that it would join the CIS as part of the price for military and political support.

Shevardnadze narrowly survived a bomb attack in August 1995 that he blamed on his erstwhile paramilitary allies. He took the opportunity to imprison the paramilitary leader Jaba Ioseliani and ban his Mkhedrioni militia in what was proclaimed as a strike against "mafia forces". However, his government - and his own family - became increasingly associated with pervasive corruption that hampered Georgia's economic growth. He won presidential elections in November 1995 and April 2000 with large majorities, but there were persistent allegations of vote-rigging.

The war in Chechnya caused considerable friction with Russia, which accused Georgia of harbouring Chechen guerrillas. Further friction was caused by Shevardnadze's close relationship with the United States, which saw him as a counterbalance to Russian influence in the strategic Transcaucasus region. Georgia became a major recipient of U.S. foreign and military aid, signed a strategic partnership with NATO and declared an ambition to join both NATO and the EU. In 2002, the United States sent hundreds of Special Operations Forces to assist the local military fight guerrilla fighters. See War on Terrorism/Pankisi Gorge. Perhaps most significantly, the country secured a $3 billion project to build a pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia (the so-called "Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan" or BTC pipeline).

A powerful coalition of reformists headed by Mikhail Saakashvili, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania united to oppose Shevardnadze's government in the November 2003 parliamentary elections. The elections were widely regarded as being blatantly rigged; in response, the opposition organised massive demonstrations in the streets of Tblisi. After two tense weeks, Shevardnadze resigned on November 23, 2003 and was replaced as president on an interim basis by Burjanadze.

Georgia after Shevardnadze

Saakashvili was elected as president by a huge majority on January 4, 2004. He faces many problems on coming to office. More than 230,000 internally displaced persons put an enormous strain on the economy. Peace in the separatist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, overseen by Russian and United Nations peacekeepers and international organizations, will continue to be fragile, requiring years of economic development and negotiation to overcome local enmities. Considerable progress has been made in negotiations on the Ossetian-Georgian conflict, and negotiations are continuing in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict.

Relations with Russia remain problematic, especially as Russian troops still remain garrisoned at two military bases and as peacekeepers in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The separatist question is still unresolved but Saakashvili's public pledge to resolve the matter has already provoked criticism from the separatist regions.

Georgia remains a very poor country by European standards, not least because of its widespread corruption. The Georgian Government is committed to economic reform in cooperation with the IMF and World Bank, and stakes much of its future on the revival of the ancient Silk Road as the Eurasian corridor, using Georgia's geography as a bridge for transit of goods between Europe and Asia. Saakashvili has pledged to improve the economy in general and specifically to raise pay and pensions, as well as to crack down on corruption and retrieve the ill-gotten gains of figures in the previous government.