Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president, from 1991 to 1992, has been dead for fifteen years. But in view of his responsibility for initially provoking the South Ossetian campaign to secede from Georgia—the conflict that set off last month’s war with Russia—his brief but tumultuous reign merits some fresh scrutiny. Trying to understand the Ossetian, Abkhazian, and other minorities’ alienation from Georgia without reference to the extreme nationalism of Gamsakhurdia is like trying to explain Yugoslavia’s collapse and Kosovo’s secession from Serbia while ignoring the nationalist policies of Slobodan Milosevic. Yet in all the debate over the causes of the Russian–Georgian war, Gamsakhurdia is rarely even mentioned.
Instead, when those responsible are cited, Vladimir Putin invariably comes first. As Russian prime minister he ordered Moscow’s brutal offensive into Georgia, and earlier, as president, he tacitly supported both the South Ossetian and Abkhazian secessionists. Next comes Mikheil Saakashvili, the impetuous and vocally pro-American Georgian president who gambled on a lightning strike to retake South Ossetia under pressure of escalating artillery fire from the separatists there.
Others fault President George W. Bush for championing the further expansion of NATO—already viewed by Moscow as hostile, as well as a violation of an implicit promise made at the end of the cold war—to include its strategically vital neighbors Georgia and Ukraine. And then there is Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who as nationalities commissar in the early 1920s laid the foundation for post-Soviet conflicts by pitting subject peoples against one another (“planting mines,” as Georgians say) to strengthen the Kremlin’s control.
But lying between the immediate and the distant past is the Gamsakhurdia era, beginning in the late 1980s, the years of Soviet liberalization and the rise of assertive nationalism that did much to shape subsequent Georgian politics—right up to the present. Gamsakhurdia, then mainly known in the West as a scholar and dissident, was also a fiery Georgian nationalist who, like Serbia’s Milosevic, rode to power on a wave of chauvinist passions. Both were demagogues who manipulated justified popular grievances and crude popular prejudices to demonize “enemies”—a tactic that soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” was to be built with territory seized from neighbors Croatia and Bosnia, where Serb minorities were supposedly in mortal danger, Gamsakhurdia’s “Georgia for the Georgians” would be established by curtailing the rights and autonomies enjoyed by Georgia’s internal minorities, privileges he saw as divisive vestiges of the Soviet system. And as he acted on that program—rising between 1988 and 1991 from opposition leader to parliamentarian to president, Georgian relations with the republic’s Abkhazian and Ossetian enclaves went from being strained to being violent.
Gamsakhurdia’s rhetoric provoked fear among all Georgian minorities—Adjars, Armenians, Azeris, Greeks, Russians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians. The latter two were especially concerned to protect their cultural rights and self-rule by means of the new opportunities offered by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika …