(zdroj: wikipedia.com)

Nationalism, Soviet Legacies and Majority-Minorities Dynamic amid the Establishment of the Independent State of Georgia

Post-sovětská Gruzie zažila dvě série konfliktů s Abcházií a Jižní Osetií, které zůstávají nevyřešeny dodnes. Budování gruzínské státnosti během získávání nezávislosti se ukázalo být hrozbou různým minoritním skupinám žijících na území bývalé Gruzínské sovětské socialistické republiky. Sovětský odkaz, vlna nacionalistických ideologií a dynamika vztahů mezi majoritou a minoritami hrály klíčovou roli ve vypuknutí dvou konfliktů, jejichž charakter se na začátku 90. let podobal válce.

The post-Soviet Georgia has experienced two sets of conflicts, Georgia-Abkhazia and Georgia-South Ossetia that remain unresolved to this day. The nation-state building of Georgia amid the establishment of independence proved as a threat to various minorities within the territory of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Soviet legacies, the emergent wave of nationalist ideologies and majority-minorities dynamic played a key role in the emergence of the two conflicts that attained war-like character in the early 1990s.


The primary aim of this essay is to account for the shift in relatively peaceful co-existence between the Georgian majority and Abkhazian or Ossetian minorities during the existence of the Soviet Union to the period of conflict during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, ultimately manifested by the Georgian-South Ossetian War and the Georgian-Abkhazian War. The secondary aim of the essay is to assess why Abkhazian and Ossetian minorities felt disproportionately threatened by the establishment of Georgia as an independent state outside of the Soviet Union, compared to other minorities inhabiting the territory of newly independent Georgia. First, the essay outlines a demographic composition within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (Georgian SSR) as a territorially-bound second-tier unit of the Soviet Union by focusing on the Georgian majority and various minorities, as well as Georgian SSR’s autonomous regions. Second, the essay discusses the impact of the Soviet Union’s ethno-federalism on majority-minorities dynamic towards the end of the Georgian SSR by positing Abkhazian and Ossetian minorities in a different category than other minorities in relation to the Georgian majority. Third, the essay engages with conceptual frameworks of nationalism and nation-state building and how they relate to the majority-minorities dynamic. Fourth, the essay analyzes developments of a nation-state building project of the Georgian majority under the leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia and how Abkhazian and Ossetian minorities under their respective leaderships perceived and reacted to them.

The essay argues that the project of Georgian majority nationalism and its nation-state building goals were dichotomous to Abkhazian and South Ossetian political aspirations that perceived the majority nation-state building project as a direct threat to them. This was in contrast to other minorities that did not possess certain key distinguishing characteristics, such as territorial autonomy or strong ethno-national movement, even though virtually all minorities perceived themselves as being marginalized. This complex web of interconnected processes was exacerbated by an increasingly evident collapse of past institutionalized structures and relationships of the ethno-federal Soviet Union during a period of uncertainty and fear that were politicized by the Georgian majority leadership of Gamsakhurdia, as well as by minority leaderships of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to achieve their specific goals.

Ethnic composition towards the end of the Soviet Union

The last population census of the USSR conducted in 1989 reflects ethnic composition of the Georgian SSR including its subunits, specifically the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), the Ajarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) and the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast’ (AO). Table 1 shows that ethnic Georgians (this category also includes, for example, Mingrelians, Svans and Ajarians) constituted the majority of the population within the Georgian SSR in 1989, totalling slightly above 70%. Armenians, Russians and Azeris, respectively, constituted the three largest minorities in terms of population size, adding up to around 20% out of the total. Historically, both Armenians and Azeris have to a large extent been concentrated in the respective regions of the present-day Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli, though without any significant degree of autonomy during the era of the Soviet Union (George 2009: 142-143).

Ossetians constituted 3% and Abkhazians only 1.8% within the whole Georgian SSR, but these minorities had autonomous regions named after them. However, in the Abkhazian ASSR, Abkhazians were effectively the largest minority, constituting 17.3% of the population, whereas Georgians totalled almost half of the population. In the South Ossetian AO, Ossetians represented around two-thirds of the population and the largest minority was Georgians.

However, a higher number of Ossetians, reaching almost 100,000, lived outside of the South Ossetian AO. The Ajarian ASSR was the most homogeneous entity, with over 80% dominance of Georgians. The category of ‘Ajarians’ as an ethnic group was abolished by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s, reclassifying them as Georgians (De Waal 2010: 146). The make-up of the population within the Georgian SSR demonstrates relatively high heterogeneity and some interesting patterns, especially with respect to the proportion of Abkhazians within the Abkhazian ASSR and Ossetians outside of the South Ossetian AO. Having provided an outline of the ethnic composition towards the end of the Soviet Union, this essay subsequently examines the impact of Soviet ethno-federalism within the Georgian SSR and how it shaped majority-minorities relations.

table 1 ethnic compostition of Georgia and
Table 1: Ethnic composition of Georgia and autonomous regions in 1989 (source: Cotter (1999: 116) ).

Soviet ethno-federal legacies

The legacy of the Soviet period is crucial for understanding why some minorities perceived post-Soviet Georgian independence as a more threatening phenomenon than others. The ethno-federal structure of the Soviet Union was national in form, whereby “ethnicity was territorialized and tied to institutions and different levels of representation”, but its content was constructed as ideologically socialist, supposedly overcoming ethno-national divisions (Lynch 2004: 23). The logic of this inherently ambiguous system was often arbitrarily created by the federal centre in Moscow that also maintained the status quo by repressive means, especially during Stalin. However, with the weakening of the Soviet Union and slowly collapsing structures of the state, the primary ideological dimension of socialism was increasingly discredited, becoming obsolete as the key component of identity. Thus, the fragmentation of the all-encompassing socialist identity contributed to the (re-)activation and the increasing intensity of ethno-national elements that were indigenous within given territories, and/or effectively constructed and encouraged by the Soviet divide and rule approach. Suny’s contention sums this up perfectly: “Rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became the incubator of new nations” (Suny 1993: 87).

Structural conditions of the Soviet ethno-federalism provided some minorities within the Georgian SSR ‘higher’ status than others, making the system unequal. The three largest minorities – Armenians, Russians and Azeris did not have any autonomous status, “as they all had motherlands in other republics of the [Soviet] Union” (Cornell 2001: 130). The substance of the Soviet federalism can be explained as ‘matryoshka’ federalism, whereby the largest doll constituted the Soviet Union with fifteen second-tier republics within it that in turn had third-tier and fourth-tier territorial subunits within them. The system conferred the most power and the highest status to the first tier, while each of the lower tiers had less power and lower status than the preceding one. In the Georgian case, this structural dynamic had a potential to shape four different kinds of ethno-national elements that were territorialized and empowered due to possessing certain status and power assigned to the four territories. Map 1 depicts the four territories, Georgian SSR – a second-tier unit of the Soviet Union, its two Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics – Abkhazia and Ajaria – both third-tier subunits, and one Autonomous Oblast’ – South Ossetia – a fourth-tier subunit.

map 1 georgia and its soviet
Map 1: Georgia and its Soviet-time autonomous territories (source: Cornell (2001: 137) )

Based on this logic, there could have been three pairs of likely competing visions regarding how the post-Soviet space in the newly independent Georgia ought to be constructed. The ‘Georgian’ vision as the hierarchically highest due to the ‘matryoshka’ federalism could have been incompatible with the respective three ‘minority visions’ of Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia. However, the Ajarian ASSR was to a large extent an anomalous entity of the Soviet Union, established on the basis of Islamic religion, rather than nationality or language. To reiterate, the category of ‘Ajarian’ was dissolved for the 1939 census and the Islamic identity was marginalized and repressed during the Soviet Union. As a consequence of Georgianization policies, over time “most Ajars were assimilated and came to recognize themselves as Georgians” (Toft 2001: 128). Thus, in the Ajarian case, any substantial differences of visions of the post-Soviet order between Ajaria and Georgia were minimal. Similarly, agential factors of the two leaderships did not facilitate the emergence of a conflict.

The dynamic between Gamsakhurdia and Abashidze that both held power amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union in Georgia and Ajaria, respectively, did not contribute to a profound conflict. This was quite surprising given the former’s provocations that framed Ajarians as not proper Georgians due to their Muslim character (De Waal 2010: 146). However, Abashidze’s sense of securing enough political and economic power for himself within Ajaria as a vague autonomous unit that is part of Georgia was sufficient enough for both parties.

With respect to the pairs of South Ossetia – Georgia and Abkhazia – Georgia, the ambiguous nationality policies of the Soviet Union, “notably the practice of playing off one ethnic group against another and the arbitrary gerrymandering of borders”, facilitated the possibility of an emergence of conflicts over how the post-Soviet space in the former Georgian SSR should be constructed (Hunter 1994: 114-115). In contrast to Ajarians, both Ossetians and Abkhazians remained a distinct ethno-national category within the Georgian SSR and both possessed their respective autonomous territories. With regard to the South Ossetia – Georgia pair, there were two key territorially related issues that shaped narratives of both parties. First, the creation of the South Ossetian AO following the Bolshevik takeover of Georgia “on the territory of Shida K’art’li, one of the central provinces of historical Georgia” was considered by Georgians as an artificial construct of the Soviet oppressor (Smith et al. 1998: 59). Second, Ossetians as a distinct ethno-national group were territorially divided as South Ossetia and North Ossetia between the Georgian SSR and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) respectively. Additionally, the degree of autonomous status differed, whereby North Ossetia became an ASSR – a third-tier unit within the USSR and South Ossetia became an AO – a fourth-tier unit within the USSR, further complicating the South Ossetia – Georgia pair by involving two additional actors and an imbalance in status of the two Ossetian territories.

Regarding the Abkhazia – Georgia pair, there were also two main territorially related issues that shaped narratives of both parties. First, Abkhazia was initially created as a separate SSR in 1921, effectively gaining a second-tier status on par with fifteen second-tier Soviet republics. However, Akbhazia’s status was downgraded to a third-tier ASSR, formally incorporated within the Georgian SSR in 1931 (Herzig 1999: 76). Second, as Table 1 demonstrates, Abkhazians were a minority within their ‘own’ territory that was populated mainly by Georgians (this category also includes Mingrelians and Svans) towards the end of the Soviet Union. This ethno-territorial incongruity had a profound impact on Abkhazian and Georgian positions with respect to the post-Soviet order. Having discussed ethno-territorial legacies of the Soviet ‘matryoshka’ federalism in the Georgian SSR, the essay subsequently examines the conceptual framework of nationalism and nation-state building that serves as a useful tool to provide a more nuanced analysis of why the establishment of Georgian independence was perceived as a threat to Abkhazians and South Ossetians.

Nationalist ideology, nationalism and nation-state

With the disintegration of the highly centralized old political order of the Soviet Union that had aimed to reshape national identities, a new political space emerged that was based on the idea of a nation-state creation. This was not a surprising trend given the proliferation of nation-states in the world arena throughout the twentieth century that increasingly became dominant units of the international system after the retreat of empires. The creation of a nation-state as an internally and externally legitimate territorial unit of a specific group of ‘the people’, in which political and cultural boundaries should coincide is the main goal of nationalist ideology (Penrose 1994: 17). During the process of a nation-state creation, a nation becomes politicized by intellectual elites, constructed as an essentialized collectivity of homogenous people with a belief that members of this exclusive group share territorial and genealogical associations. There is a range of tactics that politicize a given nation, for example, a creation of national myths embedded in a particularly constructed historiography; aim to empower one’s own linguistic, cultural, or political rights; as well as using historic trauma “as a strong political instrument of mass mobilization”, especially during moments of radical transformation (Cheterian 2008: 34). The main issue with nationalism is its exclusionist character that posits own national group identity as ‘the self’ that is perceived as fundamentally distinct to an identity of ‘the other’. This distinctiveness encourages ‘the self’ to be concerned with insecurity, mistrust and fear emanating from ‘the other’. Consequently, nations are encouraged to engage in the social production of “reinventing, defining, clarifying and homogenising boundaries [that underline] a dialectic of inwardness and outwardness” (Smith et al. 1998: 15). In doing so, the ideational factors of nationalism attain material effects in the form of a state that becomes culturally encoded, consequently creating a nation-state unit.

However, there are two different ways of how a nation-state is produced. It can be created either on the basis of pre-existing boundaries, whereby a nation is effectively constructed afterwards the establishment of a state, or on the basis of a national struggle over certain territory, on which there has been a long-standing bond between particular people and place. Thus, the category of a nation and the category of a state are interlinked and appear to form the basis of ‘natural’ order, linking existence of a nation to the right to power (Penrose 1994: 17). Because a nation-state is socially constructed by human agents, there are multiple interpretations over how it should be organized. Due to the fact that a nation is a qualitatively homogenous category, the question of establishing a nation-state poses considerable problems in heterogeneous societies. The collective state identities and values could be “internalized by specific parts of society, but simultaneously, be rejected by… territorially and ethno-religiously distinctive groups” that harbour divergent identities and values (Oskanian 2013: 42). In such situations, the distribution of power among actors contesting the idea of a given nation-state is often unequal, contributing to the rise of a dominant version of nationalism that excludes and marginalizes political aspirations of minorities. With regard to the triad of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian nationalism emerged as the dominant version of the majority within the Georgian SSR that clashed with political aspirations of Abkhazians and South Ossetians. The three processes should be understood as interconnected phenomena, though the dominant version of Georgian nationalism played a pivotal role. Having discussed conceptual frameworks of nationalism and nation-state building, the essay subsequently applies the insights to analyze practical developments and effects of Georgian nationalism on Abkhazian and South Ossetia.

Georgian nationalism

The ultimate goal of Georgian nationalism in the post-Tbilisi massacre period to establish a nation-state outside of the Soviet Union was materialized on the 9th of April 1991, when Gamsakhurdia declared full independence. However, the text of the declaration ignored Abkhazian and South Ossetian political aspirations, stating that “the territory of the sovereign Republic of Georgia is united and indivisible” (De Waal 2010: 134). The key issue in this respect is to account for how the formative phase shaped the final outcome of the declaration of the Georgian nation-state that discounted secessionist aspirations of Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Also, it should be noted that politics of the Georgian nationalist movement was tied to a single personality (Souleimanov 2013: 92).

The leader of Georgian nationalist movement Zviad Gamsakhurdia “believed in a semi-mythological and racially pure Georgian past”, amalgamating nationalism with populism and religiosity, in which non-Georgians were aliens to the new state (Jones 2013: 53). The dominant Georgian nationalism posited itself in assertive and exclusive ways, marginalizing claims of other ‘nations’ inside Georgia. One of the most popular slogans at the time of strong Georgian nationalist tendencies was ‘Georgia for Georgians’ (see Video 1). The slogan demonstrates that the state of Georgia was in its substance intended as territorially uniform and ethnic Georgians considered themselves as the pivotal nationality that had exclusive rights over the territory of the new state. Due to the heterogeneous character of the former territory of the Georgian SSR, the dominant conception of the new Georgian nation-state of the majority was opposed by virtually all minorities that felt discriminated against (Cornell 2001: 151). However, as was discussed earlier in the essay, only Abkhazians and South Ossetians had prerequisites to develop their aspiring political movements that sought to challenge the dominant conception of the new Georgian nation-state. It would be an analytical fallacy to consider Georgian nationalism just as a dominant nationalism.

Video 1: ‘Georgia for Georgians!’

Source: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBk-lwFXqV8&feature=youtu.be&t=88

Georgian nationalism was dominant specifically within the Georgian SSR, but Georgian nationalism was also an aspiring nationalism in the Soviet Union as a whole, thus increasingly seeking self-determination from the past structures and institutions that embedded Georgia as a second-tier unit, rather than a fully-fledged independent state. At the same time, Georgian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian movements were not developing separately from each other towards the end of the Soviet Union. They were interdependent and an action from the dominant side was followed by a reaction of the aspiring side and vice versa. Thus, specific policies, actions, and discourse of the three movements under their respective leaderships deserve some focus.

Georgia – South Ossetia

With respect to the pair of Georgia – South Ossetia, the latter fourth-tier subunit only minimally challenged the former second-tier unit during the Soviet period in terms of political power or cultural rights. Their co-existence was relatively calm and peaceful, with a high degree of intermarriage (Cheterian 2008: 171). However, with the failing Soviet Union and the rising tide of nationalism, a new political space opened that provided not only opportunities to shape the political future of distinctive nationalities, but also reflected assertive and competing claims grounded in uncertainty and fear of the ‘self’ against the ‘other’. South Ossetians were framed “as recent immigrants at best and invaders at worst”, as well as being agents of the Soviet Union/Russia to undermine Georgian nationalism and the new nation-state (Toft 2001: 16).

Thus, multiple narratives and realities emerged, being constructed and reconstructed based on political calculations of particular agents and groups. For South Ossetians, “the straw that broke the camel’s back was probably the November 1988 publication of a law strengthening the position of the Georgian language in the republic as a whole” (Birch 1996: 161-162). On the other hand, Georgians blamed Alan Chochiev, the leader of the South Ossetian popular movement Adamon Nykhas, for an open support of Abkhazians in their independence bid, labelled as ‘terrorists’ at the time, and his demands to upgrade the status of South Ossetia with a possible security guarantee by the Soviet Union/Russian ‘oppressor’ (Cheterian 2008: 173, Birch 1996: 162). Considering a broader structural dynamic at the time, these events set the path for mutual tit-for-tat developments of rising hostility and threat perception. However, it should be noted that these developments also coincided with domestic power struggles between ‘communist’ and ‘nationalist’ camps, in which the former often adopted harsh and unyielding nationalist tactics to score political points among the population, making the demands and discourse of ‘nationalists’ even more assertive. In this sense, the leadership in South Ossetia was initially in favour of preserving the ‘old’ Soviet structures that Georgian nationalist movement sought to disintegrate and de-institutionalize. After the point of declaring Georgian language as the only official language to be used in public space, the period of ‘war of laws’ between Georgia and South Ossetia over the political-territorial status emerged. In August 1990, the South Ossetian AO “adopted a declaration of sovereignty and soon thereafter designated the region a Soviet Republic”, which was countered by the Georgian parliament, dissolving the autonomous status of South Ossetia (Slider 1997: 171). Aside from the legal dimension, developments on the ground definitely illustrated increasing threat perception and escalation of violence. Gamsakhurdia organized a popular march armed with light weapons and armoured vehicles on Tskhinvali “under the slogan of defending ethnic Georgian rights in South Ossetia”, threatening to bring 200,000-strong army (Cheterian 2008: 175). Shortly afterwards, the violence erupted between Georgians and South Ossetians.

Georgia – Abkhazia

Regarding the pair of Georgia – Abkhazia, the latter third-tier subunit challenged Georgianization policies of the former during the Soviet period by writing a number of letters to Moscow and in 1978 even troops had to be sent in to contain public disturbances. As a result, the Georgian leadership under Shevardnadze offered some limited concessions, for example, increased budget, creation of a university, or Abkhazian television broadcasts (Hewitt, 1996:205). However, Abkhazians were given more than two-thirds of important bureaucratic posts within the Abkhazian ASSR and any aims of changing the status quo with respect to the Abkhazian ASSR’s status were dismissed (Cornell 2001: 145). According to Georgians, this did not reflect the demographic situation on the ground, whereby Georgians had constituted a clear majority. In the eyes of Abkhazians, the Abkhazian territory was increasingly ‘colonized’ by Georgians (mainly Mingrelians) as a result of a deliberate strategy at the behest of ‘Georgian’ Stalin and Beria. Graph 1 shows the increasing trend of Georgians populating the Abkhazian territory, with a rapid spike since 1939. Thus, Abkhazians were a minority within their own territory. In the late 1980s, when the structures of the ‘old’ system of the Soviet Union waned and both Georgian and Abkhazian political aspirations were on the rise and exacerbated by their respective leaderships, the situation between the two began to deteriorate. Abkhazians were concerned about their political power and cultural rights in their own republic in the absence of systemic Soviet guarantees regarding their double minority status.

graph 1 demographic change in abchazia
Graph 1: Demographic change in Abkhazia (1897-1989) (source: Coppieters (1999: 19) ).

Even though the Abkhazian separatist movement had stronger roots than the South Ossetian, its struggle against Georgian nationalism followed broadly the same pattern as was the case of South Ossetia, with tit-for-tat moves by both Georgian and Abkhazian sides amid the situation of a security dilemma. The key difference was that Gamsakhurdia initially recognized Abkhazians as autonomous people that should have certain rights as opposed to South Ossetians. However, with the increasing assertiveness of Georgian nationalism, numerous Georgian nationalist politicians doubted Abkhazia’s autonomy and supported the notion of Georgia being a unitary state (Cheterian 2008: 190). Thus, it was deemed essential for the Georgian nation-state to establish full control over its former administrative subunits. The notion of preserving Georgia’s territorial unity was also largely backed up by Georgian population, 88.5 percent deeming it as the top priority in a June 1990 poll (Jones 2013: 45). Eventually, even Gamsakhurdia joined the anti-Abkhazian bandwagon, claiming according to Video 2 that “the Abkhaz[ian] nation doesn’t exist”.

Video 2: ‘The Abkhaz[ian] nation doesn’t exist’

Source: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zolLSa8oCtw&feature=youtu.be&t=520

Abkhazian moves under the leadership of Ardzinba to establish closer ties with Moscow also exacerbated mutual hostility. In the Georgian sense, Moscow, Abkhazians and South Ossetians were constructed in Manichean terms as ‘evil others’ that sought to undermine, destabilize and threaten the very Georgian survival (Oskanian 2013: 126).


To conclude, upon the establishment of the Georgian state, numerous minorities felt excluded and marginalized from the new political reality due to the exclusivist character of the Georgian nation-state that was centred on the dominant Georgian nationalism and territorial indivisibility. Old institutional mechanisms and structures of the ethno-federal Soviet Union were challenged by the dominant Georgian nationalist movement, thus some minorities within the Georgian SSR perceived the emerging political space as more threatening than others. The Soviet system conferred certain power and status to three territories within the Georgian SSR, namely the Abkhazian ASSR, the Ajarian ASSR and the South Ossetian AO, inhabited by the respective titular nations. Most of the minorities within the Georgian SSR did not possess these characteristics in order to either challenge Georgian nationalism, or perceive it as a direct threat and develop aspiring secessionist political movements. However, the category of ‘Ajarian’ was abolished in the 1930s and Ajarians were effectively Georgianized, identifying themselves as Georgians. Additionally, towards the end of the Soviet Union, the leadership of Ajaria did not seek outright independence from Georgia and did not profoundly challenge the idea of the Georgian nation-state.

The project of the Georgian nation-state building clashed specifically with the concerns of Abkhazians and South Ossetians within their respective territories. They felt heightened fear of the new political reality outside of the Soviet Union, in which their former political status, power and certain rights would have been subsumed under the umbrella of the dominant unitary Georgian nation-state. During this tense and complex period, a politicized security dilemma emerged, in which an action by one of the aspiring sides was countered by a reaction of the dominant nationalist side and vice versa. The dynamic of Georgian nationalism became increasingly assertive, even questioning the very existence of Abkhazians and South Ossetians, as well as portraying them as enemies of the unitary Georgian nation-state, seeking to destabilize Georgia through fifth-columnist activities at the behest of Moscow.


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Video 1 (2009) ‘Absence of Will – part 2 – Studio Re’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBk-lwFXqV8&feature=youtu.be&t=88, [accessed: 15 November 2015].

Video 2 (2009) ‘Absence of Will – part 1 – Studio Re’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zolLSa8oCtw&feature=youtu.be&t=520, [accessed: 15 November 2015].


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