Georgia: Identity Crisis

By Berenise Lucero, February 2001


Georgia possess the advantages of a subtropical Black Sea coastline and the protection of the Caucasian mountain against cold air from the north. Her physical geography does not, however, protect her from internal ethnic separatism and identity conflicts which have plagued the country since its independence ten years ago. Georgia is known for her rich and varied ethnic composition, one that has at times threatened her national identity with continuous opposition between ethnic minorities in Georgia and its inhabitants. Two very important ethnic minorities are the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz. The autonomous areas of South Ossetia consist of a separate ethnic group speaking a language based on Persian. The majority of Ossetians are Orthodox Christians, though there are also Moslem Ossetians. The Abkhazian population, like the Ossetians, is a distinct ethnic group consisting mainly of North-Caucasian peoples related to the Adigean tribes. The two dominating religions of the Abkhazian are Orthodox Christianity and Moslems (Library of Congress). These ethnic minorities, as can be expected, enjoy a different cultural background and celebrate different traditional beliefs than their counterparts. And as such, conflict of identity and believes between ethnic minorities and central power has been Georgia's most pressing problem.

Abkhazia was initially a separate Soviet republic, but in 1921 it was merged with Georgia, and in 1931 it was downgraded to the status of an autonomous republic. In April 1922 the Soviet government created the political entity of South Ossetia and designated it an autonomous region within Georgia, while its northern counterpart on the other side of the Great Caucasus, North Ossetia, became part of Russia.

Following independence from Russia in 1991, Georgia's Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities continued to seek greater levels of autonomy for their regions but were faced with increasing nationalist sentiment among the Georgian majority. In the same year, the South Ossetians of Georgia demanded union with the Ossetians across the Russian border, while in the following year the leader of Abkhazia declared the independence of their republic in fear of cultural extinction inside Georgia. The threat of fragmentation that Georgia is facing is driven by Abkhazian's zealous desire to maintain its independence, which has endangered to tear the republic apart. While the Ossetians, still unsatisfied with the lack of unity they sought, pose a lesser threat to the possibility of regional separation.

Moreover, the coexistence of conflicting identities under one nation is threatening Georgia's identity and national unity. There is hope, however, that this identity crisis may be solved through the political undertakings of Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze was the former Soviet foreign minister. Due to his past political affiliation to the Soviet Union one might think that the Georgian people would be unaccepting of him. However, this is surprisingly not the case. Shevardandze possessed international credibility. He was necessary, because Georgians knew that without him there would be no international recognition (Washington Post). Due largely to his international reputation, the world reacted positively to Shevardnadze as president of Georgia. More importantly, his reputation for honesty and political courage earned him great popularity among Georgians. For example, during his first period of governance (early 70s and 80s), Shevardnadze used purges to attack the corruption for which Georgian's elite were so infamous. Shevardnadze had also dismissed 300 members of the party's corrupt hierarchy (Library of Congress). These acts of courage and honesty earned him trust among Georgians.

From the beginning of his presidency, Shevardnadze has become deeply involved in the conflict with separatists in the autonomous republic of Abkhazia. In 1992, he sent Georgian troops there as a preventive measure to protect Abkhazia from military forces still loyal to former president Gamsakhurdia. In July 1993 the tensions that had escalated into military action between the Abkhazians and the Georgians was quelled by Shevardnadze's agreement to a Russian-sponsored cease-fire, which was later broken by the Abkhazians in September. In April 1994, Shevardnadze signed a second cease-fire agreement. Under the agreement, Abkhazia would remain a part of Georgia, but would be allowed to write its own constitution and form a separate parliament. This promising compromise between Shevardnadze and the Abkhazians began to dwindle when seven months later, Abkhazia declared its sovereignty, denouncing Shevardnadze's government (Encarta). In full, attempts by Shevardnadze for a unified Georgia have been at times uncertain. But more recent attempts have shed some hope into bringing the country together. A stabilization protocol signed by Georgian and Abkhazian leaders has brightened the prospects for resolution of Georgia's dilemma as it struggles to strengthen its statehood. The protocol aims to reduce criminal activity in the security zone patrolled by Russian troops acting under the guise of a Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeeping force. Both sides also expressed opposition to any use of force in an attempt to resolve disputes connected with Abkhazian's status. The Abkhazian president welcomed the protocol, saying that "it will provide new momentum to the process of negotiating a lasting peace" (Eurasianet).

In a recent newspaper article, dated July 19 2000, Shevardnadze reaffirmed his support for a fair and peaceful settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, adding that the sides were approaching reconciliation gradually (Eurasianet).

Ethnic conflicts are not rare, they are a world-wide phenomenon that haunts every corner of humanity. In the case of Georgia, it is not alarming that there exists ethnic conflicts. It is important to note, however, that ethnic minorities in Georgia come from the neighboring countries which makes a big influence on their self identity. For example, both Abkhazians and Ossetians have strong Russian background, and as such, their identity will inevitably be in conflict with that of Georgia's. As mentioned earlier, they have their own original culture and traditions and as such they desire to be recognized as different, non-Georgian peoples, and need to be respected as an autonomous people.

 Since Georgia's objective is that of a unified nation, there first needs to be peace and stability within Georgia. There will be no unity as long as ethnic conflicts exist. This is not an easy task however, given that the Abkhazian's ultimate goal is separation from Georgia. A possible solution which would require both sides to compromise their current positions, could be acquired through the implementation of ethnic policies and allowing for representation of Abkhazia's independent needs and demands within the Georgian government. In this way it might satisfy Abkhazia's need for sovereignty and at the same time bring national unity.

Under the leadership of Shevardnadze and his continuing efforts and commitment to hold Georgia's identity together there is hope for a unified Georgia. However, Georgia's quest for a unified national identity is an active process. A process that evolves overtime and is a combination of events and influences that shape its identity. Georgia's identity is being asserted by it's president Shevardnadze's actions, which reflect his desire for cooperation and unity amongst all people. This ongoing conflict, while it may be asserting a desire for unity on Shevardnadze's part, may in the long run remold the identity into one of separatism and fragmentation. Only time will tell if Shevardnadze's policies will lead to unity, or if further tensions will be raised.


  • Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia : Country studies. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress; edited by Glenn E. Curtis. Washington, D.C. : Federal Research Division, Library of Congress

  • CNN World News.

  • Ekedahl, Carolyn and Goodman, Melvin. "The wars of Eduard Shevardnadze." University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, c1997.

  • Encarta.

  • Eurasianet. The address of the article is:

  • Europa Yearbook. Europa-Asia studies. V50 Jan. 1998

  • The Washington Post, Nov 4, 1995 v118 pA19 col 3. "Shevardnadze's tough task; he helped end Cold War; can he now stabilize war-torn Georgia?"





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