Georgia's role in the early years of the Cold War was influenced, in part, by its geostrategic position on the southern border of the Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin laid claim to the provinces of Kars and Ardahan in eastern Turkey, which had been incorporated into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century and ceded to Turkey after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. These claims were initially made on behalf of Soviet Armenia, but claims on behalf of Soviet Georgia followed shortly thereafter.
Soviet pressure on Turkey combined with Soviet aid to communist guerrillas in the Greek Civil War and the continuing Soviet occupation of northern Iran, however, elicited a strong response from U.S. President Harry S. Truman. The 1947 Truman Doctrine was thereby promulgated to provide aid to Turkey and Greece in their struggle against communist insurrections. This strong rebuff was one of the key factors that induced the Soviets to drop their claims to the disputed provinces.
Soviet Georgia underwent major economic and social changes in the 1950s and 1960s as a period of relative stability took hold in the Soviet Union. In 1956, however, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and began the process of de-Stalinization. Stalin, a Georgian by birth, was viewed by many Georgians as an important national figure and a strong leader who saved the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany. Georgians were alarmed by Khrushchev's attacks on Stalin's memory and took to the streets to express their displeasure. Their protests were violently disbursed by the Soviet security forces, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries.
By the 1970s, life in Georgia under the first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Eduard Shevardnadze, who dominated its political life during 1972–1985, was marked by an emphasis on law and order accompanied by several anticorruption campaigns. In 1978, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev recommended changes to the Soviet constitution and corresponding changes for the republics of the Soviet Union. Such changes normally received rubber-stamp approval from the Soviet republics. However, in the new Georgian constitution, the clause maintaining Georgian as the official language was removed. This sparked widespread disaffection and street protests. Brezhnev backed down, and the Georgians were successful in maintaining the official status of their language.
Georgian political activism during the Brezhnev era took place within the context of increasing standards of living and rising expectations. These expectations were further increased when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet general secretary in 1985. Soon after assuming power, he embarked on an ambitious program of restructuring Soviet society and economy through his glasnost and perestroika reform initiatives. Gradually, glasnost and perestroika reached the periphery of the Soviet Union, and Georgian political and social activists took advantage of the opportunities made available by Gorbachev's policies to push for widespread reforms. Dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Georgia led some people to advocate for independence as well.
Various reform groups surfaced with varying political, social, and economic agendas, but gradually those forces advocating Georgian independence became predominant. By early 1989, nationalist forces had begun to hold demonstrations. The turning point of the independence movement took place on 9 April 1989. Georgian demonstrators had initially been protesting against developments in Abkhazia, an autonomous region inside Georgia. Soon, however, their demands broadened, and the demonstrators agitated for independence. Despite the fact that the demonstrations were peaceful and attended largely by women and young people, Soviet troops intervened with gas and sharpened shovels, killing some twenty people and wounding several hundred others. Responsibility for this shocking turn of events, known as the April Tragedy, was debated widely in Georgia and throughout the Soviet Union. Most believed it to be the work of the central authorities in Moscow, and this only served to galvanize opposition to Soviet rule.
Popular pressure, opposition strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience led to multiparty elections for the Georgian Supreme Soviet in October 1990, in which the supporters of the popular oppositionist and Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia won a majority of the seats, followed by the Georgian Communist Party. Gamsakhurdia was sworn in as chairman of the Supreme Soviet in November 1990. The new Georgian parliament then decided not to participate in Gorbachev's March 1991 all-Union referendum on the future of the Soviet Union and instead organized a national referendum on independence. In the referendum, more than 98 percent of the population favored independence. On 9 April 1991, the second anniversary of the April Tragedy, the Georgian parliament adopted a declaration of independence and formally seceded from the Soviet Union. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia was elected president of the Republic of Georgia with 86 percent of the vote.
Despite these sweeping democratic changes, however, Georgian political life was far from stable. Gamsakhurdia's increasingly erratic behavior, accompanied by his stridently nationalist rhetoric, alienated large segments of the population, especially the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, two autonomous non-Georgian ethnic groups. In December 1991 he abolished the autonomy of South Ossetia in response to a local drive for independence from Georgia. Political conflict soon gave way to armed strife, which lasted until a Russian-mediated cease-fire was brokered in July 1992. Tensions in Abkhazia would not result in open warfare until 1992, after the end of the Cold War.
The failed August 1991 coup against Gorbachev was a further blow to Gamsakhurdia's credibility when he declined to denounce the plotters. His position deteriorated even further during the fall of 1991, and in December 1991 civil war broke out in Georgia, forcing him to flee the country. Conflict would ravage the country until the return of Shevardnadze to power in March 1992.
Robert Owen Krikorian
Hunter, Shireen. The Transcaucasus in Transition: Nation-Building and Conflict. Washington, DC: CSIS, 1994.; Suny, Ronald. The Making of the Georgian Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.