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The Georgian Identity: Forged Between Empires

The Georgian Identity: Forged Between Empires

How Russia obstructed a nation, one seeking Euro-Atlantic alignment.

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Nora, 80, at her home in Khurvaleti, Georgia. Photo by Jorge Gutierrez Lucena for Crisis Group

TBILISI —  Located at the strategic meeting point between the Near East and Eastern Europe, Georgia has always been on the verge of not belonging. Throughout its existence, the question of “who are we?” has permeated the discourse in art, literature, and politics. The backbone behind this is the centuries-old struggle against the empires that encircled it. Starting from the Arab conquest of Eastern Georgia, to Persians, to Mongols, and culminating with the Russians, who continue to threaten Georgian sovereignty to this day. 

The Georgian identity has been developing as an amalgam of all the cultures it interacted with. In spite of all of the turbulent history of the Caucasus region, it managed not only to survive but turn into something palpable. One significant vector that guided this can be described as an inherent Europeanism with which the Georgian rulers reigned ever since the ancient kingdom of Colchis in Western Georgia started trading with the Greeks. The apex can be seen as the adoption of Christianity as a state religion in 337 AD. 

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A Georgian military police officer stands at the line of separation with South Ossetia. Beyond the fence, a sign warns about crossing into South Ossetia. Photo by Jorge Gutierrez Lucena for Crisis Group

The identity as the shield between the Christian West and the Muslim East has been ingrained in Georgian consciousness. The definition of Georgia became synonymous with Orthodox Christianity. Religion was an axis from which Georgians differentiated themselves from the neighboring countries. It is a crucial factor to consider when one tries to understand why Heraclius II (an old sovereign who spent most of his life with a sword in his hand, exhausted from continuous wars with the Persians) decided to sign the Treaty of Georgievsk with Russia in 1783 which established Georgia as a Russian protectorate.

Considering what followed next, one might argue against such a decision. Russians soon disregarded all the different provisions of the treaty and annexed Georgia in 1801, terminating its independence and the centuries-old rule of the Bagrationi Dynasty. It became the turning point where the struggle for Georgia’s cultural and spiritual self-determination shifted from the Muslim East to Orthodox Russia, which under the guise of ‘brotherhood’ tried to destroy everything that was Georgian, starting from the churches and ending with crushing everyone who sought independence.

Georgia Russia Ukraine History Map

The late 19th – early 20th centuries are considered by many as the birth of modern Georgian nationalism. Prominent writers and public figures such as Mikheil Javakhishvili urged Georgians to turn to the ‘real’ Europe and not the filtered-down Europeanism accessible in St. Petersburg, for example. During the brief period of independence between 1918-21, the Democratic Republic of Georgia sought closer ties with the west and had one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.

After the Soviet invasion in 1921, Georgians fought for independence during the whole period of Soviet occupation. It culminated in the Act of Reestablishment of Independence on 9 April 1991, on the second anniversary of the Soviet military crackdown on a massive pro-independence rally in the capital city of Tbilisi in 1989 (as a result, 21 protesters died).

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After the establishment of the independent Georgian Republic, Georgia had to defend its sovereignty three times. Especially after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, the perception of the conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazians, Georgians and Ossetians that erupted in the 90s, culminating in two wars, has been viewed as a proxy mechanism by Russia to force the country from its chosen path of Euro-Atlantic integration. Notwithstanding what the official Russian side is, it is crystal clear that by providing arms and volunteers, which finalized with formally stationing their army in the occupied regions, the northern ‘neighbor’ directly participated in the killing, torture, and displacement of thousands of Georgians. According to current data, 300,000 Georgians (almost 10 percent of the population) are refugees and IDPs. The creeping occupation surrounding the occupied regions continues to this day, and Russians continuously change the so-called ‘borders.’ 

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A Georgian resident sitting in his garden in Kveshi, one of the last villages before the line of separation. Photo by Jorge Gutierrez Lucena for Crisis Group

The strategy of using ethnic minorities against the autochthonous population has been used by Russians in the countries that surround it. Transnistria in Moldova and Donbas in Ukraine are clear examples of this. The strategy remains the same. Through propaganda and total disregard for history, they provoke disputes between different ethnic groups and then act as a negotiator. In all three cases of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the conflict leads to the occupation of the contested territory by the Russian army and the subsequent usage of the occupied territories as leverage to keep these countries within its orbit.

Based on the historical outline and going back to the question of identity, the formation of the current Georgian state is inherently anti-Russian. The gradual shift of Georgia’s position from an anti-Eastern to a pro-Western state was mitigated by the historical circumstances and the establishment of Russia as the main threat to its existence.

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