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The Independence: Freedom, Chaos and Civil War

Member of the infamous Mkhedrioni 1997. Photo: Peter Nasmyth
Member of the infamous Mkhedrioni 1997. Photo: © Peter Nasmyth

At the brink of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia declared its independence and shortly after this Zviad Gamaskhurdia was elected president. But the inexperienced leader was not able to manage the transition. Internal tensions in Georgia proper developed:

The hard rock of united hostility against the Soviets had begun to split into competing factions, with the long-established scapegoat of blaming 'the Kremlin" as the source of all Georgia's problems, failing. Moves towards political pluralism were establishing a deep split in the population, that by the end of 1991 would create a crude government censorship and running street battles.

[p. 193]

Nasmyth describes Gamaskhurdia later:

He meant well but he was a poet.

[Interview with Peter Nasmyth, Tbilisi, October 2008]

Gamaskhurdia's growing nationalism, paranoia and alleged support of the authoritarian putsch in Moscow lead to the 1991 bloody coup.

And then Georgia turned on in itself… A civil war followed.

[Interview with Peter Nasmyth, Tbilisi, October 2008]

While Georgia was splitting itself in half, with one side supporting Gamaskhurdia and the other the opposition, the tensions with the two separatist regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - escalated. Just before the start of the civil war, the conflict with South Ossetia turned violent.

Nasmyth returns to Tbilisi and describes the city after the worst violence ceased:

I stood there feeling a city around me gritting its teeth. Its tone was acid-grey, the same colour as the cartridge smoke clinging to its walls; or the memories in the faces behind the windows. Most families were touched personally, some marriages split down the middle, one side (often women) siding with Gamsakhurdia, the other with the Opposition. Georgian young men, steeped in Caucasian romanticism, had taken weapons to 'defend their country" more eagerly than any youth culture I'd seen.

[p. 197]

Many buildings on the glorious late 19th and 20th century Rustaveli Avenue lay roofless and smouldering.

But there were other gaps too. The Avenue itself was virtually empty and a petrol shortage had reduced traffic by two thirds. Many citizens now locked away their cars as too much trouble, no petrol, street theft, hijacking, vandalism. Guns were now everyday objects and prices kept falling.

[p. 198]

Tbilisi by day was a depressing sight at this time, but the night revealed a yet more worrisome residue from the war. Many ordinary people were now armed and gunfire was common. Militia's, like the infamous Mkhedrioni ("horsemen"), who helped to bring down the Gamaskhurdia government, ruled the streets and proved powerful political actors. Nasmyth had the chance to interview a militia member and former university lecturer:

Our first group formed very quickly in late 1991 to help fight Gamaskhurdia. It had about 100 members, mostly students, academics, artists, writers. The oldest was 43, the youngest 16. The average age was 20. Then, there were many other groups like ours. After Gamaskhurdia left, it half-disbanded, some joined the National Guard, some the Mkhedrioni.

[p. 202]

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