New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 299

Country profile
Georgia

Georgia

Georgia may be famous as the land of Stalin’s birth, but it boasts a long and fabled history as one of the world’s oldest nations. It is also, however, one of the world’s most invaded countries – Hittites, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Turks, Persians and finally Bolsheviks have all attacked this strategic land along the north coast of the Black Sea, wedged between Russia and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Absorbed by the Russian Empire at the start of the nineteenth century, Georgia enjoyed a short breath of freedom from 1918 to 1921 but was then subdued by the Red Army and absorbed into the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the USSR, Georgia declared its independence in April 1991.

But the country’s first years of independence have seen a cycle of coups, countercoups and civil war. Only now, almost single-handedly held together by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, is it emerging as a (relatively) stable member of the world community.

The greatest drag on development has been the conflict over the lush province of Abkhazia on the north coast of the Black Sea. For 13 months, from 1992 to 1993, Georgian and Abkhazian irregulars battled over the future of the region that lay within the Soviet borders of Georgia but sought its own sovereignty. The war took more than 10,000 lives, and forced some 250,000 – mostly ethnic Georgians – to flee their homes in Abkhazia. Aided by Russia and Chechen mercenaries, Abkhazia won.

Today, however, Abkhazia stands alone. No nation has recognized it. Its beaches are bare, its harbors empty and its land cut off – blockaded, stagnant and hungry. By dusk, as residents of the capital, Sukhumi, are quick to warn visitors, it is not safe to venture out. Anti-personnel mines, set by Georgian partisans or local jackals acting on their behalf, explode with regularity. Sukhumi’s downtown, once a playground of pastel hotels and eucalyptus-lined esplanades, now resembles the rubble of Kabul.

The Georgian capital of Tbilisi, meanwhile, abounds in the signs of recovery. The nineteenth-century Italianate buildings on its main drag, Rustaveli Street, shelled in the war, have either been rebuilt or levelled. Tbilisi may still lack trustworthy electricity and telephones, but medieval churches are being reconstructed, cafés are full, stores well-stocked; inflation is down, and growth is running at ten-per-cent a year.

Not everyone shares in the recovery. Hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia four years ago are still camping out or in dormitories, pawns in the political game. Shevardnadze, goaded by a vocal opposition, is open to using force to retake the Gali region of southern Abkhazia, prewar home of nearly all the refugees.

Nevertheless, behind the bluster on both sides, the enemies are talking and there is hope that ‘this year will be decisive’. Tbilisi has offered Sukhumi ‘maximum autonomy’ within a federation, but Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba insists on equal status. ‘Federation, confederation, union... whatever you want to call it,’ he says. ‘But we must be equal.’

There are good reasons for peace. A Georgian port will be the Western outlet of a pipeline delivering oil and gas from the vast reserves of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia – and skirting Russia.

Russia, however, will need to be involved in any peace pact. All parties know that without peace in Abkhazia – and perhaps also in South Ossetia, which also wishes to secede – Georgia cannot move into the next century as a healthy, and truly independent, nation.

Andrew Meier

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Eduard Shevardnadze, elected with over 70% of the vote in 1995, having come to power following a coup d’état in 1992.

ECONOMY GNP per capita $580 (Australia $18,000).
Monetary unit: Lari, which replaced the Georgian coupon in October 1995.
Main exports: Exports have been severely limited by the conflict but comprise mainly food crops such as tea, grapes, tobacco and fruit sold to former Soviet republics farther north. Turkey accounted for 26% of Georgia foreign trade in 1995.

PEOPLE 5.5 million.

HEALTH Infant mortality 22 per 1,000 live births (Japan 4 per 1,000).

CULTURE Georgians 70%, Armenians 8%, Russians 6%. Among the rest: Abkhazians, Ossetes, Azeris and Adzharians. Religion: Georgian Orthodox 65%, Muslim 11%, Russian Orthodox 10%, Armenian Orthodox 8%.
Language: Georgian (official), Russian and Abkhazian.

Sources The World Guide 1997/98; The State of the World’s Children 1997; Europe Review 1997.

Never previously profiled


STAR RATINGS
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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Stores and cafés in Tbilisi are full, but few in Georgia earn more than $100 a month. The old Soviet social safety net is torn beyond repair.

[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
In the last Soviet census, in 1989, Georgia boasted the highest rate of higher education. Education continues to rank among the state’s highest concerns.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Half the population lives in rural areas, where the majority have some land and livestock. Georgians remain inventive and industrious.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Personal freedom is officially quite broad and the first democratic election in 1995 went smoothly. An independent judiciary is emerging.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women in Georgia are at least as well educated as men. But few hold high office or venture into business.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
73 years (compare US 76 years, Russia 68 years). Georgia has a higher life expectancy than any other former Soviet republic.

POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The political spectrum could stretch wider to include more open dissent and debate. But given the vagaries of the post-Soviet, post-war Caucasus, the political landscape could certainly be a lot bleaker. Georgia is too dependent on the ageing Shevardnadze, though – and there is no successor on the horizon.


NI star rating
EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING

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