Where Europe Vanishes

Civilizations have collided in the Caucasus Mountains since the dawn of history, and the region's dozens of ethnic groups have been noted for "obstinacy and ferocity" since ancient times. Stalin was born in these mountains, and it was also here that the Soviet empire began to crumble. The story of the Republic of Georgia illustrates that the peoples of the Caucasus may prove as incapable of self-rule as they were resistant to rule by outsiders
A Mafia War

I WAS walking in a park beside the Black Sea in Batumi with Eka, my translator, when a rainstorm forced us to take refuge in a café. It was a small place, with blank walls, an old and wheezing refrigerator, loud electronic music, and a group of men in tight black jeans, smoking and talking on mobile phones. We sat as far from the sound system's speakers as possible. To pass the time, I asked Eka about the first democratically elected President of post-Soviet Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

"The whole phenomenon with Gamsakhurdia was psychosexual," Eka began. "Zviad was like a rock star. You can almost see the psychological scars on the faces of his female followers: by their expressions you know that these women are ruined, as though they were his concubines. Most are single or have unhappy marriages. They expect Zviad to come back from the grave on a white horse—I'm not kidding."

This was the central narrative of Georgian politics in the years during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region's leading Communist-era dissident—"the Havel of the Caucasus," as Gamsakhurdia was known—led Georgia into bloody chaos; the former secret-police chief and Communist Party boss of Soviet Georgia (and a former Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union) Eduard Shevardnadze brought Georgia out of that chaos and into a condition of semi-stable partial democracy. In Georgia an idealistic dissident all but destroyed his country, and a realistic old secret-police man rescued it. This happened not because dissidents are bad and secret-police men are good, or because realism is better than idealism, but because of Georgia's particular circumstances and because of the personalities of Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze. The story of Zviad Gamsakhurdia shows that Shakespeare is a better guide to politics than any political scientist. This is what happened, according to those I talked to in Batumi and later in Tbilisi:

Gamsakhurdia was the son of the great Georgian writer Konstantine Gamsakhurdia. In the 1970s the younger Gamsakhurdia, a lecturer in American literature at Tbilisi State University, led a protest movement against Soviet oppression that resulted in his imprisonment and exile. His dissent was a matter of radical nationalism, not moral opposition to communism; his nationalism was inspired by his literary sensibilities and the peasant surroundings of his native Mingrelia, in western Georgia. Then there were personal circumstances. He was the weak son of a famous and bullying father, so although he was a national hero, he lacked confidence. This vulnerability, combined with his good looks and literary reputation, made him attractive to women. His jealous wife, Manana, described by everyone I spoke to as a low-class, unattractive woman who dominated Zviad much as his father had, was enraged by this. Rarely has there been a political leader more susceptible to delusions of grandeur yet so easily manipulated.

Gamsakhurdia rose to power as the Soviet Union began to collapse, which was (popular memory in the West aside) before the Berlin Wall fell, not as a consequence of its falling. It was in the Caucasus, not Eastern Europe, that anti-Soviet protests got started in unstoppable earnest. The protests that rocked Eastern Europe in 1989 emphasized democratic freedoms; here they were purely nationalistic. In 1990 Gamsakhurdia defeated the Communists in parliamentary elections; the following year he was elected President. It soon developed that the Georgians had chosen Macbeth. Gamsakhurdia, relying increasingly on his wife, surrounded himself with bodyguards and vicious guard dogs. He imprisoned his erstwhile nationalist allies, and employed Georgian mafiosi for muscle. He showed a fondness for arson, as politics by other means. By late 1991, a few months after his election, Georgia was engulfed in a civil war that made internal travel impossible and ruined what existed of an economy.

In January of 1992 a military council ousted Gamsakhurdia, who fled to nearby Chechnya. Pitched battles followed in western Georgia between troops of the new military council and Gamsakhurdia's supporters, known as "Zviadists"—a term that suggests how little the civil war had to do with ideas and how much to do with personalities and regional loyalties. In fact the civil war was a battle as much between rival mafias for territory as for legitimate political control.

"Georgians were passionate against the Soviets and passionate against each other," Professor Levan Alexidze, a former adviser to Gamsakhurdia, later told me in Tbilisi. "Gamsakhurdia destroyed the Soviet spirit more than anyone, but in Georgia a civil war may have been necessary, because of the kind of people we are. The real cause of the war is our medievalness: our knights simply quarreled and fought each other." These knights were Gamsakhurdia; the Georgian National Guard chief Tengiz Kitovani, who was described by one observer as "a vulgar thug"; and the commander of the Mkhedrioni ("Horsemen") paramilitaries, Jaba Ioseliani, a dapper professor and convicted bank robber who promised to blow out the brains of anyone who opposed him. Kitovani and Ioseliani were part of the military council that toppled Gamsakhurdia.

From his exile in Chechnya, Gamsakhurdia maintained links with Zviadist sympathizers in western Georgia. He also fell under the influence of the Chechen leader, Dzokhar Dudayev—another volatile warlord, who in 1994 led Chechnya into a war with Russia that ended two years later with 40,000 dead, among them Dudayev himself. Eventually the increasingly desperate Gamsakhurdia positioned himself alongside Georgia's historic rivals: Muslim Chechnya, Abashidze's Adjara, and even Abkhazia, where a Russian-backed separatist rebellion caused 10,000 deaths and the cleansing of more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians from Abkhaz territory. Because the main road out of Abkhazia into Georgia proper was blocked, half the refugees—Gamsakhurdia's own Georgians—had to detour through the mountains, where many died of starvation and exposure. This happened in 1993, when the West was preoccupied with Bosnia. And Abkhazia's was not the only separatist rebellion that brought about ethnic cleansing. Also in the early 1990s South Ossetians were cleansing their territory of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

Kitovani and Ioseliani invited Eduard Shevardnadze back to Georgia from Moscow to provide international legitimacy for their hydra-headed gangland regime. Shevardnadze accepted. Kitovani and Ioseliani came to regret their success: Shevardnadze played the two men and their associates off against one another until all were in jail. Then Shevardnadze brought reformers into government, while keeping enough gangsters in power to prevent the formation of a unified opposition. He consolidated power by trial and error and by surviving one assassination attempt after another.

At the end of 1993 Gamsakhurdia returned from Chechnya for a last stand. In late December of that year, at the age of fifty-four, he died, was killed by an assassin, or committed suicide. Two months after his burial his wife had his body exhumed for reburial in Chechnya. There was even a rumor that Gamsakhurdia had converted to the Islam of his Chechen allies, as he lost all sense of who he was.

Alexidze told me, "Our society is rotten, the mafiosi are strong, and while the West worships laws, we worship power. We leaped from the darkness in the late 1980s. We did not have the kind of social and economic development Central Europe had. So these dissidents were never enlightened."

IT was a mystical landscape I saw as we drove north in a taxi along the Black Sea coast from Batumi to Supsa, the terminal of a new oil pipeline from the Caspian. As a backdrop for the brutish ugliness of concrete tenements and filthy black freight cars were thickly forested hills, orchards, cedars and cypresses, and gentle tea bushes on the terraced red earth. There was a jungly, Africa-like stillness and torpor; farm animals wandered across the potholed road, and young men idled everywhere. Two roadblocks signaled the end of Adjara and the beginning of Georgia proper. The taxi pulled over to a cluster of young men blocking the road, in black jeans with unshaven faces and predatory expressions, like switchblades ready to snap. Some had tattoos. One seemed drunk; the muzzle of his AK-47 rested on his toe, the safety latch off. The distinction between security and thuggery was lost. We paid our small tribute and continued along.

The oil terminal did not look dramatic—just four circular storage tanks in the middle of a field with a nest of pipes emerging from the ground, an air-conditioned office, and a security fence. It was a little piece of the West in the middle of Georgia. The handful of expatriates who run the facility have their own electrical generator, purified drinking water, and living quarters. Though the soil for miles around the enclosure is, reportedly, environmentally ruined, Scott Bates, a friendly technician from Los Angeles wearing a construction helmet, assured me that alarms go off if more than ten parts per million of oil is detected in the groundwater. Bates showed me the twenty-two-inch-diameter green pipe that runs underground from Baku, in Azerbaijan, 515 miles to the east on the Caspian shore. The pipe was carrying the equivalent of 105,000 barrels daily from the Caspian oil fields to a nearby offshore loading buoy, from which the first tanker to ship Caspian oil to the United States had left on May 16, 1999—the day before my visit. Bates took me to the small computer room. "Three to five of us are all it takes to operate the terminal at any one time," he told me. "You can do it all from that desktop." Strategy can be such an abstraction, I thought. That desktop computer and the twenty-two-inch pipe it controlled represented something the West might be willing to fight a major war over.

The journey eastward across Georgia from Batumi to Tbilisi took nearly seven hours in a crowded minibus that was filled with cigarette smoke and loud rap music. It was raining, and our shoes were muddy. We passed through lush farm fields, deep canyons, wooded valleys, and mountains half hidden in mist, and we crossed wide rivers that cut through gravel beds and soft red soil. How magnificent this fertile, majestic land must have appeared to the first Russian adventurers who had been plodding south across the monotonous Ukrainian steppe! It was easy to understand the tenacity with which Russia has attempted to retain the Caucasus.

As we neared Tbilisi, I began to see BMWs and other expensive cars, modern gas stations, cafés sporting new red-and-white umbrellas with Coca-Cola logos. I was gradually entering another outpost of the West. I left the minibus at a chaotic, noisy lot outside town and took a taxi to the home of Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Reuters bureau chief for the Caucasus. My first impression of Tbilisi that evening was of a Balkan town, historically suggestive and with a heart-rending rusticity. I saw leafy birch and horse-chestnut trees in a park where Cossacks slaughtered striking Georgian workers a century ago, near the theological institute where the young Stalin studied for the Orthodox priesthood.

Over a dinner of heavy food and rich wine in a small basement restaurant, Sheets, who covered every war in the Caucasus in the 1990s, told me that during the past winter there had been only four hours of electricity a day. To keep from freezing he had kept a fire going constantly. I later learned that the electricity shortages were, of course, the result of corruption and dirty politics. Local distributors had been selling electric power to Turkey in return for hard currency: in Georgia's barter economy the companies that repaired the electric grids received rights to sell the electricity to whomever they wanted. As if that weren't enough, kerosene suppliers were rumored to be bribing the distributors to cut power so that the population would be more dependent on kerosene, and to block Armenia from selling its electric power here. So despite $100 million in foreign aid, there was less electricity in the peaceful winter of 1998-1999 than there had been in the winter of 1994-1995, when the civil war was winding down. Corruption here was less a moral shortcoming than a survival mechanism for a poverty-stricken people who had been dominated for centuries by outsiders.

In Sheets's house the next morning I woke to the sound of opera coming from the conservatory across the street. Walking downhill to Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Prospekt (named for Shota Rustaveli, a twelfth-century Georgian poet), I saw flower stalls, dark-haired women in black dresses, and verdant hills in the distance; the countryside is always close by, because of Tbilisi's medieval compactness. Rustaveli Prospekt was a late-nineteenth-century architectural confection with touches of Budapest, Ljubljana, and Prague. There was a Neo-Moorish opera house and city hall, an Italianate highschool in happy pastel shades, a Neo-Baroque theater, another building in the Empire style, with caryatids, and another that was neoclassical and painted a fabulous pink. Statues of two nineteenth-century poets, Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli, stood sentinel near two symbols of former Russian rule: the nineteenth-century viceroys' palace—a delicate Empire-style symbol of the bourgeois mentality that oversaw the emergence of modern European institutions—and, next to it, the vulgar gray-brown brutalism of the mid-twentieth-century Soviet parliament.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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