Country Profile: Georgia
Country profile: Georgia
Situated at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, Georgia has a unique and ancient cultural heritage, famous traditions of hospitality and cuisine and an alphabet which is entirely its own.
Over the centuries, Georgia was the object of rivalry between Persia, Turkey and Russia, before being eventually annexed by Russia in the 19th century.
Since emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union as an independent state in 1991, Georgia has again become the arena of conflicting interests, this time between the US and a revived Russia. Tense relations with Russia have been further exacerbated by Moscow’s support for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia’s previous, and rather brief, interlude of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia ended when it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the Soviet Union a year later.
The US now has a major strategic interest in the country, having invested heavily in an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey. The Georgian armed forces have been receiving US training and support.
Increasing US economic and political influence in the country has long been a source of concern for the Kremlin, as have Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and the EU.
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are never far from the surface and in August 2008 flared up into an armed conflict triggered by clashes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian separatist forces.
Following the collapse of communism in the USSR in 1991, Georgians voted overwhelmingly for the restoration of independence and elected nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia as president. However, Gamsakhurdia was soon overthrown by opposition militias which in 1992 installed former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze as the country’s new leader.
During his 11 years in office, the Georgian people felt increasingly at the mercy of poverty, corruption and crime. He was ousted in November 2003 following mass demonstrations over the conduct of parliamentary elections.
Once a relatively affluent part of the USSR, with independence Georgia lost the cheap energy to which it had access in the Soviet period. As relations between Georgia and Russia deteriorated, Moscow did not flinch from tightening the economic screws, and the rupturing of trading ties caused the Georgian economy to nose-dive.
Georgia has been heavily dependent on Russia for its energy supply. Like some other republics of the former Soviet Union, it saw the price of gas supplied by the Russian gas giant Gazprom rise sharply in January 2006. Gazprom has since doubled the price again. It is no coincidence that Georgia has started receiving an increasing proportion of its gas from Azerbaijan.
Since independence, the people of Georgia have endured periods of civil war and unrest as well as violence related to the independence aspirations of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions have close ties with Moscow, which in August 2008 announced that it was formally recognising their independence.
Russian peacekeepers have operated there since the early 1990s. They are regularly accused by Tbilisi of siding with the separatists. The Georgian parliament has demanded that the Russian peacekeepers in both regions be replaced by an international force. The UN operates a military observer mission alongside Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia.
Russia has had troops stationed in Georgia for over two centuries. After protracted discussions, it agreed in 2005 to withdraw from its two remaining bases, one in Ajaria and the other in southern Georgia, by the end of 2008. Their presence has been another source of tension between Tbilisi and the Kremlin.
President: Mikhail Saakashvili
Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004, and won a second term in an early election in January 2008, called in response to opposition protests.
In 2004, Mr Saakashvili led the ”Rose Revolution” protests which forced his predecessor as president, Eduard Shevardnadze, to resign, riding a wave of popular anger at a parliamentary rigged election.
He won an overwhelming majority in the subsequent presidential election, in what OSCE observers described as a “welcome contrast” to the parliamentary poll.
Soon after that, Mr Saakashvili consolidated his position when his National Movement-Democratic Front won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections.
He faced a major challenge towards the end of 2007 when a one-time ally, former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, accused him of corruption and of plotting a murder.
The accusations triggered a wave of protests. Mass demonstrations were held in Tbilisi demanding elections. The opposition accused him of being authoritarian and not doing enough to alleviate poverty.
Mr Saakashvili sent in the riot police, imposed a state of emergency and alleged there was a hidden Russian hand in the unrest.
He also brought forward presidential elections to 5 January 2008, proceeding to win an outright victory with more than 50% of the vote.
Mr Saakashvili further consolidated his position when his party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in May 2008.
And the outbreak of armed conflict with Russia in August 2008 led many Georgians who had previously accused Mr Saakashvili of exhibiting authoritarian tendencies to rally behind him.
His long-term prospects are less certain, as in future Georgia is likely to be far worse off – both strategically and economically – as a result of the war.
A protégé of Mr Shevardnadze early in his career, Mr Saakashvili grew disillusioned by widespread corruption in high places. He became justice minister in 2000 and launched a high-profile campaign against it, sparking a major public row with Mr Shevardnadze.
On becoming president Mr Saakashvili vowed to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity by returning the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the fold. Moscow’s links with both have been a constant bone of contention.
His ambition to take Georgia into Nato and the EU further soured relations with the Kremlin.
Mr Saakashvili was born in Tbilisi in 1967. He trained as a lawyer in the US and other countries and became a member of the Georgian parliament in 1995. He speaks several languages, including fluent English.
Television is the main source of news for most Georgians. There are dozens of cable TV operators and a handful of major commercial stations.
Private broadcasters compete for a share of the small, but growing, advertising market. Newspaper readership is generally low.
A government-funded public broadcaster, Georgian Public Broadcasting, has replaced the former state radio and TV. The state has relinquished other media assets, including newspapers and a news agency.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, and journalists often criticize officials. A 2004 law decriminalized libel and slander. However, some journalists and international bodies say self-censorship is practised. There have been reports of physical attacks on journalists in the regions.
In November 2007, Reporters Without Borders voiced “deep concern” about the suspension of news programmes on private TV stations under a state of emergency, as well as the closure of opposition-leaning Imedi TV, which remained off the air for five months.