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The War At Home -- Unity, Nationalism, And Bravado In Georgia

  • Brian Whitmore

President Saakashvili visiting a patient at a military hospital in Gori on August 9

President Saakashvili visiting a patient at a military hospital in Gori on August 9

Many Georgians have 1921 on their minds.

It was in February of that year when the Red Army marched into Tbilisi and annexed Georgia into the Soviet Union, ending the south Caucasus nation's brief three-year independence. Many Georgians fear that history is now repeating itself.

In an emotional announcement broadcast on Georgian television on August 10, parliament speaker David Bakradze sought to rally the country, arguing that its very existence is now under threat.

"What we all are witnessing is the attempt at a full-scale military occupation like the one of 1921," Bakradze said. "We, the Georgian authorities, will not allow this to happen. We will not allow this to happen, together with the people of Georgia, with the Georgian population."

Georgian officials on August 10 announced that they have withdrawn their forces from South Ossetia after fighting Russian troops for control of the pro-Moscow separatist region for two days.

Russian forces, however, continued to bomb targets inside Georgia, hitting an airbase near the capital Tbilisi. According to Georgian officials, Moscow has deployed an additional 10,000 troops to South Ossetia -- and there are strong indications that the Kremlin's aims are much broader than simply keeping that region in Moscow's orbit.

Bakradze says Russia is preparing an attack on the city of Zugdidi, which is located near breakaway Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed rebel region. Abkhazia's pro-Moscow separatist leader, Sergei Bagapsh, meanwhile, says he is sending 1,000 troops to the Kodori Gorge, the only Georgian-controlled part of that republic.

The rapid expansion of the conflict and accompanying perception of existential threat has served to unify, at least for the moment, Georgia's bitterly fractious political elite and has led to a dramatic up-tick in nationalist and militaristic sentiment -- which are never far from the surface in Georgia -- among the general population.

"Today, at a time of hardship for the country, when it's all about the existence of the Georgian state as such, I would like to pass the appeal of the Georgian president, of the entire Georgian government, over to you. We have to unite," Bakradze said. "Wherever the enemy army enters, we have to confront it with all means at our disposal. Do not allow them occupy Georgia again, as in 1921. Our strength is in our unity."

Rallying Around The Flag

Even before Bakradze's appeal, Georgia's political elite was putting aside their long-standing feuds and rallying around the flag.

Most dramatically, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a strident opponent of President Mikheil Saakashvili, announced from his exile Paris that he was prepared to return to Georgia, put aside his differences with the president and fight the Russian military as a regular soldier.

It was Okruashvili's arrest in September -- after he publicly accused Saakashvili of corruption, protectionism, and proposing the liquidation of a political opponent -- that helped spark a political crisis culminating in violent street protests in November that led to the imposition of a state of emergency and eventual early elections.

Georgia's opposition parties, who have been seething ever since, are now indicating that they are prepared to come together behind the president.

"This is not the time for inter-party conflicts," David Gamkrelidze, head of opposition New Rightists party, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service on August 7. "It is an unwritten law that in this kind of situation, you have to stop all inter-party confrontations. Therefore, in the name of the New Rightist party, I am declaring a moratorium on confrontation with the government and call upon all opposition parties, all political forces, to stop inter-party conflicts."

Other opposition leaders have made similar appeals.

Nationalism Runs Deep

The newfound unity, however, comes with a strong dose of militaristic bravado. Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, belittled Russia's military might and predicted that despite their smaller numbers, Georgian forces would win in the end.

"I never had a particularly high opinion of Russia's military might. Its quantity never turns into quality. This military force has been defeated by countries whose size was similar to ours -- Finland is a good example here, and it is not the only one," Targamadze said. "It is our unity, our union that makes us strong – and we will be able to defeat them. This is inevitable."

Ethnic-based nationalism runs very deep in Georgia. Since coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has worked to transform this sentiment into a more modern, multiethnic, and civic-based patriotism -- with some limited success.

Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics specializing in Georgia at Columbia University in New York, says Georgia's newfound unity -- and the government's embrace of Western-style civic patriotism -- could be short-lived if the conflict drags on. The more Saakashvili's government feels its very survival at stake, Mitchell says, the more likely it will be that they appeal to old-school nationalism.

"If the bombs continue to fall then I think the question of Saakashvili's government becomes tenuous to begin with. I think we could be looking at a real destabilization in Georgia," Mitchell says. "I think nationalism becomes the only well to which they can go after a while. I think if things continue to go this way, this government is going to have to work very hard to stay in power anyway."
Photo Gallery

Destruction In Gori

Photos by RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent of a town under attack