Republic of Georgia

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Republic of Georgia

Type of Government

The Republic of Georgia was one of the many constituent republics of the Soviet Union that gained its independence in 1991 but subsequently struggled through a dozen years of political turmoil. In 2003 a popular pro-democracy movement known as the Rose Revolution swept through the country and brought several years of autocratic rule to a close. Georgia is a representative democracy with a unicameral parliament and a president who is head of state. Executive power as head of government is divided between the president and the prime minister, with the president having control of the ministries of defense and interior, and the prime minister controlling all other executive functions.


Georgia is a relatively small but strategically located nation of the Caucasus area of Eurasia, with a population of just 4.6 million (about the same as Toronto, Canada). The Georgians are a distinct ethnic group whose language shares no characteristics with other languages outside the Transcaucasus. Linguists theorize that Georgian is one of the oldest living languages, and its endurance combined with Georgia’s relative isolation to preserve an unusually high degree of ethnic identity and culture. The area was inhabited as early as 6000 BC, and the ancient Greeks later established trading colonies in the area, but attempts at conquest by the armies of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), and then by various Persian and other foreign powers, ultimately proved futile. A Roman invasion later led to Georgia’s conversion to Christianity in AD 327, when the king proclaimed it the official state religion and made Georgia only the second political entity in the world to do so.

The Georgian kingdom reached its peak in the early twelfth century under the rein of King David IV (1073–1125) but by the mid-thirteenth century the country had been overrun by Mongol armies, and by 1600 nearly all of this formerly Christian outpost was Muslim. For a time, it was divided between Persia and the Ottoman Empire, but by 1802 it came under Imperial Russian rule. This ended briefly in 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution, when a group of Georgian nationalists proclaimed it the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Local Communist supporters were installed when Soviet Russia’s troops returned, and a 1924 anti-Soviet uprising was brutally suppressed by a native Georgian, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), who was the Communist Party leader in Moscow. During its decades as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, its temperate climate made it a favorite vacation haunt for the Soviet elite, but it remained a hotbed of resistance to Soviet rule.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) came to power in 1985 and ushered in an era of immense reform that would propel the Soviet Union to its ultimate demise six years later. One of Gorbachev’s closest advisers was Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–), who had risen to power as head of the Communist Party of Georgia in 1972 by fighting corruption. Following an example set in other Soviet republics, Georgia held its first multiparty elections in October 1990, and five months later voted overwhelmingly for independence in a national referendum. Genuine sovereignty, however, came later, with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Government Structure

Georgia’s constitution was adopted on October 17, 1995. An elected president serves as head of state, is elected by direct vote to a five-year term, and is limited to two terms. The president formerly served as head of government, too, until changes in 1999 gave the chief cabinet appointee, the minister of state, powers similar to that of a prime minister. In 2004 the minister of state’s title was changed to prime minister.

Georgia’s legislative branch is its unicameral (one-house) parliament, the Sakartvelos Parlamenti, or Parliament of Georgia. Its 235 deputies are elected to four-year terms by popular vote.

The electoral system for the parliament combines eighty-five single-seat constituencies—in which individual elections are held for each seat—with a proportional representation vote for the remaining seats. Those one hundred fifty seats are chosen in a single, national election in which each party receives a number of seats in proportion to its total vote count, and those seats are then allocated to the top vote-getters on each party’s list of candidates. A party must surpass a threshold of five percent of the vote to receive seats in parliament. Ten seats in parliament are allocated to representatives of persons displaced from the conflict-ridden region of Abkhazia.

Georgia’s judiciary is independent in theory, and supervised by separate Council of Justice, but historically the president has been able to exert influence on judges, and at the local level the judges are sometimes subjected to pressure by clan leaders. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and serves as the court of final appeal. The Constitutional Court was established in 1996, and a year later a new Law on Common Courts was enacted, specifying a three-tier system—regional courts of appeal hearing cases from the lowest level (the district courts that hear civil cases and lesser criminal ones), and more serious criminal cases prosecuted at the regional court level. The 1997 law also instituted a test on legal principles for judges, and many judges failed during the first wave of exams.

Georgia is divided into nine administrative districts, plus one for the capital of Tbilisi; there are also two autonomous regions, Abkhazia and Adjara. The districts are further divided into sixty-nine rayons. In 1998 elections for local assemblies were held for the first time. Suffrage (the right to vote) in Georgia is universal for those eighteen and older.

Political Parties and Factions

When Georgians voted in the first multiparty elections in October 1990, a coalition slate called Round Table–Free Georgia won the majority of parliamentary seats. Ethnic tensions, which had long been simmering in Georgia between the majority population and the Russian, Ossetian, and Abkhazian minorities, flared in the first years following independence. Georgia’s new leaders claimed that Moscow, which had refused to formally recognize Georgia’s declaration of sovereignty, was inciting the unrest, and responded with military action. A coup occurred in Tbilisi in December 1991, aided by a paramilitary group, Mkhedrioni, followed by a bitter and bloody civil war. The Mkhedrioni provided armed support to the new president, Shevardnadze, but was accused of human rights abuses and organized-crime activities and ordered to disband in 1995.

In 1993 Shevardnadze founded a new party, the center-right Citizens’ Union of Georgia (also known by its Georgian initials, SMK). It dominated electoral politics following Shevardnadze’s first official election to the presidency in 1995, a vote widely believed to have been rigged. During this decade, several credible political figures died under suspicious circumstances, including the first democratically elected president (ousted in the 1991 coup), Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1939–1993), and Giorgi Chanturia (1959–1994), head of the National Democratic Party. But even members of Shevardnadze’s SMK began to oppose what had become an intractable separatist conflict and corruption at the highest levels of government. A respected jurist, Nino Burjanadze (1964–), broke from the party and formed a bloc known as the Burjanadze-Democrats in 2003. A longtime ally of Shevardnadze and chair of parliament, Zurab Zhvania (1963–2005), also broke with the SMK and formed a new party, the United Democrats, in 2002; he, too, would die under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Zhvania’s protégé was another pro-Western lawyer, Mikhail Saakashvili (1967–), who founded the United National Movement, a center-right organization, in 2001. Burjanadze, Zhvania, and Saakashvili joined forces in November 2003 to protest the blatantly fraudulent results of recent parliamentary elections. Shevardnadze resigned from office, and Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004. His party is an amalgamation of the reformist groups and known as the National Movement–Democrats.

Major Events

Georgia’s first free and open presidential elections were held in May 1991, with Gamsakhurdia declared the winner. His victory came at a time of severe troubles in Georgia, however, with Gorbachev firmly opposed to the new parliament’s declaration of independence, in addition to a rising tide of separatist violence in the minority enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Criticized for his increasingly authoritarian decisions, a rebellion against Gamsakhurdia began in December 1991 that resulted in his ouster in January 1992, and a state of emergency went into effect. Rule by military council continued until March 1992, when Shevardnadze was named head of a provisional government. Gamsakhurdia attempted a return to power in September 1993 from the western city of Zugdidi, and forces loyal to him became involved in a civil war that was raging over Abkhazia, which would end with nearly ten thousand dead. Gamsakhurdia’s body was discovered with a single bullet to the head in December 1993, and was officially ruled a suicide.

Shevardnadze’s government was finally forced to ask Moscow for military help in quelling the separatist rebellions and the Gamsakhurdia faction, and in return for this aid agreed to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in March 1994. In November 1995, presidential elections were held in which Shevardnadze beat out six other candidates with 70 percent of the vote, and was widely hailed—at both home and in the West—as the savior of his nation.

Five years later, however, the April 2000 presidential elections were criticized as fraudulent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which regularly sends observer missions to monitor elections. Shevardnadze won with some 80 percent of the vote, but his popular support was waning and the government faced drastic opposition when the results of the November 2003 parliamentary elections were announced. In that contest, Burjanadze-Democrats and Saakashvili’s United National Movement appeared to have won a majority according to exit polls, but Shevardnadze’s new party, For a New Georgia, and its ally the Revival Party were declared the winners. Georgians took to the streets in mass demonstrations against the official tallies, and finally on November 23 Shevardnadze announced his resignation. Two days later the Georgian Supreme Court annulled the results of the parliamentary elections. The relatively peaceful change of power was dubbed the Rose Revolution for the roses carried by protesters—a symbol of nonviolence—when they stormed parliament on the opening day of its new session. The following January, Saakashvili was elected president with a stunning 96 percent of the vote.

Twenty-First Century

Despite its years of post-Soviet turmoil, Georgia continues to be a relatively prosperous nation and is poised to become a regional leader in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Saakashvili inherited the reins of power in a country struggling under onerous burdens: problems in the breakaway regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia remained unresolved, and the nation’s economy was in shambles and heavily reliant on U.S. and Russian aid.

Conflicts with Russia under a new hard-liner, President Vladimir Putin (1952–), resumed over various issues, and in January 2006 a pair of natural-gas pipelines and one electricity cable—both running between Georgia and Russia—were bombed. This resulted in serious disruptions of heat and electricity for Georgians during the coldest weeks of the year. The Saakashvili government claimed the strikes were retaliatory moves by Putin for Georgia’s continued assertion of power on several fronts: Russia hoped to control those same export pipelines, and the issue with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, because Russian peacekeeping troops were still present in both areas, continued to strain relations between Georgia and Russia. Finally, since taking office Saakashvili had become one of Putin’s most challenging foes—a fiercely pro-West politician who had been assiduously cultivating Georgia’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and, at a future date, the European Union.

Alaolmolki, Nozar. Life after the Soviet Union: The Newly Independent Republics of Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Streissguth, Thomas. The Transcaucasus. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2001.

Wheatley, Jonathan. Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.