This week I was strolling around Hero Square between meetings and saw some fresh graffiti in one of the stairwells adjacent to the zoo.
In English it was scrawled: “Georgia for Georgians.” The whole descent on the stairwell was decorated with swastikas, SS symbols and other phrases like “Fuck Niggers” and “We’ll rise again.”
These Nazi and openly racist statements are likely more shocking to most Western readers, especially Americans, who have a long and painful history with the N-word.
I, however, was struck most by “Georgia for Georgians.” It’s hard to find any European city these days without a bit of neo-Nazi vandalism. Those swastikas and racial slurs could have just as easily been found in Paris or Vienna as Tbilisi.
But, “Georgia for Georgians” has a more specific, dark history in this country. It was one of the loudest cries of Georgia’s chaotic rebirth as an independent post-Soviet state. That slogan and the policy implications behind them played a major role in the young country’s descent into civil war, poverty and anarchy throughout the 90’s. In fact, those words are so iconic that they have their own Wikipedia page.
I’m not a historian, but here’s a brief rundown:
“Georgia for Georgians” emerged as a popular anti-Soviet slogan as protest rallies for the republic’s independence intensified in April 1989. Dissident writer and Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia began rising to power with a campaign that heavily featured the slogan along with xenophobic policies and declarations aimed at “protecting” the Georgian state and people.
These policies included restricting citizenship to those who could prove their family lived in Georgia before its 1801 annexation by the Russian Empire, a limit on property rights to those who had voted for independence in the national referendum (which would leave out most Abkhaz and Ossetians) and increased pressure on the hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in the country to leave or face retribution.
After being elected to Georgia’s Supreme Soviet, Gamsakhurdia abolished South Ossetia’s autonomy. By the time he was elected president in May 1991, an armed conflict between Ossetians and Georgians had already begun. As tensions rose, Abkhazia mirrored the rhetoric, with the head of Abkhazia’s Autonomous Supreme Soviet eventually declaring “Abkhazia for Abkhaz.”
The result was four years for civil strife and war that killed thousands and devastated the country. By January 1992, Gamsakhurdia had been deposed but his loyalists continued to fight a war of attrition against the putschists in the countryside. Over the following two years, Georgian forces proceeded to lose control of both Abkhazia and the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia and 250,000 ethnic Georgians were forced from their homes in those territories, becoming refugees in their own country. Many continue to live in squalid conditions, unable to find work or reintegrate into the Georgian society and economy for the last two decades.
In 2005, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared “Georgia for Georgians” to be a “poisonous nationalistic slogan,” and I agree. For that reason, I think it’s quite unfortunate to see that the poison of that destructive phrase has still not left Georgia’s body.
The location of the graffiti is also telling as Hero Square is named such after those killed in Georgia’s conflicts in the early 1990’s. Their names adorn a constantly guarded memorial and a new brightly lit spire in the middle of the square. To my mind, it’s the equivalent of spray-painting “Sieg Heil” next to a Jewish cemetery.
Of course, one piece of graffito does not a political movement make, and I’m not suggesting we are headed to a return to violence and terror. But, given how far Georgian society has come, I think it is important to take the time to remember the damage that ethno-nationalism has done to this country and dark history these words hold before they are hopefully washed away by city workers.
On the plus side, Hero Square also features some more lighthearted additions, pictured below.