Georgia intends to submit an application for membership of the European Union in 2024. Whilst most Georgians assert the country’s European identity, alternative views are emerging. In this op-ed, GIPA doctoral student Archil Sikharulidze challenges the concept of Georgian “Europeaness”, and those who promote it.
Georgia has wholeheartedly set its course toward NATO/EU membership. This aspiration to become an inherent part of the Western civilisation – frequently termed as ‘civilisational choice’ and/or to re-join the ‘European family’ – comes not only from political, social and economic considerations but also from academia. In November 2003 the country experienced the so-called Rose Revolution when an allegedly pro-Western trio of local politicians, Zurab Zhvania, Nino Burjanadze and Mikhail Saakashvili, ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze and assured the country’s Western allies that they would put Georgia on a “democratic track”. This coloured revolution led to dramatic shifts in local academia. In particular, a renewed higher education system and respective educational institutions – many supported by various external Western donations, grants and scholarships – focused on the American and, especially, European dimensions and frameworks. This led Western scholarly approaches and literature to become absolutely dominant.
Tradition, historiography, and history, as key pillars of a nation-building process, have been externally influenced in Georgia. Motivated and educated abroad, modern Georgian scholars were determined to revise the so-hated Soviet legacy and rethink Georgian history; to reconsider Georgia as a phenomenon in the history of humankind. So far, we are witnessing ongoing efforts by both international and local scholars to rewrite Georgian history from the Western-oriented, and to be more precise, European-oriented nation-building perspective. This is the perspective which represents the generalised West as a ‘historical homeland’, Russia as the ‘evil empire’, and Turkey and Iran as strategic partners with complicated pasts that should be left in the past. Georgian history as a whole is the subject of studies and emendations on the country’s path toward Westernisation-Europeanisation.
Apart from rethinking Georgian history in general and focusing on Russia’s long-lasting ‘war on Georgian sovereignty’, there are time periods which only became widely researched and actualised recently.
A new wave of mainly young leftist Georgian scholars in collaboration with foreign colleagues actively study and promote the so-called First Republic timeframe. In 1918 Georgia gained independence from the collapsed Russian Empire and became a sovereign state, chaired by Noe Zhordania, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic party. Arguably, at that time, the Georgian government aspired to strengthen ties with Europe, especially Germany, and escape from Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’. Despite harsh opposition, Georgia was captured by the Red Army in 1921 and was integrated into the Soviet Union, thus, losing independence and sovereignty to Moscow yet again. Seemingly, researchers of the First Republic are trying both to restore the damaged reputation of the Georgian Social Democratic party on the one hand, and its political ideology more generally on the other. They emphasise the continuous strife of local elites as well as the whole Georgian nation for self-determination overall, independence and sovereignty from Russia in particular, and the idea of a European future as an integral part of Georgian history.
Another heavily researched issue is the so-called great purge or massive Soviet repressions of the 1930s. Inspired by Germany’s approach to ‘denazification’, researchers from the SOVLAB (Soviet past research laboratory), amongst others, are pushing for de-Sovietisation by exposing the brutality and merciless nature of the Soviet regime and remembering the victims of its terror by setting-up memorial tables. There are also calls on local government to grant access to confidential archives hiding detailed accounts of both victims and abusers, and so-called collaborators. Using the so-called German model for Georgia in combination with the comprehensive lustration approaches implemented in the Eastern European countries is being considered as a path towards political and historical redemption – liberation from the nasty Soviet legacy.
Being remembered and discussed annually, the so-called 9 April 1989 events represent a ‘historic anchor’ for Georgian elites to draw the line between “us” and “them”, Georgian patriots and Soviet/Russian murderers – a ‘red line’ between Georgia and Russia. This tragic incident, which led to deaths of more than 20 people in Tbilisi, is probably the most widely recalled and observed, especially by local researchers and experts; and, paradoxically, is still less studied, transparent, clear and objective due to the high level of emotional sensitivity and politicisation around it. Any kind of ‘non-patriotic’ revision leads to a harsh academic reaction due to a prevalence of so-called ‘scientific patriotism’.
One should separately emphasise the phenomenon of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia’s historiography. Gamsakhurdia, a prominent Soviet dissident and the first president of an independent Georgian state, has for a long time been simultaneously considered as a founding father of modern Georgian statehood as well as the most notable Georgian nationalist. The politician was a ‘freedom fighter’ who fought against Soviet/Russian imperialism on the one hand, and an example of destructive Georgian nationalist sentiment on the other hand. Interestingly, we are witnessing a dramatic shift in this well-established framework, with local researchers turning Gamsakhurdia into a ‘role model’ in the scope of a larger European-oriented nation-building historical perspective.
And lastly, the lion’s share of research is focused on a period after the so-called Rose Revolution which is, in accordance with a general framework, considered as a continuation of Georgia’s historical strife to become a member of the “civilised world” and “Western family” by joining NATO and European Union. It should be noted that the US, as a crucial political and military ally, is extensively represented. Georgia’s entire modern existence is being analysed and narrated through the prism of West-East rivalry, where Georgian people are desperate to re-join with the ‘historical homeland’ while the Kremlin aspires to destroy, demolish, and shatter its dreams.
A ‘new Georgian’
Arguably the best expression of the role of Europe, Europeanness, and the European identity in the modern interpretation of Georgian history are in the words of the prominent Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania, who declared “I am Georgian, and therefore I am European”. This formula, which was probably more of a slogan shared among a narrow group of local elites rather than regular citizens, became a symbol of the Georgian nation-building framework. According to the main narrative, Georgia is not going to ‘become’ a member of the European family; rather it is the oldest European nation, forcefully ripped out – arguably, by Russia – of its ‘civilisational space’ and is now doing its best to re-join it. Europe, according to the storyline, historically unwilling to recognise Georgian ‘Europeanness’, is finally ready to lay aside geopolitical and other considerations and accept Georgia; thus, Tbilisi has a unique opportunity to make a centuries-old dream come true. The concept of ‘Europeanness’ – introduced by Korneli Kakachia and others, as a combination of European-minded elites on the one hand, and preference of liberal political order on the other hand – is at the forefront of any agenda in the country. Thus, local political, academic, business and other elites do consider EU-Georgian relations as a key pillar of Georgian existence; a grand mission that other dimensions of the state’s domestic and foreign policies should serve. The ‘Europeanness’ that has already turned to ‘radical Europeanness’ is continuously overshadowing a dramatic need for Tbilisi to pursue more pragmatic and down-to-earth political approaches both at home as well as beyond its borders. ‘Europeanness’ or ‘radical Europeanness’ fits an idea of a ‘new Georgian’ repeatedly expressed by Mikhail Saakashvili and representatives of his political team. Saakashvili, the third president of Georgia, openly argued that a grand idea of the so-called Rose Revolution – thus, a grand idea of him and his supporters – was to deconstruct the corrupt, unattractive Georgian mentality and create a ‘new Georgian nation’. And the European identity is the kernel of that concept.
Georgian academia, which is often a precise reflection of the Georgian political agenda, is respectively focused on creating the necessary historical and ideological foundations for a European-oriented, nation-building perspective. Being extensively ideologically, financially and logistically maintained and supported by American and European grants, many of local scholars and researchers follow agendas offered by the state’s strategic partners; putting the Georgian ‘European identity’, ‘Europeanness’, ‘civilisational choice’ and other pro-American/European narratives as the logical conclusion of every single research project. Interestingly, despite pushing the concept of Georgia as the oldest ‘European nation’, there is a clear understanding that this assumption is barely reflected in European historiography. Thus, Georgian and American/European scholars actively collaborate to “cut a window to Europe” by uncovering a heretofore unknown European nature to Georgia’s past.