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Ethnic Nationalism Gave Georgia Freedom. Now It Needs Civic Nationalism to Survive.

The Caucasus is a complex ethnic and religious patchwork, and only a shared identity can help Georgians push back against Putin.

A convoy of Russian troops makes its way through the mountains in the village of Dzhaba on August 9, 2008 as Georgian troops battled with Russian forces over breakaway provinces.
A convoy of Russian troops makes its way through the mountains in the village of Dzhaba on August 9, 2008 as Georgian troops battled with Russian forces over breakaway provinces. DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

TBILISI, Georgia—Georgia’s location in the Caucasus region has given it a mosaic of cultures. Vladimir Putin’s Russia exploited these ethnic differences 10 years ago, invading and occupying one-fifth of the country. This national tragedy continues to this day, and the recent first-round presidential election did nothing to change that.

But it should confirm to the world once again that Georgia desires to be free of its old Russian masters and be a fully independent, sovereign member of the West. Despite an impressive “get out the vote” push by the ruling Georgian Dream party’s candidate—which I personally witnessed along with other international election observers—Georgians rebuffed such attempts to tell them what to do.

The Central Election Commission announced early Monday that no candidate had cleared 50 percent of the vote and there will be a runoff in the coming weeks. For a country that just over two decades ago was emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and on its way to becoming a failed state, such an electoral result was a ringing success. The hope is that the country will remain calm in the lead-up to the second round of voting Dec. 2.

Whoever emerges the victor next month will have to figure out how to help return Georgia to its pre-invasion borders. That will not be easy, because Putin sees advantage in staying or even adding to such strategic real estate, but many in the political class agree that the answer must start with creating a civic, not ethnic, sense of what it means to be a Georgian—one that would appeal to the ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians who are behind Russian barbed wire in Abkhazia in the west and the Tskhinvali region in the north, and to the myriad nationalities in the territory under control by Tbilisi.

Debates over ethnic and civic nationalism are often existential and can spark emotional reactions, and not just in Georgia. The question of whether nations emerge from a common culture and creed or from shared ethnicity is answered differently in the United States, where the citizenry’s multiethnic composition has long made the civic form the only possible response. President Abraham Lincoln famously said that in America, belief in the founding texts was “the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together.”

That is not to say that ethnic rhetoric has never been part of U.S. politics. Just as Lincoln was speaking those words, the strongly nativist Know Nothing party was at peak strength (Lincoln, in fact, was articulating a case against such nativism). Some conservatives today would stress shared culture more than creed and still others do emphasize the predominance of a “settler culture.” The consensus is strong, however, that civic nationalism, with both its cultural and credal components, is the national glue.

Ethnicity tends to be the rule in much of the rest of the globe, however. Ethnic Hungarians who are citizens of adjacent states are thought to form part of the Hungarian nation, even though they or their ancestors have never lived in present-day Hungary. Ethnicity (in Hungary’s case not just language but common descent from Central Asian invaders) is the glue. China sees overseas Chinese in Asia similarly. Georgia is closer to the Hungarian case but must now gravitate toward the U.S. model if it wants to imbue all its ethnic communities with pride in a Georgian identity—a transition that will not be smooth.

The country was torn by ethnic warfare from 1991 to 1993 as the Soviet Union was collapsing and Georgia, along with other constituent Soviet republics, was preparing to declare its independence. With help from Moscow, Abkhazians in the west and Ossetians in Tskhinvali (which Russia refers to as South Ossetia) made a break for independence from Tbilisi.

The man then leading Georgians toward independence, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, responded with heavy-handed use of ethnic Georgian pride and open disdain for Abkhazians and Ossetians, who have their own languages and customs. Violence ensued on all sides, and Abkhazia, Tskhinvali, and the rest of Georgia remained apart in an uneasy truce until Russian troops invaded in 2008, sealing off Abkhazia and Tskhinvali.

As ham-fisted as Gamsakhurdia was in his reaction to Abkhazians and Ossetians, many agree that, at that moment, his ethnonationalism was what was needed to break free from Moscow’s grip. This is a sentiment often voiced by Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, and others who broke free from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was in many ways a multinational empire in the style of those ruled by the tsars, the Ottomans, and the Austrian Habsburgs, a feature that its totalitarian communism kept hidden.

The Lithuanian writer Skomantas Pocius puts it this way: “Ethnic nationalism played a crucial role in not just Lithuania’s liberation, but the freeing of all Eastern Europe, as national identities re-emerged, became rallying points of opposition to the Soviet occupation, and then formed the pillars of newly independent nation-states.”

Ethnic nationalism may work to break free of empire, but it does not work in a multiethnic state, which is what Georgia is. Ethnic Georgians account for 87 percent of the population, and Orthodox Christians make up 84 percent of the country. The rest, however, are a religious mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims and other Eastern Christian denominations. Ethnically, the territory Georgia controls contains Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Azeris, Chechens, Dagestanis, Yazidis, Abkhazians, Ossetians, and others.

A young Abkhazian woman who lives in Tbilisi and feels proud of her Georgian identity told me, “Gamsakhurdia’s ethnonationalism was good in getting us independence, but very bad in a multiethnic state.”

The government today does not deny Gamsakhurdia’s role in the breakup. “There’s a share of responsibility on all sides,” said Georgian State Minister for Reconciliation Ketevan Tsikhelashvili. She was quick to point out, however, that Soviet generals trying to keep their empire together in 1990 and 1991 fomented these ethnic problems everywhere, from Moldova’s Transnistria region, which is still occupied today, to the Baltic states and today’s Ukraine.

Under Putin, exploiting ethnic and social divisions is not limited to Russia’s “near abroad,” the phrase the Russian government uses to refer to the 14 republics that escaped Moscow’s grip. The Kremlin seeks to amplify societal fissures from the Balkans to Central and Western Europe, and even in the United States. Putin’s Russia, of course, exploits such cultural divisions not by conquering territory but through Facebook and other means.

Forging a civic Georgian identity will not be easy in a mountainous region with the greatest density of languages anywhere on earth. “This is our goal, and it has been the goal of every recent Georgian government, but it’s very difficult. People in the Caucasus are very suspicious. The Caucasus is a place where you can easily spark up ethnic conflict,” said Kakha Gogolashvili, a senior fellow at the Rondeli Foundation, which partnered with the German Marshall Fund in organizing our recent visit to Georgia.

Georgia’s strategy is twofold. First, ensure that the international community does not recognize the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. To this day that has succeeded; only pariah states such as Venezuela and Syria have granted recognition to Abkhazia. The second goal is ensuring that—with economic growth, integration with Europe, and membership in NATO—freedom and democracy in a civically united Georgia will appeal to all groups.

Those goals seem difficult to attain as far as reuniting with Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region is concerned. The present reality is that Putin will not withdraw. “The Russians keep creating roadblocks to reconciliation,” the outgoing president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, reminded me.

But Putin won’t live forever, whereas Georgians have been around for thousands of years. And Georgia and its next president can try the nation-building effort at home, especially in the Javakheti region in the south, which is nearly 100 percent ethnic Armenian and could be the object of future mischief by Putin.

Cultural and credal nationalism is hard, as Georgians are finding out. But it isn’t impossible. Georgia’s conditions are very different from those of the United States, Canada, or Australia. Lacking foundational texts that would unite disparate groups, Georgia must put a national Georgian label on such shared benefits as government respect for individual rights and being a part of the international community of nations, with attendant advantages such as visa-free travel to the West.

Gradually—and with a soft touch—it must extend the idea of a shared culture and language to all within its borders. The use of Georgian as a national language will be particularly hard, as Georgia is finding out in trying to get residents of Javakheti to learn it and use it, but a national language is generally a sine qua non of national unity.

Georgians again last week demonstrated a love of freedom and democracy; they must now become civic nation-builders.

Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He served at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration and covered Europe for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page from 1998 to 2003. Twitter: @Gundisalvus

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