By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) Author, International Affairs/Development/Public Policy Professional, Freelance Writer/Journalist/Consultant/Historian
AMMAN — Amid all the talk of the issue of the “normalization” of Trump, perhaps the most disheartening realization that comes to those who ponder such a concept is in how many ways how utterly banal are figures like Trump and the movement he is cultivating/exploiting, both in the wider world and throughout history.
Georgia, the Republic of, in the Caucasus (not the one of peaches, the Atlanta Braves, and America’s Deep South), is as illustrative of this sad reality of the human condition as any other place, and is thus deeply relevant to understanding our own predicament with Mr. Trump and his fans.
To illustrate this point, I will steal from my own graduate school work in 2009 on conflict in Georgia involving Georgians, Abkhaz, Ossetians, and Russians, inserted in italicized blocs (apologies for all the parenthetical citations as we had a very strict and I would argue frustrating series of guidelines; here is the full paper).
As will be demonstrated, much of Georgian history involves internal and external forces managing the relationships between ethnic Georgians on one hand, and ethnic Abkhaz and ethnic Ossetians and others on the other, in what can loosely be understood to be Georgian territory and in what comprises the internationally recognized borders of Georgia today.
Since 1800, Russia dominated the country and has been nearly the sole major outside actor involved in these ethnic conflicts. In recent years Russia has acted to allow both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to become de facto independent from Georgia and to become de facto parts of the Russian Federation. After the period of the rule of the Czars over the Russian Empire ended, the ethnic minorities in Georgia competed for favor and power to be bestowed from the Soviet Union’s governing elites—elites whose behavior ranged from accommodating ethnic Georgian nationalism to addressing concerns of minorities in Georgia as a way to check Georgian nationalism when it became too anti-Russian/anti-Soviet (something which continued after the fall of the USSR up through today).
Much of American history, likewise, is the story of race relations between white masters and black slaves in the South and the relationship between the rest of the country and the South when it came to limiting the institution of slavery. Since 1865, slavery ended in America but attempts at legal and political equality for freed slaves in the South failed in the face of a terrorist insurgency that finally succeeded in overthrowing the post-Civil War order everywhere in the South by 1877. It was not until a long period of first oppression and later unrest that legal and political equality for African-Americans was imposed on the South by an activist U.S. federal government by 1965.
“The creation legend of Abkhazia and Georgia is identical, a sad fact that has not led to unity and fraternity between these two peoples,” writes Goltz (2009), “but rather to a disputation of basic history and the denial of the very humanity of the other group” (Goltz 2009, 21). For most of its history, Georgia had a stronger eastern kingdom which dominated a weaker western Georgian kingdom, and Abkhazia (then called Abkhazeti) was often ruled by a local prince who might submit to another prince or one of the Georgian kings, or might not, and managed to stay free, and eventually grew in power into its own kingdom, supplanting the west Georgian state and rivaling the east Georgian kingdom for several centuries until the latter unified both into a single Georgian kingdom in 1008 C.E. (Suny 1994, 11-33; Braund 1994, 152-313; Rapp 2000, 576; Gvosdev 2000,1). This kingdom would be a “decidedly decentralized state,” where local rulers often flouted the authority of the “kings” and reached out to foreign powers independently for leverage against them, some trying to take the throne (Suny 1994, 33- 38). Through the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Georgia “remained…primarily rural” and its “towns…were largely inhabited by Muslims, Armenians, and other foreigners” until the nineteenth century (Ibid., 38-39). Mongols and plague fragmented Georgia, and Abkhazeti was one of three western regions “ruled as semi-independent” principalities; Georgia would not see reunification “until the annexation by Russia in the nineteenth century” (Suny 1994, 38-59; Gvosdev 2000, 2-5).”
Note how divided and difficult to control the region was.
“Because, arguably, interests are tied to identities,” writes Suny (1999), “self-understandings… must be investigated as prerequisite to analyzing the security requirements of states” (Suny 1999, 139- 140). Georgia is among certain former Soviet states where “uncertainty about current politics and future possibilities are deeply embedded in more general confusion about who ‘we‘ are and where ‘our‘ interests lie” and he writes that “[n]ational identity is a particular form of political identification” in a world where “nation is not natural or given but must be worked for, taught, and instilled, largely through the efforts of intellectuals, politicians, and activists who make the identification with the ‘imagined political community‘ of the nation a palpable and potent source of emotional and intellectual commitment” (Ibid., 140, 144-145). For Suny, “[m]odern nations are those political communities made up of people who believe they share characteristics…that give them the right to self-determination… they can be thought of as arenas in which people dispute who they are, argue about boundaries, who is in or who is out of the group, where the ‘homeland‘ begins and ends, what the ‘true‘ history of the nation is” (Suny 1999, 145; 4 Suny 2001, 866). He argues that many wars in the modern era are fought over such issues, and that “longlived ‘nations,‘ [like]…Georgians… who have written traditions that go back millennia, have in modern times reconstructed and made consistent the varied and changing identities and ways of conceiving themselves that existed in the past;” “earlier identities” have been molded into “frame[s] of later templates, particularly that of the nation” (Suny 1999, 146). He describes Georgia as one of several former Soviet Republics where “the problems of ethnicity, identity, and the appropriate political forms to sustain the new state in the future were at the base of the devastating and violent crises that fractured” them (Suny 1999, 154). For Suny (1994), Georgia is “reinventing its past;” and “[t]the key to the future lies in what a people selects from its past, how it imagines itself as a community and continues to remake itself as a nation” (Suny 1994, 334-335).
Several authors besides Suny articulate a similar position, that the intensely-felt ancient identities of the Georgians and the Abkhaz are important components to understanding their modern struggles conflicts with each other. Grant (2009) comments that these ancient Abkhaz and Georgian identities were so strongly felt that Russia “never entirely convinced…[these people] that they were full partners alongside the rest” of the Russian Empire and the USSR, and Georgia‘s current President, Mikheil Saakashvili, “took a holy oath” as part of his presidential inauguration ceremony at Gelati, where the “greatest Georgian king of the eleventh century…is buried. By receiving the blessing at Gelati, Saakashvili, who wants a strong Georgian state, was symbolically alluding to a period of history when Georgia had such a state” (Grant 2009, ix-x; Nodia 2005, 78).
On the use of history in this debate, Zverev (1996) notes that it is a “salient factor” in understanding “why conflicts break out,” that “in Abkhaz literature, one finds references to the Abkhazian kingdom which existed in the 9th and 10th centuries. This is instrumental to the Abkhazian claim for sovereignty over the region even though the same kingdom could equally be described as a common Georgian-Abkhazian state, with a predominance of Georgian language and culture;” he points out that on the other side, Georgians “stress the allegedly non-Abkhaz character” of the historical Abkhazia, and that some even think of Georgians as “hosts” and that everyone else, including Abkhaz, are “guests” in Georgian territory (Zverev 1996, part I par.7). This debate, for Zverev as it was for Suny, is about presenting a case for who has the right to govern where and over whom, and this representation of the debate is also corroborated by the recent EU report on the August 2008 war (2009), by Khazanov (1996), by the International Crisis Group (ICG) (2006), and by Nodia (1998) (EURII, 66-69; Khazanov 1996, 6; ICG 2006, 3-4; Nodia 1998, 14). Nodia sums up Georgian views: “Abkhazia is Georgia, because it has always been part of Georgia when it was united. Georgians cannot see Abkhazia as a ‘foreign‘ land which was once conquered by them, and the accusation of imperialism usually makes them furious” (Nodia 1998, 19). Jans (1998) sums up the intersection of Georgian and Abkhazian thought, in that after the Cold War they were engaged in a quest for identity since “[d]emocracy, understood as the rule of the people by the people, begs the question of what is to be understood as ‘We, the people.‘“ (Jans 1998, 109) He further argues that “Ethnonational identities base their credibility and legitimacy on an interpretation of the historical past;” so for Georgians and Abkhazians, the past is of very present relevance to them (Ibid., 110). Lynch (2002) says that Abkhaz claims to the right of self-determination are, among other things, “based” on the idea that modern Abkhazia can claim to be the latest incarnation of “a long historical tradition;” he then quotes Abkhazia‘s foreign minister as saying “Abkhazia has a thousand-year history of statehood since the formation in the 8th century of the Kingdom of Abkhazia. Even within the framework of empires, Abkhazia kept this history of stateness. No matter the form, Abkhaz statehood remained intact” (Lynch 2002, 837). Departing from the more neutral posture of others, Chirikba (1998), writing as an Abkhaz government official, argues that Abkhaz history shows more independence from Georgians than not, and thus provides its people with “legitimate grounds for their claims to statehood and sovereignty” (Chirikba 1998, 48).
Now, if some of this sounds familiar, it should: for much of American history, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants constructed an American identity that was based on their supposed superiority over other whites—Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans—in addition to Africans and others, and defined being true “Americans” as their exclusive domain, working actively to frame these other groups as non-Americans and undeserving of the same rights, if any. Over time the different whites generally unified when it came to ethnic politics and redefined “American” as being white, which over much of the last century meant seeking to exclude blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other non-whites from sharing in the spoils of being an “American.”
Perceptions of Meddling
“Areshidze posits the theory that the Soviet “system of ethnic autonomies was…in reality…a time bomb that Moscow could blow up at its leisure by pushing the ‘protected‘ minorities towards separatism. Thus, this situation gave Moscow a means to weaken and destabilize” Georgia; Zürcher (2005) echoes this analysis (Areshidze 2007, 22; Zürcher 2005, 99). Castells (1996) claims that “the strong development of nationalism in the post-communist period can be related…to the cultural emptiness created by 70 years of imposition of an exclusionary ideological entity, coupled with the return to primary, historical identity (Russian, Georgian), as the only source of meaning after the crumbling of the historically fragile sovietskii narod” (Soviet people) (Castells 1996, 24). Eventually all these trends culminated on the Georgian side with the idea that “their further evolution was hindered by the restraints placed on them by the Russians. An attitude arose that, left to themselves, the Georgians could more quickly realize their historical potential;” “the erosion of Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union cleared the way for its replacement” by the forces already pent up even before Stalin and released after him. Released, they “produced an increasingly potent nationalist mood in all parts of Georgian society—and counternationalism among the ethnic minorities within the republic;” this in turn “stimulated a rapid escalation of ethnic politics in Georgia;” “[t]he specific goals of Soviet nationality policy, the rapprochement and eventual merging of nationalities, were further from realization in the 1980s than they had been at any time in Soviet history” (Suny 1994, 313-316, 320-321; Remington 1989, 145).
Such Georgian views are remarkably similar to those of many conservative white Americans: if the federal government would just get out of the way, they would be free to realize their full potential, and they deeply resent and oppose federal efforts to protect minority rights or to divert any common resources specifically in the direction of minorities; for these white Americans, this is taking what is “theirs” as “true Americans” as they define that concept and they seek to exclude or place limits on other groups that they view as less “American” and worthy than themselves. For them, their concept of their own freedom involves their ability to restrict the freedoms of others as they please.
It was no coincidence that the election of a black President—America’s first non-white president—who campaigned heavily on giving poor uninsured people (the way conservative whites incorrectly read it: non-white) healthcare gave rise to the Tea Party which was in many ways white nationalism run amok (one only has to look at the many polls and multiple studies that showed that huge numbers of Tea Partiers thought Obama was a Muslim, doubted he was a Christian, believed he was not born in America, and had more prejudicial, insensitive, and extreme views on racial issues than most Americans, even when compared to non-Tea Party conservatives); those Tea party forces have morphed into the Trump movement, which has taken over the Republican Party, one of two major political parties in America, and clearly those people now carry the same noxious and extreme views on race that they did when they were members of the Tea Party; in fact, racial concerns seem to be the largest motivators behind people choosing to support Trump: in other words, Trump is the candidate of white ethnocentric nationalism in America.
Suny (2001) claims that Soviet policy created a tendency for ethnic groups like Georgians and Abkhaz to invent imaginary histories that can bolster “the legitimacy of the nation and particular claims to territory and statehood” while at the same time becoming become “exclusivist” and encouraging “desperate policies of deportation and ethnic cleansing” (Suny 2001, 895-896). The EU report concludes that in the atmosphere discussed, there was “no political framework that would have been strong enough to integrate the conflicting national demands” (EURII 2009, 63). Violence, war, and revolution would soon erupt as Soviet rule ended in Georgia.
One only need to look at how conservatives in America, particularly in the South, have created a fantasy about the Civil War that they maintain to this day: Lincoln was a tyrant while the South was bravely fighting for freedom and small government, despite a clear and overwhelming preponderance of evidence that, without question, slavery and white supremacy were at the heart of the Civil War—were actually its primary drivers—and at the heart of the ideology of the self-styled “Confederate States of America.” White ethnocentrists even try to force textbooks into public schools that downplay the issue of slavery, minimize discussion of racial oppression, and falsely frame America’s founding in a Christian context. Georgians and Abkhaz and others fight among themselves over their founding myths and over their histories, trying to distort and weaponize history as a way to de-legitimize certain groups and assert exclusivity over this or that, but Americans are clearly no different.
Zero-Sum Mentalities on Minorities: Identity and the Meaning of Independence
“Many Georgian nationalists are apprehensive of minorities like Ossetians and Abkhaz having too much autonomy and see this as a threat to Georgia; it was ethnic Georgian protests against the Abkhaz request for separation from Georgia in 1989 which sparked the rapid acceleration of Zviad Gamsakhurdia‘s nationalist, anti-ethnic minority agenda and “radicalized” Georgian nationalism; it became more belligerent towards perceived threats from minorities, especially Ossetians and Abkhaz” (Suny 1994, 317-323; Zürcher 2005, 90). For Devdariani (2005) Gamsakhurdia and his movement “perceived Abkhazia and South Ossetia as simply tools for Russian pressure directed against Georgian independence…”[C]oncerns of [their] local elites…[were ignored and]…tensions spiraled into violent clashes…[They failed] to see how…[their] own quest for independence challenged the identities of the Abkhazians and Ossetians” (Devdariani 2005, 161)…
Jones (2006), seeking to downplay ethnic tensions in favor of economic ones, disagrees that the protests were about Abkhazia and argues they were more about “Georgian independence,” but Jones still describes Gamsakhurdia as “using nationalist slogans to gain authority” and “manipulat[ing] a formerly moderate Georgian populace into a chauvinistic mob;” Zürcher maintains with others that the Abkhazian call for secession “led” to the protest (Jones 2006, 257; Zürcher 2005, 89). The EU report and Zürcher take care to mention Georgians, especially those in Abkhazia, saw concessions to minorities as too generous, and that this explains the rise of leaders like Zviad Gamsakhurdia (EURII 2009, 69; Zürcher 2005, 89)
When ethnic minorities tried/try to assert themselves in America, there was/is almost always a hostile backlash from the white majority, and these backlashes are often violence and can take on a form of terrorism. This was the plight the Irish faced as famously depicted in the Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, and of freed slaves who suffered at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the Civil War and for a century after, and violence spiked again when they asserted themselves in the later 1950s and 1960s. Today, with racial, gender, and sexual orientation movements, there has never been a more diverse array of loud assertions of minority groups for their deserved place in public and private life, and the discourse is richer and more diverse than it has ever been as a result. But with the rise of the Tea Party and Trump after the election of a black president and the codification of homosexual marriage as a right protected by the Constitution (both good things), with the yet further proliferation of over-sensitivity, an extreme form of politically correct discourse, and complaints of microaggressions (no so much good things), we are seeing a major backlash and Donald Trump’s rise to a height of just a few percentage-points of votes away from the presidency is the face and spirit of that backlash. Many of his supporters look at groups like blacks, Hispanics, and the LGBT community as tools for an unholy alliance between such groups and a liberal activist federal government—led by a black president they generally believe is a foreign-born Muslim—that these whites perceive has come to oppress them in order to favor brown people and gays and non-Christians (more or less non-Americans to them).
Trump is therefore in many ways just America’s Zviad Gamsakhurdia. And it should be noted that Gamsakurdia propelled his country onto a path of ethnic hatred and violence that led to civil war. I don’t think Trump would push America into a civil war, but, as I’ve noted before, I do see America at an already dangerously high level of racial tension and violence not seen since the Civil Rights Era half a century earlier, with the one major exception being the 1992 L.A. riots, and I do see American society becoming far more divided than it is even now should Trump be at the helm, and view Trump as a danger to Western democracy.
Still, it is clear that the nativism and ethnocentrism that are driving today’s Republican Party and have handed it to Trump are parts of a longstanding American tradition, best exemplified by the “Know-Nothings” for which Abraham Lincoln harbored such disdain, Southern Civil-War slaver secessionists and Redeemers, and George Wallace’s movement from the Civil Rights Era. And, as in Georgia, these often regional movements are both about hostility towards other ethnicities and about independence, and independence from a federal government perceived almost as a foreign power and from a foreign power for the U.S. and Georgia, respectively. Such a concept of independence is tied to spheres both public and private that are seen to be contested with these other ethnicities in a landscape that has long been ethnically and/or racially polarized.
In America, people, locations, and states that are very anti-federal government hardly look at what they deem interference from Washington—in particular from Democrats, and in particular from the African-American-led Obama Administration—differently from how Georgian chauvinists look(ed) at Russian/Soviet efforts to accommodate Abkhaz and other minorities in Georgia; likewise, minorities in America have long looked to the federal government to establish and protect their rights against a white majority that, to varying degrees depending on location, has often sought and still seeks to infringe or even outright destroy those rights, much like Abkhaz and Ossetians have appealed to Soviet/Russian authority to protect them from abuses at the hands of Georgians.
A most salient case-in-point in America involves recent controversies in North Carolina; as one of the states that had used state laws to institutionalize the oppression of African-Americans until 1965, the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) had included North Carolina along with a number of states and localities in a list of places—mostly in the South—that had to receive “preclearance” from federal authorities before changing any of its voting laws, with this preclearance provision on component of an effort to prevent the re-disenfranchisement of black voters. This system worked quite well until 2013, when the narrowly conservative U.S. Supreme Court issue a partisan 5-4 ruling that basically said the VRA was no longer needed and that it constituted federal oppression of state sovereignty. Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina was one of several states that enacted controversial restrictive voting laws under Republican leadership. These laws were criticized to varying degrees as thinly veiled attempt to suppress the votes of African-Americans, and at the end of August of this year, that is just what the federal court system decided: a federal appeals court had ruled that the North Carolina law sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and struck it down as unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court in a 4-4 partisan tie issued on August 31st (with a vacant seat since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most conservative justice on the Court) was unable to alter this decision (but almost certainly would have had Scalia been alive; a close call indeed).
Thus, as American Republican right-wing white ethnocentric nationalists seeks to curb and flout federal authority and prodding on many issues related to minorities, from accepting refugees and affirmative action to voting rights and Medicaid expansion to LBGT rights and imposing sectarian religious agendas, so Georgian ethno-nationalists long sought to fight Soviet/Russian attempts to protect and ensure minority rights for Abkhaz and Ossetians. Georgia has been a part of the Russian Empire for over 200 year until the end of the Cold War, so though this involves two separate sovereign nations today, many of the dynamics still resemble those of Russian/Soviet intra-national politics; conversely, the South of the United States experimented with secession as a unit from 1861-1865 and tried to form its own nation, an experiment which failed miserably but which still helps to explain why the South above all other regions of the United States exhibits a staunch resistance to the rest of the national will and to attempts by the U.S. federal government to bring it along with other national projects, from segregation to the ACA (Obamacare) and any of a whole host of other items.
As in the case with Georgia, at the heart of all this tension are ethnic tensions between those in a majority that see any concession to minorities as a loss of their “rightful” power and societal position on one hand and ethnic minorities that depend on outside forces for protection from outright oppression and domination at the hands those in that majority on the other. And, much as Trump is galvanizing a backlash in minority consciousness and activism in America, so, too, did Gamsakhurdia galvanize Abkhazians and others to resist him.
Conclusion: All Politics Is Local (Exclusion of “The Other?”)
The bottom line is that the sad identity politics of hate and division and resentment are hardly anything exceptional in America and can be found all over the world throughout history and up through today, from Burma to Turkey, from Israel to Burundi, from France to Syria. Americans can only hope that Trump is not nearly as successful as Gamsakhurdia and that America will not follow Georgia in fracturing itself over ethnic hatred. Even if it manages to stave off such a scenario, that will only be a starting point for much needed healing and mending of racial and ethnic fences.
On a final note: Russia at one point gave military support to Gamsakhurdia, after he had been overthrown, as a way to weaken Georgia’s overall position before turning on him after Russia had wrested concessions from the new Georgian leadership. Trump might be interested in such history, with Putin’s Russia today interfering in America’s election and trying to help Donald Trump get into the White House.