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In the late 1980s Communist regimes collapsed in many nations of Eastern Europe, strengthening the independence movements already stirring in the Soviet republics. For the first time during the Soviet period, political parties other than the Communist Party were allowed to participate in elections to the Georgian Supreme Soviet, held in November 1990. The Communist Party of Georgia lost its monopoly on power, with the majority of votes going to the Round Table-Free Georgia coalition of pro-independence parties. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the leader of the coalition and a longtime nationalist dissident, became chairperson of the new legislature and Georgia’s de facto head of state. In April 1991 the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared the republic’s independence from the USSR. In August the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) collapsed after conservative Communists botched a coup attempt against Gorbachev, and in December the USSR officially collapsed.
In May 1991 Gamsakhurdia was elected as Georgia’s first president. Serious internal strife developed soon afterwards, and in September and October a number of opposition parties charged Gamsakhurdia with imposing an authoritarian style of leadership and staged a series of demonstrations demanding his resignation. Gamsakhurdia responded by ordering the arrest of opposition leaders and declaring a state of emergency in Tbilisi. In December armed conflict broke out in the capital, and opposition forces besieged Gamsakhurdia in the government’s headquarters. Gamsakhurdia and some of his supporters fled the capital in early January 1992, and the opposition declared him deposed. Georgia’s presidency was abolished, and former Soviet official Shevardnadze was chosen in March to lead the country as acting chairperson of the State Council (the country’s new legislature). Shevardnadze was elected to the post by popular vote later that year. Gamsakhurdia’s followers made several attempts to reinstate him by force, but these attempts were not successful, and Gamsakhurdia died in late 1993 or early 1994 in circumstances that never have been fully clarified.
Following independence, Georgia’s Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities, continued to seek greater levels of autonomy for their regions but were faced with increasing nationalist sentiment among the Georgian majority. Violent fighting between Ossetians and Georgians had begun in 1989, and this fighting continued in South Ossetia until a peacekeeping force of mostly Russian troops was deployed in 1992. Then in July of that year, the leaders of Abkhazia declared the independence of their republic. Georgian authorities sent troops into Abkhazia, and heavy fighting broke out in the region. By October 1993 Abkhazian forces had expelled the Georgian militia and more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians had fled from Abkhazia. In the same month the Georgian government joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in order to win Russian military support. In February 1994 Russia and Georgia reached an agreement that allowed Russia to maintain three military bases on Georgian territory in exchange for military training and supplies.
In April 1994 a UN-sponsored agreement was reached that established an immediate cease-fire in Abkhazia, to be guaranteed by a force of about 2,500 Russian peacekeeping troops. The agreement also established committees to oversee the repatriation of Georgians who had fled the area. By the end of the year, about 30,000 refugees were reported to have returned to their homes in the region. Under the agreement, Abkhazia was to remain part of Georgia while maintaining a high degree of autonomy. When Abkhazia adopted its own constitution in November, however, it declared itself an independent state. In February 1995 the Abkhazian leadership announced that the republic was abandoning its demands for complete secession from Georgia and would instead insist upon a confederal structure of two sovereign states.
In August 1995 the Georgian legislature approved a new constitution, which restored the office of the presidency and established a 235-member legislature. The constitution did not define the territorial status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In November, presidential and legislative elections took place in Georgia. The elections were not held in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where sporadic clashes continued to occur. Shevardnadze was overwhelmingly elected as president, winning more than 70 percent of the vote. His party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia, won the largest number of seats in the new legislature.
In January 1996 CIS leaders agreed, at Shevardnadze’s request, to impose economic sanctions against Abkhazia until it agreed to rejoin Georgia. In November 1996 both Abkhazia and South Ossetia held local elections that the Georgian government declared invalid. By the end of the year, however, the governments of Georgia and South Ossetia reached an agreement to avoid the use of force against one another, and Georgia pledged not to impose sanctions against South Ossetia. In early 1997 more Georgian refugees were reportedly repatriated to Abkhazia. More than 30,000 people fled their homes in Abkhazia in May 1998 because of renewed fighting between separatist and pro-Georgian forces. A political settlement regarding the territorial status of the two regions remained out of reach, and Russian troops continued to maintain a peacekeeping presence.
In February 1998 President Shevardnadze survived an assassination attempt when his motorcade was attacked in Tbilisi by a group of men armed with guns and grenade launchers. The president had survived another attempt on his life in 1995. Four or five Gamsakhurdia supporters were arrested in February, but Shevardnadze accused reactionary forces in Russia of masterminding and participating in the attack. In October 1998 Gamsakhurdia supporters in the military led a one-day revolt, taking over the army garrison at Senaki, then marching on K’ut’aisi. The mutinous soldiers fought with government troops, but surrendered after talks with government negotiators.
In legislative elections held in October 1999, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia won a majority of the seats. Shevardnadze was reelected president in April 2000, although election monitors criticized the election as flawed and Shevardnadze faced a declining economy.
Economic ills and charges of government corruption caught up with Shevardnadze in November 2003 when he was forced to resign. Parliamentary elections on November 2 were reportedly marred by fraud. Both the United States and international election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) denounced the election, citing ballot-box stuffing and other voting irregularities. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters demonstrated for weeks to protest the election results. Then, in late November, the protesters seized the Parliament building and forced Shevardnadze to vacate his office. When the military failed to come to his defense, Shevardnadze resigned. Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili proclaimed a “velvet revolution,” similar to the nonviolent uprising that ousted the Communist government of Czechoslovakia in 1989. Georgia’s nonviolent coup became known as the Rose Revolution for the rose that Saakashvili carried in his mouth as he entered the Parliament building during the takeover.
As required by Georgia’s constitution, the parliamentary speaker, Nino Burdzhanadze, an opposition leader and former member of Shevardnadze’s inner circle, became acting president. Saakashvili was elected president by an overwhelming margin in January 2004. The following month the Parliament of Georgia adopted several constitutional amendments, which among other provisions created the post of prime minister to head the government.
Soon after the revolution, President Saakashvili was faced with a growing crisis in the autonomous region of Ajaria, whose long-standing president, Aslan Abashidze, refused to recognize Saakashvili’s full authority as president of Georgia. In early May 2004 Abashidze claimed that government forces were preparing to invade Ajaria and ordered his forces to blow up bridges and dismantle railway lines connecting Ajaria with the rest of Georgia. Saakashvili threatened Abashidze with forced removal if he refused to disarm his forces and comply with the constitution of Georgia. Faced with eroding support, including large pro-Saakashvili demonstrations in Bat’umi, Abashidze resigned and left the country.
New parliamentary elections were held in March 2004 to fill the 150 seats in the 235-seat Parliament chosen by proportional representation. The November 2003 election results for these seats had been annulled, but the results for the remaining 85 seats, chosen by majority vote in single-member constituencies, had been deemed valid. A pro-Saakashvili coalition of the National Movement and the United Democrats won 135 seats, giving it a total of 152, and an opposition alliance called the Rightist Opposition (formed by the Industrialists and the New Rights Party) won 15 seats, bringing its total to 23.
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