In about the 500s bc, western Georgia was colonized by Ionian Greeks; its western part was known as Colchis and the eastern region as Iberia. Christianity was introduced in the early 4th century ad. The Persian and Byzantine empires then fought for control over Georgia until the 7th century, when the region was conquered by the Arabs.
In the 11th century King Bagrat III united the Georgian principalities into one kingdom, with the exception of Tbilisi, which was an emirate (territory ruled by an emir, or Turkish prince) under the control of Seljuk Turks. In 1122 King David II, one of Bagrat’s descendants, expelled the Turks and recovered Tbilisi. Under Queen Tamar, whose rule straddled the 12th and 13th centuries, the Georgian kingdom reached its zenith and grew to include most of Caucasia. Georgian culture also experienced a golden age during this period. Then in the 13th century, Mongol armies invaded the Georgian lands. By the end of the 15th century the Georgian kingdom had disintegrated entirely as a result of the Mongol invasions.
In the early 1500s the Iranian and Ottoman empires invaded Georgia. In 1553 the two Muslim powers partitioned Georgia’s territory, with Iran taking the east and the Ottomans taking the west. The Iranians and the Ottomans fought against one another for complete control of Georgia until the late 1500s, when the Ottomans were driven out. In the 1720s the Ottomans attempted another conquest, but the Iranians expelled them again. Iran then placed the Georgian kingdom of Kartli under the rule of local Bagratid royals. The Bagratids had originated in the borderlands between Georgia and Armenia. Originally an Armenian dynasty, one branch of the Bagratids eventually became Georgianized.
In 1762 Erekle II of the Bagratids reunited the eastern Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakheti, forming a new Georgian kingdom that covered much of present-day Georgia. In the late 1700s King Erekle turned to Russia for protection against foreign conquest, primarily by Iran, and in 1783 he accepted Russian suzerainty in return for Russia’s guarantee to maintain his kingdom’s borders. Nevertheless, Iranian forces sacked Tbilisi in 1795. In 1801 Russia deposed the Bagratid king and annexed the eastern Georgian kingdom to the Russian Empire. Russia annexed the western Georgian region of Imereti in 1810 and the remainder of western Georgia between 1829 and 1878.
The Russian Empire collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and an independent Georgian state was established in May 1918. The Mensheviks, or moderate socialists, initially controlled the Georgian government. However, in 1921 during the Russian Civil War, Red Army troops invaded the country under the orders of Bolshevik (militant socialist) officials Joseph Stalin and Grigory “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze, both native Georgians. In ordering the invasion, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze were acting against the wishes of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Georgia was now under the control of the Bolsheviks (later known as the Communists). Stalin was, at the time, directing nationality affairs from the central government in Moscow. From this position, he hatched a scheme to join Georgia with Armenia and Azerbaijan. This union was to form a new political entity, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (SFSR). In December 1922, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded with four constituent republics, one of them was the Transcaucasian SFSR. However, in 1936 the Transcaucasian republic was dissolved, and Georgia became its own constituent Soviet republic, as did Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Georgian republic was called the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
Meanwhile, in July 1921 the Ajarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was formed within Georgia. Abkhazia was initially a separate Soviet republic, but in 1921 it was merged with Georgia, and in 1931 it was downgraded to the status of an autonomous republic. In April 1922 the Soviet government created the political entity of South Ossetia and designated it an autonomous region within Georgia, while its northern counterpart on the other side of the Greater Caucasus, North Ossetia (now Alania), became part of Russia.
Georgians vigorously resisted Soviet rule, but by 1924, many Georgian dissidents had been executed and others imprisoned on the orders of the central government in Moscow. Even active nationalists who were members of the Communist Party of Georgia, the only political party allowed to function, were punished in an attempt to wipe out all nationalist tendencies in the republic. In the late 1920s Stalin established himself as the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, ushering in a despotic regime that lasted until his death in 1953. Stalin’s close associate Lavrenty Beria served as first secretary of the Communist Party of Transcaucasia, and then of the Communist Party of Georgia, throughout the 1930s. During the Great Purge (1936-1938)—a campaign of terror that served to solidify Stalin’s dictatorship—Beria collaborated with Stalin to carry out massive arrests and executions of Georgian party officials, intellectuals, and rank-and-file citizens.
During World War II (1939-1945), Stalin ordered the deportation of entire minority groups, mainly Turkic, from Georgia and the rest of Caucasia on the assumption that they would support the invading Axis powers. After Stalin’s death, a liberalizing process known as de-Stalinization was implemented throughout the Soviet Union under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In 1972 Eduard Shevardnadze was appointed first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia, a post he held until his promotion to head of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1985. In the 1980s Shevardnadze became an outspoken supporter of the reformist policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
However, Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (Russian for “openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), introduced in the mid-1980s, led many Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia to begin agitating for increased autonomy. Friction between the Georgian government and these ethnic minorities increased after the Georgian Supreme Soviet (legislature) passed a law establishing the Georgian language as the official state language in 1989. On April 9 of that year, demonstrators in Tbilisi, who were demanding that Abkhazia remain a part of Georgia and advocating Georgian independence from the USSR, were attacked by Soviet security forces. Nineteen people were killed and many others injured, resulting in increased anti-Soviet sentiment.
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 had not been reached as of early 1999, 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.