Alexander Mikaberidze

Tbilisi massacre of 9 April, 1989


The last decade of the 20th century was extremely tense for Georgia. Ethnic conflicts and civil wars, combined with severe economic and political crisis, had devastated country, turning it from the one of the most prosperous Soviet republic into the most undeveloped state in Europe. Georgian political developments during the years of fight for independence from the then Soviet Union (1988-1991) and its struggle to build up new state institutions and maintain its independence vis-à-vis the neo-imperial cravings of Russia, are much complicated and difficult to understand. Unfortunately, only a few efforts were made to describe the events that shaped the Georgian nation and defined its future for the next decades. This articles intends to provide an overview of the events that led to the proclamation of the independence of Georgia and eventually to the disastrous results for the whole country.

After more than two thousand years of a history punctuated by struggles for independence against foreign powers, most of the component parts of Georgia were incorporated into the Russian empire in 1811. From 1783, Georgia had been "protected" by Russia from its Islamic neighbors, the Ottoman Turkey and Persia. In the late nineteenth century, national consciousness and social discontent fostered challenges to the Tsarist rule as elsewhere in the Russian empire. Young Joseph Dzhugashvili cut his political teeth as a mixture of revolutionary and brigand in his native region. The First World War gave Georgia an opportunity to recover her independence. In 1918 Georgia declared its independence under the Menshevik government. Although Lenin's Bolshevik regime in Moscow recognized Georgian independence, it only did so for tactical reasons and was determined to suppress a rival to its claim to represent Marxist ideology in the region. In April l921 the Red Army invaded Georgia and crushed the local forces.

The sovietization of Georgia under Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze was so brutal that even Lenin was shocked, but the process continued after his death unabated. Under Stalin in the 1930s, savage purges of Georgian society were carried through by his local lieutenant Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet state security apparatus. The impact of sovietization on Georgian culture and the environment was severe. Savage purges inculcated a conformist tendency with the Soviet Communist Party among the survivors. By the 1980s the Georgian Communist Party had the highest percentage of members per capita of all the Republican Communist Parties. Certainly many joined the party for reasons other than careerism or opportunism. Party connections not only helped promotion but also protected those active in the black economy. In fact by the l970s the Georgian Communist Party had become so notoriously corrupt that even the Brezhnev regime felt obliged to intervene and promote a new First Secretary to clean up its activities. Eduard Shevardnadze's period as First Secretary (1972-1985) was marked by a vigorous and sometimes brutal campaign against both corruption and political opposition.

After Shevardnadze departed to Moscow to take up his post as Soviet Foreign Minister, his protégé, Jumber Patiashvili, took charge of the Georgian Communist Party. The all-Union policy of glasnost after 1985 meant that previously dormant nationalist aspirations among the Georgian people began to make themselves heard. There had been dissidents in Georgia before 1985, but Shevardnadze's efficient and heavy-handed methods had disrupted any effective opposition to Soviet power until Gorbachev's reforms. By 1987, several groups which presented themselves as cultural but which had a strongly nationalist program had appeared. In fact, such was the popular support for unofficial groups demanding better protection for the environment or Georgian cultural monuments that the Communist Party authorities tried to establish their own parallel organizations to draw off support from the anti-establishment groups.

After 1950s the matters of the language and culture had assumed unprecedented importance in Transcaucasia, especially in Georgia. One manifestation of the Georgian sense of identity is their devotion to preserve the Georgian language and resentment of the foreign domination. Late 19th century saw the appearance of the slogan "The Language, the Nation, the Faith", that was elaborated by the national liberals led by Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli. The following years saw the revival of the Georgian nationalism under this slogan. Having a long tradition of national awareness, the Georgians has insisted on the preeminence of their language in official affairs. Even during the Soviet era, they fought tenaciously for the maintenance of the lingual and cultural identities. In 1978 mass protests erupted in Tbilisi against a newly published draft constitution which by failing to specify Georgian as the official language implicitly elevated Russian to coequal status within the republic. Thousands of Georgian went on demonstrations and in the face of this stiff popular resistance, the government quickly modified the draft to secure primacy of Georgian language.

During the late 1980s Georgian intellectuals, especially members of the republican Writer’s Union, launched a campaign to assert national prerogatives in the face of perceived threats. Among the most charismatic spokesmen has been writer Akaki Bakradze, who has asserted that as a result of the imposition of Russian as the medium of interethnic communication throughout the USSR, Georgian language is denied its natural preeminence within home republic. Furthermore, Bakradze stressed that Georgians are forced disregard their culture and "adapt themselves constantly to the Russian language and Russian culture." The Georgian intelligentsia was disturbed in view of the Russian dominance and the growing challenge posed by the minorities within the Republic. Demographic trends showed that the Georgian population was gradually decreasing with some minorities, among them Azeris, Armenian and Russian, were increasing. Some minorities, such as Abkhazians, were vigorously pressing cultural demands of their own.

The 1980s saw the resurgence of the Georgian national-liberal societies, though initially they were prohibited and functioned underground. The most consistent proponents were the Ilia Chavchavdze Society, which was established in 1987 and concentrated its efforts on preservation of Georgian culture; the All-Georgian Shota Rustaveli Society, formed in 1988 and several radical groups, such as Society of St. Ilia the Righteous, constituted by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the National Democratic Party led by Giorgi Chanturia. Both societies appealed for the national independence of Georgia. formed by Giorgi Chanturia In 1988-1989 public demonstrations were held in Tbilisi by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Merab Kostava and Giorgi Chanturia.

In November 1988 a huge demonstration gathered in front of the Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi against proposed amendments to the USSR constitution changing status of the Georgian language and elevating Russian to the only state language of the republic. This changes were supported by separatists in Abkhazia, bacvked by the Kremlin, who claimed for their independence from Georgia. These developments would have been detrimental to the Georgian appeals for independence.

A series of rallies began on 25 March 1989 in Tbilisi, in response to Abkhazian appeals for the secession from Georgia. Strict demands for the suppression of the Abkhazian separatists and for the national independence of Georgia were announced at the demonstrations. On April 4, some 150 Georgian nationalist activists began a hunger strike in front of the Supreme Soviet at the Rustaveli Avenue. They demanded a full independence for Georgia and complete integration of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia. Two days later, over 150,000 people went to the streets of the capital and demonstrated their solidarity with the hunger strikers. By then the idea of nonviolent protest was predominant. Several hundred thousand citizens came not only from the city of Tbilisi but also from the countryside to express their wish to be rid of the Communist government at the peaceful demonstration. In respond, the government called for reinforcements and the special task forces were deployed in the streets of Tbilisi. The crowd sang Georgian national songs and ancient religious hymns. Many danced to show that they intended no violence against the government. Late in the evening of 8th, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II came to join the people. He addressed the demonstrators and warned them about the danger of the violence by the Soviet troops. He proposed the crowd to move to the churches for sanctuary. The national leaders reverently declined this request and the people supported them as well. After this, the whole crowd as one joined the patriarch in the prayer to the Lord. There was a deep silence as holding the candles, hundreds of thousands waited for the attack by Soviet soldiers and tanks. As the troops came close, the demonstrators kept singing and dancing to show the nonviolent nature of the gathering. At the dawn, the Soviet special task forces attacked the demonstration with sharpened spades and poisonous gases, killing twenty-two demonstrators, mostly women and teens. Some two thousands were left sick for weeks and months, in hospitals and at home, from the toxic gases. The brutality of the Soviet forces against the peaceful demonstrators was recorded on the tape and shocked entire Soviet Union. A number of cases of ethnic hatred by the Soviet soldiers was attested. As witnesses recalled, some soldiers, while battering victims with trenching spades, were yelling "This is what you get for Stalin."

The role of Politburo in making decision to use troops against the demonstration is still matter of debate. Eduard Shevardnadze, then the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, as well as other Politburo members maintained that there was no Kremlin meeting of the Politburo to discuss situation in Georgia and that they had no knowledge of the decision to use troops. Regarding Shevardnadze, one must remember that he returned to Georgia in 1992 and any assumption of his role in this bloody affair would have been crucial for his political career in Georgia. Though according to the witnesses, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was at that moment abroad, and he learned about the tragedy only at the Vnukovo Airport upon his return from London. Shevardnadze canceled his visit to Germany and immediately flew to Tbilisi to investigate the incident. A special Politburo meeting was convened to discuss Shevardnadze’s report on the events in Georgia. Gorbachev was infuriated with Jumber Patiashvili’s (the first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party) inability to reach an understanding with the demonstrators. He justly observed that,

"Our misguided tendencies were seen in the reactions of Jumber Patiashvili, that is, his resort to force instead of political methods. In this case it was particularly important that Patiashvili failed to reach an understanding with the Georgian intelligentsia. But this is the Georgian intelligentsia !! A special group, closely tied to their people throughout history, more there than anywhere else…But Patiashvili and his people… they have a taste for "decisive action"…. The curfew was unnecessary. A stupid move. The Central Committee members should have come out to people… But instead they were sitting in their bunkers relying on force and crying out for troops from Moscow." (Chernyaev, 1997, 218-19) 

Some of the Politburo members were particularly enraged. Nikolai Ryzhkov criticized Patiashvili’s handling of the incident, especially failure to provide the Politburo members with adequate information of the current events. He observed, that "we, Politburo members, head of the government, learn about events from the newspaper Pravda ! What is going on ? What decisions can the Politburo make if most of its members do not even have the facts?" Several days after the incident, Gorbachev said in frustration, "The Georgian leadership crap in their pants and turn the army, Russian boys, against the people. Women died, and that is in Georgia ! And now we have got ourselves out of this mess". His international adviser, Anatoly Chernyav wrote in the diary that "Georgia is a fateful sign…. If they [Georgians] wanted to leave the USSR, then this is something ominous."

However, Yegor Ligachov, then the second man in the party, stated in his recollections that Shevardnadze knew about the decision to send troops to Tbilisi, because the Politburo met informally at the airport on 7 April. Ligachev stressed that the leadership of the party did not always meet in the Kremlin, and brief meetings at airport were unusual but not unprecedented. He explained that the decision on the troops was approved by Georgian party on April 7 and reviewed at a session of the Politburo in Moscow. Ligachev also observed that Shevardnadze had disobeyed a direct order from Gorbachev to travel to Tbilisi and monitor the situation (my emphasis). Thus, if the Politburo discussed this decision on 7 April, then Shevardnadze had attended the meeting and took his part in shedding the blood in Tbilisi. The Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak, who chaired the commission to investigate the incident, agreed with Ligachev that Shevardnadze should have followed Gorbachev’s order to proceed to Tbilisi following his return from London. Though, Sobchak also points that Shevardnadze was informed by the Georgian First Secretary Jumber Patiashvili that "the tensions [in Tbilisi] were subsiding, and there was no need for such haste." Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Tbilisi on 9 April, twelve hours after the massacre. Considering his personality, ability to act decisively in tense situations and popularity with masses, he might have prevented the attack. It remains secret why he decided to accept Patiashvili’s note on situation in Tbilisi and ignore Gorbachev’s order to travel to Tbilisi. Later, he expressed regret over this decision. With some members of the politburo denying any knowledge on the situation in Tbilisi, and the rest opposing them, perhaps the truth of what happened prior and after 9 April, would never be found. But this does not belittle the responsibility of the local Georgian party leaders and Russian military commanders for the failure to use alternative methods rather than special task forces. The Georgian leaders should have negotiated with their own people and reached some kind of agreement to prevent the bloodshed.

With the news of the Tbilisi massacre, a special investigation commission was set up by the Congress of People’s Deputies. Initially, The commander of the Soviet troops in Transcaucasia General Igor Rodionov, nicknamed "the butcher of Tbilisi", categorically denied that the poisonous gases had been used against the demonstrators. But the commission confirmed their use. On the basis of clinical and toxicologic evidence available, it was concluded that in addition to the use of one or two lacrimator (tearing) agents (CN and CS gases), the Soviet troops most used a third toxic agent, called chloropicrin. This gas was identified on the basis of mass spectroscopy in a canister allegedly recovered on the scene. Chloropicrin, known for its unpredictable toxicities in crowd use, can cause skin and mucosal blisters, bronchoconstriction, and pulmonary edema, all of which were reported among the casualties of the April 9 demonstration. The refusal of the Soviet military authorities to release to the Georgian medical community any information about the use of toxic agents against the demonstrators hindered the physicians who were attempting to treat the thousands of people complaining of a confusing array of symptoms. Nobel Prize winner Academician Andrey Sakharov, who had flown to Tbilisi on 9 April, played a significant role in obtaining information to cure the victims. Being unable to get information from the Russian military, Sakharov contacted the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow to inquire about the antidote for the CS gases that had been used by police in the United States in the 1950s.

Eduard Shevardnadze succeeded in quieting the situation in Georgia by making changes in the Georgian party and government. The First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party Jumber Patiashvili was removed from his post. The parliamentary commission found General Rodionov guilty of the civilian deaths, and the Congress of People’s Deputies discharge him from the position, appointing the Commandant of the General Staff Academy in Moscow. Commission presented its report to the Congress of People’s Deputies in December 1989, blaming the military for the civilian deaths. The Ministry of Defense responded in its own defense and conducted another investigation showing alleged threats to the government and accusing the demonstrators in provoking the clashes. Shevardnadze intended to reply to these allegations, but after receiving Gorbachev’s deny, threatened to resign.

The massacre of 9 April 1989 in Tbilisi had a profound influence on the future of the Soviet Union. Though there were several protests prior to 1989 , most of them were suppressed by the local authorities without civilian deaths and publicity. It was the April demonstration in Tbilisi with its bloodshed that sparked renewed nationalism throughout the Soviet Union. The national-liberation movements in the Baltic states was already formed, and the tragic events in Tbilisi gave them greater credibility and their demands for the sovereignty. In the beginning of May, demonstrations were held in Moscow to honor the victims of 9 April.

The Tbilisi tragedy had also important effect on the leaders of the country. Shevardnadze knew that he had been hurt personally and politically by this incident. By blaming General Rodionov, a popular military figure, Shevadnadze had deepened the confrontation with military, that were enraged by Shevardnadze’s designs for unified Germany. The April events revealed Gorbachev’s lack of understanding of the country’s nationality problems, in particular the political and social dilemma in the Transcaucasia. His early reforms ignored ethnic complications and his notorious anti-alcohol campaign in 1986 devastated Georgian economy far more than other Soviet regions. Finally, Gorbachev’s approval of the report of the Ministry of defense and his rejection of Shevardnadze’s request to speak to the Congress were the first signs in the disintegration of relations between the two men. It was obvious that Gorbachev preferred to side with the military and sacrifice Shevardnadze. With the resignation of the foreign minister, Gorbachev had become totally dependent on conservatives in his government, particularly the Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, Chief of KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov and Minister of Interior Affairs Boris Pugo. Within two years these men would plot against Gorbachev and attempt a coup d’etat in August 1991.

The massacre of the 9 April had a profound effect on the people of Georgia. Despite its tragic nature, the whole event played a crucial role in the uniting nation as one. This day had a big impact especially on the youth aspiring them to join the national liberation movement and contribute to the independence of Georgia. In the following days after the tragedy hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Tbilisi, wearing black as a sign of grief and carrying the national banners. A huge crowd of about 300,000 Georgians marched through the center of Tbilisi on 26 April to celebrate the anniversary of the declaration of the independent Georgian Democratic Republic in 1918. This memorial day immediately became the symbol of two issues: mourning of loss of innocent countrymen and symbol of heroes sacrificed for independence. A year later, on 9 April 1990 Georgia under the President Gamsakhurdia adopted Declaration of Independence and, thus, the mourning situation underwent metamorphosis and it was transformed into such a symbol of victory which substituted the mourning by celebration of National Independence. This event became a great moral victory for the nationalist activists and a turning point in Georgia’s fight for independence. It was here that the communist regime in Georgia lost its nerve and all the residues of its legitimacy, handing over power to the liberation movement. In this fight a number of national leaders distinguished themselves, with Zviad Gamsakhurdia being the most predominant figure in Georgian politics.

In 1989-1990 new communist authorities sought to divide the nationalist movements and provide themselves with a popular base by playing on the ethnic divisions within Georgia and the Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities in particular. Inter-ethnic conflicts have continued to be a worsening feature of the political and human rights situation in Georgia ever since. The conflict in South Ossetia did split the opposition, but only to a small degree. Although Gamsakhurdia and Chanturia did not agree on how to deal with the secessionist demands of the Ossetes, they were both ardent opponents of the Communist regime and continuing membership of Georgia in the USSR. The First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia Givi Gumbaridze, who replaced Jumber Patiashvili, initially endeavored to suppress the opposition, though his attempts to delay the first free elections for the Georgian Supreme Soviet scheduled for October 1990 actually played into their hands. Since the Kremlin had seen the disastrous consequences of half-hearted if brutal repression in April 1989 and preferred to prevent a clash with the increasingly well-organized opposition in Georgia, it refused to back Gumbaridze. In the 1990 elections the Communist Party was still effectively organized enough to win 29% of the vote, but the Round Table-Free Georgia bloc led by Gamsakhurdia and Chanturia won 54% of the vote. After the second round, The Round Table held 155 seats to the Communist Party's 64, with a handful of other candidates winning seats. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's supporters held a majority and in practice the Communist and other deputies deferred to their proposals for constitutional change giving his proposals a two-thirds majority in the Georgian Supreme Soviet.

On 14 November, 1990 Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president of the new Georgian Supreme Soviet by 232 votes to five. Gamsakhurdia’s election as head of state and his determination to introduce a directly-elected executive presidency irritated some of his former allies, but were carried by the necessary constitutional majorities. In March 1991 Georgia boycotted All-Soviet Union referendum on preservation of the USSR as this would tend to legitimate Soviet constitutional authority over it and negate its argument for independence. On 31 March, 1991 Georgia held its own referendum on the issue of secession from the Soviet Union, resulting in 98% in favor of independence. On 26 May 1991 Zviad Gamsakhurdia won the first contested direct elections for the presidency of Georgia, obtaining 87% of the votes cast.

After the 200 years, Georgia finally succeeded in becoming an independent republic. Yet, the torments of the civil wars and the confrontation with Kremlin were still to come.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources
1. Interview with Akaki Bakradze, Molodyozh Gruzii, November 22, 1988.
2. Chernyaev, Anatoly, My six Years with Gorbachev, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
3. Ligachev, Yegor, Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs of Yegor Ligachev, New York, 1993.
4. Palaschenko, Pavel, My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoirs of a Soviet Interpreter, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
5. Sobchak, Anatoly, For a New Russia, New York, 1992.
6. Bloody Sunday: Trauma in Tbilisi. The Events of April 9, 1989 and Their Aftermath, Physicians for Human Rights, February 1990.

Secondary Sources
1. Allen, David, A History of the Georgian People from the Beginning Down to the Russian conquest in the 19th century, London, 1932.
2. Aves, Jonathan "The Rise and Fall of the Georgian Nationalist Movement, 1987-1991", The Road to Post-Communism: Independent Political Movements in the Soviet Union, 1985-1991, London, 1992.
3. Badeley, J.F. The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, London, 1998.
4. Barnet, Rubin, Post-Soviet Political Order: Conflict and State Building, London, 1998.
6. Coppieters, Bruno, Commonwealth and Independence in Post-Soviet Eurasia, London, 1998.
8. McGiffert Ekedahl, Carolyn, The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
9. O’Ballance, Edgar, Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995, New York, 1997.
10. Sakwa, Richard. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, New York, 1999.
11. --------------------. Soviet Politics: An Introduction, New York, 1989.
12. Suny, Ronald, The Making of the Georgian Nation, Bloomington, 1994. 

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