Exactly 32 years ago, on April 9, 1989 the Soviet army brutally dispersed a large pro-independence rally on Rustaveli Avenue, in the heart of Georgian capital. Twenty-one people were killed, including women and youth. Hundreds of citizens were poisoned by unknown substances. The tragedy is referred to as the Tbilisi Massacre.
Georgia’s independence movement became active in 1988. Demonstrations and hunger strikes started after thousands of Abkhazians were gathered in Lykhny, Gudauta district (Abkhazia) on March 18th 1989, demanding Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia. (Abkhazia is located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, a favorite destination spot for Soviet elite). This process unleashed a wave of counter protests by Georgians led by two former dissidents, Merab Kostava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia. They denounced not only the Abkhaz for wanting to break up Georgia, but also imperial Moscow for being behind the Abkhazs’ initiative. Anti-Georgia demonstrations in Abkhazia and in Tskhinvali/ South Ossetia were financed and military assistance was provided by the Soviet regime.
On April 4, students of Tbilisi State University declared a hunger strike, calling for national disobedience, secession of Georgia from the USSR, full sovereignty, and the abolition of autonomous formations within Georgia. The movement for independence and democracy, powered by the aspiration to return to Western civilization, brought together thousands of protesters.
Protesters eventually gathered in front of the government building on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. They organized a peaceful demonstration and hunger strikes. Thousands of citizens came from the capital Tbilisi and from the rest of Georgia, including from the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia regions.
In the evening of April 8, a Soviet general ordered mobilization of USSR forces within the territory of Georgia and beyond its borders. The events of April 9 were the culmination of weeks of demonstrations for Georgia’s independence.
Within minutes before the tragedy on April 9, the leaders of the Georgian Orthodox Church passionately addressed the crowd holding candles and flags in front of the government building. They warned of possible violence and asked those gathered to leave peacefully. But the demonstrators remained in place.
When local Soviet authorities lost control over the situation and were unable to contain the protests, their leadership mobilized troops to restore the “order.”
At 4AM on April 9, history changed abruptly for Soviet and Georgian politics. Georgian soldiers and military personnel refused to intervene and supported the protesters. Soviet tanks then appeared on the streets of Tbilisi, where special task units of the Soviet Army proceeded to massacre protestors who were rallying to demand the territorial integrity and independence of Georgia.
Armed with entrenchment shovels and blunt weapons, Soviet soldiers brutally began routing the protestors. Soviet soldiers attempted to isolate the entire space, making it impossible for citizens to escape. The clergy lent a hand to the protesters. One of the main churches located in front of the government building opened its gates to give people refuge.
Soviet troops brutally dispersed the pro-independence rally, killing twenty-one people, mostly women and youth, in a wild frenzy. The youngest victims of the tragedy were 16 years old. Hundreds of citizens were poisoned by the toxic agents Soviet troops employed against the demonstrators. From clinical and toxicological evidence, experts later concluded that the tearing agents (CN and CS) and a third prohibited toxic agent, chloropicrin, were used.
In the chaos and panic of the stampede that followed, many civilians were crushed or asphyxiated. A teenage girl, was beaten to death by soldiers. Video footage showed Soviet soldiers attacking ambulances attempting to assist the injured. Local police officers were also assaulted by the troops. Hundreds of activists were injured. The Georgian authorities documented that more than 4,000 people eventually required medical help. Within hours, Rustaveli Avenue was cleared of demonstrators.
This tragic event marked the beginning of Georgia’s difficult journey to independence. April 9 inspired many young people to join the national liberation movements and contribute to the independence of Georgia.
The next day Soviet central television blamed the previous night's events on the demonstrators. But the violence had been captured on camera, and it told an entirely different story. The next day, Georgian television showed the bodies of those who had been killed violently. The images of corpses made difficult to identify due to injuries to faces and heads underlined the inexpressible brutality of the Soviet soldiers.
The Soviet regime never owned up to the Tbilisi Massacre. To the contrary, on April 10 the Soviet government issued a statement blaming the demonstrators for causing unrest and danger to the safety of the general public.
The massacre was followed subsequently by a curfew imposed on Tbilisi. The streets were reportedly quiet throughout the day, as tanks remained stationed in the city center and troops in riot gear patrolled the streets. Young people carried black flags of mourning throughout the city.
On April 10, a 40-day period of national mourning was declared. People brought flowers to mark the places of the killings and to pay respect to the deceased.
On April 15, a mass funeral for the victims was broadcasted by the Georgian national TV and radio Stations. Mourning women in black carrying the photos of the victims and tulips became the symbol of April 9.
The April 9 killings greatly accelerated Georgia's quest for independence; it also ended Soviet domination. Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in the streets after the massacre.
On March 31, 1991, Georgians motivated by the April 9 events voted in a referendum for independence from the Soviet Union. With a 90.5 percent turnout, 99 percent voted in favor of Georgia’s independence.
The referendum posed a single question: "Do you support the restoration of the independence of Georgia in accordance with the Act of Declaration of Independence of Georgia of May 26, 1918?" (Georgia declared the first democratic republic by adopting the act of independence in 1918, however, this was short-lived independence as the country was re-invaded by Russia’s Bolshevik Army in 1921).
On April 9, 1991 on the second anniversary of the tragedy, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Georgia proclaimed Georgian sovereignty and independence from the Soviet Union based on the results of a nationwide referendum. In the same year one of the leaders of the national protest movement, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, became the first democratically elected president of Georgia.
The Act of Restoration of State Independence of Georgia states: “The Republic of Georgia, striving for a dignified position in the world community of nations, recognizes and ensures equally all the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals, including national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, envisaged by international law, as required by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international pacts and conventions.” The country declared itself a legal successor of the earlier Democratic Republic of Georgia.
Restoring independence to Georgia created a new context for the Russia’s imperial politics to emerge. The events of April 9 triggered further aggression, and they were soon followed by civil war that caused thousands of Georgian citizens to leave their households for good. These events subsequently became the precondition for the new wave of hybrid treats emanating from Russia seeking to impede Georgia’s military, economic, and social stability.
After 1991, the Russian Federation ignited and participated directly in two conflicts on the Georgian territory—in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia. Russia not only supported separatist movements in these regions, but contributed to brutal killings and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population through direct involvement of its army. As a result, up to 50,000 people died in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region in the beginning of the 1990s and up to 300,000 Georgians and other ethnic groups were forcefully displaced from their homes. Conditions in both regions escalated to armed hostilities, where Russian-backed separatist forces defeated the newly-formed, weak, and fragmented Georgian military forces. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were expelled from those regions.
April 9 had a significant impact not only on Georgia, but on the whole Soviet Union. People living under communist governments began to question the regime and its values. Many were inspired by the Georgian example to fight for their own independence.
The night of April 9 remains in the history of Georgia as both one of the most tragic and heroic dates, a moment when the whole country united to fight for Georgia’s independence. Georgia will always remember the young people and others who tried to stop Russian tanks with their bare hands, only to be killed by Soviet troops. The date is indelibly etched into the minds of Georgians as the day of National Unity.
As soon as Georgia’s aspirations towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration became clear, Russia strengthened its efforts to maintain Georgia under its direct political influence and control using old and new tactics.
Russia today is actively engaged in escalating separatism in conflict areas. Starting from 2008, Russia undertook steps to prepare another large-scale military action against sovereign Georgia. Russia’s open provocations throughout this period—the deployment of heavy armament in the conflict zones, illegal introduction of airborne troops and railroad forces to Georgia’s sovereign territories, constant violations of Georgian airspace, shooting down of Georgian UAVs, and dropping bombs on Georgian village - have further escalated the situation. At the beginning of 2008, Russia also intensified military rhetoric, while it withdrew from the CIS sanctions regime that had imposed a ban on military cooperation with separatist regimes.
In August 2008, Georgia once again became a victim to Russian aggression. The Russian Federation once again ignored the fundamental principles of the international law and blatantly violated the principles of territorial integrity of a sovereign country by launching a full-fledged military campaign on Georgia on land, at sea, by air, and in cyberspace that wrought tremendous devastation.
Russian planes bombed several cities and villages in both the conflict zone and elsewhere in eastern and western Georgia, including cities near Tbilisi, where they demolished civilian and strategic targets and caused numerous casualties. The Russian military dropped at least 165 bombs and missiles during the military campaign, including weapons banned by the international agreements. As a consequence of this aggression 412 were killed, including 170 military servicemen, 14 policemen and 228 civilians, with 1747 wounded.
The armed conflict escalated the ongoing ethnic discrimination against Georgians in the occupied territories and created the context for another wave of ethnic cleansing. 130,000 IDPs have fled the villages, 53 Georgian villages and 35,000 houses were burnt and destroyed, and over 125 villages were cleansed and occupied.
Despite the 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and continuous appeals by the international community, Russia continues to violate the terms of the agreement by stimulating the aggressive separatism in the regions. It also has fortified the occupation line by installing barbed wire fences and other artificial barriers, dividing families, and depriving the residents of the region their right of freedom of movement. And they murdered Georgian IDPs Archil Tatunashvili, Giga Otkhozoria, Davit Basharauli, Irakli Kvaratskhelia.
The Government of Georgia remains committed to peaceful conflict resolution, for example via the Geneva International Discussions and the Incident Prevention and Prevention Mechanism (IPRM) to voice its concerns and keep international society informed. Sharing progress that has been achieved so far with the people living in the occupied regions remains one of the major priorities of Georgia’s engagement and reconciliation policy. For this purpose, the Government of Georgia has launched a specially designed initiative “A Step to the Better Future.”
Georgia is located in a very complicated region where most of the threats of the 21st century are in some form represented. The forcible violation of one country’s sovereignty by another is chief among them.
Georgia’s integration in European and Euro-Atlantic communities and structures, together with protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, remain top priorities for Georgian foreign policy.
Georgia is a remarkable example of democratic and economic transformation. Georgia has passed all Western tests for maturity. Georgian society is open, free, and inclusive. Its economy is competitive and vibrant, showing substantial growth despite Georgia not possessing rich natural resources. Georgian cities and villages are safe and full of Western tourists. Georgia’s political, military, and economic elites are Western-educated and Western-minded.
Georgia is a leader in the region in terms of democratization and sustainable development. Georgia has created one of the best investment climates - effective public services, corruption free government and free, fair and transparent business environment, which was reflected in international institutions ratings and continues to improve.
Georgia has restored its independence, and it continues to battle to restore its full territorial integrity. The people of Georgia are optimistic that this fight will end only victory.
Georgia’s culture and past, its freedom, its unity, and its democratic state founded on European values are the key elements strengthening the political processes that will drive Georgia forward to become and even more united, inclusive, homogeneous, and future-oriented member of European Family.