History of Georgia
Georgia became a kingdom in about 4 B.C. Two Georgian Kingdoms of late antiquity, known to Greece and Rome as Iberia (in the east of the country) and Colchis (in the west), were among the first nations in the region to adopt Christianity (in 337 AD, or in 319 AD as recent research suggests). Colchis is the location of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts in the Greek myth, which may have derived from the local practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from rivers. Known to its natives as Egrisi or Lazica, Colchis often saw battles between the rival powers of Persia and the Byzantine Empire, both of which managed to conquer Western Georgia from time to time. As a result, those Kingdoms disintegrated into various feudal regions in the early Middle Ages. This made it easy for Arabs to conquer Georgia in the 7th century. During the reign of Queen Tamara (1184–1213), Georgia’s territories included the whole of Transcaucasia. During the 13th century, Tamerlane and the Mongols decimated its population. From the 16th century on, the country was the scene of a struggle between Persia and Turkey. In the 18th century, it became a vassal to Russia in exchange for protection from the Turks and Persians.
In 1936, Georgia became a separate Soviet republic. Under Soviet rule it was transformed from an agrarian country to a largely industrial urban society.
Georgia proclaimed its independence from the USSR on April 9, 1991. In January 1992, the first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was sacked and later accused of dictatorial policies, the jailing of opposition leaders, human rights abuses, and clamping down on the media. A ruling military council was established by the opposition until a civilian authority could be restored. In 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Union’s foreign minister under Gorbachev, became a president.
In 1992–1993, the government engaged in armed conflict with separatists in the breakaway province of Abkhazia. In 1994, Russia and Georgia signed a cooperation treaty that authorized Russia to keep three military bases in Georgia and allowed Russians to train and equip the Georgian army. In 1996, Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia agreed to cease the hostilities in their six-year conflict. With little progress in resolving the Abkhazia situation, however, parliament in April 1997 voted overwhelmingly to threaten Russia with loss of its military bases, should it fail to extend Russian military control over the separatist region. In 1998, the U.S. and Britain began an operation to remove nuclear material from Georgia, dangerous remains from its Soviet years. A darling of the West since his days as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Shevardnadze was viewed far less favorably by his own people, who were frustrated by unemployment, poverty, cronyism, and rampant corruption. In the 2000 presidential elections, Shevardnadze was reelected with 80% of the vote, though international observers determined that the election was marred by irregularities.
In May 2003, the constructions began on the Georgian section of the enormously ambitious Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. The pipeline opened in July 2006.
Massive demonstrations began after the preliminary results of the November 2003 Shevardnadze resigned on November 30. Georgians compared the turn of events to Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution.” In January 2004 presidential elections, Mikhail Saakashvili, the key opposition leader, won in a landslide. The 36-year-old lawyer built his reputation as a reformer committed to end the corruption.