Georgia marks Independence Referendum Day – 27 years ago country gained back its sovereignty
31 March, 2018
Georgia marks Independence Referendum Day – 27 years ago country gained back its sovereignty
March 31 marks the historic date in Georgian history – 27 years ago, in 1991, an independence referendum was held in Georgia. It was approved by 99.5% of voters.

Georgia became the part of Soviet Union by force, when in 1921 Soviet Red Army invaded the capital Tbilisi. Soviet forces took the Georgian capital Tbilisi after heavy fighting and declared the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic on 25 February 1921.

The Red Army invasion of Georgia (15 February – 17 March 1921),
also known as the Soviet–Georgian War or the Soviet invasion of Georgia, was a military campaign by the Soviet Russian (RSFSR) Red Army aimed at overthrowing the Social-Democratic (Menshevik) government of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (DRG) and installing a Bolshevik regime in the country.

The conflict was a result of expansionist policy by the Soviets, who aimed to control as much as possible of the lands which had been part of the former Russian Empire until the turbulent events of the First World War, as well as the revolutionary efforts of mostly Russian-based Georgian Bolsheviks, who did not have sufficient support in their native country to seize power without external intervention.
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The Red Army holds military parade in Tbilisi, February 25 1921

The referendum was sanctioned by the Georgian Supreme Council which was elected in the first multi-party elections held in Soviet Georgia in October 1990, and was dominated by a pro-independence bloc Round Table-Free Georgia led by the first president of independent Georgia - Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
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The first president of independent Georgia - Zviad Gamsakhurdia

Georgia became the fourth Soviet republic, after the three Baltic states (Lithuania on 9 February 1991 and Latvia and Estonia on 3 March), to carry out referendum on the issue of independence.

The only question of the referendum asked: "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?"
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The referendum was held on March 31, 1991

The official results showed over 99% in favor with a 90.6% voter turnout. Due to the ongoing ethnic discord, the polls were largely boycotted by the non-Georgian population of Abkhazia,Georgia’s north-western seaside region, and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) Georgia’s northern region.

Four days after the final results were announced; the Georgian Supreme Council unanimously passed the declaration of independence on the second anniversary of the Soviet army crackdown on peaceful protests in Tbilisi on 9 April 1989, that was followed by deadly raid by Russian troops and tanks.

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Photos of the April 9, 1989 Massacre victims (mostly young women) on a billboard in Tbilisi

The referendum coincided with a private visit of the former U.S. President Richard Nixon who visited a few polling stations in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi before his departure to Moscow later that day.
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The Act of Independence

Today, Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili congratulated the whole population of the country on this historic day.

I congratulate all Georgia on the Referendum Day, I wish each our citizen to live in the united and powerful state, - Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in a written statement released on March 31 regarding the Referendum Day.

"March 31 of 1991 represents a turning point in Georgian history. It completely altered Georgian future.

The Georgian people have never betrayed the idea of freedom - 100 years ago, on May 26, 1918, the idea was realized and Georgia declared the first democratic republic by adopting the act of independence.

Our people on the entire territory of Georgia, including Abkhazia and Samachablo (territory is referred to as Tskhinvali ) voted for independence of Georgia.
The main character of the historic day was first president of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who would turn 79 years old today.

I congratulate all Georgia on the Referendum Day, I wish each our citizen to live in the united and powerful state," - Giorgi Kvirikashvili said in the statement.
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Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the main character behind holding the referendum of a historic importance in 1991

It is noteworthy that March 31 also marks the birthday of the first president of the independent Georgia – Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was the main character behind holding the referendum of a historic importance in 1991.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a Georgian politician, scholar, and writer who became the first democratically elected President of Georgia in the post-Soviet era.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia was born in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1939, in a distinguished Georgian family; his father, Academician Konstantine Gamsakhurdia (1893–1975), was one of the most famous Georgian writers of the 20th century. Perhaps influenced by his father, Zviad received training in philology and began a professional career as a translator and literary critic.
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Zviad Gamsakhurdia was one of the main characters in April 9 tragedy

Despite (or perhaps because of) the country's association with Joseph Stalin, Soviet rule in Georgia was particularly harsh during the 1950s and sought to restrict Georgian cultural expression.

In 1955, Zviad Gamsakhurdia established a youth underground group which he called the Gorgasliani (a reference to the ancient line of Georgian kings) which sought to circulate reports of human rights abuses.
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Zviad Gamsakhurdia with Merab Kostava, one of the leaders of the National-Liberation movement in Georgia

In 1956, he was arrested during demonstrations in Tbilisi against the Soviet policy of de-stalinization and was arrested again in 1958 for distributing anti-communist literature and proclamations.

After becoming the president of Georgia, Gamsakhurdia had to deal with economic and political problems, particularly regarding the country’s relations with the Soviet Union. A key problem was the position of Georgia's many ethnic minorities (making up 30% of the population).

Although minority groups had participated actively in Georgia's return to democracy, they were underrepresented in the results of the October 1990 elections with only nine of 245 deputies being non-Georgians. Even before Georgia's independence, the position of national minorities was contentious and led to outbreaks of serious inter-ethnic violence in Abkhazia during 1989.
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Zviad Gamsakhurdia with the participants of the demonstration in 1989

Before the referendum, on April 9, 1898, citizens of Georgia took to the street to demand succession from the Soviet Union. Zviad Gamsakhurdia was one of the main characters of the peaceful rally on April 9, that resulted into a tragedy.

The April 9 tragedy (also known as Tbilisi massacre or Tbilisi tragedy) refers to the events in Tbilisi, on April 9, 1989, when an anti-Soviet demonstration was dispersed by the Soviet Army, resulting in 21 deaths and hundreds of injuries. April 9 is now remembered as the Day of National Unity, an annual public holiday.
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Soviet tanks against the participants of the peaceful demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi. April 9, 1989

The anti-Soviet movement became more active in the Georgian SSR in 1988. Several strikes and meetings were organized by anti-Soviet political organizations in Tbilisi. The conflict between the Soviet government and Georgian nationalists deepened after the so-called Lykhny Assembly on March 18, 1989, when several thousand Abkhaz people demanded secession from Georgia and restoration of the Union republic status of 1921–1931. In response, the anti-Soviet groups organized a series of unsanctioned meetings across the republic, claiming that the Soviet government was using Abkhaz separatism in order to oppose the pro-independence movement.
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The protests reached their peak on April 4, 1989

The protests reached their peak on April 4, 1989, when Georgian citizens gathered in front of the House of Government on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. The protesters, led by the Independence Committee (Merab Kostava, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Giorgi Chanturia, Irakli Bathiashvili, Irakli Tsereteli and others) organized a peaceful demonstration and hunger strikes, demanding the punishment of Abkhaz secessionists and restoration of Georgian independence.

Local Soviet authorities lost control over the situation in the capital and were unable to contain the protests. First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party Jumber Patiashvili asked USSR leadership to send troops to “restore order”.
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Soviet troops on Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi. April 9, 1989

In the evening of April 8, 1989, Colonel General Igor Rodionov, Commander of the Transcaucasus Military District, ordered his troops to mobilize. Moments before the attack by the Soviet forces, the Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II addressed the demonstrators asking them to leave Rustaveli Avenue and the vicinity of the government building due to the danger which accumulated during the day after appearance of Soviet tanks near the avenue.
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Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II asks the demonstrators to leave Rustaveli Avenue

The demonstrators refused to disband even after the Patriarch's plea. The local Georgian police units were disarmed just before the operation.
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Soviet forces arrest the participants of the demonstration

On April 9, at 3:45 a.m., Soviet APCs and troops under General Igor Rodionov surrounded the demonstration area. Later, Rodionov claimed in his interview that groups of Georgian militants attacked unarmed soldiers with stones, metal chains and rods. The Soviet troops received an order from General Rodionov to disband and clear the avenue of demonstrators by any means necessary.
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The participants of the peaceful demonstration light candles. April 9, 1989

The Soviet detachment, armed with military batons and spades, advanced on demonstrators moving along the Rustaveli Avenue. During the advance, the soldiers started to attack demonstrators with spades, inflicting injuries both minor and serious to anyone who was struck. This particularly violent attack was recorded on video from the balcony of a building located on the other side of the avenue.

The stampede following the attack resulted in the death of 19 people, among them 17 women.
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The citizens bring tulips on Rustaveli Avenue in the memory of the victims of April 9 Tragedy

Official Soviet reports blamed the demonstrators for causing the clash, saying that the troops were attacked with sticks and knives. According to them, the soldiers followed orders not to use their weapons, but that extremists attacked them with pieces of metal, bricks and sticks.

CN and CS gas were used against the demonstrators; vomiting, respiratory problems and sudden paralyses of the nervous system were reported.

In 1989, violent unrest broke out in South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast between the Georgian independence-minded population of the region and Ossetians loyal to the Soviet Union. South Ossetia's regional soviet announced that the region would secede from Georgia to form a "Soviet Democratic Republic". In response, the Georgian Supreme Soviet annulled the autonomy of South Ossetia in March 1990.
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A three-way power struggle between Georgian, Ossetian and Soviet military forces broke out in the region

A three-way power struggle between Georgian, Ossetian and Soviet military forces broke out in the region, which resulted (by March 1991) in the deaths of 51 people and the eviction from their homes of 25,000 more. After his election as Chairman of the newly renamed Supreme Council, Gamsakhurdia denounced the Ossetian move as being part of a Russian ploy to undermine Georgia, declaring the Ossetian separatists to be "direct agents of the Kremlin, its tools and terrorists."

In February 1991, he sent a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev demanding the withdrawal of Soviet army units and an additional contingent of interior troops of the USSR from the territory of former Authonomous District of South Ossetia.
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Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in circumstances that are still unclear

On December 31, 1993, Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in circumstances that are still unclear. It is known that he died in the village of Khibula in the Samegrelo region of western Georgia and later was re-buried in the village of Jikhashkari (also in the Samegrelo region). According to British press reports, the body was found with a single bullet wound to the head. A variety of reasons have been given for his death, which is still controversial and remains unresolved.
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He remains in Georgian history as the hero fighting for freedom and independence of the country

Leading Georgian politician and public figure who remains in Georgian history as the hero fighting for freedom and independence of the country, Zviad Gamsakhurdia would turn 79 years old today.

Related stories:

Independence Day – The birth of Democratic Republic of Georgia

Georgia marks 97th anniversary of the adoption of its first constitution

April 9 tragedy – 27 years after the fight for Georgia’s independence

‘Give Tulips to One Another’ – a song that became an anthem of freedom

How Footage of the April 9 Tragedy Ended Up in Margaret Thatcher’s Hands
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