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Chapter 5 of "The Georgian - South Ossetian Conflict"



5 The Soviet Setting

In this chapter I will describe some of the distinctive characteristics of the Soviet state construction and of the Soviet nationality policy. This in order to obtain a better understanding of the present dilemmas and problems, administratively and perception vice, which the region faces due to these policies and their de facto implementation. As mentioned in section 1.1 I will try to show that the policies of the Soviet Union played an active part in the developing of national and ethnic identities and furthermore elaborated a system, which was inherently conflictual in respect to these identities. That in fact one even might say that the Soviet political system nursed and cultivated ethnic/national differences and inherent conflictual structures and identities rather than putting a lid on them or freezing them down.

Well aware of the differences between each republic and other sub-units (socio-economic development, historical experience etc.) I am focusing on the overall trends of the Soviet nationality policy and the specificities of the Georgian Union Republic and its sub-units. Thus the focus will be put upon the federal structure of the Soviet Union with its hierarchical ordered units and the policy of korenizatsiia - what can be called Soviet affirmative action towards the so-called titular nationalities. These fundamental principles have despite changed practices remained largely the same (Zaslavsky 1993, p.30 and Lieven 1990, p.64).  

But lets start with the basis of the Soviet nationality policy.

5.1 Marxist-Leninist Theory on the Nationalities Question

The founders of Marxism viewed the nation as a social unit, which arose as a result of specific economic conditions during the transition from feudalism to early capitalism. The nation was viewed as a structural phenomenon and nationalism as a bourgeois device used to hinder the working class in realising and achieving its objective interests (SNU 1990, p.27 and Bremmer 1993, p.9). 

As a result of the economic developments and requirements the nation-state would eventually become an impediment and hence, having played its role, it would vanish. The conflicts between nations were therefore seen as transitional phenomena of minor importance. Already during capitalism an internationalisation of the economy would begin and hence a weakening of the national question occur. During communism this question would vanish, as the Communist Manifesto states:

"When the conflicts between the classes within the nation disappear, the hostility among the nations ceases" (SNU 1990, p.27).

Class affiliation was seen as far more important for a person’s political consciousness and identity than his/her nationality - national identity was basically seen as false consciousness.

Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1848) that "the workers have no motherland" and according to the theory of 'proletarian internationalism' objectively seen they have common interests no matter which nation they belong to. There was an expectation of stronger solidarity between the workers of different countries than of solidarity between different classes within the same state (SNU 1990, p.27). Seen in the light of The Second International and First World War this proved to be far from the case.

These considerations however, among other things not least the situation in the Tsarist Empire, forced Lenin, as a practical revolutionary to develop a different view on things. Although nationalism with its vertical classification of humans and communism with its horizontal stratification of society, are contradictions, the Bolsheviks made use of nationalism after their take-over. Nationalism was viewed as a limited transitional phenomenon that was instrumentally useful for intermediate political goals (Zaslavsky 1993, p.30).

Hence the right to national self-determination could be used to weaken imperialism and promote revolution. After a revolution there was no need to worry that nationalism would not disappear, as the populations would acknowledge the need for bigger units and co-operation. The desired goal was complete assimilation of all national groups, but it was deemed necessary to erect a facade of equality and sovereignty.

In this way Lenins contribution to Marxist theory on nationalism was that he managed to develop a theory, which at the same time rejected nationalism as a transitory bourgeois phenomenon and as useful in the struggle for socialism. National movements could both be progressive and regressive - and the right to determine that belonged to the working class, which in effect meant the Communist Party. As I will expand on later progressive nationalism would be allowed to bloom under the auspices of local cadres of the officially recognised nationalities in specific determined and designated homelands. Only there and under guidance and control of the party. Lenin and Stalin was thus opposed to link cultural minority rights to the individual - extra-territorial so to speak - as suggested by the so-called Austro-Marxist theoreticians (SNU 1990, p.28-29 and Krag 1994, p.41).

5.2 The Soviet System of National self-determination

In order to consolidate socialism Lenin was dependent on the support of the non-Russian nations. Thus the non-Russians were granted two major concessions, which went in another direction than the Marxist ideal: A constitutional recognition of the multinational character of the Soviet population and the establishment of the national-territorial principle as the basis of political administration, including the right to self-determination - to secede, however only applying for the Union Republics (Duik 1990, p.27).

Before the revolution the Bolshevik ideal had been absolute unity and centralisation of power but this new arrangement was an acknowledgement of national sensibilities. Between 1918 and 1920 it was a fact that Bolshevik support outside the ethnically Russian heartland was restricted to large urban centres, while in the most parts of the non-Russian ethnic periphery anti-Soviet forces predominated (Smith 1990, p.4). Furthermore after the revolution many of the nations within the former Tsarist Russia had formed independent states, such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine etc. Hence federalism was an instrument for putting together the scattered parts of the defunct Russian Empire (Bremmer 1993, p.9 and Zaslavsky 1993, p.31).

The logic behind the right to national self-determination was an acknowledgement of the national sensibilities. Thus if the populations involved, whose national consciousness was emerging as a political force, were not given this right, it might encourage a combative nationalism which would run counter to the establishment of socialism (Smith 1990, p.4). It thus became the strategy of reaching socialist unity by a short transitory period with national self-determination, whereby former suppressed communities would be cleaned from tendencies of bourgeoisie nationalism (SNU 1990, p.9) [1].

In order to use the emerging national movements in the transitional period between the Russian Empire and creation of the Soviet Union the Bolsheviks spoke of the Tsarist Empire as 'the prison of peoples' whereas they - the Bolsheviks - would be the liberators and create 'equality of the peoples' (d'Encausse 1992, p.87).

The concept of national self-determination was made an institutional reality by the creation of a federation of ethno-territorial units with officially recognised nationalities voluntarily joining it. However after the establishment of the Soviet Union the concept of national self-determination was changed. It was narrowed down to the idea that the nations were subordinated the proletariat and the proletariat was subordinated the party (Besancon 1986, p.2-3). As Stalin noted already in 1918:

"Autonomy is a form. Soviet power is not against autonomy; it is for autonomy, but only for an autonomy where all the power is in the hands of the workers and the peasants..." (Besancon 1986, p.5).

And ‘in the hands of the workers and the peasants’ meant in the hands of the Communist Party (Connor 1984, p.48). In this way the annexation of e.g. Georgia in 1921 was legitimised. That the Georgian Mensheviks represented the vast majority of Georgians did not mean that they had the right to represent their country; this right belonged to the little Bolshevik minority, put in power by the Red Army (Besancon 1986, p.6).

The principle of national self-determination was based on Stalin’s definition of a nation from 1913 according to which the nation is "a historical constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”. In this way ethnicity, territory, and political administration was linked (Zaslavsky 1993, p.31).

The number of officially recognised nationalities was gradually reduced from 190 in the 1926 census to 104 registered in the 1970 census, of which 53, grouped into four ranks or categories, had a territory named after them as the indigenous population (or in western terms - titular nationalities), each representing a different level of statehood (Zaslavsky 1993, p.31).[2]

The structure was viewed as a temporary solution, only a transitional stage to a completely centralised and supra-national Soviet state (Duik 1990, p.27). The nation building of the officially recognised nationalities was seen as an instrument in Sovietizising all the non-Russian peoples. According to Lenin the nationalism of the non-Russians could be explained by lasting discrimination during the Tsarist Empire. To withhold great-Russian chauvinism and gain the support of the non-Russian for the new state, a Sovietization in three phases was developed. First the ‘blooming’ (rastsvet) of the different peoples through a determined promotion of their respective culture, their national conscience, and the creation of national elites which eventually would lead to the second phase which was ‘rapprochement’ (sblizhenie) and finally to the third phase of ‘merging’ (sliianie). In this way it was thought that the ideology and policy of the Communist Party would have a better chance of gaining footing with the non-Russians through their own language and elites. The logic of the system was expressed in the phrase ‘national in form - socialist in content’, as Stalin formulated it in 1928.

Differences were eventually thought to vanish and only harmless cultural traits like folk culture would remain and a socialist Soviet People would be created. Before going into details with this strategy let us look at the concrete elaboration of the Soviet system and then in the next section at the policy of ‘korenizatsiia’.

5.3 The Soviet Federal System

In 1918 the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR) was established composed by several ethnic defined autonomous units. By the end of 1922 the establishment of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics was a fact composed by the RSFSR, Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Transcaucasian Federation. The five Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, Tadzhikistan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia) acquired status of union republics in respectively 1925, 1925, 1929, 1936 and 1936 after having been autonomous areas within the RSFSR. The Transcaucasian Federation was divided into the three union republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1936 (SNU 1990, p.10-11).

According to the Soviet constitution, the Soviet Union was defined as a federal state consisting of many nationalities, defined by equality of the peoples. As mentioned it was divided into four levels of regional, ethnically based administrative units. Although consisting of more than a hundred nationalities only fifty-three were officially identified with a particular territory, as their designated homeland becoming the so-called titular nations.

The criteria for being given national-territorial autonomies varied and were somewhat arbitrary. The hierarchy of national-territorial formations was not consequently according to population size. Hence there were population groups quantitatively larger, which had lesser status or no territorial autonomy. Several times throughout the Soviet period borders and position were changed, so that Union Republics would be changed to Autonomous Republics or further down to Autonomous Regions or replaced within the jurisdiction of a different Union Republic.

From 1922 to 1936 the three Transcaucasian republics (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) made up a Transcaucasian Republic. For less than a year in 1921 Abkhazia was a Union Republic, then linked to Georgia by a special treaty and finally becoming an Autonomous Republic within Georgia in 1931 (Dale 1996, p.13). South and North Ossetia was first together then divided. Often border changes were made not out of demographic concerns but rather because of interest emanating from the centre or redistribution of populations due to forced or voluntarily migration. Hence in nine out of twenty-seven autonomous units and Union Republics the titular nation did not make up the majority. In three instances the vast majority of the titular nation lived outside the national territorial autonomy. In 1991 the titular nations in two out of fifteen Union Republics made up less than half of the inhabitants. In average the titular nations made up less than two thirds of the inhabitants in their unit (Dehdashti 1997, p.10).

The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen so-called Union Republics. These were defined as nation states, with the exception of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, which was defined as a multinational state. Under this level there existed a hierarchic system of the likewise national defined autonomous territorial units, in order of descending status: twenty Autonomous Republics, eight Autonomous Regions (Oblasti) and ten Autonomous Areas (Okruga). These were all placed within and directly accountable to the Union Republics.

The Union Republics each had their own Supreme Soviet, Council of Ministers, and Communist Party. Institutions were set up identically, with replicas of not only the party and state apparatus, but also cultural, scientific, and educational facilities. Hence in every Union Republic they had at their disposal their own University, Academy of Sciences, Union of Writers and artists and film studios (Besancon 1986, p.7 and Suny 1990, p.22).

In connection with the decision-making processes at Union level, the Union Republics participated to a relatively great extent, in the sense that they were represented in the Nationalities Soviet, in its economic commissions, in the Council of Ministers, in the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and in the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union. The number of representatives in the organs of the Union however, made it difficult to assert influence. Another reason for the difficulty in asserting influence was that no real independence in the voting existed. One of the reasons for this was, as I shall return to, the monolith nature of the Communist Party. Another, which also is connected to the issue of the Party, was the cadre policy of the Centre. The practice was, that the First Secretary in every Republic was held by a member of the non-Russian titular nation, but the post of Second Party Secretary, who was responsible for monitoring cadre policy on the local scene, was generally held by a non-native/non-titular nation person - mostly a Russian - whose loyalty primarily would be with the centre.

Not only the relationship between the Union and the Union Republics, but also between the Union Republics and the autonomous units was formally federal. Within the three autonomous units the Autonomous Republics had a favourable position. They had their own constitution and a system somewhat like the Union Republics in respect to state organs like the Supreme Soviet and Council of Ministers. The Autonomous Regions had a simplified but autonomous state system at their disposal, and the Autonomous Areas an even more simplified system of political organs. The spheres of jurisdiction of these lower units remained unclear and in many cases uncodified and it is thus difficult to pinpoint the differences (Zaslavsky 1993, p.34 and Connor 1984, p. 221). 

However despite no clear constitutional demarcation of competence there was a clear hierarchical power sharing between the different units. The political organs of the Autonomous Regions and the Autonomous Areas were subordinated to the corresponding organs of the Union Republics. Ultimately all the areas of competence of the autonomous units were subordinated the competence of the Union Republics. All decisions of the autonomous units had to be recognised by the superior administration of the Union Republic. Practically speaking the running of the autonomous units was therefore placed under the leadership and control of the Union Republic. However the Autonomous Republics had possibilities for influence by representation in the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers of the Union Republic this was not the case for an autonomous region like South Ossetia.

The cultural rights and conditions in the autonomous areas were first and foremost oriented towards the use of their own language as language of administration, teaching and printing of books, periodicals and newspapers. The Autonomous Republics and Regions were also entitled to their own national theatres and the Autonomous Areas to their own folklore groups (Dehdashti 1997, p.6-7).

The Soviet Union was the first state in history to place the national principle at the base of its federal structure (Zaslavsky, p.31). A federal structure on paper, but in reality a pseudo-federal union that gave no real political sovereignty for the nationalities (Suny 1990, p.22).

The Union Republics had relatively speaking little political and economical powers in relation to the central power. The most important political matters fell within the competence of the centre. The Union Republics dealt with matters of less political significance like family legislation and other administrative dispositions. They dealt with the concrete implementation of the political objectives of the Centre and staff policy in connection to the political, economic, and social system. The fiction of independent statehood can only, if at all, be maintained through the extensive cultural rights and the affirmative action policies towards the titular nations (Dehdashti 1997, p.8-9). But it should be mentioned that the degree of autonomy changed over time, least during Stalin, more during Krushchev, less during Brezhnev, and most during Gorbachev.

In respect to the relation between the Union Republic and the autonomous units the federal principle applies even less. Except from the staffing and cultural precedence of the titular nations of the autonomous units (in descending order), on the whole it was more like ordinary administrative-territorial units. Structurally speaking the autonomous units were subordinated the Union Republics.

When one speaks of Soviet nationality policy, it is often referred to as the nationalities question both by foreign scholars but also from official Soviet sources. The pattern of the different hierarchical federal units corresponds to the different groups from nations, nationalities to small people. Outside this pyramid of rights one find the groups without their own homeland or people living outside their own designated homeland. These were the minorities and it is important to state that they had no particular rights, in comparison with the groups having their own homeland. They were seen as peoples without rights[3]. According to Soviet, and ex.-Soviet, understanding, rights are to a great extent confined to the designated territories. It was taken for granted that e.g. Ossetians in South Ossetia had their specific rights, but Ossetians in Georgia proper, outside the South Ossetian autonomy had none, even though the majority of the Ossetians in Georgia lived outside the Ossetian autonomy (Krag 1996, p.328-329)[4].

In fact the centre pursued a policy of assimilation towards the non-titular nationalities. These were not as the first- or second-order titular nationalities (those possessing a ‘homeland’) part of the “soft” process of ‘blooming’ (rastsvet) through ‘rapprochement’ (sblizhenie) leading to the third phase of ‘merging’ (sliianie). They were meant to be an immediate part of the state culture, which in effect meant russification. Having no or in some instances little linguistic and cultural rights (Bremmer 1993, p.15). This with the exception of the Russian minorities, outside the RSFSR, which in effect had these rights in the form of clubs, theatres, educational institutions and media in the Soviet ‘lingua franca’ that being Russian (Connor 1984, p.314).    

The principles of the “soft” process of assimilation via ‘blooming’ through ‘rapprochement’ leading to the third phase of ‘merging’ was more outspoken in terms of the language policy of the Soviet Union. This was also characterised by a three step process. First a phase of pluralism: development of the languages of the nationalities possessing a homeland. Then bilingualism: growing pressure to learn the state’s dominant language, making the study of the Russian language compulsory (which happened in 1938). Then monolingualism: making the dominant language the sole language of instruction and the sole official language (Connor 1984, p.254-255).

As mentioned the non-titular nationalities were subject to immediate assimilation or integration as it was preferred to be called. Schools and other educational institutions offering instruction in non-Russian languages were primarily restricted to the federal units (from union republics to national areas). However, during the Soviet period from the forties and onwards Russian became increasingly compulsory as the secondary language in the autonomies.

The number of years of schooling available in the local tongue corresponded to the place of the ethnic homeland in the federal hierarchy. Descending from the union republics to the autonomous areas, which in effect meant an assimilation process in three stages. In Georgia I experienced this clearly as the non-titular nationalities in Georgia proper seemed to be more fluent in Russian than their ‘mother tongue’. In the Autonomous Republic Abkhazia within Georgia even the Georgians seemed to be more fluent in Russian as also the Abkhaz did. In South Ossetia Russian also seemed to have made Ossetian a secondary language compared to Russian, as mentioned in chapter four.

Thus the Soviet federal structure was characterised by being an elaborate administrative hierarchy based on a linkage of ethnicity, territory, and political administration. However the centrally planned economy and the massive Moscow-based bureaucracy hindered effective federalism (Zaslavsky 1993, p.31-32). This especially since the Soviet Union was a one-party state. The Communist Party's monopoly and its extremely centralist structure meant that the Communist Party dominated all parts of the state. In theory a federal state, but as the Communist Party was a monolithic centralised organisation, it required absolute obedience to Moscow's orders from the members in the republics and regions (Lieven 1990, p.64-65 and Zaslavsky 1993, p.32). It was through the Party and the cadre policy of the centre, that the different nationalities were meant to be tied to the centre and the Communist Party.

A final aspect of the Soviet federal structure that is important to mention here is the system of internal passports. The Soviet State further institutionalised ethnicity in 1932, when it inaugurated an internal passport system that included an officially recognised ethnic affiliation for each Soviet citizen (Saroyan 1988, p.221).

Initially the recorded nationality was defined as self-indication, but after a few years the categorisation was unchangeable and nationality was registered strictly on the basis of the corresponding entries in the parents, passports, irrespective of culture, mother tongue, religion, or personal preferences. In this way the Soviet State treated nationality as an ascriptive characteristic determined by birth. Only in the case of mixed marriages there was a possibility of choice between the nationalities of the parents' (Zaslavsky 1993, p.33-34 and Krag 1996, p.327-328).

The registrations were justified, in principle, to secure persons belonging to ethnic minorities rights in terms of education in mother tongue and other representation.

In this way rigid boundaries between nationalities was established and served as a main determinant of ethnic self-identification, and provided an objective basis for the policy of preferential treatment of territorially-based nationalities (Zaslavsky 1993, p.34).

5.4 The Policy of Korenizatsiia

The federal system of national units established not only the symbolic trappings of modern nation-states but also the institutional basis for the formation of indigenous ethnic leaderships. The policy of Korenizatsiia (rooting or nativization), adopted at the Soviet communist Party's Tenth Congress in 1921, promoted personnel from each unit's titular nationality into a program of training and recruitment for service in the political, economic, and cultural administration (Saroyan 1988, p.222).

The idea was to have a number of centrally recognised titular nationalities with their own elites. The system was thought to tie the non-Russians to the Soviet regime by drawing national cadres into the political and administrative posts of the Party and administration, and thereby tying professional and material rewards to membership of this elite (Roeder 1991, p.204).

The policy was also designed to allay the non-Russian fear of Russian domination, allowing and developing national language and keeping the expression of national culture on a folkloristic level. But of more importance was the need to develop loyal and controlled local non-Russian elites clearly not tolerating independence of the Communist parties of the republics (Besancon 1986, p.6-7 and Duik 1990, p.26).

In this way the state tried to monopolise nationalism, into a form of state-controlled national expression. The native or indigenous cadre was given an institutionalised monopoly on the public expression of ethnic identity. Expressed nationalism outside of the Party elite was not tolerated, there existed a well-developed system of control which made attempts at nationalism on the part of local political elites very risky and unlikely (Zaslavsky 1993, p.37). If the local Party elite went to far, the central authorities removed them from their posts. In 1972 the Georgian Party secretary was for example removed for so-called national narrow-mindedness (Roeder 1991, p.205-207). Not to mention the thousands that were sent to the famous Gulags or the fact that in the period called the Great Terror’ of the late 1930s almost the entire cultural and political elite of the Soviet Union was literally exterminated (Lieven 1990, p.66).

Even though the process of korenizatsiia was slowed down during Stalin and despite political ups and downs of centralising and decentralising during Soviet rule the result of the policy is clear. This affirmative action policy led to the creation of ethnic administrative elites (Saroyan 1988, p. 222-223). The policy of korenizatsiia can be said to have been uniformly in its intentions but clearly there existed differences in the development of this process in relation to the different units and their indigenous representation. Especially the Transcaucasian republics were in forefront of this development and republics like Moldavia and Tadzikistan lacking behind (Connor 1984, p.284-286).   

The Centre protected the educational and occupational interest of the indigenous elites and middle classes, in such a way, that the Soviet nationality policy was extremely successful in integrating them into the political regime. The Centre created employment for the representatives of the ethnic intelligentsia, by expanding local bureaucracies, founding republican Academies of science and research centres, and supporting ethnic unions of writers, painters and film-makers (Zaslavsky 1993, p.37).

The policy was applied uniformly in the respect that the ideal was to create elites which, like their culture, would be national in form, but with the same content in all units: Soviet elites devoted to the system which had promoted them (d'Encausse 1992, p.87).

So in this way korenizatsiia was a part of the Ratzvet (blooming) phase but in the same time meant to lead to Slieniye (coming together) and eventually Sblieniye (merging) into a common socialist Soviet culture.

The policy of korenizatsiia was in essence a massive state programme of affirmative action of the official recognised titular nationalities An unofficial nationalities contract formed as a package of economic benefits and opportunities in exchange for compliance with Soviet rule (Bremmer 1993, p.5 and 10-11). The Soviet nationality policy depended thus on the relative strength of the economy, which provided the resources that made the Soviet state attractive or at least tolerable to the crucial sectors of the ethnic populations (Zaslavsky 1993, p.33). Given the increased seize of the elites and their already high level of material rewards the stagnating Soviet economy could simply not uphold this system due to the economic crisis of the Soviet economy beginning in the seventies and worsening in the eighties  (Roeder 1991, p.213-215).

Furthermore, the centre’s purpose with korenizatsiia, that the non-Russian populations could be kept in check through local party elites, backslashed in the way that sooner or later they created their own power base in their respective republics, acquiring independent attitudes and practices with nationalistic implications (Suny 1989, p.294).

In Transcaucasus local party elites created a corrupt system of favouritism of the members of the titular nationality, which meant discrimination against minority ethnic groups living within the homelands of other ethnic groups (Suny 1990, p.24 and Roeder 1991, p.208); the seeds to inter-ethnic conflict were sowed.

Ronald Suny goes as far as stating:

                      "Transcaucasia was governed by powerful ethnic Mafias that both fostered local                       nationalism and encouraged the rise of 'second economies'. Ethnic minorities within                       Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, among them...the Abkhaz and Osetins of                       Georgia...(these).Have experienced a progressive marginalization and discrimination                       from the dominant so-called 'titular' nationalities that run the republics" (Suny 1990,                 p.6).

Table 3 gives a clear picture of the effect of the policy of korenizatsiia showing the ethnic composition of personnel in the political and economic administration of the three Transcaucasian republics in 1989. The titular nationalities are clearly overrepresentated in comparison to their share of the population at large.

Table 3

Ethnic composition of populations at large and administrative-managerial personnel by republics, 1989 (percent)(Zaslavsky 1993, p.38)
  Proportion of the indigenous nationality in the:
Union Republics Titular nationality

Population at-large

Administrative-managerial personnel
Georgia Georgian 70,1 89,3
Armenia Armenian 93,3 99,4
Azerbaijan Azeri 92,7 93,8

In the early Soviet period Georgian and non-Georgian cadres coexisted in the party and government apparatus, but steadily the policy of korenizatsiia led to a Georgianization of the local government. This happened in most spheres (culture and education as well) and led to a consolidation of the Georgian hold on the Georgian republic (Suny 1989, p.298).

Table 4 shows for example a clear precedence of Georgians in higher education in relation to the other major ethnic groups of the republic.

Table 4

Distribution of students in higher education by nationality in 1969-70, (Suny 1980, p.213-214).
Nationality Per cent of total population Percent of the students in higher education
Georgian 67.0 82.6
Armenian 9.7 3.6
Russian  8.5 6.8
Others 14.8 7.0

In 1987, the tendency was even clearer, 94 per cent of all students at Tbilisi University, the only major university in the republic, were Georgian (Jones 1992, p.79).

It is however important to stress that within the Union Republics in the autonomous units the same policy was applied. Although subordinated the Union Republic they were still titular nationalities or second-order nationalities as Bremmer calls them (Bremmer 1993, p.14). For example in the case of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia within the Georgian Union Republic, the titular nation of the ASSR, the ethnic Abkhaz, had a proportionate overrepresentation in the Party, the Supreme Soviet and economic posts (Parsons 1990, p.192). Table 5 shows the example Abkhaz representation in local party organs, bearing in mind that the Abkhaz only constitute seventeen per cent of the population of the Abkhaz ASSR, it shows a clear disproportionate overrepresentation.

Table 5

Abkhaz representation in local party organs (in per cent) (Slider 1985, p.54 , taken form Georgian Central Committee material)




Province committee




City and district first secretaries




Heads of party departments: province, city, and district




Also in the Autonomous Region of South Ossetia within Georgia, this seems to have been the case. Ethnic Georgians clearly felt this being the case. Hence in a speech by Gamsakhurdia, in late 1990, he claimed that 31 out of 37 people then working in the regional party committee apparatus were Ossetian, as were 77 per cent of all employees in the South Ossetian cultural and educational organisations (Jones 1992, p.87). This he stated on the basis of the statistics on South Ossetia complied by a Georgian commission created by the Supreme Soviet of Georgia before the first free election, which is shown in table 6.

Table 6

Representation of Georgians and Ossetians in Political Administrative structures of South Ossetia, 1990 (in per cent)(Slider 1991)






Party apparatus 60.7 24.3
State apparatus 77.5 21,6
Service sector 62.3 26,2
Trade sector 77.0 14,2
Cult. Nomenclature 77.5 na

These two last statistical tables should however be taken as indications rather than as exact figures, but it is also important to understand that they should be taken for the general perception on behalf of most Georgians as ‘facts of life’(see also Helsinki Watch 1992, p.51). Furthermore already in 1973 a group of members of the Communist Party of Georgia complained about the effects of korenizatsiia resulting in a disproportionate overrepresentation of Abkhaz and thus a discrimination of ethnic Georgians in the Abkhaz ASSR (Connor 1984, p.286).

Of cause there was a difference as there, as mentioned, was a hierarchy from Union Republic, Autonomous Republic, Autonomous Region to Autonomous Area, with the latter having least autonomy - that being power. But even though, the tendency is clear, the titular nations, in the case of the Union Republic of Georgia, Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians, were in their designated homelands subject to affirmative action programmes as first-order or second-order titular nationalities, leading to a disproportionate overrepresentation in the party organs, professional employment and higher education.

The bottom line is that the policy of korenizatsiia created a system whereby ethnicity became a criteria for success, since the positions of status within the different units mainly were reserved for the titular nationalities (Roeder 1991, p.208 and Suny 1989, p.315). In effect it was a fostering and entrenchment of ethnicity.

[1] The principle of national self-determination also had external purposes in regard to the colonial areas of the Third World. Proving the Soviet Union as a role model in comparison with the imperialist and capitalist countries of the west and also thus in a more direct manner encouraging nationalist uprisings in the colonies of the western countries (Connor 1984, p. 52 and 55).     

[2] A few units, like the autonomous republic of Dagestan in the northern Caucasus, were not named after the so-called titular nationality, this was however an exception to the rule. 

[3] Not in terms of Soviet individual civil rights but in respect to collective minority rights. However, the right to education in ones mother tongue is considered an individual right. 

[4] The complexity of this sentence merely shows the complexity of the Soviet system and not the poor mastery of the English language on behalf of the author. 

  Chapter 6