When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
When you rolled up the driveway of the Metechi Palace the taxi fare jumped to $20 and there would be a row with the driver. He usually settled for $10. Then inside the hotel. Western luxury. Steel, glass, marble. Leather sofas. Internal balconies looking down on the lobby. Glass lifts.
The Metechi had bars, a multi-level reception area, a tearoom. The waitresses in the Piano Bar were beautiful, all dark eyes and corkscrewing black hair and embroidered traditional costume. They spoke some English, learned from American movies.
“What can I getcha?”
In the rooftop bar it cost $10 for a beer and $100 for a bottle of scotch. If you asked a waitress about that prominent sign in reception written in Georgian, a language that looks like caterpillars mating to westerners, she would try and translate. Something about guns. Not in hotel. Leave here. You geddit? Then she would suggest she came to your room tonight. You give me a present, not too expensive.
If you asked the nervous-looking manager about the swimming pool he would tell you it was closed. There was too much blood in the pool after the recent shooting. And the saunas were closed as well. There had been some rapes.
You would start to notice the young guys all round the Metechi, wearing leather jackets and tinted aviator sunglasses, looking a lot like the men who manned the roadblocks outside. You would see the pistol bulges along their ribs.
After you dumped your bags in the room you might look down into the atrium, with its marble floor and tables and chairs, from the internal balcony. You might see two of those young men get in an argument. Shouting, pushing, then guns and bang-bang-bang and then everyone was lying on floor, trying to crawl under a table as the two men shot at each other in the middle of the hotel.
Then, if you were smart, you booked the first airplane ticket out of Georgia.
The Metechi Palace Hotel belonged to the Mkhedrioni, a militia group somewhere between patriotism and the mafia. Most of Georgia belonged to them. Their boss was a bank-robbing playwright politician.
Welcome to Georgia, proud and free. Here the only law comes out of the barrel of a gun.
A Nation of Warriors
Georgia stands at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It plays an important role in the Caspian and Black Sea oil network. Its wine is good, its food better, almost every dish involving some combination of walnuts, garlic, vinegar, and red pepper. Its people are fighters.
Orthodox by religion, Georgia sheltered under the Russian empire’s wing from invading Turks in the eighteenth century and found itself a vassal state. The 1917 Russian revolution brought in a few years of independence, most spent fighting Armenians, before the Bolsheviks took over and Moscow ruled again.
Georgia avoided Nazi occupation and maintained a high level of support for native son Josef Stalin. There were even protests by students in 1956 against Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation policies. But Georgian communists were quick to see the potential of the new freedoms. They used Khrushchev’s anti-centralisation efforts to build their own power bases and line their pockets. Georgia’s official economic growth was among the USSR’s lowest but private ownership of cars and houses up with the highest. It was the Soviet Union’s most corrupt state.
Georgia’s Interior Minister Eduard Shevardnadze made his reputation crusading against that corruption in the 1960s, a moral stand that spring-boarded him to the country’s top job. Then in 1985 he headed off to Moscow to be Mikhail Gorbachev’s Minister for Foreign Affairs.
He left behind a nation of smart, fierce, well-educated people who were using the cautious freedoms of the Gorbachev era to explore previously forbidden aspects of Georgian nationalism.
Among them was Jaba Ioseliani, a professor at the Georgian Institute of Theatre Arts.
The Mkhedrioni. Those guys all over the streets of Tbilisi, shooting at each other in the hotel. The name means ‘Horsemen’ but is better translated as ‘knights’. They were young men, usually, who pledged to defend Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church. They wore a medallion with a depiction of Saint George killing a dragon and on the reverse a cross which curled down into the Georgian letter J, homage to Ioseliani’s first name. Later, when the bullets started flying, the reverse would also show the wearer’s blood group.
“We take an oath not to leave the group,” said a member. “Or we die.”
As well as the knightly aspects, the Mkhedrioni admired gangsters, partly as rebels against the Soviet system and partly as outlaws. Their dress sense was so orthodox it was almost a uniform: blue jeans, jumpers, leather jackets, sunglasses. Many of their bedroom walls had posters of Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone. Leaders preferred Armani suits and a few had intellectual pursuits. Professors with guns.
“A patriotic organisation,” said Ioseliani, “but based on thieves’ traditions.”
In its earliest days it was just a group of young men gathered around Ioseliani. ‘Jaba’s Boys’. Their first act was to mediate an ethnic stand-off between Georgians and Azerbaijanis in Marneuli, southern Georgia.
“In 1988, when it was obvious that the USSR was disintegrating,” said Ioseliani, “there were ethnic clashes in the Bolnisi and Marneuli regions. At that time Georgian forces were not armed. Nobody had any idea how or who could protect the country. At the same time, some political parties were created and rallies were being held. The police was disarmed as Moscow completely removed its armament, and of course we had the Russian Army here. I have had some experience in life. I even had some weapons at home. So young people gathered around me.”
Under Glasnost the Soviet iceberg was breaking up into mutually incompatible ideas of freedom. Thirty percent of the Georgian population identified themselves as belonging to ethnic minorities. The South Ossetians, a separatist-minded people in the central north of the country, were already making noises about independence, as were the Abkhazians in the north-west. Ioseliani’s nationalists were formed to stop them.
The Mkhedrioni was necessarily low-key in its earliest days. Nationalist groups were growing under Glasnost (even Russia had Pamyat) but too overt displays would force the security forces to move in. Despite the new freedoms Jaba’s boys were, the Soviet media observed sharply, “an illegally armed Georgian group”.
Another reason for its discretion: the group may have been funded by members of the Georgian underworld and those experimenting with capitalism. Overlapping groups in those days. An important backer was Guram Mgeladze, a senior figure in the Georgian agricultural ministry who had been pioneering entrepreneurial initiatives since the early 1970s.
A Degree in Crime
Why would Jaba Ioseliani, a professor and literary critic, known for an ironic and iconoclastic sense of humour, start a militia group? Why would violent young men follow him?
Ioseliani was sixty-six-years-old when he formed the Mkhedrioni. Grey hair, black eyebrows, heavy eyelids that seemed to shut out the world. He often appeared aristocratically bored at everything around him. At other times, everything was amusing.
A dandy who dressed well, Ioseliani wore a white suit and white bow tie on special occasions, with a cane. Later, when he put on military uniform, his hands were usually in his pockets.
His past made him an ideal warlord.
Jaba Ioseliani was born into a family well-connected in the Tbilisi artistic world. He studied at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Leningrad University after the war but did not graduate, having discovered something he preferred to studying: crime. He fell in with Leningrad criminals and in 1948 was arrested robbing a bank in the city. He got seventeen years in prison.
Only the strong survived Soviet prisons. The Georgian had a spine of steel. He became a vor, a ‘thief-in-law’, one of the tattooed elite among Russian criminals who dictated life behind bars. A Georgian godfather. Released in 1965, just short of his fortieth birthday, he was back in prison the next decade, charged with manslaughter connected to the robbery of a department store.
“There were only two ways,” he said later. “Prison or Komsomol [the Soviet youth movement]. I chose the first one.”
Despite his vor code of honour, Ioseliani had never lost touch with his artistic background. This time round he used his sentence to write several novels and short stories. He sent them to his contacts in Georgian artistic circles. They were admired. Convinced he was a major talent, people like stage director and writer Rezo Tabukashvili and actress Medeya Japaridze lobbied Moscow for his release. He got a pardon.
On release he returned to Georgia, enrolled at night school, then university. He got a degree, then a doctorate in art history. He became a professor at the Georgian Institute of Theatre Arts, saw novels like ‘Three Dimensions’ and ‘A Stage Director’s Plan’ published, and wrote several popular plays, including ‘Guest’, ‘Black Cat’, and ‘Tsarina Mariam’.
A triumph of rehabilitation. He had become a public Soviet intellectual. One who secretly kept contact with other vory, had guns in his house, and led nationalist young men against ethnic secessionists.
Failure of Repression
Ioseliani’s group received a wave of new volunteers after 9 April 1989. That March 30,000 Abkhazians had protested in Lykhny, demanding Moscow make their territory a Soviet state separate from Georgia. The next month a number of Georgian nationalist groups, including Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s Society of St Ilya the Righteous, organised a counter-protest in Tbilisi.
The action gained momentum and what had been intended as action against separatism became a demand for Georgian independence and the end of communism.
By 6 April tens of thousands of people, most students and factory workers, were outside the houses of government in Tbilisi. The next day the Georgian communist party declared martial law and on 9 April Russian tanks went in. Sixteen people died, mostly young women, and the demonstration was crushed. But not Georgian nationalism.
The next evening cars were speeding round Tbilisi waving pre-Soviet Georgian flags and sounding their horns. There were strikes and pickets. Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian-born Soviet apparatchik close to Gorbachev, was dispatched to Tbilisi to calm the situation, which he achieved by sacking members of the Georgian politburo and lifting the curfew.
Calm returned but the Georgian nationalist movement had been irrevocably radicalised. Liberal groups were pushed to the sides and movements like the Mkhedrioni came to the front. A Popular Front movement was established in July.
Gamsakhurdia, a droopy-eyed scientist and writer with a crooked moustache who led the Society of St Ilya the Righteous, played an important role in the Front. He attacked anyone who suggested compromise with the regime and pushed a hardcore nationalism. His hatred of the Soviet Union was deeply rooted. The literary critic, academic, and translator of TS Eliot and Charles Baudelaire had lived a double life under communism as a secret underground nationalist activist and samizdat publisher. Gamasakhurdia’s father was a writer, famous in Georgia but harassed by the state because of his opposition to the USSR. His son followed his policies, being arrested several times in the 1950s for Georgian nationalist activities, once being locked up in a mental hospital for six months on a spurious diagnosis.
The prestige of his father initially cushioned Gamasakhurdia’s frequent arrests but in 1977 he got three year’s hard labour for his human rights work, mostly with Georgians living in minority dominated areas of the country. There was an international outcry but what got him home two years later was a confession (“how wrong was the road I had taken when I disseminated literature hostile to the Soviet state”) which he frequently had to defend against other nationalists. It was tactical, he told them. He returned to Tbilisi and kept the flame of Georgian nationalism burning.
The flames burned higher after 9 April until there was huge popular support for Georgian independence. By the autumn of 1989 nearly 90% of the population wanted their country independent. The communist party may have remained in power but no-one was listening.
Ioseliani spent most of the year in Abkhazia, recruiting. He targeted ethnic Georgians near the resort town of Gagra, telling them the Abkhazians were backward peasants whose egos had been inflated by Moscow. He talked about the coming privatisation of land in an independent Georgia, handed out Mkhedrioni medallions, a few guns, and ‘authorised’ deeds to what was currently Soviet property. Mkhedrioni numbers increased.
In November 1989 the South Ossetians voted to declare themselves a separate Soviet republic. This was annulled by Tbilisi but led to popular fury in Georgia. Gamsakhurdia organised a protest march to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali that was turned back with violence. Jaba and his boys, some armed, were part of the march and clashed with Ossetian militia groups in provincial capital.
“After the rally,” Ioseliani remembered, “we heard that Ossetians began to attack Georgians in Tskhinvali. We entered the city immediately and took 100 Ossetians captive. It was a small battle, only one of our fighters and two civilians were wounded. We had been billeted in different villages and they entered the villages by bus, shooting around. We shot their wheels and took 100 prisoners. They were shocked there were only six of us.”
Clashes between Georgians and Ossetians continued over the winter.
The following spring Gamsakhurdia broke with the Popular Front and formed his own Round Table – Free Georgia group with more right-wing elements, like the Helsinki Union. The Front was glad to see him go, regarding his activities in South Ossetia as rabble rousing. The Soviets had planned elections for the Supreme Council in May but pushed them back to October, perhaps hoping the opposition parties would quarrel themselves into non-existence before voting time. Some hope.
In October 1990 Gamsakhurdia’s Round Table coalition took 64% of the vote. The following month Gamsakhurdia was elected chairman of Georgia’s Supreme Council. Now Soviet Georgia had a nationalist leader. But only nine of Georgia’s 245 deputies were from its minorities. One of Gamsakhurdia’s first acts was to crush South Ossetia’s most recent attempt to vote itself independence. He declared a state of emergency in the region.
This sparked off violence in the area. Georgian troops, including paramilitaries like the Mkhedrioni, fought Ossetian separatists. Russian troops became involved, ostensibly as peacekeepers but with unclear allegiances. Fighting would continue for the next eighteen months, killing 1,000 and displacing tens of thousand Ossetians and Georgians.
While the bullets flew in South Ossetia, Gamsakhurdia made himself more powerful. He became executive President, established the National Guard (an independent Georgian army) under the control of his Round Table ally Tengiz Kitovani, a fat, bald, former painter, and in April 1991 passed a law allowing the direct appointment of regional prefects with more powers than existing local politicians. The Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence the same month, with the support of 90.8% of voters. The tottering Soviet Union refused to acknowledge it but no-one in Georgia cared. They were free. Rallies, marches, flags, accordions, clapping, dancing. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Armenia had already declared independence.
On 26 May 1991 Gamsakhurdia was elected the first President of independent Georgia with 86% of the vote. The slogan ‘Georgia for the Georgians’ was popular.
Jaba Ioseliani and his Mkhedrioni were not around to celebrate the President’s victory. They were in prison.
Since their membership boost in April 1989 the Mkhedrioni had operated in an area where nationalist activism met paramilitary activity and organised crime, all dusted with artistic sparkle thanks to Ioseliani’s theatrical career.
Asked once why he approved of a certain Mkhedrioni member, the militia boss listed four qualities: a prison record, no background in the Komsomol communist youth movement, the ability to fight with a weapon, and an education in the theatre.
Ioseliani had never abandoned his vor background, just hidden it behind Soviet respectability. In the spaces created by the retreat of communism organised crime could grow. With shortages and a flatlining economy it did not seem like crime for some to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Mkhedrioni members were involved in drug smuggling, extortion, nationalist agitation, the fighting in South Ossetia, political campaigning, stockpiling weapons (easy when disillusioned Russian conscripts sold entire armouries as the Soviet Union fell apart), intimidating political groups they disliked, and picketing Soviet military bases.
“We are a paramilitary charity organisation,” one member told a foreign journalist.
Enthusiasm was high but experience low. Few young Georgian men had military training, with only 10% of those drafted by the Soviet army ever bothering to turn up at the barracks by the late 1980s. It was the lowest percentage of all the Soviet republics. The National Guard had the benefit of some former Soviet Army officers who returned home to train new recruits but was not much more professional.
“We don’t have any trained soldiers,” said Ioseliani. “We were defined by the talent and skills of our fighters.”
From its earliest days the Mkhedrioni had been an enthusiastic but disorganised group hanging from Ioseliani’s charisma. Local organisation tended to be at the level of extended family groups or criminal gangs. As state surveillance receded Ioseliani tried to bring a more formal structure to his group. The playwright never quite succeeded but as Georgia achieved independence the Mkhedrioni were a noticeably more hierarchical organisation.
Ioseliani was turning from political activist to warlord.
There were other nationalist militias around in newly independent Georgia, like Giorgi Karkarashvili’s Tetri Artsivi (White Eagles) and the Forest Brothers, but the Mkhedrioni, at least 1,000 strong in 1991 with a network of supporters, were the most prominent. Their leather jackets, medallions, and sunglasses were everywhere.
Ioseliani and his men became disillusioned as Gamsakhurdia turned himself into a Georgian strongman. They had supported the Round Table at the elections but by early 1991 the Mkhedrioni were on the side of the National Council, increasingly sidelined by Gamsakhurdia and his cronies. Some Mkhedrioni men went on hunger strike in protest.
In February Ioseliani announced he was forming his own political party. On 19 February Gamsakhurdia called in a few favours and got 40 tanks with Russian army crews to attack the main Mkhedioni group, just outside Tbilisi. Ioseliani and many of his men were arrested and thrown in a KGB jail. They watched Gamsakhurdia’s election to the Presidency and the death thrashings of the Soviet Union from behind bars.
Gamsakhurdia explained he was dealing with a threat from a mafia crime group. Some accepted the explanation, others saw it as a sign of the Georgian leader’s increasing paranoia.
In August 1991 hard-line communists in Russia attempted a coup against Gorbachev. The coup failed amid images of a for once sober Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank outside the Moscow White House rallying a crowd of thousands to defy the Red Army troops heading their way.
But for a while it seemed the coup could succeed and the clock turned back. The coup leaders pressured Gamsakhurdia into placing the National Guard under Soviet control. He gambled and took their side. Kitovani refused to accept it and took a large part of the Guard out of Tbilisi. Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua (black moustache, grey hair, an engineer) followed him.
In Tbilisi there were strikes and demonstrations. State television employees walked out in protest at censorship. Gamsakhurdia declared a state of emergency in September that led to riots and several deaths. He had backed the wrong side. Yeltsin assumed Gorbachev’s powers, the coup plotters were in jail, and the USSR would be officially dissolved in December.
As Soviet garrisons went home they left their weapons. Georgia was knee deep in guns.
A kind of calm lasted until the end of the year when fresh protests began in Tbilisi. Kitovani’s National Guard moved to support them and fighting broke out with loyalist army units in the streets of the capital. Kitovani was not a tactician and no victory seemed likely until his men freed Ioseliani from his prison cell the evening of 26 December. The Mkhedrioni were back in the game.
Ioseliani rallied his movement. The men in leather jackets and sunglasses came out of hiding and out of prison cells. Volunteers arrived from all over Georgia. AK-47s and rocket launchers. Gunsmoke and concrete dust. Rustaveli Avenue, the main boulevard that swept through the centre of the city, was a warzone.
Gamsakhurdia locked himself in a bunker beneath the Georgian Supreme Soviet building with the remains of his supporters while gunfire chopped central Tbilisi to pieces. On 6 January 1992 he negotiated his way out and went into Armenian exile.
The actors were small on such a large stage. Each side mustered only a few hundred performers in Tblisi. No more than 1,000 were fighting in the capital at any one time. Casualties for soldiers and civilians were less than 200.
Ioseliani, the theatre academic and former bank robber; Kitovani, the painter in outsized camouflage gear; Sigua, the engineer and former Prime Minister reclaiming his position. The three of them now ruled Georgia as the Military Council.
Their first act was to amnesty a number of prisoners. Many were political allies or personal contacts but some were senior vory. The trio then accepted a ceasefire agreement in South Ossetia, where war had been raging since Gamsakhurdia’s declaration of a state of emergency back in 1990. The passions enflamed by separatism had burned themselves out. More cynical observers claimed it was because there was nothing left to loot in Ossetia. A joint Russian-Georgian peacekeeping team moved in.
In March Ioseliani convinced the other two to invite Eduard Shevardnadze to become Georgian head of state. A Soviet reformer, a Georgian, and an internationally famous figure, Shevardnadze was an ideal choice. White haired and pink faced, he looked like someone’s mildly embarrassed uncle. The trio, particularly the two warlords, had no intention of allowing him real power. Ioseliani pointedly took the office above Shevardnadze in the Parliament building. AK-47s were casually propped against the walls.
“His hands must be held,” Ioseliani said.
The Military Council was dissolved and replaced by a State Council, with Shevardnadze at its head. Elections were planned for the autumn.
In the streets of Tblisi the Mkhedrioni were in full swagger. Law and order had collapsed during the fighting and no-one felt in the mood to help it back on its feet. Armed men were everywhere. The leather and sunglasses of the Mkhedrioni, the green uniforms of the National Guard, assorted other groups, military, political, or criminal. Even the police seemed to be their own paramilitary gang.
Mkhedrioni checkpoints were on every road. Anyone they stopped had to pay a bribe to get through. Anyone transporting goods lost part of their load. Men fired guns into the air for no reason, fired at each other for less. The Mkhedrioni were involved in drug smuggling and dealing, primarily heroin. They smuggled cigarettes and alcohol. They charged businesses for protection. There were robberies. Kidnappings. Private cars and even public transport were hijacked for Mkhedrioni use. They gained control of the lucrative business of petrol supply.
Mkhedrioni cruised the streets in BMWs with tinted windows. They occupied the Piano Bar at the four star Metechi Palace Hotel, watching old videos of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There were shootouts in the marble lobby. A foreign journalist asked one why they did not wear uniforms.
“We prefer American clothes,” said the paramilitary.
The most legit they ever got was opening businesses which claimed to be ‘Economic Firm’, ‘Many Branched Bank’, or ‘Joint Stock Company’. Anyone who invested in The Golden Cup Trade Industrial Company, heavily advertised on television, saw shares double within two weeks. When they went to the company’s offices to sell their shares they found a note pinned to the door: “Goodbye”.
Ioseliani and his more senior lieutenants took a cut of their underling’s businesses but got richest through obtaining important shares in privatised state industries. Tblisi, and areas outside the capital, had become a paradise for paramilitary gangsters. Road trips through Georgia were dangerous, sometimes impossible without knowing the right people.
Critics muttered that the country had become a gangster state.
Many of the young men at the checkpoints were new members who had not fought against Gamsakhurdia. Membership of a militia group seemed the only way to achieve a more secure job.
“My brother told me that he was sure to get a job in the Special Reaction Emergency Unit [a police unit] if his group was strong enough to get noticed by Jaba,” remembered one Georgian. “He said that it would be good for the whole family, so sold one of the horses, took my hunting rifle, and went to get a car in Rustavi.”
These men paraded around, firing off their Kalashnikovs, living off tribute extorted at road blocks, hoping one day to get a job in the police force or the nascent Georgian army. Smaller militia groups joined Ioseliani or Kitovani’s men for the same reasons. Resources were small, competition big.
“Our group first formed very quickly in 1991 to help fight Gamsakhurdia,” said a former university lecturer fond of TS Eliot who joined the Mkhedrioni. “It had about 100 members, mostly students, academics, artists, writers. The oldest was 43, the youngest 16. The average age was 20. Then, there were many other groups like ours. After Gamsakhurdia left, it half-disbanded, some joined the National Guard, some the Mkhedrioni.”
Some rival militia groups, like the Imedi of Nodar Natadze, university professor and leader of the People’s Front group, were forced to join Ioseliani’s men.
The Mkhedrioni were close to 4,000 strong now. The National Guard was double that. Rivalries between the two often boiled over into violence. Someone, possibly Gamsakhurdia loyalists, attempted to assassinate Ioseliani but just killed five bystanders. Political enemies were arrested.
Things got so bad that in July a coalition of centrist parties demanded the Mkhedrioni and the National Guard be returned to their barracks. It did not happen. Ioseliani and Kitovani did not want their men off the streets. Even if they had, neither organisation was disciplined enough to obey. Ioseliani was unsympathetic about the protests.
“They used to complain the Mkhedrioni were walking around with weapons. What else were we supposed to do during the civil war and intervention?”
Armed strength became a synonym for political power. Shevardnadze was a figurehead because he lacked a militia and increasingly so was Sigua, the Prime Minister. But Shevardnadze was an experienced political operator. He began to lay the seeds of a plan that would give him political and military power when it germinated.
Shevardnadze made Kitovani the Defense Minister, turned the National Guard into Georgia’s official army, and made the Mkhedrioni the country’s new interior troops. Everyone moved one step closer to the state. Ioseliani remained a simple parliamentary deputy, more powerful than the rest of them put together.
In the summer of 1992 separatists in Abkhazia attacked government buildings and declared independence. Shevardnadze sent in the troops. National Guardists, assisted by Ioseliani’s Mkhedrioni, who rode in Russian personnel carriers emblazoned with the word ‘Rainger’ (Rangers), all US Army macho, pushed into Abkhazian territory, looting as they went.
The Mkhedrioni were fighting their own, informal, kind of war. Their dress sense alone startled more conventional soldiers.
“[A senior army commander] was surprised at the way our fighters were dressed”, Ioseliani remembered. “Some in coats, some in Nabadi [a traditional wool coat, huge and furry], and how relaxed they were. But after some time he admitted they were real fighters.”
Giorgi Karkarashvili, the wiry, dark, and bearded militia leader whose Tetri Artsivi were now part of the National Guard, was in charge of Georgian troops. He made an announcement in Sukhumi, the Abkhazian capital.
“If 100,000 Georgians die,” he warned the Abkhazians, “then all 97,000 on your side will be killed.”
The Georgians occupied most of Abkhazia, sending its separatists fleeing over the border. There were murders, ethnic cleansing. The Russians negotiated a ceasefire that saw the withdrawal of Georgian troops then, in the name of divide-and-conquer, helped re-arm the separatists. Its border guards turned a blind eye when foreign volunteers organised by the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, a transnational association of Caucus militants, crossed into Abkhazia.
The newcomers attacked on 1 October and began to take back Abkhazian territory, bringing torture, rape, and ethnic cleansing with them. Near Gagra they destroyed the homes of Georgians, including those who had joined the Mkhedrioni back in 1989 hoping one day to own their own land.
Georgian troops managed to slow but not stop the onslaught. Airstrikes from Russian fighters helped the Abkhazians. By May 1993 the Georgians were holed up in Sukhumi. Despite being joined by Shevardnadze, who had been elected head of state in October 1992 (the first elections since Gamsakhurdia left power), in an attempt to boost morale, the cause was lost.
In December 1993 a ceasefire was signed that left the Abkhazians in control of their own territory. The Georgians decided the territory was an autonomous republic within its borders. The Abkhazians decided they were independent.
No-one trusted the Russians.
Kitovani was not around to see the humbling of his National Guard. He had fallen out with Shevardnadze early in the conflict. The Georgian leader believed Kitovani had exceeded his orders in the early, triumphant stages of the conflict and turned a clash into a war. Kitovani hung on, even winning a seat in the October 1992 elections but by May the next year he had been forced out, although the Defence Minister post went to a protégé of his, leaving him a few traces of power. He spent most of his time in Moscow.
Ioseliani did not mourn his former comrade. He blamed the Abkhazia defeat on Kitovani’s incompetence. He gave even less thought to Sigua, who resigned in a row over the budget in the autumn. Ioseliani had other things to worry about. The Mkhedrioni had fought in Abkhazia with the others but saw their hardest combat when former President Gamsakhurdia tried to retake power in September 1993.
Gamsakhurdia’s ‘Zviadist’ supporters were active in western Georgia, where their leader was making mutual help agreements with Abkhazian separatists that would have given his old self a heart attack, and they captured a significant amount of territory by October. The Mkhedrioni put up a fight but it was Gamsakhurdia’s capture of Poti, a Black Sea port that ended his uprising.
The port was vital to Russian interests. They offered the Georgians help. Shevardnadze buried his morals and signed his country up to the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States. The Russians provided weapons and support for the Mkhedrioni and National Guard. Soon the Georgians had the insurgents on the run.
On 31 December 1993 Gamsakhurdia shot himself in the head when Mkhedrioini troops surrounded him in the village of Khibula.
“Being in clear conscience,” he wrote in his suicide note, “I commit this act in token of protest against the ruling regime in Georgia and because I am deprived of the possibility, acting as the president, to normalize the situation, to restore law and order.”
Most Georgians preferred to believe the Mkhedrioni had murdered him. Ioseliani’s men began to hunt down anyone they suspected of being a Gamsakhurdia supporter. Men disappeared and turned up dead in a ditch the next morning.
With Kitovani and Sigua gone, Shevardnadze moved to isolate Ioseliani, the last warlord standing. Earlier attempts to persuade the Mkhedrioni to disarm had been futile so he began to secretly construct a new interior force to replace the Mkhedrioni, who were in turn given the more official title of the Georgian Rescue Corps, although few used the new name.
Shevardnadze already had taken control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, deposing one of Ioseliani’s appointees, and in the chaos of late 1993 had called a state of emergency and was ruling by decree.
He had support from smaller parties and those who wanted an end to the chaos. He had demonstrated the extent of his backing when he resigned after a clash with Ioseliani in late 1993. Thousands came out onto the Tbilisi streets begging him to reconsider. Shevardnadze did but only after parliament granted him more powers.
He still had to move carefully. The Mkhedrioni were wounded by the recent fighting but they remained dangerous.
Power cuts hit Georgia through 1994 and with them water shortages. If you lived in a tower block you would take the stairs. No-one wanted to be stuck in a lift for a week. Dinner by candle light. Inflation rocketed. Refugees from the wars were stuffed into Georgia’s long empty tourist hotels. The Mkhedrioni retreated to the Marco Polo ski resort at Gudauri in the mountains, which still had power, and only returned when the lights came back on. Even there, they got in trouble. A Mkhedrioni criticised the food. The chef attacked him with a knife. The Mkhedrioni shot him in the legs. The chef’s relatives turned up. Only negotiations by friends of those involved stopped a shootout.
In Tbilisi the Mkhedrioni took over the five star Sheraton Hotel. A sign at the door announced: “Handguns allowed; automatic weapons to be left at reception.” There was drug dealing in the corridors, gunfights in the bar. The US embassy banned its officials from visiting.
On the positive side, there were fewer Mkhedrioni roadblocks, the police having been given enough power under Shevardnadze to dismantle some of them. The public were tired of corruption, of violence, of organised crime. Even some Mkhedrioni were sick of it.
“In our country we have factories, we have wine, we have people who know how to do business,” said one. “We aren’t a poor people now, we weren’t then. But nothing [is] possible so long as everyone [is] stealing from everyone all the time!”
Shevardnadze’s Ministry of the Interior was getting stronger by the day, drawing power away from Ioseliani’s men. It controlled the National Guard and the police and welcomed in anyone loyal to Georgia’s leader. Shevardnadze was happy to promote Mkhedrioni as long as they transferred their loyalties. Ioseliani’s power base was being eaten away.
The Mkhedrioni leader managed a few propaganda coups, like appearing at the Geneva negotiations that wrapped up the Abkhazia war dressed in a Chokha, the Georgian national costume, all bullet loops and tight waist. He also claimed to have acted against Mkhedrioni who broke the law.
“We disbanded the Mkhedrioni unit of Khashuri because they were committing robberies. After making sure of it, we shot them in them legs and they are now handicapped. We did not have them arrested; we did not want to publicise their actions.”
The spotlight moved from the Mkhedrioni in autumn of 1994 when Kitovani reappeared in Tblisi, having been holed up in Russia. He formed a National Front for the Liberation of Abkhazia with the help of Sigua and, in January the next year, set off the separatist republic with 700 men, intending to retake it. The Georgian police arrested him en route. Kitovani got eight years in jail.
A few days before Kitovani’s arrest the Georgian Rescue Corps celebrated its anniversary at the Tbilisi opera house. Ioseliani called for an end to the slander that they were some kind of Mafia.
“Mkhedrioni’s leader Jaba Ioseliani said all Mkhedrioni veterans claimed were positions of deputy managers in businesses,” wrote a local reporter with a poor command of english.
They celebrated too soon. The authorities began to move against the Mkhedrioni in the spring of 1995. There were arrests of the more blatant criminal elements. On 4 May Shevardnadze ordered the Georgian Rescue Corps to disarm. Ioseliani refused but after consultations with Igor Giorgadze, Minister for State Security and Mkhedrioni ally, he agreed, as a “goodwill gesture”.
Ioseliani’s men handed in many of their weapons but kept some back. They remained on the streets of Tbilisi. Ioselaini claimed loyalty to Shevardnadze.
On 24 August 1995 Shevardnadze pushed through a new Georgian constitution that provided for a President. He immediately began campaigning for the job. Five days later a bomb blew apart his car. He was pulled from the burning wreck uninjured. There was a massive outpouring of popular support for his rule.
A police investigation pointed the finger at Igor Giorgadze, who escaped to Russia on a military aircraft, and Ioseliani. An arrest warrant for the Mkhedrioni leader was sworn out but held over until after the November elections.
Militia groups function on power and the promise of reward. Shevardnadze was now the new boss, the man with the people behind him, and the Ministry of the Interior the biggest gang in town. Formerly loyal Ioseliani men scrambled to swear allegiance to the new President. The Mkhedrioni on the streets suddenly realised their commanders would not be giving them jobs in the future, passing along juicy cuts of business, remembering them for their service. The car bomb had shifted the centre of political gravity. The sky had fallen in.
The end of Mkhedrioni came quickly, inside a few weeks. With many of Ioseliani’s top lieutenants now loyal to Shevardnadze there was no-one to pull strings or threaten policemen. The smarter Mkhedrioni saw the crackdown coming and shut down their roadblocks, packed up their kidnapping scams. They left Tbilisi before the police moved in on the Georgian Rescue Corps and arrested them. Those who stayed went to prison.
“We were running the streets,” said one. “We were kings of this city. And, then, overnight, we all just ended up in jail.”
Elections were held in October. Ioseiliani had threatened to run against Shevardnadze but settled for contesting a parliamentary seat. When the votes were counted Shevardnadze was President with 75% of the vote and Ioseliani had failed to be elected to the new parliament.
The next month Ioseliani was arrested. Police found guns, foreign currency, and drugs in his offices. The trial did not happen until 1998. Ioseliani and some top Mkhedrioni men were found guilty of terrorism and other charges. He got eleven years in prison. He was seventy-two-years-old.
“Shevardnadze’s main objective has always been to create a web of intrigue,” said Ioseliani bitterly. “He is a careerist. He had the same goals when he was Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He always puts his career first.”
The day of the Mkhedrioni was over.
In 1999 the Mkhedrioni was resurrected as a political organisation by Tornike Berishvili, although Shevardnadze refused to allow it to register for elections. In 2000 Ioseliani was amnestied, having used the last two years to write another novel, and became head of what was left of the Mkhedrioni again. He wrote his memoirs.
The group changed its name to the Union of Patriots in 2002, this time joining forces with Gamsakhurdia supporters, their former enemies, but was again refused registration. The group’s official leader, Badri Zarandia, a Gamsakhurdia man, was assassinated in January 2003 when two gunmen shot him in a Zugdidi café.
Ioseliani was talking about a political comeback when he suffered a stroke two months later and died on the operating table. He got a state funeral and was buried at the Mtatsminda Pantheon, a necropolis in Tbilisi for writers, artists, and famous figures.
Nine years later his grave was attacked by a group of young Georgians angry at his inclusion among the country’s national heroes.
Shevardnadze lost power at the end of 2003 in the ‘Rose Revolution’. His popularity had waned over the years as Georgians grew sick of corruption, incompetence, and rigged elections. With financial assistance from Hungarian billionaire George Soros, a popular protest movement pushed Shevardnadze out and replaced his rule with something mildly more democratic.
In 2008 Georgia went to war in South Ossetia. The snake swallows its tail.
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