Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jews in Georgia Are Optimistic After Eduard Shevardnadze Resigns

November 25, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jews in the former Soviet republic of Georgia are trying to keep a low political profile following the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze — but they’re confident the change of power won’t endanger the community.

Community institutions, including a Jewish day school and a kindergarten, are functioning normally this week, Georgia’s chief rabbi, Avimelech Rosenblat, told JTA in a telephone interview Monday from the capital city, Tbilisi.

Under increasing pressure following charges of fraud in recent parliamentary elections, Shevardnadze went on national television Sunday to announce his resignation.

The move came after leaders of the opposition parties brought tens of thousands of supporters from across the country to central Tbilisi, seizing the national television station and government offices and threatening to storm the presidential residence if Shevardnadze didn’t resign.

Rosenblat said Shevardnadze’s ouster does not threaten the Jewish community.

“Of course what happened was an extraordinary event, yet I can’t say it added anything to our security concerns,” he said. “When it comes to security issues, we are now more concerned over what is happening in Turkey than in Tbilisi,” Rosenblat said, referring to recent terrorist attacks in Georgia’s neighbor to the south.

Shevardnadze, 75, became a political icon when, as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, he played a key role in ending the Cold War, negotiating the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and easing German reunification.

As the president of post-Communist Georgia, however, Shevardnadze lost popularity when he was unable to cope with uncontrolled corruption, crime and poverty.

Members of Georgia’s Jewish community, which dwindled in post-Soviet years to approximately 10,000 people from its peak of 100,000, are divided over the change of power, though many are believed to sympathize with the opposition.

Throughout the Caucasus region, and in Georgia in particular, anti-Semitism had far less of a historical presence than in Europe.

During their 2,600-year presence in Georgia, Jews have been allowed to own land and prosper. However, many Jews fled Georgia during the country’s civil war and economic crisis from 1989 to 1995.

Opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze, speaker of the outgoing Parliament, has proclaimed herself acting president until new elections are held in 45 days.

Analysts agree that Burdzhanadze and two other leaders of the opposition, Mikheil Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania, are most likely to emerge as the nation’s top elected leaders.

The Shevardnadze regime — which in recent years emerged as a strong ally of the United States and the European Union — generally had been supportive of the Jewish community.

Yet some Jews say they hope the country’s next leaders will prove even more sympathetic to Jews and Israel.

Disillusioned by a decade of economic chaos and poverty, many Georgians have pinned their hopes on the opposition leaders, who portray themselves as open-minded liberals capable of ensuring the country’s future.

Jewish leaders have tried to avoid statements reflecting their political sympathies in the current situation, but younger Jews — like many other young Georgians — seem to be supporting the opposition.

“We are neutral,” said Maurice Krikheli, director of the Jewish Youth Foundation Hillel-Tbilisi. “Yet deep down we are on the side of the opposition.”

Krikheli said he believes some of the problems the Jewish community has faced since the collapse of communism — most importantly, the issue of synagogue restitution — remained unresolved because Georgian leaders, including Shevardnadze, were unable to shed their Communist mentalities.

Another reason for Jewish optimism over the leadership change stems from the fact that some opposition leaders and activists have Jewish roots.

For example, on a visit to Israel a few years ago, Zhvania, who at the time was speaker of Georgia’s Parliament, noted that his mother was Jewish.

“This is quite customary here that someone who reached a high-ranked post would conceal their Jewish roots,” Krikheli said.

Recommended from JTA