To celebrate the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze, supporters of the Georgian political opposition have been parading through the streets of Tbilisi. Many wave white flags adorned with red crosses, quite different from the nation’s official flag. What’s the meaning of the red-and-white standard?
The so-called five-cross flag, which dates back to Georgia’s medieval glory days, is the symbol of the main opposition party, Mikhail Saakashvili’s National Movement. The flag isn’t meant to imply that Saakashvili favors feudalism—he’s usually characterized as a pro-Western reformer—but that the opposition is fed up with Shevardnadze’s autocratic ways. A majority of Georgians, including the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, have long favored adopting the five-cross banner as the nation’s official flag. But the outgoing president stymied all efforts to make the change. In 1999, the Georgian parliament voted to change the flag, and all Shevardnadze had to do was issue a supportive decree. Inexplicably, he refused to do so, instead setting up a powerless heraldic commission to study the matter. When Saakashvili founded the National Movement in 2001, therefore, the five-cross flag was the natural choice to illustrate his party’s populist bent.
The first mention of the five-cross design dates back to the middle of the 14th century, when an unknown Franciscan monk wrote that the kingdom’s flag was “a white-colored cloth with five red crosses.” In prior centuries, Georgian kings had marched into battle brandishing a simpler flag, similar to the “St. George’s cross” favored by English nationalists—a single red cross, on a white background. According to a vexillological history written by the Georgian scholar Giorgi Gabeskiria, the four extra crosses were likely added during the reign of Giorgi V (also known as “the Brilliant” or “the Splendid”), who drove out the Mongols. Around that time, Georgians founded several monasteries in the Holy Land and became widely known for their piety. The new design was ostensibly fashioned after the Jerusalem cross, a symbol used by crusaders there and adopted as a testament to Georgia’s righteous reputation.
Georgia endured invasion after invasion over the ensuing centuries, often from the Ottoman Turks, and became a Russian province in the 19th century. In 1917, the semi-autonomous Georgian government held a flag-designing contest won by Jakob Nikoladze, a painter; the following year, when the Russians granted Georgia its independence, Nikoladze’s creation became the national flag. Three years later, when the Bolsheviks took over and Georgia was folded into the Soviet Union, Nikoladze’s flag was dropped in favor of a drab red one. It was revived in 1990, after the Soviet collapse, but has since lost popularity, in part because it quickly gained a negative association with the country’s post-Soviet struggles. Today’s reformers would apparently prefer that their flag conjure up more satisfying times.
Explainer thanks Flags of the World.