Stalin statues signals political divide in Georgia
Two men visit a statue of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which has been sprayed with bright orange paint, in the Georgian town of Telavi on September 3, 2013.
The slightly larger than life-size monument was torn down several years ago as part of staunchly pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili's campaign to eradicate all traces of Georgia's Soviet past.
But local Stalin loyalists clubbed together this month to restore the statue -- only to see unknown vandals cover it in paint and scrawl slogans on the wall behind, one reading: "Stalin is a murderer".
Sixty years after the dictator's death, commentators say the incident -- the latest of several in the last year -- highlights not only the deep political divisions in Stalin's homeland but also a struggle over his legacy.
"Some sort of nostalgia for Stalin still exists in a certain segment of the Georgian society," said political analyst Gia Nodia.
In October 2012, Saakashvili's party lost parliamentary polls to a coalition led by his bitter foe billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has made normalising relations with Russia his foreign policy priority.
Since the election upset, Stalin monuments have been erected in six other villages and all have suffered a fate similar to the Telavi statue, each quickly defaced.
With Ivanishvili now prime minister and Saakashvili preparing to step down as president when his second and final term ends next month, analysts say the changes have emboldened conservatives who believe the time is right to rehabilitate Stalin.
"When a party, which has been pursuing an active de-Sovietisation policy has been replaced in power by politicians who were flirting with Stalinist sentiments during the electoral campaign, those who are nostalgic about the Soviet past reckoned that their time has come," said Nodia.
Shota Lazariashvili is the self-proclaimed president of Telavi's Stalin Society who was behind restoring the hilltop monument of his "idol".
For him, Stalin embodies the social justice he feels was lost amid the political turmoil and economic hardship that followed the Soviet Union's collapse.
"We miss his truth and justice," said the 63-year-old, standing under a framed portrait of Stalin in his crumbling office as he launched into an ecstatic ode to the "great leader".
Born Joseph Dzhugashvili in 1878, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist from the late 1920s to his death in 1953.
But Lazariashvili flatly rejects Stalin's responsibility in the death of millions of Soviet citizens in brutal Gulag prison camps and the forced collectivisation of agriculture.
"Stalin liberated the suppressed class of workers and peasants, he symbolises the Soviet Union's victory over Hitler" in World War II, he said.
While Prime Miniser Ivanishvili says he remains "cautiously negative" about the dictator, his culture minister has endorsed plans to resurrect a giant Stalin monument in the courtyard of the Stalin museum in his hometown of Gori.
The statue, erected in 1952, stood in Gori's central square until it was torn down in 2010 on the orders of Saakashvili, who later initiated a law banning the public display of Soviet symbols and prohibiting former Communist Party and KGB security service officials from holding public office.
The return of such statues is seen as a backlash against those policies, though authorities say most of the monuments are being re-erected without government backing.
For Zurab Butskhrikidze, the vice chairman of Telavi's city council, "some groups feel more relaxed about expressing views they were forced to hide under the previous government," now that Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition has assumed power.
He supports the continuation of de-Stalinisation policies but through education, rather than draconian measures.
"Some people from the old generation still are under the Soviet propaganda's influence. We can't do anything about this by force, we need to step up information efforts.
"Our whole society failed to repent for what happened in Stalin's era," said Butskhrikidze.
"This is why Stalin's ghost makes such bizarre appearances in our modern life."