Zviad Gamsakhurdia, first president of post-Soviet Georgia. Born: March
31, 1939 Tbilisi, Georgia Died: December 31 1993 Khibula, Georgia
Zviad Konstantines dze Gamsakhurdia was a dissident, scientist and writer, who became the
first democratically elected President of the Republic of Georgia in the post-Soviet era. (Particularly in
Soviet-era sources, his patronymic is sometimes given as Konstantinovich in the Russian style).
Zviad Gamsakhurdia was born in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1939, in a distinguished Georgian
family; his father, Academician Konstantine Gamsakhurdia (1893 - 1975), was one of the most famous Georgian
writers of the 20th century. Perhaps influenced by his father, Zviad received training in Philology and began
a professional career as a translator and literary critic.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the country's association with Stalin, Soviet rule in Georgia was particularly
harsh during the 1950s and sought to restrict Georgian cultural expression. In 1955, Zviad Gamsakhurdia established
a youth underground group which he called the Gorgasliani (a reference to the ancient line of Georgian kings)
which sought to circulate reports of human rights abuses. In 1956, he was arrested during demonstrations in Tbilisi
against the Soviet policy of russification and was arrested again in 1958 for distributing anti-communist literature
and proclamations. He was confined for six months to a mental hospital in Tbilisi where he was diagnosed as suffering
from "psychopathy with decompensation", thus perhaps becoming an early victim of what became a widespread
policy of using psychiatry for political purposes.
He achieved wider prominence in 1972 during a campaign against the corruption associated with the appointment of
a new Katolikos of the Georgian Orthodox Church, of which he was a "fervent" adherent. He co-founded the
Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in 1973, became the first Georgian member of Amnesty International
in 1974 and co-founded the Georgian Helsinki Group in 1976 (renamed the Georgian Helsinki Union in 1989).
Gamsakhurdia was Chairman of this human rights organization. He was very active in the underground network
of samizdat publishers, contributing to a wide variety of underground political periodicals including Okros
Satsmisi ("The Golden Fleece"), Sakartvelos Moambe ("The Georgian Herald"),
Sakartvelo ("Georgia"), Matiane ("Annals") and Vestnik Gruzii. He
participated in the Moscow underground periodical " Chronicle of Current Events", edited by Sergey
Kovalev. Gamsakhurdia was also the first Georgian member of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR-IGFM).
Perhaps seeking to emulate his father, Zviad Gamsakhurdia also pursued a distinguished academic career. He was a
Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Georgian Literature of the Georgian Academy of Sciences (1973-1977,
1985-1990), Associate Professor of the Tbilisi State University (1973-1975, 1985-1990) and member of the Union
of Georgia's Writers (1966-1977, 1985-1991), PhD in the field of Philology (1973) and Doctor of Sciences (Full
Doctor, 1991). He wrote a number of important literary works, monographs and translations of British, French
and American literature, including translations of works by T. S. Eliot, William Shakespeare and
Charles Baudelaire. He was also an outstanding Rustvelologist (Shota Rustaveli was a great Georgian poet
of the 12th century) and researcher of history of the Iberian-Caucasian culture.
Although he was frequently harassed and occasionally arrested for his dissidence, for a long time
Gamsakhurdia avoided serious punishment, probably as a result of his family's prestige and political
connections. His luck ran out in 1977 when the activities of the Helsinki groups in the Soviet Union became
a serious embarrassment to the Soviet government of Leonid Breznev. A nationwide crackdown on human rights
activists was instigated across the Soviet Union. In Georgia, the government of Eduard Shevardnadze (who
was then First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party) arrested Gamsakhurdia and his fellow dissident
Merab Kostava. The two men were sentenced to three years' hard labour plus three years' exile for "anti-Soviet
activities". Their imprisonment attracted international attention, leading to members of the United
States Congress nominating Gamsakhurdia and Kostava for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 (though it went to Anwar
Sadat and Menachem Begin instead). Kostava was exiled to Siberia, while Gamsakhurdia was exiled to the Russian
autonomous republic of Dagestan.
At the end of June 1979, Gamsakhurdia was released from jail and pardoned in controversial circumstances
after serving only two years of his sentence (Kostava remained in prison until 1987). The authorities claimed that
he had confessed to the charges and recanted his beliefs; a film clip was shown on Soviet television to substantiate
their claim. According to a transcript published by the Soviet news agency TASS, Gamsakhurdia spoke of "how
wrong was the road I had taken when I disseminated literature hostile to the Soviet state. Bourgeois propaganda
seized upon my mistakes and created a hullabaloo around me, which causes me pangs of remorse. I have realised
the essence of the pharasaic campaign launched in the West, camouflaged under the slogan of 'upholding human
rights'". His supporters, family and Merab Kostava claimed that his recantation was coerced by the KGB,
and although he publicly acknowledged that certain aspects of his anti-Soviet endeavors were mistaken, he did
not renounce his leadership of the dissident movement in Georgia. Perhaps more importantly, his actions ensured
that the dissident leadership could remain active. Kostava and Gamsakhurdia later both independently stated that
the latter's recantation had been a tactical move. In an open letter to Shevardnadze, dated April 19, 1992,
Gamsakhurdia claimed that "my so-called confession was necessitated ... [because] if there was no 'confession'
and my release from the prison in 1979 would not have taken place, then there would not have been a rise of
the national movement."
Gamsakhurdia returned to dissident activities soon after his release, continuing to contribute
to samizdat periodicals and campaigning for the release of Merab Kostava. In 1981 he became the spokesman
of the students and others who protested in Tbilisi about the threats to Georgian identity and the Georgian
cultural heritage. He handed a set of "Demands of the Georgian People" to Shevardnadze outside the
Congress of the Georgian Writers Union at the end of March 1981, which earned him another spell in jail.
When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of glasnost, Gamsakhurdia played a key role
in organising mass pro-independence rallies held in Georgia between 1987 - 1990, in which he was joined by
Merab Kostava on the latter's release in 1987. In 1988, Gamsakurdia became one of the founders of the Society
of Saint Ilia the Righteous (SSIR), a combination of a religious society and a political party which became the
basis for his own political movement. The following year, the brutal suppression by Soviet forces of a large
peaceful demonstration held in Tbilisi in April 4-9, 1989 proved to be a pivotal event in discrediting the
continuation of Soviet rule over the country. The progress of democratic reforms was accelerated and led to
Georgia's first democratic multiparty elections, held in October 28, 1990. Gamsakhurdia's SSIR party and the
Georgian Helsinki Union joined with other opposition groups to head a reformist coalition called "Round
Table - Free Georgia" ("Mrgvali Magida - Tavisupali Sakartvelo"). The coalition won a convincing
victory, with 64% of the vote, as compared with the Georgian Communist Party's 29.6%. On November 14, 1990,
Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected by an overwhelming majority as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic
Georgia held a referendum on restoring its pre-Soviet independence on March 31, 1991 in which 90.08% of
those who voted declared in its favour. The Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence on
April 9, 1991, in effect restoring the 1918-21 Georgian state. However, it was not recognised by the Soviet
Union and although a number of foreign powers granted early recogition, universal recognition did not come
until the following year. Gamsakhurdia was elected President in the election of May 26 with 86.5% per cent
of the vote on a turnout of over 83%.
Gamsakhurdia as President
On taking office, Gamsakhurdia was faced with major economic and political difficulties, especially
regarding Georgia's relations with the Soviet Union. A key problem was the position of Georgia's many
ethnic minorities (making up 30% of the population). Although minority groups had participated actively
in Georgia's return to democracy, they were underrepresented in the results of the October 1990 elections
with only nine of 245 deputies being non-Georgians. Even before Georgia's independence, the position of
national minorities was contentious and led to outbreaks of serious inter-ethnic violence in Abkhazia during
1989. Some Georgian nationalists campaigned on a slogan of "Georgia for the Georgians", of which
Gamsakhurdia was seen as supportive. At its most innocuous, this meant ending the Soviet domination and
russification of the country. Others used it to mean the abolition of the autonomous status of minority regions,
and a few extremists demanded the complete expulsion of minorities.
The slogan, and others like it, aroused alarm among minorities. Minority nationalists responded by demanding
unification with ethnic counterparts across the Russian border or, in extremis, outright independence. Other
Soviet republics faced similar inter-ethnic difficulties, notably concerning the Russian minorities in Latvia,
Estonia and Moldova and the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan - the latter two cases led to full-scale civil wars.
While there were certainly legitimate concerns among many minority groups, it was widely believed by local and
foreign observers that forces in Moscow were deliberately exploiting ethnic tensions to undermine the independence
of the former Soviet republics.
In 1989, violent unrest broke out in the autonomous district of South Ossetia between the Georgian population of
the region and Ossetians demanding that their region be unified with North Ossetia (part of Russia). South Ossetia's
government announced that the region would secede from Georgia and unite with their counterparts in the Russian
Federation. In response, the Georgian Supreme Soviet annulled the autonomy of South Ossetia in March 1990. A
three-way power struggle between Georgian, Ossetian and Soviet military forces broke out in the region, which
resulted (by March 1991) in the deaths of 51 people and the eviction from their homes of 25,000 more. After his
election as Chairman of the newly renamed Supreme Council, Gamsakhurdia denounced the Ossetian move as being part
of a Russian ploy to undermine Georgia, declaring the Ossetian separatists to be "direct agents of the
Kremlin, its tools and terrorists." In February 1991, he sent a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev demanding
the withdrawal of Soviet army units and an additional contigent of interior troops of the USSR from the territory
of former Authonomous District of South Ossetia.
The rise of the opposition
Gamsakhurdia's opponents were highly critical of what they regarded as "unacceptably dictatorial
behaviour", which had already been the subject of criticism even before his election as President.
Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua and two other senior ministers resigned on August 19 in protest against
Gamsakhurdia's policies. The three ministers joined the opposition, accusing him of "being a
demagogue and totalitarian" and complaining about the slow pace of economic reform. In an
emotional television broadcast, Gamsakhurdia claimed that his enemies were engaging in "sabotage
and betrayal" within the country.
Gamsakhurdia's response to the coup against President Gorbachev was a source of further controversy.
On August 19 he, the Georgian government, and the Presidium of the Supreme Council issued an appeal to
the Georgian population to remain calm, stay at their workplaces, and perform their jobs without yielding
to provocations or taking unauthorized actions. The following day, Gamsakhurdia appealed to international
leaders to recognize the republics (including Georgia) that had declared themselves independent of the Soviet
Union. He claimed publicly on August 21 that Gorbachev himself had masterminded the coup in an attempt to
boost his popularity before the Soviet presidential elections, an allegation rejected as "ridiculous"
by US President George H. W. Bush.
In a particularly controversial development, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Gamsakhurdia
had agreed with the Soviet military that the Georgian National Guard would be disarmed and on August 23 he
issued decrees abolishing the post of commander of the Georgian National Guard and redesignating its members
as interior troops subordinate to the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs. In defiance of Gamskhurdia, the
sacked National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani led most of his troops out of Tbilisi on August 24. By this time,
however, the coup had clearly failed and Gamsakhurdia publicly congratulated Russia's President Boris Yeltsin
on his victory over the putschists (Russian Journal "Russki Curier", Paris, September, 1991). Georgia
had survived the coup without any violence, but Gamsakhurdia's opponents accused him of not being resolute in
opposing it. Kitovani's supporters reportedly distributed leaflets in Tbilisi denouncing the government for
not opposing the coup.
Gamsakhurdia reacted angrily, accusing shadowy forces in Moscow of conspiring with his internal enemies
against Georgia's independence movement. In a rally in early September, he told his supporters: "The
infernal machinery of the Kremlin will not prevent us from becoming free... Having defeated the traitors,
Georgia will achieve its ultimate freedom." He shut down an opposition newspaper, "Molodiozh Gruzii,"
on the grounds that it had published open calls for a national rebellion. Giorgi Chanturia, whose National
Democratic Party was one of the most active opposition groups at that time, was arrested and imprisoned on
charges of seeking help from Moscow to overthrow the legal government. It was also reported that Channel 2,
a television station, was closed down after employees took part in rallies against the government.
The government's activities aroused controversy at home and strong criticism abroad. A visiting delegation
of US Congressmen led by Representative Steny Hoyer reported that there were "severe human rights problems
within the present new government, which is not willing to address them or admit them or do anything about them
yet." American commentators cited the human rights issue as being one of the main reasons for Georgia's
inability to secure widespread international recognition. The country had already been granted recognition by a
limited number of countries (including Romania, Turkey, Canada, Finland, Ukraine, Lithuania and others) but
recognition by major countries eventually came during Christmas 1991, when the USA, Sweden, Switzerland, France,
Belgium, Pakistan, India and others formally recognized Georgian independence.
The political dispute turned violent on September 2, when an anti-government demonstration in Tbilisi was
dispersed by police. The most ominous development was the splintering of the Georgian National Guard into
pro- and anti-government factions, with the latter setting up an armed camp outside the capital. Skirmishes
between the two sides occurred across Tbilisi during October and November with occasional fatalities
resulting from gunfights. Paramilitary groups - one of the largest of which was the anti-Gamsakhurdia "Mkhedrioni"
("Horsemen" or "Knights"), a nationalist militia with several thousand members - set up barricades
around the city.
On December 22, 1991, armed opposition supporters launched a violent coup d'etat and attacked a number of official
buildings including the Georgian parliament building, where Gamsakhurdia himself was sheltering. Heavy fighting
continued in Tbilisi until January 6, 1992, leaving at least 113 people dead. On January 6, Gamsakhurdia and members
of his government escaped through opposition lines and made their way to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, where
they were given asylum by the government of General Dzhokhar Dudayev.
It was later claimed (although apparently not confirmed) that Soviet forces had been involved in the coup against
Gamsakhurdia. On December 15, 1992 the Russian newspaper Moskovskie Novosti ("Moscow News") printed
a letter claiming that the former Vice-Commander of the Trans-Caucasian Military District, Colonel General Sufian Bepaev,
had sent a "subdivision" to assist the armed opposition. If the intervention had not taken place, it was claimed,
"Gamsakhurdia's supporters' victory would be guaranteed." It was also claimed that Soviet special forces had helped
the opposition to attack the state television tower on December 28.
A Military Council made up of Gamsakhurdia opponents took over the government on an interim basis. One of its first actions
was to formally depose Gamsakhurdia as President. It reconstituted itself as a State Council and appointed Gamsakhurdia's old
rival Eduard Shevardnadze as chairman in March 1992. The change in power was effected as a fait accompli, without any
formal referendum or elections. He ruled as de facto president until the formal restoration of the presidency in November
Gamsakhurdia in exile
After his overthrow, Gamsakhurdia continued to promote himself as the legitimate president of Georgia. He was still
recognized as such by some governments and international organizations, although as a matter of pragmatic politics the
insurrectionist Military Council was quickly accepted as the governing authority in the country. Gamsakhurdia himself
refused to accept his ouster, not least because he had been elected to the post with an overwhelming majority of the
popular vote (in conspicuous contrast to the undemocratically appointed Shevardnadze). In November-December 1992, he
was invited to Finland (by the Georgia Friendship Group of the Parliament of Finland) and Austria (by the International
Society for Human Rights). In both countries, he held press conferences and meetings with parliamentarians and government
officials (source: Georgian newspaper Iberia-Spektri, Tbilisi, December 15-21, 1992).
Clashes between pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia forces continued throughout 1992 and 1993 with Gamsakhurdia supporters taking
captive government officials and government forces retaliating with reprisal raids. One of the most serious incidents occurred
in Tbilisi on June 24, 1992, when armed Gamsakhurdia supporters seized the state television center. They managed to broadcast
a radio message declaring that "The legitimate government has been reinstated. The red junta is nearing its end."
However, they were driven out within a few hours by the National Guard. They may have intended to prompt a mass uprising
against the Shevardnadze government, but this did not materialize.
Shevardnadze's government imposed a harshly repressive regime throughout Georgia to suppress "Zviadism", with
security forces and the pro-government Mhekdrioni militia carrying out widespread arrests and harassment of Gamsakhurdia
supporters. Although Georgia's poor human rights record was strongly criticised by the international community, Shevardnadze's
personal prestige appears to have convinced them to swallow their doubts and grant the country formal recognition. Government
troops moved into Abkhazia in September 1992 in an effort to root out Gamsakhurdia's supporters among the Georgian population
of the region, but well-publicised human rights abuses succeeded only in worsening already poor ethnic relations. Later, in
September 1993, a full-scale war broke out between Georgian forces and Abkhazian separatists. This ended in a decisive defeat
for the government, with government forces and 300,000 Georgians being driven out of Abkhazia and an estimated 10,000 people
being killed in the fighting.
The 1993 civil war
Civil War (Tbilisi)
However, Gamsakhurdia's capture of the economically vital Georgian Black Sea port of Poti threatened the interests of Russia,
Armenia (totally landlocked and dependent on Georgia's ports) and Azerbaijan. In an apparent and very controversial quid pro
quo, all three countries expressed their support for Shevardnadze's government, which in turn agreed to join the Commonwealth
of Independent States. While the support from Armenia and Azerbaijan was purely political, Russia quickly mobilised troops to aid
the Georgian government. On October 20, around 2,000 Russian troops moved to protect Georgian railroads and provided logistical
support and weapons to the poorly armed government forces. The uprising quickly collapsed and Zugdidi fell on November 6.
On December 31, 1993, Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in circumstances that were (and still are) very unclear. It is known that he
died in the village of Khibula in the Samegrelo region of western Georgia and later was re-buried in the village Jikhashkari
(in the Samegrelo region also). According to British press reports, the body was found with a single bullet wound to the head.
A variety of reasons have been given for his death, which is still controversial and remains unresolved:
Gamsakhurdia's death was announced by the Georgian government on January 5, 1994. Some refused to believe that Gamsakhurdia
had died at all but this question was eventually settled when his body was recovered on February 15, 1994. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's
remains were re-buried in the Chechen capital Grozny on February 24, 1994.
On January 26, 2004, in a ceremony held at the Kashueti Church of Saint George in Tbilisi, the newly elected President
Mikhail Saakashvili officially rehabilitated Gamsakhurdia to resolve the lingering political effects of his overthrow in
an effort to "put an end to disunity in our society", as Saakashvili put it. He praised Gamsakhurdia's role as
a "great statesman and patriot" and promulgated a degree granting permission for Gamsakhurdia's body to be reburied
in the Georgian capital, declaring that the "abandon[ment of] the Georgian president's grave in a war zone ... is a shame
and disrespectful of one's own self and disrespectful of one's own nation". He also renamed a major road in Tbilisi after
Gamsakhurdia and released 32 Gamsakhurdia supporters imprisoned by Shevardnadze's government in 1993-1994, who were regarded
by many Georgians and some international human rights organisations as being political prisoners.
Gamsakhurdia's supporters continue to promote his ideas through a number of public societies. In 1996, a public, cultural
and educational non-governmental organisation called the Zviad Gamsakhurdia Society in the Netherlands was founded in the
Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch. It now has members in a number of European countries.