WORLD

A separatist drive

Soviet Georgians want their independence

April 23 1990
WORLD

A separatist drive

Soviet Georgians want their independence

April 23 1990

On a humid, sunny morning last week in Tbilisi, the capital of the Soviet republic of Georgia, Zauri Shengalia appeared wan, and his dark eyes were ringed with fatigue. Shengalia, a 28-year-old factory worker, said that he had been on his feet for 36 hours and that he planned to remain awake for another 12. He was one of tens of thousands of Georgians who held a two-day vigil in front of Tbilisi’s Government House on Rustaveli Avenue to commemorate a tragic one-year anniversary. On April 9, 1989, Shengalia, a passionate supporter of Georgian independence, had stood with thousands of other pro-independence demonstrators near the same spot. From there, he said, he watched in helpless fury as Soviet soldiers, whom Georgian authorities had called in to break up the demonstration, sprayed what experts contend was a form of poison gas and clubbed protesters with nightsticks and spades. Said Shengalia, of the soldiers: “We can never forgive how these barbarians behaved.” In fact, the slaughter of the protesters marked a critical turning point, galvanizing Georgian public opinion in support of a campaign for full independence from Moscow.

The heightened tensions in the southwestern republic have presented Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with still another in a seemingly endless series of problems. Most notable is the standoff in Lithuania, where Gorbachev continued to issue threats last week to try to force the rebellious republic to rescind its March 11 declaration of independence. In addition to that conflict and similar ones in the other independence-minded Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, Gorbachev faced a growing division within his own Communist party. Last week, in what appeared to be the beginning of an internal power struggle in advance of the party congress scheduled for early July, the policy-making Central Committee, still largely in the hands of party conservatives, issued an open letter that harshly criticized the reformist Democratic Platform movement. In response, Igor Chubais, one of the Platform’s leaders, declared that the attacks represented a coup by leading conservative Yegor Ligachev and the beginning of a witch-hunt. And he called for the formation of a new social democratic party.

In Georgia, the Kremlin has responded cautiously to burgeoning anti-Moscow sentiment. Last week, in a carefully worded statement marking the anniversary of the Tbilisi attack, in which 20 people died, Gorbachev said that he hoped that Georgians would contribute to a “union of sisterly nations.” But hundreds of thousands of Georgians participated in demonstrations across the republic in which speakers declared their support for independence and denounced the Soviet leadership. The legislature of Georgia, which was an independent republic from May, 1918, to February, 1921, recently followed Lithuania and Estonia in taking steps towards breaking away from the Soviet Union. Declared Valeri Asatiani, Georgia’s cultural affairs minister: “It is no longer a question of whether we become independent, but rather how soon.”

In fact, the pace of the autonomy movement has accelerated dramatically over the past two months. Early in March, the republic’s Supreme Soviet rescinded an article of the constitution that gave the Communist party a monopoly on control of the government. The legislature also declared “illegal and invalid” two statutes setting out Georgia’s status in the Soviet Union. Then, many candidates announced their withdrawal from March local elections. They cited the need for delay to allow the introduction of a multiparty system.

As a result, more than half a dozen new parties have formed, and elections have been postponed until the fall. Because all the new parties support independence, many Georgians maintain that the process is now irreversible. Said Manana Kvachadze, an official with the grassroots Popular Front movement: “There is no doubt that our next government will make us sovereign.”

Public memorials to Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union whose memory has traditionally been treated with near-religious reverence, have become favorite targets of Georgian rebelliousness. In Lenin Square in Tbilisi’s centre, Soviet soldiers have been on around-the-clock guard duty for more than two months since several unidentified men threw a rope around the neck of a Lenin statue and tried to drag it down. Another, smaller statue on a suburban street has been encased by protective steel bars for the past year. Before that, protesters repeatedly painted its hands red, as a symbol of last year’s killings, and showered it with raw eggs.

Last week, a third statue, made of metal and more than 30 feet high, fell to protesters who used chisels to chip away at its ankles. And one of Tbilisi’s main downtown streets, which was formerly called Lenin Prospekt, was renamed Merab Kostava Street earlier this year in honor of a prominent Georgian separatist who died in an automobile crash last December.

The widespread resentment in part reflects Georgians’ fond recollection of a nearly three-year period of independence that began following the collapse of czarist rule in 1917 and ended when Red Army troops moved into Tbilisi in 1921. The Soviet Union incorporated Georgia, first as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, and then in 1936 as a constituent republic in its own right. Now, many Georgians say that the republic was occupied against the will of its inhabitants and that there are few bonds linking them with the rest of the country. Ethnic Georgians, who make up nearly four million of the republic’s 5.5 million residents, use a language and alphabet that have no relation or resemblance to Russian.

Georgia, with its rich farmland, year-round warm conditions, long religious tradition and renowned hospitality to visitors, has often been described as the “Soviet Italy.” That hospitality, however, rarely extends to Russians. Said Temuri Bichelashvili, an elevator operator in Tbilisi: “Russians have the manners of pigs— and the gall to try to tell us how to live.” In fact, the Georgians’ tradition of entrepreneurship, including a thriving black market, has helped to give it a living standard far higher than that in the rest of the Soviet Union.

Even during the rule of now-disgraced leader Leonid Brezhnev, Western analysts say, the KGB secret police kept the area under surveillance because of Kremlin concerns over Georgian nationalism. Now, in contrast to Gorbachev’s tough stance in the Lithuanian crisis, Soviet officials are taking a low-key approach to Georgia. The Soviet media have been equally circumspect. Said Vakhtang Abashidze, the president of the Georgian Journalists’ Union: “We have the impression that the rest of the country thinks that if they ignore us long enough, the problem will just disappear.”

One reason for Moscow’s muted response is the near-unanimous condemnation of the behavior of Soviet troops during last year’s demonstration. Witnesses said that the soldiers treated the protesters, who had been behaving peacefully, with particular ferocity. “Every demonstrator was well-behaved,” said Irina Gorgiladze, an 18-year-old student who was in the square when the soldiers arrived. “The soldiers had no cause to do what they did.”

The leaders of Georgia’s Communist party made the decision to use troops to clear Tbilisi’s Lenin Square, causing the ensuing violence. The Kremlin replaced them within days of the killings. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a native Georgian, later angrily condemned the attack. Gorbachev has said that his reluctance to use troops in more recent nationalist demonstrations is a result of the events in Georgia.

Still, many pro-independence Georgians accuse the Soviet leadership of attempting to suppress full discussion of the incident. Many Georgians claim that the violence was premeditated, and they point to the fact that the lights in the square were briefly turned out several minutes before the attack. That, they contend, was a signal to KGB informants to leave the square. But the government has not released the findings of a special Moscow-appointed commission of elected Soviet deputies who spent several months studying the incident.

Georgian nationalists have also criticized the government for refusing to release film footage that the KGB made of the incident. Last week, Boris Vasiliev, a member of the commission, publicly called on the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies to release the report and the film.

Many Georgians say that they will never forget last year’s events. “They murdered our people,” said Kate Nivua, a 23-year-old student. “It was as simple as that.” Nivua was one of more than 150,000 people who attended overnight rallies on Rustaveli Avenue last week. The events included a partial re-enactment of the attack, with broadcasts of the sound of tanks and ringing bells. Later, the demonstrators burned candles and raised fists in the air in a silent memorial to the dead.

But as they remembered their recent past, some Georgians said that they were now also preparing for the future. Shortly after the 4 a.m. anniversary of the soldiers’ assault on the square, the crowd broke into traditional Georgian songs and dancing to mark the end of a year’s mourning for the dead. Declared Gia Chanturia, the leader of the separatist National Democratic Party: “Let us pass from mourning the end of those lives and celebrate the hope of a new, independent Georgia.” That theme clearly provided solace to many people in the city whose friends or relatives were killed. But, to a watching and wary Soviet leadership, it was a further reminder of an old and unhealed wound—and an unsettling new challenge.