WORLD

DICTATOR OR DEMOCRAT?

SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS OF GEORGIA’S PRESIDENT WAGE A MURDEROUS FIGHT

MALCOLM GRAY October 7 1991
WORLD

DICTATOR OR DEMOCRAT?

SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS OF GEORGIA’S PRESIDENT WAGE A MURDEROUS FIGHT

MALCOLM GRAY October 7 1991

DICTATOR OR DEMOCRAT?

WORLD

SUPPORTERS AND OPPONENTS OF GEORGIA’S PRESIDENT WAGE A MURDEROUS FIGHT

On Tbilisi’s broad Rustaveli Prospekt last week, a worker used a pneumatic drill to erase the carved visages of Vladimir Lenin and other Communist leaders from the front of the former Marxist-Leninist Institute. An audience gave him enthusiastic applause in one of the few recent incidents that met with widespread approval among the 1.3 million residents of the Georgian capital. Elsewhere, heavily armed forces from the republican government and the opposition, each seeking popular support, fought one another fiercely, leaving at least six people dead by week’s end. The now-defunct institute stood about halfway between the two forces. About one kilometre to the west were opposition leaders, using the television studios that they have seized to denounce Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia as a dictator. To the east, along a six-lane thoroughfare, loyalists at the barricaded state legislature swore that only Gamsakhurdia could lead Georgia to full independence.

And over that stalemated struggle for power loomed what parliamentary chairman Akaki Asatiani called the “threat of civil war.”

Strongly held political positions are customary in Georgia, a sunny, mountainous republic whose 5.4 million residents can choose between more than 100 political parties. And Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident who has endured jail terms and solitary confinement during the long struggle for Georgian independence, has been one of his native land’s most controversial political figures. Supporters of the 52-year-old president point to the overwhelming popular mandate that he received last May, when 87 per cent of participating voters awarded him a five-year term in office. But opposition leaders,

including his former prime minister and foreign minister, say that Gamsakhurdia is becoming a dictator who is stifling democracy by jailing rivals and critics and taking control of the media. The inconclusive gun battles in Tbilisi last week underlined the economic and political

paralysis that has gripped the republic during a month-long standoff between the two sides. And although at week’s end both sides entered negotiations and expressed at least modest hope of compromise, the fighting in Georgia and elsewhere has dimmed the chances of the former Soviet Union transforming itself peacefully into a loose assembly of independent states.

The taming of the August coup has severely weakened the Kremlin’s political and military control, and ethnic violence and political unrest have erupted in many areas. In the southwestern republic of Moldova, three people were injured last week when contingents of republican police cleared barriers at a bridge over the Dniester river. Members of the area’s 700,000 Russian and Ukrainian population had erected the roadblocks to strengthen their self-proclaimed establishment of the Trans-Dniester Republic. Meanwhile, on the river’s eastern bank, representatives of the Slavic population say bluntly that they do not share the Moldovan majority’s desire for unification with their ethnic group in neighboring Romania.

Further south in the old empire, fresh ethnic violence erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region claimed by both Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia.

And the Central Asian republic of Tadzhikistan dramatically reversed the anti-Communist tide that has swept across the Soviet Union in the wake of the coup: legislators in the republic’s Communistdominated parliament forced the resignation of reformist acting President Kadreddin Aslonov. They also revoked Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s suspension of Communist activities. Thousands of protesters assembled in the centre of the republican capital, Dushanbe, to demonstrate against the party’s action.

In Georgia, meanwhile, the Kremlin’s influence, real or imagined, seemed to be everywhere. Both opponents and supporters of Gamsakhurdia said that the current fighting will only keep the republic bound to a discredited empire. During an impromptu discussion in a stairwell of the TV centre that the opposition forces seized on Sept. 18, Nodar Notadze, a

62-year-old economist and politician, told Maclean’s that even the triumph of democratic reformers in Moscow did not necessarily mean the end of Russian imperialism. Notadze, one of the leaders of a 37-party coalition that is now opposing Gamsakhurdia, declared: “It is hard for any of the current generation of Russian politicians to really let go of such a rich prize as Georgia.”

Tengiz Sigua, the former prime minister who was recently dismissed from Gamsakhurdia’s government, added another element to the conspiracy theories swirling around Tbilisi. He cited Gamsakhurdia’s swift co-operation with the hard-line coup leaders in August,

particularly his attempt to dissolve the republic’s 15,000-member national guard. But 1,500 men in the newly formed militia refused to obey that order, providing Gamsakhurdia’s opponents with an armed force to support their demands. Sigua said that the Georgian president’s motive for initially accepting the coup was simple: he thought that it would help him to develop his personal dictatorship. Gamsakhurdia denies that charge and, in fact, any suggestion that he is building authoritarian power.

As Sigua talked, some of the rebel guardsmen protecting the building passed the time by cleaning their AK-47 automatic rifles and sharpening bayonets and heavy combat knives. Outside, other soldiers propped themselves against the darkgreen hulls of three armored personnel carriers that were parked nearby. Only two kilometres away, there was a similar scene at the imposing legislature building that was shielded by a cordon of parked buses. Two armored vehicles stood in the courtyard, and thirsty soldiers who had remained loyal to Gamsakhurdia used an ornamental fountain as a handy source of drinking water. Inside the vaulted marble halls of the parliament, Gamsakhurdia, a tall figure in a well-cut, double-breasted grey suit, expounded his theory of the cause of Georgia’s troubles. According to the president, so-called agents of the Kremlin, notably fellow Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze, had unleashed a civil and military coup against him.

To most outsiders, that accusation against the former Soviet foreign minister sounds absurd. The reason: Shevardnadze resigned his post in December while warning of a coming dictatorship. And Shevardnadze, who has consistently denied involvement in any conspiracy against Gamsakhurdia, never wavered in his opposition to the coup leaders’ three-day hold on power in August.

Few of his Georgian countrymen share the Western view of Shevardnadze as a silver-haired liberal statesman. Instead, they recall him as a hard-line former police chief and first secretary of the local Communist party. During his 14-year tenure ending in 1985, the London| based human-rights group 5 Amnesty International comT; plained about his ruthless

crackdown on Georgian nationalists. One of those opponents of Soviet rule, imprisoned for several months between 1977 and 1979, was Gamsakhurdia—one of the few dissidents who eventually succeeded Communist rulers to power.

In any event, Georgians’ sharply differing views of Gamsakhurdia as would-be dictator or nationalist savior hardened as violence struck the streets of Tbilisi. Two soldiers from each side died last week in an early-morning clash near the city’s electrical-power administration building. Government representatives cited numerous bullet pockmarks in the building’s

walls and windows to support their claim that rebel guardsmen had attacked the structure. But Georgy Shengelya, a film-maker who was acting as a spokesman for the opposition, insisted that pro-government soldiers had fired first: on a car whose driver was taking a sick rebel guardsman to hospital.

In the tense hours that followed that shooting, the armed gangs stood tensely at opposite ends of Rustaveli Prospekt. Local church leaders conducted sporadic negotiations, but with no sign of success. Since Sept. 2, barricades have transformed the broad, tree-lined thoroughfare into a pedestrian mall where clusters

of Georgians meet to discuss a single subject: the danger of war. Outside the faded, prerevolutionary Tbilisi Hotel, a man in a dark-blue sports shirt stopped briefly last week to console a grieving woman acquaintance. “Did you know any of the government soldiers who were killed?” he asked her. She answered that she was crying for all the dead. He nodded, readjusting the hunting rifle on his shoulder, then striding on to his post: defending Gamsakhurdia against Georgians who have made another choice.

MALCOLM GRAY in Tbilisi

LIFE AMONG THE REBEL FIGHTERS

WORLD

The sound of a truck backfiring caused trigger fingers to tighten near a former Communist Youth camp outside Tbilisi last week. The most recent occupants of that site, on a windswept hillside about 10 km from the Georgian capital, were tired men with a tendency to respond nervously to loud, unexpected noises. Behind a makeshift roadblock anchored by two Soviet-made Kamaz trucks were some of the 1,500 rebel members of the Georgian national guard, the armed corps of opposition resistance to Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. As he alternately fulfilled his obligations to local traditions of hospitality and to his military duties—offering a chair to a visitor, then waving a car filled with armed sympathizers through the checkpoint—an officer explained the special need for alertness in a

land sliding into civil war. Said 41-year-old Johny Mokhevishvili: “We are all Georgians, and the soldiers who are loyal to Gamsakhurdia wear the same uniforms as we do.”

For Mokhevishvili, his current posting is also the most troublesome in a 23-year military career that has taken him to such far-flung outposts as the Soviet-held Kurile Islands in the northern Pacific and the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan. But eight months ago, Mokhevishvili resigned his Soviet Army commission as a senior captain to become the commander of a 1,000-man battalion in the fledgling Georgian national guard. Now, he and a significant number of other guardsmen have turned against Gamsakhurdia. According to Mokhevishvili, they did so for reasons that range from Gamsakhurdia’s initial support of the rightwing coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August to a fight on Sept. 2 in Tbilisi during which Georgian government troops fired on an opposition rally and wounded several unarmed demonstrators near the state legislature.

Mokhevishvili, a stocky man wearing a red beret that was pushed well back from his tanned, lined face, dryly noted that he and his men did not plan to suffer a similar fate. And certainly, the battalion commander seemed adequately prepared: he had a large combat knife and pistol strapped to his legs and three automatic-rifle magazines, each containing 32 cartridges, in the belt that encircled his sand-colored fatigues. Another three banana-shaped clips, tightly bound together with straps of blue and yellow tape, were attached to the Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder. Mokhevishvili stressed that the rebels would not lay down their arms until Gamsakhurdia either resigned or agreed to their demands for democratic reforms. Then, he assessed his future if the opposition failed to attain that goal. Said Mokhevishvili: “If we do not succeed, we will all likely be in jail—or dead.”

M. G.