The Rise of Gamsakhurdia

Georgia Table of Contents

Partly as a result of the conspiratorial nature of antigovernment activity prior to 1989, opposition groups tended to be small, tightly knit units organized around prominent individuals. The personal ambitions of opposition leaders prevented the emergence of a united front, but Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the most widely honored and recognized of the nationalist dissidents, moved naturally to a position of leadership. The son of Georgia's foremost contemporary novelist, Gamsakhurdia had gained many enemies during the communist years in acrimonious disputes and irreconcilable factional splits.

Opposition pressure resulted in an open, multiparty election in October 1990. Despite guarantees written into the new law on elections, many prominent opposition parties boycotted the vote, arguing that their groups could not compete fairly and that their participation under existing conditions would only legitimize continuation of Georgia's "colonial status" within the Soviet system.

As an alternative, the opposition parties had held their own election, without government approval, in September 1990. Although the minimum turnout for a valid election was not achieved, the new "legislative" body, called the Georgian National Congress, met and became a center of opposition to the government chosen in the official October election. In the officially sanctioned voting, Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition won a solid majority in the Supreme Soviet, Georgia's official parliamentary body.

Arguably the most virulently anticommunist politician ever elected in a Soviet republic, Gamsakhurdia was intolerant of all political opposition. He often accused his opposition of treason or involvement with the KGB. The quality of political debate in Georgia was lowered by the exchange of such charges between Gamsakhurdia and opposition leaders such as Gia Chanturia of the National Democratic Party.

After his election, Gamsakhurdia's greatest concern was the armed opposition. Both Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition and some opposition factions in the Georgian National Congress had informal military units, which the previous, communist Supreme Soviet had legalized under pressure from informal groups. The most formidable of these groups were the Mkhedrioni (horsemen), said to number 5,000 men, and the socalled National Guard. The new parliament, dominated by Gamsakhurdia, outlawed such groups and ordered them to surrender their weapons, but the order had no effect. After the elections, independent military groups raided local police stations and Soviet military installations, sometimes adding formidable weaponry to their arsenals. In February 1991, a Soviet army counterattack against Mkhedrioni headquarters had led to the imprisonment of the Mkhedrioni leader.

Gamsakhurdia moved quickly to assert Georgia's independence from Moscow. He took steps to bring the Georgian KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs (both overseen until then from Moscow) under his control. Gamsakhurdia refused to attend meetings called by Gorbachev to preserve a working union among the rapidly separating Soviet republics. Gamsakhurdia's communications with the Soviet leader usually took the form of angry telegrams and telephone calls. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia ended the collection in Georgia of Gorbachev's national sales tax on the grounds that it damaged the Georgian economy. Soon Georgia ceased all payments to Moscow, and the central government took steps to isolate the republic economically.

Rather than consent to participate in Gorbachev's March 1991 referendum on preserving a federation of Soviet republics, Gamsakhurdia organized a separate referendum on Georgian independence. The measure was approved by 98.9 percent of Georgian voters. Shortly thereafter, on the second anniversary of the April Tragedy (April 9, 1991), the Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, Georgia refused to participate in the formation or subsequent activities of the Commonwealth of Independent States ( CIS), the loose confederation of independent republics that succeeded the Soviet Union.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress