ZVIAD GAMSAKHURDIA was a passionate nationalist, a highly cultured man, independent Georgia's first democratically elected President, but also a dictator who sowed conflict and destruction. His burial yesterday in Grozny, Chechnya (a Russian federation), the scene of his recent exile from Georgia, ended nearly two months of uncertainty as to how or even whether he had died.
A Mingrelian from west Georgia, Gamsakhurdia championed that region against the rest. As President he attempted to impose a monoethnic state, a disaster for non- Georgians. First South Ossetia tried to join North Ossetia in Russia, then Abkhazia aspired to independence. Then Ajaria sought Russian protection. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 heralded the rise of nationalism and ethnic exclusiveness. Georgia is living testimony to the destructiveness of this potent mixture and Gamsakhurdia was its high priest.
He was born into a Georgian family in 1939, in Tbilisi, the son of Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, a leading Georgian literary figure. Some of his forebears were princes. He graduated from the faculty of West European languages at Tbilisi State University, and obtained his doctorate in philology. He was a Shakespeare scholar, translated the bard into Georgian and was competent in Russian, French and German as well. In 1991 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Georgian Academy of Sciences for his book The Language of the Forms of the Knight in a Lordly Skin.
He became politically active in the 1950s, was arrested but continued to be politically active in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and became the editor of the first samizdat newspapers and journals. He was imprisoned between 1977 and 1979 and afterwards found a cultural haven in the Shota Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature. His interests ranged over Georgian culture, theology, anthropology, foreign literatures and mythology.
Under perestroika he relentlessly pursued a nationalist line: Georgia could only flourish when it was independent and free. He was speaker of the Georgian Supreme Soviet in 1990-91, and after Georgia had voted for independence in March 1991, he was its first democratically elected President, with over 87 per cent of the votes. Conflict with parliament began immediately, with Gamsakhurdia being accused of being dictatorial. The President regarded all criticism as a personal slight and developed paranoid tendencies. His mental stability was in question. Refusing compromise, Gamsakhurdia and his military men were inevitably opposed by other groups, based on clan and regional loyalties. Georgia descended into the pit of armed conflict and faced break-up.
Gamsakhurdia was finally driven into exile in Armenia in January 1992. From there he plotted his return but it was not until September 1993 that he appeared to have a chance of regaining his state. He repaired to his support base of Zugdidi, in western Georgia, while his arch-enemy, Eduard Shevardnadze, was fighting for his existence in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. It was not to be because Shevardnadze, shorn of alternatives, secured Russian military aid by conceding Russian dominance of the region. The Russians routed Gamsakhurdia's ill-trained, ill-equipped and undisciplined forces. There was no way back for the dragon of Georgia.
Gamsakhurdia never understood democracy to mean pluralism. His goal of a monoethnic Georgia was bound to cause conflict in a period of awakening ethnic identity. The conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia played into Russia hands. Indeed he saw the conflict as one fuelled by Moscow, his opponents orchestrated by the KGB.
Gamsakhurdia was a tragic figure. A fervent nationalist who was incapable of uniting Georgians, let alone non-Georgians. He was only rational when discussing literature. Politics to him was a blood feud. In this he was like a bandit ruling his own small area and determined to demonstrate to all the other banditti that he was dominant. Unfortunately the other banditti called on the largest bandit of all, Russia, to resolve the conflict.
His legacy will be that he wished his country well but that Georgian independence turned into an unmitigated disaster. Under Gamsakhurdia the country's economy collapsed and a proud nation was brought to its knees. He must bear part or perhaps much of the blame for this sad state of affairs.