GEORGIA'S deposed president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who led an armed rebellion against the Russian-backed government in Tbilisi, was reported yesterday to have committed suicide.
A brief dispatch from Interfax news agency quoted Gamsakhurdia's wife, Manana, in exile in Grozny, the capital of the breakaway Chechen Republic, as saying that Georgia's first democratically elected leader had taken his life on New Year's Eve after being trapped by his enemies in western Georgia. But according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, citing Gamsakhurdia's press office in Grozny, minutes before his death, the ousted president had made the following statement: 'I commit this act in sound mind, as an act of protest against the existing regime in Georgia.'
There was no independent confirmation of Gamsakhurdia's death and the Georgian Security Ministry, quoting intelligence sources, confused matters by saying that the former leader had been shot on 30 December in Grozny and died only yesterday. Whatever the truth, if Gamsakhurdia really is dead, the authorities in Tbilisi will have a hard time disguising their delight.
Gamsakhurdia, 54, was always a controversial figure. A passionate Georgian nationalist, he was, during the Soviet era, an active member of a dissident circle led by Merab Kostava and morally supported by the late Russian physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. But after his arrest by the KGB, Gamsakhurdia recanted on television, which led many Georgians to suspect he had been turned by the Soviet secret police. He stood in Georgia's first presidential elections in 1991 after Kostava died in a car accident. Georgians put aside their doubts about Gamsakhurdia, an expert on Shakespeare, by saying that he was after all the son of a much-loved Georgian writer.
But after he took power, his critics began accusing him of dictatorial tendencies and suggesting he was mentally unstable. The former dissident did indeed clamp down on the press and use a heavy hand against rebels in the region of South Ossetia, but he argued that he had to be tough because Moscow was deliberately stirring up trouble to weaken the newly independent Georgian state.
In January 1992, rival nationalists ousted Gamsakhurdia in a brief civil war. Shortly after he had fled to Grozny, Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, returned to his homeland to rule.
In Tbilisi, few shed any tears for Gamsakhurdia although some intellectuals objected to the undemocratic manner of his removal. But he retained loyal support in his native Mingrelia provice in the west, for some curious reason among middle-aged women and among nationalists who feared Mr Shevardnadze would hand Georgia back to its old masters in the Kremlin.
Mr Shevardnadze was, in fact, as committed to Georgian independence as Gamsakhurdia. But last year's civil war in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia - some say it was provoked by Moscow - brought Georgia to its knees. And Gamsakhurdia made matters worse by using that moment of Tbilisi's discomfort to return from Grozny and start a rebellion against Mr Shevardnadze.
With heavy heart, the present Georgian leader agreed to take his republic into the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States in exchange for military co-operation from Russia. Proud Georgia was effectively back in the Russian empire and the bickering nationalists had only themselves to blame.
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