Georgia: Leader Walks Thin Line Between Patriotism And Nationalism

Radio Free Europe, Czech republic
April 10 2004

Georgia: Leader Walks Thin Line Between Patriotism And Nationalism
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has decreed the year 2004 will
be the “year of Zviad Gamsakhurdia,” in reference to his late
nationalist predecessor. Starting today, the memory of Georgia’s
first post-Soviet leader will be honored throughout the country. Why
does Saakashvili seem so eager to claim a lineage between himself and
Gamsakhurdia? Is it just part of an overall attempt at strengthening
Georgian statehood, or could it possibly signal a return to
state-sponsored nationalism?

Prague, 9 April 2004 (RFE/RL) — Today in Georgia marks the beginning
of official ceremonies to celebrate the memory of late nationalist
leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

President Mikheil Saakashvili and members of his government were to
attend a religious service celebrated by Ilia II, the head of
Georgia’s Orthodox Church, at Tbilisi’s Sioni (Mount Zion) Cathedral.
Later, a party will be held at Tbilisi Opera House to commemorate the
65th birthday of Georgia’s first post-Soviet elected president.

These ceremonies coincide with the 15th anniversary of the 1989
Soviet military crackdown in Tbilisi and the 13th anniversary of
Georgia’s declaration of independence. State-sponsored events to
commemorate Gamsakhurdia’s legacy will extend over the next six
months throughout the country.

Attending a private memorial service at Sioni Cathedral on 31 March
to mark Gamsakhurdia’s 65th birthday, Saakashvili paid homage to the
man who spearheaded Georgia’s struggle for independence under Soviet
rule. “Within these walls, [Gamsakhurdia and his] generation dreamt
of Georgia’s independence when others did not even dare thinking of
such a thing,” he said. “Here lies their main merit.”

In January 1992, just a few months after being elected, Gamsakhurdia
was ousted by a military coup that paved the way for Eduard
Shevardnadze’s return to Georgia. Forced into exile, the deposed
leader fled first to Armenia, then to Chechnya.

He died mysteriously while attempting to retake power as the head of
armed supporters. His body was interred in western Georgia and later
reburied in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s breakaway republic of
Chechnya. Officially, Gamsakhurdia committed suicide. Yet followers
of the late leader claim Shevardnadze had him assassinated.

“To me, it seems that his policy aims firstly at proving that Georgia
is a state, that its leaders are chosen by the people and that they
all deserve respect.”Meeting recently with Georgian emigres in
France, Saakashvili said he wanted today’s ceremonies to culminate
with the reburial of the presidential remains in Tbilisi. However,
Georgian authorities have been unable to locate Gamsakhurdia’s grave.
The pro-Moscow Chechen administration claims the province’s
separatist leaders had kept the grave’s location secret for fears of
possible desecration and says it may have been destroyed by Russian

Since he was elected last January, Saakashvili has been courting the
so-called Zviadists, as supporters of the late president are commonly
known. A few weeks ago, he amnestied 30 Gamsakhurdia followers who
had been in jail since 1992. Earlier this month, he similarly
pardoned armed supporters of the late leader who had been living in
western Georgia’s forests for more that a decade.

Picking up an idea briefly floated under Shevardnadze, Saakashvili
also set up a national reconciliation commission which he entrusted
to State Minister Guram Absandze, a well-known Zviadist. Saakashvili
said the time has come to “consolidate the nation” and “end the
division of Georgian society into rival camps.”

Gaga Nizharadze works with the Tbilisi-based Center for the Study of
Conflicts and Mediations. While disagreeing with Saakashvili’s
decision to honor Gamsakhurdia’s memory, he believes it mainly stems
from efforts aimed at strengthening Georgia’s statehood.

“To me, it seems that his policy aims firstly at proving that Georgia
is a state, that its leaders are chosen by the people and that they
all deserve respect. Overall, Saakashvili’s policy aims at restoring
the symbols of the state and this is something I personally welcome.
Another aspect [of his policy] is that he is eager to garner as much
popular support as possible, including from among partisans of the
late president. To a certain extent, one can of course see here an
attempt to rehabilitate [Gamsakhurdia],” Nizharadze said.

Yet, even within nationalist circles, Saakashvili’s initiative is not
approved unanimously. Some Zviadists in particular say he has no
“moral right” to appeal to Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader until
the circumstances of his death are clear. In an apparent effort to
meet these concerns, Saakashvili recently ordered the
Prosecutor-General’s Office to reopen an investigation into the
former president’s alleged suicide and review criminal charges
leveled against him after his ousting.

Whatever Saakashvili’s motives for resurrecting his predecessor, his
initiative has sparked some misgivings among those who had suffered
from Gamsakhurdia’s authoritarian traits and xenophobic rhetoric of
“Georgia for the Georgians.” Those include many rights campaigners
and representatives of ethnic minority groups who also question the
adoption of a new national flag sporting Christian-like symbols.

Nationalism had stopped playing a major role in domestic politics
under Shevardnadze and critics accuse his successor of dangerously
stirring patriotic feelings among Georgians.

Yet, Nizharadze believes a resurgence of state-sponsored nationalism
is unlikely to happen. “Perhaps [nationalist feelings] are gaining
strength, but I am almost certain Saakashvili will not conduct a
nationalist policy,” he said. “He is well aware of who Gamsakhurdia
was and I don’t think he has any warm feelings toward him. Both men
have a radically different [way of thinking]. Although they share
some [mental] traits, psychologically they are different.
Saakashvili’s psychological orientation is not nationalist, although,
like Gamsakhurdia, he plays on his charisma and the attraction he
exerts on the crowds.”

Emil Adelkhanov of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Peace,
Democracy, and Development (CIPDD) is less categorical. He believes
domestic circumstances are pushing Saakashvili and his mainly
Western-educated team to resort to nationalist rhetoric.

“Under Shevardnadze, this rhetoric had somehow diminished. One cannot
say it had almost disappeared. In fact, Shevardnadze [at times]
resorted to it with pleasure, but it was perceived for what it was —
mere rhetoric. The new leaders are forced to resort to it more widely
because their patriotic credentials are being permanently questioned
[by their political rivals],” Adelkhanov said.

In Adelkhanov’s opinion, whether Saakashvili’s seemingly nationalist
attitude will materialize into concrete action will depend on

Another recurrent trait of the new leader’s discourse is his
insistence in denouncing the alleged intrigues of Georgia’s purported

On 24 January, while taking an oath at the grave of the 12th-century
King David II in Gelati, Saakashvili presented himself as the
champion of the Georgian nation. “Georgia has been divided up and its
people humiliated,” he said. “Some people would like to see [Georgia]
erased from the face of the earth. I want to tell everyone that the
expectations of Georgia’s enemies will not be fulfilled. Georgia has
existed in the past; Georgia continues to exist; Georgia will always

These remarks have raised concerns among leaders of the separatist
provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who fear Saakashvili — who
overtly cultivates ties with the military — may attempt to
forcefully restore his country’s territorial integrity. And
Saakashvili’s veiled threats have not gone unnoticed in the unruly
autonomous province of Adjaria, which the new government has vowed to
bring back into its fold and recently accused of plotting against the
life of the Georgian leader.

Last week, Saakashvili denounced “separatists, enemies, and dwarves,”
who he said were flouting Georgia’s “honor and dignity.” A few days
later, government officials similarly blamed alleged “enemies of the
nation” for a purported bomb attack against the commander of
Georgian-based Russian forces.

In Nizharadze’s opinion, “enemies” has become a blanket word to
designate the Adjar leadership. However, he believes these derisive
attributions are simply exaggerations, reflective more of
Saakashvili’s temperament than an indication of nationalist

Although Adelkhanov of CIPDD hopes Saakashvili’s harsh statements
will not have serious consequences, he said they are nonetheless
fraught with danger. “[Adjar leader Aslan] Abashidze used to blame
Tbilisi for plotting against his life. Now it is Tbilisi’s turn to
make level similar charges against Abashidze,” he said. “No one will
really take these accusations seriously, and the only hope is that
they will eventually lose their value. If not, then [Saakashvili is
playing] a very bad game.”