Prague, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the eldest son of late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, made his first public appearance in Tbilisi last week (17 March) after more than a decade of exile in Switzerland.
"Those 12 years I have just left behind seem to me just a one-second interval after which I set foot again on Georgian soil,” he began. “A big marathon is awaiting us. I came back in a defeated country. Yet, I hope we will achieve great victories. Long live Georgia!"
Critics accuse Saakashvili of dangerously stirring nationalist feelings among his fellow citizens, while supporters say his policies stem from a purported 18th-century, American or French, tradition of "romantic patriotism."
A few hours earlier, as most of the Georgian capital was still asleep, several hundred cheering supporters had welcomed "Koko" -- as he is affectionately called -- at the Tbilisi airport.
Obviously moved by the reception, Gamsakhurdia improvised an impassioned speech just outside the airport.
"I'm glad that after 12 years of exile, I am offered the opportunity to set foot again on Georgian soil. Like all Georgian patriots who have once lived far away from their native land -- as the great [19th-century poet] Ilia [Chavchavadze] -- I am tormented by the following questions -- What shall I tell my country? What shall my country tell me?"
The 42-year-old Konstantine Gamsakhurdia -- named after his grandfather, Georgia's famous 20th-century novelist -- is the leader of the right-wing nationalist Tavisupleba (Liberty) party, one of the 19 political groups vying for seats in 28 March legislative polls.
He has conducted a belated and low-profile campaign, meeting with voters mainly in Tbilisi and in his late father's traditional stronghold of western Georgia.
Although the movement was set up as a party only after the 4 January presidential elections that saw Mikheil Saakashvili succeed ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, its support has been increasing. Two recent surveys ranked Tavisupleba among the three parties that enjoy the strongest popular support after the ruling National Movement-United Democrats coalition.
True, the polls indicate that only the latter looks set to win enough votes to enter the legislature. But Mikheil Machavariani, the secretary-general of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's ruling United Democrats, recently told RFE/RL he believes Tavisupleba and two other nongovernmental groups will overcome the 7-percent vote barrier required to win parliamentary seats.
Georgia's Kavkaz-Press news agency said (22 March) the rating of Gamsakhurdia's party had increased from 1 percent to 6 percent over the past four weeks. It is believed that Tavisupleba is appealing especially to Georgians who feel nostalgic for the early years of post-Soviet independence when Abkhazia and South Ossetia had not completed their secession.
Those voters include, naturally, supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The Zviadists -- as they are known in Georgia -- have set up a number of small parties that are engaged in a bitter rivalry over Gamsakhurdia's political heritage. Among them is the former president's widow, Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia, who returned from exile in 1997 and has been running an impotent "shadow cabinet" for the past four years.
Many prominent sympathizers of the late leader have joined the ranks of mainstream right-wing parties, such as Saakashvili's National-Movement or Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze's Agordzineba (Democratic Revival Union).
Political experts believe Konstantine Gamsakhurdia could, more than anyone else, appeal to the rank-and-file Zviadists.
Merab Pachulia is director of a respected polling agency known as the Georgian Opinion Research Business International, or GORBI. He tells our correspondent that this potential stems more from Gamsakhurdia's charisma and pedigree than from his political views.
"[Unlike other Zviadists], he is the direct heir to former President Gamsakhurdia," Pachulia said. "That is where his main attraction lies. But there is more to it. He very much looks like his late father, not only physically, but also in the way he speaks and moves around. This, of course, is of great help to him because -- as of today, in any case -- he has refrained from making any clear-cut [political] statement or proposing any pragmatic step to extirpate Georgia from its present situation. If he succeeds in overcoming the 7-percent vote barrier, he will owe it mainly to the fact that he is his father's son. Nobody has heard of him or read anything from him for the past 12 years when he had been in Switzerland, be it an article or an interview in which he would have criticized the ruling regime. His only political background is provided by his father and his father's former comrades-in-arms that are still alive and live in Georgia."
Gamsakhurdia and his supporters have been particularly sparing of words when it comes to detailing their electoral platform. When reporters last week asked him about his long-term political goals, he remained evasive while also attempting to distance himself from his late father's xenophobic policies.
"[Our goal is] to enter the Georgian Parliament," he said. "We will be more specific when we become a member of parliament. Our priority is to prepare Georgia's entry into the European Union, and one of the conditions for that is to protect the rights of our ethnic minorities."
Asked about his views on Saakashvili's policies, Gamsakhurdia simply indicated he approved of the government's efforts to restore control over Georgia's autonomous province of Adjaria.
Critics accuse Saakashvili of dangerously stirring nationalist feelings among his fellow citizens, while supporters say his policies stem from a purported 18th-century American, or French, tradition of "romantic patriotism."
Even before being elected in January, Saakashvili had set up a government commission to investigate the circumstances of Gamsakhurdia's death in 1993.
Georgia's first post-Soviet leader was deposed after a few months in power by a military coup that paved the way for Shevardnadze's return to his homeland. Zviad Gamsakhurdia fled first to Armenia, then to Grozny to join Chechen separatist leader Djokhar Dudayev. He died in western Georgia while attempting to retake power at the head of his armed supporters. Officially, he committed suicide, but his supporters claim he was assassinated.
He was reburied in Chechnya a few months after his death.
Following his decision to pardon 30 prisoners sentenced in 1992 for supporting Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Saakashvili on 9 March said he wants the late president's remains to be repatriated to Georgia. Saakashvili said his decision is motivated not only by his "respect" for the former leader, but also by his desire to make the best use of the Zviadists' "patriotism.”
"We should offer the best patriots Georgia has -- I mean here the majority of Zviadists, or rather, all 100 percent of them -- the opportunity to put their patriotism to good use and contribute to the reconstruction of the country."
Although formally in the opposition, Tavisupleba officials have indicated they may support Saakashvili's government after the legislative elections.
Last month (18 Feb), Georgia's Prime news agency quoted Sandro Bregadze, a leading Tavisupleba member, as saying he does not see any particular reason why the party should remain in opposition since the government's policies are -- in his words -- "acceptable."
GORBI director Pachulia also believes an alliance between Tavisupleba and the ruling coalition is possible, although he says he cannot elaborate on the government's views on this particular issue.
"All I can say is that when [Konstantine] Gamsakhurdia [a few days ago] met passers-by on [Tbilisi's main] Rustaveli Avenue, he was accompanied by those same jeeps that usually travel with government officials. I am not the only one who has witnessed that. Already from this you can start making your own judgment. Barred from any personal hatred, I believe [cooperation between Tavisupleba and the ruling coalition] is possible and that they will work together. I do not mean that the two parties will merge, but I would not be surprised if they worked together. That would seem normal, and this is probably what is going to happen."
The Central Election Commission initially indicated that the Tavisupleba leader could be barred from running as a candidate because -- under Georgian law -- only citizens who have been residents of the country for at least the past two years are eligible.
But a commission spokesman told RFE/RL the election body eventually gave Gamsakhurdia the green light after finding out that he had been granted the status of political refugee by Swiss authorities and had been registered as such by the Georgian Embassy in Geneva.