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Georgia: Leader Walks Thin Line Between Patriotism And Nationalism

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch --> Mikheil Saakashvili 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 bombs.

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 circumstances.

Another recurrent trait of the new leader's discourse is his insistence in denouncing the alleged intrigues of Georgia's purported "enemies."

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 exist."

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 tendencies.

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."