Georgia orders probe into ex-president’s suicide

A coffin with body of the first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in front of Georgian Parliament during a funeral in Tbilisi, 01 April 2007 (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Georgian Parliament has voted to create a commission to investigate the alleged suicide of the country’s first president Gamsakhurdia - an outspoken nationalist who died while waging a war against government troops.

The Georgian parliament voted 78-1 to restart the investigation into Gamsakhurdia’s death. It is not clear how investigators will probe events that took place 15 years ago, especially given that the first Georgian president did not find rest even after his death.

Zviyad Gamsakhurdia was a dissident and a human rights activist in Soviet times and even was sentenced to exile by a Soviet court for his political beliefs. In 1991, he was elected president of independent Georgia, only to be overthrown by a different nationalist group seven months later. Gamsakhurdia spent several months besieged in a bunker desperately asking neighboring countries for asylum. He was refused by all but the leader of Chechen nationalist militants Dzhokhar Dudayev, and moved to Chechnya together with his family in 1992. In 1993, Gamsakhurdia returned to Georgia and started a civil war in an attempt to regain presidential power. After a brief period of victories, his forces were defeated and he himself fled to the mountains, where he died on December 31, 1993. The official version was that Gamsakhurdia shot himself with a pistol, but many of his supporters still believe that he was murdered.

Gamsakhurdia was first buried in Western Georgia but, at the request of his family, the body was exhumed and buried again in Chechnya. His grave was heavily damaged during the first Chechen campaign, and the body was reburied again in a secret place when the counter-terrorist operation started in Chechnya in 1999. This grave was found only in 2007, and Gamsakhurdia’s remains were transported to Russia for a forensic expertise that proved their authenticity. Then, the remains were handed over to Georgian authorities, after which Gamsakhurdia was buried once again in a solemn ceremony in Tbilisi’s Pantheon.

While the story of Gamsakhurdia’s death and numerous reburials is intriguing itself in the light of the fresh decision to restart investigation, the story of him coming to power is probably even more interesting as it shows where the sentiments of Georgia’s current leadership lie.

Gamsakhurdia’s popularity was based on radical nationalism and exploiting acute national problems in small, yet very multi-ethnic, Georgia. While declaring opposition to the Soviet regime, he at the same time repeatedly put forward ideas against “Russian occupation” and even “Georgia for Georgians”. In 1989, Gamsakhurdia’s supporters launched a “March to Tskhinval” seeking to regain control over South Ossetia, as this republic did not intend to become part of independent Georgia. The march, while initially announced as peaceful, ended in clashes with South Ossetian militia and Russian troops, and led to several months of siege during which Georgians killed several dozen Ossetians and wounded many more.

The slogans announced by the current Georgian authorities and President Mikhail Saakashvili are strikingly like those used by the early nationalists led by Gamsakhurdia. Notwithstanding this, the first Georgian president is still a relatively popular figure, especially in Western Georgia, and using his name in propaganda could add unity to a split Georgian society. When Georgians here think about Gamsakhurdia’s death, they surely remember that the operation against his mutiny was carried out with the help of Russian troops, even though they arrived in the country at the request of the then Georgian authorities.

The question remains whether it is correct for a pro-Western regime that considers itself liberal and democratic to use a dead nationalist to boost spirits. And another question is the choice of the long-dead Gamsakhurdia and not some of the more-recent and much more-suspicious deaths that happened in Georgia soon after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power and started his campaign of territorial reclaims. A good example is the case of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvaniya, who died in February 2005. The official version of his death was carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty gas heater. However, the official investigation provided controversial results and the opposition soon started to claim that Zhvaniya was murdered, and even that Saakashvili himself was involved in this case.

On the other hand, apart from the will of the authorities, a new probe into Zhvaniya’s death would require certain courage from the investigators, as the original incident was followed by a string of events akin to those that took place after JFK’s assassination. The day after the Prime Minister's body was found, a top clerk from Zhvaniya’s office shot himself with a shotgun that did not belong to him. A short time later, the man who headed the investigation was shot dead by a friend who committed suicide immediately afterwards, cutting all leads.

Moreover, when former Georgian defense minister Irakli Okruashvili questioned the official version of Zhvaniya’s death, he was arrested and charged with corruption and abuse of office. He was released after retracting his claims, and eventually had to seek asylum in France.

However, this is not the likely fate of those who investigate the death of Gamsahurdia.

Kirill Bessonov, RT