In one of the most stunning displays of glasnost yet seen in the Soviet Union, a senior army general and a former Communist Party official Tuesday virtually accused each other of lying about the brutal suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Soviet Georgia last month.
Members of the new Congress of People’s Deputies sat in rapt attention as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev pledged to find out the truth about the events in the southern republic. Twenty demonstrators were killed April 9 when troops used poison gas and sharpened shovels to clear a square in front of the local Communist Party headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital.
Liberal deputies interrupted with cries of “shame” as the military commander in the Transcaucasus region, Col. Gen. Igor Rodionov, defended the actions of his troops.
Rodionov accused Georgian politicians of seeking to shift the blame for the tragedy to the army. He insisted that he had acted in accordance with instructions from local party leaders.
The congress then heard an emotional speech by Georgia’s former Communist Party leader, Dzhumber Patiashvili, acknowledging that he had authorized the army to clear a square occupied by several thousand Georgian nationalists. But he accused army commanders of using excessive violence against the demonstrators and covering up the use of poison gas.
Patiashvili, who said he resigned as party chief as soon as he heard about the casualties, told the deputies that soldiers had “beaten people cruelly” after chasing them half a mile down Tbilisi’s main street.
“You must ask who gave the order to use toxic agents and shovels. Who took the decision about the level of cruelty to be used against the population?” he said.
Gorbachev told the congress Tuesday that the government must get to the bottom of the Tbilisi affair, and he supported calls for the formation of a parliamentary commission to investigate the incident.
Tuesday’s debate--which provoked much more emotion than Gorbachev’s own address hours before--followed the publication of a report by Georgian deputies accusing the military of a “mass massacre.” A Georgian academic, Tamaz Gamkrelidze, took the floor to demand that Rodionov be expelled from the congress because of his role in the incident.
“It is an insult to national feelings, the entire population of our republic, that Col. Gen. Rodionov still sits” in the congress, said Gamkrelidze, who received a standing ovation.