The Georgian president bowed his head to enter St. Nino Church, lit seven slender candles and prayed for his nation’s victory in its battle to free itself from the Kremlin.
It was Palm Sunday and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner who is now the president, was asking for God’s help as the people of Georgia went to the polls that day to vote on the mountainous republic’s independence from the Soviet Union.
A heavy smell of burning wax and incense wafted through the small exposed-brick church, a choir sang liturgical hymns, and a priest dressed in golden robes emerged from behind a curtain and motioned to Gamsakhurdia to join him in the inner sanctuary.
Christianity is more than just a religion to Gamsakhurdia, who sees his faith intertwined in what it means to be Georgian. His strong sense of national identity has compelled him to fight against the Communist Party’s rule for more than three decades. Now it presses him to struggle to create a Georgia that is no longer under the influence of Moscow and is rid of all the remnants of 70 years of communism.
“Let everyone know that we were fighting and are fighting for the restoration of the religious and national ideals of our ancestors,” Gamsakhurdia said in a powerful first speech to the new democratically elected Georgian legislature.
“We are fighting against the eternal night of godlessness and injustice. Our honest deed is protected by the Almighty, and therefore we will be victorious.”
Away from the microphone, in the solitude of his office, Gamsakhurdia expressed his goal more directly: “I want my sons to live in a Christian and democratic Georgia.”
Governing Georgia as it disentangles itself from the Soviet system is not only about tossing out Communist Party officials and subordinating the KGB security police.
It also means rebuilding Georgia as a distinct country by restoring aspects of its culture and traditions that have been destroyed during seven decades of Communist Party rule.
After 35 years as one of Georgia’s most prominent dissidents, Gamsakhurdia has traded his protest placards for a luxurious office in the House of Government, swapped his jeans and sport shirts for well-tailored double-breasted suits and tried to tone down the emotional nationalist speeches for which he is famous.
“It is very hard to get accustomed to my new position,” Gamsakhurdia said. “All my life I was in the opposition and fought against the government. Now I am the government.”
Gamsakhurdia and his political bloc, the Round Table, swept into power last October in the Soviet Union’s first multi-party elections, and Gamsakhurdia was elected as president by the new legislature.
More than 90% of Georgia’s 3.4 million voters went to the polls on March 31 and 98.93% of them voted for independence. Gamsakhurdia says he will use this overwhelming victory to prove to the West and to the Kremlin that his people want to be free.
“For people of Georgia, it’s natural that I’m president,” Gamsakhurdia, 52, said with a self-assured smile. “But Moscow is mad.”
No one else was suited to command Georgia’s battle for freedom from the Kremlin, Gamsakhurdia said with barely a trace of self-consciousness, adding that he expects to be president for a long time. Most of Georgia’s 5 million people agree that Gamsakhurdia alone has the qualities necessary to stand up to Moscow--and win.
“There is no alternative to him,” Zura Toporidze, 34, a printer, said after casting his vote for Georgian independence in the March 31 referendum. “He is a real patriot. The kind of man Georgia needs today.”
“He’s a person who has sacrificed himself for his nation,” Zigfried Bebia, 48, an agriculture specialist, added. “Since his childhood he has struggled for independence of Georgia.”
Almost everyone in Georgia can cite Gamsakhurdia’s dissident resume. At 17, he and his longtime friend Merab Kostava were arrested for passing out anti-Soviet pamphlets in downtown Tbilisi, the republic’s capital. Two years later, they were sentenced to a second term on trumped-up charges of petty hooliganism.
Kostava’s mother, in an interview published after her son was killed in a car crash last year, said the two boys did not play together, but instead spent their time making plans to free Georgia.
“From his childhood, he hated the Communists,” said Tengiz Kitovani, an elementary school classmate of Gamsakhurdia who is now the head of the Georgian National Guard. “He was taught by his father to be against the Communists. The Georgian nationalist movement was started by his father, and Zviad continued it.”
In many Georgian homes, offices and restaurants, portraits of Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, Zviad’s late father who is a beloved author, hang alongside portraits of his son, Georgia’s new president.
“Gamsakhurdia is extremely popular with the people,” Merab Abdaladze, a Georgian government spokesman, said. “They feel about him the way Czechoslovaks feel about (President) Vaclav Havel.”
Like Havel, Gamsakhurdia founded a Helsinki Group in 1976 to monitor human rights offenses. It also defends the Georgian language, church and cultural monuments. He published underground periodicals, went on hunger strikes, organized demonstrations and kept in contact with the Western press throughout the harshest periods of President Leonid I. Brezhnev’s rule in the 1970s.
“The Georgian people have an overdeveloped sense of gratitude toward Gamsakhurdia and a few of his friends who were the only ones who wrote articles against the Communists for many years,” Nodar Nataze, leader of the opposition Popular Front party, said.
“My opinion of him is not very high, but anytime you criticize the present government of Georgia, it seems like you are helping the (Soviet) empire. That’s why people do not want to speak badly about Gamsakhurdia.”
Gamsakhurdia has one black spot on his past, which makes it difficult for some of his former colleagues in dissent to trust him.
In 1977, Gamsakhurdia was arrested for the third time for spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. During the evening of the final day of his trial, state television showed a film clip in which he repented his past political activities.
As a result, he received a reduced sentence of three years in prison, rather than the seven many other dissidents were given; he served only part of his term and was released in the summer of 1979.
Gamsakhurdia explains his controversial television appearance by saying he felt obliged to make it because KGB agents had threatened to deport him to the West if he failed to renounce his activities.
“My place was in Georgia,” Gamsakhurdia said in an interview late last month. “The nationalist movement would have been lost without me.”
But some people have not yet forgiven him.
“Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a real proponent of the human rights movement, and we had good feelings about him,” Mustafa Dzhemilev, a longtime leader of the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement, said. “But after that television appearance, none of the other human rights activists respected him.”
In Tbilisi, however, that episode has faded in most people’s memories. His critics have other, more recent complaints about how he is running his government.
“I used to know Gamsakhurdia well, but then I discovered his real character--he’s a dictator,” said Zurab Donelia, 32, member of the paramilitary Mkhedrioni group. “He keeps the press, television and radio under his subordination. Whoever dares to oppose him is arrested as a criminal and kept behind bars without cause. This is some evidence that he aspires to dictatorship.”
Dzhemilev, a longtime human rights activist who has spent 15 years in prison for political crimes, said Gamsakhurdia’s attitude toward non-Georgians in his republic is frightening.
“Gamsakhurdia has all but started a fascist regime,” Dzhemilev said. “It’s absurd considering his background as a human rights activist.”
Before the referendum, Gamsakhurdia repeatedly declared that anyone who voted against independence would be denied citizenship in an independent Georgia.
“That’s an infringement of human rights,” said a Georgian legal scholar, who asked that his name not be printed. “He’s well-educated, but he’s not clever. He says these foolish things loudly. It’s foolish because he can’t even find out who did not vote for Georgian independence.”
But Gamsakhurdia has an answer for each accusation: The 70 or so members of radical political groups who have been arrested since he took office in November were all detained for legitimate crimes like robbery, kidnaping and assault, he said. Not every kook who says he has founded a political party can be given television access and his own printing presses. And no country gives citizenship to its enemies.
His supporters say a man like Gamsakhurdia is incapable of the evil that his enemies accuse him of.
“When someone has absolute values, if his will is subordinated to some big idea, to God or some absolute idea--it’s just impossible that such a man would become a dictator,” Tengiz Davidovich, 33, Gamsakhurdia’s spokesman and former fellow dissident, said. “Gamsakhurdia is a man who knows spiritual life, he knows love for God and dependence on the deity. The path toward dictatorship is absolutely out of the question for such a man.”
Gamsakhurdia said his enemies have made so many threats on his life that he and his family are forced to live like prisoners, just as they did when he was under house arrest as a dissident.
A motorcade escorts him through Tbilisi’s steep, narrow streets to his stately three-story brick house, which was built by his father. Security guards are constantly posted on both sides of his 20-foot-high gate, and his wife and sons have not left their home for more than a month.
“My life as president is just like imprisonment,” Gamsakhurdia said while sitting at his desk in his large office. “I’m here from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then I go home, where my family lives like captives because terrorists have threatened them. . . . But we all must make sacrifices to achieve the freedom of our homeland.”
Name: Zviad Gamsakhurdia
Title: President of the Georgian Republic
Education: Earned a Ph.D. in languages and literature from Tbilisi State University and became a researcher at the Shota Rustaveli Institute for Georgian literature. Translator of Shakespeare and other British, American and French authors. He is also a literary critic and poet.
Family: Married to Manana Argbadze, a physician. They have three sons.
Quote: “Georgia is in transition from colonial existence to independence. Then Georgia will no longer be a slave of the empire or under the dictate of the empire.”