Soviet Georgia Militia Picks Its Own Course
The fighting men of Georgia wander peaceably among the quaint cabins of a former Communist Youth League camp, sporting mismatched uniforms and weapons ranging from American-made pistols to World War II-vintage, 70-round submachine guns.
But make no mistake: Ragtag though the Georgian national guard may look, its resolve is very real.
“We play the role of a stabilizer,” says Tengiz Kitovani, the professional artist who founded the guard and now commands it. “We won’t allow bloodshed between the opposition and the president. We won’t allow civil war.”
For better or worse, several of the republics that constituted the Soviet Union have established their own militias, with the potential to become unguided paramilitary forces as governmental authority disintegrates.
This is already happening here in the southwestern republic of Georgia, where the 13,000-man force has shucked off the command of the beleaguered president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The president is accused by his critics of wanting to be a dictator, using force against his opponents and of abusing human rights.
The guard has not exactly joined Gamsakhurdia’s opposition, which has thrown up barricades in the capital city of Tbilisi. But it has vowed to intervene if Gamsakhurdia, as he has threatened, uses force to break up the nightly protest meetings in the capital.
“He’s afraid we’ll attack him,” said the deputy guard commander, Avtanvil Skitishvili, with a hint of relish. “He doesn’t need to fear. We won’t attack him. But if he moves against us, we’ll respond.”
This is what Kaha Gvelesiany, an engineer who has served eight months on and off in the guard, called a “passive defense.”
“As long as the government knows that such a force is located near Tbilisi, they won’t dare to use any military force against the people,” he said.
The guard itself is split. Several hundred guardsmen have gone over to Gamsakhurdia and now protect the government headquarters in central Tbilisi. But the majority are staying stubbornly put here in Shavnabada, in a 16-square-mile camp on a mountain overlooking the capital.
Like so much else in the current chaos of Soviet politics, the Georgian guard’s resolute defiance crystallized after last month’s failed coup in Moscow against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Gamsakhurdia, according to the guard’s leaders, agreed to the coup leaders’ order that the guard be disbanded. Later, they say, he tried to make the guardsmen part of Georgia’s Interior Ministry, in effect turning them into police guards.
Instead, the guardsmen took to the mountains and forests when the coup began, deputy commander Skitishvili said, and prepared to fight the reactionary forces of the coup. They returned to their base camp only Sept. 5, more than two weeks after the coup’s defeat.
They came back with a new contempt for Gamsakhurdia, who had ordered Interior Ministry soldiers to shoot into a crowd of protesters in central Tbilisi three days earlier. Twenty were reported injured in the clash.
“The guard rejected the president as soon as it felt he could use the guard against the people,” Gvelesiany said.
Gamsakhurdia has since moved to take the guard under control by creating a new defense ministry to command them. Officers said they politely refused the new minister’s orders to decamp when he visited Thursday.
“So he shook our hand and said goodby,” Skitishvili said, deadpan but clearly reveling in the guard’s power.
Gamsakhurdia himself had supported the creation of the Georgian guard in 1989 after soldiers of the central government killed 20 Georgian nationalist protesters in late-night clashes. Now, Gvelesiany said, “we’re like a knife in his heart.”
The mutinous guards may now look like a nationalist’s dream turned nightmare, but when the fevered confrontation between Gamsakhurdia and his opposition cools down, officers said, they plan to begin transforming their casual bunch of enthusiasts into a disciplined, professional army.
“We’ll be the army of Georgia,” Skitishvili said, “We can even send our units to study at West Point.”
For now, however, the Georgian defenders appear remarkably relaxed. They welcome reporters into their mountain camp with a quick check of credentials and a friendly escort. Guardsmen appear to come and go at will; a couple of them explained that they come to the camp when “there is need.”
Officers said the guard used to pull in draftees who preferred to serve at home rather than in the Soviet army. But since the coup, Georgia has stopped sending young men to the Soviet force, and the guard has become wholly volunteer.
The guard’s morale seems high, fueled by a potent combination of nationalism and belief in Western-style democracy.
“I’m proud to be member of the national guard, especially after how it acted during the coup,” Gvelesiany said. “The national guard was the only force which defended the national honor of Georgia.”
Guardsmen insist that they have no intention of ousting Gamsakhurdia.
“We hold to neutrality and stability,” Kitovani said.
“We are not putsch types,” one of his soldiers put in.
“We exist so that there will be no fascism in Georgia,” Skitishvili maintained proudly. “So that there will be no bloodshed in Georgia, so that no more protests will be broken up with bullets, so that Georgia will never see the tragedy of Tian An Men Square.”