Georgian Aides Defect, Call on Leader to Quit
Several senior officials of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s beleaguered government in the former Soviet Georgia abandoned their leader late Saturday and joined the opposition in its demand that he quit.
A statement issued by the defectors and opposition leaders called on Gamsakhurdia to turn his powers over to the republic’s legislature.
Issuance of the statement climaxed a day of intermittent talks between representatives of the two sides and the proclamation of a cease-fire in the fighting that has claimed more than 50 lives during the past week. The cease-fire, however, never went into effect.
Early in the day, military leaders from both sides concluded that they had brought the former Soviet republic of 5.3 million to the brink of civil war, and they sat down for the first serious negotiations since attacks on Gamsakhurdia’s headquarters in the capital of Tbilisi began early last Sunday.
After five hours of conversation, the two sides broadcast a statement declaring a cease-fire and saying negotiations would resume Saturday evening. After the latter talks, Gamsakhurdia’s justice minister and deputies from his interior and defense ministries announced that they were siding with the opposition.
The Associated Press and Reuters news agencies reported from Tbilisi that Deputy Defense Minister Besik Kutageladze, speaking for the defectors, declared: “I support the resignation of Gamsakhurdia. He has no moral right to be president. But I do not think he will resign. . . . It is quite possible there will be a prolonged war.”
Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident, was elected by a landslide 87% of the vote in June. But since then a swelling opposition has accused him of behaving like a dictator, refusing to make democratic reforms and engaging in human rights abuses.
Principal elements of the opposition include Georgian intellectuals, members of democratic organizations, disillusioned former members of Gamsakhurdia’s administration and renegade troops of Georgia’s national guard.
The political conflict first turned violent in September with repeated street clashes and has since transformed sunny Georgia into the most turmoil-plagued of the former Soviet republics--a model that regional leaders hope will not prove to be the rule for any of the 11 other states newly free of the old Soviet empire.
The removal of Soviet power has also brought increased bloodshed in its wake to another sector of the Caucasus Mountains region of the old Soviet Union. In the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 12 deaths were reported Saturday in attacks on the city of Stepanakert.
Soviet troops had long tried to keep the peace and serve as a buffer between the dominant Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijanis whose republic encloses the Armenian enclave. Nearly four years of fighting there has left an estimated 1,000 dead.
But now, with the Soviet Union formally dissolved, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has disavowed responsibility for what happens in the region and has withdrawn almost all the troops who served there.
Democratic Russia, a popular umbrella movement of Russian reformers, appealed to leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation that has replaced the Soviet Union, to accept Nagorno-Karabakh as a member and thus give it virtual independent status.
Otherwise, according to the appeal, “in the near future, cruel bloodshed can be expected in Karabakh,” and the leaders of the commonwealth will be partly to blame.
Yeltsin has vowed not to use former Soviet troops, the vast majority of whom are expected to come under Russian control, to try to control ethnic conflicts in the republics of the former empire, Georgia among them.
In the Georgian capital, sporadic fighting continued throughout the day and night Saturday, beginning with another massive rebel barrage on the central government building in the early morning and dwindling to scattered gunfire during the two hours of evening talks.
But fighting never completely stopped.
So far, the fighting has been almost entirely contained within central Tbilisi along its main street, Rustaveli Avenue. Giant columns of gray smoke still billowed from downtown Tbilisi on Saturday, and reports from the scene said that the Communications Ministry, parts of Gamsakhurdia’s government headquarters and other buildings have been set ablaze in the fighting.
Rebels apparently managed to penetrate into the ground floor of the massive government headquarters but failed to get into the upper floors where Gamsakhurdia is believed to be barricaded.
Nodar Gabashvili, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, said in Moscow that he believes the Gamsakhurdia government might agree to the holding of new general elections as a compromise to stop the bloodshed.
Despite the opposition’s bold tactics and allegations in the Western and Soviet press that Gamsakhurdia has tried to quash all his opponents and taken political prisoners, the Georgian president appears to retain a strong following in the countryside and among the working class.
In any case, Gabashvili said, the world should watch Gamsakhurdia’s fate closely as an indicator of how the post-Soviet order will develop and what kind of state his homeland will become in coming decades.
“If there’s a precedent that the opposition can use arms to topple the legal government of the people, then for many years in Georgia there will be no real democracy,” he said, “and it will be a negative precedent for the other republics, too.”