President Zviad Gamsakhurdia fled into the Caucasus Mountains from his underground retreat Monday, desperately seeking a haven for himself and his family. But the leaders of neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia refused to grant him immediate asylum, officials here said.
"Power is now in our hands," said Dzhaba Ioseliani, a leader of Georgia's self-proclaimed Military Council, which masterminded the attack that ousted the president and has now declared itself the supreme authority in the land. Ioseliani forecast that democratic elections will be held in Georgia by April and dismissed as groundless the chance that Gamsakhurdia might be able to muster an underground army to restore his rule.
Scores of unshaven opposition fighters, whose siege of Government House was in its third week, noisily fired carbines and Kalashnikov rifles into the air as news of the president's ouster spread. They swigged green bottles of Georgian champagne and hugged each other roughly in the streets to celebrate the flight of the man whom many here call "Georgia's Saddam Hussein."
But other Georgians have expressed their distress at the staggering cost of deposing Gamsakhurdia. The battle against the 52-year-old nationalist, elected Georgia's president by a landslide but opposed by a growing number of his citizens as a tyrant, left much of this charming mountain capital in charred ruins.
Gamsakhurdia fled his reinforced lair under the Parliament building between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., taking a convoy of two armored cars and three buses, military leaders said. "His nerve ran out," asserted Tengiz Kitovani, the National Guard commander and the Military Council's other top leader.
Ioseliani had brought Gamsakhurdia to the surface, Kitovani said, by spreading "disinformation" that Parliament was about to undergo massive artillery and rocket bombardment. He also let Gamsakhurdia and his supporters know that the president would be allowed an escape route beforehand.
On Sunday, journalists who visited Gamsakhurdia in his subterranean headquarters came away with the feeling that, if he wanted to, he could hold out for weeks, perhaps months.
About 800 to 1,000 Gamsakhurdia loyalists, including members of his government, deputies from the Supreme Soviet and his wife and two children set off in the pre-dawn convoy with the president.
But most scattered when a gun battle broke out with the opposition on Baratashvili Bridge across the Mkhvari River; five to 10 people died in that clash, Ioseliani said. (Casualties from the long siege of Government House totaled 100 dead and 400 wounded, Ioseliani estimated.)
Gamsakhurdia's entourage, which headed toward a locale known as Krasny Most on Georgia's border with Azerbaijan and Armenia, reportedly dropped in size after the gun battle to 200 to 300 people.
Sixty officers from a crack police unit, a keystone of Gamsakhurdia's defense force, had already joined the opposition late Sunday, Kitovani said. For Georgia's president, who branded many of his opponents as Moscow operatives or KGB agents, the police defections may have been the last straw.
"After the rats started leaving the sinking ship, and his closest colleagues left him, he understood very well that he could not hang on much longer," said Georgy Chanturia, an influential opposition leader.
The reduced convoy crossed into Azerbaijan about 9 a.m. at the town of Ganja, Azerbaijani officials said. Gamsakhurdia then spent five hours on the telephone trying to arrange political asylum. Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov refused to allow Gamsakhurdia anything beyond safe transit--and insisted that it be quick.
Gamsakhurdia left his remaining 100 bodyguards behind in Azerbaijan's Kazakh district and crossed into Armenia, which last week and again on Sunday had offered political asylum to him and his family as a way of ending the fighting in Georgia.
But officials at Idzhevan held up the motorcade, now shrunken to five cars, as Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan weighed with his Cabinet what to do about Gamsakhurdia. A senior Armenian official in Yerevan told the Tass news agency that his government was talking with the new regime in Tbilisi "with a view to coordinating positions on the question of attitude to Gamsakhurdia."
"It is not ruled out that, provided there is an appropriate consent from Tbilisi, the president of Georgia and his family will be given shelter for a short period in the city of Idzhevan," Tass reported, quoting Armenian officials. It would, however, be "temporary shelter, not political asylum."
But Georgia's new masters said they will try to get Gamsakhurdia back.
"If someone grants him political asylum, we'll ask for his return," Ioseliani said.
Vakhtang Razmadze, Georgia's newly appointed chief prosecutor, said criminal cases have been opened against Gamsakhurdia and some of his ministers and military leaders. One charge mentioned by Razmadze was Gamsakhurdia's alleged failure to live up to the president's constitutional duty of protecting the lives of all Georgians.
Although the Military Council has appointed a prime minister, Tengiz Sigua, Ioseliani made it clear that he and Kitovani consider themselves for the moment to be Georgia's supreme leaders. "There is no interim government; power is now in our hands," Ioseliani said. If things in the republic calm down, he continued, "we can retreat."
In Georgia's future, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister and ethnic Georgian who now resides in Moscow, may have "services" to offer, Ioseliani added.
Shevardnadze, speaking on Central Television in Moscow, said, "I am ready to take part in the democratization of Georgia to the measure of my capabilities and power. When the conflict started between the totalitarian regime (of Gamsakhurdia) and the democratic forces, when the first victims fell, I offered my good services and mediation. From the very beginning, I had the intention to participate in this (peacemaking) process."
Gamsakhurdia should now formally resign from the Georgian presidency, Shevardnadze said, so a measure of constitutionality can be retained.
A consultative group made up of Georgian political parties has been created to prepare for a new round of elections that Chanturia promised will be held within six months.
"They must be well prepared--they must not be a 'facade' election like last time," Chanturia said.
The last parliamentary elections in October, 1990, gave a clear victory to Gamsakhurdia's Round Table-Free Georgia coalition and led to his nearly unanimous election as chairman of Parliament. Gamsakhurdia, son of one of modern Georgia's most famous patriots and authors and himself a onetime political prisoner, received 87% of the vote in presidential elections last May.
The Military Council has explicitly excluded Gamsakhurdia and his followers from all Georgian politics in the future.
Chanturia said he thinks Gamsakhurdia will never stand trial, because, he asserted, the former president is insane. But in his entourage, he added, are the "criminals who led the country to catastrophe and civil war" and they must be made to pay.
How wide the opposition plans are to punish those loyal to the ousted president was unclear from the partially conflicting statements of the two Military Council members. Kitovani generally has urged clemency, while Ioseliani, who had been imprisoned by Gamsakhurdia for almost a year, said people who have been part of the president's "fascist organization" will be brought to trial.
The Military Council members accused Gamsakhurdia's loyalists of having held 40 hostages underground, torturing them with electric shocks and by suspending them from handcuffs. At least three males in their early teens also shamefully told reporters that they had been held against their will, beaten, then forced to have sex with Gamsakhurdia's men.
The unrest over Gamsakhurdia's authoritarian, sometimes dictatorial leadership has traumatized Georgia, the only former Soviet republic--besides the three independent Baltic states--not to join the new Commonwealth of Independent States. And it is here that political strife in the former Soviet Union has led to the most brutal use of military force by warring factions since the Soviet Union's collapse last month.
To foster a badly needed spirit of reconciliation, Kitovani said that the victors will follow the example of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who buried the dead from the Spanish Civil War at a single site, regardless of their political affiliation.
Name: Zviad Gamsakhurdia
Status: The president of Georgia fled the republic's Parliament building with his wife and two children before dawn Monday after a lengthy siege by opposition fighters.
Education: Holds a Ph.D. in languages and literature from Tbilisi State University. Speaks five languages. Translated Shakespeare, other authors into Georgian.
Career highlights: Former political prisoner. He and his political bloc, Round Table-Free Georgia, swept into power last October in Georgia's first multi-party elections; received 87% of vote in May presidential balloting. Was popular for his nationalist, anti-Soviet views, but rebel leaders accused him of acting like a dictator.