Nationalist leader in Soviet Georgia turns Georgians against minorities

March 07, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

TBILISI, U.S.S.R. -- The president of Georgia rarely needs an interpreter.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, 51, an erudite man with dark, deep-set eyes and a neat mustache, speaks to visiting Russian bureaucrats in Russian, to U.S. businessmen in English, to French correspondents in French and to German parliamentarians in German.

The son of a beloved Georgian writer, Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia is by profession a literary translator. He has translated into Georgian the entire canon of American poetry, from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Georgian students read his translations of European classics, including Goethe and Baudelaire.

His political credentials are likewise impressive. From an early age, he divided his time between literature and political resistance to the Soviet regime. In the 1970s he published underground journals that documented torture in Georgian prisons, becoming a famous dissident.

Eventually he was arrested, allegedly on the orders of then-Georgian Communist Party boss, later Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze. Facing a potentially long prison term in 1977, Mr. Gamsakhurdia recanted his views on television, implicated his colleagues and received a brief term in internal exile instead.

Last year, he hammered together a coalition of nationalist groups and led it to victory in the first contested elections in the history of Soviet Georgia. The new parliament promptly elected him president. His portrait hangs in many Georgian homes, out of respect and hope that he will lead the nation to prosperity and independence.

Yet to many outsiders, Mr. Gamsakhurdia is a dangerous man. Russian democrats and Western diplomats generally scoff at Kremlin accusations aimed at the republican nationalist movements. But for Mr. Gamsakhurdia's authoritarian brand of ethnic populism, they make an exception.

They are alarmed by his intemperate remarks against other nationalities, by his harping on what seem to be the special rights of ethnic Georgians in Georgia, by his habit of labeling competitors "criminals," by his moves away from local democracy and freedom of the press.

"He's a scary person," said a Western diplomat who knows him well. "His positions border on fascism. His statements are getting more and more outrageous."

"All his talk about the Georgian nation has a brown [brownshirt or fascist] feel to it," said a Moscow political scientist who is favorably disposed toward most of the republican independence movements.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia appears unperturbed by the charges.

"Disinformation of the Moscow KGB and the Communist Party and Kremlin agents. In Georgia, too, they have many agents," he said.

"Have I got a gas chamber? Why am I a fascist? Nationalism is not fascism. Even in democratic lands, there are nationalist leaders."

As he explained it, his tough stands on relations with the nervous ethnic minorities in the republic, mainly Ossetians and Abkhazians, have historical roots.

In reality, he said, he is standing against Soviet imperialism, which he says uses the minorities to wreak havoc in Georgia, threaten its territorial integrity and block secession.

Moreover, he argues, excessive tolerance for other nationalities is a luxury of big countries that Georgia cannot afford.

"Georgia is not England and not France," he said. "Georgia is in danger of absorption by other nationalities which were brought here by the Kremlin, by Russia, by the empire: Azeris, Armenians and even the Ossetians are newcomers here.

"And the Georgian nation is in danger," he declared. "We must save Georgia."

If before the election he sometimes spoke for a law banning mixed marriages, he now says he believes that "patriotic education" may be sufficient.

Census statistics provide little support for his claim. In 1939, according to the official count, there were 2.2 million Georgians in all of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the official count was just short of 4 million.

The nation-in-danger argument can be heard in many republics and reflects understandable fears for any relatively small ethnic group. But Mr. Gamsakhurdia's concern about the fate of small nations emphatically does not extend to the minorities in Georgia.

Take the Ossetians. In the midst of a volatile interethnic conflict, the Georgian president did not avoid inflammatory language.

"The Ossetians are direct agents of the Kremlin, tools and terrorists," he told The Sun. "Ossetians have no right to that land. They are newcomers."

Pressed to define "newcomers," he said the Ossetians had arrived in "the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries."

Was it fair to call people who had lived in Georgia for decades or centuries "newcomers"? Yes, he insisted. Did that mean the Ossetians should leave Georgia?

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