Georgian leader attacked from all sides over human rights abuses U.S., Russian legislators criticize splintered republic

September 10, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The U.S. delegation to a major human rights conference and the Russian Parliament both sharply criticized yesterday the rights record of the republic of Georgia and its firebrand president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

The twin attacks, apparently not coordinated with each other, were a dramatic reminder that the dismantling of the Soviet Communist empire is no guarantee of an end to political repression.

They came as Russian television was describing the situation in Georgia as explosive, with the republican police force squaring off at President Gamsakhurdia's orders against the recently formed Georgian National Guard, which has broken with the president.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, and Sen. Dennis DeConcini, R-Ariz., chairman and co-chairman respectively of the U.S. delegation to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said their weekend visit to the mountainous southern republic left them dismayed.

"I believe there are numerous incidents of human rights violations" in Georgia, Mr. DeConcini said at a news conference to mark the opening today of the human rights talks. Representatives of nearly all European countries and the United States will discuss compliance with the Helsinki Agreement and other human rights issues over the next four weeks.

"I think it serves well as an example of how elections were held with multiple candidates and international observers, and a president was elected with great popular support, but that does not guarantee human rights. It takes much more than that. And I think President Gamsakhurdia has to hear that loud and clear," the senator said.

Aides said Mr. DeConcini walked out of a dinner at which Mr. Gamsakhurdia was host in disgust at the rhetoric he heard.

Mr. Hoyer said the commission found "chaos" in the republic, which has a population of about 5.4 million and is slightly larger than West Virginia. But he added that Mr. Gamsakhurdia had agreed to permit representatives of international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch to investigate charges that there may be as many as 87 new political prisoners held in the republic.

The Russian Federation Parliament's committees on human rights and international affairs and its subcommittee on inter-republican relations issued a joint statement saying Georgian actions "do not fit civilized notions of the observance of human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities."

The statement rejected Mr. Gamsakhurdia's frequent complaint that others are interfering in Georgia's internal affairs -- a refrain

heard through the 1970s and early 1980s from the Soviet Union. It said that Georgia, which has declared its independence, is obligated to abide by international agreements on human rights.

As political pressure is brought to bear by Western countries and other Soviet republics, Georgia's current troubles will test the ability of outsiders to influence the behavior by the elected leadership of a former Soviet republic. One of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's old arguments for preserving the union was that it could curb rights violations by member republics.

Starting before an independence-minded nationalist coalition led by Mr. Gamsakhurdia ousted the Communists at the polls last year, myriad political parties have emerged and clashed in a tangle of accusations and intrigue.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia, a literary translator and former dissident, was elected president of Georgia May 26 with 86.5 percent of the vote. But since then, doubts in Moscow and the West about early signs of authoritarianism and extreme nationalism have deepened.

He routinely denounces his political opponents, as well as the leaders of the rebellious Abkhazian and Ossetian ethnic minorities, as "criminals," "Kremlin agents" and "enemies of the Georgian people."

The last label, reminiscent of Kremlin politics in the Stalin era, has been bestowed by Mr. Gamsakhurdia on such diverse Georgian critics as former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, renowned filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze, and Tengiz Kitovani, head of the National Guard.

He has closed opposition newspapers, banned Russian television, intimidated uncooperative journalists and ordered opponents arrested. He has rejected private ownership of land and persecuted some private businesses.

Protests against his administration have come to a head following his ambiguous stance during last month's coup in Moscow. His failure to denounce the coup immediately clearly shocked and offended many Georgians, and Mr. Gamsakhurdia's many competitors for power concluded that this is the time to move against him with mass protests.

Police attacked protesters in the capital, Tbilisi, Sept. 2, leaving a number of people wounded and further estranging public opinion. Mr. Gamsakhurdia's prime minister and foreign minister recently broke with him, were dismissed and joined the opposition.

The shift of human rights issues from Moscow to the republics is an ironic development for Mr. Hoyer's commission. For many years, the commission has constantly criticized the Kremlin about its rights record, including its longtime repression of nationalist dissidents such as Mr. Gamsakhurdia.

Now the commission members say Moscow is living up to most of its rights obligations -- though it says there are still some people refused exit visas and perhaps 25 political prisoners in old Soviet camps in Russia. But more serious rights violations are alleged against the nationalists who once had Western backing.

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