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Profile : Nationalist Ideals Drive Georgian's Kremlin Battle : Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner who is president of the republic, is determined to shake free of communism.

April 09, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like Havel, Gamsakhurdia founded a Helsinki Group in 1976 to monitor human rights offenses. It also defends the Georgian language, church and cultural monuments. He published underground periodicals, went on hunger strikes, organized demonstrations and kept in contact with the Western press throughout the harshest periods of President Leonid I. Brezhnev's rule in the 1970s.

"The Georgian people have an overdeveloped sense of gratitude toward Gamsakhurdia and a few of his friends who were the only ones who wrote articles against the Communists for many years," Nodar Nataze, leader of the opposition Popular Front party, said.

"My opinion of him is not very high, but anytime you criticize the present government of Georgia, it seems like you are helping the (Soviet) empire. That's why people do not want to speak badly about Gamsakhurdia."

Gamsakhurdia has one black spot on his past, which makes it difficult for some of his former colleagues in dissent to trust him.

In 1977, Gamsakhurdia was arrested for the third time for spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. During the evening of the final day of his trial, state television showed a film clip in which he repented his past political activities.

As a result, he received a reduced sentence of three years in prison, rather than the seven many other dissidents were given; he served only part of his term and was released in the summer of 1979.

Gamsakhurdia explains his controversial television appearance by saying he felt obliged to make it because KGB agents had threatened to deport him to the West if he failed to renounce his activities.

"My place was in Georgia," Gamsakhurdia said in an interview late last month. "The nationalist movement would have been lost without me."

But some people have not yet forgiven him.

"Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a real proponent of the human rights movement, and we had good feelings about him," Mustafa Dzhemilev, a longtime leader of the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement, said. "But after that television appearance, none of the other human rights activists respected him."

In Tbilisi, however, that episode has faded in most people's memories. His critics have other, more recent complaints about how he is running his government.

"I used to know Gamsakhurdia well, but then I discovered his real character--he's a dictator," said Zurab Donelia, 32, member of the paramilitary Mkhedrioni group. "He keeps the press, television and radio under his subordination. Whoever dares to oppose him is arrested as a criminal and kept behind bars without cause. This is some evidence that he aspires to dictatorship."

Dzhemilev, a longtime human rights activist who has spent 15 years in prison for political crimes, said Gamsakhurdia's attitude toward non-Georgians in his republic is frightening.

"Gamsakhurdia has all but started a fascist regime," Dzhemilev said. "It's absurd considering his background as a human rights activist."

Before the referendum, Gamsakhurdia repeatedly declared that anyone who voted against independence would be denied citizenship in an independent Georgia.

"That's an infringement of human rights," said a Georgian legal scholar, who asked that his name not be printed. "He's well-educated, but he's not clever. He says these foolish things loudly. It's foolish because he can't even find out who did not vote for Georgian independence."

But Gamsakhurdia has an answer for each accusation: The 70 or so members of radical political groups who have been arrested since he took office in November were all detained for legitimate crimes like robbery, kidnaping and assault, he said. Not every kook who says he has founded a political party can be given television access and his own printing presses. And no country gives citizenship to its enemies.

His supporters say a man like Gamsakhurdia is incapable of the evil that his enemies accuse him of.

"When someone has absolute values, if his will is subordinated to some big idea, to God or some absolute idea--it's just impossible that such a man would become a dictator," Tengiz Davidovich, 33, Gamsakhurdia's spokesman and former fellow dissident, said. "Gamsakhurdia is a man who knows spiritual life, he knows love for God and dependence on the deity. The path toward dictatorship is absolutely out of the question for such a man."

Gamsakhurdia said his enemies have made so many threats on his life that he and his family are forced to live like prisoners, just as they did when he was under house arrest as a dissident.

A motorcade escorts him through Tbilisi's steep, narrow streets to his stately three-story brick house, which was built by his father. Security guards are constantly posted on both sides of his 20-foot-high gate, and his wife and sons have not left their home for more than a month.

"My life as president is just like imprisonment," Gamsakhurdia said while sitting at his desk in his large office. "I'm here from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then I go home, where my family lives like captives because terrorists have threatened them. . . . But we all must make sacrifices to achieve the freedom of our homeland."

Biography

Name: Zviad Gamsakhurdia

Title: President of the Georgian Republic

Age: 52

Education: Earned a Ph.D. in languages and literature from Tbilisi State University and became a researcher at the Shota Rustaveli Institute for Georgian literature. Translator of Shakespeare and other British, American and French authors. He is also a literary critic and poet.

Family: Married to Manana Argbadze, a physician. They have three sons.

Quote: "Georgia is in transition from colonial existence to independence. Then Georgia will no longer be a slave of the empire or under the dictate of the empire."

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