Gamsakhurdia, Zviad (Georgia)
In 1991 Zviad Gamsakhurdia became Georgia’s first elected president after the collapse of the USSR and the declaration of Georgian independence. A renowned nationalist during the Soviet period, his tenure was marked by erratic behaviour and ardent nationalism, often at the expense of ethnic minorities. He lasted less than 9 months in office before being deposed. He led unsuccessful counter-coups and died in suspicious circumstances in 1993.
Zviad Konstantinovich Gamsakhurdia was born in Tbilisi on 31 March 1939. His father, Konstantine, was an acclaimed academic and writer who escaped the Stalinist purges. Gamsakhurdia followed his father’s interest in literature and the Georgian cause, establishing a nationalist youth organisation at the age of 16. His distribution of anti-communist writings detailing Soviet human rights abuses led to his arrest in 1956. He studied Western languages and literature at the Tbilisi State University, going on to become a lecturer from 1963–1977 and a professor from 1981–90.
In 1973 he formed the Human Rights Initiative Group with Merab Kostava to defend the rights of political prisoners and to promote the Georgian language and culture. He founded the underground press which published Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and other dissident writing. Arrested in 1977 and exiled until 1979, he was a nominee for the Nobel peace prize in 1978. He was put under house arrest from 1982–83 during his campaign for the release of the dissident nationalist Merab Kostava. Freed from prison in 1987, Kostava joined forces with Gamsakhurdia in a new Georgian independence and human rights movement. They organised mass protests and were arrested again in 1989.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gamsakhurdia was among the dissidents who organised multiparty elections in 1990. He became leader of the electoral bloc Mrgvali Magida–Tavisupali Sakartvelo (Round Table–Free Georgia), winning a majority at the elections of Oct. 1990. In Nov. 1990 he was elected chairman of the supreme council of the Republic of Georgia, which appointed him president in March 1991. National elections in the following May confirmed him as Georgia’s first democratically elected president.
Gamsakhurdia actively asserted Georgian independence, and refused to support the wish of Mikhail Gorbachev and, later, Boris Yeltsin that Georgia should join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gamsakhurdia’s fervent nationalism was further reflected in a hostile attitude towards non-ethnic Georgians. In Dec. 1991/Jan. 1992, amid allegations of corruption and civil rights abuses, he was forced from office in a bloody coup and went into exile. Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s former foreign minister, was named his successor. Gamsakhurdia returned to Georgia to lead an unsuccessful rebellion in 1993. He died on 30 Dec. 1993 in disputed circumstances. His wife, Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia refused to yield his body up for an autopsy, and it has been variously alleged that he was murdered, committed suicide or died of cancer.