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Burial Mystery of Georgian Leader

Four times reburied - where is the grave of Zviad Gamsakhurdia now?
He was controversial in life. Now in death Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, is the subject of extraordinary controversy that involves two governments, competing claims and a deep mystery about where his body is actually buried.

Since Gamsakhurdia died at the end of 1993, the former Georgian leader has been buried at least four times and the whereabouts of his current burial place is still a closely held secret.

The Georgian government has been negotiating for three years with Moscow about finding and returning Gamsakhurdia’s remains, but so far without result.

“We have sent four special notes to the Russian foreign ministry,” Givi Shugarov, a diplomat with the Georgian embassy in Moscow, told IWPR. “The last time we did it was in December, when we confirmed that we wanted to have Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s remains reburied in Tbilisi and asked about the veracity of reports that his grave in Grozny was empty and his body had been reburied somewhere else. On all four occasions, the Russians said they would check this out. We have received no other information from them.”

The negotiations have been hampered by the dramatic downturn in diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia. This week, Russia’s ambassador to Georgia returned to Tbilisi for the first time, after being recalled four months ago.

Gamsakhurdia, the son of a celebrated Georgian writer and a famous nationalist dissident, was the first president of independent Georgia, but was violently ousted in January 1992 following just a few turbulent months in office. After going into exile in Chechnya, then a territory de facto independent from Russia under President Jokhar Dudayev, he returned to western Georgia in October 1993 to mount an uprising against Eduard Shevardnadze who had replaced him.

His rebellion defeated, Gamsakhurdia died on December 31, 1993 in the house of peasant Karlo Gurtskaia in the village of Dzveli Khibula. The two bodyguards and his prime minister, Besarion Gugashvili, who were with him, say that he shot himself with a Stechkin automatic pistol.

“We were lying in one room, I was near Zviad, when he killed himself,” said Gugashvili, who is now a political émigré in Finland. “Eduard Shevardnadze’s agents had been pursuing us in the woods of western Georgia for fifty days, we’d changed hiding places many times. Zviad was seriously ill and could not endure the pursuit any longer.”

In the first of many burials, Gamsakhurdia’s body was interred in the yard of the house in the mountainous village of Jikhaskari, then shortly afterwards reburied in the wooden shed of another resident of the same village.

On February 17, 1994, on the request of Gamsakhurdia’s family, who were living in Chechnya at the time, his remains were transported to Grozny.

Robinzon Margvelani, head of Gamsakhurdia’s security service, told IWPR that supporters of Shevardnadze had already opened a number of graves looking for the dead leader. “So we were forced to rebury the body. We had no other way out, we were afraid that his remains would be abused, and I supported the idea of having Gamsakhurdia reburied in Chechnya too,” he said.

In exile in Chechnya, Gamsakhurdia had been granted a special residence on Chekhov Street in central Grozny. The locals were hospitable towards him and called him by the Chechen name “Ziyavdi” amongst themselves.

In February 1994, the Chechen government dispatched a delegation to Tbilisi, led by Chechen vice-president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. After talks with the Georgian authorities, Gamsakhurdia’s body was flown to Chechnya.

On February 23, Grozny commemorated the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of Chechens to Central Asia. Before the military parade started, the coffin containing the body of the Georgian leader was carried on a gun carriage in front of the presidential palace. A steed with a felt cloak thrown over its back followed the carriage according to Caucasian custom.

Gamsakhurdia’s funeral took place on February 24. The entire route to his residence from the presidential palace was strewn with red roses and his body was buried under one of the two weeping willows outside his former home.

“I remember perfectly the day, on which Zviad Gamsakhurdia was buried,” said driver Sharani Akhmadov, 52, who delivered sand for Gamsakhurdia’s grave that day.

“Gamsakhurdia’s grave was under one of the two willows. When the coffin with the body was lowered there, hoarfrost on the willow that had melted in the sun started dripping onto it. Strangely, the drops fell only on the side of the grave! The other side of the willow was almost dry, as was the other tree planted just a few metres away from the first one. The impression was that the tree was weeping over the grave of the Georgian president. I was not the only one to notice the fact, everyone present there did.”

During the first Chechen war of 1994-96, the burial place was badly damaged by a mortar shell. This area of the Chechen capital was also the scene of intensive fighting in the second conflict that began in 1999. Gamsakhurdia’s family decided to rebury his remains for a fourth time and the reburial was supervised by Abu Arsanukayev, the former head of Dudayev’s bodyguards.

“I reburied Gamsakhurdia’s remains with my own hands, as soon as his family expressed the wish to,” Arsanukayev recently told Georgia’s Imedi television.

“There were several men with me. The fighting was very heavy on the territory next to Kirov Park and on Chekhov Street, and we reburied him so that the grave did not get lost or dug up by someone and become an object of trade.”

Arsanukayev said that Gamsakhurdia had been reburied in a safe place inside Chechnya and that only a handful of people in Grozny and Tbilisi knew about the whereabouts of the grave.

Gamsakhurdia’s widow Manana Archvadze told IWPR that she knew where the grave was, but she said security considerations prevented her from saying so publicly. “I am waiting for the official negotiations between Georgia and Russia to end,” she said. “Of course, I know where he is buried today, and I know where his final burial place will be in Georgia.”

Some leading Zviadists, however, are sceptical about the widow’s claims. Gamsakhurdia’s prime minister, Besarion Gugushvili, told IWPR, “I think the remains were lost when Grozny was occupied by the Russians. They are most likely to have been taken to Moscow, otherwise it’s difficult to explain why the reburial process has been so long drawn-out.”

For years, Gamsakhurdia was widely reviled in Georgia as a dangerous nationalist. Official attitudes towards him have softened since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004. Both Saakashvili and Patriarch Ilya II, who held a requiem service for Gamsakhurdia last year, welcome the idea of him being reburied in Tbilisi.

Gamsakhurdia’s friend, former foreign minister Gogi Khoshtaria said the fact that he had not yet been put to rest in the country was a disgrace. “Several years ago, it was forbidden even to mention Gamsakhurdia’s name, you could be shot dead for this,” he said. “Today, everyone understands that Zviad is a national hero, who made the idea of Georgia’s independence real, and it’s a pity that we don’t even know precisely where and in what conditions his remains lie.”

Yet even if Gamsakhurdia’s body is disinterred and returned, there is set to be still more controversy about his final resting place.

Archvadze says she wants her husband to be buried in the courtyard of the newly-built Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. His son Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, who returned to Georgia after the Rose Revolution and is now leader of the Freedom opposition political party, wants his father to be reburied in the Mtatsminda pantheon overlooking Tbilisi where many famous Georgians are buried. “However, before this is done the remains should be studied so we can be sure that it is really Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who will be laid to rest in Georgia,” said his son.

Zaza Tsuladze is a journalist for Imedi television in Tbilisi. Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a Chechen journalist and IWPR contributor.

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