Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Colonel Eliava: Hero or Villain?

Disturbing new facts have emerged over the shooting of a renegade army officer who once plotted to overthrow the Georgian government
By Sozar Subeliani

The Georgian government is finding rebel leader Akaki Eliava just as troublesome in death as he was in life. Nearly a month after the renegade colonel was gunned down by crack commandos in a sensational hostage drama, the controversy surrounding his corpse continues to plague official circles in Tbilisi. And, in the best traditions of a political thriller, conspiracy theories abound.


The nation drew a collective sigh of relief when Eliava's body was finally buried on July 24, more than two weeks after his demise. But now relatives are threatening to exhume the colonel's remains unless three of his associates are released from police custody. And the saga looks set to rumble on.


Colonel Eliava's chequered career has already entered the realms of modern-day mythology. He first hit the headlines in October 1998 when he led an armed rebellion against the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze.


At the head of a column of tanks and infantry, Eliava marched on Tbilisi in a bid to overthrow the government. Along the way, he captured General Jemal Gakhokidze, the security minister, who, smiling like a Hollywood filmstar, readily gave interviews to the dozens of journalists in Eliava's entourage.


The colonel then demanded a personal audience with General David Tevzadze, the defence minister, but Tevzadve refused to parlay with the rebels. Instead, he sent troops to intercept Eliava in the suburbs of Kutaisi, Georgia's second city. Three soldiers were killed in the ensuing clash and the rebels were forced to retreat.


Ever since, Eliava has been billed as a major threat to Georgia's stability - although many leading politicians sympathised with his demands which included the return of Abkhazia and the strengthening of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, the nation's security services claimed the rebels were hiding in the "impenetrable forests" of the Samegrelo region, in western Georgia and it was impossible to flush them out.


However, a number of journalists managed to track Eliava down - although generally their trail ended not in the "impenetrable forests" of Samegrelo but in the restaurants of Zugdidi and Senaki. And machine-gun-toting rebels in black uniforms were all too ready to pose for the TV cameras outside their Senaki headquarters, which were located somewhere between the town hall and the local police station.


By all accounts, when Eliava wasn't threatening to blow up oil pipelines, overthrow the government or capture the Black Sea port of Poti, he was visiting Tbilisi and relaxing in luxury saunas together with members of the ruling elite.


On July 1 this year, a National Reconciliation Act came into force, absolving Eliava of his previous misdemeanours. Eight days later, he was dead.


The events of July 9 are still hotly disputed with rebel supporters claiming the Georgian security forces deliberately lured the colonel into a trap. Eliava and four of his associates were driving towards Tbilisi when the rebel leader received a call on his mobile telephone.


After a short conversation, Eliava told his driver to turn the car round and drive back to Samegrelo. The rebels made frequent stops to smoke a cigarette and had dinner at a restaurant along the way.


As they approached the town of Zestafoni, the car was stopped at a police checkpoint for what the interior ministry has described as a "random check". The five men, who were all armed, were then taken to local police headquarters where they were asked to prove that they had official permission to carry firearms. The exchange was filmed by a TV crew, which, according to interior ministry sources, "just happened to be there".


It is unlikely that Eliava would have dared to travel to Tbilisi with four armed companions unless he had solid guarantees from President Shevardnadze, interior minister Kakha Targamadze or security minister Vakhtang Kutatelkadze. The fact that he was himself carrying a handgun meant the terms of the National Reconciliation Act could not apply.


The colonel remained calm until he was asked to surrender his weapon by the regional police chief, General Ruben Asanidze. Clearly astonished by the request, Eliava promptly trained his gun on Asanidze, took him hostage and ordered the other police officers to leave the room.


Negotiations continued throughout the day until Eliava finally received verbal guarantees of safety. However, as the five men emerged from the building, a security ministry unit opened fire, killing Eliava and his second-in-command, Major Gocha Gvilava. The three remaining rebels, Zurab Gvazava, Soso Sanaia and Gia Zarkua, surrendered to police.


The shooting provoked a national outcry with many politicians accusing the government of "assassinating a true Georgian patriot". Eliava's immediate family say they want to know why the renegade colonel was targeted within days of the new act coming into force. The security services, they explain, could have arrested him at any time over the past two years.


For 15 days after the shooting, relatives refused to let Eliava's body be buried unless Gvazava, Sanaia and Zarkua were released from police cells. The corpse was to be preserved in honey donated by villagers in the Samegrelo region.


The deadlock was finally broken on July 24 by Vasil Maglaperidze, the member of parliament who conceived the Reconciliation Act. But Eliava's supporters are still putting pressure on the authorities to release the arrested rebels - under threat of exhuming the colonel's body if their demands are not met.


Beyond the drama being played out around Eliava's corpse, conspiracy theories are rife. Many believe that the security services made little attempt to eliminate Eliava in the aftermath of his rebellion because his continued existence suited their long-term goals. Their ongoing fight against "destabilising forces" served to deflect attention away from rumours of corruption in their own ranks.


But the moment that President Shevardnadze announced a reconciliation with the rebel colonel, Eliava had essentially outlived his usefulness. And so, the conspiracy theorists reason, he was "assassinated" because he had become an embarrassment - or perhaps because he was fast becoming a legend.


Sozar Subeliani is chairman of the Club of Independent Journalists and a regular contributor to IWPR