Thousands of people throughout Georgia have arrived in the medieval cathedral in Mtskheta, close to Tbilisi, to pay tribute to the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose remains were brought to Georgia this week for reburial, 13 years after he was buried in Chechnya.
President Saakashvili and other officials have also arrived in the Svetitskhoveli cathedral where a public memorial service is due to be held on March 31 - Gamsakhurdia’s birthday. He would have turned 68.
Gamsakhurdia’s remains will be re-interred in the pantheon at Mtatsminda in Tbilisi on April 1 alongside many other prominent Georgian public figures.
“We are now implementing the decision which was made back in 2004 – to bury Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia on his native soil. This is a fair and absolutely correct decision,” Saakashvili told reporters in Mtskheta.
“Zviad Gamsakhurdia, along with Merab Kostava [Gamsakhurdia’s close friend and fellow dissident who died in a car accident in 1989], was leading the Georgian national movement [in the late 1980s]. Georgia declared its independence and Zviad Gamsakhurdia became the first President of Georgia [in 1991]. We did not have any experience in political independence then and this was one of the reasons for our country experiencing great suffering.”
“Today the time has come for reflection. Unity is most important for Georgia, for our identity. Our force lies in our unity. Georgia will respect those who struggled for its independence. At the same time, we should note and stress once again that our country belongs to all persons, regardless of their political views, party belonging or political past. Georgia belongs to all ethnic groups living in Georgia, including ethnic Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Ossetians, Abkhazians, Jews, all those persons who live in Georgia,” Saakashvili added.
Gamsakhurdia had been a source of controversy during and after his short presidency. Since his remains were brought back to Georgia, however, the Georgian media has mostly provided positive coverage without any attempt to provide in-depth analysis of the first President’s policies.
Major controversy, however, still surrounds his death. Some say he committed suicide, but others claim he was murdered in the western Georgian region of Samegrelo on New Year's Eve in 1993. He had just returned from exile in a failed attempt to regain power.
Despite the controversy, however, no additional forensic examination was carried out in Tbilisi, on the family’s insistence. An autopsy was carried out in the Russia’s town of Rostov after Gamsakhurdia’s remains had been unearthed in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on March 3.
Gamsakhurdia’s family has refused to reveal the findings of the examination, apart from saying that a 9mm bullet to the head, fired from very close range, was the cause of death.