In a shootout with Georgian antiterrorist troops, former Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava and his close associate Gocha Gvilava were killed and three accompanying gunmen arrested during the night of July 9-10. Eliava and his heavily armed men, supporters of late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had been stopped by police on a highway in the western Georgian province of Samegrelo, reputedly a Zviadist stronghold. The police demanded a handover of the weapons, offering to release the men–once they were unarmed–as part of the authorities’ “national reconciliation policy” toward Zviadists and other diehard opponents. After five-hour negotiations with senior officials in a police station, the gunmen took Major-General Ruben Asanidze and three other police officers hostage and attempted to leave in their jeep, but were stopped by a cordon of security troops. In the ensuing shootout, Eliava and Gvilava were killed, and Asanidze wounded.
Meanwhile, the State Security Ministry is negotiating with another group of Eliava’s armed supporters in the Senaki district of Samegrelo. The authorities are seeking a peaceful handover of the weapons and pledges of nonviolent behavior in return for legal immunity to the disarmed gunmen. Such a tradeoff represents the essence of the national reconciliation policy, which President Eduard Shevardnadze announced during this year’s presidential election campaign and implemented in the aftermath of his April 9 reelection. The policy has seen scores of Zviadists, Mkhedrioni [“Knights”] and other former gunmen pardoned or amnestied. Following the Zestaponi shootout, Shevardnadze’s new spokesman Kakha Imnadze deplored the loss of life and reaffirmed the president’s faith in the national reconciliation policy, which he assessed as a success thus far. Internal Affairs Minister Kakha Targamadze and State Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze, in separate statements, also reaffirmed the authorities’ adherence to reconciliation, but coupled it with stern warnings to violent troublemakers. Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania offered to discuss political issues relating to Samegrelo at a special meeting with deputies and other officials from that region. Almost forty-eight hours after the incident, Shevardnadze addressed the country to describe Eliava’s death as a “bitter lesson” to those bent on re-igniting the chaos of the early and mid-1990s.
Eliava typified the chieftains who plunged Georgia into civil violence during that period. A Zviadist who temporarily made his peace with Shevardnadze after Gamsakhurdia’s death, Eliava was coopted into the Georgian army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, only to revert to violent opposition and be pardoned for a second time. In October 1998, Eliava led a rebellion of the Senaki tank regiment, almost seizing Georgia’s second-largest city, Kutaisi, before being persuaded to surrender in return for immunity to himself and his supporters. Several Eliava supporters seem to have been implicated in the 1998 assassination attempt against Shevardnadze and the almost concurrent seizure of five United Nations observers in Samegrelo’s Zugdidi district, on the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line. In both of those cases, threads led to a Zviadist faction based in Russia. Last year, Eliava and a group of armed supporters took to the woods in western Georgia, threatening to raise an uprising there. Rhetorically at least, Eliava demanded that Samegrelo enjoy an autonomy on a par with Ajaria’s. Both that demand and the calls to arms fell flat, suggesting that political support for the Zviadist cause in the region is probably a thing of the past.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Eliava again threatened via the mass media–including the Rustavi-2 private television station–to launch an armed revolt if the election returns were falsified. Following Shevardnadze’s reelection, Eliava pronounced the Samegrelo returns as such, and took his armed group to the forest again. His group recently began operating jointly with that of former Mkhedrioni chieftain Dato Shengelia in support of Georgian anti-Abkhaz guerrillas, on both sides of the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line. On June 28, Samegrelo-Upper Svaneti’s Governor Bondo Jikia warned–both during a Tbilisi government session and publicly–that antigovernment armed groups were inciting to disorder in the region, exploiting social hardships and the frustration among Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. In response, an anti-Abkhaz militant leader in Zugdidi appeared on television to accuse Jikia and the central government of defeatism and treason. On July 3, Shevardnadze publicly appealed to those groups to stop their “saber-rattling” and cooperate with the national reconciliation initiative, in which he vowed to persevere: “We don’t need casualties and don’t want to put people in jail.” Under that policy, the authorities are instructed to refrain from using force except in life-threatening situations, and to rely instead on negotiation and persuasion (Kavkasia-Press, Prime-News, June 28, 29; Tbilisi Radio, July 3; Iprinda, Prime-News, Black Sea Press, Kavkasia-Press, Georgian Television, July 10-11; see the Monitor, February 24, April 10, 13, June 6).
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