In Soviet Georgia, Tension Runs High

BEFORE this reporter entered Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia's office, an official discreetly pulled a pistol from his jacket and gave it to a secretary who slid it into a drawer. "The president doesn't allow anyone into his office with weapons except his bodyguards," said aide Murman Omanidze.

Such is the political climate in Georgia, where it is not unusual for officials, and civilians for that matter, to carry guns. Ever since the mountainous republic of 5.5 million people surged to the forefront in the effort to break away from the Soviet Union, it has been beset by violence, which nationalists claim is Kremlin inspired.

Indeed, some officials describe the political situation as a second Lebanon that may evolve into another Afghanistan.

"It may be like Lebanon here, but that's because Moscow is causing it by using fear and lies," said Georgi Khoshtaria, the republic's foreign minister. "Moscow is blockading and provoking problems in a typical imperial manner."

Many nationalists thought they cleared perhaps the highest hurdle toward independence when the Gamsakhurdia-led Round Table ousted the Communists from power in parliamentary elections last October. But political infighting has only intensified since then, with various groups claiming to be the "true democrats," while labeling opponents "agents of the Kremlin." For the most part, it has remained a war of words. But the bullet marks around the entrance to the opposition movement's National Congress headqu arters are proof that guns sometimes do the talking.

Lawlessness in the countryside

And in the some parts of the countryside, the situation approaches anarchy, officials say.

Lawlessness and political chaos are only a small part of the government's problem. About 80 miles northwest of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, gun battles and deaths occur almost daily, as militants struggle to squash Ossetians trying to win autonomy for South Ossetia. Ossetians say Georgians want to stamp out their culture. Tbilisi counters that the autonomous region is taking orders from Moscow in an attempt to stall the independence drive.

The result is that Georgia has been unable to present a united front in the face of unrelenting pressure from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to keep the republic in the fold. Nevertheless, Georgia plans to hold an independence referendum this Sunday. The vote, like those already held in the Baltic republics, is designed to make crystal clear to the Kremlin that Georgia will not sign the new union treaty that Mr. Gorbachev wants to use as the basis for a reshaped Soviet Union.

"The future referendum will show Moscow that the Georgian people, and a great majority of the non-Georgian population here, want independence," said Mr. Gamsakhurdia. About 70 percent of the republic is ethnic Georgian, with Armenians, Azeris, Ossetians, and other nationalities comprising the rest. There is little doubt people will vote overwhelmingly for independence, based on the landslide Round Table win last October.

President wants democracy

The president insists his goal is to establish a democratic republic built on the revived independent Georgian state that briefly existed from 1918-21.

But political opponents say that for all his declarations about democracy, Gamsakhurdia's actions have revealed authoritarian tendencies.

"He's been in power only five months and he's effectively eliminated all opposition," said Georgi Chanturia, a National Congress leader.

Gamsakhurdia's participation in the October elections means he is part of the Soviet power structure, Mr. Chanturia said, adding the president was just waiting for the right time to "show his true colors" and sign the union treaty. The National Congress boycotted last fall's vote.

Gamsakhurdia's past record, however, indicates he is an unlikely co-conspirator with the Kremlin. At the age of 17, he was imprisoned for dissident activities, and in 1977 received a jail term because of involvement with the Georgian branch of a Helsinki human rights group. At the same time, he has clearly taken a tough line with political opponents.

Opposition leader served time

Djaba Ioseliani, an opposition leader, was imprisoned after he announced the formation of an opposition party to combat Gamsakhurdia's "fascism." The arrest came after Soviet Army units disbanded Mr. Ioseliani's private army of about 2,000 troops, known as the Mkhedrioni.

"Ioseliani is a convicted bank robber. Our opponents criticize us, saying we are dictators because we arrest criminals," Gamsakhurdia said.

Despite squabbles in Tbilisi, as well as the fighting in South Ossetia, officials say they have made strides toward stabilizing the situation. "Since we stopped the Mkhedrioni activity there has been a drop in banditism," said Georgian Interior Minister Dilar Khabuliani.

Steps have been taken to solve the South Ossetian conflict, including an effort to disarm the combatants. But the fighting shows no signs of slowing down. Three Georgians were killed and two wounded in a battle involving Soviet Interior Ministry forces in South Ossetia, the independent Interfax news agency yesterday.

Even if the government can succeed in settling the internal situation, there is still the Kremlin to consider. Gamsakhurdia and others say Moscow may resort to sending in troops to stop the sovereignty drive, adding such action would be a big mistake. Georgians were radicalized by the events of April 1989, in which troops killed 20 demonstrators, and would likely meet force with force, they add.

"I wouldn't exclude the possibility of a partisan war - a small Afghanistan," said Mr. Khoshtaria, the foreign minister.

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