TBILISI, GEORGIA — THE multiple headlines in yesterday's edition of Free Georgia expressed a persistent feeling in this former Soviet republic: confusion.
''Who Wanted to Decapitate Georgia? Who Put Up the Money? Who Pressed the Button? Who is Unafraid of the People's Rage? Who Hopes There Will be No Answers to These Questions?,'' the government daily newspaper asked.
The slew of questions raised over the car bomb that injured Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze on Tuesday evening reflects the bewildered state of politics in this violence-torn country in the Caucasus mountains.
Shattered glass still carpeted the parliament courtyard in the capital of Tbilisi two days after the explosion, just as Georgia still has to emerge from an ugly period of civil war, economic collapse, and gang killings.
The list of possible culprits in the bomb attack, which wounded several people in Mr. Shevardnadze's motorcade but killed no one, is as long as the list of the Georgian leader's many enemies.
But the most popular theory among ordinary Georgians and political commentators pins the blame on Russia, Georgia's northern neighbor and historic foe.
''There has to have been somebody from outside behind this,'' says Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi, head of the Caucasian Institute for Development, Democracy, and Peace, an independent and influential think tank here.
A fierce tussle between Moscow and Tbilisi over a major oil pipeline deal heightens suspicion that someone in the Kremlin plotted to kill or frighten Shevardnadze. The deal is to be signed with a Western-led consortium in a month's time.
The consortium is involved in a $7.5 billion project to drill oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea field. It must decide whether to pump that oil through a new line to be built in Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean coast, or through an existing line that runs through Russia to the Black Sea.
A pipeline through Georgia would bring much-needed business to this poverty-stricken country, whose economic performance puts it at the bottom of the list of former Soviet republics.
But Moscow - which does not want to lose its monopoly over the flow of oil in the region - is fighting hard to block the Georgian-Turkish plan.
''Any instability in Georgia would contribute to moving this pipeline to another territory,'' worries Nodar Natadze, leader of the United Republican Party, a nationalist group opposed to Shevardnadze.
But with presidential and parliamentary elections due Nov. 5 under a Constitution adopted only a week ago, there is no shortage of local suspects in the bombing. Paramilitary groups have proliferated here since Georgia won its independence in 1991.
At a public rally on Wednesday, Shevardnadze seemed to strike out at local warlords by referring to ''young men with guns who have accumulated extreme wealth and now want to get involved in politics.'' He also said yesterday that he would run for president in the November elections.
Since he took office in 1992, the mercurial, silver-haired former Soviet foreign minister has gradually eased out the gang leaders who brought him to power after they led a coup against then-President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
His approach has been ''to try to balance people all the time, not ideas, which is good tactically, but not strategically,'' says Mr. Tarkhan-Mouravi.
Shevardnadze also has ensured that no serious competitor has emerged. He remains the only figure with real political authority here. ''His function is to preserve stability with his balancing acts,'' Tarkhan-Mouravi adds.
This has angered many of the Georgian leader's former allies, including such powerful figures as parliament member Jaba Ioseliani, who heads a private army that was formally disarmed this year but is still believed to have weapons. The prosecutor's office spokesman said yesterday police had confiscated 28 automatic rifles, four pistols, a number of grenades and ammunition from Mr. Ioseliani's office, as well as a large amount of drugs.
In addition, 10 men were arrested before dawn on Wednesday in connection with the bombing.