Along Soviet Georgia's Boulevard of Protest

`DOWN with the Communists! Give Georgia back to the Georgians!'' a young man declares through a megaphone from the second-floor balcony overlooking the now-Leninless Lenin Square at Tbilisi's Institute for the Study of the Friendship of Peoples. Two other young men lean over the balcony, shouting through cupped hands at the small crowd below. Periodically, first one, then the other darts back inside the building, evidently for behind-the-scenes consultations.

The onlookers, meanwhile, seem only mildly interested. ``Who are these guys? What do they want?'' several are asked. All say they don't know, shrugging nonchalantly. Some who had stopped for just a few moments to check out the commotion head on their way.

``It's just another group occupying a building,'' one bystander finally explains. ``Nothing new.''

A block down the street, a much larger crowd of several hundred people is milling around in front of the Georgian Republic's government building. Clusters of people argue animatedly. Off to one side, a large olive green tent has been erected to house protesters who plan on spending the night.

Several explanations are offered for what the demonstration is about. One person says it is to protest nasty things written in the official Georgian press about Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's most popular nationalist. Another says they're there to agitate for an acceptable election law, which would limit the number of participating parties and groups to only the dozen or so largest. Still further down the street, older women dressed all in black sit on benches in the entrance of an art gallery. They are surrounded by large photographs of young adults, their children, who died in circumstances the mothers feel are questionable. The women are demanding that the closed investigations into the deaths be reopened, and they have been occupying the gallery since winter to press their cause.

``We are asking for the help. We are asking for the true [sic],'' pleads a banner in English, stretched across one side of the gallery's entrance. A steady flow of passersby stops briefly to talk to the women or just read their placards.

At the end of the street, near Rustaveli Square, the political activism isn't happening in broad daylight. But it's there, at the headquarters of the Georgian Popular Front inside the House of Cinematographers, where men are huddled in a smoke-filled room, chewing over election strategy and the day's gossip.

In the summer of 1990, it's a typical day in the life of Rustaveli Avenue, the grand sycamore-lined thoroughfare of the Georgian capital and the main artery of the republic's lively grass-roots activism.

The scenes of Rustaveli Avenue, named for the revered 12th-century Georgian poet, also present the variety of the activism that has become commonplace - from illegal building occupations to behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

It's a real-life theater in the round - and sometimes theater of the absurd, where pure emotion, fierce loyalty to clan and family, and penchant for conspiracy-theorizing suggest comparisons to Sicily. It is also, one senses, just the summer warm-up for what promises to be a boisterous campaign for the Supreme Soviet elections on Oct. 28.

There are so many dozens of anti-Communist opposition groups pitted against one another - leaders regularly accuse one another of being KGB (secret police) agents and dupes for the ruling Communists - that they are unwittingly aiding the Communists' election cause, says a local independent journalist.

Furthermore, Givi Gumbaridze, the Communists' new party chief, has adapted his politics just enough toward the pro-independence line that he has been picking up popular support, says the journalist.

Nodar Nathadze, chairman of the Popular Front and a member of the Supreme Soviet, shrugs off concerns about opposition disunity.

``We'll all be together at the critical moment,'' says Mr. Nathadze, speaking in one of the Popular Front ``foxholes,'' as he calls it, near Rustaveli Avenue.

``One can say that the Communist Party and the government are on a counterattack against the national movement,'' he adds. ``They are working very actively within the movement, sowing conflicts, whipping up feelings in the [30 percent] non-Georgian part of the population.''

The Popular Front's strategy for achieving Georgian independence is to work both from within the existing Soviet power structures and outside them, Nathadze says. The Front will contest the Oct. 28 elections, which he says will produce a new parliament that is willing to push harder for ``true independence.''

But he implies that Georgians will also have to be prepared to fight, literally, for their independence.

``For us to use the parliamentary path is not enough, because we're not like the Balts,'' Nathadze says. ``Russia can strangle us, and no one in the West will listen.''

At the other end of Rustaveli Avenue, Mamuka Gorbenadze and his cohorts occupying the institute allow an American reporter into the building for an interview - and are quick to castigate the Popular Front as ``very loyal to the existing regime.''

Mr. Gorbenadze, deputy chairman of the League of Georgian Citizens, says his group will boycott the elections, because the Supreme Soviet is illegitimate.

The League of Georgian Citizens is patterned after similar groups in the Baltic republics which aim to restrict citizenship to those born in the republic before Soviet incorporation - in Georgia's case, in 1921 - and their descendants. But in Georgian fashion, the citizens' league has taken over a building ``because we needed a place to work from,'' says Gorbenadze. (This is the third they've occupied.)

The Georgian league plans to hold elections for a ``national congress,'' a type of shadow parliament, on Sept. 30. Before then, the group hopes to register as many Georgian citizens as possible, collect their Soviet passports for safekeeping, and provide them with Georgian identification cards.

The league has also been mentioned in Soviet news accounts of last week's middle-of-the-night dismantling of the Lenin statue in Lenin Square. One broadcast said league members participated in the action, which took place while police watched.

At No. 11 Rustaveli, the takeover of the art gallery is seen more as a tolerable act of civil disobedience than a criminal deed. It is also a sign of the times when even a group of 45 older women, mostly peasants, can feel enough political empowerment to be willing to camp out in an art gallery for months on end to press their cause. A commission in parliament, headed by the Popular Front's Nodar Nathadze, has taken on the mothers' case.

``Maybe the government will pay attention,'' says Tamara Mamulashvili, whose 22-year-old son Tamazi died five years ago.

The procurator's office said his shooting was accidental, but Mrs. Mamulashvili did her own investigation and pieced together another version of events: Someone asked Tamazi for his car, he wouldn't relinquish it, and so he was shot. It was the Georgian mafia that wanted his car, and the Georgian mafia that paid off the procurator to declare the death an accident, Mamulashvili says with certainty.

At the procuracy (the attorney general's office), spokesman Aleksei Bochoreshvili can barely tolerate the presence of an American reporter asking about these mothers, and offers no constructive comment. But in an informal chat, another procuracy official sighs at the mention of these cases and says, ``No mother is going to be satisfied if someone isn't punished with death for the death of their son or daughter. It's the Georgian moral code.''

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