A STUNNING election victory by nationalists in Soviet Georgia means that another piece of the Soviet Union has begun to slip out of President Mikhail Gorbachev's grasp. Regular visitors to the warm southern republic became convinced this was inevitable after the Soviet Army killed 20 peaceful demonstrators on April 9, 1989.
At the first anniversary of the event this past April, more than 300,000 grim-faced people walked in silence through the night up and down Rustaveli Avenue past the scene of the killings, strewing millions of red carnations along their route.
The republic's Communist government under Givi Gumbaridze, postponed the scheduled elections ``for security reasons'' and managed to cling a little longer onto power. Mr. Gumbaridze is the republic's former chief of the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
Today the Communists must face a new reality. The statues of Vladimir Lenin have all been pulled down, and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a veteran nationalist campaigner, has wrenched away their power by winning 54 percent of the popular vote in elections on Oct. 28.
With a second round still to come, his Round Table of Free Georgia, an alliance of seven political groups, drew double the Communists' vote and could occupy 70 percent of seats in the Supreme Soviet.
The new leadership is not yet clear. Mr. Gamsakhurdia, a philologist who has translated Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot into Georgian, says he is not ``playing presidential games.'' He will wait until after Round 2 on Nov. 11 before making decisions.
Gamsakhurdia is tall, silver haired, and distinguished looking, often dressed in a white suit, always noticeable. He joined the nationalist cause in 1956 at age 17. He has spent time in detention. His father was rich and the son moves with armed bodyguards. Middle-aged Georgian women are said to adore him. Intellectuals dismissed him as a mere populist, a rabble rouser.
But clearly Gamsakhurdia is very popular, and he has already begun to confound those who accused him of being divisive by indicating that Round Table candidates might be withdrawn from certain seats in Round 2. This would allow other prominent nationalist leaders a chance to enter a parliament unified against communism to work for an independent Georgia.
There has been a complication: an alternative parliament called the Georgian National Congress. It was elected by 1 million of the republic's 3 million voters in early October after certain nationalists decided to boycott any election under Soviet rule. The nationalists argue that rule to have been illegal since 1921 when Bolshevik troops seized the then-independent republic. They wanted their own ``watchdog'' parliament to monitor Communist rule and keep up pressure for independence.
With a nationalist government, the role of the congress seems unclear. It is probably redundant. But it is an unwanted further political division which Gamsakhurdia might find more difficult to bridge.
The pre-election campaign was spiced by verbal abuse and insults winging between Round Table supporters and the election boycotters, led by a younger nationalist Ghia Tchantchuria.
It turned nasty when, two nights before the poll, Mr. Tchantchuria was shot at in the street and slightly wounded when leaving a Congress meeting.
Gamsakhurdia was publicly accused on television in the shooting. But most Georgians seemed to dismiss the event as a setup, possibly a KGB plot to scare voters into playing safe and electing secure, experienced Communists who could promise law and order and stability.
The Communists turned themselves inside out in the pre-election campaign to hold power, promising independence for Georgia and its 5 million people, a separate economy, and eventual secession from the Soviet Union.
Propaganda was fierce. Reports of violence around the republic - most of which turned out to be exaggerated - seemed to indicate that the fiercely divided nationalist movement - was an option four unrest and insecurity. Who could take seriously a movement that could give birth to 120 or more parties, now grouped into 11 separate alliances?
When polling day dawned in warm autumn sunshine, Georgians rolled up their sleeves put on their hats or head scarves and headed out to vote.
At the ancient former capital Mtskheta, in the shadow of the dramatic Caucasus range north of Tblisi, they converged on the small agricultural hall and made their marks on the ballot papers. One mark for a candidate, a second for a party.
The groundwork for Gamsakhurdia's victory had been laid in the summer. Realizing that the communists' rural power was their trump card in a directly elected parliament, the nationalists began a campaign to have at least half the house elected by proportional representation.
The campaign would take advantage of the communists' unpopularity. A summer of strikes and a national rail blockade organized by Gamsakhurdia's supporters forced the outgoing parliament to enact the necessary law. Multiparty elections would create a 250-seat house, half by proportional representation.
The shooting of Tchantchuria had set nerves on edge before polling day.
But by lunchtime in the ancient cathedral town of Mtskheta, 70 percent had voted. At the end of the day, the turnout of determined Georgians had exceeded 90 percent.
As voters pressed into the small hall, elections official Mirian Mchedlishvili said, ``We were a bit worried at first because trouble was being predicted everywhere. But as you can see, it is peaceful and there will be a big turnout. We are people who know what we want.''