GEORGIA has become the first Soviet republic to hold direct presidential elections. But some candidates warn the vote puts the republic on the road to dictatorship. Preliminary results showed Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the chairman of the Georgian parliament and the leader of the nationalist Round Table movement, was winning 80 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, according to the Tass news agency. The Georgian vote came three weeks before citizens of the Russian Federation, the largest and richest of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, are to elect a president. Unlike Russia, Georgia says it doesn't intend to sign a new union treaty revamping the relationship betwee n the Kremlin and the republics.
A mountainous region of 5.5 million, Georgia is buffeted by bitter political rivalries, economic chaos, and ethnic conflicts, especially in South Ossetia, the scene of often brutal fighting between Georgians claiming Moscow is trying to divide the republic and Ossetians, who claim their autonomy is being threatened.
Amid the turmoil, Mr. Gamsakhurdia, an ardent nationalist and former political prisoner, is spearheading Georgia's effort to reestablish the independence it enjoyed from 1918 to 1921, when it was occupied by the Red Army.
Gamsakhurdia came to power last October, when an overwhelming Round Table victory in parliamentary elections ended 70 years of Communist rule. He says a strong executive is needed to end the fighting in South Ossetia, as well as increase the effectiveness of the republic's independence effort.
But critics, such as rival candidate Valerian Advadze, say increasing Gamsakhurdia's already wide-ranging powers could mean the end of democracy in the republic.
``During his six months in power ... Gamsakhurdia led Georgia to a totalitarian regime,'' Advadze said. ``Original thinking is persecuted, human rights violated, and about 70 of the president's political opponents have been arrested.''
Gamsakhurdia dismisses such accusations, saying he is the target of a Moscow-inspired campaign to discredit him.