THE Caucasus nation of Georgia appears to be staging the worst-case scenario for the former Soviet republics. Last spring's election swept to power a man who, though popular at the time, soon exhibited undemocratic tendencies. Zviad Gamsakhurdia shackled the press and treated those who disagreed with him harshly.
Mr. Gamsakhurdia has now been driven from the presidency - and from the republic itself - after 15 days of confinement to a bunker in the parliament building while a battle between his supporters and opponents raged outside. For the moment, a military committee formed by the opposition rules, promising a new election this spring.
Georgia seems a case study of democracy struggling to take root in poorly prepared ground. This is a problem throughout the old union, with its legacy of Stalinism and bureaucratic control, but democracy may have a particularly hard time in Georgia. Georgia has a tradition of fanatical nationalism - exemplified both by Gamsakhurdia and by some of his critics. Even anti-Gamsakhurdia Georgians applauded his crusades against separatists in the ethnic enclave of South Ossetia.
Future plebiscites could end up conferring power on another extreme nationalist, with results similar to the Gamsakhurdia drama. Experience in many democratizing parts of the world amply demonstrates that elections, while important, can't in themselves establish a liberal and open political system.
A political culture marked by a sense of fair play and a spirit of cooperation has to be nurtured. Georgia doubtless has people capable of this work, and it's to be hoped they can temper the fanatics' influence. Any new president will immediately face the task of controlling the armed groups that ousted Gamsakhurdia.
Recent headlines from Tblisi, about opposition fighters firing on civilian crowds demonstrating in support of the exiled president, haven't been encouraging.
Former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian, says he's willing to take part in building democracy in his home republic. His broad experience could be of use, but it's doubtful a man so closely identified with the Soviet establishment could gain much popular support.
Georgia's strong agriculture and its potential for tourism from the West - its stunning landscape includes some spectacular mountains - give the republic a sound economic base. Now if it can just get in gear politically.